In his new book, the British journalist Arthur Neslen interviews a cross-section of Palestinians, weaving together a diverse tapestry of their collective experience.
In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: the Palestinian collective experience
In Your Eyes A Sandstorm
University of California Press
I first met the British journalist Arthur Neslen in Ramallah during the autumn of 2007 when he was researching his new book, In Your Eyes A Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian.
A cloud of disillusionment hung over the region at that juncture. The separation wall had all but severed the West Bank, the Gaza blockade was tightening and political division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was at its peak. Israeli raids across the West Bank, intended to round up the remnants of the resistance from the Second Intifada, were matched by PA reprisals and arrests against Hamas.
Conversely, Ramallah was enjoying something of a boom, awash as it was with western aid. As downtown rents rose above the affordability of most Palestinian salaries, bars would welcome internationals and turn away single men from nearby refugee camps. Indeed, it was at a party in the upmarket Ramallah apartment of an international NGO worker that I first met Neslen, who overheard me joking loudly about being the only Jew in Ramallah. "Not sure that's accurate, mate," he quipped. A friendship was forged.
He had just published Occupied Minds: A Journey into the Israeli Psyche, which explores the social structure and perception of an occupation society through interviews that spanned the Israeli spectrum (it is soon to be republished in Arabic). He told me he envisaged his next book, an examination of Palestinian identity, to be a companion volume to Occupied Minds. Neslen had recently relocated to Ramallah from Tel Aviv and it was amidst the political fatalism and social despair spreading across the Palestinian community that he set about conducting interviews with subjects who spanned the generations - from the present all the way back to the 1936 revolt against British colonial rule and mass Jewish immigration. It would take him on a three-year investigation criss-crossing Palestinian communities in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.
Throughout 2007 and 2008 we travelled together to Jordan and around Palestine as he chased interviews for the book while I ran after stories for articles. I was with Neslen covering a Hamas women's demonstration in Ramallah in 2008 (an event he also examines in the book) when we were split apart as he was beaten by Palestinian Authority (PA) police for taking photos of a security crackdown on the protesters. Pushed across the road and through a shopping arcade by PA security armed with Kalashnikovs, I reunited with Neslen after he was released by police amidst the chaos of the dispersing demonstration.
In a Tel Aviv bar in 2009, still shaken from his recent post-invasion return to Gaza - where he spoke with doctors, Hamas political officials and tunnel workers, he recounted a bizarre and frightening incident in which he was chased down the street by a complete stranger wielding a knife. However, even with the terror still subsiding, Neslen was already preoccupied with finding out why he was attacked.
The drive to answer these questions is intimately connected to Neslen's dedication to producing this book. He had worked for a range of western media and his book is, in many ways, a response to those outlets that he had seen consistently misrepresent, distort and mask exactly who the Palestinians really are. Speaking to a cross section of the population, ranging from Ramallah and Gaza's political elites and iconic resistance fighters such as Leila Khaled to Gazan fishermen and refugees in Lebanon, Neslen weaves together a diverse tapestry of Palestine's collective experience. He explores how Palestinians depict their history, express their identities and view their current condition.
As the Arab Awakening spread across the region earlier this year, the opening shots of a now simmering Palestinian Spring were fired on March 15, 2011, as youth across the West Bank and Gaza seized public squares, demanded an end to national political division and called for the democratic transformation of the PLO. Standing with young Palestinians in Ramallah's Al Manara Square, leaders of the emerging movement spoke of a generational power struggle. And while initially both Hamas and the PA united to crack down on the young protesters, both authorities would later scramble to present themselves as builders of national reconciliation.
Two months later, on the commemoration of the Nakba - Israel's 1948 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians - thousands of refugees marched unarmed on Israel's borders with Lebanon and Syria. Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank headed on foot to Israeli border checkpoints such as the Erez Crossing.
Israel responded to the marchers with live fire. The carnage was repeated a month later, as refugees again marched to the Syrian border, this time to mark the anniversary of Israel's 1967 invasion and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. By June, dozens of demonstrators had been killed.
These events, ignited and inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, were further fuelled by the generation of Palestinians who had grown up with the failure of the Oslo Accords, which had, in the end, only produced an expanded occupation, increased war and isolation.
Grassroots action has been more subdued since the spring protests, while the current leadership's diplomatic manoeuvring rarely goes beyond statehood declarations and prisoner exchanges. It is this uniqueness of the Palestinian situation amid the spreading Arab Spring that makes Neslen's book so relevant now.
By ordering his interview subjects from present to past, Neslen effectively charts the development of the liberation struggle and reinterprets its collective experience using the Palestinian concept of samud (holding your ground). Meanwhile, the book's depiction of segregation, ghettoisation and disenchantment sheds light on how Palestinian young people reflect on their history to understand their shattered present.
The book begins with a conversation with 15-year-old Abud Abdul Khadr Fihad and his sister Bisan, 12, amid the bleakness and overcrowding of the Jenin refugee camp. Having lived through the Israeli invasion of the camp in 2002, both adolescents were clearly still, even years later, shell-shocked by the brutality they witnessed.
Neslen did the interview when we travelled to Jenin together in early 2008. I had gone there to work on a story about camp reactions to Mahmud Abbas's decision to take part in the US government's Annapolis talks with Israel. "Before Annapolis, the army came once a week, now they come every night," a shopkeeper told me as I walked through the narrow streets lined with overcrowded apartments, whose walls were heavily pockmarked with bullet holes.
We travelled back to Ramallah after dark and were stopped at the first of the four checkpoints that punctuated the long drive back. Shining floodlights on our taxi, soldiers ordered us out of the car. Sensing these guards were on edge and seeing their guns pointed at us, we exited the vehicle with our hands in the air and holding our passports high. As we approached the soldiers to provide our documents, one soldier started screaming at us to lift up our shirts, intent on seeing if we were wearing explosive belts. Fortunately, we were quickly cleared after showing our western passports. Nevertheless, the message was clear: had we been Palestinian, it would have been a very different story.
I wasn't surprised that Abud told Neslen that he hoped to die as a resistance fighter when he grew up. Nor was I shocked when Bisan, whose most significant encounter with Jewish people had been in the form of invading Israeli soldiers, discussed her recurring dream of being a bird flying over Palestine. "I travel from city to city and see the children playing safely in peace and freedom and the Jews are dying and not one of them is living here in Palestine," she says.
Still, Neslen doesn't fall into the trap of using the stock narrative of the traumatised victim, instead presenting it as one of the many reactions people have had to Israeli aggression. Exploring the full spectrum of the Palestinian experience, he talks to a Ramallah policeman, a tunnel worker in Gaza, an artist, a drug dealer in Jerusalem and a model in Haifa, among many others, producing a narrative that depicts a living and collective identity, one that emerges though multiple voices and contradictions.
Ending the book with an interview with a fighter in the 1936 revolt is, perhaps, Neslen's most insightful decision. While most explorations of Palestine start or end with the Nakba, Neslen traces the solidifying of the modern national Palestinian identity to the Mandate-era revolt against British imperialism and its accommodation of Zionism.
For a new generation of Palestinians looking to understand their situation in relation to the recent regional uprisings, a rediscovered identity rooted in the traditions of samud and popular revolt rather than one paralysed by the trauma of dispossession provides a much-needed unifying spark.
Jesse Rosenfeld is a Canadian journalist who covers Middle East and North American politics and social issues. He has previously published articles with The National, The Nation, Le Monde Diplomatique and The Guardian, among others.