Monday, December 12, 2011

For Mustafa Tamimi

“Ahwe, ahwe!”

There’s a blind man selling coffee on the street outside. One of my friends told me that he was so well-known in Ramallah, that if he didn’t hear this call, he’d think something was wrong.

I’m sitting in the second floor of a pizza parlor, uploading videos onto my computer and eating a pastry with cheese and parsley. It’s both compulsive and cathartic. A little unnecessary too, seeing as I’m already keeping Haj Sami waiting, and it’s a two hour Service ride to Al Aqaba, where I live. I’ll be late for my adult class, but I’m still in the city, eating comfort food and uploading. My mind is numb, and I don’t want to think, I just want to feel productive. I stood by and watched tear gas canisters fall on Nabi Saleh, adding insult to injury on the day of Mustafa Tamimi’s funeral. I have it in my camera, now what?

Now I’m thinking about accents. In the villages people say “qahwe,” but in the cities they drop the “q,” and just say “ahwe.” Somehow I was surprised the man outside had a city accent, since I equated city with rich and village with poor.

Ahwe. It means “that which prevents sleep.”
I had read that on a poster the night before, in a beautiful little café called La Vie. The poster was called the History of Coffee. Sulaiman was drinking coffee, I had a juice, and his friend Alison was drinking whiskey and staring at the wall.

We had just come from a small demonstration in downtown Ramallah. A group of people from Nabi Saleh were gathered in Manara Circle chanting for Mustafa Tamimi, the 28-year-old who was shot in the face with a tear gas canister the day before. He’d died that morning. Alison was so close to the people of Nabi Saleh, Sulaiman referred to her as Alison Tamimi. She had done photography projects with the kids.

That was the first time we met. She’d just come from Jenin, where her friend had been killed six months prior.

“I hate them.” She was shivering. “I hate the Israelis. They’re monsters.”

I didn't know what to say. She was from Seattle, like me. Actually, she was from Bellevue, just fifteen minutes down the freeway. Unlike me, she was Jewish, and at the age of twenty she made aliyah, moving to Israel and taking Israeli citizenship. Her work was in the arts, and reconciliation, and human rights, and it wasn't long before her work took her over the Green Line into the occupied West Bank, to the Palestinians. Now, at the age of twenty-five, she's relinquished her Israeli identity. Now she considers herself Palestinian.

We ducked into La Vie for the whiskey, and caught up, or in my case, got introduced. Her and Sulaiman talked about old things, people they knew…she told me she went to Newport High School and Mt. Holyoke. I think we have some friends in common back in the States. She pulled out her mini-laptop and read us a poem she’d written, just before she’d heard of Mustafa’s death. It began, “Palestine is in mourning…in the morning.” It was about how morning doesn’t bring a new day here, it only shines light on a painful reality. Night is more hopeful, because you can’t see the settlements, and the checkpoints, and the occupation.

I didn’t bring up Luban Sharqia, where the settlements are lit up like Broadway. But I agreed, nighttime is peaceful here. I thought of barbecuing chicken and smoking arghellah in Bil’in, playing with kids and babies who stay up way too late. I imagined Nabi Saleh was like Bil’in, and wondered what else we had in common, apart from our suburban area codes.

Sulaiman offered her the same consolation as he did to me. Welcome to the club, habibti. You can’t let this stuff affect you, it’s too much. He’d read Victor Hugo’s A Tragedy in prison. Or Revolutionary University, as he called it. But it was more than the book that inspired this philosophy. During the Intifada, those demonstrations in Manara happened all the time, with a thousand strong, instead of fifty.



I’d never been to a Nabi Saleh demonstration, but on Friday Sulaiman and I drove by the village while it was in full swing. Army jeeps were blocking the entrance, and soldiers were patrolling on all sides.

They’re preventing the villagers from reaching their natural spring, which was confiscated by the settlers of Halamish. Every week they try, and every week they get gassed and shot at. We were actually thinking of visiting the Tamimi’s later that day. The leader Bassem Tamimi is still in prison, falsely accused of inciting violence. Sulaiman had to sign a paper saying Bassem was with him on the day he was accused. But we couldn’t get into Nabi Saleh until the demonstration was over, so we postponed the visit.

A few hours later I saw on Facebook a picture of a man’s face covered in blood. I read the word “Tamimi” in Arabic and asked Sulaiman to translate the news. He saw the picture and went eughh, that must be a photo from the anniversary of something. I thought, ok. They must have been demonstrating in commemoration of a past event. Bil’in does that all the time.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the headlines came out in English, and it was all over the internet. Mustafa Tamimi was dead. And the Israeli press used words like “activists say…” and “protestors claim...” I remembered the same headlines from Jawaher Abu Rahma’s death on January 1st, and how shocked I was. The racism wasn’t shocking anymore.

That was before the Israeli soldiers tweeted pictures of Mustafa’s slingshot. Like the knives and poles and axes aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla, capable only of instilling fear in an already hysterical society. Mustafa was killed in cold blood, and his killer would be protected by tweets.

I was angry, so I took a walk. I walked into downtown Ramallah to pick up some things for Al Aqaba, and on the way I ran into a friend from Bil’in. He was sixteen, and worked at a coffeeshop in the city. He asked me if I was going to Nabi Saleh in the morning. I hadn’t considered it. Another martyr funeral. Yes, ok, I told Mohammad, I’ll see you there.

That night I went with Sulaiman and his friends Abed and Mahmoud to his family’s house in Hizma, to eat makloubeh. I was planning to go the Alternative Information Center in Beit Sahour to hear the discussion on apartheid and drink with my new friends from Europe, but I gave in to the Khatib family. And it was the best makloubeh I’ve ever had. After we ate, we hung out with with Sulaiman’s nieces and nephews. As it turns out, little Mido is quite the performer. After dancing dabke for us, he took over the camera and started asking questions in Arabic, English and Hebrew. When his brother asked, “where are you from?” He replied, “I am from Palestine.” and started wailing dramatically, which made everyone crack up. Then Mido handed me back the camera and acted out a scene. Him and his brother laid side by side on the ground, like martyrs, then Mido woke up, said something about Palestine, and fell over his brother, wailing once more. Everyone was laughing, and exclaiming that they didn’t know Mido had this in him. When asked about Obama, Mido said he’d throw a shoe at his face. “Wallahi, so smart. He was so small when this happened.” It reminded me of when I gave my camera to 4-year-old Tutu in Bil’in, and she interviewed her cousin Yazid about the occupation. Their family was amazed at their conversation. I wish these kids all had cameras.

After eating fruit and kanafe, we bade farewell to Hizma, and Sulaiman and I went back to Café La Vie to watch the Barcelona game. He liked Barcelona because it’s the people’s team, unlike Real Madrid, the rich team. That’s all I gleaned, I know nothing about football. Really.

At 10:30 on Sunday morning I headed up to Nabi Saleh. It was Sunday, a workday, and I was anxious about getting back to Al Aqaba at a decent hour, after having missed my classes. Then one of the women behind me in the Service tapped me on the shoulder and starting talking to me in English. She was an English teacher. She reminded me of one of my students, a beautiful smile, and unusually open for tapping a foreigner on the shoulder. Her name was Olfat. The first thing she did was invite me to her village, Beit Rema. I said I was going to Nabi Saleh, but I forgot the word for funeral. Are you a journalist? No. There is one died. Yes, Mustafa. I told her I would love to visit Beit Rema soon, so I gave her my Facebook name and we exchanged numbers.

I’d been a little confused on the timing, so I got to Nabi Saleh halfway through the funeral procession. Hundreds of people were walking slowly through the village, and I found a friend from Ramallah who told me that Mustafa’s body had already arrived from the hospital, and was being presented to his family at their home. I walked with the procession as he was carried to the mosque, and waited outside as the men of the village prayed, then we processed to the graveyard. It was the same in Bil’in in January, and Qusra in September. There were dozens of journalist and foreigners, and a handful of people I knew from Bil’in. I was mostly interested in the children. Some of them were carrying wreaths and posters and wearing solemn faces like their fathers and brothers. Some of them were climbing onto rooftops and treetops, trying to get the best view, and the younger ones were darting through the crowds and playing like it was a normal day. Maybe they wondered, if this was like a festival day, why no one wanted to play with them. I saw Mustafa’s brother, a tall skinny boy of eighteen in a red sweat suit, being carried out of the crowd, weeping. He was singing at the demonstration in Ramallah the night before. I thought of my brother, who is also a tall, skinny eighteen-year-old, and likes to sing.

Someone gestured that I should move. I was standing on a gravestone. I shuffled away, embarrassed.

The speakers began, and I picked up their nouns. Occupation, freedom, land. I looked at the mound of fresh dirt next to the circle of mourners and photographers.


Your ground is disturbed.
It sounded like a poem.

After the speeches, I stood with my friends from Bil’in, one of whom waved down a Service for me. I bade farewell and sat in the taxi, taking a deep breath. I’d have to go back to Ramallah, then to Nablus, then to Tubas, then to Al Aqaba. At least I could rest in the taxi.

As the Service made its way down the hill to the entrance of the village, we were passing dozens of funeral-goers on their way down, as they do in the demonstrations, and I saw two army jeeps approaching from the highway. It seemed we were getting out just in time. But as we passed the armored jeeps and started up the hill away from everyone, I said, “biddi enzel hun.” I want to get out here. I wanted to see what they were going to do. I leaned against the highway barrier across the street and started filming. They brought in the tanker full of sewage water, and the jeep shot a shower of gas over the people walking down the hill. Water, gas, water, gas, shebab with stones, stones and more stones. Busses of settlers drove by, and I felt like I was part of an amusement park ride. Just your friendly neighborhood Defense Forces controlling the natives, nothing to see here. A little girl stuck her tongue out at me. I decided I was finished, and hailed the next Service coming out the village. Unfortunately, it smelled like sewage. Fortunately, no one could tell I was farting.

And here I am in this little family café, eating pizza and drinking Diet Coke and pushing buttons on my laptop. I was starting to understand why Alison said she needed a break. I’m still ready to stay until summer, visa permitting, and I want to live here in the long-term, but I haven’t lost anyone to violence. Touch wood, as they say. So Alison was going back to the States for a while. Who knows, maybe I’ll see her there someday. Maybe we’ll get some coffee, like two girls from Seattle.

“Ahwe, ahwe!”