28 December: Our situation is ironically biblical – never have I understood the story of Exodus so well. The irony is that in the story, it’s the Israelites petitioning Pharoah to let them go. Now, it’s the Israelites, or at least, most likely, the Israelis applying political pressure to the Egyptians to refuse us entry into Gaza.
We had buses scheduled to pick us up at 7am – but we received word the night before that their permits had been cancelled. We decided to go down to the bus station anyway and invite the press, demonstrating clearly that we were ready to go. I really hate a demonstration that starts at 7am after a night of little sleep, and I really hate political chanting. Makes my throat hurt and my ears sore. But I endured a couple of hours of it.
We then made an encampment in front of the World Trade Center (yep, that’s what it’s called!) that houses the UN. It was actually a lively and spirited demonstration, with women dancing and an Italian clown parading and the student contingent playing with a gigantic Palestinian flag.
Personally, I was fighting my Bad Attitude which comprised exhaustion, low blood sugar, unresolved grief and a recent loss in hearing that upped the volume of tinnitus in my left ear so that even a quiet conversation sounds like echoes in a wind tunnel and a loud demonstration is like the whole world just got tuned to a place halfway between stations on the radio.
Home or here?
I was asking myself that dangerous question: “Don’t I have a real life somewhere and shouldn’t I be there, now, living it?”
I went looking for something useful to do. The police had us surrounded and blocked in, and lines of people were standing in front of them, face to face, to keep them from pushing in the barricades further.
In some sense all these confrontations are about space – political space to protest, spaces of freedom in which the people of Gaza might actually live their own lives. Right, I remembered, that was the reason I was there and not back home happily trying to unclog a blocked-up hydroelectric system in the pouring rain.
We had created a micro-Gaza right there in the plaza, and again, that is the point of nonviolent action – to dramatize an invisible wrong and make it visible, put in the face of the world so it can’t be ignored.
Some kerfuffle took place over at the line with the police. A cop hit a woman in the face, we were told. So we went over. We brought up some more people to hold a line, facing the cops. I resisted joining it – I’m a Gemini, an air sign, I like to stay loose at these things and float around.
But then a devastatingly handsome young man held out his hand to me and I couldn’t resist. So I ended up in front of these hard-eyed Egyptian security guys, with the grim expressions that reminded me that these are the folks the CIA gets to do their real torturing for them.
But honestly, I was bored. So bored that I decided to make use of the time, if possible, to improve my Arabic. From my time in the International Solidarity Movement, I had learned a few useful phrases: “thank you”, “please”, “tea without sugar” and “Tank!” Actually the first Arabic phrase I learned was “Fi jesh?” which means, roughly, “Is the Army up ahead?” As opposed to a time in my life when I was much younger, and the first German phrase I ever learned was: “I am really horny.” Ah, but that’s another story...
But knowing I was coming on this trip, I had downloaded some language-learning programs and listened to them long enough to learn to count to ten and to say: “I would like to eat something.” No doubt a useful phrase.
I smiled at grim cop in front of me, held up one finger, and said: “Wehed?” His eyes locked on mine. I held up two. “Efnayim?” He ventured a smile, nodded encouragingly, and said: “Taletha.” “Arbah” I replied, holding up four, and before I knew it the entire line of cops within earshot were grinning and nodding encouragement as I counted to ten, then patiently instructing me on to eleven, twelve, thirteen….
There’s a music to the Arabic numbers that is quite hypnotic, and before I knew it I was up to a hundred, with my team cheering me on. Then we started over again, and over. They were all gazing at me with fond, paternal eyes, like a father looks at a promising child, and they stopped looking to me like potential torturers and started looking more like sweet young men doing a job that wasn’t really their choice to begin with.
Then they switched shifts, and I had to start all over again. But damn if it didn’t work just the same way with the new guard. The truth is, the personal sympathies of these guys are already with us, mostly. They aren’t subject to the same political pressures as Mubarak. The young ones in uniform are conscripts, just doing their time.
Let me just say that by the end of the day, after some food and some shifts in the organizing, I felt good again. Glad to be here, glad to be part of this, hopeful that whether or not we get to Gaza we will succeed in our true aim – to focus the world’s attention again on Gaza, on the illegal state of siege the Israelis are perpetuating there, on those who died and on the shattered homes and infrastructure which cannot be rebuilt because Israel will not let in supplies.