I recently had an existential mental breakdown. I no longer comprehend the difference between dreams and reality. The first symptoms appeared on Christmas Eve when I was trying very hard to get out of Nablus. Hundreds of people were crammed into the exit terminal of Huwara checkpoint. Many of them, like me, were attempting to visit Bethlehem for the holiday celebration. They were quick to tell me that the soldiers had closed the checkpoint hours before my arrival. The air was close to freezing and it was one of the heaviest rainy days thus far. It was a cold, frustrating, messy scene. Many began to chant “God is great” and made victory hand signs.
Israeli soldiers ran guns-first into the crowd, pushed the people onto the side walls and pressed automatic weapons against chests and faces. They grabbed six young men and slammed their bodies against a solid wall. One of them struggled and he was kicked and spat on for good measure before the group was taken into detention to wait for the border police to come and make arrests. The Palestinians got rowdier. Kids threw tantrums. The soldiers shoved and shouted the people into two rows that were so crowded that I was squished between all the people around me to the point of great discomfort. There was no space to set my travel bag on the ground, there wasn’t even enough space to move my arms without a massive struggle. My luggage was heavy and I had to drop it in a puddle, the only place available.
I first started noticing the collapse of normal reality after about three hours of being in this position. Strange phenomena began happening without clinical explanation. They let the first person through the turn style. We watched as a single soldier gave a slow body search, checked the man’s bags and scanned him with a metal detector before he was allowed to continue on to the identity check and questioning. It became time for the next person to pass through. Everyone was pushing towards the front and soldiers barked at people to watch their mouth and to stay within the ridiculous margins. I was too consumed by the physical discomfort to notice at first but there was a slightly audible “BAAAH”, “BAAAAAAAH”. Three of the people in the line opposite to me, whom were apparently of a creative persuasion, were making sheep noises. The satirical gesture was ingenious if you would rather be beaten in public than take another daily humiliation quietly.
This episode of my life, traveling in Palestine, Israel and Jordan, has sent me to the brink of madness and paranoia. There is even a clinical term for people who go wacko here and start to believe that they are the messiah returned. While I haven’t gone quite so far as to be diagnosed with “Jerusalem syndrome”; I need you to help me determine if I should actually admit myself to the Bethlehem mental hospital or if it’s the environment around me that’s actually crazy. Or maybe I am experimenting with magical realism in order to demonstrate something intangible about the whole situation here that can’t be explained by mere journalistic prattle. I don’t know. Only you can choose. In any case, my life has been comparable to a high speed hamster experiment ever since I arrived that first night in Amman and buildings started blowing up. I have been in Nablus for considerable time and my life and work there has occupied a space between an emotional powder keg shared with dear friends and the weird feeling of waking up nearly every night to the sound of the army shelling the refugee camp. But that’s a comparably small source of internal confusion at this point.
I got a real education when a German journalist friend took me to the American Colony hotel bar in Jerusalem for the sole purpose of watching highly paid members of the foreign press get drunk. The experience answered some of my burning questions about why the world spins and I recommend a night at American Colony to anyone with a strong stomach for other people’s moral compromises and personal failure. We caught the good people who bring you the evening news loudly reenacting their childhood problems and making passes on highly powdered young assistants, clinging to their own seats after too much southern comfort. The stereotypes about journalists are true, they mostly just hang out in hotel bars, international events play out in dry sarcasm and modern wars like Iraq are primed for family entertainment. The holy land is always on film and that is a strange place to be, a place where news creates itself and a lot of people do loony things just for the attention.
The other week some friends from Olympia received a visit by militants in Rafah whom explained that the whole group was to be kidnapped to pressure the Palestinian Authority to release an al-Aqsa brigades leader. The parents of Rachel Corrie happened to be around, they had what was certainly an awkward conversation which miraculously ended with the armed people leaving and being somewhat polite and apologetic about the whole incident. The seven Olympians had to be driven out of the Gaza strip in a siren blasting convoy of Palestinian police vehicles. The event was indicative of the chaos in the Palestinian areas and the near-impossible job of the PA when armed factions empowered during the heat of the uprising hold the balance of power in some places, especially in lock-down Gaza, although that is nothing compared to the difficulty that the PA faces when Israel blockades and violates the areas they are supposed to control.
I had to cancel my own trip to Gaza because of the chain of foreigner abductions, even after completing the time consuming security clearance process with Israeli border authorities. There was similar problems in Nablus when the al-Aqsa brigades, an armed Fatah offshoot, declared that international elections observers would be abducted if they did not leave the region. They marched through Balata camp shooting in the air, which would be normal, except that they were tearing down posters of candidate Mustafa Barghouti having declared him an enemy of the refugees. The Israeli occupation and it’s response, the intifada, has left the West Bank and Gaza militarized, emotionally traumatized, economically destroyed and ghettoized. The elections and their subsequent drama play out in some complicated ways under these circumstances. I was in Nablus when Hamas swept the municipal elections on December 16th. Hamas won an overwhelming victory in Nablus in particular. They held a thousands-strong rally in the city center after sweeping up seventy three percent of the vote.
It was a typical Hamas performance in most ways but on this day the people decked out in green had a look of jubilence that you usually don’t expect. They were so jubilant in fact that a man with green Hamas ribbons and religious markers grabbed my crotch and bolted into the crowd before I could kick him. It was a weird testimony to things underneath the surface amidst a hugely religious scene with people jumping up and down and chanting on cue. The Hamasniks listened to the newly elected municipality leaders speak and to a musical act, with a quite uniform women’s section in the back corner. “Mahmoud Abbas must respect Islam as the choice of the people” was a major message and of course there’s the call and response slogan “Islam is the solution” that echoed through the streets in downtown Nablus all evening long. Hamas is making major inroads on the dominant Fatah movement because people are clinging to any alternative to the PA bureaucracy that is removed from the Palestinian street. Because people think Hamas will make sense out of the internal chaos in Palestine and because they appear the most uncompromising in the face of continued Israeli suffocation of the territories.
The movement responsible for most of the suicide attacks during the Intifada is running on a “law and order” ticket and dropped the parts of their charter calling for the end of the Israeli state out of their election platform. The irony isn’t lost on anyone and it might be especially confusing to people who get their information from Bill O’reilly. Hamas makes contradictory statements all the time about whether or not they want to recognize the green line, but at the very least they are cooling off a bit for the election campaign. Some leaders are saying they are willing to talk to Israel and the group has taken it’s armed people off the street for the time being. Either way, people are definitely latching on to the Islamic upstarts for the moment, people are frustrated that the situation is not improving and a lot of people have left Fatah because of the timid leadership of Abu Mazen and because of the headache of the internal split.
No one knows exactly what’s going to happen next. All the militant factions have called off the cease-fire. In America we never hear the context in which such things happen. Many people believe that we’re John Wayne chasing down the terrorists who want to behead our children. They hate us for our freedom and our macaroni and cheese and Johnny charges into the sunset with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Working Man on soundtrack. It’s all crazy, but the news people keep running around in stationary wheels in glass cages with three and three quarters cups of extra soft sawdust.
Four hours after my arrival at Huwara checkpoint it was finally my turn to go through the turn style. I walked up to the soldier posted on the far end and he asked me questions. Straight to the point, “what the hell were you doing in Nablus?”, he asked and I told him that I had been visiting the university. He shouted at me that no one is allowed to enter Nablus without military permission. The soldier asked a few more questions and I gave him a few more answers and eventually I moved on to the next soldier who searched my soaking bag. Another soldier checked my passport and my visa status and typed some things in a computer after asking me the same questions all over again before waving me through. Final it became time to cross through the checkpoint and I walked out through the lengthy fenced exit with barbed wire decor. I walked into the rain pour in an exhausted and delirious state. I eventually had to cross through five more checkpoints to get to Jerusalem [never quite made it to Bethlehem], but before I was able to do that, I had the strangest experience of my entire life.
My head was feeling light and my eyes were bulging just slightly out of there sockets. Bits of sparkling dust were falling out of the sky, and I looked up. My jaw dropped when I saw the majestic swirling pattern of light, mostly red and blue. My mind struggled to make sense out of the intricate pixels. They gradually formed into a human-like figure. A messenger of the lord. There was no doubt about it. An angel of mercy. I was paralyzed by the sight of the angel. Its face was innocent and its hair was perfectly groomed into one completely linear swishy. There was no trace of abuse or otherwise human influence in the hair. Each individual strand was carefully constructed and gelled with attention to possible gnots and split ends. It was this moment when I heard the most dangerous, possibly the most disturbing words that I have ever heard in my life to this point. “I have come back to you and i’m here to take you on a ride you won’t soon forget” and he stared straight into my most excruciating thoughts.
I couldn’t believe my eyes or his, but I recognized the guy from a strange experience from last year. The name jogged bad memories. It was James Reynalds, a mideast correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation. I remembered that swishy and traced it back to the summer of 04 on a maddening afternoon in Balata camp. Five army jeeps were parked on the main street. They were shelling at buildings and people on the street, which was a kind of weather in those days. Palestinian kids were ducking in and out of alleyways to toss stones and sometimes to flash the flag of their nation-to-be. I was trying to figure out what was going on with some elderly folks who were being held hostage in their home by soldiers. James Reynalds and a blonde woman with an expensive-looking camera walked up and interrupted my friend’s cell phone conversation with the cred crescent society.
“You guys have no business here”, he said while pulling out a professionally printed BBC handbook. “I have a handbook”, as if to say ‘I’m whitey the great hero so leave the monkey business to me’. “Do you have a handbook? Then get out of my way”. Both characters had absolutely well-groomed hair and everybody noticed it. My friend pointed out that the army was shooting at civilian children and damaging property, to which dear James coughed “we” are not here to cover clashes. At that we never heard from the the guy again. He disappeared with his blonde camerawoman into the occupied house that we were trying to gain access to for over an hour. The soldiers opened the door for the pair without much questioning. The whole game is about access, my children, access is the thing.
Later on I read an al-Jazeera news item about this one brave British reporter that got abducted in an occupied house in Balata. It was totally staged but a brilliant career move nevertheless. If my memory is working, a photograph prominently featuring James’ swishy became a small fad for a few seconds in the attention span of the media circuit. It brings us back to the moment where the merciful angel is staring me down with something like black tar heroin in his eyes. The thing knocked me half-conscious with the largest chainsaw imaginable in this year of our lord. James put me under his wing and dragged me through time into a purple vehicle with removeable roof. “This here is God’s sacrilegious Cadillac”. He got out to pimp his ride and the machine went flying when he climbed in the front seat and pressed a few buttons. That’s what my relationship with journalists is often like, for the record. They represent a bit of the individualistic grit that I admire in people and I can’t seem to avoid hanging around them in this corner of the world, but i’m held captive to their scumhood.
And there I was. Held captive in the rear seat of God’s sacrilegious Cadillac, my should being slowly sucked my a person accountable only to the large sums of cash being wired in from a prestigious news organization. The merciful angel whispered something horrible into my ear. “Look at yourself” he said although I was confused and I wanted to go home. “Look down”. The car had stopped at an intersection between life and death and the ground beneath us was a scene from my life. It was from a month ago and it hurt to watch. The center of Nablus. ‘The circle’. Hundreds of young men crowding in the streets. They tossed pieces of rubble, burning bags of garbage, old flower pots at the armored military vehicles that were rushing up and down the streets. More than twenty jeeps. The unmistakable crack of machine gun shells in rapid sequence. “Watch yourself freak out as the kid next to you gets shot”, James coughed again, “because that is enlightenment”.
It guy on the ground doing a half-crouch was me. Bullets were hitting the building opposite to me. There was a pause and I realized that the jeeps were around the corner and they could not see what they were shooting at. Two guys on the street ahead of me fell to the ground, one after the other, and a medical crew dashed towards them. Next it was a kid only a few feet in front of me. Blood exploded out a hole in his stomach. I moved to help carry him into a red crescent ambulance. Three or four minutes went by before there was another gunshot sequence. A boy in his early teens was shot in the groin and he screamed all the way into the stretcher. I watched my one month younger self panic, there being no way out of the situation when soldiers started shelling the same street from both directions. The tear gas and the machine guns didn’t seem to discourage the shabab from running into the line of fire for the chance to put a dent in an Israeli jeep with a piece of rubble. That’s how desperate the people are. That’s how serious the place gets.
James Reynalds extruded a scaly tongue that split into three split parts. He hissed like a rich maniac after twelve cups of instant coffee. “This whole country is holey hell” he asserted, forgetting his manners. I wanted to say it isn’t true but he started force feeding me American dairy products. The merciful angel pried my mouth open with cheese genetically enhanced to make children grow up depressed. I resisted with a blunt object but the toxicity of the dairy destroyed my defenses and I dropped into a coma. The normal world melted almost entirely and my mind was transported into another recent memory. I watched myself yell at some Palestinian children – “hallas” and “achterem halak”. Five boys were beating a younger one senseless. They had backed him into a wall in Balata. They were laying it into his face with open hands before I intervened with my friend.
The younger one was covering his face with his arms, too embarrassed from crying to respond to my efforts to comfort him before running away. As it turns out, the kids were playing a game akin to Cowboys and Indians. The kids playing the “Israelis” tracked down this “Palestinian” kid and beat him as a test of will. He was to gain some special social status if he could take the blows without freaking out. As it turns out again, as things often turn out exactly the way we do not expect it, the boy was embarrassed by my intervention in the situation. Balata kids reenact the theater of war and social constipation that occurs daily in their environment. The biggest problem with the whole bad show is that it destroys all the actors from the inside. When you have had over twenty of your best friends die, as with my friend Mohammad Ayyesh, you will never stop smoking.
In Balata there are women whose husbands keep them captive indoors because the live where the clashes happen and there are always nasty weather reports forecasting soldiers. The youngest generation in the camp, especially those born in the last five years, is rife with signs of mental retardation and malnutrition. The world became like a weather chart or a blue screen and James was pointing out all the nasty shit with a tantrum stick. Israelis ethnically cleansed the whole scene in 1948 and the untouchables were put in overcrowded camps that began as tent grids. The 1967 six day war resulted in military occupation and cowboy settlements. The whole Mideast has since been a chain reaction of bad news and television broadcasts. I have spilled hot tea on my pants.
James whipped out his chainsaw. “This that and the other thing” – the machine with the words ‘oversize load’ screeched – “is God’s way of letting us know that we are cockroaches”. I was at my mental limit at this moment and my arm reached for the angel’s hair-swishy. I wasn’t thinking about it. I had long given up the idea that i’m in control of my own life by the time my fingers had, like, totally messed with the fine British hair. I screamed although my voice was scratchy and my soul was zonked from whole milk. I remembered that the universe was subjective and that grammar has ruined everything. Five words shot up from instinct when my throat couldn’t take any more screaming. “Cockroaches can survive in space”.
It was my turn. Before either of us could understand anything [at all] I had already taken the tantrum stick and the car keys. “Ariel Sharon is on his way out and that’s the final sign that the rapture is on its way”. God will take the entire political and intellectual leadership of the world and put them all in a small chamber where they will be served nothing but cheap wine in Turkish bathrooms with fluorescent lighting. A couple weeks ago in Balata “a three year old I had barely met handed me a plastic ring and it was the most beautiful hand-me-down I have ever received”. I have met introspective people on each side of the green line that understand that politics is a waste of breath and that we all breathe the same air. The morning after I returned to Nablus I was overwhelmed by how many people remembered me. My friend Homad was brought to tears, it was a happy moment even though he hasn’t been able to leave Nablus for years.
My squabbling came from some deep ridiculous place. I have seen Arabs and Jews hold hands in the same high grade tear gas in Bil’in, with the same determination to free the ghetto. I know of humans who are hunted by the Israeli army who have never touched a gun but they spend half their lives evading capture. Yet they show up at their buddies’ wedding parties and help with the clean-up. In the most desperate places in the world there are people who never give up living life and that’s called faith. I’m here with friends I know from Olympia and Bellingham and from all over the world. We are the neo-postmodern puppy litter of David Bowie. We’re here to work and intermingle with the puppy litters of Fairuz because all of us know that history is progressive, that borders are disappearing gradually, that races are forged in toothpaste and that we are not enemies. Laugh at it all, once in a while. We have to keep living and laughing in our hearts.
The streets of Balata camp are lined with posters. Faces of the some three hundred and sixty martyrs of the camp from the past five years. The angel of mercy and I stroll up the main street and wonder about it all. Why can’t we be honest with ourselves when we want to know why there are people in the Mideast who have lost it and would hijack an airplane or blow themselves up on a public bus. No number of metal detectors will help us with this one. Maybe some day in the future we will consider asking ‘what up’ before biting all the abused children on the playground and threatening them with Guantanamo. That evening all the residents of Balata crowded around the purple Cadillac parked outside the martyrs’ cemetery. We took turns wrapping up the defective angel in colorful yarn and sent him away. He departed in the back trunk of God’s sacrilegious Cadillac, which drifted in good time to the place where angels are repaired. Later I purged the dairy from my system like it was the residue of high school education –
-which brings me out of the long nasty trip and I spent half a week in a nice bed in Haifa trying to get over it.
(Xander’s postscript sent a day later…)
I checked my email today and I was flattered to discover that a small handful of people actually took my email seriously. I’m enjoying the thought that several people thought that I had actually gone psychotic and had an angel of mercy come to me at a checkpoint in the form of BBC correspondent James Reynalds.
Everything in the piece actually happened – except for the whole mental breakdown and the angel taking me on a ride and so on and so forth. But my experience of this place has been crazy in its own right. The place is weird. I bring you to a not-so-subtle cue that I gave you guys ahead of time that there’s something coming up that’s not real. Most people caught it. I got about forty emails expressing delight about how satirical the whole thing was. To my continued amazement, twelve people took it the story literally and advised me in heartfelt sincerity to jump on the next possible flight home.
Paragraph four. Sentence four. “…maybe I am experimenting with magical realism in order to demonstrate something intangible about the whole situation here that can’t be explained by mere journalistic prattle”. If you didn’t catch that, it doesn’t mean you are a horrible person, but you could familiarize yourself with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This could be one of those “war of the worlds” situations like when H.G. Wells got cut off when explaining that the alien invasion is not really happening.
Someday I will take my new found skill to new levels and incite massive panic in westlake center. In any case, I assumed that even people who miss the warning would understand the satirical nature of “Strange ride through Palestine” as soon as the angel of mercy starts force feeding me “American dairy products genetically designed to make children grow up depressed” or when he takes me on that first ride in “God’s sacriligious Cadillac”.
I’m having a strange moment, realizing that no matter what I write, no matter how rediculous it is, people will believe it provided I am in this corner of the world. That’s because American perceptions of the Middle East are dead serious. My Israeli and Palestinian friends who read it thought it was hilarious and recognized it instantaneously as satire. Funny that. There’s tragety going on everywhere, for sure. A lot of people really do go crazy here but I don’t think anyone hallucinates themselves into the captivity of television journalists with tongues that split into three sections.
People in Palestine are dealing with the tragedy by laughing. Often it’s the only option that people have. It’s what people do to keep themselves from going crazy. The situation is redundant. I am a little bored of writing these reports every time I happen to be around when there is an explosion, an invasion, a shooting here, an enclosed ghetto over there… And I feel like that’s not really showing you the true madness of the situation. The “Holy Land” is so screwed up, so essentially weird, that there might as well be BBC journalists coming to checkpoints in the form of angels to abduct foreigners and take them on rides. Oh well. I love you all.