This article first appeared in the Times Educational Supplement (19.5.2000) and in Writing in Education (Summer 2000)As the child of a Jewish mother born in South Africa during the Second World War, I grew up with Anne Frank’s diary. Hers was the book that made me realise that literature could be real and not just the stuff of princesses, goblins and children exploring islands.
But although I cried over Anne’s fate – knowing that if I had been born in Europe it would have been my own – I saw none of the reality of apartheid around me. None of my teachers at my convent school asked me to question the life we lived. Nor did the parish priest at the Anglican church where I accompanied my father on Sundays. Only later as a student in the early Sixties were my eyes opened when I realised that I had grown up during South Africa’s own crime against humanity. This revelation – that it is possible to have one’s eyes open but not to see – made me sceptical about any version of the truth told from a single angle. It is also why I am suspicious of silences.
One of these silences surrounds Palestine. We hear about ‘talks’ there but precious few voices of ordinary Palestinians. The visit of the Pope this Easter briefly excited the world’s media. But one week after his visit, the vast stage outside the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem is empty. An orderly line of school children, one holding the Palestinian flag, crosses Manger Square and mounts the rostrum. They appear to be preparing for some kind of performance but no one is taking much notice. The cameras have long gone.
I am on an author tour of the Palestinian territories and am glad I haven’t come alone; glad that my husband, Nandha, is at my side to confirm that he has seen what I have seen. Pain is a little more bearable shared. Each of us feels the shadow of the South African past – police, passes, ‘native reserves’, Bantustans. Carefully shepherded by Palestinians who work for the British Council, we are driven in and out of zones that constantly confuse us - A, B, C, H1, H2. We zig-zag our way through road blocks into towns under full Palestinian National Authority (PNA) control, into villages with PNA civilian rule but under the Israeli military, back into areas under full Israeli control. Protected by the diplomatic status of our vehicle’s number plate, we are not stopped.
To cross into Gaza, however, we must have out passports checked at the border. To exit means the same, plus a thorough vehicle security check. Hidden from view, behind a long stretch of concrete, lies the ‘cattle run’ – the passage through which thousands of Gaza residents who work in Israel walk twice every day.
Stories abound of the difficulties faced by Palestinians who wish to visit relatives and friends in any town other than their own. Life is controlled by permits. If you live in Bethlehem (a PNA town), to the south of Jerusalem, and want to visit Ramallah (another PNA town), just to the north, you have a problem unless you have a permit allowing you to enter Jerusalem. The city, holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews and claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as their capital, is at the centre of a most unholy conflict. Army sirens squawk like nothing I have ever heard before.
One evening the army seals off the area outside Damascus Gate of the Old City. Bands of youthful Israeli soldiers march up the street, fingers on triggers. One young man twirls his gun casually as he scans the upper floors of a nearby building. We retreat, but the Palestinians around us remain impassive. Up the road we ask a shopkeeper to explain what is happening. An argument between a policeman and a taxidriver has led to a Palestinian being shot. Nothing unusual, he says. Nothing has changed since the ‘bastard Arafat’ started talking with ‘them’. He and his children would fight until all Israelis are cleared off their land. It would be an honour to die.
Many Palestinians are unhappy with the ‘peace process’ although none express it as virulently as this shopkeeper. His views perhaps mirror those of the Israeli zealots whose hill-top settlements surround Jerusalem and overlook many Palestinian villages and towns. Their identical red-roofed houses and yellow gates barring the roads at the lower slopes of these hills might make the place look like Legoland but are part of the strategy of this land war. In Hebron 400 settlers have installed themselves in the very midst of the Palestinians, requiring 2,000 soldiers to protect them. So long as the ‘talks’ continue, so do new settlements.
Within this highly-charged context, young Palestinians and their teachers make immediate connections with my readings from Journey to Jo’burg and No Turning Back, both set in South Africa. Once the questions start there is no stopping. Most are political or philosophical. ‘Are all your books about humanity?’ ‘What is your opinion on peace?’ ‘Can you get peace by talking?’ ‘What do you understand by justice?’ ‘Did the church help you in writing your books?’ ‘Are you going to the Israelis?’ ‘Do people listen to you more because you are white?’ ‘Will you write about us?’
This last question arises time and again. Here are people who know they are marginalized. I suggest they work at developing the skills to tell their stories themselves. This is already happening in Ramallah, where the Tamer Institute for Community Education has an impressive range of work linking development, literacy and creativity. In one project an all-youth team produces a weekly page and a monthly supplement for a major Arabic newspaper.
Members of the English Language Club in Gaza are equally committed to self-development. This group of young graduates meets weekly at the British Council to discuss books borrowed from the Council’s library. What the group lacks in resources, it makes up for in enthusiasm. Current favourite authors include Shakespeare, Emily Bronte and Robert Frost. When our conversation wanders on to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, there is no hint of racialised thinking. The detachment and openness of these young people is remarkable and we might almost have forgotten that we are in Gaza. Returning to the border through the dismal Jabalia Refugee Camp brings us sharply back to reality.
Time and again we are asked about South Africa and the struggle against apartheid. I display a picture of the men who were sentenced to life imprisonment with Nelson Mandela. Their surprise at seeing Ahmed Kathrada (‘He’s Muslim!’) and Dennis Goldberg (‘Jewish!’) is tangible. We explain how fortunate we felt that South Africa’s liberation movement included people from all backgrounds. Nandha speaks of Ruth First (killed by a parcel bomb) and her husband Joe Slovo, commander-in-chief of the African National Congress’s former military wing - both of Eastern European and Jewish origin.
Interest is intense. If there is any message in what we have said, it is probably of the importance of being able to talk to learn about each other. Much easier said than done. While a tiny minority of Palestinians speak of Israeli friends, we are made far more conscious of the barriers. At the Tamer Institute, people say the time to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together will arrive only when the latter can travel as freely as the former. ‘Once upon a time we lived together in peace in this land – Jew, Christian and Arab – but then they brought in their settlers. How can we live in peace with people who, every day, are still taking our land?’
I am reminded of words from a poem written in the ghetto of Terezin, now in the Czech Republic, by 13-year-old Franta Bass before transportation to death in Auschwitz.
Towards the town where I was born,
My town, my native town,
How gladly I would return to you.
In my latest novel The Other Side of Truth, the children of a Nigerian journalist who speaks out against military dictatorship are transported overnight from their comfortable Lagos home to become refugees on the streets of London. But how is it to be a refugee in your own land? How can people who have suffered so much think they can obtain security by inflicting misery on another people, whose hopes and passions are like their own? How would Shakespeare have represented this tragedy? And what would Anne Frank have said? An observer of the ‘destructive rage in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill’, she asks ‘Why, oh, why can’t people live together peacefully?…Oh, why are people so crazy?’