The last day of Palfest 2011 — it started quietly. Our trusty bus, the fat bellied one in which we all sat together, rolled out of Ramallah. As I stared out of the window, I could see the wild flowering yellow sprays in amongst the rocks on the hillside, and on a knoll where we stopped for a minute, a whole cluster of the delicate red anemones. The ones with the dark hearts that leap up on the frail green stalk.
At Palfest we have come as visitors, well wishers, writers come to a land that is undergoing great difficulty. I thought of the stumps of olive trees, a scarred field glimpsed out of the bus window one morning near Nablus. The Israeli soldiers had cut the trees because they were deemed to be a security risk. Whole families depended on the livelihood from the trees.
We got into Hebron a little later than planned, There was a tour of the embattled city, where settlers had come into the very heart of the city and terribly disrupted the lives of Palestinians. The glorious city of sandstone and carved trellis work, an ancient city was being depleted of its inhabitants and The Hebron Rehabilitation committee which we visited was involved in helping rebuild the houses, stone by stone, millimeter by millimeter as someone there put it. In the street of the Gold market there were international observers. One of the them told me that there job was to watch the school children, both boys and girls had their bags checked by soldiers and were also subjected to body searches. The gentleman at the Hebron Rehabilitation Center who was speaking to us about the experience of the children had said: `These things come in the blood, they are bloody things.’
We walked in the street and above our heads was netting – the settlers who lived above the street had flung garbage and all manner of waste, onto the heads of the shopkeepers there. There were soldiers everywhere, on rooftops, at street corners. I thought of the students in the workshop at Hebron University. How attentive they were to the music of poetry. What were their daily lives like? I thought back to the child in Balata refugee camp who had made a picture of barbed wire, knotted around a flag, and a huge lock on the barbed wire and a creature that looked part bird, part woman flying down. In its beak was a key.
We passed Beit Jala in our bus and on the walls of the check point at Bethlehem, those enormous dirty grey walls that cut the air and sky, someone had painted a hand, on the palm a red heart, but the fingers missing – with the caption Five Fingers of the same Hand. Elsewhere on the wall there was huge and colorful graffiti, animals with huge tails and wings, trees, people gathering, a celebration of life and resistance. Inside the checkpoint we were in a large empty shed. No soldiers were visible, but there was a very loud voice that came on from time to time, barking out orders. Ahead of us was a Palestinian family with two tiny boys. One of the boys held onto the bars of the swivel gate and tried to poke his head through, the sort of thing a child would do. Behind us was a multicolored poster of the church of the Holy Nativity. `Come and feel the glory’ it said and under it, in elaborate letters – Israel. It took us a while, but we were able to find our way to the right gate, the one that suddenly had a light flashing. One by one, passport in hand, we made our way through.
The evening started with a reception for Palfest in the American Colony Hotel. After the wine and canapes we set out in a bus for Silwan. We were to read that night in the solidarity tent. Silwan is where houses are being demolished and the people are resisting as best they can. Earlier that evening the Israeli army had lobbed tear gas at the tent, trying to get rid of the people in it. Close to Silwan the bus stopped. We left the bus and walked in a group. The acrid scent of tear gas was everywhere. The dark was illuminated by lights from a few shops, and we could see the glowing lights in the houses nearby. A cluster of people stood there, as we figured out what to do. Onions helped, cut onions that were passed around, scarves, scraps of tissue, anything to ease the tear gas. There were broken stones on the road, and from the houses nearby the people were chanting Allah u Akbar’ Whistles came in the dark. There were soldiers on the hillside nearby, though we could not immediately see them. Our destination was close by. How dark the tent was as we stumbled in, a cheer went up as the lights came on. Plastic chairs were rearranged quickly. Fekhri Abu Diab from the Silwan Solidarity Committee who welcomed us spoke in very moving fashion. `We had wanted to welcome you’ he said `in our own way and with the poems of a thirteen year old poet, but see we now welcome you with tear gas.’– One of the signs in the tent – `Israel wants to demolish the houses of 1500 years. We will not give up our houses — Bustan Committee.`
Several of us read, poems and prose pieces and Ahdaf did an amazing job of on the spot translation. There was supposed to be an open mike so the people of Silwan could read and share their work, but because of the tear gas, the parents had taken their children to the relative safety of home. The Palestinian rap group DAM brought the house down with their songs. The first rap was in English, for the benefit of Palfest, since many of us did not know Arabic. An amazing piece about being in an elevator with a beautiful woman who could well aim her machine gun at you. The lead singer had a T shirt with a teddy bear. The bear had an eyepatch. When I asked him what it was. He looked at me and said `Just like that.’
So ended our last evening all together.
At Herod’s gate
I heap flowers in a crate
Poppies, moist lilies –
It’s dusk, I wait.
The color of your eyes before you were born
That hard winter
And your mother brought you to Damascus gate.
My desire silent as a cloud,
It floats through New gate
Over the fists
Of the beardless boy-soldiers
You stopped for me at Lion’s gate,
Feet wet with dew
From the torn flagstones
Love, I was forced to approach you
Through Dung Gate
My hands the color
Of the broken houses of Silwan,
At Zion’s gate I knelt and wept.
An old man, half lame,
– He kept house in Raimon’s café –
Led me to the fountain.
At Golden gate
Where rooftops ring with music,
I glimpse your face.
You have a coat of many colors — impossible grace.
c. Meena Alexander 2011
April 4, 2011 – Composed late at night, Indian Hospice, Jerusalem
(Actually early the next morning, 12:38 am; continued writing very early morning April 5)
April 20, 2011 – Performed in Silwan