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Gaza Freedom March—Home at Last!
Jan. 7, 2010
I’m home now, writing from the comfort of my own bed, with its supremely comfortable mattress that doesn’t sag in the middle. Bless the invention of the laptop, that allows us to write in bed! I’ve hardly sat at a desk since the mid-nineties.
I’m sorry for the hiatus in these blogs—events transpired that made it seem advisable for us to get out of Dodge, as we say in the west—or in plain English, to leave Cairo for a few days, during which internet access was hard to find.
Before we left, we attended the New Year’s Eve candlelight vigil in the Mogamma plaza on Tahrir Square, and saw the New Year in with a large, peaceful gathering of our friends that was heavily watched by the Egyptian secret police, but not interfered with. The next day, we were at a spirited rally in front of the Israeli Embassy, which is high up in a ten-story building, its presence announced only by an Israeli flag on the roof. The Egyptian police have now established their pattern—they herd us into a protest pen, keep us there for a while, eventually let people out and when the demo is over, we leave.
For me the highlight of the day was a long conversation with Hedy Epstein, an eighty-eight year old Jewish survivor of the holocaust who is here with us in support of justice for the Palestinians. Hedy is small, with curling white hair and bright eyes and a ready smile, and tough in the fiber, as they say about hobbits. She went on a hunger strike when she arrived, and went off it only when her doctor ordered her to eat. She was in the melee with the Egyptian police in Tahrir Square, and managed to come through the pushing, shoving frenzy undaunted and unharmed.
Someone like Hedy makes it impossible for us lesser mortals to say, “I’m too old for this shit.” Over dinner, I heard some of her story, which she tells in vivid detail—the terror of a child on Krystallnacht, when Nazi thugs broke windows of Jewish businesses and homes all over Germany, of being attacked and vilified by teachers and the principal of her school, coming home and finding her father and uncle gone, her mother in hiding. She survived because her family was able to get her onto a kindertransport: the ships and trains that brought 10,000 Jewish children to Britain just before the onset of war. Her parents were sent to the camps in France and ultimately to Auschwitz.
She grew up to work with the U.S. Government in Germany, among other things, as a research analyst during the Nuremburg Trials, investigating the doctors who performed cruel medical ‘experiments’ on inmates. And out of her own pain and loss, she became an activist, fighting for civil rights and human rights.
We’re always on dangerous ground when we start talking about the Holocaust and Palestine in the same breath. As Hedy herself says, “Each experience is unique. You can’t compare them.” Yet there are resonances that are hard to ignore. I’m remembering being in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank when all the men were rounded up and marched off, how I felt sitting behind closed doors with the women left behind. We were taken in by one family who wanted us as witnesses to protect the son they’d managed to hide, a young student of psychology in his twenties who was still so traumatized by a former arrest and incarceration that he couldn’t leave the house on his own, work or study. I’m thinking of the night I spent locked in a room with a family, singing funny songs to the children to distract them from the sounds of the Israeli soldiers methodically destroying their home, ripping the stuffing out of the chairs and prying the paneling off the walls, in the name of a ‘search.’
True, Israel has not set up gas chambers for Palestinians, nor ovens. As Dov Weinglas, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister, said, "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."
But when you have to start arguing over the nuances of oppression, about whether the number of dead constitutes a massacre or just a slaughter, whether your policies are really genocide or just sorta like genocide, you have left the path of righteousness.
On the last day, I snuck away from a demonstration in support of a court case Egyptian lawyers are bringing against their own government to stop the construction of the steel wall that will seal up Gaza’s last lifelines. I went to the pyramids, because I was determined not to leave Egypt without seeing the pyramids. I did the shlocky tourist thing, and rode a camel. And it was wonderful—to get out onto the stark desert and squint my eyes to block out the tour busses and just see camels moving over the sands with those pure shapes behind them, and young men racing Arab horses through the empty land.
And yet I couldn’t feel a spiritual connection there. Looking at those great blocks of stone, thinking about the immense numbers of mud bricks beneath, the human labor and effort in raising these mountains, I kept imagining the lives of the slaves. The Jewish people are my people, and this land is woven into our narratives. “We were slaves in Egypt” goes the litany of Passover. I build with mud myself—I know how much sheer, physical work goes into a small bench or a low wall. We were slaves, and we escaped, and the land of Canaan was our refuge. We were the victims of massive genocide, and the land of Israel was our consolation—at another people's expense.
From a heritage of pain, you can draw a number of different conclusions. You can say, “In a world of slaves and masters I choose to wield the whip rather than suffer the lash. ”You can say, “Never again will I let this happen to me or mine!
Or you can stand with Hedy and all those like her, and say, “Never again will I let this happen to anyone.” Not in my name, not to my benefit, not by my silence.
We are still wandering in the wilderness. Over a far horizon, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of a new Promised Land--a place without walls, without checkpoints, without prisons, without masters and slaves, us and them, our tribe and their tribe—a place where everyone is free. But we have a long journey still before we get there, and we do not know the way.
January 1, 2010
Keep us in your thoughts, my friends, and please visualize circles of protection especially for those who have taken leading roles in this work! update is below, Happy New Year!
We did it! Up until the moment we did, I didn’t quite believe we would, but we did!
Went to bed last night thinking, “Yeah, Starhawk, you’ve done this a hundred times, yawn, nerves of steel, sleep like a baby,” and of course I hardly slept at all, adrenaline racing, had to pee a hundred times. Got up this morning ahd rumors were flying around that the Egyptian security forces were blocking the hotels, so we got out quickly. Fortunately I had packed and organized my stuff the night before as that is the part of an action that is most stressful to me. Nothing makes me more crazy than needing to get out the door in a hurry and not being able to find some crucial piece of gear, and I nearly always can’t find some crucial piece of gear, due to that plague of Snatchers that follow me around, hiding my keys, lining their burrows with my socks and decorating them with my ATM cards.
Some of the Canadian delegation who are staying here were saying that police were outside—but that turned out not to be true. I was almost sorry, because Wendy had scouted alternative exits over the roofs of Cairo and what a story that would make! But I was happy enough just to get out and not be stuck inside all day. I can write novels another time.
Lisa had already left for a meeting at one of the hotels—turned out the security forces were blocking everyone into the Lotus, where the main Code Pink organizers were staying, but not the other hotels, including the one where the meeting was happening.
I decided to sit down below, however, and keep watch. Actually I didn’t see the need for going 9 flights up and probably having to walk back down all nine, and sitting in a smoky meeting where I wouldn’t be able to hear anything. There was a chair against the wall near the entrance so I sat down to wait. Actually, Cairo is a great place to people-watch and I had one of the most relaxing little bits of time I’d had here yet, watching the women in their various head=-carves and the men with liquid brown eyes that could have come off an old tomb painting. Eventually people from our march began to drift by, stopping to share news and rumors. One Policeman was watching the hotel, but I didn’t see any signs that groups of them were massing for a raid. But the rumors were flying—the action was on, it was off, the locations was changed, the time was changed..
Eventually Lisa and the women from the meeting came down. The plan was for shcok troops of women to be first out into the streets—for a couple of reasons. The first—the cops are less likely to brutalize women. Not entirely unlikely, but less. The second—to shift those old gender dynamics where the guys do the brave and dangerous things and the little women stay behind. The third—because these women are strong and smart and don’t run ego-dramas.
We began to filter around Tahrir Square. I was following Lisa who moves at a really fast pace. I am a slow walker but when I need to, I can keep up with her and she was in full-on battle mode and nothing was going to slow her down.
We all drifted into the area around the Museum where our plan called for us to gather unobtrusively and then flash-mob into the streets. I wasn’t sure this was going to work. Nobody was sure this was going to work—but it was the plan and at this point that was all we had. The police were out in force around the museum because we had organized this in classic nonviolent mode, openly and not secretly. That was a good thing, because communication has been so excruciatingly difficult when we are trying to simply tell each other something that adding security culture and secret codes on top of it would have made everything utterly incomprehensible to most of us, while the secret police would still have known what we were going to do. There they were…there we were. The clock was ticking—it was almost ten. An officer came towards Lisa, trying to move us further down the road. The traffic opened…and she took the space, running out into the traffic and unfurling a flag. We followed, and suddenly, from all over small groups of people were swarming and collecting and filling the road.
We began to march—for about ten yards. Then the cops surrounded us, and they were mad. They were pushing and shoving people, and I noticed a few run in and grab a guy who was filming with a video camera on a tripod. They had hold of him and were pulling on his camera and others were pulling on him so I ran over to do what I do—which is insert myself into the middle and sweetly get in the way. Between all of us we extricated him and his camera and now people were sitting down to hold the space. And there I was, sitting on the ground staring at the knees of a line of Egyptian riot cops. I had a little Talking Heads moment, you know the song, “And I asked myself…how did I get here?” Then the cops moved in and started grabbing people. They grabbed Michael from the media team and we grabbed him back and finally pulled him in toward us. He was holding his ribs..a woman grabbed my arm and we linked up.
Then I saw Lisa being grabbed by five big cops. They were pulling her away into the police lines and she was lying prone and being pulled by her wrists. I thought, “Goddess, they’re taking her away and there’s too many of them. There’s nothing I can do for her.” And then I thought, “Fuck that!” and leapt on top of her, grabbing her waist and lying over her legs. I can’t actually explain how I did that when usually it takes me ten minutes and a battle plan to get up, but adrenaline is a wonder drug.
Anotther couple of people piled onto me and her. The cops were really mad, but also confused. They kicked one guy and grabbed him really roughly to pull him off, but no sooner did they have him than someone else dove through five lines of police and launched himself onto the pile Every time they got rid of one person, someone else appeared. It was one of the most powerful moments of practical solidarity I’ve ever seen and I would have liked to savor it but almost immediately we were all being pushed, shoved, pummeled and pressed back onto the curb across the street. Our pile of people on the bottom half of Lisa got pushed one way—the top half of her went another and I lost her.
I ended up on the curb smack in front of the lines of cops trying to shove us back, along with a mass of people. I was happy there—holding ground when riot cops are shoving is one of the things I’m good at. Most of the cops looked a bit sheepish and ashamed of what they were doing, but one or two were triggered and angry and out of control. I saw one cop head butt a protester, others were beating and punching people with their nightsticks. They were pushing other people onto the curb and roughly forcing them through the lines into a crowd that was already so tight there was hardly room to move. I saw several of the women I’d trained and I just stayed there and grabbed them and pulled them through the lines of cops into our space. I felt a bit like a midwife, birthing them backwards, into the womb of our community now contained by a circle of cops on a wide stretch of sidewalk. Some of them were frightened, some were exhilarated. All looked happy to see me.
And then the tension eased. The cops formed their ring, we had our space, in the circle of Cairo’s largest, central square, and people were chanting “Free, free Palestine!” and singing “We Shall Overcome.” I looked over and found myself standing next to Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, singing, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not afraid today.”
Then I saw Lisa, safe and relatively unscathed although she had a hurt wrist and sore ribs. I gave her some homeopathic arnica and Bill Ayers gave her some chocolate. Carrying chocolate—that mark of an experienced activist!
We all felt great about the action. Against all odds, we had done what we set out to do—to say to the Egyptian authorities and the world, “if you won’t let us go to Gaza, we’ll simply start from here and walk.” If you want to stop us, you’ll have to physically stop us—we won’t comply with your orders. And if you physically stop us, then we will have brought Gaza to Cairo—we will dramatize for the eyes of the world the situation that the people of Gaza are in. This pen, this improvised prison in the central square is another annex to the huge, open-air prison that Gaza has become, where a million and a half people live in the most densely crowded conditions on earth, where the Israelis control the borders and decide who can get in and who can get out, rationing out the necessities of life, b;ocking the materials of reconstruction and the means of livelihood for the Gazan people.
So we held the space throughout the day, with songs and chants and drumbeats, with shared food and water and an improvised pee station. I even had a lovely nap in the sun, next to a beautiful French Algerian organizer with luminous green eyes.
And now the New Year has come, and I must sleep! May our new year be blessed with loving friends and strong comrades to strengthen us for all the work ahead the earth and for justice.
Gaza Freedom March Blog 6 December 30, 2009
We’ve moved from the Old to the New Testament—from “Let my people go” to “Left Behind!” Woke up this morning sure my choice to stay was the right one, but deeply regretting it anyway. Lisa, who was also offered a seat, and I were talking ourselves into good political reasons to justify why we could have gone, when she got a call. Code Pink and the Steering Committee of the Gaza Freedom March had just issued a statement saying that they’d made a mistake, and that they were no longer supporting the busses going. The busses were loading a few blocks away, we were told the scene was chaotic and Lisa rushed down there to do damage control while I stayed to do the morning briefing
By all accounts, the scene was a madhouse. People were weeping on the busses, others were crying “Shame! Shame!” at those who boarded. Some were getting off the bus, then back on, then off again. Father Louis Vitale, the starwart priest from San Francisco who has been arrested hundreds of times doing civil disobedience actions, got on, got off, got on again, and finally got off for good. Lisa helped chill the situation out, and people ended by holding hands and remembering that we are in this for the same goals.
The Gazan coordinators, who originally said, ‘Come!” were now saying “Don’t come—it’s too divisive. Stay together. Several delegations has pulled their representatives out. And I guess the crowning blow for Code Pink was when the Foreign Office released a statement that was not only counter to their agreement but an outright lie—that the hundred on the busses were the only ‘good’’ and truly peaceful demonstrators and that the Foreign Office had selected them. In the end, one bus went.
And then everyone pulled together and went on with the work. By the end of the morning meeting, new people were facilitating and work groups were formed. The hotels were buzzing with the energy of activists organizing an action.
I spent the day doing trainings. For the first one we crammed into the downstairs hall of the Lotus Hotel, tipping the attendant and eventually negotiating with the manager to let us stay just a little longer When we went around the circle, saying our names and where we are from, we had people from all over the world: Jordan, Bulgaria, Holland, Scotland, the U.S., Australia, Canada. For the second training we met out at the Mogamma, the big plaza on Tahir Square, with security guards thick around us and curious local people watching.
With all the work and chaos and stress, I found myself almost losing sight of Gaza. But the situation there is dire, and about to become lethal. The steel wall the Israelis plan to construct with financing from Obama’s administration will cut off the tunnels from Egypt. While the Israelis claim the tunnels are used to smuggle weapons—and that’s undoubtedly true—they are primarily a lifeline for food and the goods that Gazans need and cannot obtain because of the siege. If they are closed, people will be reduced from hunger into starvation, from poverty into abject misery.
Meanwhile other people hammered out a plan for tomorrow I don’t know if it’s a good plan or not. It has some risky aspects. If it works I may not have access to the internet to write for awhile On the other hand, the police could blockade us into our hotels and I’d have time to write a novel.
Wish us luck, safety, and success! More when I can…
Blog—GFM 4 12-29 Morning
So, back to yesterday. I never made it over to the French Embassy, where the French contingent has been encamped, surrounded now by the Egyptian police and not allowed to leave although people have been allowed to pass in food and water. Our encampment in front of the World Trade Center (yep, that’s what it’s called!) that houses the UN was actually a lively and spirited demonstration, with women dancing and an Italian clown parading and the student contingent playing with a gigantic Palestinian flag. Personally, I was fighting my Bad Attitude comprised of exhaustion, low blood sugar, unresolved grief and a recent loss in hearing that upped the volume of tinnitus in my left ear so that even a quiet conversation sounds like echoes in a wind tunnel and a loud demonstration is like the whole world just got tuned to a place halfway between stations on the radio. I was asking myself that dangerous question, “Don’t I have a real life somewhere and shouldn’t I be there, now, living it?” I’d brought my battered old doumbek but didn’t really feel like playing it, until two guitarists, an accordionist and another drummer joined a group of Italians singing “Bella Ciao.” It’s just not possible to stay in an evil mood when Italians are singing “Bella Ciao.”
So I went looking for something useful to do. The police had us surrounded and blocked in, and lines of people were standing in front of them, face to face, to keep them from pushing in the barricades further. In some sense all these confrontations are about space—political space to protest, spaces of freedom in which the people of Gaza might actually live their own lives. Right, I remembered, that was the reason I was there and not back home happily trying to unclog a blocked-up hydroelectric system in the pouring rain, We had created a micro-Gaza right there in the plaza, and again, that is the point of nonviolent action—to dramatize an invisible wrong and make it visible, put in the face of the world so it can’t be ignored.
Lisa was in the middle of the crowd running a spokescouncil meeting that she’d somehow pulled together. She has an amazing ability to work a crowd in the midst of clamor and chaos and somehow bring them all to some point of clarity. Plus she has a naturally loud voice and can make herself heard. Between the roaring gale going on in my left ear and my naturally soft voice being even more so due to the horrible air exacerbating my asthma, I just didn’t feel like that was the place I could do much. If the Goddess in her infinite wisdom had gifted me with a loud voice, not to mention making me slim and glamorous, I could have ruled the world. But she didn’t, so I just have to muddle along as best I can.
Before we came on the march, I’d been in contact with members of the Interfaith delegation about doing trainings for the marchers. No opportunity had yet arisen to do anything of the sort, but I went to check in with them. While we were talking, some kafuffle took place over at the line with the police. A cop hit a woman in the face, we were told. So we went over—but by then, other people had stepped up. One of the white-haired women from the Michigan Peace Team was walking up and down the line talking to the blank eyed officers in fine nonviolent style. Some of the Italians were being, well, Italian—loud and expressive, but basically, things were calm. But we brought up some more people to hold a line, facing the cops. I resisted joining it—I’m a Gemini, an air sign, I like to stay loose at these things and float around. But then a devastatingly handsome young man held out his hand to me and I couldn’t resist. So I ended up in front of these hard-eyed Egyptian security guys, with the grim expressions that reminded me that these are the folks the CIA gets to do their real torturing for them. But honestly, I was bored. So bored that I decided to make use of the time, if possible, to improve my Arabic. From my time in the ISM I had learned a few useful phrases: ‘thank you’, ‘please’, ‘tea without sugar’ and ‘Tank!’ Actually the first Arabic phrase I learned was ‘Fi jesh?’ which means, roughly, “Is the Army up ahead?” As opposed to a time in my life when I was much younger, and the first German phrase I ever learned was “I am really horny.” Ah, but that’s another story..
But knowing I was coming on this trip, I had downloaded some language-learning programs and listened to them long enough to learn to count to ten and to say, “I would like to eat something.” No doubt a useful phrase. I smiled at grim cop in front of me, held up one finger, and said, “Wehed?” His eyes locked on mine. I held up two. “Efnayim?” He ventured a smile, nodded encouragingly, and said “Taletha.” “Arbah” I replied, holding up four, and before I knew it the entire line of cops within earshot were grinning and nodding encouragement as I counted to ten, then patiently instructing me on to eleven, twelve, thirteen…There’s a music to the Arabic numbers that is quite hypnotic, and before I knew it I was up to a hundred, with my team cheering me on. Then we started over again, and over. They were all gazing at me with fond, paternal eyes, like a father looks at a promising child, and they stopped looking to me like potential torturers and started looking more like sweet young men doing a job that wasn’t really their choice to begin with.
Then they switched shifts, and I had to start all over again. But damn if it didn’t work just the same way with the new guard. The truth is, the personal sympathies of these guys are already with us, mostly. They aren’t subject to the same political pressures as Mubarak. The young ones in uniform are conscripts, just doing their time.
Ah—but I’m running out if I want to get to the French Embassy, the American Embassy where I’m told people are being detained, to go support the hunger strikers who will be vigiling at 2 pm—including Hedy Epstein, an 88 year old holocaust survivor, and start planning for tomorrow when we have decided to march toward Gaza if we have to leave from right here in Cairo. Let me just say that by the end of the day, after some food and some shifts in the organizing, I felt good again. Glad to be here, glad to be part of this, hopeful that whether or not we get to Gaza we will succeed in our true aim—to focus the world’s attention again on Gaza, on the illegal state of siege the Israeli’s are perpetuating there, on those who died and on the shattered homes and infrastructure which cannot be rebuilt because Israel will not let in supplies. I’ll do my best to keep writing and posting, but now off to do a bit of living.
Blog--GFM 3 December 28
At The End of a Very Long Day
Our situation is ironically biblical—never have I understood the story of Exodus so well. The irony is that in the story, it’s the Israelites petitioning Pharoah to let them go, packing their bags each time he indicates ‘yes’, unpacking them when he changes his mind and says ‘no’, ten times until in the end they leave in such haste they have no time to let the bread rise. Now, it’s the Israelites, or at least, most likely, the Israelis applying political pressure to the Egyptians to refuse us entry into Gaza. Indeed, even leaving Cairo has become problematic. Small groups have made their way to el Arish, but most have been stopped, some pulled from taxis, others sent back in busses from checkpoints
We had busses scheduled to pick us up at 7 AM in the morning—but we received word the night before that their permits had been canceled. We decided to go down to the bus station anyway and invite the press, demonstrating clearly that we were ready to go.
I really hate a demonstration that starts at 7 AM after a night of little sleep. But Juniper, Lisa, Geneva and I dutifully roused ourselves and grabbed a taxi down to the bus station. After wandering around a bit in an area of massive concrete overhangs, fumes and garbage, and crossing a couple of lethal avenues without mishap, we arrived at the area where people were holding banners and trying to wake up enough to chant.
I just have to say this here—I really hate political chanting. Makes my throat hurt and my ears sore. Mostly it’s rhythmically boring and political singing is sometimes worse. Well, old civil rights songs are great and heartening but John Lennon never wrote a more whining dirge than “All we are saying is give peace a chance!: Also impossible to sing in tune. “Imagine” is just about as bad, and longer. Drumming is some help but I’ve done the marching and drumming thing and it hurts my back. I especially hate it at 7 AM. But I endured a couple of hours of it, punctuated by some quieter moments when I could talk to people. In one of them, I interviewed Lynn Gottlieb, one of the first eight women ordained as a rabbi, who now preaches what she calls the Torah of nonviolence
In another, I met Alex, a red-haired activist I’d met years ago in Palestine with the ISM. Alex told me that Hisham, who used to run the Faisal Hostel in East Jerusalem where ISMers often stayed, was in town just for the morning in a hotel just down the street. He’d come to meet people. So as the demo wound down, Alex and I went up to see him.
I remember the first time I met Hisham, on the first trip I did with the ISM. I’d stayed a night in Tel Aviv with my Israeli friends and taken a bus to Jerusalem. I got a taxi from the bus station and couldn’t understand why the taxi driver didn’t seem to understand where the Faisal was or grasp what I meant by ‘Damascus gate’ of the Old City. Or why he got more and more nervous as we got closer, finally stopping at least a block away and nearly forcing me out of the cab Later I realized that, of course, he was an Israeli cabby, mortally terrified of driving into East Jerusalem and nearly as terrified of anyone in his cab who would ask him to. After I dragged my heavy bags over to the Faisal and up a flight or two of stairs, I was sweating and exhausted and when I saw the general level of shabbiness and grime, ready to turn around and go back. Then I saw Hisham, standing behind the counter, with a broad grin. “Welcome, welcome!” he said, with so much friendliness and warmth that I felt better immediately. I grew very fond of the Faisal, which had a wide screened veranda where we did trainings, and an every-ready pot of tea.
We took another slow, creaky elevator up to the sixth floor, walked into the restaurant, and Hisham stood up and gave me a warm hug. “Starhawk, welcome! Welcome!” he said After six years, he recognized me immediately. We sat with three young ISMers who had come from the West Bank the night before while they had breakfast and we shared news and political cynicism. There’s a certain dark, stoic humor that long term ISM volunteers tend to share, a grim cheer that comes after facing situations every day that seem like they can’t possibly get worse, and knowing they will get worse. I realized that I missed it. I miss my friend Neta and the two girls I helped her birth and her new baby that I’ve never seen. I miss the other incredible folks I knew there, dour Swedish Tobias who became so at home in Jenin; Ghassan Andoni, like the distinguished professor he is, teaching us the history of Palestinian nonviolence; tall, red-haired Irish Caoimhe who strode through refugee camps like a Celtic Goddess and was known to walk up to tanks and cover their muzzles with her bare hands. I had tears in my eyes, realizing that I’d never expected to see Hisham again, since the Israeli authorities now won’t let me back into Israel, which also controls all the entrances into the West Bank as well as Gaza.
I know that what I feel is just a little taste of exile, a homeopathic dose of the Palestinian experience. Knowing that just compounds the sadness, turns it into a bitter dose of depression and despair—because how can I even indulge in feeling something which is so dwarfed by the immensity of Palestinian suffering? I was born an American Jew six years after the holocaust—I grew up feeling that nothing that ever happened to me could possibly rank with the sufferings of my own people, the camps and the ovens and the mass graves. And I realize what I miss in that gallows humor mood is the relief that comes from stepping out of the morass of grief and guilt and guilt about feeling grief into what I call the zone of deadly calm, the place of pure action, where you just stop feeling and stop thinking and walk out and stick your hand over the muzzle of a tank.
Okay, this isn’t really about today’s action, how we took over the plaza at the UN building for most of the day, how I learned how to hypnotize an Egyptian policeman (get them to teach you how to count in Arabic—“Wehed, efnaim, taletha..”their hard eyes soften, “arbah, hamsah, seta” and suddenly they become smiling boys :saba, thaminiah, teysha, ashara!” ) how the French have held their embassy into the night, how people who tried to get to el Arish were pulled out of taxis and taken off busses, but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway. Because it’s almost 2 AM and because I believe that we might learn something, if we understood what pain and loss and violence and guilt do to us. In the end, that pain, that grief, the weight of sorrow and the desperate relief from it can propel us to do a lot of different things: stand in front of a bulldozer, sit down in front of a tank, strap on a belt of explosives and blow ourselves and everyone around us up. Different acts, yes, very different choices. But how much do our choices come from who we are, and how much from what we encounter around us, when we seek for solace, what comes to hand?
Still a bit dazed and confused from jetlag, I went down to the Lotus Hotel where Medea Benjamin and Anne Wright and many of the other organizers are staying. It is also peeling and seedy, and when people told me, “Thank you for putting your life on the line,” I didn’t quite imagine that the biggest mortal dangers would be elevators, with archaic wooden cages and exposed wiring and metal grates dating back to the Third Dynasty. Of course, that’s only if you survive the Cairo traffic. Crossing the street here is a bit like trying to dodge your way through a herd of stampeding mustangs.
So far unscathed, I got sucked into doing media work for most of the afternoon. About a hundred people went out to the Kasr al Nil bridge around noon—the bridge to the large island in the middle of the Nile. They placed cards and flowers on the bridge to commemorate the more than 1300 Gazans who died in the Israeli assault that began a year ago today, on December 27, 2008. The police eventually showed up and ordered them off the bridge, but didn’t arrest anyone.
The plan for the afternoon was to meet at 4 pm down by the Nile and take feluccas, the small sailboats that go up and down the river. On the boats, we could meet in small groups and then converge later for a larger meeting. We hurried down there (I spend a lot of these actions trailing after people who are younger, faster and slimmer) and eventually I jumped in a taxi with a few other women at Lisa’s suggestion. A knot of activists were surrounded by a thicket of cameras. The police were blocking us from getting on the boats, and shut down the rental place. But we gathered, a group of several hundred, which we had been expressly forbidden to do. Medea Benjamin, one of the Code Pink leaders, jumped up and made an impromptu speech. “Who here wants to take a boat on the Nile, like tourists do?” she asked. Everyone raised their hands. “Who here wants to go to Gaza?”
The crowd began cheering and unfurling banners and chanting “Free Gaza!” We lit our candles in cups and held them aloft. There were people from all over the world in the crowd—young students and old people, every imaginable mix of countries and races and religions. The spirit was strong, and as more and more police arrived, everyone remained calm. The crowd began marching back down the riverside, and then the police threw up a cordon and blocked us in. Lisa was trying to negotiate and persuade the head officer to let us march down back to the bridge and disperse there, but he wouldn’t go for it. The police were not in riot gear—most of them seemed to be in plain clothes, and their hearts weren’t realy in keeping us blocked in. They held hands to barricade us, and they kept smiling. People lifted up their arms and ducked under and got out, and from time to time they opened up and let people out, without much rhyme nor reason. Basically, they are personally in sympathy with our cause, and that’s working in our favor.
Eventually, they moved aside and let everyone go. People felt strong and empowered by the action. We had been told that the Egyptian government did not want us to protest in Cairo, to be interviewed by the press, to interact with Egyptians. And we had done all of the above.
Our cancelled meeting had been rescheduled and moved several times, but finally we had it outside, in the middle of Tahrir Square, a big central square in downtown Cairo, right out in the open. What I love about explicitly nonviolent actions, and what sometimes gets lost in the attempts we make to accommodate diverse tactics and security culture, is that in-your-face attitude we can adopt when we aren’t trying to hide what we’re doing. The authorities say, ‘you cannot meet in groups larger than six people,’ and cancel our permit for a building, so we meet in the center of town in the public square. We create a dilemma for the authorities—either arrest us, these hundreds of internationals with large bases of political support, or concede this political space.
The cops left us alone. But—all the busses that we’d rented for our attempt to go to Gaza tomorrow have been cancelled due to pressure from the government. Ordinary Egyptians, who live here, don’t have the privilege we enjoy and are not immune to threats.
The French contingent went en masse to their embassy, threatening to encamp on its lawn, and got them to intervene with the Egyptian government and they got security permits for their busses. Or so we’ve heard—I don’t know yet if the busses actually arrived or were allowed to leave.
With all the stress and continually changing conditions, I’m still deeply thrilled to be here. Under the clamor and the smog lies a sense of age and a whiff of ancient things. That river we’re walking besides is the Nile! I see a scraggly cat and think, ‘This is where cats come from!” I see a man in flowing robes and kaffiyeh who could have been standing there for a hundred years.
Tomorrow Anne Wright, a U.S. diplomat who resigned in protest against the Iraq War and who has become a dedicated activist, will take another delegation to the foreign office to continue their negotiations. Please keep up the calls and the writing. I apologize for the typo in the previous post—the website is:
Your support is keeping us safe and will hopefully open the road to Gaza—not just for us, but for the people whose lives and health and freedom are blighted by this siege.
Open Letter to President Mubarak from the Gaza Freedom March
26 December 2009
Dear President Mubarak;
We, representing 1,362 individuals from 43 countries arriving in Cairo to participate in the Gaza Freedom March, are pleading to the Egyptians and your reputation for hospitality.
We are peacemakers. We have not come to Egypt to create trouble or cause conflict. On the contrary. We have come because we believe that all people — including the Palestinians of Gaza — should have access to the resources they need to live in dignity. We have gathered in Egypt because we believed that you would welcome and support our noble goal and help us reach Gaza through your land.
As individuals who believe in justice and human rights, we have spent our hard-earned, and sometimes scarce, resources to buy plane tickets, book hotel rooms and secure transportation only to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza living under a crushing Israeli blockade.
We are doctors, lawyers, students, academics, poets and musicians. We are young and old. We are Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and secular. We represent civil society groups in many countries who coordinated this large project with the civil society in Gaza.
We have raised tens of thousands of dollars for medical aid, school supplies and winter clothing for the children of Gaza. But we realize that in addition to material aid, the Palestinians of Gaza need moral support. We came to offer that support on the difficult anniversary of an invasion that brought them so much suffering.
The idea of the Gaza Freedom March—a nonviolent march to the Israeli Erez crossing– emerged during one of our trips to Gaza in May, a trip that was kindly facilitated by the Egyptian government. Ever since the idea emerged, we have been talking to your government through your embassies overseas and directly with your Foreign Ministries. Your representatives have been kind and supportive. We were asked to furnish information about all the participants—passports, dates of birth, occupations—which we have done in good faith. We have answered every question, met every request. For months we have been working under the assumption that your government would facilitate our passage, as it has done on so many other occasions. We waited and waited for an answer.
Meanwhile, time was getting short and we had to start organizing. Travel over the Christmas season is not easy in the countries where many of us live. Tickets have to be purchased weeks, if not months, in advance. This is what all 1,362 individuals did. They spent their own funds or raised money from their communities to pay their way. Add to this the priceless time, effort and sacrifice by all these people to be away from their homes and loved ones during their festive season.
In Gaza, civil society groups—students, unions, women, farmers, refugee groups—have been working nonstop for months to organize the march. They have organized workshops, concerts, press conferences, endless meetings—all of this with their own scarce resources. They have been buoyed by the anticipated presence of so many global citizens coming to support their just cause.
If the Egyptian government decides to prevent the Gaza Freedom March, all this work and cost is lost.
And that’s not all. It is practically impossible, this late in the game, to stop all these people from travelling to Egypt, even if we wanted to. Moreover, most have no plans in Egypt other than to arrive at a predetermined meeting point to head together to the Gaza border. If these plans are cancelled there will be a lot of unjustified suffering for the Palestinians of Gaza and over a thousand internationals who had nothing in mind but noble intentions.
We plead to you to let the Gaza Freedom March continue so that we can join the Palestinians of Gaza to march together on December 31, 2009.
We are truly hopeful that we will receive a positive response from you and thank you for your assistance.
Tighe Barry, Gaza Freedom March coordinator
Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK, USA
Olivia Zemor, Euro-Palestine, France
David Torres, ECCP, Belgium
Germano Monti, Forum Palestine, Italy
Ziyaad Lunat, Gaza Freedom March, Europe
Ehab Lotayef, Gaza Freedom March, Canada
Alessandra Mecozzi, Action for Peace-Italy
Ann Wright, Gaza Freedom March coordinator
Kawthar Guediri, Collectif National pour une Paix Juste et Durable entre Palestinens et Israeliens, France
Mark Johnson, Fellowship of Reconciliation
Thomas Sommer, Focus on The Global South, India
27 Dec. 2009
Gaza Freedom March—I’m in Cairo
So I’m here in Cairo, in a seedy but supportive hotel. The décor is peeling kitsch, but the beds are clean and the politics are good. To be honest, the part of these trips I hate the most is packing and getting ready. There’s the stress of trying to find my missing good pair of jeans, organizing all the details of our upcoming Earth Activist Training and instructing the people who will stay at my cabin on the vagaries of the hydro system and the four electrical meters, none of which work, wrapping presents and desperately trying to thwart the Snatchers, those little creatures that live between the worlds, stealing single socks, twitching your passport out of the drawer where you know you left it, burying your Iphone under the bedclothes—and helping to cook a Christmas Eve dinner for thirty people, “How are you?” “I’m a little fried—leaving first thing in the morning.” “Oh, where are you going?” “Gaza.” Now, there’s a conversation stopper! Then after dragging myself away from our lovely tree and crèche and crammed-full stockings on Christmas morning to slog through security lines and crunch myself into two-small airplane seats—once I actually get to a destination everything else seems relaxing by comparison, except possibly getting detained at the airport and sent right back again.
As long as that didn’t happen—anything else short of rendition and actual torture is bound to be fun by comparison. We had lots of people from the march on the various planes I was on, kind of shyly checking each other out in the waiting area—“Hmmn, a student with a bracelet in Palestinian colors, possible. A middle-aged woman who looks like a nun—maybe.” Somehow we found each other. I sat for eleven hours next to a young soldier on his way back to Iraq. He seemed so young and vulnerable, making all his last Christmas calls to his family. He has two other brothers in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, and his arms were all covered with squiggly military tattoos. On his other side was a vegan anthropology student also on her way to the march. “We’ve got you surrounded,” I told him.
Just before I left, I got a call from Lisa and Juniper who were already in Cairo. The Egyptians have closed the border in Rafah, and revoked all our permits to meet. Chances of our getting through seem dim, and the risk level of the adventure has suddenly climbed higher, as we may now be arrested just for meeting and demonstrating even in Cairo. But hey, why would that surprise us—just because for five months they’ve been negotiating with the organizers and telling them we will be let in.
After too brief a sleep, we had a meeting this morning in our hotel. Our big orientation meeting for this evening has been cancelled, its permit revoked. So we’re doing smaller briefings in hotels, and we have a couple of ‘soft’ actions planned for today. We have now heard the border will be open to Palestinians and Egyptians later this week—although no one has said it will be open to Internationals. Still, in various ways we will attempt to get in. I will keep you posted as I can. I have also opened up a Twitter account—seems like this is the sort of thing Twitter is made for. My user name is Starhawk17 (Starhawk was already taken, don’t know by whom) and my profile is http://twitter.com/Starhawk17 You can sign on to get Tweets and that will probably be the most up-to-the-minute news as we attempt to get in.
Okay, hope to get this out and posted. We really, really need your help today to continue pressure on the Egyptian embassies and government. Please go to the Gaza Freedom March website and contact the Egyptian Foreign minister, if you haven’t already. Check for solidarity actions in your town and please, please, join them if you can. The uncertainty that we are experiencing is just a tiny taste of what life is like every day for Palestinians who are prevented from traveling freely, from leaving Gaza at will and from getting home if they do manage to get out, from rebuilding their bombed and destroyed neighborhoods and the means of life. Thanks! Starhawk