Friday, May 15, 2015

The Israeli Sniper

On every Nakba commemoration day, May 15th, regardless of my weak faith in God I repeat the same prayer over and over again, and it says,

“Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today,Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today, Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today ”

Most of the times he fails me, and someone gets killed by Israeli soldiers and we have another Palestinian martyr on our hands. I do realize that when such events take place it’s not restricted to only Palestinians, so many people die and rise as martyrs in every neglected corner of the world, and sometimes that makes things a little better .. that we’re not alone, but that doesn’t mean that the “event” itself will not leave you in a state of feeling abandoned and getting stuck in this endless  period of  time just waiting to see when the next murder is going to happen.

This day in particular, May 15th, resembles a series of lifetimes spent in endless waiting .. Waiting for justice to prevail, for the trip back to a home that was stolen 67 years ago to actually happen, and for the next death to happen. Usually when it comes to Nakba, I can’t feel sorry for ourselves as Palestinians, I keep thinking we could’ve done more back then just as we could’ve done more right now, but I retreat afterwards when I realize that I myself am not willing to do more, and I don’t have the enough courage to do more, so how could I ask of others to offer more? And as much as it is important to look for a better future, every time May 15th approaches I tend to look back, like millions of Palestinians .. but the thing is, I’m not a refugee. My family wasn’t kicked out back in 1948 when the Israeli state was established, I never lived in a refugee camp, and I don’t have my grandmother’s key of the house they used to live in Yafa or Akka or Haifa … but my family has suffered from another type of loss, the one of a soul, a precious one.

“Symbolism” is a huge part of our lives as Palestinians, for instance the keys of old Palestinian houses taken over by Israeli jews, and the fact that our elders have kept them is a symbol of the undying Right of Return. The stolen houses of Palestinians back in 1948 and prior to that, resembles the theft of our country and home. The refugee camps that unfortunately are still standing are symbols of refusing alternative solutions and only focusing on the one apparent solution; going back home. Martyrs are symbols of heroism, honor, and purity.

When you look at it that way, when you look at the Palestinian cause that way, it’s almost beautiful. All the selfless sacrifice, the patience, the heroism, the will of iron to never back down .. such beautiful symbolism, but not for real life. In real life you have Palestinian refugees dying and starving on daily basis in Syria, Gaza, and Lebanon whenever another war erupts. You have young Palestinians losing their sight, getting paralyzed, getting their houses demolished .. also on daily and weekly basis. Here, I’m not speaking about external factors that forced us to be this way, but about the internal ones we chose to go by. But today, we’re going to throw all of that away. No more symbolism, or heroism, or resistance … it’s about facts. So here comes the story of another indistinctive gruesome death that I did not choose to not forget but is reminded of on regular basis. It is simply about a future that could’ve happened but it never did and never will.

I miss him and think of him, I don’t think of him too often .. not as often as I should, but mostly when the anniversary of his death approaches. Yet I’ve never met him. 

One bullet, that’s all it took.

Every Palestinian family has at least one martyr or one prisoner or both, and my mother’s family wasn’t an exception. In my last piece I introduced to you my grandmother Um Ghassan, one of the strongest women I know, and today I’m introducing you to her equals: my grandmother Um Mahmoud and my mother Abeer. 

“Mahmoud”, that name is a huge part of my grandmother’s identity. He used to be her oldest son, her outright favorite, her everything, and her future. And this future never came to life because of one bullet by an Israeli sniper 39 years ago on the 18th of May; two days after the commemoration of Nakba.

I wasn’t born of course when this has happened, but his murder has been, and still is, a huge part of our lives. My grandmother was in her late thirties when he was killed, my grandfather in his forties, and my mother was only 9 years old .. but if you ask any of them about that day, they remember it as if it has happened today. Not only them, but a lot of their neighbors and friends and old-city residents shared this day with them (My grandparents from my mother’s side also lived in the Old City of Jerusalem). When I was younger, way younger, like 8 or 9 years old, my aunt Khawlah (my father’s sister) used to take me sometimes with her to the Souk (market) in the morning when it was summer break.

As a kid I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a martyr, but after several walks in the Souk with my aunt I assumed it was one of the best things to ever happen to a human being. Every time someone asked my aunt who’s this little kid with you, she’d say, “This is my nephew Wa’d, Manaf and Abeer’s daughter, and guess who her uncle was? Mahmoud Al Kurd!” And every single time merchants and people’s responses would be the same, a look of a familiar sadness with pride in their eyes.

“He was like my own son, little one. He was very polite and helpful, and he was a hero!” one would say. Another old man would add, “Here try this fresh carrot juice, your uncle used to love this juice and he was a regular here,” up untill then I couldn’t stand carrot juice, after that new piece of information it became one of my favorites for the longest time. “Did you know that the Israeli soldiers themselves were afraid of him? I lie to you not, I used to see it with my own eyes! The Israeli jeep filled with soldiers would back off and turn around to leave when he came! He was that strong, he wasn’t a heavy weight champion for nothing!” My uncle used to lift weights and won several local championships, and after his death several local tournaments were named after him and in his honor.

As a little eight-year old I loved this! One of my goals to achieve in the future was to become a martyr just like my uncle, I mean what kind of power did he possess to make an Israeli jeep filled with soldiers run away! I imagined him to be some kind of superhero, and his magic drink was carrot juice.

My mother never spoke of him to us as kids, regardless of the fact that we saw his pictures everywhere around our house, my grandmother’s house, and my aunts’ houses, but to us he was our champion of an uncle who we could never meet. He was just an imaginary figure, but this has changed after a few visits to the souk with aunt Khawlah, ever since then I was dying to know more about this heroic martyr who scared off soldiers. 

So I asked my mother about him, straight ahead, how did Khalo Mahmoud become a Shahid (martyr), because I wanted to become one. She didn’t respond. I tried to get responses from other family members like my father and aunts, but still I wouldn’t get my answer. I got my answer to that question after almost 6 or 7 years and it wasn’t as glorious as I’ve expected; which of course I got a little hint of after becoming more and more familiar with the reality of the Israeli Occupation we’re living under. 

“It was a sniper’s bullet to the back of his head ya Mama,” my mother finally answered me. “The soldier who killed him was such a coward that he didn’t even look him in his eyes before shooting him dead, he killed him from the back. See ya Mama, in lesser than a second, one bullet destroyed everything.” It was the first time I heard someone speak of him in this manner, as a kid it was glorious that my uncle was a martyr, but when my mother described what happened she was in pure and utter pain. He’s been dead for over 25 years when I asked, and from her choked voice and teary eyes I could still feel her pain, she wasn’t - and still isn’t - over it. And that’s his sister, I could not even begin to imagine what my grandfather and grandmother must’ve felt.

It took her a lot of time to tell me details of the incident, to be precise, it took her 39 years to do so. On May 3rd of this year I asked her what it was like, if she remembers anything, and for the first time she gave me details that she never spoke of before. She even said that some of the details she’s just learnt recently after my grandmother told her some new details she never heard before, but it went like this .. My uncle was to some-extent a typical Palestinian youth, he threw rocks regularly, participated and even organised weekly demonstrations .. he did other “normal” activities as well of course, but here I’m only speaking in terms of the Israeli Military Occupation context; hence he was a typical Palestinian youth in terms of fighting back the Israeli Military Occupation.

As stories told by his close friends, he acted like a true hero on several occasions as when once there was a demonstration on the commemoration of Nakba Day where they were closing schools to crowd more people for the demonstration and one of these schools was a school for girls only and the Israeli soldiers beat them there. As often happens clashes erupted, and some soldiers were trying to arrest some of the protesters and at one of these times my uncle was there and, as reported, he hit a soldier and was able to escape alongside one of the girls that the soldiers were trying to arrest. When I first heard this, I wandered off in my mind to think that would’ve been an amazing typical love story, a handsome guy saves her life, they fall in love, and live happily ever after …

On a different occasion and during another protest my uncle got into another confrontation with a soldier - as stories told by his friends - and this soldier was telling him and the others, “What are you doing here, “Lekh le baytah” go home” to which my uncle responded, “I am home! Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to go home!” and usually provoking soldiers never ends well. It’s either prison or death. He walked away in one piece when this has happened, but the incident never went unnoticed by the soldiers; as my uncle’s friends say. Active youth, in any form, become targets for Israeli soldiers looking for personal vendettas rather than anything else, and my uncle once again was no exception.

My mother told me that on the day of his death my grandmother practically begged him not to go, she had a bad dream about him the night before and felt that something bad was about to happen. She remembers this specifically because her mother - my grandmother - never asked him not to go before,  but he went anyway and told her not to worry. On that particular day, May 18th 1976, there was a demonstration against the Israeli Occupation crimes and it happened that all of my uncles and aunts participated in it too, except for my mother and her youngest sister because they were too young.

And as happens with every Palestinian demonstration, there were clashes with the soldiers, and as always too (till this very day) there were snipers almost on every  roof in the Old City. One of my aunts who was participating in the demonstration was injured, and when my uncle Mahmoud learnt about this it pissed him off and made him want to do anything to get back at the Israeli soldiers and that was when it’s happened. He was shot in the head from the back, and even though one bullet to the head is deemed to leave one dead, the sniper shot some more bullets to make sure he was dead.

It was risky to take the dead bodies of Palestinians killed by Israelis to the hospital because the government would take over the body and won’t give it back to the family for burial, as a form of punishment. So his friends carried him to the closest house and tried to stop the bleeding and figure out if there’s anything left to do, but it was too late.

My mother said that there was a pool of his blood on the floor, on the exact spot of where he dropped dead after he was shot, and his friends surrounded this pool of blood with rocks to kind of reserve it for a while. So for several weeks following his death and burial my mother, the little 9 year-old girl, visited that spot on daily basis. She said she could still smell him and feel him when she went there and it was comforting for her. That’s all she had left of him, a pool of his blood, and soon after it was taken away as well of course.

On April 25th, the day I started writing this, two young Palestinian youth were killed. One was hit with 10 bullets, he was 16 years old and was accused of trying to “stab” a group of Israeli soldiers at one of their checkpoints but this allegation hasn’t been proven till this moment. The other did actually try to kill an Israeli soldier and was killed instantly. The first young Palestinian was called Ali Abu Ghannam, and the second was called As’ad Salaymeh.

To be completely honest, I reached a point where I could accept or understand murders when they happen as As’ad’s case. A young Palestinian tries to kill an Israeli soldier and ends up being dead, I mean there’s no other way for this to end. There’s no way in hell this Palestinian is going to succeed in doing so, and consequently he’s going to get killed for trying. I know it’s quite disgusting of me to say so, but what else can I do really. Nonetheless I can understand the outcome, but with cases like Ali, I honestly couldn’t.

Let’s believe the Israeli scenario of such cases for a second, that he was merely a suspect of trying to stab a soldier. These soldiers were at a checkpoint, so there were at least 2 or 3 of them, and in most cases it’s even more, at least 12 or 13 soldiers. They’re all over 18, and he’s 16. He’s not trained in the military and doesn’t have heavy weapons or tools, and he definitely isn’t wearing any protective gear or suits, so the appropriate question to ask now is this: Was it really necessary? Ten bullets! Did these heavily-equipped-military-trained-Israeli soldiers really need to fill his body with 10 bullets to stop him from hurting any of them ? Wasn’t one bullet in the leg or arm enough? Was he this scary to them? This little savage!

Was my uncle this scary when he was younger? A bullet in the head. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t by chance, the Israeli sniper wanted him dead and he made sure he was dead by planting that bullet in the back of his head. He wanted to turn my uncle from a living creature to a soulless body, and he succeeded.

That’s the question that is stopping my mother from moving on, the thought that he might’ve stayed alive today if that Israeli monster thought for a second of what were the consequences of his actions, but now I’m positive he was pretty aware of the consequences, and most probably he desired such consequences to happen.

“Was it really necessary?”

I no longer wished to be a martyr, not after witnessing what my uncle’s murder did, and still does, to my mother.

Agony, it brought her agony.

Growing up I never understood why my mother was never as happy as everyone else seemed to be. It always seemed to be that she refused happiness and shut it out completely, and I always struggled with that. I couldn’t accept it, I couldn’t accept my mother being this gloomy all the time. It never made sense when we had joyful occasions to celebrate that she was upset. Whether it was a wedding, or birthday party, or graduation party, even Eid … she was never truly happy. It took me a while to catch up and understand what was going on with her, to her .. every single one of these occasions wasn’t -and never will be - complete. The truth was that she had a hole in her heart where happiness used to exist and to refill it again is going to take a-whole lot.

But nobody understood this, they still call him a hero and glorify him, same as they refer to the sixteen-year-old Ali, only those who truly loved him knew that death is never this glorious.

Of course these strangers wouldn’t understand,  none of these people telling me about him when I was a kid were his mother, father, brother, or sister. They were strangers, he was their “regular” client, their neighbor, the friend of their son, the boyfriend of their daughter, but not their own. That’s why they glorified him, it was easier that way, people just love the hero figure. It’s more attractive, isn’t it? Or else he’ll end up only being a dead soulless body. But the truth is, he did end up being only a dead body. It was his family who had to deal with this ugly, deadly, and excruciating image he left behind.

He was 22 years old at the time, exactly my age today, and Ali was 17 years old, exactly as old as my youngest brother today; both of them were killed in cold blood. And you know what the scary part is, the Israeli soldiers who killed them, were as old as they were too. The only difference between them was that two of these youth - the Israelis - had a license to kill and they used it.

Sometimes I wander off in my mind and think of what it would be like to actually meet the Israeli sniper that killed him. I don’t have much to say to him really, I just have one question to ask: “How .. ?”

“How could he? 

How could he live with himself? How does he look himself in the mirror? How does he look his kids in the eyes while knowing that he had deprived someone with one bullet of the same present he is living right now? Was it worth it? Did he protect Israel’s security when he killed him? Was it freaking necessary? Is this what protecting “the promised land” requires?”

So I recently watched the hollywood film “American Sniper”, and there’s a lot of criticism about it and you can find tons of articles about it online, so I’m not going to criticize it here in terms of it objectifying Iraqis or Arabs or Muslims or how it empowers Islamophobia .. and so on. I mean these matters did piss me off of course, but what really triggered something in me was how easy it was for him (the sniper) to shoot people dead. How he killed one person after the other, and he went back home safe and sound to his wife and kids while knowing that he deprived several people of their families. I mean some people mind find it hard to relate since to them he only killed “terrorists”, but those of us from areas of conflict know that not just because one woman held a grenade to throw it at soldiers (who were actually occupying her country) it means that it’s okay to terminate any other woman  just to be on the safe side.

The film also portrays the hardships that the American sniper had to go through, how he lost his humanity, how he faced some psychological issues when he went back home … and I honestly couldn’t give a shit about his suffering, I couldn’t relate and to be honest I didn’t want to.

You want to know what hardship and pain are? Simple; go speak to the families of the victims you’ve murdered. Go explain to their parents why they were “security threats” and had to be terminated. Why it was absolutely necessary to kill them? Go explain to my grandmother why Mahmoud had to lose his life this early.  

I’ve heard firsthand from Israelis - who served in the army and had Palestinian blood on their hands-  say that in order to make peace and move on; one must forget and forgive and think of ways to establish a better future. But it’s not that simple, it’s been 39 years and my mother is reminded of the day she lost her brother on daily basis. Every time another young Palestinian is killed she lives that horrible day all over again. How can we work on building a better future when we’re constantly being robbed of the present?

So we sit here and wait, endlessly … My grandmother’s name is “Intizar” which literally translates into “Waiting” and that’s what she’s been doing since forever, waiting to see her child once again, waiting for some kind of justice to prevail, waiting for a miracle to come and bring him back .. That’s why on days like this, I sincerely hope there’s going to be heaven in the end, so those who lost loved ones can reunite with them once again. For my grandmother to reunite with her sons (she lost two more sons to cancer), alongside my mother and the rest of her family. So they can have a chance in ever being sincerely and truly happy again.

On the 67th anniversary of the Nakba, we promise not to forget and not to forgive until justice prevails where these heartless murderers are punished for their crimes of destroying thousands and thousands of “futures”. And most importantly, not until my mother is able to smile again from the heart. We shall return, and we shall bring back “our future”, it’s only a matter of time. But until then I’ll keep praying over and over again, “Please don’t let anyone become a martyr today”.

Rest in peace khalo Mahmoud and all the martyrs that lost their future.

                                                            Mahmoud Al Kurd