Monday, June 18, 2012

Hide your smile!

It was my first time in Qalqiliya. My friend Hamdi from Bil’in and his friend Simon, a Swiss photographer, met me in Manara Circle in Ramallah, and from there we caught a yellow Service. The drive took about an hour, and we all tried to sleep. The boys were more successful because they were next to the windows and had something to lean on. I just leaned back let my head bob up and down and hoped I didn’t snort or drool.

I woke up 20 minutes from Qalqiliya, and felt like I was still dreaming. The land looked so lush and green, and there were white houses with red roofs perched neatly on the hilltops. Everywhere I looked there was another Israeli settlement, and Hebrew signs everywhere. I felt a mix of wonder and despair. I had only seen maps of the Qalqiliya governorate, and now that I was finally on the ground, I had to remember the map in my head, an absurd picture of the wall and settlements surrounding the city on all sides, allowing for a thin corridor of access from the East. Nestled in our little yellow van, in Palestinian public transportation, we were moving from Palestinian city to Palestinian city, with no choice but to cross unofficially annexed ("disputed") territory. It wasn’t a pleasant reality, so I shut my eyes and tried to fall asleep from it.

Then we departed from the highway and down a road with the familiar red Hebrew sign: You are now entering Area A-Entry illegal for Israelis. By order of the Israeli military, any Israeli citizen found coming in or out of Area A without a pre-approved permit will be arrested and detained.

"I'm living under Zionist occupation too," one of my Israeli friends told me. "I don't have freedom of movement, if I want to visit Palestinian areas..."

The driver leaned out his window and shouted a greeting to the police officer guarding the Qalqiliya municipality. They seemed to be good friends. Hamdi was awake at that point and mentioned that there was a zoo around here. I knew that, and wondered if we’d be able to see it today. Once I mentioned to a my friend in Ramallah that I’d probably not like the zoo in Qalqiliya if it was anything like the one in Amman (small cages, not a nice facility), and to that he laughed a little sardonically and said, “we live like animals in a zoo, what about the animals?”

As we drove down the main street, Hamdi asked the other passengers where would be the best place to see the wall. They directed us as we got out of the Service and we made our way through the city. The main street was big and bustling, full of clothing stores and small restaurants….we were a strange sight, one Palestinian with two fair-haired ajaneb (foreigners), and were greeted with stares and smiles and "how are you"s. We wandered onto a quiet neighborhood street, past a kindergarten with broken playground equipment, and a secondary school, and then I could see the wall. It looked bigger than the one in Bil’in, but from our spot we couldn’t see over it at all. I wondered what it would be like to live next to the thing.

The neighborhood ended, and we found an auto repair depot, with six men sitting on a bench underneath a shelter at its entrance. They immediately yelled, “tishrabkom shai?” “will you drink tea?” We had no objections, so we sat down with them while someone was sent to make the tea. They were men ranging in age at least twenty years, including the director of the depot and some guy that just liked to hang out there. One of them directed a question in Arabic to Simon and I, “so you’re here to see the wall…what good does that do us?” I didn’t know how to respond, I often wondered what good I’m doing anyone here.  I told them I was just “mahom,” with the guys, seeing the situation, and I was a volunteer in Tubas. This seemed to satisfy them, and they were surprised to learn I was American. But from there the conversation continued in German, since the director was fairly fluent and wanted to practice with Simon and Hamdi. I wanted to throw in that my parents speak German, but I was tired, and just sat back and drank my tea.

As we departed, one of the men went up to me and asked me a question. I didn’t understand all the words, but I gathered he was asking for advice on how to get into the States. I told him he needed a job. “Ahh, an invitation,” he said. Then he started talking about how he was in Kuwait, and Amman, and the life is better there, because there’s independence, but he lives in Palestine because it’s his home, he was born here, but with independence it’s always better, and I nodded and told him I understood, and wished I could help everyone who asked. I turned to join Simon, who was taking a picture of three kids, one of whom was holding a toy rifle. My friend from Canada had told me she was alarmed by how many kids play with toy guns here. I felt useful stepping in and saying that as an American, I didn’t find this alarming in the slightest.

We continued on to join Hamdi and two of the depot workers who were explaining the “wad3a,” the situation. The closer we got to the wall, the more it smelled like shit. There was an old canal along the wall and a basin for sewage water that ran under the wall. From what I gathered, the wall had made it impossible for a viable sewage system to be developed, so the fields often overflowed with waste. It was the sight of the gargantuan concrete wall, the smell of shit, and the sound of cars whooshing on the side we couldn’t see, it was a rather unpleasant place to just walk around. But we walked around, reading the graffiti that read, “this wall must fall,” and “this wall is so 1989” and “history hates walls.” Most of the wall was covered in slogans, and the art was pretty shabby compared to the sections of wall in Bethlehem and Qalandia that are sprayed by professionals. There is no one here to appreciate a Banksy.

I asked Hamdi to take a picture of me looking up at the wall....I had no space on my memory card and it seemed like an artsy shot. As I stood there looking at the concrete-sky line, I saw three soldiers looking down on us. The two watchtowers we could see seemed to be unmanned, but these guys appeared to just be patrolling along the top of the wall. “Hamdi, soldiers,” I said. He said, “where?” Oh, there. He let the usual Arabic curse words fly and continued on his way.

We found a donkey carcass between the wall and canal, and I went eughhh and walked right by. But Hamdi knelt down and started photographing it, and Simon followed suit. So I said something like, “boys,” so maybe the soldiers would hear me and regard me as normal, as I shuffled around and tried to act like a tourist (?) while the boys were snapping away. I looked up and the oldest of the three soldiers nodded at me, and I nodded back him, somewhat tersely. I’m not opposed to interacting with soldiers and bridging that gap in misunderstanding, but it’s a nasty feeling when you play along purely out of fear.

Hamdi and Simon caught up with me, and the soldiers were gone. We took more photos, and the boys picked different sections of the wall to sit down on and look over their pictures and smoke a cigarette. After fifteen minutes I asked them why we were still sitting next to a canal full of shit water, and then we saw a fat military jeep rambling towards us from a few hundred meters away. This couldn’t be an ordinary excursion… they were coming to check us out. The boys took a few pictures while I gathered up my stuff and got out of the way of the jeep. It stopped, and I noticed the driver was a pretty young woman soldier wearing a trendy wool winter hat. The three soldiers who had just been on top of the wall climbed out and approached us.

“What are you doing here?” one of them asked.

“Taking pictures.”
“Do you have credentials?”
They boys nodded, yes. I said, “huh?” I wasn’t press.
“Identification,” the oldest one said, “you know what that means?”

Yeahhh, I have ID. Hamdi took out his huwiya, West Bank ID, Simon took out his passport, and I took out my driver’s license.

The soldier looked at Simon’s passport and said, “wow, Swiss.” He mumbled something like, he’d never seen one of those before. They looked at my license for a second, and handed it back. Ok, it looked like we were clear.

“Wait, give me your ID again,” they asked Hamdi. He handed back his huwiya, and they took it to the jeep. So we sat against the wall. For about an hour.

“You know,” Simon told me, “you probably paid for that jeep.”
I scoffed, then conceded that he had the right to tease the American.
“I wonder if they’d let me drive it.”

Here’s something I can say about Hamdi and Simon: they are one of the funniest pairs I’ve ever known. They’re like brothers, always giving each other shit, and howling over something. Hamdi laughs so much sometimes I worry that he doesn't breathe enough. You could say they were partners in crime, but that didn't seem so appropriate in this situation. We spent the next half hour laughing over a video that Simon had taken the day before, of Hamdi dancing and lip-synching to an Arabic song with a banana microphone. At the end of his performance, he leans into the camera and says, “thanks!” and then Simon and I laughed hysterically and the soldiers looked back at us. It’s obvious they’re not checking Hamdi’s ID anymore. They’re standing outside the jeep and smoking. At one point, I yelled, “are you bored?!” and one young soldiers with nice, curly locks nods yes. Twenty minutes later Simon went up to them and asked what was up. He was getting hungry, and I was tired of smelling the shit water. What are they waiting for? Are they just trying to humiliate the Arab among us? As if that doesn’t affect me and Simon? Wallahi, the things they do to break the spirit of resistance…they have to know by now that it has the opposite effect. No one was breaking out spirit. We’d busted out Simon’s laptop and Hamdi’s internet stick and were taking turns updating our Facebook statuses on Hamdi’s situation. At one point I yelled at them to stop being so dramatic and grabbed the computer to erase something about Hamdi being in Israeli custody. Hamdi grabbed the internet stick, I closed the laptop, and we continued to laugh at the fact that we just Facebooked on the wall.  

They finally called Hamdi over, and the oldest soldier handed him an iPhone. For the next fifteen minutes, Hamdi was pacing around, chatting with someone in Arabic. It sounded like he was just talking to some Arabic-speaker at a desk somewhere, and having an ok time with it. He kept laughing, and I translated a few phrases for Simon (like “I’m just taking pictures!”). It sounded like a formality, and it put me and Simon at ease. We joked that Hamdi was prolonging the conversation to get back the soldiers for making us wait. Finally, he handed the phone back to the soldier, who finished the conversation, handed Hamdi back his huwiya, and told him to have a nice day. Sometimes that’s the most annoying thing a soldier can do.

They drove off in their jeep, and Hamdi walked up to us and said, “that was the leader of the Shabbak!” That didn’t fully register until we walked briskly away from that forsaken hang-out spot and Hamdi started recalling pieces of his conversation. It wasn’t some guy at a desk, it was the head of the Israeli secret police for the region of Qalqiliya, and some of the things he said had obviously shaken Hamdi. That explained why the soldiers had to wait so long to get this phone call. Hamdi impersonated his angry words, “Hamdi, listen to me! You don’t talk this way to me, do you know who I am?” and his responses were all bullshitting, as Simon and I had witnessed. He sounded like he was talking to an old friend, and I knew that could only have been a hilarious combination.

I already knew a bit about Hamdi’s experience talking to the Shabbak. They’d tried to get information about the Bil'in demonstrations from him on several occasions, offering him money and permits and the opportunity to see the pretty girls in Tel Aviv, to which he laughed and said, “I don’t need money, I have travel permits, and all the pretty girls come to Bil’in anyway.” His laughter was disarming and quite often infuriating.

We walked from the wall, past the depot, down a quiet street and onto the main market street. Every few minutes Hamdi would remember something new, and the phrase that stuck with me was, “Hide your smile!” We laughed because the man could tell Hamdi was smiling the whole time, and we laughed because Hamdi would never stop smiling.

We reached the main street. Hamdi picked up a coffee, Simon and I picked up a shawarma, and we found the Service back to Ramallah.

I picked a window seat this time, which was a mixed blessing, because my face was glued to the window as we drove by all the settlements on the hills around Qalqiliya.

"This is what he mean by 'the people here just want to live and work,'" said Hamdi, "just let them work in the settlements. Don't make a problem for them." We laughed, a little sadly this time, and settled in our seats and fell asleep.

After a few hours of grilling, this is what I managed to piece together:

S: Hello, Hamdi, how are you? I think you are happy and had so much fun as the army told me now.
H: Yes, of course, I’m always happy, alhamdullilah.
S: Hamdi, actually, what are you doing there?
H: I’m a photographer, I’m taking pictures…
S: Who do you work for?
H: Whoever I want, I’m a freelancer…
S: Ahh, freelancer? Ahh, so you’re making pictures, and showing Israel as a bad state?
H: I’m just doing my work!
S: Why are you not making pictures in Bil’in? I think Qalqiliya is far away from you.
H: Well, because I want to make pictures here!
S: Do you know who you’re talking to you? This is the shabbak.
H: How could I know you are shabbak? I don’t think you are. 
S: I am shabbak because I am shabbak.
H: No, you have to introduce yourself, tell me who you are. I want to know who I am speaking to!
S: (says his name) You shouldn’t be coming to Qalqiliya, this is not your place. When you come to photograph and bring your fucking internationals the people will see you and come around and make a demonstration. Then they bring the terrorists to come and attack Israel. 
H: What? what? (laughter)
S: That’s enough! Hide your smile! The people in Qalqiliya don’t have these problems, they just want to work and live, they don’t need you to come and make problems. I don’t want you to be here making problems, you know Friday is coming. (Friday is “Land Day”)
Stay in Bil’in and Ramallah and take pictures there, don’t come around to my area, or I will make problems for you in Qalqiliya.
H: Will you arrest me?
S: No, I won’t arrest you. I’ll send people to tell the people in Qalqiliya that you’re there to make problems. I’ll tell them what they don’t know about you.
H: What? What are you talking about? What don’t they know about me? Tell me, or go ahead and tell them.
S: What, you think I’m stupid Hamdi? Hide your smile! I went to University, and I got very high marks-
H: -I know, they don’t put someone stupid as the head of the shabbak. I’m sure you worked very hard....
S: Hamdi, listen to me! You don’t talk to me like that. When I talk, you listen! I’m going to end this conversation! You understand me? I don’t want to see you back in Qalqiliya.
H: Ok…

When Hamdi handed the phone back, the soldier asked his commander if Hamdi should be arrested. The verdict was no.

It’s 10 hours later in the village of Bil’in, we are barbecuing chicken and smoking argheelah, and Hamdi is still laughing about it.