The Threads that Bind Us
Contemplating life under occupation in Palestine
Stories have power. It is for good reason that colonizing empires, governments engaged in self-proclaiming “just” wars, or military powers testing their nuclear weapons on indigenous people’s home grounds aim to suppress the stories of the people who have come to harm, to muffle their voices so that their stories cannot be heard. For it is when we start listening to the others’ stories that we are granted a glimpse into their world. It is through the activity of telling and listening to stories that we may be able to enter each other’s worlds, inhabit them, for a while, together, and connect. Thus stories make us fully human.
The Threads that Bind Us interweaves pillow books, quilts, letters, photographs, and research with a memoir of my life in Palestine. It explores the intersections of identity and belonging; indigenous culture and the spirit of place; memory and storytelling; art and activism. The work integrates personal content with a broader exploration of life under occupation, violence and resistance, personal and collective trauma, and issues of sexism, racism, and white privilege—manifestations of colonialism and exceptionalism ever present in both U.S. and Israeli societies.
The Threads that Bind Us is a montage of visual, tactile, and textual practices interwoven with personal, practical, and theoretical content drawn from the disciplines of social justice and human rights; theories on white privilege, colonization, advocacy, art activism and life writing; politics, history and geography. The Threads that Bind Us endeavors to break free of the constraints imposed by the “architecture of the book”. Using quilt art and memoir, it imagines new ways to “make knowledge visible and tangible” (Manghani).[ii]
The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.
The Threads that Bind Us explores how we transform our lives through story seeking to use story as a catalyst for social change. Because Palestine is so politicized, and to the average American whose perceptions have been shaped by the pro-Israel Hasbara of mainstream media and Hollywood, all Palestinians are perceived as terrorists, there is need for a human touch, for intimacy, comfort, and humor to invite people to “step out of habitual perceptions and narrow understandings, allowing nuance and texture to enter into monolithic stories and linear analyses” (LeBaron, 2011:9).[iv]
My work is poly-sensuous; it invites the viewer to touch, to smell, to participate—feeling the textures of the fabrics while turning the pages of a pillow book, untying a ribbon to unfold and read a packet of letters. A pillow book stuffed with wild za’atar[v] evokes the rocky, terraced hillsides of Palestine, a sharp piece of razor wire—hostile fences and boundaries. This work attempts to evoke a different response toward Palestinians while considering how we who have white privilege stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers who are oppressed by the very system that gives us our privilege.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
Until I began my master’s degree[vii] at the School for International Training, where I met my friend and colleague, Ziad Abbas, a Palestinian activist and journalist, I wondered why anyone would want to go to the Middle East, especially to Palestine, a seemingly perpetual conflict zone. I felt fear just thinking about it. If someone had told me then that my life would become inextricably bound to Palestine, I would have told him he was crazy! But here I am living in Battir, a small village near both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
My little house is at the beginning of the lovely hiking trail that meanders from Battir to Beit Jala, a village next to Bethlehem. It’s about a two-hour walk through a beautiful, terraced landscape of olive trees and almonds and fruits and wilderness. The terrain is rocky and hilly. In the spring, after the rains, it is verdant with herbs, grasses, and blooming wildflowers—brilliant scarlet anemones, tiny purple irises, pink and lavender cyclamens, little, sunny, daisy-like flowers.
Battir is culturally important. Known for its natural beauty, terraced hillsides, Roman arches and bath, and seven springs, Battir is under threat from the Israeli occupation and its apartheid wall. Israel plans to build the illegal[viii] wall along the Green Line, which cuts through the terraced hillsides. According to the Israelis, the wall needs to be built for ‘security’ reasons: to keep Palestinians out of Israel and to protect the train. The reality is that these village lands became ‘Israel’ with the division of historic Palestine by the British Mandate. In 1949, the citizens of Battir signed an agreement with Israel promising not to attack the train if they were allowed access to their lands. Since then, the people of Battir have upheld their agreement. In 2017, the train will cease to run through Battir as a new fast train is being built in another location. Few Israelis use this train; Palestinians are not allowed to.
The Romans built the terraces and irrigation system of Battir more than 2,000 years ago, although recently, some archeologists argue they were built more than 4,000 years ago by the Canaanites, not the Romans. Battir has been continuously farmed using the same traditional methods at least since the Roman times. Every day one sees the farmers working their land with primitive tools and donkeys—no tractors here. The wall would destroy the historical value and the beauty of the place, and separate the farmers from their lands and livelihood. In June 2014, UNESCO voted to place Battir on its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. It doesn’t guarantee Battir protection against the wall—we’ve all seen how ineffective the UN is—but hopefully, it will strengthen its court case.
Much of my time over the past few years has been spent in contemplation of the abnormality of the normal. That is the only way I can describe life in occupied Palestine, especially of late, as we move from one crisis to the next, the Israelis escalating the violence, trying to ignite a violent third intifada, to break the new unity government and the resistance movements, to eradicate Hamas, to steal more land, ethnic cleanse more Palestinians, and to present themselves as the perpetual victims.
A couple of months ago (summer 2014), as Israel was ‘mowing the lawn’ in Gaza, our conversation over breakfast was about which source had the most accurate body count for deaths in Gaza during the night. How many more innocent children, women, and men had been murdered? How many more horrific pictures of dismembered bodies could we look at before they became normalized, and we became numb or indifferent to the fact that that had been a living, breathing, loving human being? When would we stop feeling the terror, the agony of the people of Gaza, our gaze drifting to the next news item?
Here I break with activists, political ‘leaders’, journalists, and pundits who approach the occupation as a ‘conflict’ that can be resolved if only both parties would come to the table and talk to each other. I have no patience with this U.S. and Israeli charade of a ‘peace process’, which only serves to normalize and prolong the occupation.
Suggesting that the situation there is a ‘conflict’ or ‘dispute’ between two peoples is in stark contrast with the actual facts on the ground, where one people enjoys total freedom as their highly-militarized state controls all the land, all the resources and, crucially, the freedom of the other. Additionally, a series of physical barriers and military laws is designed by Israel to prevent contact between Palestinian and Israeli civilians as well as separating Palestinians from each other (Cantoni, 2011).[ix]
Some people tell me that I should be more ‘balanced’. There is no balance here. Israel is a colonial occupying power committing what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé and others have called ‘incremental’ genocide. Palestinians suffer daily from land theft, encroaching colonial settlements and settler violence, home demolitions, checkpoints, administrative detentions, brutal attacks by the military, and death. Observing day in and day out the humiliations borne by Palestinians, I am acutely aware of my own privilege—this white privilege born of colonization and genocide that lingers like the stink of stale cigarette smoke.
What is in your heart, put into action. What is in your heart is for yourself and what you put into action is for the world.
Alex Danchev (2009) said, “I take seriously the idea of the artist as moralist, or ‘moral witness’, however unfashionable that may be. […] Art makes us feel—or feel differently. […] It makes us think, and think again. Art is the highest form of hope…” [xi]
I live in this place of contrast and contradiction, subtlety and innuendo, grandeur and wanton destruction. As an artist and writer, I feel compelled to look into the shadows as well as the light. I agree that the artist is a moral witness, a truth teller. Through sharing my story, I hope to change how people feel, how they think about Palestine, to show not only the brutality and trauma of the occupation, but the hope and humor and generosity of the people.
Danchev also said he tries “to make an argument about the ethics of responsibility—that our responsibility to others does not consist in doing Good, with a capital G, but rather in doing small acts of ‘senseless kindness’”.[xii]
The breakup of a relationship in the spring of 2013 coupled with the arrest of my friend, Hiba, whose only ‘crime’ was allegedly ‘being in the presence of activists’ when she visited her family in Gaza, left me unsettled, rethinking my life here, and reconsidering what it means to be an activist. I realized that I was trying to fit myself into an idea of what an activist should be based upon the work of friends and colleagues. The fit was as uncomfortable as a pair of ill-fitting shoes.
On being asked by a visiting friend how I could bear to live with the horrors of everyday life here, I realized that performing small acts of kindness—offering comfort, a listening ear, a bit of joy—is action. Too often, we get caught up in thinking that we must do something grand, something magnificent, such as single-handedly ending the occupation or tearing down the wall. We don’t see that the little random acts of kindness add up, spiral outward lighting the galaxies with love. In the end, isn’t it about love?
[i] Klapproth, D. (2004). Narrative as Social Practice: Anglo-Western and Australian Aboriginal Oral Traditions. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. (p. 4)
[ii] Situations of Writing. [Blog post]. Retrieved 28 January 2015 from http://blog.soton.ac.uk/wsapgr/situations-of-writing.
[iii] Sylvander, C. (1980). James Baldwin. New York, NY: Frederick Ungar. (p. 249)
[iv] LeBaron, L. (2011). Eureka! Discovering Gold in a Leaden World. In E. G. Levine and S. K. Levine (Eds.), Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
[vi] The Independent (2013, December 6). Nelson Mandela: 11 inspirational quotes to live your life by. Retrieved 20 October 2014 from http://www.independent.co.uk.
[vii] MA Social Justice in Intercultural Relations (2012), SIT Graduate Institute (formerly School for International Training), Brattleboro, VT, USA.
[viii] Both the International Court of Justice and Israel’s own Supreme Court have ruled that the wall is illegal.
[x] Humphries, S.E. (2003). On being a leader: A conversation with Sister Mohini Panjabi. Reflections, 4(4), 55.
[xi] Columbia University Press (2009, October 9), Interview with Alex Danchev, author of Art and War and Terror. [Blog post]. Retrieved 14 October 2014 from http://www.cupblog.org/?p=852.
[xii] Columbia University Press (2009, October 9), Interview with Alex Danchev, author of Art and War and Terror. [Blog post]. Retrieved 14 October 2014 from http://www.cupblog.org/?p=852.