In the face of life and what it holds, writing can appear as a lost cause. Or this is how it seemed at least at 8.29am, mid-July, 2014.
Ramallah, downtown, fifth floor. The phone rings and the caller’s number appears on the screen. It’s an unknown number. And yet a call that comes at this hour must be answered.
In fact, I don’t like mobile phones at all. A friend gave it to me when my family and I arrived from Berlin, so that there would be some means of communication between us and the rest of the world in case of emergencies. But I have stayed true to my aversion, shunning all responsibility towards the phone. So even when it rings at 8.29 am, I let it ring until my partner picks it up. Instead of launching into a conversation, however, he goes quiet. Then he turns and holds the phone out to me, pressing it to my left ear.
It’s a recorded message, delivered in a deep, booming voice speaking in formal Arabic. I catch only a few words: « You have been duly warned. The Israeli Defence Forces. » Then the message ends, the line goes dead, and I freeze.
This is the kind of call made by the Israeli army when it is about to bomb a residential building. The purpose of the call is to warn the building’s tenants and others living nearby, in order for the army to protect itself against possible future legal action. The moment someone answers the call, they relinquish their ability to accuse the Israeli government of war crimes or crimes against humanity, as they have been « duly warned ». The strike can take place in half an hour. A day before, I had heard about a young man from Gaza receiving a warning call like this, informing him that the building where he lived with his family in the north of Gaza would be bombed. The young man was at work in the south of Gaza at the time. He tried to call his family to warn them, but to no avail. As it was Ramadan, people would stay up till the early hours and sleep in late. So he left work and rushed home, but when he got there, he found it destroyed in an air strike. Some of his family members were wounded, and others had been killed.
I don’t know whether this incident really took place. In such days you would hear a lot of stories, so awful you tended not to believe them. But there it was, at 8.29am, mid-July, 2014, pouncing on me like my destiny.
I’m not sure who this phone used to belong to exactly, or who the Israeli army thinks it belongs to. I think of the friend who gave it to me and wonder whether she might belong to some political group. I doubt it. Then I begin to make a quick mental check of the neighbours, trying to guess which of them might be « wanted ». The only ones I’ve encountered since my family arrived here a few weeks earlier were some annoying children ranging in age from four to eleven; two middle-aged women and an elderly one; and a man in his late fifties. None of this puts my fears to rest. Their descriptions are not very different from those of the victims we’ve been hearing about every once in a while on the news, killed in the repeated assaults on Gaza. Then suddenly I catch myself. In a flash, fear for my family and for myself has turned me into a replica of an Israeli army officer, pondering which of these Palestinians might represent a « threat to our security ».
My partner was still standing in front of me, and behind him our eight-year-old daughter had also appeared. Our son, three months old, was sleeping in the next room. My partner, whose Arabic is limited, asks me what the call was about. I look at him, then at our curious daughter. I try to find something to say, but words have deserted me.
I leave them and head in to see our three-month-old, after telling our daughter to get ready. We have to leave the house in half an hour; she to her summer camp, I to university. I simply can’t be late for my students. It was for their sake that we left Berlin and came to Ramallah.
In Berlin, I could no longer bear the harsh isolation that surrounds the act of writing: to sit alone and write, while the world continues to fall apart. True, sometimes my writing is shaped by what I witness of this destruction, but most of the time it does little to change things, even in my own life. And the more suffering the world sees, the more I feel that the most one can master through writing is solitude, while mastering words themselves becomes more difficult. So I decide to abandon writing, at least from time to time, and head to Palestine to join the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University as a visiting professor.
My students are usually in their twenties, and most of them have made an enormous effort in order to be able to attend university. They come from different parts of Palestine, parts which have themselves become very difficult to move between. With all the roadblocks, and the Separation Wall, and Palestinian vehicles banned from certain roads, the distances between places have grown longer. Jerusalem, which used to be half an hour’s distance from Birzeit, is now two hours away, and Hebron, once a one-hour drive, is now three hours away. The university has thus become the only place where these young people can gather, and even shelter, at least for a few years, from the desperation of a life that depletes their minds, their aspirations, their passion.
But even if we wanted, even if we decided, to ignore it, life outside the university violently invades the classroom. It’s impossible to talk about anything in front of these students, to bring up any topic for discussion, without their life experiences intervening. When we discuss the concept of freedom typical of Modernity, from John Locke’s Treatises to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we are beset by the unfreedom they exist under today, as some of them will be missing classes because they have been detained by the army, and another will be lying in the hospital for many weeks after being shot during a demonstration against the Israeli occupation.
I look at that unknown number again. I could press one button and call the « Israeli Defence Forces » back. Or I could send a text message. I could at least voice my objection to this planned attack. But when I try to think of what I could say or write, I’m suddenly paralyzed, knowing that the words that will pour out of me will be futile. This realization, that words cannot hold and that they are wholly feeble when I need them the most, is defeating. While the Israeli army can call you personally, on your mobile phone, to inform you that it may bomb your house or houses nearby, you will not be able to utter a word. Yet another moment in which one faces the destruction of the world with numbness. The eyes are held hostage by what they see, the body becomes borders uncrossable, and the tongue is struck dumb.
In the face of the banality of this wretchedness, the vocation of writing seems, once again, to be like that of a streetlamp lighter, a vocation that has no place in our world of today.
I look at my partner and our three-month-old child. Then I leave the house with my daughter. Will this be the last time I see them?
Walter Benjamin’s streetlamps
Berlin, around 1pm, December 2014. The cold collects inside a train carriage dotted with black winter coats. The eyes are careful to avoid each other’s gaze, fearing an intimacy that may betray the general feeling of solitude. A woman is standing in front of me, staring out of the window into the darkness of the tunnel. To her right is a pram holding a child, probably around two years old, who is gazing at the passengers all around him. Every now and then the woman pushes bits of white bread into the child’s mouth. And suddenly the same feeling of helplessness that I encountered in Ramallah assails me. Here, in Berlin, poverty and wretchedness encircle the scraps of white bread in the hands of that woman staring out into the tunnel’s darkness. In this place of seeming stability, in which thousands of disaster-stricken people try to seek refuge, a lot is not right, in the most ordinary way possible.
That night, at 1.25 am, I wake suddenly into the darkness of my room. I stare at the wall for a while, before I notice, after some time, a strange, intensely black cube-shape high up on it. I don’t understand what that cube shape is doing there, and I am gripped by terror. I am sure that the wall is white; it’s not possible that a certain part of it has suddenly turned black. Frightened and confused, I roam the room searching for other dark cubes that might have crept into it while I was asleep.
Finally my eyes fall on a pile of books placed on the window pane. The faint light emanating from the streetlamps outside, has cast the shadow of the books on the opposite wall, creating that massive black cube shape.
Perhaps words are like this. They can, for all their smallness, leave a certain trace in the world, as did this faint light emanating from the streetlamps. This faint light, which has left its trace stealthily and quietly in the room, seems at that hour of the night, like a lesson in learning to write again.
Manchmal nahm mich an Winterabenden meine Mutter zum Kaufmann mit. Es war ein dunkles, unbekanntes Berlin, das sich im Gaslicht vor mir ausbreitete. Wir blieben im alten Westen, dessen Straßenzüge einträchtiger und anspruchsloser warn als die später bevorzugten. Die Erker und Säulen gewahrte man nicht mehr deutlich, und in die Fassaden war Licht getreten. Lag es an den Mullgardinen, den Stores oder dem Gasstrumpf unter der Hängelampe dies Licht verriet von den erleuchteten Zimmern wenig. Es hatte es nur mit sich selbst zu tun. Es zog mich an und machte mich nachdenklich. Das tut es in der Erinnerung heute noch. Dabei geleitet es mich am liebsten zu einer von meinen Ansichtskarten. Sie stellte einen berliner Platz dar. Die Häuser, die ihn umgaben, waren von zartem Blau, der nächtliche Himmel, an dem der Mond stand, von dunklerem. Der Mond und die sämtlichen Fenster warn in der blauen Kartonschicht ausgespart. Sie wollten gegen die Lampe gehalten werden, dann brach in gelber Schein aus den Wolken und Fensterreihen. Ich kannte die abgebildete Gegend nicht. »Hallesches Tor« stand darunter. Tor und Halle traten in ihr zusammen und bildeten die erhellte Grotte, in welcher ich die Erinnerung an das winterliche Berlin vorfinde.
Walter Benjamin, Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Suhrkamp, 1987)
Sometimes, on winter evenings, my mother would take me shopping with her. It was a dark, unknown Berlin that spread out before me in the gaslight. We would remain within the Old West district, whose streets were more harmonious and unassuming than those favored later. The alcoves and pillars could no longer be clearly discerned, and the faces of the houses shone with light. Whether because of the muslin curtains, the blinds, or the gas mantle under the hanging lamp-this light be-trayed little of the rooms it lit. It had to do only with itself. It attracted me and made me pensive. It still does so today, in memory. Thus it leads me back to one of my picture postcards. This card displayed a square in Berlin. The surrounding houses were of pale blue; the night sky, dominated by the moon, was of darker blue. The spaces for the moon and all the windows had been left blank in the blue cardboard. You had to hold it up to a lamp, and then a yellow radiance broke from the clouds and the rows of windows. I was not familiar with the neighborhood pictured. «Halle Gate» was inscribed at the bottom Gate and hall converged in this image, and formed that illuminated grotto where I meet with the memory of a wintry Berlin.
Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, translated by Howard Eiland (Harvard University Press, 2006)