Initial Grappling With Weird – Umm al-Ara’is

The warrant was issued, we were shooed off the land. I sang an Italian song about the vanishing greens of the countryside as they were pushing us off. Clown self-diffusal mechanism , if anything. We settled, beyond the imaginary white line (every officer sees different colors – in Umm al-’Amad the imaginary colors of separation are yellow).

Like every week, the women start making tea. One of them crosses into the closed military zone for a brief second to gather thorns for fire. The Border Police commander says that if she crosses the arbitrary line one more time, he’ll arrest her. I am enraged to dizziness. I imagine myself yelling curses at him that are unworthy of print. I want to diffuse his poison, his ra’al, his over-enthusiasm, his outrageous commitment to force his authority on people doing completely harmless things.

I remember how last summer, when things escalated to the arrest of three Palestinian boys, ages 9-13, in a-Rihiyya, an Israeli former military man that joined Taayush for the day told the soldiers calmly, “just do your job – guard the settlement.” He used the settlers’ word for settlement – yeshuv. His tone was certainly more effective than my all-too-familiar calls for them to release the kids, refuse orders, drop their weapons, etc. et cetera.

“Just do your job – secure the settlement,” I thus tell the commander. “There is no risk here, just calm down and do your job.”

He doesn’t entirely listen to me and I don’t entirely listen to his response. I fail again at being that calm, heeding, collected activist I sometimes want to be. I turn and walk restlessly away from him, my heart beating from the weird performance, but with a feeling that the situation is somewhat diffused. When a seven year old kid taunts the soldiers and walks into the closed military zone, the soldiers are unprovoked. An Ethiopian soldier is sent to grab him and take him back past the line, but the cameras we’re directing at this absurd interaction keep it just informally reactionary and childish.

The words “weird” and “absurd” are significant here. You will notice they recur often in my writing, alongside “surreal,” “bizarre,” “strange,” and others. Weirdness is something difficult to put one’s finger on. It may be explained as a dissonance between the expected and the perceived in a situation. But in hindsight, I often expect things to happen precisely as they do, and they’re still weird. Occasionally, when looking at past experiences in the Wild South I recall or portray brutality as brutality, or generosity as simple generosity. These are mostly overly simplified. Weirdness is that infinitely complex spectrum between black and white on which experience actually occurs. The least I can say about it with some certainty is that it is perceived subjectively (and here I’m in agreement with my friend, the anthropologist Brian Callan, which brought the term to my awareness).

Perhaps the South Hebron Hills should be called the Weird South henceforth. Maybe weird is the default framework for the south. And mayhaps weirdness is an intrinsically human experience that happens whenever people perceive their surroundings reflectively. The point of this babble which is of particular interest to us, however, is that the experience of weirdness may “become an impetus for us to engage our powers of agency and so become a mechanism for social change.” (Callan 2013, unpublished manuscript) Anger, exhilaration, empathy, weirdness – all turn people to activism. I can speak for myself, in the least.

Strangely, I experience so much anger before, during and shortly after the interaction with that soldier, and then so abruptly feel exhilaration and joy as I talk to two children and let them write their names in my little pad (a waiter’s pad that I re-appropriated from my very short employment at Café Hillel). Stream. Frying lightly in the sun. Abdallah from Beit Ummar teaches me phrases, such as “ili bidri bidri, ili ma bidri – bagul kaf ‘adas” (“who knows knows, who doesn’t know – says a spoonful of lentils”) and then tells a folk tale that explains the saying and I make sure to nod as if I understand. An older man, Sanad, teaches me names of thorns that the goats can eat – masla is a green thorn in this season, and khamrah is that thorn with an odd flower that turns purple and which we would kick as children and sometimes today if we trod the side streets alone. He doesn’t know the name of the tiny pink flower I pick up in front of the soldiers. The dogs of the settlers walk freely in the closed zone. Little nine year-old Abeer wouldn’t tell me how she broke her right hand but she scribbles sweetly with her left. My strange joy turns to rage again as three soldiers stand and mock the women. Disrespect and poison. Some rage is better out than in, but against my better judgment I carry on with my eyes and drift into the horizon and disappear up over Arad, beyond the green line, beyond the firing zone, beyong Jenbah, beyond Mitzpe Yair and Bir al-‘Id and the unbelievably named settler farm called Lucifer. As we retreat I ask Rani about my curious feeling of rage and he says he shares it too. Nice company. We talk about the record called “as beautiful as a brick in a cop’s face.” And it’s weird to go to Mufagarah afterwards and discover this is the first time since the beginning of my relationship with the weird south that Taayush wasn’t invited to say some words like Sumud, solidarity, and struggle (in any order) in the annual nonviolent resistance conference. It seems the anti-normalizers have reached the south. And it’s weird to feel weird about it since normally we take this formality as a burden. Mahmud is very aware of this weirdness and makes sure that Rani and I receive coffee. Blessed soul. Until the next oddity.

***

I invite the readers to recall experiences that were weird to them (and please feel free to share your thoughts in my all-too-empty comments section). In this context I wanted to bring up again a passage I wrote last year in “They’ll Stone You When You’re Trying to Feed Your Sheep”:

“Waaargh!!!” the older settler roars and charges us with a rock in his palm. I am afraid, finding myself behind the camera at a settler attack once again. “We already called the cops, they’re attacking us, stop them!” I shout to the soldiers in the jeep down in the wadi. The settler runs past us to throw the stones at the shepherds and Ana makes a ninja jump, imitates the settler’s roar and starts running after him screaming at him go home, nutcase. Fruitcake. Cupcake. Ana, a brave yoga teacher turning fifty. A self-identified neo-hippie. The situation becomes ridiculous like everything else in this strange world. The image I once had of the Havat Maon guerrilla settlers that jump out of their bewitched JNF forest with covered faces and deadly slingshots is replaced by a mad yarmulke clown gone berserk. “I will butcher you!” he screams at GH and throws a big rock towards him. GH dodges the rock, thank goodness. I get it all on tape. With the rush of adrenaline I cannot help but feel a small leap of joy that we’re catching this racist vessel of death for the first time with an uncovered face. The other settler, a blond white boy of 14 seems rather confused, he tries to scatter the goats but fails, GH is standing in his way not letting him reach the herd. I use the cellphone number I collected last week and call Policeman Stan to send a police car. The terrorist continues throwing stones at the herd, pushing it further down.

Ah, a tinge of inspiration – “It’s terrorism!” I yell to the soldiers. “He’s a terrorist, you must arrest him!” The head of the three turtles (that’s how the soldiers look in their heavy gear) is a Segem (low-ranked officer) with camouflage shit sagging lazily over his helmet like some science-fiction slime. As if you could remain from being seen in the desert with a light-green sexy veil designed for American soldiers looking for anti-imperialism and prostitution in Vietnam. I think he had face paint as well. What’s clowning with no face paint? I say something like “they’re here, they know what to do” and feel stupid watching the video a day later. I tried playing the good cop, but I was never any good at it. The Segem told me the police and Civil Administration will come and sort out the land dispute while the stones were still flying. Tayeb. It didn’t last long and the settlers returned to their enchanted forest, a bunch of pine trees planted with the money of philanthropic American Jews or some other neo-Zionist or unsuspecting JNF-donating folks.

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