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The Writing on the Wall

  by Aria Fani 
step gently
a nation is 

The construction of the Israeli barrier that isolates the West Bank from the outside world began almost a decade ago. It is now 450 miles long -- the distance from San Diego to San Francisco -- and stands 26 feet tall, more than twice as high as the Berlin Wall. It has been called both the anti-terrorist fence and the racial separation wall. No words come to mind, however, as you walk on the streets of Bethlehem, Palestine. You do not need to delve deep; the wall's impact is visible in people's faces, faces that still smile at you as they pass by and go on with their lives.

Contemplating the soul-numbing injustices with which these people live, an urge to commit your life to the cause of Palestinian independence dominates you. But most likely you will move on too. It is only the Wall that stays -- it has uprooted olive trees, thwarted access to health care, cut through farmlands and villages, separated brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren. It has been built to stay, to rise and stand tall, to cast its shadow on our humanity. Ironically, it is also on the streets of Bethlehem where a more just world is most imaginable. It is in Palestine that your heart dares to dream of peace, not in the long corridors of the United Nations headquarters where "peace" is a resolution yet to be passed.

The streets of Palestine are where free-spirited activists and artists have come to change the face of apartheid, to add the bright colors of their vision to the monochrome gray of the Wall. Through graffiti art and poetry, Palestine now owns the longest "living canvas of resistance and solidarity." The Persian-language verse of Ahmad Shamlu is found alongside Mahmoud Darwish's poignant poems in Arabic. "Nations United" written in English is right next to "This wall will fall, and I will return to claim my piece," in Spanish. Story after story of suffering is present, displaying the profound universality of the human condition. From a tombstone of the world imagined by the politics of "separate but equal," the Wall has been turned into a monument that summons, in every one of us, a sense of affinity and shared vulnerability, a monument that insists on the presence of lost lives.

Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, writes, "From the suffering Other, there comes a giving that is no longer drawn from the power of acting and existing, but precisely from weakness itself. What the suffering Other gives to he or she who shares this suffering is precisely the knowledge of shared vulnerability and the experience of the spontaneous benevolence required to bear that knowledge." The following selection includes work by Darwish, Palestine's most celebrated poet, as well as graffiti art and writing captured on the Wall. What do these latter expressions add to the discourse of Palestinian rights and suffering? They beautify a despised structure that some locals would prefer be left in its naked, repressive form. Where formal texts often distance us from the Palestinians' predicament and Israel's policies, graffiti art speaks to us with the same warmth and intensity one encounters in conversation with people on the streets of Hebron, Bethlehem, and Ramallah. Art may not change the reality on the ground in Palestine, but it is potent enough to turn an inhuman barrier into a living narrative that mirrors the best of a nation that still dares to dream.

Selections from Mahmoud Darwish

Translated by Fady Joudah

The soldiers measure the distance between being and nonbeing
with a tank's scope...
Siege is the waiting
the waiting on a ladder leaning amid the storm
(to poetry:) besiege your siege
Do we harm anyone? Do we harm any
country, if we were stuck, even if from a distance,
just once, with the drizzle of joy?

We store out sorrows in our jars, lest the soldiers see them and celebrate the siege...
In Damascus:
the traveler sings to himself:
I return from Syria
neither alive
nor dead
but as clouds
that ease the butterfly's burden
from my fugitive soul
Selections from the Wall

For he himself is our

who has made the two one and
has destroyed
the barrier
the dividing Wall
of hostility
-- Ephesians 2:14

[written for the oppressor]
The Wall is in your head
to exist
is to resist
-- Zapatista Army, Mexico

our revenge
will be the laughter
of our children
-- Bobby Sands, Northern Ireland

an eye
for an eye
leaves the
whole world

a country is not
what it does
but also what
it tolerates
you look at me
and I look at you
what is this
teaching our children?

as if
you will
for ever
If I sit silently
I have sinned
-- Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran

I have come to your land 
and I have recognized
shades of my own
my land was once
one where some people
imagined that they could build
their security on the insecurity of others
-- Faris Esack, South Africa

let never-smiling people rise 
let them rise
-- Ahmad Shamlu

The only peace Israel wants 
Is a piece of my land

Berlin 89 
Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1941 in al-Birweh, Palestine. During the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, his village was destroyed and his family fled to Lebanon. Darwish faced house arrest and imprisonment for his political activism and for publicly reading his poetry. He lived in exile for 26 years, between Beirut and Paris, until his return to Israel in 1996. Approximately 30 collections of his poetry and prose have been published, which have been translated into more than 22 languages. Darwish died in 2008 in Houston, Texas. (Retrieved from Poets.org.)

Further reading:
Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011), by William Parry. A stunning book of photographs that captures the impact of the apartheid wall on Palestinians.
The Butterfly's Burden (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), by Mahmoud Darwish, trans. Fady Joudah. A bilingual collection of the work of Palestine's national poet.
Banksy. Website of the British graffiti artist and political activist whose work has appeared on the streets of the world's slums and war-torn cities.

Via Tehran Bureau
Thanks for reading The Writing on the Wall

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