The trip to Bethlehem – An Arab in Diaspora! - Part 2
“We must return to values and honesty of discussion. There can be no military solution to what ails us, Arabs and Jews alike. This truth leaves only the power of mind and education to do the job that armies have been unable to accomplish for over half a century” Edward Saiid (2001)
But did I have a choice?
I don’t think I did….
(Long ago during my childhood, I watched on TV the story of “The Green Chicken” “El Katkoot El Akhdar”. Unlike all its yellow feathered brothers it had green feathers. They lived and fed together in their beautiful little cage and everyday a beautiful little hand would slowly sprinkle corn over their heads until they wake up and start eating, dancing, and playing. Until one day The little Green Chicken decided to leave the cage. He wanted to see more, to know more, he did not want to wait for the corn sprinkled every morning by the little beautiful hand. He left the cage to discover a whole new world that I discovered passionately with him. I still remember and feel how he felt when he visited the scientist, the carpenter, the peasant, the worker, the engineer and the doctor. I still remember how he used to sing and dance after every visit celebrating his “new discovery” and celebrating the few millimeters added to his little red comb that stood elegantly on top of his head. I still remember how he felt when he decided to go back to visit his brothers in the little beautiful farm and they still waited for the little hand to sprinkle the corn every day. I still remember how it felt seeing they did not grow any red combs on top of their heads unlike my heroic Little Green Chicken. I remember deciding to take the path of the Little Green Chicken.)
Just like a blind man lost in the desert I was willingly accepting any guidance on where I should go. Dazzled by all the thoughts I did not have a clear vision of what I should do. A map in my hand of a land I never set my foot on, a wisdom of an old man resonating in my mind, and a big question waiting to be answered… “what should I do to end my diaspora?”
Queensway… a nice West London neighborhood known for its Arab restaurants and bookshops. The usual tiny London streets that are slightly louder than the rest of London but not as loud as Edgware road. Arabic is frequently heard and falafel is always few shops away. Its spirit is always fueled by an endless supply of immigrants coming in search of money, food, freedom, and beauty. Each searching for what is lost at his part of the Arab land, each believing in the London promise of providing what is longed for.
There in Queensway…. One night….. few months ago…. I attended a lecture by Abdel Bari Atwan (Editor in Chief of Al Qods Al Araby newspaper). He was talking about the usual “Arab – Israeli” conflict (it feels like a compulsory topic that each and every writer, politician, professor…etc. should “talk” about – it’s always the “talk” that annoys me, that frustrates me, my diaspora started because of a “talk”, it prospered through “talk”… it is living the age of the “talk”). It was a chance to take my questions, my concerns, my feelings…. Maybe he knows a way…
As usual…. Endless supply of words, comments, opinions, debates, disagreements but it all had the very same theme of “what’s happening there” (oh my God… there… I wonder what is Emilia doing there now) and “what we should about them”. But what is “there” and who are “them”? do I really know? Do I really understand? And why do I always have to listen to “talk” about “there” and “them” and why do I always have to be a prisoner of discussions, debates, and words? Will I be another yellow feathered Chicken waiting for words to be sprinkled on top of his head every morning? Did it really save me from my diaspora? The thoughts wandered in my mind for a while then I realized that I never asked the right question and I never asked the right people and that lecture was another proof. I went to that lecture carrying with me the wrong set of questions and the worst of mindsets. It felt like playing tennis with a rock, in the same manner the rock couldn’t bounce off the court my questions couldn’t bounce off his mind. Instead, it just fell to the ground… motionless.
“Why can’t I go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem?” I asked him. “if I have a claim there how can I just talk about it and not go there and claim it back?” I continued. “How can we leave it completely in their hands with our families under their control without even the attempt of being there?” …. “isn’t my physical existence there in itself a claim of my ownership?”… “isn’t my mere existence among the besieged Arabs a support?” ….. “What is preventing me from going there?” ….. “is it just a visa stamp that carries a six pointed star?” ….. “is that it?”….. “is that all?”….. “is this why I’ve been deprived of my there and of my fellow them?”…. “why can’t I just go to help?” …. “why did Emilia my Jewish friend had the right to go and help while I’m stuck in your words?”……
While I was letting it all out, and while all the questions were hitting him one after the other I noticed his eyes…. They were moving quickly, once to the right and once to the left (I wondered why?)… his eyes were sensitively reacting to every sound and every move in the hall (did he hear me?)….. he probably heard my question…. (but did he listen to it?)……
Those confused eyes suddenly focused on one target… my face…. And they started getting narrower and narrower, and then he waved his hands with disapproval and spoke to the audience with extreme wonder… “From all the cities of the face of this Earth you don’t want to visit except Jerusalem and Bethlehem!!” he said with apparent resentment. “Can’t you just hold yourself back for a while from tourism until we get our rights back?” I felt so betrayed by his apparent lack of concentration, I felt so misunderstood, I kept on trying to correct his misunderstanding but his dominating sharp voice and his violent body language stood firmly in the way of my hopeless shouts.
And it was over…. Or …. I thought it was over……
Few minutes afterwards she raised her hand…. I met her one time before and we had a brief chat. I never really read any of Ahdaf Soueif’s books but I read some of the articles she wrote in “Mezzaterra”, I was not a fan of very long novels and I generally preferred politics so “Mezzaterra” was the my perfect read for her as it was a compilation of political essays she wrote in different occasions. She raised her hand and it seemed everybody was wondering what would her question be…..
“First of all!” she said “I’d like to clarify the point of my Egyptian colleague who was asking about visiting the occupied land, I think what he meant was related to activism and volunteering to help the Palestinians and Arabs living in the occupied territories. Lots of our youth are deprived of the opportunity to be exposed and involved in the conflict and a great part of this deprivation comes from the fact that it became socially and politically unacceptable for them to go to the occupied land.”
“Second of all!” (and I did not really concentrate with the second of all as I was so much under the effect of the nausea of the ‘first of all’ … I felt ‘understood’ and ‘appreciated’). I felt a smile slowly taking control over my face while I was looking towards her with appreciation. As soon as she finished her comments she turned around and looked at me then tilted her head downwards a bit with her eyebrows moving upwards as if to draw a question mark while murmuring a word that I imagined would be “tamam keda?” I left the answer for my smile to take care of and obviously my smile did the right job of saying “thank you” as she turned her smiling face away again swiftly in approval as if to say “anytime!”
Unlike with my questions, his wandering eyes were focused this time on Ahdaf and showed extreme interest and concentration. Her comments were of course followed by approval and affirmation by Atwan who did not find anything wrong with what she said. (I guess it was my fragmented thoughts reflected in my bombarded questions that prevented him from understanding what I really wanted to say….)
For some reason I came out from that lecture with a new understanding of the Edward Said words as if I saw it in a new light that I never discovered before. The extreme contrast between the Said liberal approach and the Atwan traditional use of vocabulary that is limited to phrases of praise and attack magically highlighted one word that was there all the time but I never really concentrated on understanding and implementing it ….. “Educating” …. This is the key …. “Educating” …. This is what I need at the moment…
From “Education” to Bethlehem…
Let my soul reside in my thoughts rather than in my body, let it be what I aim for, let my whole existence mingle with it in an eternal blend of satisfaction (I wish). However, I need to make my thoughts worthy of my soul; I need to make them comprehensive, deep, challenging, and mature. They will not be comprehensive unless I learn, they will not be deep until I think, they will not be challenging unless I question, and they will not be mature unless I communicate them to other souls.
Where can I do that? How can I do that? And the answer kept on climbing my brain cells from the deepest of my mind as if it was already there from long ago waiting for me to call upon it. “Go there!” suddenly took control of my reasoning and guided me to what I had to do next (there was this inner conflict that was tormenting me… do I want to do it only to prove to myself that I can? Do I want to do it only because I am jealous of Emilia? Do I have a strong argument of why I want to do it? Do I know its value added?…. I never really tried to answer any of those questions and I do not think I can, I just decided to make the best out of the energy that I have without looking at its origins, to use the flame without knowing its fuel. It is wrong I know, or ‘maybe’ it is wrong, but I guess I still have to learn more about the inner energy that moves me, is it jealousy? Adventure? Challenge? Cause? Belief? I realized that until I resolve my inner conflicts I just have to get the maximum value added out of what I had at the moment).
“Go there” had to develop to a plan, to a clear goal, to a maximum utilization of resources. I had to blend the inner energy not only with emotions but moreover with pragmatic reasoning (will I build thoughts strong enough to sustain my restless soul?). My starting point was my own personal qualifications and how I can relate them to “education”, what is it that I can have that could add value to others? What is it that I can “contribute” with? How can I become part of the solution and not just another ‘tourist’ of the problem? I realized I have a relatively good background with youth development and that this experience could be one of my tools to become an “agent of change” rather than a “tourist”. The starting point has got to be an “active participation” and I realized that Edward Saiid had put the proper framework for this “participation” (I hope he had been alive to talk to me but I did not think he would have wanted me to want to talk to him, ‘act upon what you believe in’ I imagine is what he would have advised me to do). This framework is “education” with all it carries of “knowledge” and all what it implies of “strength”.
Simple search on the internet was my path, keywords like “Palestine”, “refugees”, “camps”, “development”; “youth” were my hints. Few days passed with no clear result for my search, I found so many articles, analysis, reports, but it seemed there was nothing that would give me a chance to be an “active agent of change” as I wished to be. At the very end and after I consumed a great portion of my rather limited supply of patience I came across what I believed and still do believe would be my ideal ‘entrance’ to the problem. Not just to becoming part of its solution, but first to properly understand it and ‘relate’ to it in a manner that would make me look with a more ‘comprehensive’, ‘deep’, ‘challenging’, and ‘mature’ eye.
The location was Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The organization was a youth run NGO that was established by the camp youth to actively encourage the refugees be part of the solution to their problem. They organized a yearly international camp for the refugees and international volunteers to maximize the exposure of the refugees and to show the international volunteers the ‘real picture’ they never really saw. “This is it…” I said to myself, and a complete clear picture of how I could contribute presented itself persistently in front of my eyes that it took control over my concentration to the extent that I could not be anymore the ‘multi-task’ person I am used to be and I had to put everything aside for a while until I deal with my ‘new discovery’. (I wish you were here my dear Little Green Chicken, I know you would have been proud of me)
Diab was one of the organizers of the camp and a member of the NGO, he was the first one I got to know from the team. I called him and explained all what I want to do. “A workshop about Self Development” I explained to him…. “two workshops actually… one for High School students and the other for university students… the final aim is to try to find out with the youth how is it possible to develop oneself in spite of the occupation, the curfews, the raids, and the limited resources”. I realized that my experience at university and during my volunteer work after graduation would be of great value added to those youth, I had a strong belief that they could find a lot of useful tools, thoughts, ideas, or maybe just hints within what I had to say. I strongly believed as well that self development is immune to the worst of circumstances and the toughest of challenges; I strongly believed that self development stems from a strong will, proper vision, and stamina. I wanted to share with them what I believe in and try to find out with them if it true or not. I sent a full proposal with all my ideas, intentions, hopes, and motivations. (Did I really understand what Edward Saiid wanted me to do? Am I really doing what he would have wanted me to do?)
They welcomed the idea very much and officially invited me to organize the workshops during the international camp in Bethlehem that was due to start in a month time from the day I sent the proposal. (How easy it was to leave the ‘audience’ and join the ‘struggle’! All it needed was a ‘motivation’, ‘action’, ‘idea’, and ‘patience’. How come I was always a prisoner of such a ‘thin’ barrier of ‘passivity’ that deprived me of doing what I really wanted to do and achieving my inner self? How come I was always a prisoner of others ‘words’, ‘opinions’, and ‘judgments’ that I lost the sense of what I really wanted to do? How beautiful it felt to realize how ‘thin’ this barrier is and how ‘invincible’ I used to perceive it with my old eyes? How encouraging it felt to replace one yellow feather with another green one)
The Six Pointed Star Visa…
Had my grandparents known that their grandson was planning to get a Six Pointed Star Visa in his passport they would have had prevented that even if it meant not planting the seeds of life to his parents. They would have probably preferred dying with no children at all rather than seeing their children giving birth to an Israeli Visa holder. I thank God they all died before having to witness that day and I thank God my only chance of meeting them is a promised heaven when I would have all the time to explain, elaborate, and challenge.
The procedure to get an Israeli visa from Egypt was very well known to me. Go to the Tahrir Complex; submit a request to get the Visa, issue a temporary Passport and deposit your original passport with the government, then finally apply to get the Israeli visa. However, I live in London and I could not go to Egypt during the month I had to get the visa before the camp, and this meant that my only chance was to get the Israeli visa from London (it still felt very humiliating though to have to get this visa to enter my land, it felt like the whole history of the struggle is to be summarized in the one stamp to be printed in my passport). There had to be an alternative procedure for those who live abroad I imagined, I had to check with the Egyptian Consulate to see what I should do in order to make sure I “Go There” following the proper procedure (I did not want to break all the taboos at one time, I still do not think I could take the sinister looks and attitudes if I do not follow the procedure)
Lina is a friend of mine who is working at the Egyptian Consulate, I explained to her all the usual procedure and I wondered if she could help me find out about the procedure that would apply from those residing abroad. She heard me with great admiration and a smile that never parted her face, I felt a sincere motivation to help and a real understanding of where my thoughts stemmed from. She promised she would check with the deputy and explain to me exactly what I should do.
and there was a surprise I never expected….
Lina called me the next day on my work phone from her office phone and told me that we cannot speak on that phone, she said would call me on my cell phone from her cell in a while (what? What is this? Is this a kind of a joke?). She called few minutes later on my cell phone (from her cell phone this time not her office phone) and she said “what I am going to tell you at the moment is not official” (her voice sounded embarrassed which made me feel she is carrying bad news). She then explained…. “There is no specific procedure for Egyptians living abroad to visit Israel, you normally have to go to Egypt to get security approval, however, I explained to the deputy your cause and what you want to do and the fact that you are going to a workshop in the occupied land. He told me ya Ahmed that the best you could do is to come to the consulate and tell us that you lost your passport then we would issue you a new one. You can then use this new passport to go and when you come back just inform us that you found your old passport and we will tear down the new one.” (Oh my God! This explains why this deputy did not want to give an official reply, this explains why they did not want the phone call to be recorded, this explains her embarrassment!) What the intelligent deputy did not understand however that every Egyptian living in the UK is carrying a Visa in his passport and to leave the country with an empty passport is a disaster in itself and this is besides the fact that I would have to use two Egyptian passports to travel. At that point I would have thought that I am just a victim of the usual ignorant deputy who did not know much about his job and about the regulations, however, a very interesting advice that he passed to me through Lina revealed more than just a lazy employee. Lina added “Ahmed, to be honest.. he asked me to tell you that what you are intending to do is not wise, he wanted to remind you that ‘what your home needs should not be given away to the mosque charity’.. you should rather try to help Egypt with its problems rather than trying to help the Palestinians”. She finally added “the deputy said that they are not going to be responsible for you in any away when you go there or if you face any problems in Egypt.”
I realized how easy it was for the deputy to justify for himself his passivity and to decorate the walls of his little prison of words with a nice frame carrying the “mosque charity” quote on it. It was not just the fear of helping or taking responsibility (this is very understandable in the case of government employees who are usually taught how to give up on abusing the capabilities of their minds or discovering new ideas with their senses) but moreover, it was the fact that he had to justify for himself what he said and decorate the little prison of “talk” and “words” they created for him with quotes that are wrongfully used for a fake cause. I thanked Lina very much for her help and we both realized that proceeding with the workshop meant that I had to go to the Israeli embassy directly without the consent of the Government and which would prevent me from visiting most of the Arab countries if I do get the stamp on my Passport and not on a separate paper (which they do sometimes).
It was such a painful experience to have to explain to Diab what happened and before that it was such a disgusting feeling to realize that you could be controlled by those who are less understanding, less tolerant, and less exposed. My father told me once what a colleague of his at the army used to say “Egypt will never progress as long as the most stupid are ruling the most intelligent.” But I do not think this is the case, rather, there will be no progress unless each and every person realizes his/her potential. The point in time when individual potential realization is achieved is the same point when progress naturally follows. Thus, intelligence is second to ‘will’, ‘tolerance’, and ‘education’.
I did not feel bad, and I still do not feel bad about what happened. It might have been annoying and oppressing for a while but I then realized that I had gained a new understanding of what Edward Saiid had wanted me to do, and I realized I managed to escape from the little prison they created for us, the little cage with their words sprinkled on top of our heads every morning while we eat, dance, and enjoy. Maybe I did not make it all the way through to where I want to go yet, and maybe I still do not know the way by hard; but at the very least I know I can make it.
I will “Go There” one day, maybe not now, but I will do it because I know I can and because the more I know the stronger I get and the less they can stop me.
For now, there is a brand new path to follow, I would have never imagined that the failure of this trip could have opened the door for this brand new path. A path I never imagined I would ever take to try end my diaspora. It is true a door was closed but I have a better understanding of my diaspora now and I stepped my foot unto a whole new path.
I will not give up and will pursue my new path till the very end, maybe it will save me from my diaspora, and if did not, I will take a new path with delight and hope.
Will tell you more about the new path soon.