As regular readers might recall, I volunteered for some time with a project called We Are Not Numbers. WANN pairs young Palestinians in Gaza and the dismal refugee camps of Lebanon with writers abroad who act as mentors, helping give voice to the experiences of these Palestinian youth and developing their skill as storytellers. I was in good company at WANN: other volunteers include the poet and novelist Nancy Kricorian, the Martha Gellhorn Special Award winner Jonathan Cook, and Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss.
WANN is a project of the Geneva-based EuroMed Human Rights Monitor, which observes and reports on human rights abuses and breaches of international law across the Mediterranean region. The tireless American writer and social entrepreneur Pam Bailey runs the WANN program with commitment, diligence, and fierce love.
A few weeks ago, I was shocked – naively perhaps – to receive an email from WANN letting me know that Pam had been denied entry into Israel, and hence Gaza, on her last visit there in August. What’s more, Pam was prohibited from returning for ten years.
This had occurred while I was on holiday, so I didn’t hear the news till several weeks after it happened. Since then, I’ve been in touch with Pam who gave me permission to republish her account of this heartbreaking episode, which was first published on Medium; you’ll find it below. Among many other things, Pam’s experience is a further reminder, if one were needed, of the arbitrary and relentless brutality to which Palestinians and anyone who dares to defend their humanity are systematically subjected.
But before you read Pam’s story, let me share a serendipitous discovery I made just today. You’ll see that she references the debut novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by the Sri Lankan writer Sunil Yapa. Coincidentally, as I told Pam, on the wall just outside my study I have a framed print of the original quote which reads ‘Your Heart is a Weapon the Size of your Fist. Keep fighting. Keep loving’ by the London graffiti artist Pure Evil. I had spotted the print on a visit to the V&A with my mother, and bought it online a couple of days later when I noticed how its moving characterisation of love as a political act had become lodged in the part of my gut where some poetry resides.
I’ve often wondered about the origins of that quote, so this morning I spent some time on Google. I learned from an evangelical Lutheran church group in Chicago that the quote and an image of a fist clutching a heart appear as graffiti on Israel’s monstrous and illegal ‘separation wall’, which is more than four times longer than the Berlin Wall and close to three times its height, and the majority of which sits on Palestinian land in the West Bank. I’ve emailed Pam to ask if she knew about this connection, and I’m curious to see her reply. Regardless, I’m struck by its unexpected aptness, and the mysterious energy that transports us to the ideas that keep us going.
The occupation of the mind
When we think of “occupation” in the Palestinian context, we most often conjure images of the wall, barbed wire, gates and soldiers. But occupation is at its most insidious when it seeps into your mind.
On Sunday, August 21, I flew into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, on my way to Gaza. Let me be clear: I do not like entering Israel, and I detest Ben Gurion Airport. But Gaza is my second home — it is my place of respite and familial warmth. And since Egyptian strongman Sisi has made a U.S. embassy letter a condition of Gaza entry (which my country will not give), Israel is my only way in. So I sucked it up and got on the plane.
Safe in the knowledge that my Swedish funder already had obtained a permit for me to enter Gaza (typically the hardest part), my guard was down when I approached airport passport control. The only thought that crossed my mind was that the inspector in my line seemed to be unusually thorough and perhaps I should switch…
But then there, I was, standing before her. She asked why I was entering, for what purpose, where was I going? And as instructed by my Swedish facilitators, I told the truth: “I am going into Gaza to work on a women’s project. I have a permit. Here’s my letter of invitation.” Bang. If I had listened closely, perhaps I would have heard the drawbridge going up — perhaps forever separating me from the place and the people I love so much.
When I was promptly walked into the “special room,” however, I only expected a bit of harassment — after all, that’s what Israel does. And I had a permit to enter Gaza. I even smiled amiably at the odd mix of others in the room, merrily greeting them as my fellow special guests. I didn’t suspect that the bright green tag affixed to my backpack made me even more “special” than most of the others.
I quickly made friends with those around me who would talk (some studiously avoided eye contact, as if our varying degrees of specialness were infectious). I found Adam, a tall, gangly, Arab-looking kid from Florida, particularly engaging. This was his first trip ever out of the United States and he’d been detained. “Is this normal?” he asked. I looked at him in amusement. “Why did you come here?” I asked back. “I wanted a good beach, that’s all,” he said. “Ummm… and you picked Israel?” I responded in disbelief.
Adam, however, eventually left and was released to go look for that beach of his. I was not.
After an hour stretched into two, I finally was ushered into the office of the oldest of the young women who always seem to run Israel’s border gates. The Palestinian NGO who’d be hosting me inside Gaza is “illegal in Israel,” I was informed. My response that I had a permit, that the NGO didn’t work in Israel, that I didn’t intend to stay in Israel, was brushed aside. No questions were asked, no comments or questions accepted. I was finger printed, then told I would not be able to return for 10 years.
Ten YEARS? Those words would echo through my head for the next 11 hours.
In the following days, people asked me if I had been scared, assuming I was. After all, I was transported in a literal prison van — bars and all — to what amounted to a jail. Forced to surrender all of my belongings and then confined to a stifling, hot, concrete-box room with barely more than an excruciatingly uncomfortable bunk bed (I have a bad back) for what seemed to be hours upon end. No company (except for a few girls who spoke only Russian for the first several hours), no distraction of any kind. Except the chatter in my brain.
I wasn’t scared. All I really heard or understood was TEN YEARS. The words felt like a heavy weight on my chest, squeezing out all the air.
I had many hours to turn those words over in my head. I know it is but a pale comparison to what a prisoner must endure, but so many hours with only my fevered brain to keep me company was a hellish kind of experience. Reliving the previous hours. Imagining choosing another passport line. Making up a story about wanting to see the “holy sights” in Jerusalem. Why had I told the truth? Since when did I expect Israel to be predictable or reasonable? The way the scenario could have gone, should have gone — just as it had in April when I had last come — reverberated in my head, over and over and over.
My only other thought was a deep regret at not being able to contact my friends and colleagues in Gaza, who were waiting for me at the Erez crossing. I couldn’t get a phone signal when I was first pulled aside at the airport, and after that, my technology was taken away. (I chuckle now at my first comment upon pulling up to the jail-barracks: “I want an electrical outlet with a U.S. plug adapter. If you are really going to do this to me, I want to get some work done.”)
Finally, sometime in the night, my guards came and got me, drove me right up the tarmac to my return plane home and escorted me on. I might as well have worn cuffs, given the cloak-and-dagger feel of it all. The United Airlines (!!) crew even held onto my passport until we were preparing to land. Why? “If we had to divert the plane due to some emergency, before you reach home, you might try to escape,” I was told. If I had not been so strung out by that point, I would have laughed in their faces. Mata Hari I am not. But it was a little flattering.
Once home, it wasn’t too long before I was ready to fight. Calling lawyers. Threatening to sue. Considering whether I should legally change my last name. Planning a group sit-in at the State Department (after all, we give Israel $3 billion a year, and this is how they treat U.S. citizens?) I am an American and this is what we do. [Note: last month the US jacked up American taxpayers’ charitable donation to the Israeli military to $3.8-billion.]
I knew any legal challenge would cost money, which I’d have to raise, and because I consider my writers from We Are Not Numbers my family and partners, I polled them. Should I raise the money and challenge Israel with the law? Or resign myself to my fate and forever work with them from outside? I was shocked when the results came in: 23–8 in favor of just accepting the verdict.
“We have been suing Israel for years! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work,” stated one writer.
“I don’t think you will succeed if you fight Israel legally; you are not the only one who is banned for 10 years. You will lose money and lose the case as well,” wrote another. “Honestly, it sounds like a hopeless case, particularly when it comes to standing against Israel.”
I am not naïve. I am thoroughly disillusioned with international law, and with governments in general. And yet… I still have a belief that I can fight and maybe even win. Some passages from a novel I recently read come to mind. It’s called “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” by a Sri Lankan named Sunil Yapa, and it’s about the protests against the heartlessness of globalization at the World Trade Association meeting in Seattle in 1999.
There are two passages that come to mind. In the first, a delegate from Sri Lanka is observing the masses of determined protesters, and he thinks, “There is something distinctly American about it all, a fundamental difference in perspective and place — in how they see themselves in the world. This is what makes it so American — not that they feel compassion for mistreated workers three continents away, workers they have never seen or known, whose world they cannot even begin to understand, not that they feel guilty about their privilege, no, not that either, but that they feel the need to do something about it. They feel that they have the power to do something about it. That is what makes it so American. That they feel they have the power to do something — they assume they have that power. They have been born with it — the ability to change the world — and have never questioned its existence, an assumption so massive as to remain completely unseen.” But then the delegate felt a sudden queasy sadness. “What if they knew what a real revolutionary was? How bloody is a real revolution.”
Several pages later, the focus is on Victor, a young black kid who had somewhat reluctantly joined the mostly white protesters. The chant rising up was “WHOSE COPS? OUR COPS!!! WHOSE COPS? OUR COPS!!!” And Victor thought, “Do they really believe that? The police protect money and power. They protect the few from the violence of the many. Do you have to be black or brown to know that? Shit, our cops? The police, they pickle the world, preserve it the way it is. They are guard dogs keeping us afraid and obedient.” (Spoiler alert: Those cops ended up charging the crowd of protesters, attacking them with tear gas and batons. And the WTO meeting was shut down.)
I am one of those protesters. Well, I am slightly different. I have lived in Gaza; I know the people there, the conditions on the ground. I have seen the brutality of the Israelis up close. And yet I still, instinctively, believe I can fight. Believe I can use the law. Believe I can make a difference.
It is not important for me to be in Gaza from a macro point of view. My deep, bottomless feeling of loss, which still consumes me today, is because I love the place and the people. The thought of not seeing it and them again, of no longer feeling my toes in the sea and the sand, of never again hugging and laughing with my writers, brings the same heartbreak I’d feel if I’d lost a home or family member. It’s personal.
But Israel’s increasing efforts to isolate Palestinians in the occupied territories, particularly Gaza, including depriving them of the ability to receive and welcome visitors, is worth fighting in every way possible. And if I can use my American idealism as a battering ram, I will do so.