Sunday, October 15, 2006

Escaping the Escape

A few years ago, I read Christopher Hedges' book, "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning". I've read it a few times since. Every time I leaf through it, I pick up something new. Sitting here now, fully back in my life, just 8 weeks after my return home, I am struck again by how simple yet significant the title of Hedges book is to me.

War is a force that gives us meaning. Within the limitless bounds of state-sanctioned murder, under the acerbically ironic overtones of "peace" and "justice", a disproportionate number of innocent people are robbed of their dignity, lives, livelihood and loved ones. "War is politics by other means," wrote Clausewitz. No matter how we choose to label it, no matter how far we think we've come as human beings, my time in the Middle East this summer reminded me that the "Golden Rule" of international politics is a far cry from the one endorsed by the major world religions. Rather, it is this: "He who has the Gold makes the Rules." And yet, perhaps equally ironic, it is within these extreme states of conflict and human rawness that I learned more about myself than I could have ever anticipated. Perhaps it can be said that we learn who we are when we have a clear definition of who we are not.

I was ready to go home. An end to the conflict in the north did not appear in sight. And yet, at the conclusion of my course in Jerusalem, I was expected to spend the remainder of the summer working for a small human rights organization in the West Bank city of Nablus. Beyond learning more Arabic, part of the reason I was in Israel was because I received a small fellowship to support my work and research with women and girls in the West Bank. It was something I had been looking forward to doing for a very long time.

As things were in terms of security, it was going to be more difficult than usual for me to navigate those 30 or so miles from the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem to the northerly town of Nablus. Too many friends kept reminding me that Nablus is a Hamas stronghold, and that it was close to the fighting in the north. A good Israeli friend of me literally asked me one day if I had a "death wish" for wanting to work there. He had served in some ultra secret core of the IDF. "I wouldn't send my sister to Nablus," he said. "And I can't help you once you cross the border." I took his words to heart, and promisedthat I would meditate on this decision a great deal more before going.

Meanwhile, I had become an veritable addict of cappucino and multiple news sources. Sometimes I wasn't sure what made me more shaky: caffeine withdrawal or the sheer military power of the IDF. My safety net in Jerusalem was coming to a close. I was left with little choice but to contemplate my reality. The idea of living in an IDF-occupied city at war did not make me feel very optimistic. I wasn't homesick, but I was tired. In fact, I was tired of being tired.

My return flight home was not for another month, and JJB was set to take off soon. His impending departure affected me deeply as I found it difficult to imagine what I would do without him always at my side. Outwardly, I joked to him that I would simply be disposed to "take another lover". Inwardly, however, I considered my safety as well as my solitariness. By this point, I hadn't been alone in several weeks. Out of nowhere, I found that I was uncomfortable with the idea of returning to my own silence. JJB could be loud, obnoxiously un-PC and full of insane amounts of energy...and yet I found that I had taken refuge in his noise.

Before JJB was schedule to fly home, we made plans to spend our last few days together relaxing on the beach in Tel Aviv. I figured that this would give me a good opportunity to clear my head and get my bearings before plunging into my next task.

It took us less time to pack and leave our beloved little flat than it did to leave Jerusalem that day. Just as we were about to get out our bus to Tel Aviv, there was a bomb threat in the buildng. With all of the other travelers, I calmly allowed myself to be directed by a number of blue-uniformed men with big guns. For the next hour, I sat on my bag next to JJB, surrounded by magazines, in what was considered"safe" part of the building. I carelessly gnawed away on a protein bar, and mindlessly flipped through the latest Vogue magazine in Hebrew. I scrounged in my bag for my Ipod, put some music in my head and essentially floated away. It hadn't occurred to me that this sort of thing had become my routine of escape in order to avoid thinking or focusing too hard on potentially-traumatic things. I distanced myself from the worry and anxiety of the situation because I knew that it was entirely out of my control. If I focused too hard on the implications of such things, I would surely lose my optimism in this adventure, and even my own sense of humanity as well. When the guards called into the room and said that everything was ok, I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself in one of the mirrors along the wall. I barely recognized the girl in the huddled crowd, perched upon on what appeared to be my blue duffle bag. Her shoulders and collar bone jutted out from the little straps of her dirty white tank top, and her pants were hanging just a little too low. She looked like a lost child, abandoned on her bag-- thin, vacant, sweaty and detached. That girl was not me.


A week later in Tel Aviv, I woke up early one morning and re-assessed what I was carrying with me on this adventure, and I ended up unloading a bunch of clothes and things that I didn't need in a recycling bin at the youth hostel. Beyond symbolic, it just felt good to unload--to leave what I didn't need behind, and take with me only what mattered. I took a long, hot shower, applied extra deodarant, grabbed a quick cup of coffee, and wandered outside into a bright, already blistering hot Mediterranean morning. I had no idea what awaited me, but I was also certain that it was going to be a very long, if not difficult day. I hailed a passing cab, and within seconds, it felt like I was in control of my life again. I was on my way to the airport.

The British Airways ticketing counter wasn't even open yet, but there was a woman inside the box doing some paper work. I knocked lightly on the glass. At first, she tried to ignore me by yelling that she was not open yet. Patiently, I knocked again. Finally, she rolled up the curtain and squinted at me. I introduced myself with a well-meaning smile, gave her my pretentious frequent flyer card, and told her that I wished to be on the next available flight home. She hemmed and hawed a bit. She told me that my ticket was non-negotiable. I asked her if the war would be of any consideration, and gently pressed that I have practically gone to the moon and back on British Airways. Finally, she charged me $150 to change my ticket. Not only was I flying in business class, but I was on the next flight out of Tel Aviv that afternoon. Granted, I had no choice but to spend a night in London, but at least I was on my way home.


Anonymous said...

And that IDF guy never even liked his sister either! Yep, it was a good time to leave N. It's still not 'good' in the territories, and that was a conflict front that we never or rarely see over here, but is still very active. By one count they've (PA/Hamas/??) managed to kill at least about 6 Americans with relative impunity in the last few years. Only about 3 of them being bone fide US diplomats too. Not a safe place to be, but then again it never was except perhaps long before the days of the intifada, and that's almost close to a generation gone by now. But the research sounds interesting. Most of what I've heard in that regard in recent years speaks to a reversion and cultural shift that favors more 'traditional' expression in women, but this is hard to tell from here. It's a very difficult subject area, fraught with all manner of dangers, and that's just strictly on the academic side. Now when they start shooting & taking hostages, for me all bets would be off. Wouldn't you rather look into a nice African civil war perhaps? All those brave Chechen women need chroniclers too. Wait, I'm not making this any better, right? But lovely man JJB, he took out options on your life insurance just in case BTW. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

Namaste said...

vj--aren't you precious? I think I'll stay out of the African nations for a while. :) The 'traditional" expression you mention is actually incorporated into my latest endeavors. Great point. And funny you should mention the life insurance options...

to be continued...