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Jun 19, 2015

Palestinian Steadfastness and the Ramallah Friends School


Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School
Gordon Davis, Betsy Brinson, and Joyce Ajlouny discuss the history of the Ramallah Friends School (from left).


On 16 June, the Palestine Center hosted Gordon Davies, Betsy Brinson and Joyce Ajlouny to speak on the history of the Friends School in Ramallah. The school has withstood the test of time, witnessing Ottoman domination, the British Mandate, Jordanian administration, and Israeli occupation. Yet, the school’s commitment to Quaker values of nonviolence, dialogue, and equality has never wavered. Davies and Brinson spoke on the research and experiences that led to their book Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School. Ajlouny discussed her role as director of the school and the significance of the Friends School in the Palestinian community. Before the lecture, The Palestine Center’s summer interns sat for an interview with the three speakers to learn more.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.

A description on the website says that the Friends School has become “a symbolic presence of nonviolence, cooperation across cultures and intellectual integrity.” This is a beautiful note on the school. How do you feel you’ve accomplished this and how important is that to your mission?

Ajlouny: I think that it’s extremely important. It’s the real premise of our success and our perseverance throughout 146 years. You would think that after so many wars, occupations and administrations that the school would suffer and no longer exist, but that isn’t so. We are grounded by our Quaker tradition, ethos, and foundation. They are the things that often come back and challenge us when we make decisions. When we are running the Friends School, we think: how do we incorporate nonviolence, equality, and tolerance into our mission? As an administrator, that is something that I talk about a lot in our meetings with the board, the school administration, the teachers, or the students. We are often reminding people of the importance of that. It’s what has kept us afloat.

As Americans, Gordon Davies and Betsy Brinson, what did writing this book mean to you? And how did it shape your perspective of the conflict? 

Davies: During that year we spent at the Friends School, I also taught at Birzeit University. I taught in the English department with a little help from Joyce, who introduced me to the Friends School. Therefore, I saw several perspectives. It was a matter of learning about, and trying to learn about, a different culture, but also learning that we have a huge amount in common. The school’s values were endorsed by young students who said, “The school’s values are that of Judaism, they are that of Islam, and they are that of Christianity. It's not the religions that are the problem, it’s the people. People misuse the religions.” 

Brinson: As a historian, my area of expertise is American social history. This was the hardest history project I’ve ever done. I wasn’t familiar with Palestinian history, so I had to read a lot and ask a lot of questions. It was a tough job. Neither Gordon nor I are from a Palestinian background. We didn’t grow up in it. In contrast, if somebody says the War of 1812 or the Civil War, as an American, I’ll know what they’re talking about.

What is it like to write Palestinian history? Have you ever had difficulty in completing your research or traveling to Ramallah or the Friends School?

Brinson: Our research consisted of using basic primary research documents at various Quaker colleges in the U.S., and that wasn't a problem. But we did our primary research in Ramallah with many oral history interviews that we did with students, alumni, staff, and administrators. Most of them actually came to us at the school to do the interview. There were a few people that I had to go and meet. I don’t know Arabic. A lot of the streets in Ramallah aren’t marked. Trying to talk to cab drivers was difficult. So it was an interesting experience. We did have problems getting through checkpoints. My biggest concern was my tape recorder and whether I was going to get it through Israeli security at the airport. As it turned out, that was less of a problem than I had feared. But to protect the oral history interviews, I sent them back with several different people, so they were in different suitcases. They all made it back safely, so it wasn't as much of a concern as I feared it might be.

What are the Quaker values that make up the school? Why are they so important? What do you tell the students, and what do you write about on a daily basis to portray the Friends School accurately?

Davies: We thought getting a Palestinian perspective on the school was very important. Most of the things that had been written previously were written by mostly Americans and some British volunteers. They did good work, but they brought their own perspectives. One story in the book exemplifies the school’s Quaker values in practice. A teacher named Jean Zaru was teaching fifth graders. When she came into the room, the students were shouting, “PLO, Israel no!” It was illegal to talk about PLO before 1993. So, Zaru wrote “PLO” on the blackboard. Everybody stopped. They were frightened. It was illegal to write that. But she did. And she said, “Do you know what that ‘L’ stands for in ‘PLO’? It stands for liberation. Do you know what liberation is? It is not controlling other people and it is not having your way over them. It is sharing with other people and it is understanding another people’s needs. It is understanding that your needs and their needs have something in common.”

That is basically what she conveyed, and that is what I think that the Quakers try to convey. One of the things that struck us when we were there was a big parade we witnessed during Ramadan. It ran right down the street right outside of the school. All the Arab villages came and participated in the parade. But the Christians joined the parade, too. We thought that was remarkable. Then on Easter, the Christians had a parade, and the Muslims joined them! Again, the problem isn’t the differences between religions, but how people use and manipulate their religions.

Joyce Ajlouny, can you speak to how important education is during times of occupation and war to guide and lead the students at their young age?

Ajlouny: I really believe in the power of a value-led education. Time and time again, I have had parents come to my office asking for more financial aid to keep their kids in the school. They tell me that they have lost so much because of occupation. The only thing that they have is their investment in their children's education. They say, “Don’t take that away from us!” We are in a value-led school, and we are challenged by violence all around us every day. We do have students who come in feeling angry. After the 2014 Gaza war, the lower school principal came and said, “Joyce, we need to hire another counselor.” “But you have one,” I said. “You don’t know what the campus is like,” he explained. Students were more physical. They were running around and it seemed like their behavior was different. It was more violent behavior. They were agitated. We had to hire another counselor to deal with these issues. This is just one example. You can imagine the effect that occupation and war has on these children. 

So what is our role as a school, and what do we do to take away the stress? How do we give them something productive to work on and make them feel good about themselves? We give them a platform to voice their opinion and to debate. We have a lot of debates for normalization, against normalization. There is so much happening on campus that we don’t have a homogenous group of students. So, there is always lively debate. But we also have been very creative in allowing them to address these concerns in a productive, meaningful, creative way. Whether it is through art or performance, they do all sorts of commemoration. Nonviolence is always our message. As a Quaker school, it is our role to guide students to a nonviolent path. The BDS movement is very big on our campus, too. Our students are always challenging us as an administration to see if we are keeping up with BDS. When you see alumni of the school, you see their commitment to their country through service and nonviolence.

There was a student of ours who graduated from Stanford. I thought he’d go on to work at the UN. But he came back and started mobilizing in our community. He set up a tent in town and he was trying to mobilize for unity in the government. So these are the types of students who attend our school. Another one headed the BDS office in Ramallah. This is the difference that the Friends School is making in the context of occupation.

Joyce Ajlouny, do students at the Friends School ever have a chance to interact with Israelis, or has there ever been a program of that sort? How does that mix with the Quaker values?

Ajlouny: As a Quaker, I believe that dialogue is the best way to address issues. Yet, I also see that our community in Ramallah is not ready to normalize relationships with Israelis. But the Friends School is very much part of the community. We cannot come and impose what we think is the way forward. If the community at large is not ready to normalize relationships, then there would be huge resistance to any of our endeavors. Once Israelis and Palestinians are on equal footing, normalization will be acceptable. But we can’t normalize relations with our occupiers and the future soldiers who are going to be surrounding our city and bombarding us. The Friends School has to abide by community expectations. From a Quaker perspective, yes, interaction between Palestinians and Israeli is exactly what needs to take place. Communication is how hearts, minds, and souls changes. But that can’t happen quite yet. 

The term sumoud is the title of the book, which in Arabic means “steadfastness” or “standing one’s ground.” But what does sumoud mean in relation to the history of the Ramallah Friends School? Why did you choose that as the title of the book? 

Davies: The Friends School has witnessed one form of domination after another: first, the Ottoman Empire, then the British Mandate, then Jordanian administration, and finally Israeli occupation. Yet, the school remains and its values persist. We chose sumoud as the title to emphasize the school’s unyielding commitment to dialogue and equal rights. 

Ajlouny: What Gordon said is very true, and I also look at it from a different perspective. The families of students tell me that they would have left had it not been for the Friends School. So, the school keeps families steadfast in Palestine. Families remain because of the opportunities we provide. We are the only International Baccalaureate school in Palestine. Our students end up at top universities. There are always some students that make it into the Ivy Leagues. Many families would rather take advantage of the education we offer rather than emigrate to America or Jordan.
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Jun 10, 2015

Palestinian-American Comedians' Historic Performance at the Kennedy Center

On Friday, 5 June, Amer Zahr, Mike Easmeil, Mona Aburimshan, and Said Durrah made history at the Kennedy Center. Sponsored by The Jerusalem Fund, Zahr and his fellow comedians were the first Palestinian American comedians to perform at the world-renowned performing arts center. Zahr’s routine, entitled “Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile,” quickly sold out and attracted a crowd of Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Using anecdotes from both their childhood and adult lives, Zahr and company turned the pain and struggle of the Palestinian narrative into relatable accounts of hilarity.

“Palestinians don’t have a ‘Plan B,’” Zahr explained to the audience. “There’s no country we can go back to if we mess up. That’s why we need to be the best we can be here. I remember taking a math test home to my Dad and saying, ‘Baba, Baba, I got a 96!’ To which he replied, ‘Where did the other four points go?’”

Zahr’s comedic style was a combination of high energy and clever quips. He engaged with the audience and encouraged everyone to clap as he danced around the stage. The sketch had The Jerusalem Fund’s staff cramping from laughter.

Zahr managed to make even the hardest parts of daily Palestinian life amusing. On the Israeli occupation, he commented: “No wonder the Israelis can find us so easily. What do you expect? All of the WiFi passwords in Ramallah’s coffee shops are ‘1122334455’ or ‘0123456.’ And anytime you ask for directions, people just say dughrii (go straight)!”

Amer Zahr and company pioneered the Kennedy Center stage for Palestinian comedians, and did so in front of a full and welcoming crowd. The unforgettable performance of “Being Palestinian Makes Me Smile” has made a mark in the history of the prestigious venue.



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Amer Zahr performs at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch



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Amer Zahr performs at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch



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(From left) Palestinian-American comedians Said Durrah, Mona Aburimshan, Amer Zahr, and Mike Easmeil
©
Houssam Mchaiemch



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A full house at the Kennedy Center ©  Houssam Mchaiemch
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Jun 4, 2015

Comedy and Palestine: An Interview with Amer Zahr

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Amer Zahr speaks at The Palestine Center on 3 June, 2015.

This Friday, 5 June, Amer Zahr will be the first Palestinian-American comedian to perform at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Zahr stopped by The Palestine Center this past Wednesday and gave a talk entitled “Comedy and Palestine.” He discussed his experiences as a Palestinian American comedian. Although it was not a comedy routine, Zahr’s talk certainly elicited quite a few laughs from the audience. After his talk, the Palestine Center’s summer interns sat down for an interview with the renowned entertainer, asking him about a range of topics.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.


You have an MA in Middle East Studies and a JD in Law, both from the University of Michigan. How would you say your educational background shapes your comedy and activism?

I would say first of all, they all kind of relate to my activism. Since I was a teenager, being Palestinian, I felt that getting a deeper understanding of our part of the world is important. That's why I did the MA, and Law, obviously becoming an effective advocate. That’s a lot of what you learn about in law school--problem solving and putting across a point concisely and effectively. As a comedian, you also have to compact everything. Even in class now as a law professor, I’m performing just like I would on stage. Communicating effectively, it's all the same thing. So I would say they all kind of inform each other and they all relate to each other, and I learn how to take from each and give to the other.


Do you think that your career in comedy has helped you in law and being a professor?

Performing on stage helped me in the classroom. Whether it's just being comfortable in front of a room full of people I’ve never met before: that’s comedy, that's every night. I throw in a little humor in the classroom, too. They all inform each other a little bit, and so I think that I don't view myself as doing something that different than when I’m on stage as when i'm in the classroom. When I’m on stage, my goal is to make people laugh every minute or so. In the classroom, it’s obviously not the same. But I’m still trying to communicate effectively, concisely and confidently and that's kind of what I’m doing in both places.


How do you think comedy and law intersect?

Comedy and law intersect in the sense that as a lawyer you’re advocating, right? Usually for somebody else or for a cause. As a comedian you’re advocating for yourself. You’re advocating for your own point of view--that's what you're really communicating to people: your point of view of the world in the hope that it's kind of funny. And so that sort of advocacy, whether you’re doing it for yourself or somebody else, it's kind of the same. I think that there is a cool intersection there. It’s about performing and narrating. The skills that I think that make a good lawyer are not that different from the skills that make you a good comedian.

How important would you say your identity as a Palestinian-American is to you in your comedy? And do you identify more as a Palestinian, American, or both?

I kind of view it like this: I’m a Palestinian and I’m an American all at once. I’m not half this or half that. They mean different things and they complement each other in different ways, but I view it like this: I’m kind of like green paint. If you have blue paint and that’s being Palestinian, and you have yellow paint and that's being American, when you put them together, it's not half blue paint and half yellow paint. It’s green paint. And once it’s green paint, you can’t separate it again and make it blue paint and yellow paint.
So it’s all together all the time. I’m not sometimes this, sometimes that. Being American and being Palestinian informs everything that I do, all the time. So I’ll view things through that lens. I’m an American. I've lived here my whole life. This is the society that I know. But at times I don't feel very welcome here. I’m a Palestinian. I’ve almost never lived there, but when I’m there, I feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be. So if somebody can explain that psychosis to me, then I’m willing to listen, but that’s just the way that I feel.

Times in the Arab world are tough. How difficult is it to find things to laugh about when times can be so trying?

Well, like I said in the talk, laughter and crying are not that different. They’re very similar. I think where you can find tragedy, you can probably also find humor. That doesn't mean something is funny; it just means that it can create humor, even if it’s out of some sort of therapeutic thing. Do you just want to be sad and depressed all the time or do you want to try and find the humor in the stuff that happens to us? And I think that when you do that, not only can you send a message better, but it’s therapeutic.

If you can make it funny, it makes it seem less crazy. And it kind of makes it not as damaging to your psyche. That doesn't mean you live with it and accept it, but you find ways to compute it that become effective to you. And actually when you can make it funny, that hurts the oppressor, right? I mean, if you’re saying, “Your oppression is just funny to me,” it’s not making me depressed, it's just funny. And it didn't start out like that for me.

When you go to the “VIP room,” the interrogation area when the enter the airport in Tel Aviv, you’re there for eight hours. The first time it happens to you, you're angry. You’re like, “This is a violation of my rights, what are you guys doing, this is terrible, where’s my ambassador,” etc. And then the second time they did it to me, I was just annoyed. I was like, “You’re wasting my time, your time, we all know you’re going to let me in. We all know that, it's just a waste of time, just wasting my time.” So I was annoyed, not angry, annoyed.

The third time I actually brought a book, because I knew it was going to happen, and I just sat there, and I started to feel sorry for them. I started to laugh at them.
This is what you do? This is your profession? This is what you live your life doing every day? This is what you go home and talk to your wife about? How terrible that you’re living your life like this. And it’s not working! Because now I’m here for the third time. If your point was to try to piss me off so I don’t come back, you’re very bad at it.” Now I’m just like, “Okay, I feel sorry for you.” Like, the guy that strip searches Palestinians when they leave Tel Aviv airport… What a terrible job! That’s his job. Think about that for a second. That’s his job. When he looks at his paycheck, he thinks, that’s what he did that week to get that money. That’s what he talks to his wife about. I think it’s about flipping it, and it’s not that hard in our context.


You have traveled to and performed in quite a few countries. Which has been your favorite to perform in, and why?

At the risk of sounding cliche, Palestine, just because that is where everything comes from for me, and I feel the most comfortable when I am performing there. The laughs that I get there, even when I am not talking about Palestine, are much more organic; I feel like people are laughing. Also, Palestine has a long tradition of art which has come from oppression over the last 67 years. So it’s not like other places that I go where comedy and performing live is something completely new, where people laugh at anything and you do not know if they think you are funny or if they are just laughing because you are there. In Palestine you don’t have that luxury. If you are not funny, then they won’t laugh. If you are not good, then they won’t clap. So the fact that they do means something. I feel like in Palestine there is really that appreciation, and of course the connection with it.


What role do you think Arab-Americans and American Muslims play in portraying an accurate view of Middle Eastern culture? How do you accomplish that?

First let me say, I don’t use the term Middle Eastern. That is a white term made up by white people to describe us. We don’t call ourselves Middle Eastern, and especially in our own language, we don’t use that word at all. Middle Eastern: East of what? East of white people?

Sometimes in our community, people expect every Arab or every Muslim to be a spokesperson or stand-up, and I don’t really expect that of everyone. Sometimes it’s just like he’s an engineer and that is what he does, and he just goes to work everyday, and that is cool. Now I will tell those people though, people who look at you, they know that you are an Arab or a Muslim and trust me, they view you that way. So yes, you do have a responsibility, whether you like it or not. If you do not want to go out and be an activist, I totally understand, but you do have some sort of gravity to your existence because of who you are in the world that we live in. So I would just ask every Arab or Muslim to recognize that. At the very least, be a good person because it really matters much more if you are Arab or Muslim. If you are a white guy then it doesn't really matter because people don’t hold it against all white people. But if you are an Arab or a Muslim, people will hold it against the rest of us. That is just the truth.

There are opportunities everyday no matter what job you are in. I bet you that no matter what job that you are in, your coworkers probably have some misconceptions about Arabs or Muslims. I bet for many of them, you are the first one that they have met. They might think that you are Mexican or whatever. So there is some opportunity there to educate somebody.

If you can change one person it can really have an effect. They will go tell people, “Hey I met a Muslim today.” If we go back to Edward Said and orientalism, the essence of it is they don’t see us for who we actually are. They don’t meet us and they do not take the time to talk to us. Instead, they see us for what they imagine us to be through the news, and that happens to everybody. People say it to us all the time: “Oh, you’re Arab? You don’t look Arab.” And it’s a totally messed up thing for people to say, but they say it. And that’s because we are the last group that you’re allowed to say anything against and not get in trouble for it. And they do. It proves that racism is not dead in this country. It proves that people are just aware of who they can and can’t be racist against. Because if they knew they could be racist against black people, they still would, but they aren’t because there’s a price to pay for being that way. But there’s no “price” for being racist against Arabs or Muslims, so they still do it.

Herman Cain, who was running for president a couple of years ago, gets on TV and says, “If I become president, there will be no Muslims in my cabinet.” And the next day, he was still running for president. Nobody told him he had to resign, or anything like that. It was just a little news story. When John McCain was running against Obama in 2008, some lady walks up in a town hall meeting for John McCain and says, “I’m not voting for Barack Obama, because he’s an Arab.” And John McCain grabbed the mic from her and said, “No ma’am, he’s not an Arab. He’s a decent family man.” That’s it. And that was the story on the news that day. MSNBC said, “Look at McCain. He says Obama isn’t an Arab.” And that was the news.

Barack Obama, still to this day, has to actively deny that he is a Muslim. And never after seven years as he said “I’m not a Muslim, but so what if I were?” He still hasn’t said that, and he’s president of the United States. But he knows he can’t say that. It’s out of bounds for him politically. And that would be so humanizing for us, to hear, “I’m not a Muslim, but so what if I were?” And he still hasn’t said that. “Why are you so racist to make that accusation?” It’s not just a simple misidentification. It’s an accusation. This is why we’re upset.


You’ll be performing at the Kennedy Center on Friday. What does it mean for you to be at the Kennedy Center? Your pamphlet says, “First Palestinian American to perform at the Kennedy Center.”

Well, they weren’t sure that we were the first Arabs to perform at the Kennedy Center. But they were sure that we were the first Palestinians to perform. To do something like this at the Kennedy Center puts it on the different level. To be in the most prestigious performing arts center in America, with that sort of gravitas, telling the Palestinian story there? It’s really important for us, and a step forward.

When you’re in the Kennedy Center, nobody can say you’re on the fringes anymore. You’re in the American public. And that’s one of the points of doing the show there. We’re saying, “Hey, we’re just like everybody else.” And we should be able to have access to the same media channels and everybody else. And I hope there are a lot of people in the audience who have never met a Palestinian before or seen Palestinian artists perform before. While I hope a lot of Palestinians and Arabs are there, I want there to be a lot of non-Arabs and non-Muslims there, so we can create that bridge. When you’re laughing as a white guy, and the Palestinian next to you is laughing, you say, “Hey, look at that, we’re both laughing.” For something like that to happen is really important.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
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May 18, 2015

The Nakba - 67 Years On - in Poetry

The Nakba—the Palestinian people’s violent and catastrophic displacement in 1948—is seared in the Palestinian collective memory, and its ramifications have defined all Palestinians’ lives whether in the West Bank, Gaza, inside Israel, or the diaspora. This tragedy has also found expression in all Palestinian arts and cultural endeavors. During the twentieth century, and especially after 1948, Palestinian poets and writers, musicians, visual artists, and others engaged in cultural expression have reflected the sentiments of loss, displacement, and nostalgia as well as of dignity, defiance, and steadfastness in their work.

On this day we commemorate the Nakba and remember all those who have suffered and continue to suffer the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinian people. We salute the many poets whose writings and sensibility communicate the Palestinians’ myriad experiences of loss and steadfastness. Here are a few poems to commemorate the Nakba. Send us your recommendations and we will add them to this list (email: zazzam@thejerusalemfund.org) .

“On This Land” by Mahmoud Darwish (read live, with Trio Joubran in the background)

“On the Trunk of an Olive Tree” by Tawfiq Zayyad

“The Deluge and the Tree” by Fadwa Tuqan
Author bio: (same page)

“Exodus” by Taha Muhammad Ali

“How Palestinians Keep Warm” by Naomi Shihab Nye

“A Picture of the House at Beit Jala” by Ghassan Zaqtan

“Even” by Nathalie Handal

“Nakba Day” by Remi Kanazi

“Mimesis” by Fadi Joudah




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The Destroyed Villages of the Nakba: Mahmoud Darwish on Visiting Al-Birweh after 1948


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The destroyed village of Al-Birweh, from Walid Khalidi's All That Remains


The Palestinian literary figures Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, known primarily for their poetry, explored the genre of letter writing during 1986-88 on the pages of Al-Yawm al-Sabi`, an Arabic language cultural magazine published in Paris. The 29 letters they wrote to each other were compiled into a book, Al-Rasa’il, and published in Haifa (Arabesque Publishing House, Ltd., 1989)[i].

In one of the letters, dated 3 June 1986, Darwish narrates to al-Qasim what he encountered when he returned to his village, al-Birweh, after the 1948 war. Al-Birweh was one of over 400 villages that were occupied and destroyed or depopulated by the Israeli forces in 1948. Many of the former inhabitants of these villages live in refugee camps to this day.

This is an excerpt of the letter that narrates Darwish’s account of his return to al-Birweh:

“My dear Samih:

…I remember the house’s courtyard with a mulberry tree at its center, which pulled the houses together to form a home, my grandfather’s home. We left everything as it was: the horse, sheep, bull, open doors, hot dinner, the adhan [call to prayer] of suppertime, and the lone radio—perhaps it has stayed on until now to broadcast the news of our victories. We went down into the valley that swerves and leads to the southeast, opening to a wellspring in a meadow that led us to the village of Sha`b—this is where my mother’s relatives live and where her family members were arriving from the village of Damun, which fell to the occupation. There, after a few days, the farmers from the nearby villages gathered, those who sold their wives’ gold, to buy French-made rifles to liberate al-Birweh.

They liberated it early in the evening. They drank the occupier’s hot tea and slept the first night of victory. The next day, the “salvation army” took it over without interruption, then the Jews re-occupied it and destroyed it to the last stone. And now we wait on the heights of the homeland, we wait for the return.

You know the whole story, Samih. The “excursion” of the emigrants became too long and the war was shortened. You know how we “infiltrated” back from Lebanon when my grandfather realized that the journey would be a long one, and that he must get back to the land before it slipped away. When we arrived we found only destruction. We lost the right of residence and rights to the land.

When I performed the first pilgrimage ritual to my original village, al-Birweh, I found only the carob tree and the abandoned church, and a cowhand who spoke neither clear Arabic nor broken Hebrew.

“Who are you, sir?”

“I am from Kibbutz Yas`ūr,” he answered.

I said, “Where is Kibbutz Yas`ūr?”

“Here.”

“Here is al-Birweh,” I said.

“Where is al-Birweh?”

I said, “Here. Under us. Around us. Above us. Here and everywhere.”

He said, “But I don’t see anything, not even stones….”

“And this church...don’t you see it?”

He said, “This is not a church. It is a stable for cows. These are some Roman ruins.”

I said, “And from where did you come, sir?”

“From Yemen.”

“And what are you doing here?”

He said, “I am returning to my country.” Then he asked me, “And where are you from?”

I said, “I am from here...I am returning to my country.”

This, my dear Samih, is how the debate has flowed for almost forty years. Notice the contradictory, transformative, and absolute meanings of the words! In the best of times, we are guardians of Roman ruins. Therefore, we had to live in Dayr al-Asad, close to you, as refugees in a homeland that, by divine decree, was reserved for two thousand years for the return of a cowhand from Yemen!....


Your brother,

Mahmoud Darwish





[i] There is no published translation of these letters; this translation is by Zeina Azzam.
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Apr 29, 2015

Pernille Ironside on Life in Gaza Eight Months After the 2014 Conflict

The wars and humanitarian disasters unfolding in Syria, Yemen, Nepal, the Mediterranean basin, and so many other parts of the world have eclipsed the dire situation in Gaza. Israel’s 51-day bombardment of the 140-square-mile strip of land in the summer of 2014 left a devastated population living in poverty, instability, and the ruins of their homes and neighborhoods. To make matters worse, the economic blockade and closure of Gaza since 2007—as well as wars in 2008-9 and 2012—have made any steps forward a near impossibility.

Pernille Ironside assessed the situation in Gaza as “a massive human catastrophe.” She was in Washington, DC, on 28 April 2015, meeting informally with representatives of non-governmental organizations that have a special interest in the region. She added, “At this rate and according to the UN, by 2020, Gaza will become unlivable” as a result of the ravages of conflict and the continuing closure and de-development of the territory.

Ms. Ironside should know well—she is Chief of the Gaza Field Office for UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), a post she has held for nearly two years. She spent most of the 51 days of Israel’s 2014 military campaign in the Gaza Strip leading UNICEF’s efforts to protect children and their families seeking shelter from the bombing. UNICEF also provided them with immediate coping skills, distributed non-food items to internally displaced persons in partnership with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, offered access to safe drinking water through water tankering and emergency repairs to the water network, and supplied hospitals with medical consumables and life-saving drugs for children.

The statistics on the children of Gaza, in particular, as a result of the conflict are jarring: 539 dead, 3,364 injured, 51,600 homeless, and 373,000 needing psychosocial support. Indeed, she said, the children there feel “a strong sense of hopelessness and helplessness.” Because most of Gaza has not been rebuilt or cleared of rubble, they see the destruction daily—a constant reminder of the horrific experiences of 2014. In addition, the loss of many family members means that these children are coping with profound grief. Nearly half the children in Gaza suffer psychological distress. Engaging children, particularly adolescents, in meaningful after-school programs in their communities is critical for their well-being and for restoring their sense of personal agency and choice in a context where most youth feel disempowered.

The majority of schools in Gaza—those left standing—now operate in double or triple shifts. Ironside says that an additional 200 schools are needed now, with another 200 to be built by 2020. There are electricity blackouts for up to 16-18 hours per day, having ramifications on all aspects of everyday life from food preservation to doing homework and using any kind of electric devices.

An important aspect of her work, Ironside noted, is bearing witness, advocating for the protection of civilians, and documenting grave violations perpetrated against children. She said, however, that the same factors that led to the escalation before the 2014 conflict have not yet been resolved; until addressed, the risk remains very high of another war in the future. “A political solution is needed to bring this long-standing conflict to an end, and enable children on both sides of the border to live in peace and security,” Ironside concluded.
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