A PAKISTANI IN PALESTINE

Updated June 11, 2017

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March 24, 2017: A protester holds aloft a Palestinian flag in the midst of clashes at a protest against new Jewish settlements in Mughayer village near the West Bank city of Ramallah | Nasser Shiyoukhi/ AP file photo
March 24, 2017: A protester holds aloft a Palestinian flag in the midst of clashes at a protest against new Jewish settlements in Mughayer village near the West Bank city of Ramallah | Nasser Shiyoukhi/ AP file photo

June 5th marked the 50th anniversary of Naksa Day — the annual commemoration of the displacement of Palestinians after the Six Day War in 1967.

Novelist and journalist Mohammed Hanif visited Palestine three times — in 1999, 2010 and 2011 — the first time on a reporting assignment and subsequently to teach a creative writing class and to attend the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest).

PalFest was established in 2008 with the aim of showcasing and supporting cultural life in Palestine, breaking the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation, and strengthening cultural links between Palestine and the rest of the world.

In 2011, the year Hanif attended the festival, the closing event of readings was teargassed by Israeli police and Hanif and other writers “had to read with onions and wet towels in our hands.”

This piece, reflecting on Hanif’s experiences in Palestine, is a slightly amended version of one that has appeared in 'This Is Not A Border', an anthology covering 10 years of PalFest, which was officially launched yesterday.

Jerusalem O' Jerusalem

I met the only Jewish-Pakistani in Israel by accident. It turned out he had also ended up there through a historic misunderstanding.

I wasn’t looking for him. He wasn’t expecting me.

In the last days of the last millennium, just before the millennium bug was predicted to wipe out all our computer memory, there were reliable rumours of peace between Israel and Palestine.

The proof of this impending peace was in my passport. I was given a reporting visa by the Israeli embassy in London on a Pakistani passport.

They were understanding enough not to stamp the visa on the passport. I had grown up with a green passport which said in bold letters, ‘Valid for travel to all countries of the world except Cuba and Israel.’

I was convinced that peace was about to break out when I reported to the Directorate of Censors in Jerusalem and discovered all its staff was on strike.

Having lived under various forms of censorship in Pakistan (from midnight knocks to what your uncle will think of what you are writing), I found it exhilarating: when your directorate of censorship goes on strike, who is there to fear?

Hours later, trying to score a meal, I was terrified. Like a naive tourist who believes that the best way to get to know a city is to get lost in the city, I tried to walk into random shops and cafes and bars.

When I tried this in the upmarket district of West Jerusalem I was pounced upon at the doors.

Your name? Your ID? And as I presented my passport with the hope of hearing, ‘Oh where is Pakistan? What brings you to our country?’ I was told, ‘We don’t allow.’

I almost wanted to say ‘But I am not Palestinian’ but I realised it all probably sounded the same.

I retreated to the safety of the Jerusalem Hotel, where a tour operator with three mobile phones gave weary directions to lost souls like me.

I decided to stick to East Jerusalem and observe peace from safe quarters. Here, the American Colony Hotel could host an iftar and put up Christmas decorations without being pelted by folks who don’t approve of iftar or Christmas.

Al- Kasaba Theatre could host rehearsals for an absurdist play and the actors could dream of taking their plays to international absurdist theatre festivals.

On Shabbat, Israeli kids drove to Ramallah to have ice cream and drove back without killing anyone.

I went to late-night concerts in Ramallah. I had ice cream. I heard stories about the Palestinian Authority’s corruption.

When people start complaining about dug-out roads and traffic jams, you know that progress is on the march.

Desis in Ramla

Despite the tyranny of oppression, the Al Aqsa Mosque is an oasis of hope | Ahmad Gharabli/ AFP file photo
Despite the tyranny of oppression, the Al Aqsa Mosque is an oasis of hope | Ahmad Gharabli/ AFP file photo

After a few days of wandering around I decided to visit Ramla, where I had heard lots of Indians lived.

This seemed like a story I could sell — a ‘Hey, look, Indian people living in the promised land’ type of story.

I arrived in a synagogue on the evening of Hanukkah celebrations. There was a group of journalists from India on an official visit who arrived at the same time I entered the synagogue.

Ramla seemed like one of those Gulf towns where men from the subcontinent go to live in semi-slavery so that their families can have WCs and LCD televisions.

Inside the synagogue it seemed like a small-town Indian wedding.

Or Pakistani wedding. You can never tell. Families dressed in shiny clothes, Indian sweets, incense.

I was taken for one of the Indian journalists’ delegation and garlanded.

Indians, I thought, can’t help themselves; even if you arrive as a stranger in the middle of a Jewish shanty town, they will put garlands around your neck and expect you to make speeches.

Indian delegates stood up one by one and lectured their audience about how lucky they were to have left Indian poverty and casteism behind, how they must stay faithful to Israel and the idea of Israel.

I was also asked to make a speech.

I tried to clarify that I wasn’t actually part of the delegation but I was glad to be here, thanks for the garland, thanks for the sweets; I was here to listen to their stories.

And by the way, I am not from India, I am from Karachi. I don’t know why, but I didn’t use the word Pakistan, as if that would make me sound like the enemy.

As I uttered the word Karachi someone sobbed loudly in the audience.

After the speeches a middle-aged man approached me. He was Daniel from Karachi. He was full of memories about places that didn’t exist anymore.

That Irani restaurant? Gone. Minerva Cinema? Demolished. He kept referring to his synagogue in Karachi as ‘our mosque in Karachi.’

He had nice things to say about the late dictator General Ayub Khan.

He was very optimistic about our then current dictator, General Pervez Musharraf. He was pleased with his own leader, Ariel Sharon.

‘Our nation needs strong man.’ I assumed by ‘nation’ he meant the people of Karachi.

The irrepressible urge to slap an Israeli teenager in uniform waving a gun at your head is only repressed by seeing his or her finger on the trigger. I had encountered them at every border crossing, at every checkpoint. The first thing you want to ask them is why they aren’t in school. But then you look at their baby fat and their automatic weapons and keep your inquiries to yourself.

His family had moved here in the late 60s.

‘There was no trouble but our family moved because of better economic prospect.’ I asked him if his family had done well.

He took me aside and gave me a short lecture about the inner politics of Ramla. ‘You see we are the only Pakistani family here. Rest are all Indians.

Even my in-laws are Indian. But you know these Indians, they never accept us Pakistanis as their equals. They can never see us do well. So that’s a big problem.’

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Jewish diaspora divided along Indian–Pakistani lines. Some of us might go to the promised land but we are bringing our enemies with us.

Peace is coming

July, 2014: Young Palestinians list the names of the children who were killed in yet another Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip | Musa Al Shaer/ AFP file photo
July, 2014: Young Palestinians list the names of the children who were killed in yet another Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip | Musa Al Shaer/ AFP file photo

I had seen the occupation only from a distance; in poetry, newspapers and very occasionally on TV. It was hard to imagine how you could have peace and occupation.

I went to meet Al-Aqsa’s Grand Mufti and found some Israeli police officers sitting in his office. They were drinking tea and talking. Were they talking peace?

I pestered my host for translation. He told me half-heartedly they were talking about archaeology.

An archaeologist came in with a map and waved his hands in despair. My host told me that Ariel Sharon wanted to visit.

And that would not be good for peace.

The archaeologist kept pointing to the map and issuing warnings, the Israeli policemen kept having tea, the mufti kept smiling a benign smile.

Sharon wouldn’t visit for a while and the illusion of peace would last a bit longer.

You want proof? Count the number of new cafes coming up in the areas under the Palestinian Authority. You don’t build cafes if you are expecting a war.

He would come the following year, and all the peace-mongers would shut up.

In Bethlehem, right across from the Church of the Nativity, a Palestinian family was busy building the future. They had just migrated back from the United States and they had set up a posh restaurant.

They opened days before Jesus Christ’s 2,000th birthday. It was a charming family enterprise; the owner and his teenage sons and daughters worked alongside other waiters.

As young boys and girls balanced their plates amid the tourists who had flocked to this new establishment, I could imagine generations living off it.

Peace means prosperity, I thought. When divinity meets commerce, everyone wins.

In our writing exercises an F16 would appear outside an apartment window, a woman baking a cake would get shot in the head by a stray bullet, an olive grove would get sprayed with acid. They weren’t trying their hands at magical realism. They were writing about their family lives.

Who would ever mess with Bethlehem? With the Church of the Nativity?

They can mess with Palestinians but not with Bethlehem. It belongs to billions of Christians around the world. With so much optimism in the air, my meal tasted divine.

Only about a year later, sitting at my desk far away, I saw the Church of the Nativity being shelled by Israeli forces.

I didn’t worry about the birthplace of Jesus, but I was heartbroken when I saw the restaurants and shops around it being reduced to rubble.

Billions of Christians around the world couldn’t save a little establishment that promised fine food for pilgrims.

And why stop at Jesus’ birthplace when you can go and do the same with the last resting place of the patriarch of all prophets?

The patriarch's ghost town

November 12, 2014: Palestinians inspect damage to a mosque following an attack in the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah. The attack ignited a fire that destroyed its first floor, the village’s mayor said, blaming Jewish settlers for the attack | Majdi Mohammed/AP file photo
November 12, 2014: Palestinians inspect damage to a mosque following an attack in the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah. The attack ignited a fire that destroyed its first floor, the village’s mayor said, blaming Jewish settlers for the attack | Majdi Mohammed/AP file photo

A fact universally acknowledged, at least by those who believe in one God, is that Abraham was the Grand Patriarch of monotheistic religions.

I am sure there is a religious sect somewhere which believes that he wasn’t such a big deal, but for all Muslims, Christians and people of Jewish faith, he was the cuddly grandad loved by all.

In 1999 I went to Hebron.

As compared to the battle-hardened worshippers at Al-Aqsa or the frenzy in front of the Wailing Wall, Hebron seemed like a large village festival.

There was an iron grille running through Abraham’s last resting place though, neatly partitioning this grandest of graves.

The massacre of the Cave of the Patriarch had happened and, ostensibly to protect Abraham’s grandchildren from each other, the Israeli government had taken its favourite administrative measure: put in a partition so that Jews on the one hand, and Muslims and people of other faiths on the other, could come and pay their respects without having to stand in the same queue.

A partitioned grave was a grim sign, but outside it was a non-stop shopping festival. Here shopkeepers didn’t bother with your religion or ethnicity.

I was reassured that despite having many children and spawning many religions the Patriarch had united us in the pursuit of commerce. My faith was restored in the healing powers of haggling for cheap trinkets.

For thousands of years, people of all three faiths had been coming to his last resting place. It was one of those blessed places where a mausoleum is the centre of the economy.

All you need to do is get a little shack, stuff it with vaguely religious stuff and wait for the suckers to come.

In these shops you could find ivory crosses, figurines of Jesus Christ in a dozen poses, little phials of holy water, little phials of holy earth, daggers, swords, freshly antiquated urns and, for some vague reason, those jingly belts that belly dancers wear.

With such a grand variety of merchandise and a spectrum of potential buyers that covers two thirds of the world’s population, Hebron would never go out of business.

Ten years later I visited Hebron with PalFest. Not only had it gone out of business, but for the first time I saw a proper ghost town.

Once a living, throbbing centre of spirituality and commerce, Hebron was completely locked down. The mosque and the partitioned grave were locked up.

The area around the mosque was completely locked up. Most of the residents of the area evicted. All the glorious little shops shut down. God’s own economy in a meltdown.

This was all to calm down a few hundred Jewish settlers who had descended from the United States and Canada. Israeli kid soldiers patrolled the streets in full battle gear.

They trained their guns at any visitor who managed to come near the mosque.

These kids had come to wage a battle against their long-dead Patriarch and predictably won. I have never seen a scarier bunch of teenagers.

A country run by teenagers

June 15, 2014: A Palestinian youth argues with Israeli soldiers as he tries to enter his home during a military operation to search for three missing teenagers outside the city of Hebron. Israeli troops arrested some 80 Palestinians from the village after PM Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of kidnapping the three teenagers | Majdi Mohammed/AP file photo
June 15, 2014: A Palestinian youth argues with Israeli soldiers as he tries to enter his home during a military operation to search for three missing teenagers outside the city of Hebron. Israeli troops arrested some 80 Palestinians from the village after PM Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of kidnapping the three teenagers | Majdi Mohammed/AP file photo

The irrepressible urge to slap an Israeli teenager in uniform waving a gun at your head is only repressed by seeing his or her finger on the trigger.

I had encountered them at every border crossing, at every checkpoint. The first thing you want to ask them is why they aren’t in school.

But then you look at their baby fat and their automatic weapons and keep your inquiries to yourself.

One of them, who was not even wearing a uniform, made me sit on a bench at the Jordan River crossing under a blazing sun.

He took away my sunglasses.

There was nothing to look at so I looked at him while he looked at me. He kept his sunglasses on. I focused on his gun.

He had an extra magazine taped to the original magazine on his gun. I had seen some Karachi gangsters do that to their guns, presumably for extra firepower.

Why else do you tape an extra magazine to your gun? How does that extra magazine even work?

‘What do you do?’ another teenager later asked me at immigration. I am a writer.

‘What do you write?’ Stories.

‘What kind of stories?’

Love stories, I said, hoping to have my exit expedited.

‘What kind of love stories?’

And it went on and on till I realised I was creating a whole fictional character about myself, someone who believes that Israeli kids are actually literary critics who need to be engaged in the nature of fiction.

And then you are passed on to a second and third interrogator till you completely submit to the tyranny of teenagers.

Palestine's Pakistan problem

With PalFest I taught a creative writing workshop in Ramallah. Ramallah was full of entrepreneurs and people who hated them.

The place meant for the writer-in-residence wasn’t ready yet so I was hosted above a newly opened posh cafe and bar.

It really was posh; some weeks they had Spanish nights. ‘What time do you close?’ I asked the owner and my host. ‘Half an hour after the last client leaves.’

The young man had chucked his flourishing career in New York to bring a taste of the world to Ramallah. Some nights there was confusion if I was the last client — would he wait for half an hour after I went upstairs?

It turned out that the workshop that I was teaching consisted entirely of girls. There was one boy who had registered.

He came on the first day and then disappeared. The students, despite their forced isolation from the outside world, were worldly-wise, sharp and keen.

And wanted to learn. I had a feeling that I was faking it. I tried to encourage them to write about what they knew.

Ten years later I visited Hebron with PalFest. Not only had it gone out of business, but for the first time I saw a proper ghost town. Once a living, throbbing centre of spirituality and commerce, Hebron was completely locked down. The mosque and the partitioned grave were locked up. The area around the mosque was completely locked up. Most of the residents of the area evicted. All the glorious little shops shut down. God’s own economy in a meltdown.

In our writing exercises an F16 would appear outside an apartment window, a woman baking a cake would get shot in the head by a stray bullet, an olive grove would get sprayed with acid.

They weren’t trying their hands at magical realism. They were writing about their family lives.

In most writing exercises a family elder was humiliated, sometimes stripped, sometimes slapped by the Israeli kid soldiers as the family watched.

They wanted to write and get published.

Their stories started out about love and sibling rivalry but bullets would start flying. Or someone would get slapped by a kid soldier.

After the first few days I didn’t feel too fake.

I have started countless stories set in Pakistan promising myself to keep it happy and shiny, and by page six someone has died a horrible death.

We kept returning to basic questions. Should one write what one knows? What if nobody wants to read what I know? What if I hate what I know?

There was anger over occupation, but more anger over why we must always be telling this story.

Many of my students had a family elder who had studied in Pakistan in the ‘70s. They had heard good things about Pakistan.

What is wrong with it now? they would ask me.

Why so many bomb blasts? Why was Pakistan always in the news, always for the wrong reasons?

I felt defensive.

I tried hard to explain that we were better off in an understated kind of way. We don’t live under occupation; in fact, parts of Pakistan claim that we are the occupiers, we have a democracy of sorts, we have voters’ lists and elections and we have a free press although we routinely kill journalists for exercising that freedom.

You don’t need an Israel to mess you up, you can be your own Israel. You can kill your own children; you can build your own ugly walls.

One of the students had been lucky, the only one in the class to have travelled to Europe.

‘When we travel abroad they ask us where are you from. We say Palestine and they say what — Pakistan? Easy mistake to make, I know.

But then they subject us to extra checks; they have started treating us like Pakistanis.’

I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased that in the crazed-out world of airport security Pakistanis have beaten Palestinians.

Or was there something deeper going on?

Safety belt

I was travelling in a Palestinian minibus from Bethlehem to Ramallah. An Israeli traffic police car chased us and stopped us.

They fined the driver and all the passengers for not wearing safety belts. None of us were wearing safety belts. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to wear safety belts in a minibus.

All the passengers chipped in to pay the fine. They refused to take my contribution as I was a stranger from Pakistan, how was I supposed to know? We all wore our safety belts.

As the minibus resumed its journey and the Israeli traffic police car receded, all the passengers — without looking at each other — removed their safety belts.

I waited for a few seconds and then I did too.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 11th, 2017