Monday, May 16, 2011

Maroun El Ras

The following is a text sent to me from an old friend I've known since university:

"Careful where you step! There are landmines here!"
I look to where the young man is pointing, to see a metal disk embedded among the flowers in a grassy meadow in the village of Maroun El Ras on the Lebanese-Palestinian border. Some of the men had surrounded the mine with stones and stuck two wooden poles in the ground, calling demonstrators' attention to the innocently greenish device of death. But seeing that there were several mines, and more than 300 demonstrators in the area directly behind the border fence, volunteers stationed themselves around the mines, two volunteers for each mine, and were constantly making sure none of the other demonstrators stepped on one.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians, Lebanese, and others had made their way South today, to commemorate the 63rd year to the Nakba in a manner that befits that of a freshly awakened nation. No pre-prepared and ruminated speeches, no schoolchildren plays, no impotent rows of white plastic chairs. No, this year, it had to be a lot more direct: commemorate the Nakba by marching to Palestine - or to the closest possible point to her.
People from all over the country had crammed into buses and cars and made their way to Maroun El Ras with its beautiful green hills and meadows - and the hideous double fence plaguing the side of it that borders Palestine. We had come by car, taking a somewhat roundabout route to make the most of the stunning scenery of South Lebanon that we so seldom get the chance to see. Or arriving to the neighboring village of Bint Jbeil, we found that the Lebanese Army had blocked the way to Maroun El Ras, on the account that the Israelis were opening fire. On a whim, we ask two young men standing next to an ATV how to get there. With no hesitation whatsoever, one of them says: "The road is blocked from here, but we'll show you another way. Follow us, but don't bring other cars with you." We comply, and the three of us in the car give a strange mix of mixed signs to the man and woman in the car behind us, and who, as we had found out just a few minutes earlier, had been following us for the past hour or so, having themselves lost the way. "We saw the Palestinian flag on your car,(we had bought one from a street stand near Tyre), so we figured you're coming here." We felt a little bit guilty ditching them like that, but we were not about to risk our one-car-pass to our goal. The young man driving the ATV (whose name is Abdel Majeed as we later find out), proceeds to lead us through a small, winding road smack into the middle of the march in Maroun El Ras, on the way slickly negotiating our passing with two adjacent military checkpoint; one for the Lebanese Army, and another, more pragmatic and down-to-business-like, for Hizballah.
We thank Abdel Majeed and his friend, park the car, and join the thousands marching up the steep road to Maroun's Head, a bad joke I couldn't help but make. Halfway up, I manage to lose sight of my two friends, Ghadi and Ghida. Apparently I had thought they were up ahead, so had quickened my pace upwards, while they had thought that I was still behind them, so had stopped to wait for me.
I arrive at the top of the hill to find a few thousand people already there, stationed on the Plateau near a new-looking public park that I later find out was called 'The Garden of Iran'. I walk over towards the other side of the hill we had just climbed, and there it was, just like that: Palestine.
It had never felt closer.
A thousand or so people were in different stages of descending the steep grass-slippery slope to get to the border fence. I was tired from the long walk, so I decided to sit and rest for a few minutes, and take note of what was going on around me. The hillside stretched down some 300 meters from where I was sitting midway down. At the bottom of the hill was a meadow that stretched a few kilometers across. Running along the bottom was a narrow dirt road, on which I could see a few vehicles of the Lebanese Army. There were around 50 soldiers and officers standing near the bottom of the hill. The Israeli double trouble fence was erected almost 500 meters into the field, and one could see the military structures of the Israeli border units. A few hundred demonstrators were gathered right behind the fence on the Lebanese side, and I could faintly hear their shouts. I could also see the demonstrators were starting to throw small rocks across the fence, aiming at the ten or so Israeli soldiers crouching-hiding among a line of evergreens on the other side of the fence. As I watched, there came the sudden sound of bullet fire, and to it, increased commotion on our side of the fence. A few minutes later, the Lebanese soldiers at the bottom of the hill form a line across and make it clear that they weren't going to allow any more demonstrators to head to the fence.
But I wanted to get to the fence. It wasn't a premeditated decision on my side, but I had come here to get to Palestine or to the closest possible point to it. And that fence was the closest possible point. The meadow being quite large in width, and the Lebanese soldiers being too few, their line could not stretch very far. So I decide to walk far enough away from them along the hillside, and then, when they couldn't easily reach me, cut across the field to join the people at the fence. I make my way alongside the hill, and then, when I feel safe enough, start to walk across. I hear some shouts from the direction of the soldiers, but I innocently ignore it and walk on as calmly as possible. When I had gone far enough, I look back to see the Lebanese soldiers now roughing up some of young men who were trying to make it across. I turn and continue to walk towards the fence; all along stepping between young tobacco plants that some nearby farmers had planted and that were, by now, in various states of being trampled on by the passing demonstrators.
Back to where this jumbled piece of writing - that mirrors my currently jumbled state of mind - starts:
"Careful where you step! There are landmines here!"
I take out my phone and take a picture of the landmine lying at the center of a campfire-like circle of stones. More bullet shots, and a sudden scurrying of the demonstrators. Instinctively, I duck. And so does everyone else. Apparently the Israeli soldiers, who were, to start with, firing in the air, had now brought the nozzles of their American made automatic M16 rifles down by a few notches, and were firing over our heads. When the shots come to stop, the stone-throwers, especially those at the very front, resume their stone throwing with multiplied zeal. I pick up a stone and hurl it in the direction of the fence. It lands behind the first one but a few meters away from the second one. I try again, with similar results. My throw wasn't strong enough, especially that I was five or six rows away from the row of people closest to the fence.
I did not dare go any closer.
The area we were in, having always been agricultural land, was divided intermittently with low stone walls. So there was plenty of rock to be found, and instead of throwing the stones myself, I take to smashing the bigger ones and handing the pieces to nearby throwers who I deemed more suited than I was at the mission at hand. The bullets resume their volley, sounding closer to us.
Then: "Jaree7! Jaree7!" (a wounded person! a wounded person!)
I look to where the shouts came from to see a group of five men carrying the wounded individual, a teenager of perhaps 17 years. He was conscious, and there was blood on his trousers. The small troupe of improve paramedics carried him away. More shots, and again we crouch, and again we resume with the breaking and the throwing. The more time passed, the heavier the rocks rained down. The soldiers at the receiving end were in full battle posture. By now the shouts of 'Jaree7!' were becoming more frequent, and so were the ensuing rescue teams.
Right in the middle of this chaos of flying stones and zapping bullets and related reactions to these, I bump into a girl I know from yoga class. We have a record of meeting in unexpected places, but this was by far the least expected place we've ever met. We smile, almost shyly, and give each other a quick hug, and crouch down quickly because the bullets had resumed their single-direction flights. It was now very clear that the Israeli soldiers were successively shooting with aim, and the aim was not up in the air, but t he people down on the ground. The flurry of flying stones had now come to a new level of frenzy, and yet I noted how calm everyone seemed to me, how calm I felt. I had not yet registered how real everything was, perhaps, but under whatever layers of thoughts and emotions that were going through me, there was a faint and yet much felt sense of joy and fulfillment at being then and there, doing whatever it was that I was doing. Strangely enough, in that moment of clear self awareness, I was at peace.
A pause in the gunfire.
I stand up, and in turning around I fall down, stumbling at what I soon discover is a mass of crouching young men. Absurdly enough, I apologize. I stand up again and decide that it was time to head back. My friends must be worrying about me, I rationalize. Yes, it was time I headed back up the hill.
I start walking, stopping twice to offer water from my backpack to two wounded people lying on the ground. There were others who were not injured but who had fainted.
I see a small troupe of Lebanese soldiers making their way towards the fence. I stop a bit and watch. Their aim was apparently to force the demonstrators at the fence to turn back. A couple of quarrels start between the soldiers and a group of young men. The soldiers are shouting at the demonstrators closest by, and I see one of the soldiers beating at a young man with a wooden stick that he had picked up. It was probably a pole for one of the many Palestinian flags that fluttered into that meadow today. Upon request, before turning back, I had given the flag I was carrying to a random guy who asked if I needed it. I had given it to him, and he dutifully proceeded to tear the flag off its pole, wrap it around a rock the size of a human head, and hurled it 'Miqla3' style towards the fence. It landed on the fence itself, and stuck to the barbed wire. I thought that was a good place for our flag to end up.
I walk on, and by the time I reach halfway towards the hill, the gunfire starts again. I pause again and look back.
Comes the shout: "Shaheed! Shaheed ya shabab!" (A Martyr! A martyr, comrades!)
As the group comes closer, I could hear their shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" and "7ayyo el shaheed" (Salute the Martyr!), and could clearly see the body of a teenager bouncing on top of a dozen raised arms. I move closer. And again, I take out my phone, and take a picture.
In time, I make it up the hill. On the way up I encounter some people who tell me my friends were looking for me. I speed up my pace a little bit. Upon hearing the shouts of 'Shaheed!', the mood had become very somber among the thousands that were still on the hill, and the wailing of ambulance sirens filled the air.
Why was I throwing rocks?
What was that sense of calm joy fulfillment?
How could I explain that the armed soldiers on the other side of the fence were more scared of stone throwing demonstrators than the latter were of them?
I rationalize:
I was throwing rocks not at the soldiers; as distasteful as it might feel to me, I still saw that they were human beings. I was throwing stones at the so called State of Israel.
The sense of calm-joy-fulfillment had several aspects to it. Mainly: throughout my 32 years here, this was the first time that I have directly confronted this rabid monster. And I was not alone, and I was not only me, but everyone who was there. At least everyone on this side of the fence.
The armed Israeli soldiers were scared not of the demonstrators' direct physical actions. How could a rock possibly do serious harm to a metal clad, fence protected person who to top it off was armed to the teeth with the killing equipment that the first world could produce? The fact of the matter is that what the soldiers were-are really scared of is not the rocks, but the very existence of those hurling them. Those who will hold them accountable for their state's wretched and bloody history. Those for whom She will always be Palestine. Those who, today in Maroun El Ras, made me see that their return is imminent.

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