Weapons of the weak
11 January 2002
At the Qalandiyah roadblock, the state of Palestine is being established, according to author and playwright Salman Natoor, who found himself there one hot summer's day...
There is no need for special creative powers to describe our summer days. We have come to terms with the fact that the holes in the ozone layer are nature's most recent curse. We have relinquished our right to struggle against whomever and whatever is perforating our ozone. We rely on the indifferent dullness of the senses that enables us to bear all that the stifling heat causes us, and we carry on with our lives as if we have won an overwhelming victory over the heat.
There is no need to describe the weather on that sweltering, dusty and humid summer's day at one of the biggest holes of humanity and justice, which is called the Qalandiyah roadblock. Another place somewhere between Jerusalem and Ramallah, cut up by large cubes of cement, where there are four soldiers - two of them facing north and two of them facing south - and many people crowding and moving slowly in every direction, as well as many cars crowding and moving slowly, moving and stopping.
The time is 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Ramallah is quiet. Leaving the city always makes you want to go back there, even when you are rushing to leave. I stopped at the edge of the Qalandiyah refugee camp. Many cars had stopped ahead of me and behind me and on either side of me, and from every corner more cars appeared, stopping and starting to crawl in the direction of the roadblock. A yellow van tried to push in from the side but got stuck between the lumps of metal. Only a few centimeters separate one vehicle from the next. Every few seconds you, that is - I, hear a bump. All the cars, old and new, are scratched from little bumps, like kisses between cars. My car too got a kiss like that, which leaves traces but does not make you angry at all. After all, who is the driver who would get out of his car and start yelling or complaining that his fender has been scratched or his headlight broken?
Here you, that is - I, get the first course that dulls the senses, a tranquilizer in minimal dosage, and you say to yourself: "The main thing is that I haven't been hurt," and you come out of it with a feeling of victory and good luck because only the car has been injured and not you. "Thank God." And you, that is - I, wonder how the vehicular kisses, in the manner of French kisses, have become a Palestinian phenomenon that is common and accepted, as opposed to the kisses between lovers that are forbidden in public, even though the latter do not scratch and cause damage.
You wait until the driver in front of you has advanced one step forward and you hasten to fill the vacuum between you and him before a quick taxi driver or a huge truck pushes into the narrow space and locates you in the space between the road and the high fender of the truck. You wake up and shake off the indifference, get a bit annoyed and very scared because you cannot challenge the big truck or oppose it.
After great efforts and zigzags I slipped from the middle of the road to the right lane to get away from the threatening trucks that constitute a greater danger than anything else, and I continued to crawl in the direction of the roadblock, feeling victorious and confident.
Dozens of young men from the Qalandiyah camp "occupied" the road and filled the role of traffic police. They directed the drivers to bypass routes or stopped one car in the middle to let others go by in the opposite direction.
The raucous noise of the road, the motors running and the frequent honking was overwhelmed by the sounds of shooting. On a small hill stood two soldiers. One of them fired into the air. He fired off four or five shots and stopped. I was attacked by hysterical fear. The young men directing the traffic continued with their task and did not look to see where the shooting was coming from. The two soldiers continued firing into the air and then they fired in the direction of the roadblock. The cars stood stock still. The soldiers looked in my direction. One of them aimed his rifle and fired one shot. He hit the car that had stopped in front of me and then he fired another shot and hit the rear window of another car that was also ahead of me. He kept on firing over our heads.
At that moment I thought of fleeing. I looked around me and I did not see anyone getting out of his vehicle or anyone getting upset. I could not tell whether I was the wise man and they the fools or whether I was the coward and they the brave, or whether this perhaps was the meaning of coexistence. There were those who closed their car windows in order to enjoy the air conditioning and others who continued to sit there with their windows open. Apparently they prefer death from shooting to death from suffocation in a closed car; after all, they are familiar with death from bullets and apparently they would rather meet a familiar death than an unfamiliar death. Death from suffocation inside a closed car is too modern for a conservative society.
I opened my windows and lit a cigarette, and when I saw one driver reading a newspaper and his passengers listening serenely and with pleasure to popular Lebanese music, I was astonished by this indifference. Even the driver whose car had been hit by a bullet did not get upset and continued to drive and smoke as if nothing had happened. The two soldiers kept on shooting, and all the people around me were deathly indifferent.
Dulled senses are worthy of great respect. I asked myself: Why not dull my senses like they have? I convinced myself that indifference is the weapon of the weak. Indifference at the Qalandiyah roadblock means not letting the occupation kill you by suffocation inside your car; it means that you, that is - I, overcome the occupation. Indifference means not letting the occupation kill you by a heart attack or a nervous breakdown or a stroke because you are so frightened and upset. That is, indifference preserves your life and your existence.
At the Qalandiyah roadblock, the directions of movement get mixed up. For a moment you think everything is moving in one direction. You do not know when a car will appear from the opposite direction and stop nose to nose with you. In a moment of rebellion against the indifference, an annoyed driver decides to turn around to fill a vacuum that has gaped between you and him until you hear the bump and he hears it too. He moves forward and cuts to the right and then shifts into reverse and again moves forward and there he is nose to nose with you. He asks you politely to move to the right, to go up onto the stones and the dirt and the garbage and the remnants of burnt tires so that he can advance in the opposite direction. I turned to look at the two soldiers, and saw that they were regarding us with annoyance. One of them aimed his rifle and the other looked worriedly at what was happening and then fired a single shot at the vehicle that had turned around in the other direction and hit the back fender. The driver was alarmed, shook his head and then he and his car and his face froze. I was also alarmed, but I returned to my indifference when I saw that the soldier who had aimed his rifle moved it aside and the other soldier burst out laughing.
The two soldiers continue to fire in all directions, playing with fire like two little boys throwing stones at nothing. The young people from the camp continued to direct the traffic to no avail, their heads exposed to the bullets, but they were indifferent, totally engaged in doing their volunteer job with no fear or awe of death - or perhaps they just believed that the soldiers were only playing with fire. The passengers in the car sat quietly perspiring and waiting as if at a red light; only their dulled senses helped them wait it out and not give an opportunity to the two soldiers who were playing with fire and waiting for someone to make some suspicious move to snipe at them with a volley of bullets, and also snipe at us.
But apparently life will go on as normal at the Qalandiyah roadblock. The two soldiers will also continue to play with fire to pass the time because they too are infected with indifference. They did not look annoyed and tense. It is clear that they like their job and that they are pleased to stand on the hill and watch the thousands of vehicles standing there and sometimes crawling toward the roadblock. From the hill they see the roofs of the cars covered in dust the color of sand that turns the color of metal into the color of earth, turns the cars into part of the earth like the few trees, their green leaves covered in dust, and the houses of the refugee camp, their walls covered in dust, and even the heads of the young men directing the traffic and the heads of the passengers and the drivers inside the cars who had not turned on air conditioners.
Only people's faces were in color, the perspiration washing their faces. Everything was covered in dust except for the faces, whose natural color was preserved because they were washed with perspiration and wiped with paper tissues, all thanks to the blessed indifference, because if the people had gone crazy and decided to get out of the cars, they would have become suspects or terrorists or Tanzim and then the soldiers would have shot them in the head and their blood would have spilled down over their faces and mixed with the dust and made their faces ugly. But they, the indifferent, preferred to remain in the cars and wipe the perspiration with paper tissues or with their shirtsleeves or with their fingers like windshield wipers. Their indifference saved their faces from ugliness and also me. Before my senses went dull I thought of getting out of the car and addressing the two soldiers and asking them: Why are you shooting, ya awlad al kalb (you sons of a dog)? But my dulled senses prevented me from doing this, because had I got out of the car I would have become a suspect, a terrorist and a Tanzim in the soldiers' eyes and they would have shot at me without hesitation because they do this with wonderful indifference and they do not care about the results, the way I care, the fool who tried to rebel against his own indifference, and perhaps I would have been saved if I were to get out of the car and raised a white flag, but would my self-respect and my pride allow me to raise a white flag before an occupation soldier?
The indifference at the Qalandiyah roadblock is the opposite of submission, or so I convinced myself, and those who encouraged me were the peddlers who showed their wares around the roadblock. Commerce in the indifferent state of Qalandiyah is flourishing. Paper tissues are the most common commodity. This is where the commercial life of this state begins. Small boys scurry among the cars offering paper tissues at tempting prices. Others hawk bottles of mineral water and soft drinks and ice cream and also coffee, with sugar in one flask and without sugar in the other. You sit in your car and everything comes to you, coffee and anything you might want poured at bargain prices.
The peddlers of my people elicit respect and pride. They are modest and make do with little, they do not exploit the circumstances to gouge prices. They do not conduct themselves according to the laws of supply and demand, or of the free market, or of the new world order. This is Palestinian modesty that elicits pride. Anyone who goes through the roadblock will find everything his heart desires, televisions and washing machines and refrigerators and clothing and footwear and everything sold in the perfumed and air conditioned duty free shops at the airports.
At the terminal at the Qalandiyah roadblock that is exposed to the dust and the burning rays of the sun you will find everything, because you too are exposed to the dust and the rays of the sun and you take in strength from the indifference like the peddlers and the drivers and the soldiers. You convince yourself that this is your natural life, that this is the normalcy of life. You immediately notice that the people are not wearing new, pressed suits and white shirts and ties, and that the women are not wearing make-up and their faces have no creams on them and their hair is messy, without conditioner and gel, so that the dust will not stick to it. This is a willing abnegation of cosmetics in astonishing feminine and masculine indifference. The people who go through the Qalandiyah roadblock every day have special clothing and an unkempt hairstyle and a special appearance.
At the Qalandiyah roadblock, the beautiful relinquish the right to be beautiful. I swear that if I see any of them anywhere in the world I will say to him directly that he is from the Qalandiyah roadblock. The Qalandiyah roadblock has become a homeland, a state, a people, a nation, a culture and an identity.
The occupation and the indifference have become a rare patriotic value.
The occupation and the indifference are creating a nation.
At the Qalandiyah roadblock, the free state of Palestine is being established.