Bloated time and the death of meaning

The occupation is a cold metal that kills with savage cruelty the most important thing life affords us: time.

By Ala Hlehel

The occupation deprives you of your humanity by depriving you of the ability to control time. A free human being controls his time: he gets up when he wants and goes to bed when he wants; he goes to work according to a simple daily routine; she visits her relatives and her fiancé; he goes to the movies; she goes for a walk amid nature around her home any time she wishes. A human being is human because he makes his own decisions, because he has the ability to plan for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, for next week and for the next ten years. A human being pursues her freedom through her ability to control her time. Freedom guarantees that simple, extraordinary, and sometimes hard-to-define thing: dignity.

The occupation is a machine: a complex, octopus-like regime that functions to exhaust those who are subject to it. It is a regime based on repression under the cover of administrative legitimacy, the courts, and legal authority. At first glance, everything is legal, and human rights are vouched for. A boy accused of throwing stones will enjoy legal representation in the military court, and an interpreter, and his mother’s right to weep yearningly in front of him for the four minutes the expeditious deliberation lasts in the reinforced plastic trailer. Tables, chairs, computers, soldiers male and female, secretaries, the national emblem, its flag, smart security cameras, a metal frame around the place where the accused are seated, a brown wooden podium behind which stands the defense attorney, white shirts with black neckties, an impatient military judge, and three young men in the prime of life who threw stones at a military jeep during a demonstration. Everything but justice.

The machine resembles an old clock with its cogwheels: each wheel turns and pushes the wheel interlocked with it to turn as well. Cogwheel turns cogwheel turns cogwheel, and so on. And so the occupation machine is so tightly wound, integrated, and coherent that it is hard to distinguish its beginning from its end. Who drives whom? Do the settlements drive the government, or vice versa? Do financial resources drive the ideology, or is it the other way around? Does the army drive the security justifications, or is it the other way around? Do the bypass roads drive settlement population growth, or is it the other way around?

Why do Palestinians throw stones at the soldiers’ and settlers’ vehicles? Because they are jealous of their wheels’ ability to turn endlessly in search of five-star bypass roads. It is a simple and human jealousy; the jealousy of those abandoned behind an illusory, unwritten line, watching life pass by at an insane pace. How does a Palestinian know life is passing by? By the endless red tile roofs, which stand out, stand out and increase, amid the verdancy of his confiscated land. The red tiles are in service to the occupation. They are the truest indicator of time, over fifty years of killing time. In a public square in a European town, a clever way of marking the passing of the daylight hours was invented: from within a huge clock emerged a metal soldier carrying a tiny pistol; he would mechanically raise his metal arm and fire one shot into the air as each hour struck, and then return into the clock. A creative idea to embody the concept of killing time. A clear and direct borrowing, which yet remains baffling in its power and the coldness of its metal; the occupation is a cold metal that kills with savage cruelty the most important thing life affords us: the finite seconds we are given once and once alone. The seconds which provide a direct, clear, and profound sense of our humanity.

In the writers’ tour I took part in, time was a decisive factor: when we left the hotel, when we would arrive, when we would rest, when we would drink coffee, when we would get out of the car, when we’d come back to it. A free man divides his time into definable units. That is what differentiates him from a prisoner languishing in a huge prison: the manacled prisoner does not divide his time into definable units. Time, to him, is waking and sleep. When sleeping, he sleeps, and when he is awake, he waits for sleep. And so time loses its meaning, but the greater tragedy isn’t that; it is that time’s losing its meaning becomes part of the routine, a routine that he even starts to accept. The occupation does not kill you with bullets, most of the time, but with the pistol of time. Military jeeps arrive at the entrance to the village and unholster the pistol of time, and fire a bullet at it every hour on the hour. That is how the occupation kills you.

The occupation kills time and deprives a Palestinian of his basic dignity as a human being. There is a crushing, fatal sadness in this. God alone (according to Jewish exegesis) exists outside time. “In the beginning” means before time was created. It is the moment when God created time as a vessel to contain existence. God was before the creation of this verse and will continue to exist after it. The settlers believe that they were here before the creation of the era of the occupation and will remain here after it. Maimonides taught that this verse’s meaning was that time becomes manifest to us through the movement of palpable substances, and if these substances had not begun moving, time would disappear.

Israel’s separation wall in between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)
Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

Time here proceeds in a circular movement, and so it does not move, it does not advance. Man turns in vicious circles of circular time, and so he is like a rodent on a hamster wheel: he runs, standing in place. Palestinians, abandoned to the occupation, search for fresh ways of killing the time that does not pass. Time weighs heavily on you, becoming as heavy as a dark winter cloudbank. Time needs to be managed, maneuvered, and directed. A Palestinian in the West Bank faces time more often than he ever faces a tank or a rifle. We smoke outside the car and try to do the impossible that every smoker understands: holding the cigarette in your hand and keeping it lit at the same time. In these moments, in which three minutes are stolen to take refuge in your fleeting pleasure in the claws of fatal despair, we realize that a man can endure anything, if he holds to his little habits. They are the last indicators of his humanity. “We cultivate hope,” is what Mahmoud Darwish said about those subjected to the blockade.

Over the past few decades, settlers took over two buildings in Silwan in East Jerusalem, and that was the first spark in the great and manifold settlement operation, which we see today in more than ten buildings in Silwan and in the “City of David,” which was set up there as a site for ideological and religious tourism embodying quite simply the whole complex Zionist idea: a settler ideology with prominent colonial features under the cover of the Torah narrative. One of the settlers took revenge against his Palestinian neighbor by routing his sewer pipe by his house. “Living in the shit” went from slang to a highly pungent reality. The Palestinian homeowner took us into a small room in his house overflowing with sewage. The smell was hideous, but the truly sad and painful thing was the silent sorrow in his wide eyes as he told us with such spirit what the settlers had done to him. To whom should he complain, whom should he beseech?

An armored minibus moves into the neighborhood, escorted by border police officers bristling with weapons. A settlement barracks outside time and context. Life in the alley comes to a halt while the sons of the settlers returning from school climb out and go into the building, Yonatan’s Building, built there as tall as a middle finger aimed at them all. Suddenly you understand the meaning of “the right of self-determination,” which the Palestinians demand. It is simply the right to walk down the street by your house whenever you want, without being searched or pursued by security. The borders, the capital, the security arrangements, the control over resources, all of these abridge your ability to walk down the street by your house without being insulted or besieged or interrogated, and, most important, without giving up this simple right, the right to walk down the street without fear. The occupation drains your desire to live, to take chances, to walk at random down the street without a defined direction or plan specific enough to satisfy a soldier’s curiosity.

The occupation turns your joy in walking barefoot on the sandy beach into a luxury that a member of a struggling people cannot allow himself. The occupation reduces your joys and desires to the lowest point. That is how they triumph over you without firing a shot.

The soldiers ask you about everything. You must be convincing to get past the barrier or cross the checkpoint. There is no such thing as normal under the occupation. Everything must be exceptional, out of the ordinary, worthy of the soldier’s bothering to read your permit or search your luggage. The occupation turns your life into a series of exceptional moments between which stretch dead, passionless periods of time, filled with indolence, inactivity, and lack of desire.

Ofra: among the first settlements established by the Gush Emunim movement, in collusion with that dove of peace Shimon Peres. In 1977, the Likud Party came to power, and Ariel Sharon as a cabinet minister undertook to pursue the “swiss cheese” principle of settlements: a hole here and a hole there. With time, these holes cohered into a body, as the Palestinian body turned into holes. Palestinians became holes in the settlement body, an irritating thorn in the settlers’ ass, to borrow from a metaphor used by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. This game is fixed: he who possesses the power, control, and rule will become a body, and you, who lack these, will become a black hole. The Palestinian black hole has no element of time; as with any black hole, it obliterates, it hides you in your segregated streets and the segregated legal system and the segregated security measures.

With the ratification of the Oslo accords in 1993, the swiss cheese course further intensified: bypass roads, “legal and agreed upon,” were established to legitimize the settlements permanently, transforming these distant, remote places in frightful locations (holes) into suburbs convenient to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from which one might come and go using roads restricted to Jews, modern streets (as in Europe or America), unlike the Palestinians’ streets (as in the Middle East), which increased the popularity of living there (in the body of the cheese). For that, you must guarantee freedom of movement for the new Jewish residents in the luxurious suburbs, and limit this freedom for the other side, so that the new residents of the suburbs feel safe and secure. How? By a number of basic means, including limiting the exits and entrances to and from the Palestinians’ towns and villages to only two for each town; and directing the Palestinian traffic toward the “must-use roads.” In this way the mouse can be kept inside the holes. He can go out only on orders and can come back only on orders. This was a win-win: control over these bothersome, overly possessive Palestinians, and a comfortable and economically beneficial suburban life for the new owners of the place.

The shepherd Abu Ali strolls alongside the lands of the Palestinian village of Susiya in the Hebron Hills and tries to maintain the status quo: it is forbidden to graze in the hills in that direction, because that is a closed military zone, and it is forbidden to graze in the hills opposite, because they belong to the settlers, so he must be careful that none of the dozens of sheep he is tending violate these restrictions. We stand with him in the bitter cold, talking and smoking. I am surprised by how he is able to stand there with us without gloves or a heavy coat. A stubborn, cold, painful question occupies me: What have they done to us, Palestinian shepherd? Why are you this foreign to me; do you know how we can break the ice (literal and figurative) between us? What does Abu Ali want from life? To be allowed to graze his sheep on the forbidden hill opposite, where there is ample pasturage. How is it possible for this wish to be so hard? It is nothing but a wish to save time: if he grazes his sheep on the hill, the sheep will satisfy their appetites quickly, and he will go back to his cave or hut quickly to sit next to the warm stove with his wife and children. All he wants is to shorten this bitter, cold time.

A Palestinian shepherd in the South Hebron Hills tends his flock as an Israeli border policeman orders him to leave the area. (Oren Ziv/
A Palestinian shepherd in the South Hebron Hills tends his flock as an Israeli border policeman orders him to leave the area. (Oren Ziv/

But this wish runs into “official” complications: the settlers have planted trees in tubs in order to assert that they are growing. The Ottoman law that is still in force here states that whoever cultivates the land for several years obtains the right to possess it; the law does not clarify the meaning, size, or extent of “cultivation.” To work around the law, the settlers plant the trees in tubs and spread them over vast areas in order for the land to become “theirs.” One and a half percent of the land in the West Bank is cultivated by settlers, some of it in this way. It is an invented method of cultivating the land that does not concern itself with time, or time passing: you don’t need decades of tilling the earth, tending it, watering it, sleeping under its trees, learning its language and listening to its stories, for it to become yours. These Palestinians are traditional in their farming, and slow; whereas high-tech farming in tubs is very fast. Another Israeli “exit.”

In Susiya, they are searching for water and wells. They dig wells and the army floods them. There is no life without water, and there is no water without a permit, and there is no permit unless you are part of the controlling settler body. It does not count that you were here before the occupation and even before the establishment of Israel; what counts is that you have become outside the context. And the context is that the hole has become the body. You have become a bothersome hole. Susiya is not bothersome for this reason alone, but also because it was originally built on a highly “significant” archaeological site. And so they expelled its residents, and in a grand paradox, brought in Jewish settlers to replace them. For this is a known fact: Jews are better than Palestinians at living in ruins. The whole country was established to rebuild ruins, so who are these shepherds from Susiya to demand back a place that is reserved for Jews only?

The wall robs you of time and your right to kill it as you like.

Walking through the fields or strolling on the dirt roads is no longer a given. The walls tear your existence into little unconnected bits of approved areas and forbidden areas, so you become an acrobat who must leap, skip, bend, and crawl according to the type of permit, the wish of the area commander, or the considerations of the sullen soldier at the checkpoint. The wall is a memorial to the past; it was raised upright between everything you have experienced before and everything you will experience after. Distant kilometers of barbed wire and tall cement slabs stand between you and your ability to extend your gaze and imagination toward the sea, for example, or toward a nearby brook, or the fast road that carries people from the sea to the brook that was once yours.

Nabi Saleh: the stubborn, peaceful demonstration against the settlements in general, and against the nearby settlement of Halamish’s takeover of Nabi Saleh’s spring in particular. Tear gas and metal bullets covered with rubber. Amid the ferocity of the confrontations and the suffocation in the houses, a mother drops her little daughter from a second-story window to her husband in the street to save her from suffocating. It is both a courageous and a rational deed. Feelings mixed, between admiration for the willingness of this mother to do anything to save her child, and astonishment at her willingness to drop her from the window. But this child does not yet know the meaning of paradox: afterwards she refused to go near her mother for two whole months! If you ask me for a one-sentence definition of the meaning of the occupation, I will tell you with great confidence: a mother dropping her daughter from a window to save her life.

But time is liable to ease any paradox and dispel any admiration. The occupation resembles the Thousand and One Nights. Every day brings a new story, a new adventure that makes you forget what came before and prepare for what comes after. The complex bureaucratic machine is the Scheherazade of our era. From among its shirtfronts policies emerge, and by way of its tent flaps stories are generated: in the line of cars at the checkpoint; in the ambulance that carries a patient who will die of waiting (I almost wrote of boredom, but that metaphor would be excessive here); in a demonstration overrun with conquering military jeeps; in the liaison office that refuses, in bulk, entry permits to Israel for medical care, except for those willing to collaborate with the machine; in the drinking water that “takes its time” in coming and going; in the waste of two hours of your life at the impromptu checkpoint, which you later find out was arbitrary and no longer meant anything to anyone. What a humiliation, to be held up at an arbitrary checkpoint!

Palestinians wait as Israeli soldiers shut down the Huwwara checkpoint, the main entrance of Nablus. (Ahmad Al-Bazz/
Palestinians wait as Israeli soldiers shut down the Huwwara checkpoint, the main entrance of Nablus. (Ahmad Al-Bazz/

We arrive at Khirbet Umm al-Khair in the Hebron Hills and see what remains of the temporary residential buildings after their demolition by the Israeli Civil Administration’s bulldozers a few days before. The elderly father of the family is shouting nonstop. I am an Arab, son of this land. I can scarcely understand his screaming. He jumps from one delegation member to another, shouting out his pain and his story. He longs to tell his tale. They came . . . they demolished . . . they came . . . they demolished . . . look at the children . . . look at the settlers’ houses around us. But he does not weep or break down. He shouts with rage, with ferocity. He wants the world to see and hear. I take him aside and start filming a video of him so that we can allow the rest of the delegation to walk around and get the clear details from the other family members who speak English or Hebrew. I hold the camera in front of him for more than twenty minutes as he recites his rapid monologue, frenziedly, without pausing for a moment. My arm is getting tired, my eye is getting tired of looking through the lens, then I realize I am a little bored. This discovery kills me. Is it possible for one to feel boredom from hearing the story of a man in his seventies whose home was demolished just days ago, for the . . . no one knows, how many times? Then I am struck by this sad, futile situation: one Palestinian shouting into the camera of another Palestinian what we must shout to the whole world. Once again, we leap into a small site and speak among ourselves. Our language is not understood, our body language is not loved, our shouting is uncivilized. And suddenly my eyes fill with tears and I feel sorrow, shame, and bitterness. Despite my endless promises to the family members to post their father’s oration on my Facebook page, I have not done it. It would provoke laughter, no question. No one would understand half his words or his sentences, and no neutral or distant viewer could endure his tense body movements and his fierce jumping up and down. Forgive me, old man, I don’t know which is harder on you: people seeing you and laughing at you, or me hiding you from them, not giving even a single one of them the opportunity to understand you.

The occupation bloats time. The occupation is the death of meaning.

Ala Hlehel is a Palestinian author, screenwriter, and playwright. His last novel, Au revoir Acre, was published in 2014, and the Hebrew and English translations are in process.

This essay was excerpted from Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, edited by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, as part of a project co-organized by Breaking the Silence. It was translated by Peter Theroux.

There will be a book-launch event in Jerusalem in English on June 18th, at 7:30 PM, moderated by Bradley Burston, and with participants Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon, Assaf Gavron, Fida Jiryis and Breaking the Silence representative Avner Gvaryahu (sign up here).

There will be a launch event in Haifa, in Arabic, at the Khashabi Theatre, hosted by Qadita Books, the book’s Arabic publisher, and moderated by Ala Hlehel, with participants Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Fida Jiryis and Dr. Raef Zreik.

There will be an event in Tel Aviv in Hebrew and English on June 22nd, at 7:30 PM, moderated by Assaf Harel, with participants Ala Hlehel, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Assaf Gavron, and the director of Breaking the Silence, Yuli Novak, (sign up here).