November 2012 I was in Palestine, touring schools in the West Bank. Then as now (but at a much, much smaller scale) bombs were raining over Gaza. The 17th of November I wrote a blog post on my storyteller webpage, which currently is out of order. I have reuploaded it here.
Three days ago, I was sitting on a floor in a library in a village close to Tubas, West Bank, Palestine, surrounded by kids, listening to a girl from the 5th grade telling us a story with variants found all over the world: A stepmother sends the heroine out to the ghoul (a man-eating demon) to get her killed. Instead she returns with great treasure because she has a good heart and dares to face and comb the evil ghoul’s hair. She faces the darkness bravely, and it doesn’t hurt her, it gives her gifts. Every time she speaks, perfume and flowers emerge from her mouth.
The stepmother sends her own daughter out to do the same, but, being filled with spite and hate and refusing to have anything to do with the ghoul’s filthy locks, she gets another gift – she starts spewing worms and spiders instead when trying to communicate.
While the little storyteller was telling her tale, the Gaza crisis was escalating. I thought about the stories we tell to ourselves. Some say that evil has nothing to do with them, it only exists outside themselves, behind walls. Hiding away the evil, telling stories about it, but never actually seeing it, makes it easier to believe that beyond this border is the land of the soul-less flesh-eating ghouls, where all men should fear to tread. Cross this line and be devoured. We can not guarantee your safety.
Signs like these (right), in signal red, are all over the place here. Close to the border of the Palestinian Territories. Some, by the area of the West Bank defined as Area A, say that Israelis are not allowed by law to enter these areas and that it is to the risk of their own lives. It’s a modern euphemism for skulls or rotting bodies along the perimeters of a fence.
It is funny. I have lived in the land of the ghouls for almost two weeks now. Do you know where area A is? Among other places, the areas around the city of Tubas. It’s a rural and peaceful Muslim community, as are most of the areas in this region. People just trying to get on with their lives, concerned with their families.
Earlier during the day of my visit to this area, I told a story to a girl school class in a village close to the city of Jenin. Coming into the class room gave me a bit of a start, because I was faced with a uniform mass of twenty fourteen year olds, all dressed in white, including snow white hijabs. They were fourteen, but they looked somehow much older. In the beginning, this group of young women felt almost alien to me, as if they were from some other planet.
But then, as I started telling my story, recognition kicked in. I could hear the shy giggling of teenagers not sure about the situation. I could see the attentive eyes of children wondering what would happen. And when I called, they responded. I told a universal story of love, regret and hope in the face of great adversity. About everything that makes us human, about everything that makes us, all of us, reflections of one another. In a space beyond the wall, where no Israeli citizen is allowed to travel.
I am in Palestine. I was supposed to attend a workshop here, an artist’s workshop under the supervision of Al-Mahatta Gallery, a collaborative foundation of young Palestinian visual artists. The workshop did not happen at the appointed time, may not happen, due to problems with visas for participants from Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt. All lands of the ghoul. I travelled here anyway. Here, in the areas beyond the red warning signs, I feel safe. And welcomed.
There’s one other place in the world I have been met with such a high degree of friendliness, openness and hospitality.
And that is Iran.
In last year’s Al-Mahatta workshop, an American Jew (I will add his name later) was one of the participants. His mother was terrified! He would surely get beaten or killed. Under no circumstances should he reveal that he was Jewish while in Palestine. In the security check at the airport, the officials told him that he was taking a big risk, and that Jews foolhardy enough to enter the lair of the ghoul, would get burned. Palestinians were not to be trusted. This guy, having a good heart, paid no heed. He opened the gate, ignored the decapitated heads, and decided to make his art project based on these fears.
In the city of Birzeit, he stood on top of a wall. There was a drop of several meters from the wall to the ground below. He told people that gathered about the fact that he was Jewish, about the stories he had heard, and that he wanted to check if he could trust Palestinians. He had a strap around his chest. Two ropes were connected to the strap. He gave one of the ropes to the people on the street, total strangers. And the other rope, which had a heavy rock attached to it, was dangled over the edge of the wall. He was at their mercy, put his faith in them. And they didn’t let him down. Returning to the US after this experience, whenever he would talk about his time in Palestine, perfume and flowers would fill the air, fighting off the stench of the worms and the spiders.
Worms and spiders still dominate the global discourse about the Middle East crisis. World leaders, high ranking officials and media conglomerates are spewing them out at an alarming rate. But we have to remember: They are nothing but stepsisters. If they enter the lair of the ghoul, they refuse to get their hands dirty, they refuse to see beyond the tangled hair, the language they don’t understand, the religion they feel is a threat. If they had but showed kindness, and combed the hair of the ghoul, instead of listening and reacting to the fear and hate in their hearts, they would see that behind the ugly mask there is a mirror.
The darkness is not something outside of ourselves. We all carry darkness. And if we don’t face it, we will always see it elsewhere. The result being the murdering of innocents. Yesterday, the loss of life in Gaza amounted to 24, of which 15 were civilians. Of the 15, 8 were children from the age of eleven months to thirteen years, 4 were seniors and 3 were women. 280 were injured, of these 197 are children and women. In Israel, three civilians have been killed, in a settlement close to Tel Aviv.
A part of me is still sitting on the floor in that library, surrounded by children, listening to a folk tale found in all parts of the world, told by a 5th grader with gleaming eyes. In the end, this is the ghoul. The fear of discovering and accepting that after all this bloodshed and carnage, the mirror behind the mask will show you this girl, scenting the air with flower and perfume as she speaks.
She has a good heart. She deserves a good life. Don’t let fear and ignorance take that away.