The Greater Courage

Posted on December 31, 2006

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I suppose alot of these quasi-memoirs will take place in Palestine. Even though I only spent a little a little less than two years there, there were so many new and confusing and horrible experiences that I’m still struggling with much of it almost 5 years later. Its not what you probably think. It wasn’t a typical war zone, more of what’s known as a low intensity conflict–and even in those terms, not a typical one, and even less so in the unique city of Ramallah. And even within that, much of what most disturbed me was not those things typically related to conflict–violence or intense fear–but more of the impact of those things on the people around me and myself, how calloused we became to each other, to misery, and how much of that disregard was already there, waiting for a chance to be validated by an intense situation. How shitty we are to begin with.

In that vein, the following is something I’ve never really talked about. It doesn’t portray me in a very positive light, its sort of a depressing story to even think about, so I want to document it here, for no better reason than it demonstrates that the world isn’t what it seems, or what you want it to be and that you never really are either.

About a year after the Intifada began, things had sort of settled into a pleasant normalcy. I think there were probably negotiations going on around then, but I don’t remember for sure and I don’t really want to look it up. There had been no incursions for awhile, the deaths were at a low, and no missiles, F-16’s or helicopters had been seen on the daily. Maybe someone was being killed somewhere every other day, but the shops were all open and those of us in the NGO sector were working and making our other-worldly incomes. There had been a slight pause for the last months. Everyone held their breath to see if the situation would die down again. It didn’t really; everyone knew things would never go to what was called “normalization”–that is the instituionalization of the occupation and the autonomous zones, bantustanization along the lines of vintage South African apartheid. But in the meantime, we could go and come as we pleased with our shiny passports and well cut clothes. During this time, I still went to Jerusalem from time to time to get a taste of a real city in a real country, where everyone was not depressed, poor and subjugated. It was a 75 cent ride and there were no roadblocks.

I met a woman during this time. She was a professor at Birzeit, the university just outside of Ramallah, maybe a decade older than me. She was Palestinian, but very fair skinned and blonde. In fact, she spoke perfect English with a flawless British accent. You would never have known that she was Arab. She was blind, though she had not been born that way. It had been progressive and she had lost her sight little by little. Her husband had left her during this time, and, I got the impression, most of her friends had abandoned her. I want to blame it on the Palestinian propensity for undiluted bigotry towards the handicapped and infirm. But I’m afraid that is just an expression of what most of us feel when confronted with incurable conditions and debilities. Horror; we see ourselves reflected, our own weaknesses mirrored. Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself. Anyway, people had sort of heard about me and I was sort of a minor celebrity. The Colombiye-Falestineye-Amerikaye with the American passport who could have left but didn’t, who’d been out on the first day of clashes at the maqsoum, throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Looking back, this is exactly why I probably did all those things, because it made me popular and because, at heart, I had less fear of dying than living.

I can’t remember this woman’s name. I am a crappy person still. But she was interested in me and had herself introduced to me at Zyriab, through a mutual friend. Things were done in this way in Ramallah–on the streets where Felahi like my father and his family dominated, the top down gender structure was still very strong. But in secluded speakeasies like Zyriab, women aggresively confronted gender barriers. She wanted to be my friend, I think she probably wanted more than that, too. She had two daughters who were 17 and 19, and I have to admit that I had a crush on both of them. It wasn’t like I wanted to have sex with them or anything, but I wanted them to like me. They were the kind of girls I would have liked to have met when I was in high school, but there were no girls like that in the place where I grew up. Smart, beautiful, funny, engaging, warm. They had gone to the best schools and were cooly confident in their intelligence.

Their mother always made me feel uncomfortable, though, to my eternal shame. I just couldn’t get over how bad I felt about her blindness, I could never relax. I wanted to see her for who she was, but I couldn’t get over this superficial barrier. I was always slipping up, much like I did in the previous sentence. I suppose it was my subconscious trying to out me for the jerk that I was. She would ask me if I knew this person or that, and I would respond with something along the lines, of ” I don’t know, what does she look like?”.

She invited me to her home for a dinner one night with her friends. I arrived early and was supposed to help, but her daughters ended up doing most of the work. I found her apartment depressing; it was in a non-Arab neighborhood and though it was large, it was poorly designed and looked run down. I suppose alot of what I was feeling toward her were a reflection of my feelings toward Palestine. It was a mixture of things; Palestinian seemed to be born losers who couldn’t get anything right. So it seemed appropriate that I was one of them.

Her friends arrived. All Israeli Jews. They spoke Hebrew with her daughters and then they talked of politics, of how Arafat was screwing everything up, about Barak’s generous offer. I was supposed to crash on the couch and after they left, I asked her, quite directly, why all of her friends seemed to be Israelis. I remember her words almost perfectly, “Because they stuck by me when none of the Palestinians did.”

This was not meant to be an ironic transition. I woke up the next morning and left without saying goodbey. I stopped returning her calls and eventually she stopped calling. The political situation turned to crap, there were so many of these reversals, that again, I can’t remember exactly what had happened without referring to google to refresh my memory. But the roadblocks went up again, Palestinians began dying in great numbers. I ran into her daughters one day and the youngest one took me to task. There was nothing I could say to defend myself. My shallowness was highlighted by my purported attempts to help Palestinians; it was obvious to anyone who knew anything that my presence did little to nothing to help Palestinians. I could have at least helped her, but that task proved more difficult than standing unarmed in front of Israeli soldiers.