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Tears of a stranger

11 October 2011

She was shaking. I thought she was cold.

It was less than half an hour before sunset. I’d already snapped a picture or two of the group of girls mooching about the old Roman theatre at Sebastia. The incomparably knowledgeable and insightful George Rishmawi had been guiding non-stop since breakfast time at the other end of Palestine. I didn’t want to drop the pace. I was desperate to put my eyes in the way of Sebastia before the light went altogether.

The girls clocked us, the guide and the camera-toting tourist. “No, no! No pictures!”

I pointed at the wall, showing I wasn’t photographing them. It was a lie. I’ve lied like this many times. As if my photographs matter.

They hopped down off the old stones. I was listening to George as they stalked past. No photos.

They sauntered up the hill. I was listening to George as they picked flowers. No photos.

The last metre-and-a-half of the sunset caught them laughing against a golden olive tree, with a column drum beside and the hills beyond. I chewed my lip. George invited me to declaim “To be” at the old stones.

As we walked up the hill – Can we talk to them? I asked.

The girls were young enough to be interested, old enough to radiate contempt. George said hello, then, leaning back against a flaming sunset panorama, spent ten minutes in rapid-fire simultaneous translation. (A guide makes or breaks. George made.)

Why should anyone come here? asked the English journalist.

“Palestine is an Arab Islamic country,” offered one.

“And Christian,” said another.

“Nablus is a very ancient area. There are many historic places to see.”

“We have three religions in Palestine.”

But then, from a girl hanging back, with the face of a widow: “This is our country and we are proud of it.” The others had pre-teen body language. She was tenser.

I asked her how she would tell someone in England about Palestine. I don’t remember exactly, but I think she stamped the ground.

That’s when I realised she was shaking.

She turned and stormed away, then stormed back, her friends caught like little children in her whirlwind.

She raged at me. “You don’t understand what occupation is like.” Raged. Furious. Almost spitting, she was. “Palestinians are under occupation and we want you to help us.” She hated me. It was hate at first sight. Half turning, she untied any connection, eyes down as a raging underling but with fists jabbing by her sides. She was shouting. “You have no idea.”

I don’t, I said, wondering what on earth had happened to her. People in England have no idea, I said. That’s why I came, I said, to help try and show them – I was talking like an excuse, defending my self-proclaimed role as a puny reporter in a land of pain.

Fists still jabbing. Tears now, too. “You don’t understand.” She turned towards me, full face. “An Israeli can come here, right now, and shoot us.” I think she stamped the ground again.

Then her friend took her away. She was rigid, like a matriarch. They were not floods of tears. There was no submission.

I talked to the other girls, but they didn’t say much. I took some photos – and realised she had marched back to lead them away. I asked her name. She told me twice. She was 13, she said.

13.

Could I write it in my notebook? Yes. Could I take her picture? OK – and she wiped her cheeks with her palms.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 October 2011 4.15pm

    Blimey; and I thought Mark Thomas was good on this subject. Bloody brilliant.

  2. 11 October 2011 6.49pm

    Very moving. So well written…and the large photo, saved for the end, is completely disarming. Thanks for your sensitive eye and mind.

  3. 11 October 2011 7.46pm

    Thank you, both, for stopping by, and for your kind words.

  4. 12 October 2011 7.27am

    Expertly written.

    Thank you for letting us hear her pain. We need to know about it.

    I was recently on a plane from Jordan to the States. Sitting next to me was a kid, 17 years old. He said he was born in Chicago but went back to Palestine when he was 5 or 6. His parents wanted him to be connected to his roots. I asked if he was going back to the States to study. “No,” he said. “I never finished high school. When I was 14 some of my friends and I were walking home after class. We saw an Israeli soldier and started throwing rocks. He started shooting at us. I was shot through my knee. I couldn’t walk for 3 months. I just sat in my house. I didn’t go back to school after that.”

    “Why not?”

    “I knew I would walk home with my friends again. We would probably see another soldier. We would probably throw more rocks. We would be shot at again. I didn’t want to die. I decided it was better to stop going to school.”

    The 13 year old girl in your story saying she could be shot… that’s not for the sake of drama. It happens.

  5. 12 October 2011 8.28am

    It does.

    Thank you, Jon.

  6. 12 October 2011 9.07am

    V powerful Matthew, and all the better for being simply and directly told…

  7. 12 October 2011 9.25am

    Very touching story, and brilliantly told. Thank you for sharing, Matthew. I look forward to hearing more about your trip.

  8. 12 October 2011 9.51am

    Powerful, especially with the large pic at the end. Thanks for this, Matthew.

  9. 12 October 2011 5.06pm

    Helena, Toufoul, Nick – lovely to see you all here. Many thanks.

  10. 12 October 2011 8.16pm

    “That’s why I came, I said, to help try and show them…”

    Hi Matthew, thanks for such a moving piece. So much about this–the shorter sentences, the quick dialogue exchange–works perfectly with what you’re describing.

    I’ve been visiting villages in Orissa, India, the past week with an NGO, trying to speak with women involved in their projects, but am also having to do so through a translator. I can completely understand what you mean by how they make or break a conversation! Frustrating at times, but that’s great yours did such an excellent job.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

  11. 13 October 2011 8.55am

    Thank you, Candace. That’s so true. Having the language (or a good translator) means you get it – or you miss it. Even then, the translator can’t translate background murmurs, or nuance of tone, or everything that everyone is saying.

    My Arabic should be better than it is…

  12. Daniel Adamson permalink
    13 October 2011 10.55am

    Wonderfully told Matthew. Not often you come across such a fresh approach to such an old story. Bravo.

  13. 13 October 2011 8.30pm

    Thanks, Dan. So pleased you came by. Really appreciate such kind words.

  14. 17 October 2011 10.07am

    Amazing photograph and wonderful story. I wish I knew what had happened to her.

  15. 19 October 2011 10.37am

    Thank you, Jenny. So do I.

  16. 28 October 2011 11.10am

    This was beautifully told. Thank you so much for sharing such an important story.

  17. 28 October 2011 2.53pm

    Thank you for coming by, Adam, and for kind words.

  18. 1 November 2011 7.06am

    Really excellent read.

  19. 1 November 2011 8.08am

    Thank you, John, much appreciated.

  20. 26 November 2011 10.11am

    Great story, Mathew, and oh so typical. A visit to Palestine always fills you with feelings of desperation and inspiration. Once, entering a village in the hills above the Jordan Valley, we met a teacher standing by the open door of his small school. “I hear you are English”, he said. “You gave away my country, but you are welcome. Come in and have some tea”.

  21. 28 November 2011 11.56am

    Brilliant, Tony – thanks so much.

  22. 28 November 2011 12.09pm

    A moving read this little gem of a story. Thanks for sharing.

  23. 28 November 2011 12.12pm

    And thank you for commenting, Håkon.

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