This is an account of what it is like to be under seige: the terror, the frustrations, the humiliations, and the rage. How do you pass your time when you are imprisoned in your own home? What do you do when you cannot cross the neighborhood to help your sick mother?
Shehadeh's recent memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, was the first book by a Palestinian writer to chronicle a life of displacement on the West Bank from 1967 to the present. It received international acclaim and was a finalist for the 2002 Lionel Gelber Prize. When the Birds Stopped Singing is a book of the moment, a chronicle of life today as lived by ordinary Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza in the grip of the most stringent Israeli security measures in years. And yet it is also an enduring document, at once literary and of great political import, that should serve as a cautionary tale for today's and future generations.
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When the Birds Stopped Singing
Life in Ramallah Under Siege
By Raja Shehadeh
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2003 Raja Shehadeh
All rights reserved.
I felt the tension the moment I entered my law office. I asked about the two assistants from Jerusalem and was told they were unable to cross the checkpoint at Kalandia. They had phoned, alarmed at reports that all foreigners were being evacuated from Ramallah in anticipation of an Israeli invasion. The presence of foreigners in the town had always seemed a protection for the Palestinian community from Israeli excesses. The news that they were being evacuated made us feel that some atrocity was being planned for which the Israeli army wanted no witnesses. For a long time Palestinians had been demanding an international protection force. I would have felt immensely more secure if one had been dispatched.
It was only two weeks ago that the army had withdrawn from Ramallah after an occupation of three days. They were now stationed on the outskirts of the town, which was under siege. There were two points of view at the office. The first was that the attack was imminent; the second that Arafat has signed the document that General Anthony Zinni, the U.S. envoy, wanted him to sign, therefore there was not going to be an attack. My own sense was that something was going to happen. I felt overwhelmed by a strong sense of foreboding.
One of our secretaries asked to leave early to do some shopping. I too decided to take the precaution of shopping, stocking up on things and getting prepared for a long curfew. I didn't want to be caught off-guard. I left the office and went out to the street. Our law office is in the center of town on its main commercial artery, Main Street. I didn't drive. I walked. The town was in its usually chaotic state, with posters plastered on many walls with pictures of the latest Palestinian bombers. But something was different today. It was as though the place had been struck by a storm. There was a rush on the market. Everyone was moving quickly, and people were emerging from shops with heavy bags. Prices had risen appreciably. A sense of an impending catastrophe loomed in the air. At the vegetable shop a frantic middle-aged woman with ruffled hair was loading vegetables into her shopping bag. I saw that she was taking a large number of golden onions. When she bent down to pick them from the lower rack, I noticed that their yellowish translucent skin was the color of her hair. She looked up at me, "Onions go a long way. They're good to have," she said, and helped herself to more. Vegetables from her overfilled bags were falling on the narrow paths between the stalls. She stooped down to collect them. She was creating panic in the crowded shop. I carried my vegetables and left, passing by the Manara, the recently renovated roundabout at the center of downtown. I looked at the plastic lions, an addition from the Oslo years, and remembered the picture I saw in the daily paper a few weeks ago of the Palestinian fighters crouching behind one of them, shooting at the Israeli soldiers. One cub had lost its tail in the fusillade.
Dominating the square was a large banner the width of the street with a picture of Arafat, his kuffieh piled up like a small pyramid over his head, raising his finger like a teacher, his eyes open wide. The words he was preaching were sprawled in large script:
All it takes is to will it. You are the knight of this hour.
Farther up the street, by the florist where a gun battle had blown away the cornerstones of the old building, I noticed fresh plastering between the restored stones. The glass of the travel agency across the street had also been replaced. The son had recently renovated his father's office and, rather than install full metal shutters like the rest of his neighbors, he wanted to distinguish his agency by using the daintier metal grille. It cost him the entire glass front. Nearby was the blackened butcher's shop that had been firebombed and its proprietor killed in a criminal feud involving armed groups from a nearby refugee camp. Disputes of this sort used to be settled by the court. Now, with the predominance of arms, people were taking the law into their own hands.
These shops around the center of town are not far from Arafat's headquarters. During the last Israeli incursion into Ramallah the army had stayed away from this area. It became a refuge for the Palestinian fighters resisting the occupation of Ramallah. All other parts of the city were occupied, with Israeli tanks crowding the narrow streets. We could not move out of our house for three days as gun battles raged. This episode had ended with an Israeli withdrawal and the feeling that our side had won and had driven back the mighty Israeli army.
No wonder the large contingent of armed men in uniform and civilian clothes seemed to carry their arms with pride. They finally had the opportunity to use them to defend the town. A columnist in the local daily newspaper called this second Intifada the Palestinian War of Independence.
* * *
Just after I got back to the office with my heavy shopping bags, two armed Palestinian security men came in. They said that they had been evacuated from their residences at the headquarters in anticipation of Israeli air strikes. Their commanders had made no alternative arrangements for them. They were on their own and had to find a place to spend the night.
"Had the weather been warmer," one of them said, "we wouldn't have minded sleeping out. We are soldiers. We put our blanket anywhere and sleep out in the open. We don't care. But it's stormy and rainy. We need to find a place. Do you know of any empty apartments?"
We didn't. My partner suggested that perhaps they would stand a better chance in the villages around Ramallah.
"Yes, we know there are more possibilities there," said one of them, "but we have Gaza identity cards, we cannot get out of Ramallah. It's too dangerous. If the Israelis find us outside Ramallah, we'll get deported back to Gaza."
One did all the talking. He had dark skin, a round face, amiable with kind eyes. He was jaunty and seemed to take his predicament lightly. His friend was quiet. Contemplative. He let his companion do the talking as he stood awkwardly in our office, wearing his fatigues, with his large gun propped heavily by his side, his eyes roaming around our shelves full of books and paper. What could he have been thinking? I looked at their shoes. Neither was wearing boots, as soldiers do. They had on ordinary black leather shoes. The more garrulous had worn ones; the quieter had a newer pair. Both were dusty. I wondered how they were going to cater to their personal needs. Alongside the orderly, ordinary life I lead in my hometown of Ramallah is a population of transient people who wear army uniforms when we don't yet have an army and who camp out in the hills when the weather permits or in empty apartment blocks if they can find them.
The two of them were very polite and, when they realized we could not help, they apologized for barging in like this. They carried their guns and walked out wearing the emblem of their doom that, in the event of an Israeli invasion, would bring death and destruction to them and to any place of refuge they might find.
* * *
Over the past nine years, since the Oslo Accords, I have been worried about the growing number of armed civilians I could see around just walking in the street. This was not part of a policy of armed struggle. It was more for exhibitionist purposes. Parades were conducted with masked men bearing arms, as if in a masquerade. An arms culture develops as quickly as a drug culture. Once it takes root, it is difficult to eradicate. It has its own economic logic and beneficiaries. Its victims are the civilian society who have to endure its violent consequences. During the first twenty-five years of occupation, before the return of the PLO, the armed struggle had been waged outside. Now it had moved inside. Increasingly I have been seeing armed men in all sorts of gear. This morning when I left the house I saw six Palestinian soldiers outside my door waiting as two others changed the flat tire of their army van. It is not always clear which unit they belong to and how they are related to other units. For a long time a number of soldiers had been living in a makeshift camp behind the UNRWA community college not far from my house, bivouacked on the highest hill to guard the town from attacks by Israel from the north. I felt for them as they endured the cold of the Ramallah winter. During the last Israeli incursion one of them was shot dead. Since then they seem to have abandoned that post.
Before the Oslo Accords in 1993, only Israeli soldiers carried arms. The Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO allowed for a strong, armed Palestinian police. The Israeli government was happy for this force to police dissidents and curb civil rights but claimed that it was in excess of the numbers agreed upon.
* * *
Just after the Accords were signed, we employed at the office a bright young man to do the cleaning. He was overqualified but had lost his job in Israel due to the closure of the West Bank. One day I came back to find that he had broken an antique ceramic vase that I had on the shelf behind my desk. I was angry and explained the archaeological significance of this piece of pottery from the Middle Bronze Age. He listened quietly. The next day I found the pot back on my shelf. I was astounded. I looked and found that he had collected the pieces, taken them home and glued them perfectly together. I was impressed and tried to learn more about this talented man. He was reluctant to speak. In the course of our conversation, I tried to find out what he thought about the peace that the PLO had signed with Israel. I assumed that he, like most young men, belonged to one or the other factions of the organization. I was wrong. He belonged to another clandestine struggle, committed to principles that were foreign to me. This was the first intimation of what the Oslo Accords would bring: the polarization of Palestinian society. Throughout the first Intifada I had felt such oneness with everyone. We were all working together for a common cause, the end of the Israeli occupation. It mattered little that one was the employer and one the employee. There was a strong sense of solidarity among us. Before the Israeli oppressor we were all equal. Together we participated in the struggle of ridding our country from occupation. Now the false peace of Oslo had divided us, made some believe they could pursue their private life despite the continuation of the occupation while others suffered in the worsening economic conditions. The false peace had shattered us like the pieces of that old pot.
* * *
Yesterday I paid a condolence visit to a man who used to work at my office for whom I have a strong fondness. His twenty-five-year-old son, Ahmad, died in the last Israeli incursion into Ramallah. The son had been doing well as an insurance clerk. He was married with children. When he was only fourteen I defended him in the military court, where he was being charged for protesting against the occupation. Because he was a minor, the court imposed a fine on his father. As I was walking out of the court with the father, I heard shouts from the narrow window above the door where the son was being temporarily held.
"I warn you," he called at his father, "don't pay the fine. You hear me. I don't want you to pay money to these Zionist occupiers."
The military court and prison were in an ugly square cement building that was a legacy of the British mandate. It had been built in 1936 and named after its designer, an Irishman by the name of Tegart. Arafat has his headquarters in the same compound, which has been expanded and surrounded by high walls. It is now referred to as the Muqata.
Ahmad's family had lived in a refugee camp. They had lost their home in 1948. The father did not want his children to get involved in politics, so he moved them out of the camp. But Ahmad had grown up with anger and, when the chance came to acquire a gun and fight the occupation army, he took it.
When we arrived we found that the father was at the mosque praying, even though it was not a Friday. Throughout the twenty-five years he had worked at my office he never prayed. As we waited we asked the mother what had happened. Her answer sounded as though she was reading from a prepared text, delivered dutifully but without conviction. The loss of her son was obviously the real thing, not his heroism, which she recounted to anyone who asked.
"Ahmad was first shot in the leg," she said, keeping her palm over her cheek, "but he wanted to go on fighting. Then he got the bullet that made him a martyr."
I was later told that the real story was that after her son's first injury the ambulance came to take him to hospital. But they would not allow him to take his gun. He refused to abandon it and was shot again. This time the Israeli sniper got him in the stomach and he died. I had no doubt about his integrity. I only wondered who gave him the gun, and under what conditions. What would it have meant if he had left it behind? The only thing I was sure of was that this gun must have meant so much to him that he was willing to risk his life for it.
The father, now with a full beard, seemed resigned to the loss of his son. As I sat in Abu Ahmad's guest room, which was decorated with the usual symbols of Palestinian pride — large uncomfortable sofas, Palestinian flags and a miniature Dome of the Rock in mother-of-pearl — I tried to think what it must be like for a father who was my age suddenly to find his son, who is not a soldier, killed in the course of fighting a regular army. This is the son who was his best security for old age in a stateless society where one's only security was in one's children. The successful working son, his pride and joy, who was married and had brought him grandchildren. How could he deal with his death? He didn't want to speak about it. We spoke instead about the general situation.
In the course of the visit he turned to me and said, "Do you remember what my opinion was about Oslo? Wasn't I against it from the first moment? Did I not tell you it would not bring us peace? Didn't I? We shall never see peace in this country."
Between the silences our eyes rested on the poster of Ahmad that took up half the wall of the guest room in which we sat. The poster was a gift from the son's Fatah unit, in appreciation and memoriam.
* * *
Having been denied arms for so long, young Palestinians seek them and carry them with manifest pride. Today, as I was walking to my office, I saw a young man in civilian clothes with a gun strapped around his shoulder. He was a lean, tall young man, quite dapper, almost a dandy. He wore tight black trousers and shoes without a speck of dust. He had a flat stomach. His belt was black with a silver square buckle. He wore a knitted polo-neck sweater. It too was black. He was adjusting the strap (also black) of his gun, which was resting on his back. He was trying to get it exactly diagonal along his chest, as though he was grooming himself for a date with his girlfriend. He must have seen Israeli soldiers with their guns and was emulating them.
I turned to look and my eyes met those of one of the shopkeepers, who said, "The man has no idea what effect this has on foreigners coming to Ramallah. It will just confirm to them what they hear about us and make them decide to stay away." This merchant was thinking only of the commercial impact militarization has on his business.
* * *
For weeks a reconnaissance helicopter had been literally parked in different parts of the sky above Ramallah, photographing. It was an ominous sight; its drone a nerve-wrecker. The Oslo Accords had created a three-tiered jurisdiction, giving Israel rights over the sub-soil and the air and leaving the Palestinians in control only of the surface. The Israeli army must already have full aerial photographs of every section of the town.
* * *
Just as I was turning the corner to walk up to my office after I had finished shopping I met Dr. Mustafa Bargouti, a popular politician and founder of the largest nongovernmental organization involved in medical services. He did not believe the Israelis were going to attack tomorrow. He told me that four hundred foreigners from various European countries were flying in to be with the Palestinian people for protection and solidarity. Ninety of them were already in Jerusalem. I wondered whether they would be able to make it to Ramallah since the checkpoint at Kalandia was closed.
* * *
We decided to close the office early today. I couldn't wait to get home. On the way I felt relieved that I had filled up the oil tank for heating and hot water. I loaded my shopping into my car and drove away from the center of town. I parked the car in the garage, closed the outside gate, carried the bags into the kitchen, and pressed the switch for the garage door. But when I heard it click closed, I felt something was wrong. I'm not ready for the worst to happen tomorrow. Not with my wife, Penny, still away.
Excerpted from When the Birds Stopped Singing by Raja Shehadeh. Copyright © 2003 Raja Shehadeh. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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