Some of the many ways of being, and dying, a Palestinian

October 18, 2011
Sarah Benton

Book review: ‘In Your Eyes a Sandstorm’

By Mya Guarnieri, +972

The Palestinian Authority’s United Nations bid for statehood is, in a word, divisive. It has set America and Israel adrift from the international community—confirming, yet again, the United States’ deep bias towards Israel. The request is also controversial within Palestinian circles. Even if the bid is successful, will it create meaningful change on the ground? Can it end the occupation? What about equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel? What about the Palestinian refugees and their right to return, enshrined in UN resolution 194? And, in light of the fact that few Palestinians feel represented by the PA, is the move legitimate?

Interviews in Ramallah reveal no clear consensus. Still, Abbas’ recent speech to the UN was enthusiastically received in Palestinian cities across the West Bank. For some, it represented, perhaps, a small victory—a moment that the voiceless were given a voice. But this begs the question: which voices are we still not hearing? What are their stories? Who are these people, the Palestinians?

Arthur Neslen’s groundbreaking new book, In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian, holds some answers.

A collection of 51 in-depth interviews of Palestinians from all walks of life, In Your Eyes a Sandstorm introduces readers to everyone from a Hamas official, to a Palestinian citizen of Israel who served in the Israeli government, to sisters who were born and raised in Beirut’s Shatila camp, to a drug dealer in East Jerusalem, to a West Bank zoo curator. Candid, colorful, and sometimes surprising, the portraits remind us that Palestinians aren’t the monolithic group that the Western media depicts them as.

Neslen points his attention to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. While these areas are crawling with journalists, Neslen brings us the stories that go overlooked—like that of Neriman al-Jabari, a 26-year-old widow of an Islamic Jihad leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2004—forcing the reader to interrogate pre-conceived notions about Palestinians.

Neslen’s focus on interviewees in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories serves another purpose. As Neslen points out, location affects both experience and one’s sense of self. The Palestinians nearest to Israel seem to best know “the terror that conflict brings.” Those inside Israel—an oft-ignored group—wrestle with “identity contradictions that especially afflict Palestinians living close to Israeli Jews.” They also offer a glimpse at the segregation that plagues Israeli society.

As Tamer Nafar, a 29-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel and founder of the rap group DAM, tells Neslen about his hometown of Lod, just south of Tel Aviv:

“If you buy a map of Lyd, you won’t find the Arabic neighborhoods on it… There are cops here all the time. You have no street lights, unemployment, drugs, and a five-meter-high separation wall between Arab and Jewish areas. You know when someone does something very ugly, and he doesn’t want to look in the mirror? That’s the wall.”

In Your Eyes a Sandstorm also serves as a primer of Palestinian politics, history, and culture, grouping the interviewees by their generation and, thus, the events they have lived through. It’s sophisticated enough to hold the attention of those who are already involved in the issues but accessible to those who have just begun to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a difficult balance to strike and Neslen does so gracefully.

There was, for me, a slight stumble. In the introduction, Neslen describes himself as the son of “left-wing and anti-Zionist Jewish parents.” He also mentions that “trust was often difficult to establish” with his Palestinian interviewees. It’s a catch-22: Neslen can’t not mention these details; but, naturally, some readers might wonder if Neslen’s Jewish background was ever an issue. Was there tension with his interviewees? Why was trust difficult to establish?

One interaction was particularly intriguing. Reflecting upon his interview with an 82-year-old fisherman in Gaza, Neslen remarks, “Strangely and unexpectedly, I felt at home.” This moment seemed worth exploring.

But this is a minor complaint. And Neslen has made the right decision. First off, this book isn’t a memoir. If Neslen had introduced too much of himself, he would have run the danger of his story swallowing up those of his interviewees (a Jew in Gaza! A Jew in Palestinian refugee camps! How does he feel? There’s no room for that but, still, it’s a book I’d like to read).

In Your Eyes a Sandstorm is a gripping look at a society and people who are misrepresented by the mainstream media and misunderstood by much of the Western world. Through these carefully-crafted portraits, Neslen gives Palestinians the space to speak for themselves.

Mya Guarnieri is a Tel Aviv-based writer and journalist. She is currently working on a book about migrant workers in Israel.

A bird flying over Palestine

Excerpt from Chapter 1
Arthur Neslen

Bisan, 12, and Abud Abdul Khadr Fihad, 15
Students, Jenin Camp, West Bank

In a small house crunched into the maze of Jenin’s refugee camp, Bisan and Abud lived with their parents and one younger brother. Sitting in the family’s salon with their mother and a translator, Bisan said that she rarely saw Abud these days. He changed after the Israeli army’s invasion of the camp in 2002 and was now always on the streets. During that invasion, at least fifty-two Palestinians were killed and the old refugee camp was demolished.

Bisan was named after the family’s hometown, which now lies within Israel. In 1948, the Palmach, a standing army of Jewish troops, captured it and expelled its Arab residents, renaming the town Beth She’an as they went. The Fihad family were among those displaced.

Abud said he visited the town of Bisan once for a wedding and found it “a beautiful village, more beautiful than the Jenin camp.” He would have liked to live there, he said, but could not “because of the occupation.” Beth She’an is now a Jewish town in Israel, and no Arabs remain. Bisan has visited Jericho, Jerusalem, and Haifa only once, on a school excursion. “I prefer Jerusalem because of the holy places,” she said. “It keeps me in contact with our Islamic origins. I love my religion, and insha’allah I will go to Mecca.” Both children prayed regularly in order to satisfy God and so that they might reach heaven one day. “It’s a way of feeling okay,” Bisan explained. Her smile was often bright and precocious, but in a moment it could turn pale and expressionless. Abud was more fixedly hunched and sullen.

When I asked the children what their favorite lessons were at school, Bisan piped up, “I love English!” with a grin. Abud said nothing. Bisan told me that they played Intifada games in the Jenin camp by dividing themselves into two groups-Jews who shot, and Palestinians who threw stones. The Palestinians always won.

What do you want to be when you grow up, I asked Abud. “It’s difficult to say,” he replied. “I can’t say.” My translator suggested that Abud felt inhibited by his mother’s presence in the room, and we asked her to leave. Finally Abud muttered that he was afraid. “I want to be a fighter,” he said quietly. ‘I don’t want to be with any political parties, just to be a fighter. I saw many people dying in the camp, and because of that I want to fight and die a shahid. I saw Abu Janda and Fady in my neighborhood killed and Mohammed Delal when he was a child. Mahmoud Afif, Abas Damaji … ” He reeled off the names as though pointing out graves. How did they die, I asked? “The Jews killed them,” he said. The room felt very empty.

Ordinary Palestinians often refer to Israelis as Jews, and interpreters usually translate this back as “Israelis” or “Zionists.” Some would call this anti-Semitism. Sometimes it is. But as far as it goes, it is usually accurate. Among older Palestinians, use of the word Yahud is sometimes associated with a reaction against the old Fatah saw, Sahiouni (Zionist). It denotes a certain kind of defiance, informality, rejection of accommodation with Israeli Jews, and religious affiliation. In Abud’s case it is automatic, the language of the street he lives on and which lives in him.

“About three months ago I saw a guy who the Israeli soldiers had killed,” he said, stuttering, “and his brain was outside his head. I was at the edge of the street, and I saw the jeeps stop. I heard the guns shoot, and then when they left, I went and saw the bodies. When the soldiers came to take them, one collapsed on the floor when he saw the guy’s brains. I just ran away and told some friends and the fighters about it. I couldn’t sleep that night.”

But he did not pray either. “I was confused,” he said. “I just walked around the neighborhood and returned to the house. I always have nightmares with people dying or silhouettes passing by my face quickly, one by one. You can only see their bodies. I’m scared of them. When it happens, I wake up and then cover myself with a blanket.”

“One child died when I was with him. We saw some tanks, so we said to each other, ‘Let’s go and throw stones at them!’ My friend Mohammed ran ahead about a hundred meters and started throwing stones. Then we heard shooting and I saw him collapse in the street. He was shot in the head. We went and looked at his body. I cried a lot.” Mohammed was twelve years old, and his death left Abud with a kind of survivor guilt-the feeling of culpability for having survived that is common to Holocaust survivors and Palestinians alike. “I still feel guilty because we were all telling each other to go and throw stones,” he affirmed.

The psychotherapist Abud saw did not help at all. “I just want to be a shahid,” Abud said. “I want to die, because so many other people have died. I don’t have a future. A group of children in my neighborhood have decided that we will all become fighters.” A Gaza Mental Health Community Center study found that more than a third of Palestinian boys between the ages of eight and twelve wished to die in attacks on the Israeli army.

“I also saw many dead people in the camp!” Bisan chimed in, listing her roll call of local shahids. “I keep having flashbacks and feeling sad and afraid but also appreciating them because they died protecting the camp. I also saw some children whom the Jews killed in the streets.” Unlike her brother, Bisan’s experience of the occupation had left her hopeful for the future-she now wanted to open a pharmacy-but the route to her decision had been unconventional.

“We went to my grandmother’s house when the invasion started,” she remembered, “four families all living in one room. We just sat in the salon, staring at the tanks shooting and the rockets from the helicopters. When they were fired, the sky would light up. After a minute we’d hear a strong explosion, the house would start shaking, and then I’d hear a deafening sound in my ears.”

“During the night we tried to sleep, but I couldn’t because of the explosions. Then my cousin tried to wake me, but I couldn’t. When my mother looked at my face she couldn’t recognize me in the dark. My mouth and eyes were open wide and my heart was not beating. My body was cold. She started screaming, ‘My daughter is dead!’ My uncles and aunts came in from the other room to see what was happening … ”

While she was talking, Abud had started to cry. “I went to the corner of the room and started praying to God, ‘Don’t take my sister,'{hrs}” he said. “She was lying there, and I went to touch her, but then I got scared. I started screaming and went back to the corner to pray again.” Bisan continued, “My uncle ran over quickly and started giving me resuscitation-beating me on the chest and breathing into my mouth. Suddenly, I felt my body shaking and my heart beating first slowly, then fast. When I woke up I didn’t know what had happened. Because my uncle helped me I decided to become a doctor so that maybe in the future I can help someone.”

Abud thought that the Israelis treated Palestinians badly “because they want to ‘kick us out of our land, like they did in ’48.” Bisan reasoned, “They are angry because we have fighters who want to protect us. They want to kill them, destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque, and then take our houses.” The only Israelis either had ever met wore uniforms.

“I was always scared of soldiers,” Bisan said. “Whenever I saw one, I got paralyzed and had to sit down. Once I was playing outside my grandmother’s house with my brothers and cousins when tanks suddenly attacked the area. We tried to run back to the house, but a tank was quicker. We froze in the street and started crying. The soldiers appeared from the tank and started screaming at us. The tank pointed its guns at us too, but then our uncles ran out and brought us inside.”

Abud also did not talk to soldiers. “Even if they came to me out of uniform, I would be too scared,” he said. “The only time I’ve talked to Jews was when me and my father were interrogated at a checkpoint.” Their prospects were bleaker than most children in Israel could possibly imagine, but Abud believed that-insha’allah-Palestine would one day be free.

Bisan was hopeful too. “I imagine myself as a bird flying over Palestine,” she enthused. “I travel from city to city and see the children playing safely in peace and freedom, and the Jews are dying and not one of them is living here in Palestine.” “And I hope that Al Quds will be free soon,” she added conscientiously. Abud just stared at the ground or occasionally straight ahead, resolutely.

In Your Eyes a Sandstorm, Ways of Being Palestinian by Arthur Neslen is published by Univesity of California Press
October 2011, $34.95/ £24.95

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