Thursday, September 13, 2007
My day actually began shortly after 3 am, when Bro had the compulsion to hear my voice from so far away. His phone call startled me from a deep, ear-plug induced sleep. Once my brain registered that the phone was ringing, I fumbled in the dark for my phone. With no cell signal in my concrete room, I answered and told Bro to call me back in 5 minutes. That's when I jumped out of bed, threw on a pair of jeans, slid into my flip flops and hurried out to the street. By this point in my stay in the camp, I learned that if I held on to one of the metal fencing outside of the camp with one hand while talking with the other, my cellular signal radically improved. It was in these moments that I was particularly thankful for my own resourcefulness, but also for the the lack of rain...and lightening...in this part of the world.
It only took me half a minute to reach the lip of the camp, which was designated by the large, green, 60-year-old trash bin with the letters of the UN written on both sides, and almost always abuzz with the territorial hisses and spats of Palestine's finest ferrell cats in their search for leftovers of hummus, bits of pita and the rare delicacy of unused chicken parts. Ever fearful of rabies and other communicable diseases, I stood as far away from the trash bin as possible. My five minute window for Bro's phone call lapsed into ten, then fifteen, but because I didn't have enough money on my phone card to call him back, I had no choice but to wait patiently to hear his voice. In my head, I could already anticipate what he would say when I picked up, how the sound of his Southern drawl from so far away would make me smile. In his always irreverent way, he would no doubt say something completely off-color and politically incorrect about me and where I was living. I would laugh, and respond in kind by lapsing into the accent from the place of our childhood, telling him to "hush" and to "stop being ugly". Unlike me, who only employs her Southern American accent in moments of drunkenness, frustration, when talking to other people from the South, and/or times of socially expedient "cuteness", Bro wears his own Southern accent like a little Boy Scout badge. WIth this comes his raw sense of humor, which can be socially awkward at times. Nevertheless I, for one, never fail to appreciate his dry wit. I had no doubt that the first thing he was going to say from his sunny back porch in Virginia was: "Wattup, Rambo!! How are those rice balls treating you? Have you had a shower this week?"
I stood there waiting in the darkness, absently allowing the minutes to pass. Suddenly, my phone started flashing with a text message from Bro which said that he tried calling (dammit) but couldn't get through. Apparently, all lines were busy in Palestine at 3am. He would try calling again tomorrow.
Disappointed and now hopelessly wide awake, I decided to take my time heading back to the airless room on the ground floor where I was supposed to be sleeping. Without the moon, it was difficult to see, but my path was lit by the white glow of the plaster walls of the camp, which I could now navigate through with a blindfold. Aside from the occasional hiss of an unseen cat, the blanket of night imposed a shroud of silence on everything, making my pathway that much darker and that much grittier. For the first time since my arrival 8 weeks before, I noticed the open septic drain beneath me and how much trash was at my feet. I came to a stop and felt myself observing how the silent spirit of desperation adorned every graffiti covered wall in black, red and green, in the colors of Islam, of Palestine, and the competing Arabic slogans for "Fatah" and "Hamas", respectively. It occurred to me that in my two months of living there, I really hadn't seen these things. If I had, they were muted by the vibrant pulse of the camp during the daylight hours, by the irreconcilable sounds of unfolding interpersonal dramas in a language and culture far from my first, second or even third. I loved how the children trickled into the streets each morning after a breakfast of pita with olive oil and remained there all day. They rough-house and carried on, sometimes they bled and made each other cry, but they gave energy and life to this otherwise lifeless place of questionably-engineered septic lines and concrete houses covered in political graffiti. The exuberance of the children competed with the bright sunshine of each blisteringly hot summer day in a way that seemed to whitewash everything. Perhaps this is because the magic of childhood allows there to be no past, and where there is no past, there is also no future. Perhaps this was the gossamer yellow that blurred over my own day-to-day experience. Perhaps the darkness and shadows of the camp were always there, I thought, only I had been so busy paying attention to life by playing with the children and taking tea with the ladies that I had neglected to observe its antithesis.
As I walked, it occurred to me that the camp was a place where each day is truly like the next, and despite the fragility of a being a people without land, for these generations of refugee camp dwellers, there is a certain stability to this particular place in time. I couldn't help but think that the constancy of children in the camp kept everything solidly bolted to the ground, the way trees keep the soil from eroding. Perhaps the children themselves prevented everyone from packing up and disappearing into the desert like a flying circus? While it occurred to me that while it is impossible by default for refugees to grow roots, it is also equally impossible for these people to keep running, especially when there's truly no place left to go. At the same time, a 60 year old refugee camp still retains the savior faire of an ultimate circus on wheels. It is at once a very real microcosm of magic, while simultaneously being rather invisible to the naked eye. Each entrance and exit to the camp blends into the city at large, so much so that an outsider would never know the reality of what is within.
In this dark interim between days, I realized that I was bearing silent witness to a tenderly exposed rawness of the Palestinian reality that most people never see. In fact, there was a such a tangibly sharp, surrealistic permanent feeling of impermanence to everything around me that for a second I forgot that these concrete walls contained a honeycomb network of babies, old ladies and generations of sleeping families within. Suddenly, from somewhere ahead of me, I heard the distinct sound of person running very fast in hard-soled shoes. There was such an urgency in this sound that, given the hour and the darkness around me, I felt the instinctive response to simply get out of the way. As the running came closer, I folded myself into the nearest doorway, completely pressing my body up into the shadow created by the thick concrete wall around it. The second that I took cover, a hard-breathing, 13-year-old kid that I recognized from the street ran within inches of me. In the half-second that he was in front me I noticed that his gait was slightly off. This was because he was carrying what looked like an old Kalishnakov rifle under his arm. The gun was nearly was big as he. While I'm sure that if he had encountered me in the alley, he would have stopped, politely said hello, and then kept running, but this is beside the point.
Jesus, was pretty much all I could think to myself as the sound of his hard shoes disappeared into the night. Given my location just a short walk from where the Jesus man himself was presumably born, the irony of my chosen curse word didn't escape me in the least. Still, with all of my senses fully engaged, I waited in the doorway for a few more minutes, just to make sure that my friendly little gun runner wasn't being chased by a bigger fish. Silence closed around me again. Nothing more came barreling down that alley. I took this as a signal to head back to bed.
I returned to the state of my dreams that night wondering what this generation of children will mean for the future of the Palestinian people. Two weeks before this, Hamas had just violently taken power in Gaza. There was a level of unseen, yet entirely felt tension in the choked air of the West Bank that I knew better than to write home about. I knew better than to attempt to explain the nuances of my observations to a world imbued with the moral authority of the Rupert Murdoch Information Empire. I had decidedly stopped reading the news because I knew that I was living it instead. How on earth could I attempt to explain any of this, when that same day, the children of the camp stood out in the streets of Bethlehem, passing out stickers of the Palestinian flag to every passing car. Even the smallest of them shouted to anyone who would listen, "We are all Palestinians! We want peace!"
Maybe I'll find a way to write about this someday, I thought when I stopped to take one of the green, red and black circle stickers from the hand of one of the kids. Who knows...(I smile coyly to myself as I pause to take a sip of my coffee as I write this)...maybe I will...