Raja Shehadeh

Raja Shehadeh

The corona virus lockdown brought it all back. 

That earlier lockdown began at the same time of year, in March 2002. Abundant winter rain that year had ushered in a glorious spring. So similar to this year’s. Just before the lockdown we took our last walk in the Ramallah wadis and hills. Almond trees were in bloom and the cyclamen and other early spring flowers were beginning to cover the ground with their myriad colors. It was going to be a spring the like of which we had not seen for many years. In 2002 I woke up in the morning at the sound of the screeching Israeli tanks scraping the road past my house as they drove down into town. That was when I knew that the strike that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had warned would make us weep had begun. Curfew was imposed and remained in force for a month. “Beitak” [to your house] the Israeli soldiers barked at anyone in the street. This was followed by a series of loud staccato dribbles from machine guns. Booming sounds like peals of thunder from bombs being dropped from the sky using helicopter gunships and blasts of volleys fired from tanks on buildings. They were all so loud that even the stalwart bulbul was silenced. That was the time when the danger approached from the west in the form of an army re-invading Ramallah, the city where I live.  

This corona virus lockdown is different. In the place of harsh booming orders and deafening sounds from artillery, it is a silent killer. For us in Palestine it first reared its ugly corona-shaped head in Bethlehem carried by a group of pilgrims visiting the holy sites. The Palestinian Authority acted promptly taking no chances. They knew we didn’t have the means to handle a pandemic, so they sealed off the city. They did their best to comply with the advice of the medics to keep everyone at home. Then schools and universities were closed, and in all cities, villages and refugee camps under their control curfew was imposed from 5 in the afternoon to 10 in the morning. Churches and mosques were also closed. The imam in the mosque near our house incorporated in his call to prayer the message to “pray at home.” Five times a day the familiar call was altered to repeat this summon.

We worried about Gaza which had no means for testing and where only 40 ICU beds were available for a population of 2 million people. Yet Israel continued to refuse to lift the siege and allow in more provisions. The prisoners in Israeli jails were on everyone’s mind. What if the pandemic should spread in the crowded prisons? Our Authority was powerless to handle either of these concerns. 

In the West Bank we began to think we were safe. But then the virus began to seep into our territory carried by the over 50,000 Palestinian workers whom Israel was sending home to the West Bank over the Passover vacation without testing them for symptoms of the disease. It turned out that many were infected. The absence of control over our borders was a vulnerable area in our struggle to restrain the spread of the virus. It is now known that out of the 300 and some cases in the West Bank 75 percent of these were caused by the workers returning home from their work in Israel. 

Yet this time we are not alone in this lockdown. How different it all is from the earlier time. Then we went through the harsh experience on our own. As we sat in our homes with only intermittent electricity and no internet connection wondering whether or not we’ll make it alive the rest of the world was going on with its usual business, occasionally expressing concern but doing nothing to stop our adversary from carrying on. There is some comfort in sharing this crisis with the rest of the world.

The checkpoints Israel placed during the 2002 invasion have since become permanent features of the land. The ones the Palestinian Authority has now placed between towns and villages are dubbed barriers placed out of care and love. Still I wonder, now that our police have succeeded in further restricting our movements whether they will refrain from using their newfound powers when this is over. Fear is the tyrant’s best friend and the measures learned out of extraordinary times are rarely ever forgotten. 

When this pandemic began I thought I could easily handle it. I’ve learned from the earlier lockdown the importance of keeping to a routine of shaving every day and dressing up as if ready to go to the office, eating regular meals and exercising to stay fit. I also thought I knew how to take care of myself to prevent getting infected. But then when I went shopping and  warned about the habits of this tenacious virus that even attaches itself to plastic shopping bags, I began to yearn for bacteria whose ways I was more familiar with and could more easily handle.

As the pandemic spread I watched with amazement at how the first world countries like the UK and the US were caught so unprepared. It is sad to hear the daily toll of the dead. But I surprised myself by not worrying too much over the possibility of the approaching economic depression. Perhaps there is hope in emerging from this global crisis with a new sense of what matters. Perhaps with the impending challenge of the capitalist system there will be more compassion for all those excluded. As one Palestinian imam wrote in a prayer on the occasion of the pandemic: guide us O Lord, to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, between the northern and the southern hemispheres. Help us establish social and economic justice . Let there be no shanty towns with no fresh water or sanitation. Let there be no people that go to bed hungry, afraid of another day of uncertainties, with no food or medicine.

And perhaps there might also be hope that the wealthy American Zionists would have less funds to send to the Jewish settlers on the West Bank to steal more of our land. Just perhaps.

Certainly we will merge into a changed world.  How different, we’ll have to wait and see. I might well regret my words of limited hope. Meanwhile after the 5 o’clock curfew begins I go up to the roof (a practice that was not possible during the earlier lockdown) for what Penny has dubbed our sky walk. I pace around and around for half an hour of exercise, breath the air that has become cleaner now with less pollution from cars on the roads,  listen to the birds that have become more plentiful during this otherwise silent spring, and watch the lovely clouds moving slowly across the spring sky and continue, as always to hope for better days.

Raja Shehadeh’s latest book is Going Home A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation

Tags: Letters