Who are the Palestinians? In this compelling book of interviews, Arthur Neslen reaches beyond journalistic clichés to let a wide variety of Palestinians answer the question for themselves. Beginning in the present with Bisan and Abud, two traumatized children from Jenin’s refugee camp, the book’s narrative arcs backwards through the generations to come full circle with two elderly refugees from villages that the children were named after. Along the way, Neslen recounts a history of land, resistance, exile, and trauma that begins to explain Abud’s wish to become a martyr and Bisan’s dream of a Palestine empty of Jews. Senior Fatah and Hamas figures relate key events of the Palestinian experience—the Second Intifada, Oslo Process, First Intifada, Thawra, 1967 War, the Naqba, and the Great Arab Revolt of 1936—in their own words. The extraordinary voices of women, children, farmers, fighters, drug dealers, policeman, doctors, and others, spanning the political divide from Salafi Jihadists to Israeli soldiers, bring the Palestinian story to life even as their words sow seeds of hope in the scorched Palestinian earth.
In Your Eyes a Sandstorm Ways of Being Palestinian
Bisan, 12, and Abud Abdul Khadr Fihad, 15
Students, Jenin Camp, West Bank
A bird flying over Palestine
In a small house crunched into the maze of Jenin's refugee camp, Bisan and Abud lived with their parents and one younger brother. Sitting in the family's salon with their mother and a translator, Bisan said that she rarely saw Abud these days. He changed after the Israeli army's invasion of the camp in 2002 and was now always on the streets. During that invasion, at least fifty-two Palestinians were killed and the old refugee camp was demolished.
Bisan was named after the family's hometown, which now lies within Israel. In 1948, the Palmach, a standing army of Jewish troops, captured it and expelled its Arab residents, renaming the town Beth She'an as they went. The Fihad family were among those displaced.
Abud said he visited the town of Bisan once for a wedding and found it "a beautiful village, more beautiful than the Jenin camp." He would have liked to live there, he said, but could not "because of the occupation." Beth She'an is now a Jewish town in Israel, and no Arabs remain. Bisan has visited Jericho, Jerusalem, and Haifa only once, on a school excursion. "I prefer Jerusalem because of the holy places," she said. "It keeps me in contact with our Islamic origins. I love my religion, and insha'allah I will go to Mecca." Both children prayed regularly in order to satisfy God and so that they might reach heaven one day. "It's a way of feeling okay," Bisan explained. Her smile was often bright and precocious, but in a moment it could turn pale and expressionless. Abud was more fixedly hunched and sullen.
When I asked the children what their favorite lessons were at school, Bisan piped up, "I love English!" with a grin. Abud said nothing. Bisan told me that they played Intifada games in the Jenin camp by dividing themselves into two groups-Jews who shot, and Palestinians who threw stones. The Palestinians always won.
What do you want to be when you grow up, I asked Abud. "It's difficult to say," he replied. "I can't say." My translator suggested that Abud felt inhibited by his mother's presence in the room, and we asked her to leave. Finally Abud muttered that he was afraid. "I want to be a fighter," he said quietly. 'I don't want to be with any political parties, just to be a fighter. I saw many people dying in the camp, and because of that I want to fight and die a shahid. I saw Abu Janda and Fady in my neighborhood killed and Mohammed Delal when he was a child. Mahmoud Afif, Abas Damaji ... " He reeled off the names as though pointing out graves. How did they die, I asked? "The Jews killed them," he said. The room felt very empty.
Ordinary Palestinians often refer to Israelis as Jews, and interpreters usually translate this back as "Israelis" or "Zionists." Some would call this anti-Semitism. Sometimes it is. But as far as it goes, it is usually accurate. Among older Palestinians, use of the word Yahud is sometimes associated with a reaction against the old Fatah saw, Sahiouni (Zionist). It denotes a certain kind of defiance, informality, rejection of accommodation with Israeli Jews, and religious affiliation. In Abud's case it is automatic, the language of the street he lives on and which lives in him.
"About three months ago I saw a guy who the Israeli soldiers had killed," he said, stuttering, "and his brain was outside his head. I was at the edge of the street, and I saw the jeeps stop. I heard the guns shoot, and then when they left, I went and saw the bodies. When the soldiers came to take them, one collapsed on the floor when he saw the guy's brains. I just ran away and told some friends and the fighters about it. I couldn't sleep that night."
But he did not pray either. "I was confused," he said. "I just walked around the neighborhood and returned to the house. I always have nightmares with people dying or silhouettes passing by my face quickly, one by one. You can only see their bodies. I'm scared of them. When it happens, I wake up and then cover myself with a blanket."
"One child died when I was with him. We saw some tanks, so we said to each other, 'Let's go and throw stones at them!' My friend Mohammed ran ahead about a hundred meters and started throwing stones. Then we heard shooting and I saw him collapse in the street. He was shot in the head. We went and looked at his body. I cried a lot." Mohammed was twelve years old, and his death left Abud with a kind of survivor guilt-the feeling of culpability for having survived that is common to Holocaust survivors and Palestinians alike. "I still feel guilty because we were all telling each other to go and throw stones," he affirmed.
The psychotherapist Abud saw did not help at all. "I just want to be a shahid," Abud said. "I want to die, because so many other people have died. I don't have a future. A group of children in my neighborhood have decided that we will all become fighters." A Gaza Mental Health Community Center study found that more than a third of Palestinian boys between the ages of eight and twelve wished to die in attacks on the Israeli army.
"I also saw many dead people in the camp!" Bisan chimed in, listing her roll call of local shahids. "I keep having flashbacks and feeling sad and afraid but also appreciating them because they died protecting the camp. I also saw some children whom the Jews killed in the streets." Unlike her brother, Bisan's experience of the occupation had left her hopeful for the future-she now wanted to open a pharmacy-but the route to her decision had been unconventional.
"We went to my grandmother's house when the invasion started," she remembered, "four families all living in one room. We just sat in the salon, staring at the tanks shooting and the rockets from the helicopters. When they were fired, the sky would light up. After a minute we'd hear a strong explosion, the house would start shaking, and then I'd hear a deafening sound in my ears."
"During the night we tried to sleep, but I couldn't because of the explosions. Then my cousin tried to wake me, but I couldn't. When my mother looked at my face she couldn't recognize me in the dark. My mouth and eyes were open wide and my heart was not beating. My body was cold. She started screaming, 'My daughter is dead!' My uncles and aunts came in from the other room to see what was happening ... "
While she was talking, Abud had started to cry. "I went to the corner of the room and started praying to God, 'Don't take my sister,'" he said. "She was lying there, and I went to touch her, but then I got scared. I started screaming and went back to the corner to pray again." Bisan continued, "My uncle ran over quickly and started giving me resuscitation-beating me on the chest and breathing into my mouth. Suddenly, I felt my body shaking and my heart beating first slowly, then fast. When I woke up I didn't know what had happened. Because my uncle helped me I decided to become a doctor so that maybe in the future I can help someone."
Abud thought that the Israelis treated Palestinians badly "because they want to 'kick us out of our land, like they did in '48." Bisan reasoned, "They are angry because we have fighters who want to protect us. They want to kill them, destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque, and then take our houses." The only Israelis either had ever met wore uniforms.
"I was always scared of soldiers," Bisan said. "Whenever I saw one, I got paralyzed and had to sit down. Once I was playing outside my grandmother's house with my brothers and cousins when tanks suddenly attacked the area. We tried to run back to the house, but a tank was quicker. We froze in the street and started crying. The soldiers appeared from the tank and started screaming at us. The tank pointed its guns at us too, but then our uncles ran out and brought us inside."
Abud also did not talk to soldiers. "Even if they came to me out of uniform, I would be too scared," he said. "The only time I've talked to Jews was when me and my father were interrogated at a checkpoint." Their prospects were bleaker than most children in Israel could possibly imagine, but Abud believed that-insha'allah-Palestine would one day be free.
Bisan was hopeful too. "I imagine myself as a bird flying over Palestine," she enthused. "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." "And I hope that Al Quds will be free soon," she added conscientiously. Abud just stared at the ground or occasionally straight ahead, resolutely.
Sharif al-Basyuni, 21
Unemployed, Beit Hanun, Gaza
The next step
Sharif was slightly cross-eyed, with an intent but glazed stare that slipped easily into the middle distance. His fondest memories were of playing football at school. Barcelona fans, Sharif and his friends used to kick a ball around the dusty potholed streets of Beit Hanun in the old days. "We didn't really have positions," he recalled. "I'd play everywhere. I used to be good-we even had a team-but when the Second Intifada began things changed. The other guys started to play with stones instead."
Beit Hanun is the closest major population center to Gaza's border with Israel. The Israeli town of Sderot, which has borne the brunt of Hamas's rocket campaign, is only four miles away, and Sharif said that his town had suffered more Israeli military invasions than any other part of Gaza. "The Israelis demolish infrastructure, uproot trees, and arrest people whenever they come in," he said. "It creates terror among the people."
Sharif was just sixteen on January 24, 2003, when the Israeli army invaded Beit Hanun unannounced in an attack they called Operation Prolonged Effort. "It was a Friday at midday, and I was playing football in the middle of the street, close to [a neighbor's] front door, People don't usually expect tanks and bulldozers at that time. But they closed all the passages to Beit Hanun and started shooting randomly. I was shot here," he said and motioned toward his hip. Sharif and his father both swore that no Palestinians in Beit Hanun had fired at Israeli soldiers before, during, or after the incident. The dumdum bullet that cut down Sharif severed his spinal cord and caused massive internal injuries.
"It was like a fire in my body," he said matter-of-factly. "I was crying and waiting for someone to help me because I couldn't get up. But the other kids who were playing football panicked and started running around. When one tried to pull me out, the Jews would shoot at him. I was down for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Because the gunfire was preventing the shebab [street youths] from rescuing me, they threw a rope from a house across the street. I hung onto it, and they pulled me. It was tiring, painful, and actually made my condition worse, because when you're shot, you should stay still until you're put into the ambulance."
Sharif lost a lot of blood but managed to somehow prevent himself from going into shock. "It was very scary, I was injured, and I could see death coming," he said. "The main thing I was thinking was that I was going to die. I kept crying, looking at the people around me, wondering what's going to happen to them after [I've gone]. There was an ambulance nearby, but the Jews shot at it whenever it tried to get close. It took them ten or fifteen minutes to get to me and half an hour to get me into the ambulance after being shot. First they took me to the Al Quds hospital, and then the Shifa hospital in Gaza. After that I fell into a coma. The next thing I knew I was being woken up at the Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv."
The family was never given a military explanation for Sharif's shooting, but the army's invasion was nominally a response to the firing of five Qassam rockets at Sderot the night before. The military occupation of the town that followed lasted forty-seven days, and when it ended the army had destroyed all of Beit Hanun's bridges and many of its streets. Sharif heard about it in his Israeli hospital bed. "They treated me like a normal patient there, but no one from Gaza could get out to visit me. For the first fifteen days I was alone. After that, my mum stayed with me for about a month, but then her permit ended, and for the rest of my time there I was alone again," he told me.
This could not have been easy for someone who spoke little Hebrew and had never even talked to a Jew before. But Sharif managed to strike up conversations with other patients and hospital staff. "Many of them were actually shocked that the Jewish army could do such a thing," he said. "A lot of peace camp people-Arabs, Jews, and other foreigners-came to visit me. The Jews organized it, and it made me feel a little better because [it meant] somebody cared."
"Before I was shot I thought they were occupiers, and afterward that feeling got stronger actually. I felt more hatred toward them." But Sharif distinguished between the peace camp and soldiers. "There were doctors and nurses in the hospital who refused to go to the army," he said. Even so, the time spent there was "much harder than the injury itself," he maintained. "The injury took months to recover from, but my suffering will be for the rest of my life. They used a 250mm bullet that exploded inside my body and destroyed the entire lower part of my spine."
Since 2003 Sharif had been doing regular physical therapy, but his rehabilitation had been set back by the Israeli army's refusal to allow him through the Erez checkpoint to get the metal leg braces that his doctors at the Tel Hashomer hospital prescribed for him. "I'm stopped from being helped because no one can go out to get the braces. They've been ordered by the Israeli hospital. But the borders are closed, and they refuse to open them." Sharif said that this secondary punishment makes him feel like "a collapsed person." "Every time I want to take the next step I'm forced back. The physical therapy I've been doing is for nothing because I need the instrument to move."
The Israeli peace camp people lost interest in Sharif's case after he was sent back to Gaza. "I think they forgot about me," he said. "Since I got back, my life has been totally different. I either sit in front of the computer or take care of the flowers and vegetables in my garden. Maybe once or twice a week, I get flashbacks to the moment that I was injured, or think about myself in the hospital. Then I get depressed and scared again." Sharif had received no psychotherapy. The biggest struggle he faced was boredom. He felt nothing in common with Israelis who had been paralyzed in rocket attacks. "We are different because the Jews have more [military] equipment and can do more damage," he said. "They also prevent people from continuing their lives after they've injured them."
"I can't predict what tomorrow is going to bring. It is mysterious-all of our futures are. We are like robots controlled by the Jews. Palestinians have control of about 10 percent of their lives. The Jews control us by locking us in near the border. We can't even control the products that go in and out." Sharif said that he would never forgive the soldier who shot him. "If you want to kill the resistance groups, you can go to their places. You don't have to destroy the whole town." Do you support the resistance groups? I asked. "Yes, I do," he replied.
On January 25, 2003, Brigadier General Gadi Shamni commended the soldiers from the Givati brigade who participated in Operation Prolonged Effort in Beit Hanun. He said it had been intended to stop Qassam rocket fire, not to punish the innocent Palestinian population. "[But] we are willing to go even further to combat terror," he added. "The terrorists must not be allowed to recover and must always be [kept] in a defensive state." Shamni went on to enjoy a glittering military career and at the time of writing was serving as Israel's military attaché in Washington, D.C.
Amira al-Hayb, 24
Soldier, Wadi al-Hamam, Israel
How to think the right way
The Israeli army press office sat on my request for an interview with Amira al-Hayb for three weeks before refusing it on national security grounds. Setting up an interview in Haifa eventually involved numerous calls to the mayor's office in Amira's village and then several more to her brothers and to her, most by my translator, Bekriah.
In 2003 Amira became the first Bedouin woman to serve in the Israeli army, but she didn't seek publicity. In 2005 her eldest brother, Taysir, was sentenced to eight years in prison for killing the twenty-two-year-old British photographer and anti-occupation activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza. Five years later, he was released. Witnesses said that Hurndall had been attempting to shield children from Israeli gunfire when he was shot in the head.
The al-Hayb clan is well known in the Galilee for its fighting prowess. Amira's hometown of Tuba az-Zanghariyya was partly named after her family. Some Bedouins in the town helped protect Jews during the 1936 revolt, and in 1948 they formed the Pal-Hayb unit of the Haganah to defend Jewish settlements. The rewards they accrued for such loyalty to their neighbors are debatable.
Amira's first words to me were spoken with roll-call disinterest: "I'm not comfortable talking about the origins of my family. I'm from Wadi al-Hamam, my mother's village near Tiberius. I have five brothers, and my father is from Tuba. He told me stories about it, but I was never curious about the clan's history. It could be something interesting, but I never wanted to know. It's not in my nature. That's just how I am."
The al-Haybs "have always had asabiya [loyalty] for the Israeli state and army," Amira said. "They've been volunteering as officers and fighters for a long time." But they never shared their Nakba stories with her, and she preferred it that way. "I'm an Arab Israeli," she explained. "I wasn't born in Palestine. Our parents did not educate us to say we were Palestinians. They told us we were born here in Israel." Being an Israeli for Amira was about "nationality." "I don't have a homeland," she told me. It seemed a strange thing for a Palestinian to say.
There is actually no such thing as Israeli nationality. In 1972, when Professor Georges Tamarin petitioned to be declared an "Israeli" rather than a "Jew," Israel's Supreme Court ruled against him, arguing that "there is no Israeli nation apart from the Jewish people." This is the nature of the Jewish state and the reason Arab refugees may not return to it. I asked Amira how she felt when she heard "Ha Tikva," Israel's national anthem, being played. "I didn't even know it until my commander taught it to me," she giggled. "But in the army, it was a beautiful thing to sing. It is kind of a good prayer. I didn't feel that I was a Jew when I sang it." Even though the words are all about Jews? "We were taught it as a way to express our love for the country," she replied, "and to prove the Jewish existence in Israel."
When she was growing up, both of her parents were unemployed. Still, she remembered a happy childhood. Wadi al-Hamam was "calm, sweet, and hilwe [nice]," she said. "We had a house, but in 2005 my father knocked it down and built a cabin next to it. It was illegal to build. It was demolished. My father was upset, and that was it." Didn't you spend the first years of your life living in temporary structures? I nudged. "My father and brothers prefer Bedouin tents with sheep and goats to regular houses," she replied. "Life wasn't that difficult." But as a teenager wasn't your house destroyed by the authorities? I pressed. "Yes, it was destroyed more than once," she said finally. So how did you feel about that? Amira shrugged. "I didn't really pay it much attention."
This was odd because, despite her coquettishness, Amira always saw herself as a fighter. "Since I was a kid I dreamed of being a soldier in a Magav fighting unit," she said. "I saw myself as a famous person doing something complicated. It is something I was born with inside me." As a child she played war games and sometimes fought-and beat up-boys at school. "I was strong then, and I'm still strong," she said. "But now I follow the law more."
"My father's family tried to stop me from joining the army. It's allowed for guys, but I am a woman, and they didn't want me to meet guys from other religions. My mother was the only one who supported me. The community and neighbors were unhappy because I am a girl. They blamed my mother." Amira's neighbors even threw stones at her house in what she said was a personal dispute. "They attacked me verbally, but they didn't use violence. They tried to break me down with their words, saying that girls went to the army to have sex, which is untrue. But they would be scared to do anything to the house of a soldier!"
Amira did not have many boyfriends before the army, but, she added, "I'd rather have a Jewish boyfriend than an Arab, because Arab guys have the wrong image of Arab girls. Society limits them to families, kids, diseases, no school. Women don't go places or see the world, and they accept this."
Amira's brother Taysir supported her decision to join the army. But she did not want to talk about him and missed a beat when I asked if the authorities prosecuted him only because he was an Arab accused of killing a white European. "It was difficult for him to accept being jailed," she said tentatively. "Everyone was against him-Israel, Britain, and the international community. He did something wrong, and he was punished." She thought that Taysir might have been a scapegoat.
In the army Amira learned Hebrew-"the writing, how to talk, and how to think the right way"-and afterward she felt "a lot" more part of Israeli society. But the unit she served in, the Magav border police, has an especially bad reputation among Palestinians for violence, racism, and brutality. Many of its soldiers are Ethiopian and Russian Jews, Druze, and Bedouins. Amira served in "a fighting position but didn't fight," and she saw no misbehavior. She did not feel she was policing her own people. "It's my job," she said simply. "We do what they tell us."
Her senior officer told the Maariv newspaper that if he had more girls like her, "95 percent of problems at checkpoints would disappear." Amira agreed. "He would like to use us because we know the language and make things easier." Aren't you being used cheaply? I suggested. "Not necessarily," she countered. "You can start working on the checkpoints and get a higher position." But you were protecting settlements. "So what? It needs to be done. There have to be borders to control things and prevent chaos. Our work is not just protecting settlements. It could also be protecting myself."
"The Jews go to the army. They study. They get more help from the government because they contribute to the country. My parents didn't go to the army, so I can't ask for the same kind of life. To get my rights, to prove I exist here, I have to do more work." How does it feel when you're wearing an army uniform? I asked. "I feel like a sun that the whole universe can see," Amira replied, a smile breaking out across her face. "I feel that all eyes are on me because I am a Bedouin." Such attention, though, has a downside. As I was preparing to leave, Amira blurted out, "I'm afraid that one day I will break down. Despite the fact that I am a strong person, I am a human being. I prefer to suffer silently because I don't like people to know what is inside of Amira. I don't trust everyone."
Three years before, Amram Mitzna, a former Israeli commander and Labor Party leader, told me he had been raised with a similar idea: "Don't trust anyone. Do it yourself. Initiate. Don't expect the outside world to help you. Understand that the world is full of interests and fight for yours." But it felt as though Amira was fighting for someone else's. Her dream was to live in the Golan Heights.
Although her situation was different, it reminded me of Ghassan Khanafani's seminal short story, "Return to Haifa." In it, two refugees called Khalid and Safiyya return to their former house to find that the son they had to abandon in 1948 has been adopted and raised as a Jew. He was now an Israeli soldier. In the denouement, Khalid asked Saffiya, "What is a homeland?" His wife responded by weeping. "The homeland," Khalid said, "is the place where none of this can happen."
Niral Karantaji, 22
Model, Haifa, Israel
The war in our minds
Ethnic minorities in Western countries often complain that they confront a glass ceiling preventing them from getting on. For Arab citizens of Israel, it sometimes feels more like a locked submarine hatch. Although they constitute 20 percent of Israel's population, 53 percent of Israel's impoverished families are Arab, thirty-six of the forty towns with the highest unemployment rates are Arab, and Arab workers are paid on average 29 percent less than the equivalent Jewish worker's salary. Their average household income is only 57 percent of that of a Jewish household. Compared to salaries in Gaza, these are still wages of the rich. But they are not experienced that way.
Only 40 percent of men-and less than 20 percent of women-officially participate in the workforce. Meanwhile, the Israeli government spends $1,100 per year on each Jewish student, compared to $192 for each Arab student. Pleasant Arab neighborhoods are under constant threat of demolition or a gentrification process that always seems to exclude Arabs. The police cede ghettos to criminal gangs. Arabs are as absent from Israeli television shows as they are from most academic posts, and they frequently feel as though they were born to fail. This makes the exceptions to the rule that much more remarkable and celebrated. Niral was both.
A twenty-two-year-old self-declared "Arabic-Palestinian-Turkish-Muslim-Israeli," Niral soared to stardom when she won the Israeli reality TV show, The Models. But accusations of racist bullying and discriminatory treatment marred the competition's afterglow. Eating in her beloved Haifa restaurant, Faces, Niral was restless bordering on manic, alternately burying her face in a menu and anxiously scanning the patio for suspect stares or people.
On a train once, a religious Jew screamed "Arab whore" at her, and Niral had to call security. But many Arabs also resented the way she allowed herself to be depicted on television. "I eat shit from both sides," she said insouciantly. She told me she only slept three hours a night, and then sat bolt upright.
"Because I've come here today, everyone will talk tomorrow," she said, rattling out the words like maraca shakes. "You don't have privacy when you're famous. Everyone knows all the small things you do. If I go to the mall, I'm not body-searched. All the girls follow me, and the cameras are like this," she explained, acting out a cameraman taking a close-up. "At first it was very nice, but now I feel like my life is destroyed. I'm starting from zero."
Niral grew up in Haifa's poor and largely Arab Hadar district. It lies at the bottom of Mount Carmel, upon which Haifa's Jewish society arranges itself in a hierarchy of wealth. "It's downstairs," she laughed with her mouth wide open. Niral and her four siblings were raised in a liberal environment by her father, a chef in a Chinese restaurant, and her Balad-voting mother, a caregiver to the elderly.
Their life was not easy. "I always took the bus to school and looked at the rich families coming in their cars," Niral remembered, "and my family didn't have a car, you know? It made me like, 'Why can't my mummy and daddy take me in a car?' I cannot tell you I had the good clothes, the good life, the daddy and mummy environment, because I didn't. My parents had to run and run and work to live. If you're Jewish, it's easier."
Before becoming a model, Niral worked as a waitress in a restaurant, on shop floors, and with children in summer camps. But, she said, "I always wanted to change the world, to change everything. I don't want to live this fucking life. I want to be somebody else."
From a young age, she wanted to be a model. "I like to be photographed, I like the clothes, and I wanted to do something special with my life," she explained. Although she faced a problem-"They prefer blonde-haired girls here"-Niral turned her "exotic" looks to her advantage and was accepted on The Models. A lot of baggage came with the "exotic" tag, though.
"When I entered the room [at the audition], everyone was strange to me, you know? They were talking about me like, 'Oh, she's an Arab among us, what's she fucking doing here?' All the girls wanted to kick me out. They were mostly from rich families in Tel Aviv and Herzliya. In Israel you have two worlds, and their life is not our life. 'Why does she walk like this, talk like this?' Sorry, but it's because I am like this." "I stayed there on my arse because I believe in myself," she said, lighting a cigarette. "I believe in myself," she repeated and put out the cigarette.
Once Liat Feldman, the program manager at Channel 10, which produced The Models, denied that Niral had been picked to spice up the show with racial tension. "We didn't play on it," she said. "But that is not to say that we didn't enjoy it."Niral's take was different. "They chose me because they thought I'd give them good ratings. They used me like a gimmick. One Arab girl and fourteen Jewish girls on a reality show. It will be interesting," she laughed.
"I didn't know what I was getting into. It was nasty. The other girls never accepted me. They kept choosing me to go to the judges [for a removal vote]. Why? Because I'm Arab, I'm bad. They always invented stories to kick me out. But I was smart. I understood this. One girl didn't even want me to sit on her bed. Off camera, she called me a terrorist." This girl, an Ethiopian Jew named Mimi Tedessa, became Niral's nemesis on the show, although their relationship developed into something more complex and nuanced afterward. When I suggested that race might have been a factor in Mimi's reactions, Niral went into a tailspin. "I don't know," she said three times. "I don't want to say that it's political."
Niral did not like politics, and she berated me for asking political questions. "Listen," she said, "in the end I'm a person. I don't want to speak for Muslim opinion. I just want to live my life. Palestinians have very difficult lives because of the war. The Arabs of Israel have a different war, a special war of how you live every day. We've got the war in our minds."
War is life in the Middle East, but politics in Niral's world are something that television people do. Even The Models' editing was contentious. "They always showed me fighting," she grumbled, taking a sip of wine. "Thirty percent of the editing was just lies. If I talked about a girl they made it seem like I was talking about someone different. They wanted me to seem angry and aggressive when I was only protecting myself, you know?"
Ironically, it was Niral's irrepressible street sassiness that encouraged so many people to vote for her. Her stock response to the Jewish girls' bitchy comments, "I'm scared of Arabs" and "She makes me feel frightened," was "Ani lo frierit habibti!" a Hebrew-Arabic mix that means "I'm no sucker, honey." It became a popular catchphrase.
This was also ironic because in the view of many Palestinian Israelis Niral was unforgivably suckered by the program makers, twice. When I asked her why she agreed to appear topless on television, with only her hands covering her breasts, she inhaled sharply and giggled. "I'm sorry I can't sit still," she said skittishly. "I'm hyperactive. You know, if a contestant is chosen [for a removal vote] more than four times, she goes home without being judged. It was the fourth time that I had to go topless. They told me that if I didn't, I'd have to go home."
Why didn't you just say, "To hell with it, good-bye?" "I didn't want to put my hands like this," she cried, raising her arms. "But I will never do it again," she added, repeating "Ne-ver" for emphasis. "I felt pressure and a lot of conflict in my head, but I had to pay a very high price. The Arabs in Haifa and the villages wanted to kick me."
Appearing topless is an offense to religious sensibilities. But the prize photoshoot for an underwear company's ad campaign that she won equally offended nationalist sentiment. In it, Niral appeared wearing a gilt necklace bearing the Star of David, Israel's national symbol. "You know, I was on the set like this," she said, striking a pose, "and I didn't see what the stylist put on me, but the cameramen started looking at me weirdly, and I was like, 'What's happening?' Then I saw what they'd done."
"I said, 'Why did you put that on me? Take it away.' The stylist said, 'No, it's in fashion, it's the mode.' I told her, 'Give me a break and stop lying, okay? So put this on the Christians and tell them it's for fashion.' It wasn't me who wore this." Niral reportedly continued to be photographed wearing the necklace but took it off immediately afterward.
Many Arabs concluded that Niral had had to be Judaized because, as an Israeli women's magazine put it, she was "not one of us." Palestinian Israelis had seen this fashion shoot before. In 1999 Niral's longtime friend Rana Raslan, an Arab Israeli, also from Haifa, was adorned in a white dress with a large blue Star of David on it when she won the Miss Israel contest. However, Niral was never paid for her winning photoshoot and claimed she had not received her promised modeling trips either. "They lied and lied and lied to me," she said sadly. "They gave me crumbs. They used me and threw me away."
It must have been a huge shock after the euphoria of winning the show. "I felt like I was on top of the world," Niral recalled. "It was peace now, and I was on the top. I wish I could feel that every day because it was an amazing feeling. But for a few months after, I was very down. I sat for one year in my home doing nothing, and I'm famous! There is no justice."
Although she learned from the experience, Niral said she would not go on The Models again. She had not been able to find work as a model since winning the show and now planned to go back to college to study communications, get married, or emigrate as Rana Raslan did, to find modeling work abroad. Ori Saly, head of programming at Israel's entertainment channel, summarized Nidal's predicament brutally: "I don't see any big Israeli fashion label taking Niral as their big face for a campaign because she's Arab. Let's not mince words."
In Arabic, her name means "optimism," but Niral said she was only feeling "fifty-fifty" optimistic. She leaned forward and spread her arms across the table, then rubbed her nose absent-mindedly, hiding a beauty spot. "Since I was young I wanted to run away from the facts of how we live," she said. "I thought The Models would be better for me, but it wasn't, and I'd prefer to go back to how I was before, to my real life. Sometimes I don't know if people like me for who I am or because I'm Niral, you know?" For all her fame and designer clothes, Niral had not yet attained the good life she wished for. As she waited for her taxi home, she fretted about how she had come across in the interview. She had to be up early the next day for a new job, she said, answering telephones at a Tel Aviv car lot.
Doha Jabr, 23
Dancer, Ramallah, West Bank
When you celebrate, you resist!
A bass-heavy dabke with insistent tabla beats boomed around the gym club hall in Ramallah's al-Bire outskirts. Inside it, young Palestinians in tracksuits and Nike T-shirts were running, skipping, crouching, and clapping in sweeping compasslike circles. Darting under their arms to shape and reshape the kaleidoscopic pattern, Doha looked diminutive and pretty in her pink tracksuit, almost like a manga cartoon heroine. But the overall scene as the as-Sayel troupe rehearsed for an upcoming Egyptian tour bore closer resemblance to the U.S. TV series Fame.
Like many Palestinians, Doha described herself as being from Jaffa rather than Ramallah where she had lived for over twenty years. "Of course, I know my family history!" she chided me. "I'm very proud of it." Her grandfather, a war hero, was shot in the leg during the Nakba and escaped to Nablus on a horse. Doha was born in the city's Balata refugee camp to a liberal father who worked as a teacher, writer, and actor. "He grew up in a camp, but his mind is open and free," she said confidently. Her mother, now a school headmistress, was unable to work in Israel for fourteen years while Doha was growing up. She was convicted of working with the DFLP and spent three years in jail.
The occupation crumpled Doha's life in many ways. "I very much wanted to be a ballet dancer when I was a child," she said, "but we didn't have ballet shoes. We didn't even have ballet schools." Instead, the ten-year-old Doha joined a club to learn dabke, a traditional music and dance form popular in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. The word literally means "stomping" and despite regional differences is associated with feelings of solidarity and nationhood everywhere.
"Dabke is born with us," Doha enthused. "It's our identity from the very beginning. That's why we don't have any party, wedding, or celebration without it. For me, it's about action. The beat is hard and fast and Palestinian. When you're dancing you forget the words, the stress, everything. You just go with the mood, the music, and your partners."
Dabke songs often evoke specific places-the Ramallah, Nablus, or Hebron of old-and so do its costumes. Doha gingerly showed me her stage dress with lace to represent Ramallah, stripes for Hebron, and an open sleeve for the north. "We collect all the cities of Palestine in dresses and change them onstage," she said.
"We do dabke that represents the Intifada and occupation. We have drama-throwing stones or someone being killed on stage. It's not just celebration-or maybe celebrating means not being depressed and abandoning your traditions. When you celebrate, you resist!"
As-Sayel began in 1994 and grew quickly as young Palestinians recruited their friends and family as dancers. Today it is one of the best-known Palestinian troupes, supported by the PA's Culture Ministry and regularly touring the festival circuits in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and Morocco. All dabke troupes share a noncompetitive patriotism, Doha said. But then she added, "We jump higher, go lower on the floor, and kind of fly. In other countries they're just a line moving in circles."
In Lebanon dabke often has a techno beat, but Doha felt that the music "is old and should be old. If you add a rap it won't be dabke anymore." Traditional dabke is hypnotic enough, with mesmerizing tabla rhythms, bagpipe-like wailing noises, and ouds. A band director signals the tempo with claps, shouts, or a stomp of the foot (emphasizing his treelike connection to the land), and the dancers always lead with the left foot.
"Dabke relates to the land, and we stomp on it because we want to grow from it, not be forced from it," Doha sighed. "Do you know there's an Israeli dabke troupe? They stole our traditions, our food, and our costumes. But in every step of life, you should say, 'I'm Palestinian, this dabke is for us-not them!'" Of course, she added, she would never perform in Israel.
As a mixed-gender troupe, as-Sayel might also be banned from performing in Gaza today. "Hamas say it's haram [forbidden]," Doha remarked, chewing on a stick of gum. "This hall belongs to the [municipal] council, and because Hamas controls it, they decided to stop us from training here. But we have our relations in Ramallah, and we forced them to back down."
"Being a Palestinian shouldn't be related to Fatah or Hamas," she stressed. But her lean was against Hamas. "Their ideas are wrong," she said. "I'm a Muslim, but this is my own thing, between me and God. I don't wear a hijab, but I pray. I fast on Ramadan. I do this stuff. So you can't tell me that I have no right to go to Paradise because I don't wear the hijab."
For Hamas, though, mixed dance troupes simply facilitate sexual partnerships before marriage. "That's why they forbid boys and girls from dancing together," Doha said. "It's not right. Our troupe is like brothers and sisters, a family. Our problems are the same, our celebrations are together. We grew up together, and we're connected. We all love each other and look out for each other. I don't have a problem with hugging and kissing my brother, and he doesn't have any desires toward me. Khallas!"
But sexual relationships have been forged in as-Sayel, so maybe Hamas was right. "It's not wrong!" Doha almost yelled. "You know, when we travel, we're together for twenty-four hours a day, so we become closer." She herself had not met any boyfriends through dabke.
"Men have the right to do whatever they want, especially in our Arab world, but for a woman to be in a dabke troupe is not easy. We have periods when we don't have three girls because their fathers won't allow it. It's haram, not allowed, not good for you, not suitable to touch a boy, or even travel with boys. To be a woman in a dabke troupe means your family is very liberal and free."
"The girls in this troupe are mainly sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds living in Ramallah," Doha continued, "but most of the boys are in their twenties and come from the villages. Dabke is more popular there since villagers are more connected to the land because they live and work on it. But they're more traditional, and their minds are more closed."
I jotted a note that with her floppy hair and sneakers Doha could pass as a poster girl for the Westernized Palestinian. She revered her traditions greatly, preferring the music of Fairuz and Shaykh Imam to rap and techno. But she also had a soft spot for Celine Dion, and the wedding shop she had cofounded would not look out of place on a British high street.
"I studied English literature at Bir Zeit University," she said, "but I always liked weddings and celebrations-any kind of party or happiness-so when I graduated, my sister and I decided to open the shop. We sell flowers, wedding cards, invitations, the lights, the purple, the snow machines. We've only been going for a month and a half, but the idea is very new in Palestine and we're struggling." Celebration and struggle are close relations in Palestine, but they are not always seen together.
"I remember the demonstrations in the First Intifada," Doha said, "the Jews coming to our street and killing people, the checkpoints, the breaking of boys' arms. One time the Jews chased a boy past our house. His head was bleeding from where they'd hit him, and our neighbor, an old woman, said, "He's my son and I want him back!" They just hit her and threw her to the floor. Then they started beating the boy despite his injuries and arrested him. I had bad dreams for years after that."
"In the Second Intifada, a friend of mine was throwing stones at Beit Il, a settlement near the city. They shot him in the head. Now he's dead in the earth so I can't ... " her voice trailed off. "He was fourteen. I was sixteen. This memory will stay with me." As she recovered her composure, Doha's tone solidified. "I want a beautiful day," she said. "I don't just want to be like the people who lose their families or sons."
Doha wanted to live in Palestine forever but could not even visit Jerusalem legally because she did not have a blue ID card. Three months before our interview she went anyway, for the first time in ten years. "I took my friend's ID," she explains. "It was risky, because if they'd caught me, I'd have been sent to jail. I started crying when I passed the Hizme checkpoint because this is my land, you know? When you get there, you're in a new world, not like the old days. Jerusalem used to be crowded and busy. Now it's like visiting a dead person."
Hizme is known in Ramallah as a settler checkpoint with relatively slack protocols. Jerusalem is only a fifteen-minute drive, but because of the checkpoints it can take over an hour to reach. "Imagine being prevented from entering your house," Doha said. "How would you feel? That's how I feel. Checkpoints humiliate people. They tell us, 'You're nothing. We control you. Your life is in our hands.'"
When her grandfather in Nablus died at the beginning of the Intifada, Israeli checkpoints prevented Doha and her family from reaching the funeral. As a result, she rejects peaceful coexistence in one state. "They hate us, and we hate them," she said. "It would have to be two states, but they shouldn't live here because I can't forgive them for taking my land and killing my friend. I just can't." This seemed a good place to end the interview.
But a few months after we said good-bye, a funny thing happened. Doha's face began appearing on billboards all over the West Bank. After a chance conversation with a friend, she had been invited to model for a rice company. "Modeling was never my hope or dream," she told me in an email. 'But seeing myself on a billboard and being famous gave me a crazy nice feeling." She seemed to have taken the attention, chaos, fanfare, and jealousy of public recognition in stride. "Many people said bad things about it, but that didn't mean anything to me," she wrote. "I have self-confidence, and I don't think that this is my career."
In spring 2010 Doha's day job was as youth coordinator for a USAID-funded project, Ruwwad, giving leadership training and team-building sessions to young Palestinians. Her wedding shop had long since closed. She was engaged to be married in the fall. "My passion is still ballet dancing," she said.
Abdul Rahman Katanani, 25
Artist, Shatila Camp, Beirut, Lebanon
We are zinc plates
The Shatila camp at midday was bleaching under a vindictive Lebanese sun. It had been a few days since Samir Quntar, four Hezbollah militants, and more than two hundred bodies were released in a swap with Israel for the bodies of two soldiers. Across the camp, poorly adhered posters of the men fluttered raggedly in the breeze.
It was desperately poor and dirty. Gaunt, shoddy buildings stood pocked with bullet holes that had spread across the camp like measles. Around them, spaghetti tangles of illegal electric cables threatened to electrocute passersby. There was little water-or space-and on the way up the stairs of the dark and decrepit tenement block that Abdul lived in with his family, a child raced past me carrying a bowl of feces.
Shatila felt like a cross between Dickens and an Arabic version of the 1970s Bronx. Subway-style graffiti adorned the camp's streets, much of it drawn by Abdul Katanani, a Palestinian artist who, if you caught him at the right angle, resembled a young Malcolm X. His signature was a door key, the most potent symbol for Palestinian refugees whose forebears often fled their homes in 1948 carrying little else.
Abdul's family hailed from the Jaffan village of Yazur, which was leveled and cleared of Palestinians in 1948. He was religious and prayed every day, but, unusually for a Shatila resident, Abdul had a degree in sociology and economics and a diploma in fine art and was studying for a master's degree. His artwork had been showcased in over thirty exhibitions, including three one-man shows. Yet Beirut's American University declined to accept him as a student on the grounds that his scholarship came from an organization with links to terrorism.
"I was surprised," Abdul told me, deadpan, "because I'm not a terrorist." He was reluctant to try the Lebanese University because of the control that militias such as Amal and Hezbollah allegedly held over admissions but nonetheless scored the third highest grade in entrance exams. He said he was the only Palestinian among more than a thousand students at the university.
"Most students are in Hezbollah, so we have good interactions. They respect me, and my cause," he said nonchalantly. Every day something happens in the camp. They'll say, 'Abdul, it was you! You did that!' It's so funny." According to Abdul, few Palestinians had converted to Shi'a Islam, but 90 percent of refugees supported Hezbollah against Israel, and Hassan Nasrallah was the most popular politician in the camp.
"Abu Mazen?" he repeated incredulously, when I asked what people thought of him. "We have to cut his head off! He's so bad that even Fatah here doesn't like him. He is a traitor. Dahlan, Rijoub, what kind of people are these? Marwan Barghouthi is the best." Barghouthi, a younger, more articulate, and more radical Fatah leader, was jailed in 2001 on terror charges. Most Palestinians believe that these were trumped up or that they were not offenses.
But Abdul was not a natural politico. An admirer of classical art and the work of the seminal Palestinian street artist Naji al-Ali, Abdul made his art from the environment in which he lived. "I get random shapes in the camp made from the clothes that hang on our buildings, the zinc [corrugated iron] plates, wood, tubes, pipes, electrical wires; my paintings contain all these. When the clothes are stuck together it symbolizes many people in the camp."
Abdul showed me a picture of a flaglike person painted without color. "He turned into zinc plates because it's a symbol of waiting," he expounded. "We are not human anymore. We are zinc plates." The camp makes the man? "Yes, inside the camp, you just see these materials. Everything is moving, but the humans are frozen on the balconies or streets. So is the man wooden or human? My painting carries the message that we are not treated like men. They treat us like material, but we have to live, breathe, make something." But the man is also the cause? "I am Palestinian. I am the cause. When I die, the cause goes to my children and to the children of my children. That's the meaning."
In addition to fine art, Abdul drew political cartoons aimed at the Arab authorities, Israel, America, and collaborators-"but also against us Palestinians," he pointed out. "I believe in self-criticism, because to improve ourselves, we have to learn from our mistakes." Abdul has received threats from political organizations offended by his cartoons, but he would not say which ones. "Every time I paint, they tell me, 'Ah, you are with Fatah, and this is not good.' Then they tell me, 'Yes, you are with Hamas!'" Abdul stopped himself, laughing. "I told them, 'I'm in a straight line, and the organizations are moving like this.'" He makes a snakelike movement with his hand.
We were sitting on the fifth-floor walkway-turned-balcony of the Gaza Building tenement block where Abdul lived and was born, in 1983, when it was still a PLO hospital. He spent his formative years moving from one refugee camp to another. Fifty-six percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are jobless. Two-thirds exist on less than US$6 a day. Approximately one-third of refugees are estimated by UNRWA to have a chronic illness and the same amount, to be suffering from malnourishment.
"Conditions here are a catastrophe," Abdul said. "If we continue inside this cage, something very dangerous will happen when you open the doors because we are dying here slowly. You can't imagine how people live on top of each other. Each family has between four and eight people, and there are four hundred families living in the four buildings that make up the block. Some families live eight people to one room, but we have eight people in two rooms, four in each." Abdul's room was about four meters long by five meters wide.
The result was claustrophobia for the 17,000 people who lived in what was once a purely Palestinian camp. Around 20 percent of Shatila was Palestinian now. Other residents were Lebanese, gypsies, or immigrants from countries such as Syria and Bangladesh. "People have a lot of problems between each other," Abdul said. "The immigrants don't care about cleanliness or health."
"The electricity is not sufficient for the whole camp. Some immigrants steal it by cutting cables from outside the camps, but they are protected by the political organizations. At best some of us sometimes get electricity for six hours a day, but sometimes we go two or three days without."
"Water is also not available every day. We don't get portable drinking water-we have to buy it in gallons. One water pipe that comes over the street leaks onto the electric cables. It's so dangerous." Abdul punctuated the sentence with a swig of bottled water, poured into his mouth refugee-style, so that the plastic did not touch his lips. He seemed relaxed, assured, and absent the defensive caution so common among his West Bank peers. But his life was far from stress-free.
"To live everyday in Lebanon is a problem," he said, momentarily alarmed. "To eat is a problem. To drink is a problem. Alcohol, hashish, and opium are big problems. Everything is a problem! We can't work in Lebanon. I couldn't even get a job as the caretaker of my building or a trash collector." A law passed by Lebanon's parliament in August 2010 eased this position slightly, allowing Palestinians to apply for private sector work permits. But some thirty professions in the public sector-including medicine, law, and engineering-remained off-limits to them. They could not even buy property.
Despite obstacles like these, Abdul was by nature an optimist. "If we act positively, we can find something positive from each other," he said. "If I have a bad day and my friend has a beautiful day, we can handle it if we cooperate and talk."
Shatila's worst day was still talked about. On September 16, 1982, Phalangist Christian militias, backed up by Israeli soldiers, massacred between 800 and 3,000 people in the camp. There is no official death toll because so many bodies were buried in unmarked graves. "Two of my aunts lost their husbands in the massacre," Abdul said. "They still don't know what happened to the bodies, and a lot of my family's friends were also killed."
Provisional conclusions drawn rapidly in the massacre's aftermath remain set today. Abdul believed that Shatila was targeted because some of the Palestinian guerrillas who "took part in the Munich operation in 1973" came from there. He still saw Lebanese Christians en masse as a selfish and self-centered people "who deal with the Israelis." He had also inferred that demands by Washington and Tel Aviv for Palestinian disarmament could be precursors to acts of genocide.
"Israel and the Americans want to smash us by diplomatic or military means. They always say that the camp army has to leave, but the Lebanese didn't protect us before, so how can we give them our guns? There is a problem with guns in the camp around how we behave toward each other. Fatah, Hamas, and the other militias have conflicts and each organization has its families so political problems turn into bigger family conflicts. But even the Lebanese who fought each other recently didn't disarm, so how can we?" he asked.
Repression, disenfranchisement, poverty, and a perceived need for armed protection helps to unite refugees in Lebanon with their relatives in the occupied territories. "We fear when they close Gaza or put West Bank people in prison," Abdul said. "We feel very happy when the resistance organizations"-he made a wheeew sound-"get rockets or bang [kill] some soldiers. When Fatah and Hamas fight each other, it's a disaster. We are always thinking of them. We all want the right of return."
Until that happened, Abdul believed that anyone with one Palestinian grandparent should have the right to vote in PA elections and "of course" on a final-status peace deal. "You are Palestinians!" he shouted rhetorically. "The Palestinians who live in America and Europe are the most important because they've got good educations and economic situations. We lose more than them if we neglect them."
As we finished the interview, a crack of automatic gunfire echoed around the concrete walls and thin streets of the camp. Students were celebrating their exam results, Abdul told me. Are you sure that they weren't shooting their teachers? I joked. Abdul laughed. "All I see is that we are still waiting in the camp to go back to Palestine," he reiterated.
Student, Ramallah, West Bank
A gay man's blood is for everyone
Western visitors to the occupied territories are often surprised by how gentle Palestinian society still is. It is difficult for many to reconcile this tenderness with the masked avenger iconography favored by TV news bulletins and Palestinian wall art alike. The awesome cloak of shahida (martyrdom) is one dissonant jolt, but there are others. Traditional masculine identities in Palestine have been undermined by factors ranging from intense exposure to Western culture and the decline of pastoral life to checkpoint humiliations and brutality. Those Palestinians who do not conform to time-worn gender identities have often borne the brunt of wounded male reactions.
"Nabil," who asked that his real name not be used, was a pale and well-groomed twentysomething who had lived in Ramallah all his life. He dressed stylishly and moved lightly, with a calm demeanor he ascribed to a bone ailment that incapacitated him for years as a child. For reasons of privacy, we agreed to meet in a sparse but noisy restaurant. Every few minutes Nabil swiveled around in his seat to check the positioning of the waiters and clock the newly arrived diners.
For its long-term residents, Ramallah feels very much like a village. "Everyone knows each other," Nabil whispered. "They're related to each other, so it's very restricted. You can't do what you want because people will know. But more foreigners and Palestinians are coming from other areas now. I like that. It makes the city more alive and free."
Nabil is from a large middle-class Christian family that was displaced from the Jaffa area during the Nakba. He warmly remembered fun picnics with his extended family in Israel during the early 1990s. "My family gave me everything I wanted," he said. But their embrace was also "restricting," a word Nabil used often. He was twelve years old when he began a personal Intifada. "Boys start thinking about girls at that age, but I started thinking the other way," he said, "the men's way. I didn't tell anyone because I knew it was a problem. I felt like I was the only gay person in the world."
"There was no one I could talk to because I was very shy, so I tried to look like other people in my class. It was very hard pretending all the time. I lied when my friends talked about girls because if I came out, I would have lost some friends and others would have spread it around that I was gay. It wouldn't have been good for me. I don't want to be known."
A high profile can be very dangerous for gay men in straight Palestinian society. "They hate us," Nabil said, leaning back. "Most of them think that homosexuality doesn't exist in our society. It's only with the Europeans and open societies, and it's very bad. It's like a matter of honor to kill someone in your family if he's gay. I've heard about it happening."
"When my father figured out that I was hanging out with gay men he was so shocked that he hit me. But after that he became afraid for my safety, and he wouldn't let me go out. He'd say, 'This is a disease. Those people will infect you, so don't see them, don't speak to them, and you will be okay.'" He laughed softly as he finished the sentence.
Nabil's first sexual experience arrived in 2006 via an Internet chat room. "I found a lot of websites, but when I tried to chat with people, they were very sexual and dirty. I didn't like it. I don't care about sex so much as the feeling of freedom. By chance I found a guy from Ramallah, and he became my first date. When we met I wasn't feeling secure because I'd spoken to so many bad people on-line. One straight guy tried to find out which people were gay to attack them. I was scared and didn't trust anyone, so meeting this guy was very hard for me-but he turned out to be very nice."
"He introduced me to a group of his friends who all knew each other. I was so happy when I met them because I could just be myself and act the way I am. I didn't have to lie. They took me to Jerusalem for a party and that was ... " Nabil started to snicker. "That was my first sex, my first time." Since then he had begun a relationship with another member of the group.
Ramallah has little infrastructure for young gay men. Nabil explained, "I heard that there are some underground parties, but I never go to them because they're invitation only. I used to go to gay bars and private parties in Tel Aviv. You get a lot of Israelis and some Arabs there, and no one knows each other."
"At the Arab parties, it is always the same people, the same scene. A man there will drink too much and act bad-sexually-and he will not remember you the next day. I think most Palestinian men are ashamed of their sexuality. In the Israeli parties people drink, but no one comes to tell me, 'I want to ... '" Nabil bashfully refrained from finishing the sentence.
The music on the Palestinian gay party scene blends traditional Fairuz classics with American pop and the occasional drag act. Respectable married men mix with Palestinian lesbians and the occasional she-male from Jerusalem. But gay Palestinians have other, subtler ways of recognizing each other. "I believe there's a sixth sense," Nabil said, "a gay sense, because I can feel by looking whether a man is gay or not. There are also words we use in my group. Like if some handsome guy came in here, we'd say he was 'hakim.' We know it means 'sexy,' but the others don't. Gay men used to wear their hair long and their shirt out, but it's become fashionable now, even for straights."
Although homosexuality is proscribed in most Islamic societies, gay scenes flourish in Beirut and other cities. In Palestine, though, the occupation has complicated matters. "The wall closed all the doors, and I can't go to Israel to meet Israeli men now," Nabil said gloomily before recounting a list of checkpoint travails. More grievously, the tendency of the Israeli army to blackmail gay men into becoming informers has led to their being viewed as a fifth column in Palestine.
"From the moment I'd get on the bus to Israel until the door of the party or gay beach, I'd be afraid," Nabil remembered. "My father feared that people would think I was a traitor-and that soldiers would put pressure on me to collaborate by threatening to tell everyone I'm gay." When I asked if that had happened to any of Nabil's acquaintances, he paused before answering. "I don't know for sure," he said, "but a friend I had a relationship with told me that soldiers had taken him and asked these things." He did not want to elaborate.
The consequences for an outed gay man in Ramallah could be severe. "A father absolutely might kill his son for being gay and then say he was a traitor," Nabil said. "To tell others that your son was gay would bring shame on all the family." But would having a son who collaborated bring less shame? "Yes," Nabil answered, "and if you killed a son who collaborated, it would be more of an honor because you killed him for love of your country. Gay or collaborator, both ways he will be killed. It comes to the same."
Nabil believed the problem lay in Islamic mores. "In Christian families, the worst thing that happens is separation and the son goes to another country-'We don't know you,' you know? But Hamas and Islamic Jihad say that a gay man's blood is for everyone; anyone can kill him without questions asked. I think Fatah is also not good, but it's the best worst thing we have."
The interface with the state locally is not always pleasant for vulnerable groups. "Some of the PA police are good, but they're from the community, and most of them have got girls ... ," Nabil began, before thinking better of it. "If you're protected by someone in power, no one will touch you. He will protect you. Most people with a powerful backer become more aggressive."
"I'm starting to think that everyone has a relationship like this, because every day I hear about someone getting a job this way." Do you have someone to protect you too? I asked. Nabil chortled. "I don't like to use it, but, you know, yeah." Protection is a necessity in Ramallah. Many of Nabil's friends who came out were forced to leave the city by the factions. "They phoned one friend and said, 'We will fight you until you are better, or you leave,'" Nabil said. "So he chose to leave for Europe. I don't know if they would have killed him, but they can, they easily can, and he was scared for his life."
"There is no law practiced here. You can't take someone to court and prove he was a collaborator, so they kill him instead. In 2001 I saw someone killed in al-Manarah [Ramallah's town center]. A car stopped in the middle of the square, and two people were brought out from the back of the car covered in hoods. And they shot them. Then they started hitting their bodies, and some of the passersby joined in. It's easy to kill people and find out afterward that they weren't collaborators."
For anyone living in a community that could kill as easily as protect them, loyalties must become strained. It is easy to imagine a situation in which being gay could make one feel less Palestinian or in which by siding with the Palestinian cause a person might have to appear less gay. The $64,000 question-for a Westerner-is whether that leads to a greater affinity with gay Israelis or straight Palestinians? Nabil chewed my question for a heartbeat before firing back, "Straight Palestinians, for sure. There's also a close relationship with gay Israelis, but I am a Palestinian; it's my identity."
It was the soldiers of the occupation who arrested Nabil's father for taking part in a tax strike when he was a child, the checkpoints that went on to prevent his movement as a young man, and the military's tactics for recruiting collaborators that continued to endanger his life. Nabil blamed "the Israeli government and Fatah" for the present situation. He expected to leave Ramallah for Europe soon but was not sure when. "I've never thought much about the future," he said. "It was never in my hands to decide."