By Kazim Ali
I went to Israel and the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank in the summer of 2011. Vocabulary matters. Some people in Israel refer to the West Bank territories as “Judea and Samaria,” after the ancient Biblical kingdoms that existed in those regions. Some people in the Territories refer to Israel colloquially as “Forty-Eight,” meaning the Palestinian lands taken in 1948.
Wanting to learn more about the region, the people who lived there, and the complicated conflict between them and among them, I traveled with an organization called the Interfaith Peace Builders for a week and a half and then for another month I stayed in the area. I went as a fact-finder and a journalist, writing a series of blogs throughout my six-week trip for The Huffington Post.
Because I went to find the facts of the situation with a poet’s sensibility, I got caught up on the names of streets, the real boundary between two nations that have the same people in them. The streets changing languages seemed, in my mind, like the separation barrier that Israel has built between itself and the Palestinians—not built, as many believe, along the Green Line but rather inside what international law considers to be Palestinian territory illegally occupied. It cuts off many Palestinian villages from what had been their ancestral farm lands and makes it impossible for many of the companies dealing with export of goods and produce to function, thus devastating the Palestinian economy.
What I couldn’t cope with was the vast disconnect between what I had come to understand from American (and, for that matter, the global) media and what were the facts on the ground. Even a ten minute drive on the Israeli road wound up being a ninety minute journey on the Palestinian road through Qalandia Checkpoint.
We stayed in for a night in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank north of Jerusalem and somewhat west of Ramallah (the poet in me must instruct you that the emphasis is on the second syllable, please). After the villagers prepared a dinner for us, the men went up to the roof-top terrace and the women stayed down on the patio at the end of the driveway. The men became very pensive and quiet after leaving the women. My fellow delegates and I tried to engage them in conversation but they were a little moody. I was somewhat envious to hear the women laughing raucously below.
Finally one of the men said, “You know, it is very hard for us. We can’t always share the things that happen to us out in the street with our wives and our families. We don’t want to upset them.”
Iyad, our host, said “There are some things that we don’t even talk about with each other.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him. “What could there be that you wouldn’t even talk to each other about?” Iyad was silent.
One of the other men said, “Our time in prison. We don’t talk about the things that happen to us there. If we talked about it then we would fall into despair and we wouldn’t be able to organize.”
I got up and walked to the balcony, which overlooked the dark valley. Just over the pass there was a blaze of bright lights. I knew that it must be one of the Israeli settlements in the area, which receive much more electricity and water resources than the Palestinian villages.
I turned again to the darkness, watching the lights. “What is it?” I asked Iyad. “What settlement is that?”
“Settlement?” asked Iyad with amusement. “You are looking at Tel Aviv.”
“It’s that close?” my friend Katie asked him, the surprise in her voice evident.
“It’s that close,” he said wearily. “And during the day time you can see, just past the sea.”
I remembered then what some of the women were talking about at dinner: that, when they were children, their families would go on the weekends to the sea. Now they would not be permitted to apply for a travel permit until they reached the age of forty. “That’s just next year for you,” cracked one of the women to our 32-year-old hostess. The whole table burst into laughter. “That joke needs serious Palestinian context,” I muttered under my breath to Katie.
By the time I went back to Jerusalem, I was overwhelmed by the layering of multiple contexts, one on top of another onto the same landscape. But I realized the landscape itself has been transformed. An organization called the Jewish National Fund helped to plant fast-growing pine trees to “green” the arid land. They served a dual purpose—many of them were planted on top of the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in the 1948 war.
Sometimes as we drove along the highways we could look into the forest and see crumbling stone walls. In Galilee, we walked through the thorny brush that covers what used to be Al-Birweh, the home of noted poet Mahmoud Darwish.
At that point, I could no longer write in tidy paragraphs. To write about Jerusalem, that vexed and vexing city, I fell back into a form of prose-poetry, long music sentences that unfolded one after the other in a cacophonous concatenation.
When the delegation returned to the United States, I went back to Ramallah. For 10 days in the hot August winds blowing through the hills, I wrote, not for my blog but in my journal. I went to the tomb of Darwish, I drove out to the blistering Jericho desert with its odd other-worldly landscape, I wrote about my own life in that strange place, I translated poems by Sohrab Sepehri. Reality was real and it was a story being told by only one group of people and so I needed to tell it again, on my own terms.
Even now, in fall of 2012, there is another incursion against the people of Gaza. We were never allowed to go. An Israeli woman from Sderot, an Israeli town on Gaza border, Nomika Zion, talked to us about the situation in Gaza. “I have lived here for many, many years,” she told us. “These were our friends. They came and shopped in our markets, they came into our houses. And now because of their government, our government is killing them.”
As a poet, I have always believed that I don’t know very much. I work hard to understand all sides of any situation. I think this is something that the journalist also shares. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps it is not that a poet would fail as a journalist but that a poet is the only person who ever even could be a journalist, to tell the story of days as they occur against the wretched page of time.
And here? I’ve hardly told you anything. I didn’t tell you about the days I spent in West Jerusalem, nor of the time with my friend Rachel who lives north in Galilee. Nor did I tell how, at the end of all of it, I too fled the interior, hopped a train to Haifa, wrote poems in the air that I’d memorized by heart.
And then, freed of my responsibilities to communicate, freed of prose, with the right kind of citizenship papers, with the passport of poetry, I, a Muslim from a country thousands of miles away and across the ocean, was able to do what the women and men of Bil’in could only look from their rooftop and dream about.
I went sun-drunk and rapturous into the sea.
Kazim Ali is the author of ten books of poetry, essays, fiction and translation, including most recently Sky Ward, (forthcoming in February 2013 from Wesleyan) which contains several of the poems he wrote in the Middle East. His Huffington Post blogs are posted here.