Sunday, 10 January 2010

Jeanne d’Arc and the Struggle for a Free Palestine

(by Palestinian artist Mohammad Alrouqi)
A couple of days ago, I watched a documentary about Jeanne d’Arc, the French peasant girl who became a national heroine. “Jeanne d’Arc” was one of the very first books I read as a child, the first grown-up book. I don’t remember who the author was, but most probably some European and we had the Arabic translation of the book. The book-cover showed a painting of a girl in medieval military costume and holding some sort of spear. It was actually the cover that first drew my attention to the book, and made me anxious to know what it was all about. The story was extremely long, maybe over 300 pages, but I found it so fascinating that every day I would come back home from school, do my home works quickly so as to dedicate myself to “Jeanne d’Arc”. Usually, when reading a book, I would read in between studying, watching my favourite children shows on TV, and playing with my siblings. But when I really liked a book, I would dedicate myself completely to it, and would ignore everything else, except my homework which could not be ignored. I would spend every free minute devouring the book. I would try to read as many pages as possible before it was time for bed. Some nights, when I’d reached a part that was just too exciting to be left for the next day, I would wait till my parents had gone to sleep and would sneak to the room where our library stood, get the book, sneak back to the bedroom and sit under the small lamp and read.

My parents had encouraged my siblings and I to read since a very early age, so we grew up with books being our constant companion. At the time, being only a child, I truly believed that “Jeanne d’Arc” was written originally in Arabic. Somehow, maybe from TV, I had already figured out that the French would speak French and would know no Arabic because Arab countries were so far away from France, so they most probably had never seen the book or heard of Jeanne. Yes, of course the people who lived in Jeanne’s time knew about her, but they were all dead and I feared she was forgotten. I felt bad about it especially that the girl had sacrificed her life for France, and we knew about her but the French didn’t. So, I decided to introduce Jeanne d’Arc to the French; I would translate the book. The first problem I encountered in my endeavour was the fact that I didn’t speak French. I took French classes later, but at the time I knew no French at all. I spend sleepless nights thinking how to solve this problem. Remember, I was a child at the time, and truly believed the French had most probably forgotten Jeanne. In the end, I figured out since we Palestinians took English at school, and since England was not far away from France, it follows that the French would also take English classes at school. And so it was: I started translating the book into the little English I knew at the time, and when necessary, which was often, I used my father’s huge red Arabic/English dictionary that was full with beautiful paintings. At that very time, I remember going with my family to visit some neighbours of ours, and as one elderly woman hugged and kissed me, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I didn’t think at all, but immediately replied: I want to write a book. I was thinking of Jeanne d’Arc.

When I first read “Jeanne d’Arc” at that very early age, I was confronted with facts that reminded me much of our own situation as Palestinians, facts that made me think about our own struggle. Jeanne d’Arc fascinated me for many reasons, but mainly because she fought for the liberation of her country from the occupiers. I was a child, and Jeanne was no more than a child herself, a child who was fighting one of the strongest armies at the time; the English army. This, otherwise just another book, opened my eyes to a few facts. Growing up in occupied Palestine, seeing how the Israeli soldiers were treating us, seeing their brutality especially in Dheisheh refugee camp, hearing and reading about their crimes against the Palestinian people, it was clear that our struggle, our fight for independence, liberation and for legitimate rights is never easy and one should have a long breath. But no matter how long, how hard, how full of pain and suffering this path is, one must walk it, for one’s sake and for the sake of others. Justice will prevail, no matter how long it takes, as long as we keep struggling for justice.

Jeanne, who also knew the occupation, was accused of being a witch, was banned by the church and was burned on the stake. Despite so many enemies, and so many people who thought her cause was lost, even among her very own people, Jeanne believed in what she did. It was only years later after her death that she got a just trial and was announced a martyr. It was years after her death that her kinsmen decided they can only be liberated when they are free from their occupiers and it was years after her death that French people finally liberated France and drew out the occupiers. We Palestinians often stood alone in our fight for freedom. We were betrayed, ridiculed, and abandoned by brothers and friends and still are. To me; this only strengthens our will and our belief in our just cause, because never was a just cause easily supported. History tells us that the fight for freedom is not easy, and that no matter how bad things get, we should never give up or stop believing in our just cause, even when everyone else is against us. There were days when the situation did get really bad, so bad that we would think justice is so farfetched, avoiding us, and that everyone, including justice itself, have abandoned us. But this pessimism would not last long. I often heard my grandfather and my father say that no matter how long it will take, Palestine will be free one day. They would say: we know it won’t be in our time, we wish it would, but there is no doubt that one day it will be. My grandfather, who lived in his original village Jrash, fought the Zionist terror groups who attacked Jrash. Even when their ammunition was over, My grandfather and the other men refused to surrender and sat in vain waiting for help from the Arab armies. In the end, they were forced to surrender to protect the lives of the women and children, and were forced out of their homes by the Zionist terrorists. My grandfather was forced to live in a refugee camp and went through the same Zionist terror and Arab betrayal in 1967, but he never gave up, never lost hope and is sure that Palestine will be free one day. He knows most probably he won’t live to see it, but he has no doubts whatsoever that his children or his grandchildren or their children will live in a free Palestine. That is why he keeps the key to their home in Jrash, like my grandmother did until her death. This is one thing that keeps us fighting for freedom despite all the suffering, that gives us the energy and the will to continue the struggle for our rights and for our lands: it is the believe that we are fighting a just cause, and when you fight for a just cause you are destined to win, no matter how long it takes, no matter how much suffering it costs. We are destined to win.

Another fact I realized early on is the use of false information and propaganda by the occupying power to discredit freedom fighters. The English accused Jeanne of being a witch, at a time when witch hunts were a popular instrument to get rid of one’s enemies and opponents. At that young age, it was clear to me that the Israelis were spreading lies about us. Growing up, we didn’t have any satellite dishes in Palestine as we do today, and so the only media outlets we had were the Jordanian TV (which most of the time ignored what was going on in occupied Palestine), the Israeli TV and when the weather was fine we could receive the transmission of the Syrian TV. Because we didn’t have any internet, and most towns and villages had no telephone lines, we were somewhat forced to listen to the Arabic service of the Israeli TV and the Israeli radio to remain updated on what was going on in occupied Palestine. This occupier service would report on any demonstrations, clashes and other events taking place all over occupied Palestine, but of course from the viewpoint of the occupier: Facts were distorted and Zionist propaganda propagated. For example, they always used the term “Judea and Samaria” (for West Bank) and Urshalim (for Jerusalem), thinking thus that the young generations of Palestinians would get used to these term and start using them as well, which I found really stupid, as if we would ever forget that this is Palestine. The term “terrorist” was used to describe Palestinians. In Arabic, it was translated into “mukharrib”, because “irhabi” (terrorist) was not that trendy at the time as it is now. So, every Palestinian who resisted the occupation, from a sit-in to trying to prevent an Israeli soldier from arresting someone or demolishing a home, was a “mukharrib”. We all hated these reports, and would all be swearing while listening to them, but had no choice. I also hated those Palestinian journalists from Yaffa or Haifa or Nazareth who worked for the Israeli TV and would appear on the screen every evening and tell us that we, the Palestinians of “Judea and Samaria and Gaza”, were “mukharribin”. I could not comprehend how one would in all insolence indirectly say that the child that was shot dead some hours earlier deserved it because he dared throw a stone at the fully-armed Israeli soldiers. They knew that Palestine, all of Palestine, is occupied by Israel, and that we are struggling for our and their freedom, for they were Palestinians as well, even if they carried Israeli ID’s. And this led me to think: if this is what Israel is telling us, the Palestinians, what would it be telling the world?

So, one other fact is the importance of our voice. We Palestinians, as an oppressed people, should inform peoples around the world of our suffering under the brutal military Zionist occupation, and of our struggle for freedom. Those sleepless nights of a child thinking about how to inform the French about Jeanne so they never forget her sacrifice or the horrors of occupation, made me determined that we Palestinians need to write and spread the word. Our struggle must never ever be forgotten. My first try at informing the outside world about our cause started a couple of years later. Earlier efforts to “produce” a newspaper on my own failed miserably; after handwriting the first edition of a magazine, I discovered it was an impossible mission without a printer or at least a photocopier which I obviously didn’t have. Some years later, I discovered a much easier way to inform people, one that didn’t need printers. What to today’s young people facebook and twitter is, was to us the pen pals. At school, most of us had pen pals; correspondence friends from all over the world. There was some Finnish company that connected children with each other: we would fill a form about ourselves and our hobbies, and after some time we would either get the addresses of our to-be-pen pals from the company and start writing letters or we would receive letters directly from different pen pals. I myself had some 50 pen pals from so many countries and used to write letters of 10+ pages and sometimes up to 25 pages per letter. It was my simple way of telling these people who lived so far away what was going on in Palestine. I would write about the occupation, our daily life, our daily suffering and our daily struggle for freedom. I also wrote about my dreams, my hopes and my fears: in summary it was a chronicle about the life of a child trying to grow up under a brutal occupation. It was important for me to write because it was also a way for me to handle everything I personally went through, saw, heard or read about. Whether the letter was read or not, I don’t know, but to me it was important to write it because it meant someone out there will read this letter one day and will know about the occupation: the injustice will be exposed.

My pen pals were mostly my age, some were a couple of years older, but most had no or very little idea about Palestine. They came from different countries all over the world: for example there was one pupil from Northern Ireland who told me about life there. Another was from Chile and wrote me long letters about the Pinochet reign of terror. A third was a German from a traditional farmer family who somehow had heard about Palestine and wanted to know more, and at the same time another pen pal from Germany who was a Turkish pupil and told me about her life as a Turkish in the German speaking area. And so I had my own international family: People from all over the world with whom I would share my thoughts and tell them about my life as a Palestinian and they would tell me about their struggles and their hopes and fears, and most importantly through their written words they were extending their hands beyond space and borders to hold mine, would whisper encouraging word to me and would give me their full support. None of them stopped the correspondence because I am a “Palestinian terrorist” as their media would describe us, none of them stopped the friendship because they didn’t want any contact with someone who “attacked Israel”, none of them wrote in defence of Israel or used Zionist propaganda to justify Israel’s crimes. They didn’t believe this propaganda, they believed the words of a girl their age who was writing to them about her life under occupation: they were understanding and supportive. And when they did tell me about Israel, it was to inform me that their media ignores our suffering, and that our voice was not heard there.

Thinking about it now, at least I know I was able to inform these 50 friends and they must have informed their friends and so on. Today, all of us grown up, and although I lost contact with most of them, I am sure that they wouldn’t take what their Zionist media tells them about us for granted, and I am sure they tell their children to do the same. This was confirmed when I got in contact with one of my former pen pals many years after we had lost contact. Despite living in the states and being by Zionist propaganda the whole time, this particular friend never forgot what I wrote about the occupation and the brutality of the Zionist entity. I got another confirmation of how effective these pen pal friendships were during one political seminar I attended in Germany a couple of years ago. The participants were from several countries. One evening, after the daily discussion sessions were over, we went on a walk during which some of the participants asked me about Palestine. We talked and discussed the situation there. One German participant said that she was always supportive of Palestine. She had known about Palestine and the Palestinians from a Palestinian pen pal she had when she was still a pupil. That pen pal opened her eyes to the truth and what was going on in what they, as Germans, knew to be Israeli territory. This is no isolated case in Germany. I myself met many who informed me that they didn’t know what Palestine is or Palestinians are. So strong is the Zionist influence there, it is no surprise to meet a university student who doesn’t know that there exists an occupied Palestine.
Many of us saw this as a chance to inform the world. We didn’t have internet, so writing was one way to inform the world of our suffering in occupied Palestine. Writing letter was our facebook, twitter, blog, etc. I should maybe mention that it was me who broke the connections. These friends continued sending letters long after I stopped replying. The only excuse I have is that I had just started my third year at the university and had so much studying to do, and with every letter I wrote less and less, until I stopped writing completely for lack of time. Later I felt bad about it, and regretted it much, but what is done is done.

Another way to inform the world, the more effective way I believe, is activism on the street. Demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, cultural activities and much more were our way of telling the outside world: we are Palestinians, this is Palestine and we are here to stay. Every form of resistance, even by wearing a Kuffeyeh or a necklace with the map of Palestine, was telling the occupation: we don’t fear you, and your weapons won’t stop us. We would write stories and poems and draw paintings depicting our lives under the occupation and our struggle for freedom. We would learn dabkeh and stitch Palestinian embroidery. We would join marches and sit-ins. This was our message to the Zionist entity and to the outside world: we will never give up the fight for our freedom and our legitimate rights. We knew the Zionist soldiers would not hesitate in shooting at Palestinians armed only with stones, or often armed only with their belief in their cause and their love for Palestine. But it didn’t matter for we had a goal: freedom. And there were days when after being so close to death, we would lie in bed at night and think: it was worth it, the world will hear our voice, receive our message. We will not suffer in silence, nor give anyone the chance to justify their indifference by claiming: we didn’t know.

Some years ago, during one huge demonstration in Germany in support of Palestine and Palestinian rights and in protest of Israeli war crimes, we marched in thousands carrying Palestinian flags and chanting for Palestine. I think maybe that was one of the largest demos the city I live in had ever witnessed. As we marched, people would come to us and ask us about Palestine, about our reasons for the march and we would explain it to them. As usual, a few Zionists and Neo-Nazis (contrary to what many believe, these two often join efforts when it comes to actions against Palestine or Arabs/Muslims in general ) didn’t like what we were doing and would insult us, call us names and “demand” that we leave their country. At first I was angry, but then I realized that they were actually angry, outraged, mad that we were marching in such numbers, that they realize they can’t stop us, that unlike the Zionist-run media, they can’t silence our voices. We were marching and chanting for Palestine, and the only thing these Nazis and Zionists could do is shout, but our voices were louder. While their message was that of hate and racism, ours was that of freedom and a just peace.

Today, our pen pals are our acquaintances on facebook and twitter. Almost every one of us has a facebook account, a twitter account, and many even a blog or a website. We use these sites to inform as many people as possible about Palestine, to tell them the truth, what the main stream media will not tell them. It can’t be denied that the internet has helped a lot in spreading awareness about Palestine and the struggle for liberation. Often I hear from people, especially Europeans, how some 20 or 30 years ago they rarely knew about Palestine or heard their main news outlets mention Palestinians other than terrorists threatening Israel. They tell me how their idea about Palestine was formed by the pro-Zionist media, and many admit that the internet helped them see the truth. Nevertheless, I believe this is in no way an alternative to the struggle and activism on the ground. Arranging an event on facebook to commemorate Jenin massacre or the Gaza genocide or any other event in support of Palestine and Palestinian rights, then inviting thousands to “attend” this event is not the same as organizing an event in Ramallah, in Bethlehem, in Nazareth or any other place in the world. The struggle to liberate Palestine is real because Palestine is real.

An event on facebook or on twitter would attract the attention of many people, but as I was told during a discussion on activism, it is easy to turn off the TV, the radio or the PC when one isn’t interested. And this is true for facebook and twitter, anyone not interested in a certain topic would easily block those actively working for this topic. If I don’t like a certain topic, I don’t have to visit websites and blogs related to this topic, and if I get a message about such sites I delete them without reading them. But hundreds, thousands demonstrating at the same time in almost all Palestinian towns and villages (as was the case during the first Intifada) would get much attention these days. It could never be ignored. Hundreds or thousands marching in a city and chanting could never be ignored. Bystanders can look away, they can shut their ears, but we would be there and they would know we are there, and more people would see the marchers, maybe join them or ask about the reason behind them and thus get informed. The media might ignore it, collaborating authorities might chose not to see it, even repress it, but they will know that we, the Palestinian people, have a voice, no one was ever able to silence us and nor will anyone ever be able to do that. That we, the Palestinian people, will never allow anyone to take us for granted, will never accept “concentration camps” as a substitute for a state, will never accept anything but total liberation.

We face them, unarmed except with a few stones and our belief in the justice of our cause. We face fully-armed soldiers and fear them not. They fear us. If you come close enough, you would be able to see the fear in their eyes: they know they are fighting a lost war, a lost cause. They are afraid of the small children going to school, they are afraid of young men and women standing opposite fully-armed killing machines at checkpoints and not afraid to look them in the eye, they are afraid of the elderly planting olive, apple and orange trees for their grandchildren and their children. They fear us because they know we are here to stay, and that none of the Nazi methods of the terrorist Zionist entity will be able to force us to leave. They fear us because they know without their weapons they don’t stand a chance against us. They know that our stones are more effective than their F-16, Apaches and Markavas. They fear us because they know that we don’t fear them. We stand opposite them, proud and strong with the belief in our just cause. They stand opposite us armed only with a history full of ethnic cleansing, land theft and massacring innocent peoples. They fear us for we carry the love of the land in our hearts and are willing to sacrifice ourselves for this land, while they know that the only thing that makes them face us “in the name of their fake entity” is the shield of weapons they hide behind. They know we are winning. They know that they are defeated; they know this every day. They know they are defeated when we continue to go to our fields and work them despite their terror and despite the terror of Zionist settlers. They know they are defeated when we go to our school and universities, and sit in bombarded classes, with F16 flying over our schools and continue to learn about Palestine, draw it and sing about it. They know they are defeated when we refuse to give up the Right to Return and when young Palestinians insist they come from Jrash, Zakariya and Deraban. They know they are defeated when we refuse to accept a disfigured “state” on less than 20% of Palestine. They know they are defeated when we stand as one, speak as one and refuse to be instrumented by those fighting over a fake “authority”.

They know they are defeated. With every breath we take, they know they are defeated.