“Ideals are our north stars:” Reflections on THERE IS A FIELD from death row

(Dear friends, 
I sent a copy of my play “There Is A Field” to my friend George Wilkerson, who is on North Carolina’s death row. George is part of a drama group that is considering performing the play. With his permission, I am posting here his reflections upon reading the play, which are both on the play itself and the larger Palestinian/Israeli conflict. If anyone has comments or responses for George, please post and I will send them to him!)

Hey Jen,

I finished reading There Is A Field. It’s very poignant. You have a gift of making people relatable–of finding the common humanity in everyone. I thought it was clever of you to  begin the play with the emails. It allowed me to view their intimate exchanges without asking anything of me, without arguing for/against anything. It had the effect of drawing me in, of investing emotionally with the sibling relationship; I have 3 brothers and one sister. That shared experience gave me a framework for understanding.

I identify with Aseel, in that people tell me I’m an idealist. The way it’s said is as if6idealism is disconnected from reality. Like I’m just a dreamer. However, to me, idealism is what shapes reality. Ideals are our north stars. They guide us, give us direction,  provide a point of reference. Ideals have practical applications. They are governing principles…

One thing I see [in the world] is reactionism. There’s a temptation to demonize the oppressors and lionize the oppressed, but the issue isn’t so clearly defined. Just to be clear, oppression is wrong. Period. However, it doesn’t justify the reverse racism or prejudice that is common amongst the oppressed. I believe Gandhi said it well: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Think: If I allow your treatment of me to determine my behavior and beliefs and how I treat you (and others of your race), then I don’t stand for anything. I am a puppet in your hands. Then, if you allow my treatment of you to determine your behavior, etc, then where are we? We are trapped in a vicious feedback loop. Dr King recognized this, so did Gandhi, which is why they advocated nonviolence. They said, stand firm, adhere to our beliefs. Do not compromise your integrity. Someone must break the cycle. Someone must take the first step. Someone must set the example. It says, “Do unto others as you want done unto you,” not “Do unto others as is done to you.” You know?

I won’t pretend to know a lot about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. As I read your play, and now your book, having connected with your real-life characters, I see a temptation within me to only see their side of the story. However, I recognize that there are more sides to every story. I sympathize and am moved to compassion for their (the Palestinians’) struggles. But if their roles were reversed, would they do the Jews any differently? I see Christians persecuted and martyred in Muslim-controlled countries, run out of their homes, their families slaughtered. None of it is okay. None of it is justifiable. Killing Jews because they killed Palestinians because they killed Jews because they killed Palestinians is not okay.

I know it’s not politically correct to speak like this, but every party involved is in violation. Christians persecute Muslims; Muslims kill Christians; Jews kill Muslims; Gays hate Christians, saying they are “intolerant” even while they themselves are being intolerant of Christians, as if Christians’ intolerance justifies their own. It’s madness. Where does it end?

Picking sides only furthers it. I am a Christian, but I believe Christianity is about LOVE. I may disagree with others’ beliefs and behaviors, but I love/accept them nevertheless. I’m not anyone’s judge.

I believe this is the place Aseel had reached. Beyond the rights or wrongs of any one religion, there is a field. We are that field: humanity. Without the religions, the biases, the prejudices, there is a law written in every heart which tells us how we ought to treat one another. It is woven into the very nature of us. This begs the question of why we hurt each other, then, if it is within our nature to love. This is a question, the answer to which determines everything that follows. Sin. The entrance of sin corrupted our nature. But I’m not here to preach. I’m here to tear down the veils, and to demonstrate humanity as God designed us, ie, to live a life governed by love.

The way I give people my friendship immediately is because I believe in love. Sure, people have hurt me and no doubt will again. But I heal, and quickly, because I forgive. Refusal to forgive is what keeps wounds open. The more people hurt me and I forgive, the stronger I get.

–George T. Wilkerson

 

 

 

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Filed under Asel Asleh, Black Palestinian solidarity, Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Palestine/Israel

Made in Deir Yassin

(Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Nakba. The Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the ongoing displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, a process that was set into motion with the creation of the state of Israel. I offer here a segment of The Hour of Sunlight, the book I co-wrote with my dear colleague and brother, Sami Al Jundi. Sami’s origin on his father’s side is Deir Yassin, a village that was depopulated shortly before the creation of Israel, in which an infamous massacre took place. This passage took place when Sami was approximately 17 years old, in 1979.)

(Excerpt from The Hour of Sunlight by Sami Al Jundi & Jen Marlowe)

Now that I had dropped out of school, I needed work. Our neighbor Abu Ahmad had a job in a large Israeli factory making kitchen cabinets. They needed more workers. Abu Ahmad and I took an Egged bus to the factory to talk to the supervisor, Giora, about a job. The factory was in Givat Sha’ul. Givat Sha’ul had been built on the ruins of my father’s village, Deir Yassin.

deir yassin

The depopulated village of Deir Yassin

Giora, a big blond man with thick glasses and the knitted skullcap typical to settlers, looked at me disdainfully but hired me right away. My job was to deliver sections of cabinets to their next destination on the assembly line, shuttling back and forth with a small forklift. I also wrapped the finished cabinets in thick plastic, preparing them to be shipped to Europe.

Giora barked orders and shouted at us, even at workers older than his father. The word Arab was added to whatever other adjective he slung at us, whether dirty or lazy. There was only one non-Arab working with us—an old, balding Iranian Jew named Rahamim. Rahamim was quiet, gentle, and a bit peculiar; he combed his thinning hair over his bald spot with a toothbrush. Giora did not spare Rahamim his abuse; Rahamim was Mizrachi after all, only one step away from being Arab.

More than hating Giora, I hated working in an Israeli factory located in Deir Yassin.

“Where’s your job, Sami?” people in the Old City asked me.

“Deir Yassin,” I had to tell them.

“Deir Yassin? Aren’t you from Deir Yassin?”

I lowered my eyes and shrugged.

My grandmother visited from Jordan. Tears sprung to her eyes when I told her where I worked. “Is your Uncle Abu Ismail’s house still there?” I did not know how to tell her that only a few buildings from the original Deir Yassin remained, and the Israelis had turned them into an insane asylum.

My grandmother gripped my arm tightly before I left for work the next morning.

“Sami, please. Bring me a fig.”

During my lunch break, I walked to the heart of Deir Yassin. I watched the crazy people wandering in the yard between the homes of my people. When no one was watching, I plucked a fig and a lemon from nearby trees. I gave them to my grandmother that evening. She held the lemon to her nose, breathing deeply the fragrance of her village. Then she cradled the fig to her cheek. “The figs in Deir Yassin,” she said. “There are no figs in the world like those from Deir Yassin.”

The next day I wrapped the cabinets, staring out the large window overlooking the valley covered in fruit trees. All the workers here were nothing but traitors, and I was the worst of all. We were disrespecting the blood that had been spilled here. Maybe the souls of the massacred were still hovering in their demolished village. How could I possibly justify myself to them?

Before wrapping the next cabinet in the thick plastic, I carved words across its face with a screwdriver. I did it again the next day, and the next. The following week, I plugged the forklift backward into the charger, mixing the electric signals and blowing out its circuits. Each time shame overwhelmed me, I found some new way to sabotage the work.

Abu Ahmad figured out what I was up to. “Sami, you have to stop this. You’re going to cause problems for all of us.”

I looked straight into Abu Ahmad’s eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The manager began to receive phone calls from Europe about defective cabinets. It was obvious that I was the culprit; I was the only one with access to all stages of the assembling.

“You piece of rubbish, you disgusting Arab, I’m going to fire your ass! I’m calling the police!” Giora shouted at me.

I shouted right back, “You want to call the police, you fucking settler, fine! Call them! But you can’t fire me, because I quit!”

I stormed out of the factory and never returned. But I smiled each time I imagined customers in Belgium and Italy unwrapping their new kitchen cabinets, only to find the Arabic words I had carved deeply across their doors:

Made in Deir Yassin!

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Filed under Human Rights, Palestine/Israel

Justice would have served us all–reflections from Kenneth Foster, serving a life sentence in TX

(Below, please find reflections from my friend Kenneth Foster, who is currently serving a life sentence in Texas and had previously been in Texas’s death row. Spoiler alert: my favorite quote is at the end: “Remembering and forgetting are both political acts”)

Imperialism is a word that many of us are familiar with. While the word itself may not be ancient, its ideology has been around for eons. And while we may think of wars over-seas, armies encroaching other territories, war ships when we think of Imperialism—what happens when it becomes local? Domesticated? How do we recognize it? How do we see it upon ourselves as we see it inflicted upon other places?

The average citizen does not realize the stretch of the U.S. military which executes Imperialism to precision, and affords its allies to do the same. Does the average citizen know that there’s only around 46 countries (if not less by now) with NO U.S. military presence? Thus making it around 156 countries with U.S. troops. Then 63 countries (give or take a few) with U.S. military bases and troops? How about the fact that the Pentagon currently rents, or owns, around 702 over-seas bases in about 130 countries and has at least another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

But what happens when this mentality turns in? It is no longer extended outwards, but is focused inwards? This is not just a nod towards the advancements in technology which brings more surveillance, but brings a force that crashes down on the heads of its every day citizens. What we are seeing in the news every day—unarmed citizens being gunned down with no charges being brought, more police presence, more laws attacking citizens’ rights to organize, exercise free speech, vote —is not just being “tough on crime,” but is an unavoidable manifestation of what has been practiced years upon years by this government.

There’s two places I see these behaviors being carried out on a daily basis, though they are two places to have unlikely similarities: Palestine and the American prison system. Before you shake that off, understand that there are five main institutions in the world: mental, educational, religious, military and penal. All of which share commonalities that might put a shiver in your spine. The educational, however, separates itself from the other four because it is an institution that has become a social vehicle used to publicly establish rank and class. Yet, the other four possess a dark side that dabbles in the physical (and sometimes violent) which seeks to bend the mind and spirit. Especially the latter two institutions.

The military and penal institutions are ones that mirror each other with a chilling effect. They both are built on bringing in a person, breaking them down from their old self, making them the same as everyone else, instilling brutal discipline and order, and even more brutal punishment if there is any deviation from protocol. These behaviors have become the breath of the American society. Is it that hard to believe when America possesses the most military bases in the world AND the most prisoners?

Prisons have become breeding grounds for the Imperialistic mentality. Prisoners-by law-are deemed non-citizens, therefore they are nothing to be respected. We see these same attacks being carried out in places like Palestine, on the West Bank, where homes are bulldozed, people are brutalized. How vile is it that prison authorities carry somewhat the same mentality towards its prisoners that Zionists did of Palestinian people, that it is “a land without people for a people without land.”

When people are viewed in such a scope, they are no longer people. This is why we see such indoctrination inside the military and penal institutions, because if you extend to a person the basic elements of humanity (compassion, empathy, sympathy) than they can pull themselves from under any rock.

Prisons, too, are becoming more technologically advanced with cameras filling the prisons, X-ray machines, metal detectors, urine analysis, K-9 dogs trained to sniff out narcotics and cell phones. Prisons are even filled with check points where prisoners must show ID and/or a pass to go from one part of the unit to the other. Accompanying it is orders barked at them to stay in proper uniform, stay on certain sides of the walkways, no talking! A form of control used to destroy moral, free thinking, happiness. Not much different from the military.

Now these tactics go into the neighborhoods where youths can’t go to certain areas without scrutiny. Methods like ‘stop and frisk’ are deployed to attack the every day citizen. But it’s gone from red and blue colors to who is wearing the kuffiyeh, the hijab, who is the dissident? Woe to the Arab-American who is the new nigger of the U.S.A.

As settlements rise in Palestine, American prisons continue to boom. Like twins they continue to sprout side by side. Tactics to destroy the undesired people continue to bloom—more restrictions, more oppression, more violence, more crooked laws. Kinda hard to tell which group I’m speaking of, isn’t it?

And that is my point! Imperialism is an entity without a face. It is a “thing” that can be used in any border, in any institution and by any person/group with heart cold enough to carry its flag.

We are lost in a sea of rockets, troops and machinery. We are drowning under bars, walls and batons. In a world of wars with rapid firing bullets, the only thing we may have that can keep up is words. Which means we have to fire off 1,000 words to very 100 bullets. This is why plays like “There Is A Field” and books like “I Am Troy Davis” become essential. REMEMBERING is key to humanity’s survival, because remembering and forgetting are both political acts. It’s an act that the penal and military figures know well, because when they can erase what you once were and make you something new, something trained, something robotic, then they can reign in your non-existence. Where we lack the tanks and bullets, we have to remember the power of the core of humanity. We live those on through art, poetry, music. Memory and documentation require imagination which rejects amnesia. A spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation.

Recognizing the ailments is the first step to treatment. When people think fanatics, it’s not just people who blow themselves up. It’s also people that murder and destroy under the guise of technology or in the name of a better God.

So, as we face the same apparent inevitable Armageddon, what are we to say in the face of all we’ve done? Probably—“Mercy!”

When all along “Justice” would have saved us all.

–Kenneth Foster Jr

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Filed under Black Palestinian solidarity, Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Human Rights, Palestine/Israel

Coming soon: THERE IS A FIELD

Dear friends,

It is with great excitement that I announce:
the Land Day Tour of my new play There Is A Field!

There Is A Field is a play about Aseel Asleh, a 17-year old Palestinian citizen of Israel killed by police in October 2000. Based on interviews and primary sources collected over 15 years, the play offers a uniquely personal lens for understanding inequality as the root of state violence and impunity. Audiences throughout the United States will find particular resonance with themes raised by Aseel’s life and murder, and post-play discussions and actions will create space to further explore connections and build solidarity across universal struggles for liberation and equality.

TIAF-Land-Day-Tour-Poster-web

The play emerges at a critical juncture of unprecedented mobilization for the rights of Palestinians, for Black-Palestinian solidarity, and for transnational movement-building against supremacy and state-sanctioned violence. Aseel’s life and murder, which highlights both entrenched inequality and the impunity of the State of Israel, contributes to the vital and growing national conversation around the systematic devaluation of Black life in the United States.

The Land Day Tour of There Is A Field is a professional production of the play, cast and rehearsed out of NYC, that will travel to 20 schools across ten states in March and April!  The tour coincides with the 40th anniversary of Land Day, an annual commemoration of land dispossessions and the killings of Palestinian citizens of Israel in 1976.

Check out the tour schedule here, and make plans to attend a performance at a university near you! If you don’t live near a city hosting the tour, you can still participate in the Land Day Tour by organizing your own reading of the play!

And, please consider supporting the Land Day Tour with a contribution today!

Towards justice!

Jen Marlowe
Playwright/Producer, There Is A Field

on behalf of the Land Day Tour partner organizations:
50 Shades of Black, Adalah, Code Pink, Donkeysaddle Projects, Dream Defenders, Hands Up United, Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine-National, and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

[Donkeysaddle Projects is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Donkeysaddle Projects must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.}

derry, north of ireland1

Reading of an earlier version of There Is A Field in Derry, Northern Ireland

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Filed under Asel Asleh, Black Palestinian solidarity, Human Rights, Palestine/Israel

Who in the Circle is going to speak up?

I received a letter from Tina Brown, a woman on Florida’s death row who read “I Am Troy Davis.” With Tina’s permission, I am posting her letter here:

Hello, my name is Tina Brown 155917. I’m a female Death Row inmate in Ocala Florida. You may have by now received mail from one of my Death Row sisters Emilia Carr. She let me read her “I Am Troy Davis” story. I would like to thank you and a host of others for doing such a remarkable job. You showed the Love, Strength, Courage, hope and fight Troy, his family and friends around the world shared. Also a family that stayed together against all odds. The story so clearly pointed out how racist, unfair, bias and corrupt our legal and judicial can be. Starting with police, detectives, jails, courts and prisons. I thank you for using your talents to deliver such a story of awareness on all levels. Thank you and the others so much.

Our lives are really in the hands of other human beings that we know not their intentions or their hearts. When will these people in these life-changing positions, our legal and judicial system stand for what’s right and not just simply agree? how can you believe some of what someone says and choose not to hear the rest, or How can you know that what someone is telling you wasn’t to direct attention off themselves? How do you know? So how can our legal and judicial system really know how to judge someone’s life? 2 or 3 words can determine a person’s life or death. “I’m sorry.” Sorry for exactly what? “He/she did it.” Did exactly what? A person’s facial expressions can determine their guilt? A smirk or a smile could be of “fear” or “I have to be brave.” Everyone is not the same, so how do you know? So, who gives anyone the right to assume without knowing? Something has to change the legal and judicial system. It’s so obvious that bullies are not just dealt with among children.

Someone needs to speak up in the Circle, someone needs to ask the questions that others are afraid to ask. Who in the Circle is going to stop being a follower of injustice and speak up?  Who in the Circle is going to stop thinking that their opinions, their questions, their reasonable doubts are going to interfere with their job security or their health? Who in the Circle is going to stop being afraid and state the obvious: “Do we really believe we have the right person?” or will you just go along with “It really doesn’t matter because someone has to pay regardless.” When will this type of reasoning stop?

Jury, how do you really know? Sure, some cases are without a doubt to the point but there are other cases that leave behind unanswered questions. Why is intimidation, tampered questioning, recanted testimony, mistaken identity or coerced answers not an issue? Why is that not of major importance? Who’s going to ask the question or state the obvious, “Something’s not right here, there’s more to this.”

Why are there higher levels of court to address when the lower level of court won’t let in all the facts for the high levels of courts to see? God forbid someone says, “We need more proof for why this and why that.” Why is the evidence that is so needed to make a difference always the evidence not forthcoming?

Someone needs to ask those big pink elephant in the room questions. I dare you to stop letting that Circle intimidate or bully you any further. Don’t just simply agree when you know it’s not justice.

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Filed under Criminal Justice, Death Penalty, Troy Davis, Uncategorized

Radical kinship: Black and Palestinian prisoners

There is an amazing history of “radical kinship” between the Black and Palestinian prisoners experience (as evidenced by a new exhibit called “George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine” which includes letter of solidarity between Palestinian and American prisoners among other artifacts). Some of the same spirit that motivated this exhibit was why I reached out to Black prisoners in the U.S., and invited them to read and respond to “The Hour of Sunlight“–the book I co-authored with my brother and former colleague Sami Al Jundi, who spent 10 years in an Israeli prison for militant anti-occupation activities as a teenager. Below is the response from Kenneth Foster Jr, previously on Texas death row, now serving a life sentence without parole:

“First and foremost, I have read “Sunlight” and it’s a fabulous book. It was really touching for me in a lot of ways. Mainly from the prisoner perspective, but also just through the literary expression of the struggle and familyhood. I greatly enjoyed it.

I have already begun working on the questions (that you sent me.) However, I just don’t feel my answers are adequate. I felt this need to go into a greater dialog. This reminds of this “dissertation” of sorts that I wrote about the Irish struggle for independence from the British. The book emphasized great meaning to the Irish people learning the language. It creates identity. And bond. And as descendants of Africans, we know the language is the first thing to go when an oppressor is seeking to subdue a people. So, I spoke about how Black leaders tried to institute Swahili, but it didn’t catch. I wrote about the unfortunate nature of that and how I think it greatly affected our position here in this country. When I get on books like this it instills that kind of feeling in me.

The reality of my life is that I grew up in prison. I came to prison in 1997 at the age of 20. At the time of this writing I am 39, which means in 1 more year I will have spent the equal amount of time inside that I did outside.

Therefore, any experience that I shared with Sami Al Jundi has been that of a prisoner of book coverconscience. While Sami’s motivations were different from mine–his being politically motivated and mine being criminally motivated–we shared one similar thing entering prison: REGRET! I, too, suffered “the nightmares within nightmares” for the decisions I made. And in the same token, while the nightmares continued, “it’s done. I instructed my brain to convince the rest of me. It’s time to turn the page.”

That is often the hardest part about prison and conversion–changing. There is an enlightenment that falls upon a chosen few of us, and once that page is turned there is no turning back. It’s these ties that bind ones like Sami and I. He, as I, realized–“I had the power to determine the size of my universe.”

Then, the most emotional thing that stood out to me was the criticism and aggression that Sami faced as he sought to be a peacemaker. For one who has had the street gang experience, and then grown out of it, I can deeply relate to those that seek to change the ways of their life. I have come to see (personally and educationally) that it usually takes something tragic in one’s life to turn that page. Sami’s was a bomb and prison. Mine was death row. Like Sami, “I came to realize that war is a holocaust for all human beings.”

From our different sides of the world, Sami and I now fight for the beauty that we KNOW resides within humanity, and it is summed up well in the story of Mazdak and Mani:

“Humans have both a dark side and a light side. But they don’t coexist separately, like oil and water; they’re mixed together like water and wine. You can’t distinguish them easily. It is only through our actions that we can hope to free our light. Our responsibility is to behave in ways that will help us find our light. WE HAVE TO SRVE THE LIGHT.”

Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” followed by American lawyer Clarence Darrow– “As long as the world shall last there will be wrong, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.”

There’s two things the Palestinians and Blacks in America have in common–they are targeted and they are oppressed. Both are a people who struggle for identity and a place to call home without attack. Both are a people who roots in a land and have been repeatedly sought for uprooting.

Such targeting comes with many effects–mentally, physically, and spiritually. For a people to be under constant bombardment can not only alter the natural state of one’s personality, but will also put a people in a state of desperation. These are the pains of wanting to be heard. Therefore, we see the misdirected and tainted actions of suicide bombers in the East and gang violence in the West. However, they are actions that can be changed with the efforts of peace, love and respect.

When those things are lacking, human beings turn from the best that is within them and tap into the worst. In both cases you have a people that face off against entities that seek to subjugate them. And what is more desirable than the pursuit of happiness? For Biblical believers–Muslims, Jews, and Gentiles alike–it’s said from the beginning to “Be fruitful and multiply.” It’s in people’s genetics to want to thrive. And as long as the core of a people’s identity, integrity and dignity is under attacked we shall wallow in the annals of destruction and never prosperity.

There is most definitely a history of organized activities inside U.S. prisoners, unfortunately, it is one that was waned over the years due to token concessions that have been gained inside and outside the walls.

The 60’s and the 70’s gave birth to prison movements as the Black Power and Civil Rights movements were going at full steam. Along with that came cultural education. As concessions grew, the passion for advancing these struggles (culturally and politically) decreased. However, they do still exist across this land. From state to state it may vary, because each state in the U.S. has its own history of oppression and resistance. Therefore, the level of activism and outside support networks differ. But, I feel confident in saying that we have lost the steam that the trendsetters had.

What will always separate the level of struggle between Palestinian and American prisoners is the Palestinian people identify as ONE people; just as the Irish people who founded the IRA did when fighting for independence against the British. Identity is the soul of a people’s struggle. This will always be the greatest ailment for American prisoners, because American prisoners are so multi-cultured, therefore the Rights I seek may not be neighbor’s want/need. Only when the fingers on the hand close into a fist can a  hard blow be struck. Until then any strike will be mediocre at best.

However, there is always the calling to HUMAN Rights. When we move past religion, sexual preferences, etc, we all have a desire, and Right, to be free of abuse and afforded the opportunity to better our lives, be it inside or out. The men of influence inside American prisons are not tapping into that the way Palestinian prisoners did when they held large weekly meetings in the courtyard for all the movements of the PLO. If every prison group focused on the Universal Rights due to us all we would be a force to be reckoned with.

While I don’t know the state of organization currently in prisons for Palestinian political prisoners, I do know that they–like the Irish Republic prisoners–possess the blueprint to righteous struggle and it’s something American prisoners could learn from very much!

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Black Palestinian solidarity, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Palestine/Israel

Bullet holes and grief

Dear friends,

Today marks 7 years since my dear friend (and Donkeysaddle Projects Project Manager) Amer Shurrab’s brothers were killed by the Israeli military in a military assault in Gaza the army termed “Operation Cast Lead.” Below, is what I wrote for WorldFocus.com after visiting his family in Gaza a few months later:

Bullet holes, grief remain for Gaza family after war (first published in Sept 2009)

 

Abu Absal Shurrab stood in front of his red jeep and waved energetically when he saw me. I walked towards him. “Salaam aleikum!” we greeted each other warmly, and Abu Absal indicated that I should get into the jeep.

My heart stopped momentarily as he stepped out of the way and the vehicle became fully

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Abu Absal stands next to the car that he and his sons were shot in.

visible. The windshield was splattered with bullet holes. This was the car Abu Absal was driving the day he was shot and his sons, Kassab and Ibrahim, were killed.

 

I climbed inside the passenger seat, trying to discreetly count the bullet holes as Abu Absal guided the car onto the road. Twenty that I could see, including the semi-shattered rear-view mirror. Abu Absal noticed my preoccupation.

Kassab was sitting exactly where you are now,” he told me. “Ibrahim was in the back seat, directly behind him. When the shooting started, I shouted for them to crouch down low. But the bullets went through the front of the car. I tried to replace the windshield, but because of the siege, there is no glass available anywhere in Gaza Strip.”

The final days of 2008 and the first weeks of 2009 saw a large-scale Israeli military bombardment and invasion of Gaza Strip. Israel termed the incursion “Operation Cast Lead,” saying it was intended to protect the citizens of the southern community of Sderot, 24 of whom had been killed by Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza over the past eight years.

According to a report released by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, 1,387 Palestinians were killed during the 22- day attack, over half of them civilians, including more than 300 children. Several thousand more innocent people were injured, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed and 20,000 were damaged. United Nations schools, clinics and other humanitarian facilities were bombed.

On January 16, 2009, towards the end of the onslaught, I received an email with the horrifying subject line: “Help me save my dad’s life.”

It was from Amer Shurrab. I’d known Amer for 10 years, since he was 14 years old. Amer is from Khan Yunis, Gaza, but had recently graduated from Middlebury College and had just moved to Washington, D.C.

With dread, I opened the email. Amer wrote:

“My father’s car was bombed today, he was in it with two of my brothers. My older brother 27 was killed while my dad 64 and my little brother 17 have been bleeding for over 14 hours and Israeli troops blocking ambulances access. Please contact any media outlets, your congressmen, senators, any international organizations and try to get them help.”

Several hours later, I got another email from Amer with more details about the incident and an update. The morning of the attack, his father and brothers had gone to check on their farm during the daily three-hour humanitarian “ceasefire.” On their way home, his father’s red jeep was bombarded by a hail of bullets from IDF troops who had commandeered a house approximately fifty meters away. Amer’s older brother, Kassab, was shot in the chest and stomach 18 times and died on the spot. His father was shot in the arm and his younger brother, Ibrahim, was shot below the knee.

 

Abu Absal shouted to the soldiers that he and his sons needed medical attention. They shouted back for him to call an ambulance. He did, via cell phone, but was told by the Red Crescent that the Israeli army would not permit them access. Abu Absal managed to contact media and human rights groups, who launched an immediate campaign to pressure the army to allow medical care to reach the wounded civilians. Nearly 24 hours later, the IDF permitted an ambulance to reach Abu Absal and his sons. By then it was too late for Amer’s younger brother. Ibrahim had already bled to death.

 

Abu Absal parked the jeep outside an apartment building in Khan Yunis. “Here’s where we live,” he told me. “Any time you are in Gaza, you should make this your home!” We climbed the steps and entered. Abu Absal introduced me cheerfully to his wife and his two daughters. Heaviness and grief was palpable in the home, especially in the eyes of Amer’s mother and sisters. Nevertheless, Abu Absal was determined that my visit be an occasion for happiness. He instructed me to sit in an easy chair, next to his.

“We must speak of many things!” Abu Absal said brightly. “Your visit is like a breeze of fresh air to the family. Only…” He leaned towards me and adopted the tone of a fatherly scolding. “You are not staying long enough! So early tomorrow morning we will visit the farm, before you have to return to Gaza City!”

“Do you go to the farm often?” I asked his university-aged daughter, hoping to engage her in the conversation. “Not really,” she replied, barely making eye contact.

“The girls no longer like the farm,” Abu Absal explained. “They blame the farm for the death of their brothers. After all, if we hadn’t gone that morning…” He didn’t complete the sentence.

The sun was just beginning to rise the next morning when Abu Absal and I climbed back into his battered jeep. The sandy roads of Khan Yunis were bathed in golden light and early morning silence. We turned off the main road after passing the European Hospital. Less than a minute later, we approached an intersection. Abu Absal slowed down. “This was where they were killed,” he said. “You see that brown house?” he pointed. “That’s where the soldiers shot from. I didn’t know they were there. If I had known, I could have taken another route…”

Amer had told me how close the hospital was to the scene of the killings, but seeing it for myself felt like a punch in my gut. Kassab could not have been helped, but Abu Absal and Ibrahim, even with their injuries, could have made it there, walking or crawling or both. But the soldiers had threatened to shoot them if they moved.

Ten minutes later, Abu Absal was giving me a tour of the farm, pointing out with love and devotion each fig and citrus tree, every pepper, the collection of bee hives. From the window of the elevated farm house, he asked me if I could see the fence and the military tower in the distance. I could. “That’s the border with Israel,” he told me. “I watched dozens of tanks roll into Gaza from there. I must guard the farm every day to make sure no one uses it to launch rockets. I don’t want the Israelis to have any excuse to destroy my farm.”

The destruction was not always related to rocket fire. The day before, I had filmed the remains of a school bombed by fighter jets, a clinic that had been shelled and a residential neighborhood reduced to rubble. I had also seen a mosque sprayed with bullets from a recent shootout between Hamas and an Islamic militant group. But in the midst of this destruction, I also witnessed resilience and ingenuity. I saw tent-dwellers whose homes were destroyed tap into a main power line, providing their families with electricity. I watched a youth soccer tournament and broke the Ramadan fast with families at sundown. Though people were going about their daily lives, loss and pain in Gaza still run very deep.

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Abu Absal shows off his farm

Abu Absal tenderly showed me his baby eggplants nestled in rich soil. He offered me a ripe pomegranate dangling temptingly off a tree. A warm light glowed in his eyes.

“Your farm is beautiful,” I said, hoping my appreciation would further boost his spirits.

A cloud passed over Abu Absal’s face. He fingered the rubbery leaves of his olive tree silently. Finally he spoke, echoing, it seemed to me, the sentiment of thousands of Gazan civilians. Those who lost loved ones, their homes, their schools. Those who saw crushed in front of their eyes whatever hope they still nurtured, whatever shards of a normal life they had managed to preserve throughout decades of occupation and years of escalating violence.

 

“It is very beautiful here indeed. But the beauty means nothing since my sons are gone.”

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