Beyond the Wall: Writing a path through Palestine by Bidisha, published by Seagull, 2012
Where do the formative years of your childhood lead to when you are forced to grow up inside a walled ghetto of just eight square kilometres? How does it feel when you know that you are actually living in the Orwellian dystopia with a “Big Brother” constantly watching you? How do you negotiate with a life whose rules and regulations are under military control and keep changing arbitrarily so as to thwart any stable expectations? What happens when your very survival becomes an occupation? Bidisha’s Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path through Palestine seeks to answer such questions. Written during and immediately after her visit to the Palestine Festival of Literature in 2011, Beyond the Wall reveals to the world the voices of the Palestinian people calling out to demand self-respect and a more humane condition of living. The political conflict between Israel and Palestine and the causes of the tensions in the region are not the subjects of Bidisha’s book. The subjects of her book are the ordinary people dwelling in those contested areas, their daily encounter with Kafkaesque regulations and endless check-point queues, their desperate fights for dignity and freedom and their day-to-day struggle to stay alive. Her non-fictional account of the pathos and plight of the Palestinians is an echo of other writings of the genre such as Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence that try to amplify the suppressed voices of the oppressed.
Bidisha’s moving portrayal takes us into different parts of Palestine and with every new space the readers are acquainted with more horrific details of Palestinian life. Palestine is a place where any act of reading is unapproved of by the authorities who come down on anything that is cultural. It is a place where social activists have to go through “countless spurious obstructions” to smuggle books into Palestine (Beyond 18) and the children of Hebron have to pass numerous harassing checkpoints everyday on their way to school which often delays them enough to complete the day’s lesson “sitting on cement blocks or in a circle on the ground with their schoolbooks open on their laps” (Beyond 80). Hampering education or making its access extremely difficult is a strategic move on the part of the Israeli authorities to strike a blow at the foundation of a community that has already been displaced and is living its life in exile. Life for the majority of the Palestinians is confined to various camps: camps which are made of concrete family dwellings stacked on top of one another divided by less than a metre and with just one room sanctioned to each family. Life is far worse and animalistic in Bethlehem and in the settlements of Hebron. Bethlehem is a walled ghetto surrounded by walls on three sides which are manned by soldiers and watchtowers. The wall is built immediately after the last house of the city ends so as to prevent any expansion of the city. The children who grow up imprisoned within a wall and under the watchful eyes of the military strive not to internalise that wall. The situation in Bethlehem and the West Bank is nothing short of an apartheid system where the smooth roads are preserved exclusively for the Israeli settlers to avoid Palestinian cities, leaving behind a road full of sewage for the use of the Palestinians. The settlements of Hebron, on the other hand, have been built to break the Palestinian society apart. The settlements have no access to market, means of livelihood, places of worship and even a cemetery. The settlers who have occupied Hebron’s buildings and built them above and around the low market streets ensure that the Palestinians below experience an inhumanly filthy living condition by throwing rubbish down onto their heads, sometimes faeces and urine.
While Bidisha exposes the extent to which living is made difficult for the Palestinians, the feat of her narrative lies in making the voices from beyond the wall heard. These voices, though continually crushed and subjugated, refuse to be silenced. The Palestinians know that it is only by existing they can resist the attempts of the Israeli authorities to exterminate a community. Their struggle is not one to merely stay alive, but living a life on their own terms, a life where they are not puppets in the hands of the dictatorial rulers. So while on one hand the authorities obliterate the Arabic language on all road signs to symbolically snatch away the land of Palestine from the Arabs, the Palestinians organise a Literature Festival to construct a culture of their own; the social activists at various camps such as the Balata Refugee Camp work on restoring education and cultural events to reconstruct a heritage of Palestine from the debris that the state is reduced to. While every attempt is made to erase the state from university assignments by naming literature courses as “Writing Israel” (Beyond 34; emphasis added) where students are asked to write about how they came to Israel, one student dares to write instead about how Israel came to her. In spite of the repeated “assassination of childhood” (Beyond 45), the children refuse to assassinate their hopes for a better tomorrow. Young as they are, these children are perceptive, conscious sufferers, sensitive to their own pain and lack of freedom, and so their persistent hope that “tomorrow is better than today” (Beyond 43) becomes a form of resisting the trauma of losing their “songs of innocence”. The constant lying by the Palestinians to the military officials about details of their life is again an endeavour on their part to restrain the authorities from controlling their life. Isolated as they are from the mainstream society to which they are denied any access, the residents of the settlements transform their neighbours into family, so as to respond to all authorial measures of division with a larger communal unification.
The Palestinians are subjugated by nihilism, chaos and anarchy in the name of control. They are made to feel that their houses are not their homes and can be occupied, violated or demolished any time so that they do not feel safe even on their own beds. They are monitored and are put behind walls to obstruct their views. The appearance of their cities are changed with the introduction of new elements – walls, roads, tanks, watchtowers, concrete blocks – which are bigger and on higher grounds so as to intimidate them and make them shrink under the constant watchful gaze of the powerful other. And yet, the Palestinians wage a daily war against all these to retain their identity. Their voices could be heard through the passages of hope the little children write in their writing classes; through the lies they feed the military to refuse them from sneaking into their personal life; through setting up homes in the camps when their houses are burnt down. Bidisha’s narrative records these voices from beyond the wall, voices which are not of victimisation, but of resistance.