The hardened ones bear witness to the tears brought by crossing Khan Younus to Ramallah. Tears describe horror much more than any word can conjure up. Then surely travelling to Gazza from Ramallah by the Red Crescent ambulance is beyond shock, beyond tears, beyond words, beyond anything I could have comprehended. All senses are numbed; yet I seem to feel. I don’t know what it is I feel. How does one feel helplessness if helplessness is the absence of everything.
There are no roads, just a claustrophobic emptiness that is seared into the air- No kids laughing, no kids crying. No voices of despair. Just a vast emptiness of debris. I feel as if it was a Palestinian who said that the grass on the other side is greener. What a harsh difference. The settlements to the East. Garlanded with miles of high-electrified fencing – illegal barriers that enclose the thousands of illegal houses of the illegal Israeli occupiers. If I say illegal enough times will someone sit up and notice? Does that word hold any value anymore? We face security points after security point (they call it road blocks – back home in England this would have meant something completely different). As they search, the wind searches too. The Icy wind that no one spoke off. I thought I was entering a dessert, little did I know of the cold. Everything is removed from the ambulance and everyone ordered out – except me with my bulletproof United Kingdom passport. Palestine opened my senses, and in the hustle and bustle of uncertainty, I had time to reflect on my youth, and the choices that I had made in life…
It takes courage to move. To leave the comfort of ones land and settle elsewhere. Comfort, not in the sense of economic ease but in the familiarity of ones surroundings. In prisons, different groups are polarised into what is familiar. Based on Ethnicity, mostly. The difference between prison and the outside world is that here the cages are in our minds. I can’t imagine how it must have been, to leave everything behind and settle in a foreign country. One in which the climate is reflected in its people. We are always searching it seems. For a better life, my father searched in England.
I still don’t know whether he found what he was looking for. It’s too late to ask him now. Pieces of granite don’t speak back and the ground remains silent. He worked at a Paint factory and mum tailored pants for customers at shops we couldn’t afford to enter. Money was the only motivating factor it seemed. . Playtime seemed pointless. If there was no bottom-line, it had no purpose. Competition was limited to only beating the other kids in school (Indian or White). Only a hundred percent would produce any form of recognition from my father. Excellence was demanded. I was constantly reminded about the old days in Pakistan where education was a privilege, not a right. It was I who sat through the papers, but my father who felt gratified. I guess my academic achievements provided some sort of solace for a man without a sense of belonging in this wet, cold country. I never saw it that way.
I was a child. All I saw were white kids, friends (if I could call them that – I wasn’t allowed to play with them due to my parents fear of assimilation. Beating them in class was supposed to sufficient) “Remember”, my dad used to bellow, at me, when I asked for what seemed like a trivial thing like a George Michael haircut (this was before it was revealed that he was gay), “You are not British, you are Muslim”. While not being deeply religious himself, my father was quick to brandish anything British as unislamic, thereby playing the religion card to obscure his own deep-rooted fear that our Pakistani values were being eroded and replaced. English music was haraam but Bollywood wasn’t. Amitabh Bhachan over Sean Connery, even though neither were Muslim.
Islam was placed on the pedestal, only ever being brought down to justify why I would be incurring Hell fire for wanting a Nintendo, or to play soccer. I began to resent it, not knowing that what I was fighting was Pakistani culture and values, ones that were not left in Islamabad. I prayed sporadically, believing that Fridays prayer made up for the rest of the week. I fasted when I felt like, often breaking it at the slight seduction of chocolate. Chocolate in the wrapper does not give off a strong scent, but the faintest whiff was enough for me to abandon a tenet of my faith. My parents expected a doctor. I was to be the justification for the uprooting. Doctor Badat, delusion at its highest degree. I chose to be a political analyst. The disappointment never left my fathers eyes, not even on his deathbed. He had failed it seems.
The rattle of the ambulance clarifies my thoughts; I now see that Islam offers clear guidelines for content living. The pedestal is no more there. Islam is no more flung about as some sort of punishment, boxed in a sectarian cloth, only evident in rituals on a Friday. It embraces cultures, and refines societies. All these years I never hated Islam, because I did not know Islam.
My outspoken guide Rashid speaks fervently of an International Jihad- Jihad. The word carries uneasiness around it. You hear it in hush tones. I put my spectacles back on and skew my eyes to get a better look. My attention once again turns to shattered window, a wound to remind us. Desperately ill patients lie on the roadside in the rain – the wet cold chills to the bone.
Everyone here has a story to tell. Rashid tells me about a 6-year girl with Tuberculosis. The Israeli police refused to let her mother into the hospital as she was considered to be a security hazard. Imagine a six-year-old child alone in a hospital bed, gunshots for lullabies, mortar for sweet wishes. This would never happen back home in England. Rashid himself has his own story.
Two nights ago, the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) grilled him with various ambiguous questions, forcing him into an inescapable corner. The burly Caucasian with the peppercorn hair was getting increasingly ‘twitchy’ with Rashid’s hesitance and bellowed in a dominant manner, “ how could your kind be so barbaric and kill three innocent humans?” Rashid sat straight at this point; his ears pricked up as to capture every syllable and ensnare every word that was barked at him. Holding back a trickle of tears he told me what was going through his mind,“ You kill my family with your deadly missiles, my daughters starve to death because of your unjust and inhuman occupation and you have the audacity to call me barbaric!” he smoothened some creases that had formed on his cloak and thought again. The words ‘your kind’ rang in his head like a kryptonic pulse. “Why didn’t he just say Arab? That’s what he meant”. He straightened his white turban, ruffled his beard with his fingers and resumed an ignorant stance. This riled the interrogator, and he pounced upon Rashid with such force that he knocked him of the chair. The other agent desperately pulled of the first, motioning him towards the door. They dragged the battered man out of the door, into the alley. He would have surely died if this same ambulance had not passed that wretched alley that he had filled. No amount of medication could cure the sickness that he felt inside. However, no amount of mental preparation could strengthen us for our next stop, Gazza.
Gazza reminded me off a beautiful Oil portrait that was thrown to the floor and trampled before the paint dried. There are no roads here, only the spaces left after the tanks have passed through. Smudges of civilisation, nothing more. The destruction was so overwhelming that it felt like the work of Mother Nature. However, no earthquake was felt in this part of the world for many years. So much destruction. No one bothers to sweep up the rocks and debris. It just lies there. Constant reminders of Occupation. I get dizzy as I try to take in all the grey and red from structures that were once houses, buildings that were once schools and I sleep.
On my first morning, I am awakened by the call to prayer, which howls through my bones. While it is still dark, Rashid takes me to see Bilal. Bilal, a scraggy, unkempt individual was known as ‘Al-Khemis’ due to his expansive knowledge of chemicals that would have made an Oxford lecturer blush. The area where his middle finger was supposed to be remained a constant reminder of the danger of working with explosives. I join him as well as other militants (I don’t question terms anymore, they are not Freedom Fighters because Freedom has forsaken them. There is nothing to fight for) for a breakfast they prepared themselves – delicious shawarmas, falafels and mint tea. They are extremely interested in each other and in me, and they want to know what my country is like. They ask if there is anyone in the world who cares about them. Denied the universal right to education and cooped up in villages for months at a time, prevented from universities because of the closures - it is amazing how much they know.
Rashid nods at Bilal, who then turns to his left and pulls out a faded army vest. Due to age or exposure, it is hard to tell what colour it originally was. I take the vest carefully and slowly place it on the couch next to me. I wash my hands, slowly enjoying the joy of water and appreciating its cooling nature for the first time in many years. I know that I may never feel this sensation again. The world might scorn me, but this is something I chose to do out of desperation. I wonder how many people have thought that if we did have weapons, whether we would resort to such desperate measures. (I stop to realise that I say ‘we’, not as a British, not as a Pakistani, but as part of the global brotherhood of Islam. We as Muslims)My body, the gift from God, now is the weapon from God. The vest constricts me like an iron necklace. It feels unnatural. Rashid leads a small prayer and thereafter I am whisked of to Tel Aviv aboard a rickety bus. I am now thankful to my father as my passport allows me to get in undetected. I wait patiently for a group of soldiers to walk past. I think of England, I think of growing up, the question of life being different corrodes my thoughts, I think of my people, I think of my God. I close my eyes and think no more…