Travel Like a Palestinian

On a train ride in Europe, boisterous seatmates provoke this introspective reflection on travel by a Palestinian writer.

Crunch…crunch…crunch… The sound of potato chips as the guy in the neighboring seat chomps them with his new acquaintance, sitting on the other side. He has picked her to pass the long journey with, striking up a conversation right away.

That suits me; I have things to read with me in any case, but it is not easy to concentrate as they crunch…crunch…crunch. So I listen in, uninvited, to their conversation. My neighbor turns out to be a poet, a Pringles poet. The first word out of his mouth is “I”: “I do not change in time or space” he says; he follows this up with: “My spirit and I are twins.”

Wow! I almost envy his fixed position in time and space; I wish I were like him.

I, on the other hand must change with every place and circumstance. When I am in Iraq, I keep quiet for fear of meeting a Shia, a Sunni or a Christian who might attack me. When I am in Lebanon, I speak with a French accent, so that they will not realize that I am Palestinian. When I am in Amman, I keep my voice down, so that no one asks about me, the humiliation of the [nonexistent]passport. In Algeria, I speak loud and rough like the locals; else my own accent betray me, and the resulting overabundance of pity result in someone ordering me a sandwich. In Paris, I hide my Arabic newspaper behind a copy of Le Monde.

Crunch…crunch…crunch. The poet goes on: “I am going to have a collection of poems published, entitledTraveling Spirits. Big newspapers in London, Beirut and Cairo are asking for me. I have an idea for a film about my life and my poetic journey.” I can’t see the expression on his face as he summarizes his “profile” for her.

I can’t make out everything she says either, through the interrupting crunch…crunch…crunching. She works for an NGO. They run a program for Syrian journalists, in Iraq. Until the situation in Syria calms down, until the regime changes there. NGOs are what set her location in space. Legions of NGOs are preparing for the new occupation. The woman explains to our poet “that they have performed their humanitarian obligation in Iraq and Palestine, and their departure remains a possibility.”

I remember that there were once zero NGOs in Iraq, and after just three years of the occupation that began in 2003, that number had risen to 15,000. The number of NGOs working voluntarily in Palestine before Oslo was 1,320; today, there are 3,400 NGOs. In both Palestine and Iraq, work at such organizations is limited to a handful of people who speak English, or people who have an insider connection in the NGO world.

No one else there can spend their days in “stylish” cafes and restaurants, hastily opened in charming old houses or modern buildings, decorated with mirrors and paintings to reflect the air of advancement and cultured progress of the owner, who has returned from exile abroad. Merely to enter into one of these cafes, a patron must pay for a slice of quiche, a fancy European pastry that costs the equivalent of half a day’s wages for a cafe worker.

They will be off soon enough to Syria, or to Libya, these good people who will reap huge salaries, occupy lavish hotels, and look out the windows onto the poor people in whose name they have come, to work for their development, so that their sisters and daughters will not be raped.

Crunch…crunch…crunch… our dear poet speaks critically of our backwardness and of the war he is engaged in against the forces of darkness in his country, from his exile here in the west. Where he has perhaps found himself a white wife, who believes the sun shines out of his skin. In turn he has found temporary respite with her; together they’ll buy a nice dog. They kiss each other goodbye. He then turns to me with a look of forgiveness that I too should occupy this place. I motion to him that there is still a fragment of potato chip stuck to the corner of his mouth.

Emtiaz Diab