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Words At Night With Bassam Aramin

  "You caught me!" Bassam Aramin says.   He is not pleased to be caught. I am not pleased to have caught him.   I called him for an interview. He told me to meet him at the Hebron Gate, … Read More

By / September 16, 2008

 

"You caught me!" Bassam Aramin says.

 

He is not pleased to be caught. I am not pleased to have caught him.

 

I called him for an interview. He told me to meet him at the Hebron Gate, where he knew he would not be. I have been waiting for him at the New Gate, by Notre Dame, where there is an anti-occupation rally going on. "Give me a half hour," he says, "and I will talk to you."

 

Time was once taken away from Aramin, in big chunks. For raising a Palestinian flag in the eighties. For throwing a hand grenade at Israeli soldiers. Seven years of jail time, uninterrupted political time, tactical refinement time.Time these days is still not separated from the Israelis. After we talk, he will travel to Tel Aviv to speak at a memorial meeting for Rabin.

 

I am struck, as I was when we first met, how his eyes seem to occupy another time zone deep inside his head.

 

Aramin disappears into the rally hall with its ship-in-the-night brightness.  His story in The New York Times flew at me like shrapnel. Actually, it was his daughter’s story. Abir Aramin, age ten, had been killed in Anata by an Israeli rubber bullet aimed at rioters whose path she’d crossed. Her father, a member of Combatants For Peace, a pro-peace dialogue group consisting of Israeli and Palestinian combat vets, was quoted as saying, "I want my daughter to be  the last victim. There are partners on the other side who believe what I believe."

 

That was January 2006. I felt, beneath a tired rawness, something that  mysteriously resembled joy. The conflict lacked its Holy Fool for peace.  Here was the perfect candidate. A man able to defy the Palestinian’s historic motif of suffering and resistance while fully embodying it. Defying it with his notion of Israeli inclusion. A man in peril. Mainly, I realized, of being put on a pedestal. By people like myself. A writer on Palestinian nonviolent activists, I had to refrain from drowning Aramin in a syrupy vat of awe.

 

I had written about the bearlike Mubarak Awad, the Palestinian Gandhi of the first Intifada. His heroic stature was easily navigated, as he enjoyed laughing at his sprint through Palestinian-Israeli history in the late-eighties, when he turned his expulsion trial into a theatre of the absurd by threatening, if expelled, to convert to Judaism and return to Israel under the Law of Return.

 

I imagined Aramin with a highly sophisticated allergy to journalists. He was, after all, a living martyr with a living wound. A man in obvious dread of dead questions.

 

I emailed him before leaving for Jerusalem. He responded immediately: contact me when you arrive.

 

Our first encounter was at the Ambassador Hotel. The Ambassador stands in dignified solitude on a hill off Nablus Road in East Jerusalem. He was sitting with Osama Abu Karsh, like himself, a former Fatah fighter and prisoner, and now also a member of Combatants For Peace.

 

"He was my boss in jail," Abu Karsh laughed. Aramin, a Fatah leader in jail, did not laugh. He refuses to be absorbed into any idealistic notion people may have of him.

My first impression, a contradiction: quiet as a monk, but cradling his cell phone, the way a Tibetan Buddhist lama cradles his mala. Not speaking, but waiting to be spoken to.When he did finally talk to me, his voice barely reached me across the table. It is a voice meant to be heard in small rooms, not in a hotel lobby conference space.

 

For Aramin, jail was a place of transition, not role-perpetuation. It was in jail that he first began to question the wisdom of armed struggle.

 

"I heard people on both sides saying the conflict can’t be solved by military means. But still we saw the conflict going on, with the same bloodshed, the same  killings. Everyone knows what the final solution will be: the ’67 borders. Why does anyone have to die?"

 

His simplicity surprised me. Or the nature of it. Washed of cynicism. Sharp edges broken off. Grief, the midwife of benign clarity.

 

He kept coming back, with weary tenacity, to the conflict’s absurdity. "Israel has hundreds of checkpoints on the West Bank. Their purpose is to create more security, but all they do is create more enemies. The soldiers look at us as suspects. We look at them as victims."

 

I look at Aramin as he steps back out into the night. He is slender, his white shirt, caught in the moonlight, is very white. He walks with a polio limp that makes me feel guilty for pressuring him to do a second interview  I could tell he was not in the mood for.  Aramin continues where he left off, as if the spot is bookmarked in his mind.

 

"The Israelis too are being occupied. By the darkness of the occupation, by its immorality. We need their help. We need them to take action against the checkpoints, against the occupation. I believe in nonviolent change. But we Palestinians can’t do it alone."

 

We sit together on a cold bench in the parking lot. A question keeps wanting to be asked. My question of questions. Stalled by a twinge of reticence.

 

"After what happened to Abir, did you re-think, even for a moment, your decision to dialogue with Israelis?"

 

Aramin leans towards me. His eyes demand that I listen. He looks the way I imagine a Palestinian militant looking when he is about to drum into a stranger’s head the blunt logic of armed struggle.

 

"My determination to make peace with Israel became stronger after Abir was killed. I know that goes against human nature, but that’s what happened."

 

He challenges me with his eyes to challenge him.

 

"It would be easy for me to go out and take revenge. Not hard at all. But I would be losing my humanity. I would be part of the same circle of violence I am against."

 

He says he has something to show me.

 

"Look," he says.

 

He takes out a Raggedy Ann carrying bag. He removes a couple of biscuits in cellophane, two and a half shekels in plastic, and a stick of Cadbury chocolate. I have to force myself to look. Tiny artifacts of the conflict that engorge its meaning. He shows them wherever he is invited to speak.

 

Aramin’s ghostly minimalism. Abir’s absent presence. Minimalists are my weakness. Even those wanting to fib themselves free of me and the questions I ask.

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