I’VE BEEN WORKING WITH HAIFA KOLEITAT, MatadorU student and Matador Network contributor, on a new piece, “Enter the Occupation.” She is in the West Bank at this time. About a week ago, I hadn’t heard from her and asked her if she was okay. Here is her response, followed by our exchange:
Abir: “Is it disrespectful if I say no, I’m not … I don’t mean to be. My whole body hurts …”
I asked her what she needed.
Abir: “I want to finish the piece I sent you last week. Everything is happening so fast that it feels like blurred lines, and I don’t know if I have done any justice. My words feel useless when there is so much death and destruction; who needs stories, when what we need is a way to fight back and defend ourselves, right now? I feel useless. If I see any more dead bodies with open eyes and frozen looks of fear on their bloody faces, I think I might never feel again. Because it’s starting to just feel numb. When is it going to stop. We have no military force, no sophisticated weapons and aircraft. No protection or intervention from the outside world.
“How do you go to war with a people you are occupying, living essentially in an open air prison with no protection and no way to fight back? This is genocide, Mary …”
I didn’t hear from her for 4-5 days. I wrote three times and there was no reply. I saw videos of the bombings. I read of the people of both sides cheering when an air-strike hit. Today I wrote again and asked her where she was.
Abir: “Mary, we are in the West Bank. We are going to get out. I know the piece I had sent you needed some changes — I know it is not perfectly written. but can we see to go ahead and have it published at Matador? There is just no time, and I will follow it up with what has happened afterwards, what it has really been like. Let them know we are dying over here. It is a shame to be writing meaningless irresponsible lists of what to do around the world, when the people in those very places are suffering! There are real stories to tell. Please, go ahead with it. I don’t need it to be published anywhere else, I just need to reach someone, anyone. I am so sorry.”
“I’ll work to make this happen,” I wrote.
She answered: “Even if you can include commentary of your own, of what you know of me — of what I’m asking you to do now. We can do this together, and I think that will speak louder than polishing this piece.”
Here is the unpolished piece — a raw chunk of true mineral if you will — a raw cry.
— Mary Sojourner
Enter the Occupation
“Do you see anything?” Your legs are weak and trembling. For the last week, they’ve waged nightly raids throughout entire cities and villages, and in the camps. They’re here tonight.
“Just a flash bomb.” A kidnapping started this. But this morning the occupation shot and killed a 13-year-old boy, in the chest. He’s the third dead.
You are more scared for him than anything. They’re violent and they fire indiscriminately at the men. You pray to never hear their breath at his door. “Stay away from the windows,” you tell him. You hate the way he protects you. His gentle eyes and loving hands. His reckless heart. When he tells you everything is okay, you know that maybe it’s not. And you know he is more than willing to die. For you, for his family. For dignity.
“I would love to see you write about daily life in a war zone — because so many people need to wake the fuck up.” This is what a woman recently wrote to me. And she’s right, but this isn’t a war zone. This is everyday life under a brutal and perpetual military occupation. Let me explain:
This life is going for a walk with the man you’re in love with in the night, under a beautiful sky; with butterflies in your stomach, because he’s holding your hand and you had spent the whole day together. It’s the cool night air and the way the breeze traces your hair to your lips. It’s the way he looks at you as though he’d never looked at anybody before in his life.
And then it’s the echo that follows the breeze, and you realize the breeze had come suddenly and from nowhere. And the echo becomes a vibration, and it sounds numbingly the way you can sometimes hear your heartbeat in deafening silence. These are helicopter blades, and it snakes through the valley below — unmarked and as black as the night; built to be heard and not seen. It’s holding his hand a little bit closer now, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s being left with only the sound of your breath after you had stopped breathing for a while. And the black, unmarked helicopter with blades so heavy it’s as though they’ve cut a swath through the air in slow motion, fades into the darkness. Just like that, and you continue home.
On those careless days that you just feel weightless and in love with life, this life is stealing your mother’s car as she thinks you’re using it for school, and instead you’ve conspired a road trip with two of your best friends (although by most standards, it’s not much of a road trip, because you’re restricted to a military-occupied territory that is barely 3,500 square miles — not to mention the inextricable web of settlements, walls, borders, and barriers).
And checkpoints. So, it’s having spent the day feeling untouchable, because you’ve got your friends and the naïve freedom of the open road. It’s running through the narrow streets and corridors of old cities; exploring abandoned mosques and what once were the homes of great writers amidst the world’s holiest lands. It’s driving to the top of the highest mountain and balancing on the edge as the three of you sit at the overlook and count more lit-up minarets than stars in the sky (you lost count at 26). It’s the warm glow of the massive and dense network of houses and buildings and camps below.
And when you’ve lost track of the time and you’re already going to have to lie to your parents about where you’ve been all day, and you’re wildly happy and exhausted about it all, this life is being stopped at a checkpoint. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at a car or a bus or a taxi — or something — full of settlers. And so, the occupation forces are waving their guns in your face and your friend’s face, and in the face of the girl you love. And they confiscate the keys to your car, place them on the roof and make you wait like this. Your friend’s got a medical problem, and so you explain the situation to one of the soldiers and ask if it would be okay if he could just use the bathroom at the side of the road. But the soldier looks at you, dead in the eyes and stone-faced.
Then hours later, mostly men, who are stopped behind you, begin to climb out of their vehicles — taxis and trucks — and they lay their prayer mats down and begin to pray, at the side of the road. At the checkpoint. Eventually they allow your friend to relieve himself — where they can see him. You look in your rearview mirror, to the girl you love. She’s smiling, because there’s no way you’re not going to get caught tonight. She reaches through the small space of your seat and the door and holds your hand — this is life.
It’s those days you all spend together barbecuing for no good reason at all. And the biggest problem is, “Do we have enough meat?” Or, “Did anyone buy marshmallows to make s’mores?” And you’ve built the grill out of stones that are just laying around — and not because people don’t have grills here (as maybe many people would perceive from the way your little country is portrayed in the news), but because it was just more fun this way. And the guys help the girls in the kitchen, and nobody really wants to touch the raw meat, so everybody dives in with childlike hands and twisted noses and whines and gargles and laughter.
And then, it’s being too tired to eat, because you’ve been running around all day to prepare this feast and you’ve all laughed too much and talked too much. A few of you have fought too much, and forgiven. But it’s deciding to walk the four miles home anyway, over the mountains, because happiness is like being drunk. You guys even swear by God to your families that you saw a UFO that night, and you fall asleep because childlike innocence never really leaves any of us.
All too often, we internalize the occupation. We don’t think that this is an unordinary life. We kiss our families goodbye and go to school and to work. We flirt, and laugh, and dance, and sing. We write poetry on the walls. We fight and we cry. We bleed. We go out to the movies; we go out with our friends; we go out on dates. We meet our girlfriends and boyfriends on the lovers’ staircase; we hold hands on quiet streets. All the things of a normal life. It’s just that this normal life is often separated from our family and neighbors and friends and lovers, and schools and hospitals and farmlands and even water supply, by barbed-wire fences and walls that are in some places 25 feet high, with massive watchtowers and spotlights and guys (and girls) with guns, designed and trained to keep us out of our own land — and somehow imprisoned within it at the same time.
This normal life is being stopped late in the night with your teenage son after returning home from a long day of work. And the occupation surrounds your car. And they take your ID and your keys. Your son watches you — his father — being dragged out of the car by gunpoint, and for no good reason. They leave the boy in the car, and continue to search it with big nasty dogs. Imagine how that feels for a child. And then imagine how it feels as a father or a mother, for your child to see you dehumanized — you’re not a person in the eyes of the occupation. You’re an animal. You have no dignity. And then understand and digest that these occupation forces are mostly children themselves.
Children with big guns and an arsenal of weapons and armored vehicles, who have been taught that you bleed differently; that not all of your lives are worth even one of theirs. But you fight with stones and you fight with words and you fight just by living — you fight with everything that you have — because what you have is your life and your dignity and your love.
Forty-seven years of a hostile foreign military occupation. This is not a warzone — this is life.
I close my eyes; lower my head into my hands.
“Come here.” It’s what he says every time he pulls you into his arms. “Yallah. I promise you we’re safe.”
Sometimes this life is saying goodbye to the man you love, for months and years at a time, because this isn’t really your home and the occupation controls his borders.
And we go on.