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Occupation domesticated

Eivind Senneset

Everyday returns after violence like the rain after droughts, Ramallah residents and authors Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson write in this dialogue-essay.

Penny: “Come and visit us in Palestine,” we said this summer to friends abroad. “It’s not all like the news.” It’s a refrain we have often repeated, but what are we really saying, I wonder?

Raja: By its very nature, the news only reports the dramatic stories in the life of a country involved in conflict – and we must admit that Palestine has more than its fair share of such stories. But there is also more to our daily life than what the Israeli occupation imposes on us. There is the beauty of the land, the active cultural life which, despite everything, continues to flourish and, above all, the variegated experience of how our Palestinian society is coping after 50 years of Israeli occupation of our land.

Penny: I agree. It’s possible to think of two pathways to finding everyday Palestine. One is simply to domesticate the extraordinary and the threatening. When the Israeli air force bombed a Ramallah police station (fortunately vacated) in 2001, the first terrible year of the violence-wracked second intifada, my friend Rita, who lives near the station, briskly reduced this frightening event to a housekeeping task: “So much dust,” she said, “so much dust just after I had cleaned the whole house.” The other direction is to rejoice in all the intimate joys of daily life, from cauliflowers successfully grown in our garden (finally!) to long lazy conversations with friends over a glass of wine, to family weddings and high-school graduations, to a spring walk in a nearby wadi along an ancient path dotted with wild poppies and the occasional pyramid orchid.

Raja: Sometimes we can go a bit too far, or at least I have that tendency. Do you remember my reaction at the beginning of the second intifada in the Autumn of 2000, when I decided to deny that anything out of the ordinary was taking place, and insisted on pursuing my writing and life as though the ground under our feet was not trembling. What put a stop to that was when an Israeli helicopter gunship bombed an empty house near a hotel where an engagement party of a relative of mine was taking place. The one-tonne bomb shattered the glass of the hotel, ended the party and also my obdurate denial that we were entering a new intifada that would disrupt our life for the next four years. 

Penny: Yes, we were hard-pressed to enjoy the everyday although it never entirely vanished. Remember how much we enjoyed riding across Ramallah to buy roasted nuts from Audeh when a curfew was finally lifted? 

Raja: Delicious! And after those terrible years and the loss of so many lives, both Palestinian and Israeli, the everyday returned in force, as it invariably does – like rain after one of the long droughts that also plague our region. Our everyday pleasures remind me of the delicate cyclamen plant that grows in the cracks of our stony limestone landscape in early spring – something to celebrate. These celebrations perhaps have the fragility of spring wildflowers, shattered sometimes by larger, tragic events. Another kind of “rain” in the summer of 2006, Israel’s “Operation Summer Rain”, ushered in the wars and siege that persist to this day in the embattled enclave of Gaza. 

Penny: As Gaza endured a siege that has now lasted more than a decade, Ramallah boomed into what is called the “Ramallah bubble”, with its museums and galleries, music and film, and the amazing talents of our young people (including in Gaza, by the way).  Young artists, writers and filmmakers create in their imagination possibilities which do not at present exist in our oppressive political landscape. Of course, everyday Ramallah has its own irritations. No one likes being stuck in a Ramallah traffic jam behind a herd of SUVs or witnessing a phenomenon we share with the rest of the world: growing economic inequality.

Raja: Ramallah’s everyday is the subject of my new book. I was determined to mark the half-century of Israeli occupation with a walk around Ramallah. I left the house in the morning and returned in the evening, spending the day walking in the city where I’ve lived for most of my life. Going Home, A Walk through Fifty Years of Occupation celebrates the life of ordinary people who, despite all the hardships, have managed to persevere, raise families, start businesses and go on with their life adapting to all the complications of a foreign rule that is more in the nature of a colonization than an occupation, one that hopes to replace one people with another on their land with all that this entails. This makes it all the more important to assert life by celebrating it through writing

Penny: My book, Companions in Conflict, Animals in Occupied Palestine, also values the everyday and explores how our daily life and its moments of joy and sadness intertwine with what can be characterised as everyday violence. Do you remember the day when we went to visit the West Bank’s only zoo? We were not expecting much. Yet to our amazement we found the pleasant grounds full of children enjoying an outing. But then we also heard the chief vet’s account of a giraffe literally frightened to death during Israel’s military incursion into the town. On another occasion, sitting with shepherds in the southern West Bank, sipping delicious cardamom-scented coffee, I was told of the very real threat that the Israeli army will demolish their community. But one shepherd also said that he remains on the land despite the threat because life there is “far away from urban problems”. Watching an older man bring a small flock over a hill, I began to see what he meant. Everyday pleasures sustain us in the midst of profound uncertainty. 

Raja: I’ve often thought that living in a conflict zone makes us even more attuned and attentive to the pleasures of the everyday in order not to be swept away by the greater events happening all around. For a writer, there is never a dearth of subjects to write about though it can, at times, get overwhelming. The experience both of living history and writing about it can be daunting. It requires that one learns when to take a break, make a pot of tea, and watch the Palestine sunbird flit among the flowering blossoms in the garden.

Penny: The Ramallah bubble, in the midst of a tenacious occupation, can be a strange location where so many realities co-exist. Last week, the Israeli army raided our neighbourhood before we woke up to a pleasant lunch with friends in a serene garden restaurant and an evening jazz festival. Sometimes, I wonder whether the everyday can tilt us towards a normalisation of the occupation. But then I think that the best of the cultural ferment in Ramallah and elsewhere in Palestine does the opposite. For example, the Qalandiya International Biennale is named after the infamous checkpoint that separates Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank from Arab Jerusalem. Last year, the Biennale crossed borders beyond Qalandiya, hosting events not only in Ramallah, Haifa and other Palestinian cities, but collateral events in Cape Town, Dusseldorf, San Francisco, Swansea and other cities around the world. Undeniably we are under occupation – but we also claim a place as everyday citizens of the world. 

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