Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Behind the Israeli Wall:
A Lesson in Reality
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, September 6, 2010
Writers often romanticize their subjects. At times they even
manipulate their readers. A book - or any piece of writing for that matter –
is meant to provide a sense of completion. Sociological explanations are
offered to offset the confusion caused by apparent inconsistency in human
behavior. At times a reader is asked to take a stance, or choose sides.
This is especially true in writings which deal with compelling
human experiences. In Behind the Wall: Life, Love and Struggle in Palestine
(Potomac Books, 2010), Rich Wiles undoubtedly directs his readers, although
implicitly, towards taking a stance. But he is unabashed about his moral
priorities and makes no attempt to disguise his objectives.
began reading Wiles’ book, various aspects struck me as utterly refreshing
in contrast to the way Palestine is generally written about. We tend to
complicate what was meant to be straightforward and become too selective as
we construct our narrative. And we tend to consider the possible political
implications of our writings, and thus compose the conclusions with only
this political awareness in mind.
Much of this is
understandable. The situation in Palestine is appalling, and also worsening.
If our writing is not meant to influence positive change, then why bother?
But a hyped awareness of the consequences and over-politicization of
narratives and texts can prove limiting and intellectually confining. Worse,
at times it provides a particular contextualization of the conflict – with
all of its internal offshoots and external outcomes – that does much
injustice to other important contexts. It neglects facts and paints an
unrealistic picture of a subject already confused in the minds of many
Thus when the conflict is deciphered by a writer, all
players take positions. Israel is pitted against ‘the Arabs’. Palestinians
are often sliced off into two competing parties, while Israel is largely
shown as maintaining a sense of political and institutional integrity.
Palestinians are radicals or moderates, Islamists or secularists. The
‘conflict’ is right in the center, and within it are the sub-topics: the
peace process, the occupation, the settlements and numerous others. Without
such lucid configuration there is no structure. Publishers get frustrated.
The writer is urged to revisit and restructure his work.
life is not a well-organized academic argument. It can be, and often is
chaotic, strange and puzzling, but it is real. Only by understanding reality
the way it is - not the way we feel that it ought to be for any reason - can
we meaningfully position ourselves to appreciate the subject at hand.
Can we understand the conflict in Palestine and Israel without subscribing
to the same language, confronting the same political and historical
milestones? Can Palestinians be understood outside the confines of political
and ideological affiliations?
That is what Rich Wiles attempted to
do in Behind the Wall, and in my opinion, very much succeeded.
Wiles relocated the conflict historically, geographically and sociologically
to the side most affected by it: the Palestinians. The book is located in
the West Bank, mostly Aida refugee camp, where Wiles spent years dedicating
his time and efforts as an artist and a writer to help children share their
stories and talents with the rest of the world. The writing is a
non-elitist, part and parcel, which is a prerequisite to a factual
understanding of the struggle in Palestine. Equally important, Wiles
provides a depiction of the Palestinian not as the victim, despite the
protracted process of victimization that Palestinians have endured for
generations. Wiles’ subjects might have been imprisoned or deeply scarred by
war, but they are confident and complex human beings.
entitled “A Child and a Balcony” starts with this line: “‘On Friday,
December 8, 2006, I was shot.’ Miras is unemotional as he tells his story.”
Miras should be emotional, but he is not, and Wiles doesn’t attempt to
rectify the seemingly inconsistent behavior. It turns out that Miras, a
child (now a promising young photographer, thanks to Wiles’ help) almost
died when a bullet carved its way through his body and penetrated his
abdominal from one end and emerged from the other. He was playing with his
siblings and cousins at a balcony in the refugee camp, when an Israeli
sniper hit him from the watchtower. The story is short, but rich in
emotionally powerful detail: the father’s panic and near hallucination, the
mother confusion, the sense of solidarity that unifies the refugees and
strengthens their resolve even when their situation seems so helpless.
Wiles is not an anthropologist or a detached ethnographer, and he doesn’t
pose as one. He is part of the story, at times an important character. In
“Memories”, he accompanies a young Palestinian boy on the journey of his
life, from the confines of the small refugee camp to Jerusalem. The boy is
visiting his very ill grandfather at a hospital in the Arab side of the
city. (No other member of the family was granted an Israeli permission to
make the short journey, thus the need for Wiles’ intervention). Wiles
provides an extremely honest and vivid account, bringing to life the bravery
of the boy and the sense of freedom he experiences as he crosses the
checkpoints into Jerusalem.
At the same time, Wiles does not attempt
to assemble the perfect, heroic and infallible character of the Palestinian.
He includes the story of a son of drug user who was mysteriously killed
(perhaps by a Palestinian group that suspected him as a collaborator with
Israel). The son became involved in the resistance to redeem the family’s
honor. His impulsive resistance (an attempt to burn a hole in the Israeli
wall that surrounded his refugee camp) earned him time in an Israeli prison.
Yasser Jedar (known as Yasser ‘Wall’ owing to his obsession with trying to
bring down the Israeli wall) was certainly not a poster child revolutionary.
But he is refreshingly real, which is what should matter the most to an
Wiles’ work is an important contribution to
what I insist on referring to as a ‘People’s History of Palestine’. In order
for this genre to endure and flourish, it must remain honest, and duty-bound
to the truth - to reality as it is, not how we wish it to be.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net)
is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London), now available on Amazon.com.