During my travels in the West Bank, I blogged about my experiences at Lights Out For The Occupied Territories. Some extracts are below.
Push the sky away
I had forgotten about the dust. In the Jordan Valley we ended up covered in it at the end of every day, trying to wash ourselves with a bucket of cold water, hanging our clothes out to dry in the trees. On the last day, some of us stayed behind at the Friend’s Meeting House - the oldest building in the Jordan Valley - made using mud bricks. The wind started blowing hard, and when I looked out of the front door the hills in the distance had disappeared in huge brown clouds of dust. A sandstorm. The next time I looked outside there were two Israeli soldiers and a military jeep. They walked up and down the driveway with their huge guns at their sides, but they didn’t come into the house. “Don’t go outside,” Ibrahim told me, “Ignore them.” They packed up and drove away. I walked out onto the terrace and the dust blew into hollows of my eyes, in between my teeth. My skin felt like it was covered in a powdery film. The sink filled up with dark brown dirt. I had forgotten about the dust. A month of dust.
Drove up to the South Hebron Hills in an armoured car, courtesy of the British Council. Up here hills give way to valleys give way to hills. Terraces planted with huge old olive trees. On the side of the road, an old man with a beard dyed bright red with henna, a Haj, sits next to a tall silver coffee pot. Kids ride donkeys, tapping them with long sticks. Settlements on the hilltops. Villages in the valleys. Barbed wire fences on the hilltops. Bedouin tents in the valleys. Smooth tarmaced roads on the hilltops. Dust tracks in the valleys. I don’t know what apartheid looks like if it doesn’t look like this.
A lot of people say things to me like, ‘It’s so beautiful here, I really feel as though I’m in the Holy Land,” or “It’s just like the landscape in the Bible.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. I can’t imagine Jesus here or the prophets. Not even the Old Testament - Abraham and his sacrifice. None of it. Sometimes I think this could be the most beautiful country in the world, but that’s a feat of imagination. Sometimes it seems like the ugliest. Sitting on the top of a hill in At-Tuwani, while a woman and two boys herd sheep over the terrain, which is white and pockmarked like the surface of the moon, I look up at the concrete block houses in the settlement. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything uglier than those buildings, anything further from anything holy, anything that more exemplifies humanity at its most godless.
Last night, I was walking up here under a full moon in the wind and it could have been another planet. The actors performed in a cave hollowed right into the rock face. People live all along here in caves, looking down a steep valley leading out to the Dead Sea, and beyond that, to Jordan. A line that, if you could walk it, would lead right down into East Africa. The Rift.
The cave was lit with kerosene lanterns. Older men in traditional clothes, white clothes wrapped around their heads, serving sweet tea on battered silver trays. Moved all the little children onto mattresses at the very front. The first and third people to share their stories were women, the first in traditional Palestinian dress and the second, younger woman, in a long skirt, sweatshirt and hijab. She was alone at her house when 150 Israeli soldiers came to demolish it. She argued and remonstrated with them until one of them pushed her, and she pushed him back. She was teargassed, arrested and taken to Qirbit Arba, a notorious nearby settlement known for its violent and religiously militant inhabitants. She was accused of attacking a general and taken to court. She was not allowed to represent herself, and her side of the story was never heard. If we do nothing else here, perhaps we give people a platform for these stories that beg to be told, to be heard, to be retold. “The fact that you are here shows we are not forgotten,” the young woman said.
I went to sleep on a mattress on the roof of the clinic, underneath the stars - nejoom - looking right up at the Plough, the wrong way round.