Auntie, I Simply Can’t Imagine It!
Joining the Freedom Flotilla II To Gaza, Aboard The Audacity of Hope
Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker will join an international flotilla of boats sailing to Gaza to challenge Israel’s blockade of the territory. Here, Walker, best known for her 1983 novel “The Color Purple,” explains why she will be taking part.Why am I going on the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza? I ask myself this, even though the answer is: What else would I do? I am in my sixty-seventh year, having lived already a long and fruitful life, one with which I am content. It seems to me that during this period of eldering it is good to reap the harvest of one’s understanding of what is important, and to share this, especially with the young. How are they to learn, otherwise?
Some of this narrative I have written before, but in the interest of completion, I will reiterate here: On December 27, 2008, one of my two sisters died, just as the Israeli military began massively bombing the Gaza strip, an assault that would continue for 22 days and nights. She was older than me, and had been sick practically all her life. Stress of many kinds had separated our spirits, though love remained. Even with so much distance between us I felt, when she died, as if I’d lost part of myself. It was amazing, the grief. And then I learned, that same day, of a woman in Gaza who had lost five of her daughters to the bombing; she herself was unconscious. Immediately I felt: I must go to her and tell her that even though I am an American and paid with my taxes for some of the grotesque weapons of mass destruction rained on her family, I did not sanction devastation of her life, or, if she survived, her grief.
That was my first trip to the Israeli dominated territories of Palestine.
What I found left me speechless and helped inspire a small book: OVERCOMING SPEECHLESSNESS: A POET ENCOUNTERS THE HORROR IN RWANDA, EASTERN CONGO, AND PALESTINE/ISRAEL. For months I found it impossible to talk about what it had felt like to walk among the rubble of what had been people’s homes, hospitals, libraries, and schools. I found old people sitting in the pulverized remains of homes they’d sacrificed generations of labor and love to create, and was told of people wounded so badly they were rotting (from the tungsten DIME contained in the bombs) from the inside out. The water system had been destroyed, the sewer system also. What remained of The American School was a mountain of rubble. I sat there in its ruins, in despair. Five things besides people and animals one must never assault, I believe, are: water, homes, schools, hospitals and the land. The Israeli military had deliberately destroyed or made impossible for the Palestinian people to use, all of these.
About a year later, I was on my way to Gaza a second time. In Cairo I accompanied Jodie Evans of CODE PINK to talk to an official of the Red Crescent. We begged this official to permit entry to Gaza of the 1400 people who had come from all over the world to march for peace with the Palestinian people, who had been “put on a diet” by the Israeli government and denied food and medicine or the ability to escape their confinement on the tiny Gaza strip. The official was a nice man, a good man, I felt. I don’t think it was easy for him to tell us we could send only a few dozen of the 1400 people into Gaza, one bus, and very little of the millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid CODE PINK and other organizations had gathered. Though the children of Gaza are dangerously malnourished (those who haven’t died) because of the years long siege and blockade, we were not allowed to send much sustenance to them, including items such as milk or juices, “because” we were told “they are liquid.”
This year, watching news of the Spring uprising at Tahrir square in downtown Cairo, I’ve often wondered if our man from the Red Crescent was there; whether he recalled our visit; Jodie Evans’ relentless haggling to be permitted to help a sick and desperate people, whose children were being destroyed before their eyes, as well as before the eyes of the informed world. I hoped he was one of those who rallied in the street, and who testified later, after the deposition and arrest of Hosni Mubarak, that, yes, indeed, we must open the (Egyptian) Rafah gate (the only exit from Palestine not controlled by Israel) and let the people out.
How are the people to rebuild their bodies and their homes, their hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, ministries, water systems, sewerage system, their greenhouses, if they are denied materials sent to them from people outside their prison? That is the question. Illegally controlling the waters of the Mediterranean approaching the Gaza strip, the Israeli military, against all international law, unilaterally attacks boats and people trying to break the embargo of goods and materials.
My last visit to the Palestinian people was in April 2011, when I was invited to speak at a TEDxRamallah program that took place in Bethlehem. After this astonishing daylong event of meeting and listening to Palestinian activists and artists, available I believe on Youtube, I joined Palfest, the Palestine Literary Festival that takes place each year, bussing a caravan of writers, poets, musicians, artists, from town to town in the occupied West Bank to interact with whoever shows up. As I did this, I was almost returned to speechlessness by what I experienced there.
First of all, my partner, Kaleo Larson, and I entered Palestine (which one can only do by going through Israel) by way of Jordan. Already, in Amman, in our hotel, my computer mysteriously vanished: it would be returned to me later, while I was in Ramallah, with all references to future activity regarding Israel removed. Then there was the experience of the Allenby bridge border crossing. There, as we approached the first check-point with our Arab driver, we felt the change. He became more cautious and tense. Sure enough, he was coldly informed by one of the armed soldiers that he could not drive us, and our bags, to the bus waiting on the other side of the building that would take us hopefully into Palestine, but must put us out on the street. Which meant we had to drag quite heavy bags a good distance, without our driver’s help or guidance. We had no idea where we were exactly or even what we were to do next. However we did know that if we ever visited Palestine again, and it was still not liberated from Israeli control, we would not bring suitcases but backpacks.
I have a niece who startled me once by saying: Auntie, I simply can’t imagine what you all went through, under segregation. She and her husband live in the American South, apparently in peace, in an integrated neighborhood that would have been unthinkable only forty years ago. They are blissfully the parents of twins, recently born, and, with the exception of floods, droughts, tornadoes and windstorms, life appears to be vastly different and better for black people, now that Jim Crow laws are history, than it was when I was young.
However, beginning at the Allenby Bridge crossing, on our way into Occupied Palestine, I began to want my niece, bogged to the neck with her twins as she is, to observe the scene with me. Because it was tantamount to stepping back into our own past of segregation (United States apartheid) with its, for us people of color, rigidly enforced brutality and fifth class “citizenship.”
First of all, we quickly realized we had somehow chosen the entry into Israel’s occupied “territories” that primarily Arabs use. We, being among them, were not to hear or see a kind word or look for the next many hours. We were treated immediately as if we were stupid if we didn’t understand whatever they were speaking: for a long time Hebrew and Arabic were indistinguishable to us. We were pointed here to this window, there to that window, by women and men who spoke to us in snarls and barks. All of these windows extracted cash. Finally, we made it to the bus that had been waiting for quite a while already; there in the hot sun, motor idling, people sitting inside fanning, some of them with small children. No place for the children to pee, if they had to, either, the mother in me noted.
After a long inexplicable wait, the bus moved. It proceeded through no less than six check-points, stopping each time to be inspected, before cruising slowly to the next check-point until at long last we reached the terminal. Confusion. Our bags went one way, ourselves the other. If this is a bridge, where is the water? The Aquarian in me wanted to know. At some point we, and our luggage, were checked thoroughly by rude, hostile young people who also lifted from my wallet every bit of my Jordanian currency. The women especially were a shock: they yelled at the Arabs (men, women, grandparents, children, it made no difference) almost as if they’d forgotten how to speak to humans. They ordered them about in ways I hadn’t seen done to people of color for a couple of generations.
With our passports already taken from us by someone on the bus, we were directed to join long lines already formed, all Arabs, before a number of windows. This we did, sitting, when we could, for about nine hours. Without Jordanian money I was unable to purchase even a bottle of water. Fortunately a Palestinian woman bought a bottle for me, and refused the American bills I asked her to take. Our wait was interrupted by fruitless attempts to understand what was being asked of us. Were we to stand here or there? Would there be a bus? A boat? (Still expecting a river since we were on a bridge). We tried to explain that someone sent to pick us up would likely leave if we did not emerge soon. Our wait was also interrupted by four hours of interrogation.
In the Southern United States when I was a child, they would have said: Boy, or Girl, I want to talk to you. And that could mean nobody would ever see you again. Or it could mean they’d see you so badly beaten they’d wish they hadn’t. Or it could mean…. Anyway. A young woman who had seemed attractive to me until she began harassing me (in English) about where I was going and who I was going to see, had seemed to make a sport of taking my passport here and there behind the partition that separates the waiting area from the rest of the building. I had already filled in a form that told everything I knew myself about my trip. But I had left off my email address because, I thought, who around here is going to want to email me? But no, an annoyed young man arrived and demanded this information. I lied: I don’t have email. Which I said partly to save us both the embarrassment of a woman old enough to be his grandmother having to say: I don’t want to give it to you. But I needn’t have worried. He commented that he had ways to get the email address and didn’t really need my help. I said: But why should I give my email address to you? To which he replied: Because if you don’t we won’t let you into the country. He said this so nastily that I wondered: Does his mother agree with how badly this kid was raised?
It was this “kid” who would interrogate me for four hours. Waving me into a room behind the waiting area, and not telling my partner, Kaleo, where I was being detained, which of course stressed him out. He grilled me about everything; scrolled up activist statements I’d made on his computer even I had forgot. He reminded me a lot of a Jewish artist friend named Wendy Cadden. Dark haired and slightly built, he could be her younger brother or perhaps her son, or grandson, I thought: I concentrated on this possibility while he went on and on, more politely now, but still in charge since he had my passport and had demanded I leave everything but what I was wearing outside his office.
At some point I said to him, seeing him really as I might have seen my own (misguided) son: Don’t you realize this behavior, of making old men, mothers, little children, wait in long lines pleading with you to visit their families, is wrong and is bad for you? I couldn’t bring myself to use the “N” word, but I did say: Don’t you think this behavior – insulting, threatening, humiliating – makes you all seem rather German-esque? I meant the old German-esque, of the late Thirties and Early Forties, not the current German-esque. He didn’t seem to care. Alas.
After leaving his office, and having asked his name, which was Near but pronounced Nay-ear, I was disdainfully waved over by another young man, this one in uniform. He held my passport and started asking me the same questions I had spent four hours answering. By now hot and hungry, I said in exasperation: You know what? I agree. You don’t want me in your country and I don’t want to go there. Give me my passport and I will go home. I also said: Doesn’t your rudeness to a guest to your country make you ashamed? He looked about eighteen years old and appeared confused by my comment. Has the notion of shame so completely disappeared? I wondered.
Later on, it would be explained to us that all the rudeness, the waiting in long lines, the absence of water, and, apparently, of toilets once one boarded the bus, the harassment and the fact that buses might wait hours before moving, was all part of a plan to keep anyone coming through that gate from ever coming back!
And I remembered Nay-er asking me: why didn’t you go through Tel Aviv? As if I might have saved myself a bit of Arab torture. But actually I was glad we’d gone the Arab route, it was like sitting with my own parents and grandparents in segregated waiting rooms, bus and train stations all over the South. I was even glad Kaleo and I hadn’t known there was a VIP lounge, which many younger, more affluent Arabs made use of. Some of them had come out to us, wanting an autograph (!) and explaining how, for a fee, we could sit with them in comfort, on sofas, inside a small room that appeared to have a snack bar.
By the time we were allowed out of the “Israeli Terminal” as Palestinian friends call the Allenby Bridge crossing, the van sent to pick us up had left. It was late at night. We climbed into a taxi and sped off. We had no idea where we were but the moon was nearly full and stunning. The moon, especially when I don’t know where I am, always reminds me of Sojourner Truth, whose children were sold away from her during her enslavement: I look at the moon and you look at the moon, she said to them in her prayers, or words to that effect.
Perhaps after the Flotilla II experience, I will be able to write about the solidarity and friendship we experienced with the other poets and writers, most Arab Palestinians but also some Jews, Palestinian and American, we encountered. I like to think about some of the unusual discoveries we made: like how many Palestinian Christians there still are in “the Holy Land,” and how kind some of them were to us. How extraordinary it is to see people from all over the world flocking to the spot in Bethlehem’s “Manger Square ” and The Church of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born, with little concern apparently that in the form of his present day compatriots, Jesus, a Palestinian – is still being crucified. The tackiness of rampant commercialism makes “the Holy Land” a small area to market, and it is marketed relentlessly. Mass produced trinkets produced in China and Taiwan flood the area. Many of the Palestinian owned shops have been pushed away from the most lucrative sites. The land itself, from millennia of being considered the only “holy land” there is, is battered, beaten down. My heart ached for it. What a catastrophe to be so famous; a footprint on your face every minute. The true holy land is within the heart itself, is my view, as is the true Jerusalem. Not to mention that all of the Earth is holy, which means one can freely worship wherever one is. (Of course you can’t make any money off of that idea!)
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But I digress.
I thought of my niece as I found myself approaching Jews Only roads with a van filled with Palestinian Arabs. Our driver conscientiously pulled over to wait for the appropriately colored license plate (on another van, into which we moved) that would permit us to continue. The Palestinian license plate color is green: the Israeli one yellow. In fact, on the night of our arrival, we had noticed our driver had turned off the big, new American looking highway onto a poorly constructed and congested road that in fact was blocked at the top of a steep hill. The driver, muttering, had turned around on a dangerous curve and continued on the main road. Nervous, I now realized, because it was illegal for him to be on it.
Now here, I thought, was something even white Southerners had not thought to segregate, the very roads! Though I did recall how my grandparents in Georgia, in their mule drawn wagon, when I was a very small child, had had to pull over, almost into the ditch, if a white driver in a car roared past.
Always somewhat grumpy in the early morning I found myself our third or fourth day unable to bear conversing with a prominent Palestinian historian who sat down beside me, drinking coffee and blowing cigarette smoke. I moved to another seat. However, I soon felt very small as this same man, whose work is lauded and loved in Palestine, quietly got up, gathered his things, and moved to the front of the van to be let out. In the middle of nowhere, it seemed, by the side of the road. He explained to a poet at the front of the bus that he did not have the right permit to be allowed even to ride on a bus through the city of Jerusalem, where it seemed we were heading.
I think one reason it is so hard for people to deal with the Palestine/Israel issue is that so much of it is unbelievable. Even when you’re standing there, in the middle of it, the mind has to struggle to grasp what is happening. What has been done for the past sixty-odd years, and what is being done now. Just as my niece finds it impossible to imagine what a segregated American South felt like, I find it hard to believe Israelis assume they can live through generations of brutally oppressing the people whose lands they occupy. The greatest, most obvious expression of their intent to do this is THE WALL.
Once when I fell in love with the works of the great Chinese writer Ding Ling I went to visit her in Beijing. She was in her Eighties and magnificent, thinking fondly of her Sixties as really extraordinary years, though she had been badly abused by the Cultural Revolution. While there I went with our group to visit the Great Wall of China. What I liked was that every once in a while an artist had managed to etch a flower in the wall (maybe I imagined this!) but also: it was explained to us that the wall never worked properly to keep out the invaders because many of them simply bribed the gatekeepers who, for money, let them in. Hummm.
The Israeli built apartheid wall is HUGE. It is incredibly tall and thick. It must be at least twenty feet tall and sometimes it is installed atop a three to five foot platform that increases its height. It is also sunk several meters into the ground. It has cost so far three and a half billion dollars (a bit over the amount US taxpayers send to Israel each year); it is everywhere, and it is indescribably ugly. On the Israeli side we learn it is “prettified” with tiles of various colors, but on the Palestinian side it is bare concrete. To their credit, Palestinians have given graffiti artists free reign, and there is often moving and arresting art.
One of our new friends, a poet, took us around to show us the wall in action. First, we went to a shop that sells Palestinian books and crafts. Unfortunately for the owner, a beautiful, middle-aged, stressed out woman, her shop was “too close” to Rachel’s Tomb, so the wall was built practically on her doorstep depriving her of a view of anything except its menacing presence. The woman was so trapped by the wall she reminded me of a small animal frantic in its cage.
Our second visit was to the tiny home of a family of four: a mother, father, and two small boys. The ditch for the wall’s placement was being dug while we had tea; the noise of it so powerful it shook the house. When the wall is completed, the man’s house will be completely cut off from his fields, depriving him of a livelihood; his small boys will have to cross three check-points each day to reach their school. They were gracious to us, even cheerful, this small, isolated family, in a way that reminded me very much of the days of segregation and soul torture in the South. The boys played as if they understood nothing of their family’s crisis, as we had played as children, well loved by our over burdened parents who never had the heart to tell us how viciously we were all being oppressed. (Kaleo later reminded me that the little boy I thought was playing hide-and-seek was actually hiding. He had been severely beaten by an Israeli soldier a few weeks before).
The last visit was to the poet’s own house, which she shares with relatives. When the wall is completed just behind her house, she will lose the sunrise. The morning sky. I will call her Fatima. Being with her was almost exactly like being with poor black people in Mississippi in the Sixties: wherever she took us to look at the wall, where it was newly being constructed, where it was planned to stretch next, where it would steal another football field size area of farmland from her family and from other Palestinians, we were trailed by men in big white trucks, silently, slowly, menacingly, to let us know they were aware of and hostile to our presence. Instead of white sheets they have white trucks, I thought, new ones, bought no doubt with American money and, in fact, come to think of it, I believe they were American made trucks. I noted that the machines used to dig ditches for the wall were made by Volvo. I thought of the beautiful red Volvo I’d owned when we lived in Mississippi as civil rights activists (the safest car we could find) and how I would now never own another one.
On the last day of Palfest, the Israeli military tear- gassed the tent in which the evening’s event was to take place. My partner and I had left Palestine by then and did not experience it. Though, because we had bonded with our “tribe,” as we thought of the other artists, we felt it very much. Our tribe, true to the audacity of artists, carried on, as we knew they would.
Getting out of Palestine through the Allenby Bridge exit proved as stressful as coming in had been. Though we rose early and hailed a taxi outside our hotel, and though we speedily made our way to the bridge’s check-point, and even though there were only a few other vehicles waiting to be permitted entry, we were forced to languish for three hours as giant tourist buses were waved through on one side of the two-lane entry and those taxi or van drivers preferred by the border guards were permitted to pass ahead of us. All around us, as traffic backed up, we noted people, women and men, who were being forced to wait, emerge from their cars and vans and make use of the trees and grass to relieve themselves. Finally, exasperated but also worn down by this treatment, I felt, our driver asked my partner to appeal to the border guard to let us advance. This my partner did, though tempers by this time were so tense among all the held-up drivers that he was almost assaulted by an irate driver who felt we were being permitted to move ahead of him. He had recently arrived and had no way of knowing we had been there for hours.
Inside the terminal my partner was permitted to pass to the other side; I was held up. My passport again taken behind a partition. Again, I felt confusion about what I was supposed to do. At that point I noticed a young Jewish man who looked like the son of a former teacher of mine. I stopped him and asked what was going on. He didn’t know, but he courteously showed me where I should sit until all was sorted out. My partner soon returned and eventually we were on our way. With this young man’s face, dark hair and thoughtful eyes, his simple and as yet undestroyed kindness, still warming me.
I have never believed in the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. Whenever I saw the men gathering to talk about peace I was reminded of what the Indians said to the white colonizers of America who came to talk peace with them: ” Where are your women?” An occasional woman has appeared to take part in the talks, but overwhelmingly the process has been male driven. I like to think if women, in equal numbers to men, had been at the table things might not have turned out so badly. But perhaps, recalling the disrespectful young Israeli women at the check-points, this is naive. In any case, it is when one sees the Israeli settlements, after hearing about them for decades, that the final “Aha” moment arrives. They are colossal, and, like the wall, they are everywhere. It is obvious, looking at them, gigantic, solid, white and towering, that they have been constructed to completely devour the rest of Palestine, and that the peace talks have been a ruse to continue their growth so that Jewish Israelis can claim the land by possession alone. Possession is nine-tenths of the law is one of the dictums I learned from my Jewish lawyer former husband. This belief might even be enshrined in the Torah. In any case it is a very old idea, and Israelis have made good use of it.
Dispossessed of land and houses, poverty stricken, refugees in their own country since the catastrophe of 1948, when Zionist terrorists drove them from their villages, towns and cities, Palestinian laborers have been forced to build these settlements for the Israeli settlers and, having built them, are rarely permitted inside them, except to service them. This is similar to our own history, in America: the genocide and enslavement of Native people, and the forced black and Indian labor that built so much of America, including The White House. Sometimes one wonders if this greed that devours the very substance of other human beings is part of human DNA. I don’t think it is; and, in any case, I hope not!
Our boat, The Audacity of Hope, will be carrying letters to the people of Gaza. Letters expressing solidarity and love. That is all it’s cargo will consist of. If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman. This should go down hilariously in the annals of history. But if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us, as they did some of the activists in the last flotilla, Freedom Flotilla I, what is to be done?
There is a scene in the movie Gandhi that is very moving to me: it is when the unarmed Indian protesters line up to confront the armed forces of the British Empire. The soldiers beat them unmercifully, but the Indians, their broken and dead lifted tenderly out of the fray, keep coming. And that is how, I suspect, it will be with us. The tide is turning on this issue that people around the world have agonized over or tried to ignore for generations, and nothing can stop the tide. Like the ocean’s waves, whatever the opposition, we must retain our non-violence (it is more beautiful than violence) and we must keep coming.
Alongside this image of brave followers of Gandhi there is for me an awareness of paying off a debt to the Jewish civil rights activists who faced death to come to the side of black people in the South in our time of need. I am especially indebted to Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who heard our calls for help – our government then as now glacially slow in providing protection to non-violent protestors- and came to stand with us. They got as far as the truncheons and bullets of a few “good ole’ boys’” of Neshoba County, Mississippi and were beaten and shot to death along with James Cheney, a young black man of formidable courage who died with them. So, even though our boat will be called The Audacity of Hope, it will fly the Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner flag in my own heart.
And what of the children of Palestine, who were ignored in our President’s latest speech on Israel and Palestine, and whose impoverished, terrorized, segregated existence was mocked by the standing ovations recently given in the U.S. Congress to the president of Israel? I have witnessed their bravery, as they attempt to protect their communities and homes using stones, their only ammunition, against the armored Israeli tanks (American bought) that destroy their land, neighborhoods, houses and families, and, like much of the world, have been profoundly moved. I have noted that their arms have sometimes been broken by Israeli soldiers for throwing these stones, and that nine and ten year olds have been tortured and left to become dejected and hollowed out teen-agers in prison or jail.
I see children, all children, as humanity’s most precious resource, because it will be to them that the care of the planet will always be left. One child must never be set above another, even in casual conversation, not to mention in speeches that circle the globe; to do so is to extend the world’s disasters. As adults, we must affirm, constantly, that the Arab child, the Muslim child, the Palestinian child, the African child, the Jewish child, the Christian child, the American child, the Chinese child, the Israeli child, the Native American child etc., is equal to all others on the planet. We must do everything in our power to cease the behavior that makes children everywhere feel afraid .
Finally, thinking of my niece who can’t imagine what segregation in the US was like, there is the memory of my own surprise to discover, in the Southern Freedom Movement, what solidarity between black and white was like. Like her, I had not been able, prior to moving to Mississippi, to imagine it. This was so true that when I arrived in Jackson I was annoyed to see white people, working daily under great stress, and on our side, already there. I once asked my best friend and husband of that period, who was as staunch a defender of black people’s human rights as anyone I’d ever met: how did you find your way to us, to black people, who so needed you? What force shaped your response to the great injustice facing people of color of that time? I thought he might say the speeches, the marches, the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. or of others in the Movement who exhibited impactful courage and grace. But no. Thinking back, he recounted an episode from his childhood that had led him, inevitably, to our struggle. He was a little boy on his way home from Yeshiva, the Jewish school he attended after regular school let out. His mother, a bookkeeper, was still at work; he was alone. He was frequently harassed by older boys from regular school, and one day two of these boys snatched his yarmulke, and, taunting him, ran off with it, eventually throwing it over a fence. Two black boys appeared, saw his tears, assessed the situation, and took off after the boys who had taken his yarmulke. Chasing the boys down and catching them, they made them climb the fence, retrieve and dust off the yarmulke, and place it respectfully back on his head.
It is justice and respect that I want the world to dust off and put – without delay, and with tenderness – back on the head of the Palestinian child. It will be imperfect justice and respect because the injustice and disrespect have been so severe. But I believe we are right to try.
That is why I sail.