Sleeping on a Wire

Conversations with Palestinians in Israel

David Grossman; Translated by Haim Watzman; With a new Afterword

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SLEEPING ON A WIRE (Chapter 1)

It was morning in the midafeh--%the room where guests are received--in the house of Hassan Ali Masalha in Kafr Kara. Passions flared among the men seated on mats; the elder Hassan Masalha was debating with his son. The former was saying, "The Palestinians have only lost and will continue to lose from the intifadah." His son jumped up, mortified at his father's words: "What is economic loss? That's a loss? In the territories they have culture now! There% they have principles! There% they have no crime! There% there are no drugs!" The old man, reclining comfortably on a thin mattress, an embroidered pillow under his forearm, dismissed his son's words with a single wave of his hand. Another elder, Fahmi Fanaka, leaned over to me and whispered, "The Palestinians will have a state, but for us, the train has already passed us by." As I wrote this down, the windows in the large, unfurnished room suddenly shook from a sonic boom. An unfamiliar expression passed over the faces of all those present, skipping like a spark from eye to eye. "It's only an airplane," I said to the man next to me, reassuring him, as we do each other in Jerusalem when there is a loud explosion. "I know," the man replied quietly. "It's probably going to Lebanon." I wanted to ask him another question, but the commotion resumed, the debate between the old father and his angry son, and I forgot the incident.

In Beit Hanina, to the north of Jerusalem, in a small apartment full of burgeoning plants, Adel Mana--who was born in the Galilee village of Majd el-Krum--told me the story of his childhood, and then I remembered.

A long, harsh story. The village resisted the Israeli Army in 1948, and after it was overcome, the army gathered all its inhabitants in the central square. According to Adel Mana, the soldiers shot four of those who had participated in the fighting. Afterward they put several hundred of the villagers on buses and took them to Wadi Ara, where they let them off at some unknown point in the middle of the night and said, Eastward, and whoever returns gets shot. Mana himself was then a one-year-old baby. He wandered with his parents to Nablus, to Jordan, to Syria, and to Lebanon. His first memories are from there, how other members of the family joined them in the refugee camp, how his father would steal into Israel to get money from his grandmother and sisters who had remained in Majd el-Krum, or sometimes to help them press the olives or harvest wheat in the summer.

"At the beginning of '51 we 'made aliya%,' " he related. "We did what you call 'illegal immigration.' We came in a boat from Sidon to Acre with a few other families from the village. My uncle, Father's brother, was uncertain whether to join us. Of course, he wanted to return to the village, but he was afraid of what they would do to him here. He was also afraid because many were killed when they tried to cross the border. When we set off, he stayed there, in Ein el-Hilweh."

"And then what happened?"

"He married, and he has a family there. We twice submitted requests to the army to allow him to visit us. They were approved and he came. The last time was in '82. After that they didn't allow it anymore. Now we are almost unable to maintain contact with him. If we can, we send him letters. That's all. If we hear that the air force bombed Lebanon, obviously the first thing we think is, What about him, what about his children?"

It was then, some weeks later, that I caught the glances of the men in the midafeh%.

In Nazareth I spoke to Lutfi Mashour, editor of the weekly newspaper As-Sinara:% "My wife is from Bethlehem. She is the spoils I brought home from the Six-Day War, so you see that something good also came out of the occupation. My daughters have a grandfather there, my wife's father. Once the grandfather went to the civil administration to request that they renew his driver's license. He is eighty-five, but his health is excellent and he wants to continue to drive. He came to the administration's headquarters and saw Arabs kneeling down. Not on two knees, only on one. A soldier told him, Kneel like them. Grandfather said, 'I'm already eighty-five years old, and you can shoot me, but I won't kneel down.' The soldier let him be, but said, 'Because of that you'll go to everyone and collect their identity cards.' There were about three hundred people there. Grandfather, eighty-five years old, had to be insulted like that, to have a young soldier use him as an errand boy, and to take the cards from his kneeling brothers. He told the soldier, 'You have power and I'll do it, but why are you forcing them to kneel?' The soldier said, 'How else could I keep an eye on them all?' 'Bring an empty barrel and stand on it.' 'I% should go to all that effort for them?' The soldier laughed.

"This is what my daughters have to hear. These are girls who were born in the State of Israel, and every day they hear a new story from Grandfather, from their uncles, and they're fed up. I should tell you that we have decided to send them overseas to study, because if they stay here, I don't know what will happen to them. They've been through the seven circles of hell since they were small, through insults and curses, through substandard schools, through searches and roadblocks at the airport, and now these stories about their grandfather. I'm telling you that if they stayed here a little longer, we would lose control of them. Had I been in their position, I would have lost control long ago, and I don't know what will happen to them in the future. Don't you know, there's a new generation here. A generation that did not experience our fears, that isn't intimidated by you."

At such moments, almost incidentally, a full, three-dimensional picture took shape as if it were crystallizing in a glass. I really should have recognized it. After all, like everyone else I knew that the Arabs who live in Israel have extensive links with the Palestinians in the territories and in the Arab countries. I knew the historical background, that about 160,000 Arabs remained here after the 1948 war and almost 600,000 of their relatives fled or were expelled. I remembered well the longings of the refugees in the camps for the cities and villages from which they were uprooted, and for their relatives there. But only at the sound of those slight, involuntary sighs, or at the sight of the faces of the men around me draining of blood when an airplane passed overhead, could I for the first time feel it within myself, without putting up any defenses. Those moments were repeated again and again--like the story of the cousin who disappeared in Nablus, arrested by the army for interrogation; for an entire week his whereabouts were unknown. An entire family, in Israel and in Nablus, went mad with worry. And the aunt, in whose house the search was conducted, from whom the entire family's picture albums, all those precious moments, were confiscated. And how you almost die before you find out exactly what names are behind the laconic news on the radio of dead and wounded in "disturbances" in Jenin or in Ramallah, or what goes through your head when the newscaster reports that "all our planes have returned safely."

"My Palestinian brother there," said Hassan Ali Masalah from Kafr Kara, the old man, paunchy and smiling, "is not against my country; he is only against your regime there. He wants to live. They shouldn't kill my brother. They should respect him, and I will respect them. Blood is not water." "How is it that you Jews don't understand such a thing," a young leader of the intifadah in Barta'a said to me. "You, because of blood ties, are willing to fly to Africa and bring 15,000 Ethiopians in a single day, simply because two thousand years ago they were your relatives. And if they kill a Jew in Brooklyn or in Belgium, all of you immediately shout and cry."

When the realization finally penetrates, through all the functional layers of protection, how much the Palestinians in Israel and in the territories are in many ways a single living body, a single organic tissue, one wonders at the powers of forbearance needed by the Arabs in Israel in order to continue to exercise self-restraint. And one wonders, Do they consider what this restraint implies for themselves, and the significance of their collaboration in Israel's daily routine? How do they excuse the fact that their taxes finance that plane, and the bombs hanging from it, and the soldier in Bethlehem who laughs at Grandfather: "I% should go to all that effort for them?"

"No, I'm not at all comfortable with the response of Israeli Arabs to the intifadah," said Azmi Bishara, born in Nazareth, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "It is not the same struggle. Certainly not the same price. It's not even a struggle parallel to the struggle in the territories. Jenin is under curfew, starving, and Nazareth, twenty minutes away, is living normally. But what? We have solidarity% with them.

"It makes me feel horrible. It makes me feel sick. Because I think that somewhere between Palestinian nationalism and the pitiful opportunism of the Arab mayors there is a path that can guide us as citizens in the State of Israel. Citizens who allow ourselves a little more 'solidarity' with the inhabitants of the territories. So I start behaving a little more like the Israeli left--what's wrong with that? So I won't be ashamed to march 50,000 Arabs through Tel Aviv. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr., wasn't ashamed of 50,000 blacks in Washington. I have no problem with them calling me a nationalist. I'm not a nationalist. These slogans are not nationalism. They are in every respect the slogans of good citizens. If the Tempo soft-drink factory lays off all its Arab workers, I will call on the Arab population of Israel to boycott it completely! If they don't want me, why should I drink their Maccabee beer?"

"You mean an internal Arab boycott?"

"Not a boycott as Arabs! Not a boycott as Palestinians! As Israelis! And as an Israeli I won't be ashamed to have a black crowd march through Tel Aviv and upset the city. The inhabitants of the territories can't do it, but we can. I should have and could have organized marches at the beginning of the intifadah. There was enough anger then for a step like that. But our leadership died of fear. Our leadership is afraid that all those nice Jews who are responsible for the 'sector' [he spits that word out the same way he did "solidarity"] will smile at us and say in a nice voice, 'You want to be like they are in the territories? Go on, do something, and then we will treat you just like we treat them. And remember not to take anything for granted in our attitude toward you, Israeli Arabs. When it comes down to it, you are tolerated guests here. And guests can be shown the door.' "

He is thirty-five years old, black-haired, with a dark face and a thick mustache. At age sixteen he founded the National Committee of Arab High School Students in Israel, the first nationwide organization of Arab youth. In the mornings, instead of going to school, the young Bishara grabbed his satchel and set out on "working tours" of the villages in Wadi Ara and the southern Triangle, organizing high-school students to fight for equality in education. "We closed down the schools a few times, a very militant story. We could decide just like that to shut down a school, no problem. Remember that it wasn't an easy time--in '74 we went around with kaffiyehs%. That was when Arafat addressed the United Nations and the Egyptian Army crossed the Suez Canal. We had a lot of Palestinian sensibility.

"Today? Today there's a difference between us and the Palestinians in the territories. Our experience is different from theirs. The sensibility is different, too. They can conduct a violent struggle against you. We can't anymore. Not because of the Shin Bet [the internal security service], but because we ourselves are no longer able to see this as a possibility. It is already contrary to the temperament of our population, which has lived with you for decades and is already part of the economy and the way of life and a million other things. The Arabs here are an integral part of your story, even if you haven't fathomed this yet. When the intifadah began, we had to make a quick and clear decision: are we part of it or not part of it? Period. And we discovered that our aspirations branched off at this point from the aspirations of the Palestinians in the territories.

"But in one thing there is no distinction: as far as you're concerned, both we and they are strangers here. Unwanted here. Rejected. And for this reason I say that the old way that Israeli Arabs think about Israel is bankrupt. It can't be allowed to go on. Precisely because of the alienation that you impose on me, precisely because I am frightened, precisely because in your opinion nothing can be taken for granted in your attitude toward us, so I'm also allowed not to have my attitude toward you taken for granted.

"When Martin Luther King put together his movement for equal rights in America in the sixties, he called for total equality, period. Equality that would go as far as positive discrimination in favor of the blacks, in order to correct the injustice of decades. Together with that he had no problem shouting, 'I am proud to be an American,' in other words, as a black man, the country was his, too. The flag was also his. The blacks emphasized that they were no less American than others. Now I ask myself if the American Indians could do such a thing. Can an Indian shout with all his heart, 'I am proud to be an American'?"

"And you, in this metaphor, are the Indian?"

"I think so. From that point of view I am like the Palestinian in the territories. Neither of us is wanted here. Both of us are ignored. And on top of that I'm caught in the perfect paradox--I have to be a loyal citizen of a country that declares itself not to be my country but rather the country of the Jewish people."

Vehement in expression, emotional, a dissenter from birth, his movements untempered, Bishara looks as if a struggle is always going on within him. He lives in Nazareth, in Jerusalem, in Bir Zeit. He likes big cities and divided people. "The most dangerous people are healthy people at one with themselves, people without contradictions--I'm wary of them. I also liked Berlin when it was divided. Now I can't set foot in it. It disappointed me. It became normal."

"And do you feel a link to the land here, to the country?" I asked. "A link to nature? To the view? Is there any place in the country that you especially like?"

He let out a long laugh, a laugh to himself. "You want me to feel something for Karmiel? For Afula? Nothing is as gray as those places. However you look at them. Or Migdal Haemek. Would I take a tour of Migdal Ha-emek? You'll find that resistance stronger in me than in Israeli Arabs who have already assimilated the situation and their experience, who have married here, who have children, who go for weekends at the beach. I don't go for weekends at the beach. I don't recognize the beaches in this country. I hate the Israeli beach bum. He reeks of insolence and violence and swagger, and I can't stand it. I feel very foreign among Israelis. It's not just that I have white spots on the map where the Jewish settlements are; I've also got a great emptiness of nature. They always talk about the Palestinians' links with nature and the land. I have no link with nature, not to woods, not to mountains; I don't know the names of the plants and trees as even my Israeli friends do. In Arabic poetry in Israel the names of all the plants appear, the za'atar% and the rihan%, but I don't know them, can't tell them apart, and I don't care about them. For me nature is, somehow, the Jewish National Fund. All the forests and flora are the JNF. It's all artificial and counterfeit. Can you see me wandering the mountains, hiking for the fun of it, and suddenly the Green Patrol [charged with guarding state lands] comes and asks me what I'm doing here?"

When I met Bishara for the first time, years ago, there was something forbidding in his appearance. I force myself to write this because it is part of the subject as a whole. There's something forbiddingly Arab, I thought--his face is dark, his mustache thick--in the belligerence I attributed to him, all this formed part of the rough outline of the archetypical foreign and frightening Arab. Since then, every time our paths meet, I reflect on that. There is a special joy--joy in the victory of the weak, in the unraveling of any stereotype.

I asked how, in his opinion, Palestinians in the territories relate to the dilemma of the Arabs who live in Israel.

"They look down on us. Yes, yes. Before the intifadah it was the opposite--there was admiration. For a while even phony admiration. Admiration that was meant to inflate the Israeli-Arab experience. Yet I am not proud of anything. What do I have to be so proud of? Of the fact that the Arabs in Israel have not produced anything of significance? No culture, no elite, nothing. Their intellectual life is shocking. What is there for them to be proud of? Of their pursuit of lucrative professions, of money and more money? Of the lack of any intellectual dimension? There is not a single intellectual I can be proud of. Not a philosopher, not a single writer I'm proud of. They're all dwarfs. Look at Emile Habibi, who makes an ideology out of the 'Israeli-Arab experience,' and every time he talks he declares, 'We've stayed here for forty-three years!' What do you mean you've stayed? What's the big deal? But for him staying is a conspiracy%. Do you understand? [He lowers his voice and whispers.] Some people got together and held meetings and consultations, and after a month of uncertainty they decided to remain in the State of Israel, to keep the flame burning...After all, our whole story, of the Arabs in Israel, is no more than the struggle to survive. That's not such a heroic struggle. It was largely a story of cringing, lots of toadying and opportunism, and imitation of the Israelis. And when the Arabs here finally started feeling a little more sure of themselves, they had already turned into Israelis. What Israeli-Arab symbols are there that a man like me can identify with? Nothing. Even when you think that there's an authentic phenomenon like the Islamic Movement, it turns out to be counterfeit. I debated their leader, Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, in Haifa. An open debate before an audience. I was astounded at how little he understands Islam. Superficial. He doesn't know it. For him, Islam is only a political tool.

"So where is all the talk about our pride, about our heroism? Listen to a heroic story: Once there was a protest rally in the Communists' Friendship House in Nazareth, and the police surrounded the building. The next day the headline in the Communist newspaper was THE SECOND SIEGE OF BEIRUT! Do you understand? They surrounded the Friendship House in Nazareth! When it comes down to it, the Arabs of Israel, with the exception of the six who fell on Land Day* in 1976, didn't pay much. In other words, it's impossible, it's disgraceful to compare them to the Arabs in the territories. You should see it there; when someone gives a speech, he is the spokesman for an entire history. There are symbols, there's rhetoric, pathos, spark. On our side you hear half a sentence and feel that where we are everything is empty. Our history is cut off."

When he came to our meeting, Bishara was upset. A short while before he had been with his sister in a restaurant in East Jerusalem. His sister is a doctor and lives in Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem. Her Citroën has the blue license plates that show it is from the territories. But there was a little sticker with the word DOCTOR in Hebrew on the windshield. That was enough to get the car torched. "And imagine," he snorted, "there I was helping the guys from the Border Guard put out the fire; it was very embarrassing!"

He was nevertheless able to laugh at the circumstances there, and at himself. So I did not restrain myself from saying to him, "Here they gave you the spark you were looking for." Afterward I asked him whether he was angry at the arsonists.

"On the contrary," he said immediately, "I was pleased that they are so good at spotting Israeli cars."

I already knew, after about a month of visits and conversations, that I would almost always get an unexpected response. That the status of the Arab who lives in Israel is so tangled and twisted that I had to stop trying to anticipate, and only listen, to open myself to the complexity, to try to make room for it. Make room for them within us. How does one do that? It is precisely the thing that we, the majority, forbid them with such deft determination.

And here, something like a nervous security guard began running around inside me, reorganizing the broken ranks. It seems to me that the words "make room for them" are what set him off. He is part of me, I've encountered him several times in the past month. Right now he demands to know exactly what I meant--just how much room to make for them? And at whose expense? And is it necessary to open the discussion just now, while the peace talks are in progress? And when the country is trying, with its remaining strength, to absorb a huge wave of immigration? He speaks, and something unpleasant is slowly revealed to me: that when, for example, Azmi Bishara says he wants to march a black crowd through Tel Aviv, something in me recoils. Contorts. And suddenly I am the one facing the test. How real and sincere is my desire for "coexistence" with the Palestinians in Israel? Do I stand wholeheartedly behind the words "make room for them among us"? Do I actually understand the meaning of Jewish-Arab coexistence? And what does it demand of me, as a Jew in Israel? How much room am I really willing to make for "them" in the Jewish state? Have I ever imagined, down to the smallest living detail, a truly democratic, pluralistic, and egalitarian way of life in Israel? These questions race at me, and caught me unprepared--an abstract, perhaps simplistic picture of life with the Arabs was impressed on me from the start, and because of it, apparently, I set out on this journey. I certainly wanted to persuade others it was an imperative, and here, the outer layer of these abstract declarations was quickly torn away, and from within its contents burst forth--demanding, threatening, enticing, shaking the defenses--

SLEEPING ON A WIRE Copyright © 1993, 2003 by David Grossman.