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A Letter to Jules and Helen
Reema Abu Hamdieh, Palestine
March 12, 2003
My dear Jules and Helen,
Finally! I write to you, hoping that I still have a place in your hearts and minds. I've been thinking about you all the time, have always been guided by you, although I'm not communicating. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for a lot of things that I have been avoiding or missing in my life. I'm sorry for not being what I had hoped to be!
I miss my normal life, a life in which I could enjoy a sunny day, hide away from drops of water on a rainy day, and expect good news as my horoscope would anticipate every morning. Instead, I get the hate waves of sun and soldiers‚ their breath burning my face as I wait at the checkpoints, the mud dirtying me when I try to use the back roads to and from work. My horoscope has been lying to me for so long that I stopped reading it. It never brought any good news, and I still haven't met any special people while trying to go through the Israeli checkpoints over and over again. The soldiers are the same, just their faces are different.
As it is everyday, soldiers enter the city of Ramallah; wanting to capture humans, they insult humanity on the way. Soldiers have gotten in. My sister is trapped in a little internet café, unable to get out, I'm trapped in the office, unable to leave.
The smell of death is all around me, and there is no way to escape a destiny written so long ago. The burning of homes, the killing of children and a ninety-year-old woman trying to pass the ugly checkpoints between streets, and inside every rain drop is a gas bomb exploding in the wrong faces at the wrong time, taking victims, helpless, unable to scream.
The road blocks are getting higher than skyscrapers meant to dilute the vision of short-sighted humans. Trees uprooted, families evicted, people herded towards the unknown in their homes and homeland. And no one seems to understand what we all are going through, not even Palestinians.
I'm losing faith in myself, once so unafraid to walk past soldiers on streets that then represented Palestinian dreams and life. Now, as all the streets are gradually becoming more and more occupied by Israeli soldiers, not only am I afraid, but I also try to avoid them. This isn't me anymore.
Walking down the streets of Ramallah, one day before the Eid, I smiled, involuntarily, seeing kids on the streets, buying Eid stuff. I could hardly believe my own eyes.
It's rainy and has been for sometime now. This is better-rain hides gas bombs, takes away the effect of shock grenades and gradually calms everyone down.
Moving to Ramallah was a hard decision, knowing that we are in an undeclared war. I didn't want to leave behind my parents, neighbors, friends and the streets of childhood. Knowing that the Arabic proverb is applicable more than ever now-"Whoever leaves the house is lost,
whoever returns is reborn"-made me even feel guilty about the fact that I'm leaving. But at the same time, I have to. I feel like my whole life has stopped and is revolving around the same memories and sadness, the same scenes that won't depart my brain.
Telling stories is a skill that I am losing as well, just because it hurts more and more every time I go over them. Becoming a vegetarian had not erased the memory of Palestinian children's meat scattered on the streets of Palestine. Watching the news has become a duty and an awful thing that I have to force myself to do.
When a ninety-year-old woman is killed at a checkpoint, and I'm being stopped at a road block, a child is asking for the truth and another is hoping to grow up and go to the States to work and get money in order to return home and open the road block in front of his house. The road block is as old as the intifada, the child is one year older; this is what he grows up to see, and I can't go on pretending it's fine to know and hear all this.
The facts are horrendous—new roads opened for settlers on Palestinian vineyards, new settlements on what once seemed a green mountain of olive trees, demolished houses of tens and hundreds of Palestinians. Yet we keep on living.
A painter friend of mine came to visit me in the office the other day. Pale and skinny now, his smile so fragile I fear it will crack his lips open and harm him, he said everything was fine. I asked, "How come you look this way then?" He said, "It's a long story. It's not a story, it's a tragedy."
My wife went to visit her parents, and she wanted to spend the night there. I'm glad she did that. It was three am in the morning, I was painting in my room, when the doorbell rang. I looked at my watch. It's three in the morning, who would come to visit at this hour? So I asked who it was ringing the bell at this hour. It's your neighbor the voice replied. But he wasn't my neighbor, this wreck of a human at the door, shaking and shivering from cold and fear. What's wrong I inquired? Soldiers are outside, they want everyone to get out of the building, taking nothing with them, nothing. We all went down, we carried nothing with us, in the cold and rain. And what I saw was just unbelievable. How many soldiers were there? I couldn't count them, the jeeps, the bulldozers, and every single resident of the building out there in the cold. But of course we were not as prepared as the soldiers, so we kept on shivering. Until 8:00 am, we just sat there, on the ground, not allowed to talk to each other, until finally one soldier started questioning us. The questions were the same every time he asked them, just in a different format. How long have you been living here? Did you pay any rent? For whom? Who are your neighbors? Etc, the same five or six questions. And, of course, the soldier said that if I was lying, he'd know, so I said, "If you know, why ask me?" "Shut up," the soldier replied. And I just shut up, I didn't have a choice. I can't recall time now, but bulldozers approached the building and started shelling and bombing the apartments. A Canadian woman living in the building began screaming, shouting at the soldiers. One soldier approached her and said, in perfect Arabic, that they wouldn't bomb her house. Her house was scattered to a million pieces. Nothing was left of the house, the building, or our spirits as well. For a time I couldn't talk about this, for a longer time, I wasn't good when I felt it, when I remembered it. But I go on now. And I live.
He lives? How can he? Where are his wedding pictures? In the rubble of a house? But what do I want him to do? Live in the rubble and never move on with life? But that's what's happening to me. I'm not alive. I'm not alive because the old city in Hebron is dead, and I'm not OK because all the injured are still suffering, and I'm not happy because the Palestinians are so sad, and I'm so afraid because no one's safe, and I'm tired and weary and feel that the whole world is betraying us over and over. Leave us alone!
I look for a reason to cry, as if I haven't enough already. I look for a reason to distract myself from daily life, as if I'm not distracted enough already, look for a reason to live a day dream where people are just happy and not as bad as they seem to be now. I get lost, I get lost in everything that I try to find. The unfairness of the world has turned us all into humans that walk without a direction, live without an aim.
I look for a reason to live, a reason to have hopes, a wish that might come true in my next life, in somebody's life. I can't see war coming because it's painful, I can't see Israelis in army uniforms, that's painful too.
Everything is painful, watching anything other than news on TV is painful, reading a non-political book is painful, walking down the streets of Palestine is painful. It's just a painful life. But I can't apologize for being who I am, for being a Palestinian, for being what I was chosen to be; I can't apologize for having been born on the wrong side of the line, or for having been given a different identity, or for feeling what I feel.
"Harmful grass" is what Alex Fichman called the Palestinians holding Jerusalem IDs in an article published in the Arabic version of the Hebrew Yedeot Ahronot newspaper. If the Jerusalemites, who are not even full residents in the Zionist state of Israel are harmful grass, what are we? What does that make the settlers? A growing palm tree? Now I understand what it is between the Israelis and the trees that they keep uprooting every day.
The trees alongside Al arroub refugee camp, where have they gone? Uprooted by harmful grass haters!! Where are the Palestinian streets, taking people like my mother to visit her family? We are no longer allowed to use them, so my mother hasn't seen her mother for almost ten months. Where are the donkeys carrying products from farms along the way, transporting them to nearby cities? Donkeys have been accused of transporting bombs and were also bombed and prevented from moving. Palestinian donkeys are what I'm talking about.
Does anybody know what it means to be questioned on the road home, of being asked a million times why I need to go home? Does anybody know what it feels like when soldiers say we can't go home? Does anybody know the meaning of forced homesickness? I do! I'm forced to know.
Are we all depressed? I don't know. But it doesn't seem so. We get on with our lives, maybe different, but we still do. We have fun in our own ways, still take care of the houses that may be demolished any minute, and still walk the streets that may be turned into settlers' roads any second. People still get married and have children, although those children are exposed to gas bombs, may be killed under the rubble of a house, or get a bullet in the head.
I've been trying to master the art of talking to children, even strange little ones on streets. Strange little questions confront me.
Lara ,who is called Lulu by everyone at home, says that there is a tank at the door in her own little way. Her language is very confused language as she's too small to talk, but that's the sentence she first learnt how to say. We all joke with her, ask her to say that sentence in her cute way, and one time, she said no, they are not at the door, they are out there, shelling people's houses, killing children, will they ever come here? They did come. Very close to where she lives. Very close to what she thought was a strong fortress called her house. Now her sentence is the tanks are all over the neighborhood, don't leave the house. She's afraid now, just like the rest of us. Just like the rest of the world.
How will I ever comprehend what's going on? A friend being treated at the Abu Rayya rehabilitation center saw a little girl from Nablus. She's five, six, he can't tell. She's an orphan, he knows. And she also lost her two aunts, who were raising her when the Israeli soldiers entered the old city of Nablus and both were buried in the rubble of their home. The girl was hit in the spine and can't move her legs or arms. She is paralyzed from the neck down. Her three brothers are wanted by the Israelis, why she doesn't know. No one knows, maybe the Israelis don't know either, but they are wanted. One was injured in the invasion. Upon his return from treatment, he was arrested by soldiers. The girl now lives alone at the rehabilitation center. We all live alone in Palestine; there is no one else living with us, or watching us, or hearing our cries.
How can I tell you what's going on? How can I tell you how crippled I am inside my heart and mind, how unable to make any decision! I am so afraid when Nida leaves for the university in the morning, and keep calling her a million times. I am scared to death every time Fida has to cross the Israeli checkpoints, my hands feel paralyzed. I am so scared every time Salah Eddin goes to school and Rami goes to work. I am afraid every time my father wants to visit the old house. I don't want him to visit anywhere, I want him safe here next to all of us, and when my mother has grocery shopping to do, it feels as if my breath stops until she comes back. But I go out and leave the house, and go past checkpoints, and still have fights with inhuman soldiers, and stutter when I come across a martyr's mother or family member, cry when I talk with families of prisoners and feel helpless when I see the families of the injured who are not getting proper medical treatment. Maybe that's why I left the Red Crescent, I couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't handle all the people's miseries, in addition to what I see everyday. I stopped functioning, I stopped thinking. I listened to the stories and just stored them in my memory. I felt so helpless and wanted to get away from it all, but it never stops, nor does my thought!
The Ramallah version of life isn't much different from Hebron life. Soldiers go in and out. It's their backyard, it doesn't matter what they do. My new job in Ramallah isn't much different from my previous one. It seems that I always end up with the wrong kind of work, knowing I want to be close to people. Journalism has brought nothing but more misery into my life. People are great, but I have gained nothing from knowing them except hearing more stories of people getting hurt by the occupation. Our offices overlook the vegetable market, which, just as in Hebron, has been moved from one area to the other over time. When the soldiers arrive, they like to go to the vegetable market and exercise their hobby of smashing vegetables and fruit and throwing them to the ground
Last time I went to visit my old neighborhood in Hebron, I had a conversation with a soldier that lasted for half an hour. He told me that his mission in life was to cleanse the area of all the Palestinians, including the two year olds. These are his words. Two year olds. Why? I wanted to know. Because they are Palestinian terrorists. Can the soldiers be any worse than this? Can they be any more paranoid? I try to not think about it. If a soldier is in Abu Sneineh to kill everyone there, I wonder what kind of agreements we were talking about with the Israelis? And maybe I shouldn't be surprised: He's just a soldier in the Israeli army. That's what they were trained to do.
How can a rapist apologize to a girl he has raped, or a killer to a family after he took their son away? How can we come to terms with them after the things they have done?
I'm afraid of the war, afraid of Sharon, of what might happen in case Iraq is invaded, afraid of any Israeli jeep I see inside the Palestinian areas, or outside the Palestinian territories. I've been afraid all my life; I just want a moment of peace.
Reema Abu Hamdieh is a young Palestinian journalist from Hebron, who is now living in Ramallah.