Shehadeh: When the Birds Stopped Singing and Oikonomides: Bienvenue à Ramallah [Welcome to Ramallah]
(RE)OCCUPATION OF RAMALLAH
When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah under Siege, by Raja Shehadeh. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2003. viii + 152 pages. $12.95 paper.
Bienvenue à Ramallah [Welcome to Ramallah], by Théodora Oikonomides. Paris: Flammarion, 2003. 221 pages. Glossary to p. 225. Chronology to p. 229. 18 euros paper.
Reviewed by Nubar Hovsepian
Diaries and eyewitness accounts, as a genre of writing, convey the meaning of the quotidian as experienced by individuals. As such they do not purport to present a detached and heavily referenced historical account of the subject at hand. As a daily diarist, I have recorded my thoughts and experiences for more than thirty uninterrupted years. Reading Raja Shehadeh's latest reconstructed diary compels me to reconstruct my diary of the civil war in Lebanon, and, like Shehadeh, use the occasion to tell a story of how I lived and perceived the war and was affected by it. I thus would categorize both works under review here as a genre of writing about memory and war, for Shehadeh and Oikonomides bear witness to the present conflict in Palestine as history. In this context, memory as Pierre Nora notes is a "perpetually actual phenomenon" that can capture the present eternally ("Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," trans. by Marc Roudebush, Representations 26 [Spring 1989], p. 8).
Shehadeh and Oikonomides both chronicle the travails of life under occupation, particularly during the Israeli reinvasion of parts of the West Bank in 2002. Although the books complement one another, they are quite different. Shehadeh presents a Palestinian narrative of summud (steadfastness) and endurance. In contrast, Oikonomides, a young French educated "international" (working with a London-based development organization), though sympathetic and perhaps in solidarity with Palestinians and their plight, is more distanced from what she witnesses (p. 15). In fact, she learns to be careful not to utter the dreaded nine-letter word-Palestine-to her Israeli interrogators at Ben-Gurion airport.
Shehadeh is no ordinary Palestinian, his name being synonymous with the struggle for Palestinian human rights. This is his third published diary, written almost ten years after he withdrew from public life to protest the incompetence of the Palestinian leadership. He writes as a humanist, but one who understands the politics of the situation. He warned against the serious shortcomings of Oslo, which he repeatedly refers to as a "false peace," but rather than dwelling on the broad political issues, he chooses to chronicle the quotidian, which is filled with curfews and Israeli troops taking over his brother's house. The absurdity of this illegal takeover is represented by his sister-in-law's need to ask for "permission from an Israeli soldier to take her daughter to the toilet in her own house" (p. 16). Tala, the daughter, admires her father but is forced to see him "pushed around and humiliated" (p. 17). This vignette serves as a metaphor for the humiliation that all Palestinians experience daily in lives filled with constant "trauma, tragedy, catastrophe, violence, brutality, and stupidity" (p. 21).
The Israeli invasion of Ramallah is not just punitive in nature-curfews, arrests, destruction of property, and random arrests. The Israeli soldiers return with a vengeance "to remind me that a Palestinian does not have the luxury of living quietly, creatively, in his own country. He will be chased, choked, and hounded" (p. 43). For example, Shehadeh records for 11 April 2002 that the destruction of property-of NGOs, including their libraries and computers, aims to destroy the institutional memory that Palestinians have built over the years (p. 85). When Israeli troops destroy the medical equipment and information in the offices of the Thalassemia (lethal form of anemia) Patients' Friends Society, he cries out: "How does the vandalism of such an office help protect Israelis?" (p. 88).
Shehadeh is exasperated with the role that Palestinians must perform in a script written by others. Arab leaders and the media portray the Palestinians as heroic victims. But he does not want to play this predetermined role and does not want to be either pitied or admired. Al-Jazeera portrays Palestinians as abstract heroic symbols. Thus, Palestinians serve as the providers of "inspiration and rhetoric to those who feel impotent in their restricted world. [The Palestinian] accentuates their [Arabs] feeling of helplessness and relieves it" (p. 56). In contrast, he is offended by Israeli utterances that depict all Palestinians through the prism of "terror" and as "terrorists." He is most offended by the simultaneous Israeli claim that the Israeli army is among the most moral military forces in the world, an abuse of language he sees as verging on the pornographic (p. 95). Israeli propaganda reduces all Palestinians to terrorists; thus, the Israeli public becomes numb and unable to have empathy for other human beings, and in the process they become racists (pp. 95-96).
Shehadeh is equally intolerant of the stupidity, incompetence, and neglect of the Palestinian leadership and the oppositional forces that have nurtured an arms culture and militarized the Palestinian struggle (p. 5). He decries Palestinian leaders for placing young men in harm's way, abandoning them to meet senseless deaths. "How much has this society suffered for the irresponsibility of its leaders?" (p. 132). He does not want Palestinian society to build new myths of heroism; instead, he seeks a society that is free of myths and heroism (p. 116). And that seems to be why suicide bombings trouble Shehadeh. For a moment, when Israelis are hit with an explosion, there is a reversal of roles, and they become victims. But this "victory" is "sour, embittering, sobering" (p. 78), as there are no winners here.
In December 2000, Shehadeh's mother, as a member of the Jerusalem choir's annual Christmas concert, summed up what he and all Palestinians want. Unable to go to Jerusalem, the choir sang at the Qalandia checkpoint, and his mother stood in the rain carrying a placard that stated simply: "End the occupation now. Israelis go home" (p. 152).
The book by Oikonomides shows us the poverty and deprivation of a segment of the Palestinian population that Shehadeh does not highlight. As a young woman with a Greek surname, she became actively engaged with the Palestine solidarity movement in France. She went to Palestine in October 2000, initially to work and live in the Qalandia refugee camp, a location that enabled her to observe the class divisions of Palestinian society. She notes that the director of a cooperative designed to help the poor does not live in the camp and displays the arrogance of a middle-class Palestinian who has disdain for refugees who have become dependent on assistance (p. 29). In contrast is Um Sleiman, a camp resident who cleans the cooperative, is religious and veiled, but a great cook and hospitable. She adopts Oikonomides, a European outsider who thus is in a better position to see the other Palestine. Oikonomides observes that Um Sleiman had not gone beyond elementary education, but she learned Hebrew and other things on her own. And she manages to work, care for eleven siblings, and keep a positive demeanor despite the hardships of occupation. More details about Um Sleiman and others like her would have enhanced the book. Missing, too, are details about the author's own work during her three years in Palestine.
Oikonomides displays a good sense of humor and irony, as she tries to explain what occupation entails. In "The Colors of Discrimination," she dazzles her reader with the various color-coded license plates and identity (ID) cards. The holders of blue cards can enter Jerusalem, but the holders of green cards are not allowed to leave the West Bank. The color game can become surreal. She describes a house in Qalandia, where the balcony is physically located in Jerusalem, and the bedrooms are in the West Bank. With much irony she says, "don't ask me the color of the identity cards of this houses' inhabitants" (p. 59). The rules are simple: Green and orange ID cards with green license plates mean "do not pass." Others with green IDs and work permits mean "pass but on foot." Blue cards and yellow license plates mean "pass" (welcome to Israel), etc. The message is clear: the color of racism (p. 60).
After four months in Qalandia, Oikonomides moved to Bayt Hanina, and a few months later, relocated to Ramallah, where she remained until October 2003. Oikonomides introduces her French readers to the meaning of checkpoints, the humiliation that Palestinians experience on a daily basis, and the absurdity of the Israeli regime of occupation. She provides hand-drawn illustrations of checkpoints, maps that identify settlements (colonies), and sketches of settler roads that Bantustanize the West Bank. She introduces simple and poor Palestinians and focuses on the young (shebab). And like Shehadeh, she does not shy away from criticizing the culture of arms that prevails among Palestinians.
Nubar Hovsepian is associate professor of political science/international studies at Chapman University in Orange, California.