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The Smell of Palestine

The Smell of Palestine


“…And as I toured Israel’s Supreme Court, I was struck by the iconic architecture which embodies Israel’s founding principles of Democracy and Rule of Law. It’s straight lines which represents the immutable nature of truth, while the curved walls and glass represent the fluid nature of justice…”

Senator Kamala Harris, 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference, March 2017

My friend, Carlotta was volunteering in Palestine in the year 2015. Carlotta was deported from Palestine in 2019, months after which the two of us had a conversation over call, the content of which has been documented below.

She was in Milan at the time and I was in Islamabad, and while she spoke of her recurring dreams and her heartbreak after her separation from the Palestinian soil; I was particularly drawn to the one binding ache of human existence – the perforating ache of separation. 

One cannot talk about Palestine without thinking about a most personal separation – the separation of lovers; the separation of one soul dwelling in two bodies. The indivisible pain of violently shaking age old trees rooted deeply into the soil of their land. The separation that resides quietly in the senses, as Maulana Rumi conceptualized, only making itself known through the plaguing hope of a reunion.

Milan, Italy, October 2019

There was a strong sense of unease beneath my skin, pinching me with thoughts in the morning and wriggling me out of sleep through awfully confounding dreams; vivid in color and in sensation. It could have been historical or cultural, the trail of my thoughts, I could not have said.

At that time, I was reading avidly about Kashmir, Palestine and Israel. About disputed lands with no fates, really. The ones hounding the tables of the International Court of Justice like cold ghosts of the past. But never really being loud enough to be heard in the way that they were seeking to be. I felt betrayed after my readings. About the very fact that the people whose history is written in pain are the very ones dispensing pain, as if they had collected it in barrels out of their bodies to give it out for the world to see and marvel at. You see, the mark of humanity is always witnessing the pain within you, and never ever passing it on to another body, let alone a land, or in fact a whole country. 

But this is about power. It is the plague of humanity.

After I got a call from a friend to apply for a volunteer position in Palestine, I could not resist to fill up the application form. I had always been interested in the Women’s Movement in Palestine and I was completely intrigued by the patterns of systematic violence and suppression in the world. For me, to look into the relationship of the state with social movements had always been interesting to explore in any case. You see, I had always considered myself a human being, first and foremost, and then accidentally from Italy, and then from Milan. I thought that it would be the same for everybody and that our humanness really was our core identity before our race or our State of belonging. 

Now, I see differently. I am able to say things which Europe, or in fact, the world has been deaf to and silent on – the whispers of the powerless, the ones who we cannot think of as humans for if we do, we would startle ourselves with the measure of pain that we have caused through our compliance and our ignorance. And so, when I speak now, I think about the responsibilities of Europe. The continent which invented the very ideals of Democracy, Human Rights, Freedom and Choice; and the continent which so heavily absorbs the imagery of the United States. 

I am talking like this as I might have been a Palestinian in my past life and not as I am now – a privileged white Italian from Milano. 

In September 2015, I went to Palestine after being selected for the volunteer program at a time when Italy was going through its economic crisis. The idea was to spend a month in which we were to be in the rural areas of Palestine – Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem. In Hebron, we were sleeping in people’s houses to protect them from being attacked by the settlers. The settlers were of course, not Palestinians but their power and agency was far greater and remains to be great. Now imagine for a father to ask a bunch of twenty-five-year-old females to sleep at their house so that they might be protected for the night. To be able to govern people’s fears and to be able to make them feel unsafe in their houses is an insidious takeover and Hebron seemed to be a sieve of such authority and of such a possession.

In 1994, in the mosque of Hebron, an attack was carried out by a Jewish American doctor. Israel at this point decided to cut half the mosque for the use of the Jewish people. The split was not as strange as the demography of Hebron had been split since the early 1940’s when the Hebron protocol was signed, stating that one area of Hebron was to be under the Palestinian authority while the other area was to be under Israeli authority. This, of course, was simply on paper as it is clear that the governing authority is the fearful authority. It is the Israeli authority.

In Hebron, it is common with the religious settlers to go with the army to a house and occupy it then. You cannot just smell the authority but rather feel its presence everywhere with the Star of David. Al-Shuhada street is really just the face of such a sight – fixed in its symbol like an immovable wall. 

Now, ask me about the smell of Palestine and I will tell you. Palestine smells of beauty. It smells of olive trees, dried coffee, washed out dump and teargas. Palestine smells of freedom which is another mystery, perhaps, we smell most of the things we yearn for.

The houses are cube shaped, concrete and simple. The wide hills, sprayed with many white rocks, are silent. The rural areas smell of poetry and the poetry smells of history. Of a history being slowly erased and being wiped off completely. And so there is the pain of removal, of complete eradication, of having nothing where once was everything. Of having being ripped of a deeply historical identity. And in the midst of this somewhat surgical removal, you discover purity at every corner of Palestine, brewing and growing in the very hearts and souls of its people. The Palestinians. The ones who are continuously in search of the happiness which they know is theirs; a happiness borne out of their creation. 

In Ramallah, people try to find happiness as if it has been misplaced (displaced) in a wounded crevice of time. People know what freedom is in Ramallah because they have lived without it. It is like living without love. These people stick to each other as pillars guarding each other’s strength. They resist the occupation as much as they can. And the Army enters at their own will to test their levels of resistance. 

The occupation is pervasive. You cannot escape it. Palestine cannot escape it. You have two check points from which Bethlehem is within two hours of reach. To enter Palestine, you have to go through Israel as there are no airports in Palestine. There is the option to fly to Tel Aviv (Israel) which is a Mediterranean city, from where you take a bus to Jerusalem. You then go to Jerusalem East and from there, you go to Ramallah which takes about an hour because you have to go through the wall.  Or you can access through Jordon through the border it shares with Palestine. But the border is heavily guarded by Israeli forces and they say that the Jordanians are worse than the Israelites.  

Does Palestine exist? 

It does and it does not. And if it does, it exists in the hearts, and in the eyes and in words. 

If Palestine is losing its existence, then we are in a way also losing our humanity. 

I was deported from Palestine when I landed in Tel Aviv from Athens. When I went to the counter with my passport; I was told by a friendly Spanish-Israeli of around fifty years of age that I cannot be given the visa. And that was it. There was an interrogation, hours after which I was sent back to Europe. 

I found myself in Paris then, sometime after which the Notre Dame burnt. 

And when the Notre Dame was burning, people were crying in sorrow because of a phenomenal historical loss. Such was the burning of Notre Dame, bringing about an ache to Europe’s heart. The world too, in that moment, mobilized its pain for the Cathedral. They saw the heritage of their country and of their history being burnt down while they remained helpless. 

And I, I was only thinking of Gaza.

Read more from ProperGaanda here.

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1 Comment

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