Wednesday, January 11, 2012

There is a clumsy grace in naiveté. I booked an itinerary that would land me in Israel off the back of having just spent 3 months in Beirut, before I had any real idea of what that would stir up for me—socially, emotionally, and even just logistically. I am grateful for my own lack of foresight and the juxtapositions it has left me to grapple with; I have unwittingly stumbled my way into the very heart of this project.

There was a tentative stiffness to my arrival, which inevitably bled into my first conversations. I was, in some sense, bracing myself for Israel. Israel, very understandably, seemed to be bracing itself for me. Orna and I sent out a batch of e-mails a while ago outlining the project and calling for soldiers and ex-soldiers interested in sharing interviews for a theatre piece about their experiences. There was very little response. Once here, she informed me that the reason one of her friends didn’t reply was that he saw “London-based” and “Soldier” in the same sentence and expected me to be doing a BBC 4 exposé on the mistreatment of Palestinians. The true insidiousness of the word “agenda” is beginning to become apparent to me—I can imagine nothing worse than openly sharing my own experiences, hopes, struggles, and pain with someone in a spirit of trust, and then having those words be twisted and used as evidence against me. There’s an elephant in the room; in order to break the ice, there needs to be some kind of dance so that we all know roughly where it’s standing.

Sabine—true to form—has been accelerating this process with her trademark affectionate ribbing, posting things like “How are things in the Occupied Land?” on my facebook wall, leaving me feeling like a gangly adolescent being kissed goodbye by mum on the first day of school (“Mommm! Not in front of my new friends!”). This of course forces the ice-breaking conversations that I need to be having anyways. Just like in Beirut, these conversations, I realize, are mostly for my benefit: I am grappling with new questions, new ideas, a new elephant in a new room. Imagine that elephant living in your home—every new visitor will vigorously bombard you with questions about its diet, its habits, its care…or (even worse) want to share with you everything they ever learned about elephants on the internet. I am reminded of a Salvadorian-American friend who once told me, “I know it’s coming from a good place, but I hate it when my white friends come to me to process their ‘white privilege’ or ‘racism in America.’ It might be the first time you’ve had this conversation, but I’m forced to have it with my lefty white friends all the time. It’s exhausting.” I can imagine just how exhausting, and I’m impressed by Orna’s patience as she narrates her own experiences and perceptions of the “situation” for what I imagine is the umpteen billionth time.

On Monday Orna and I approach the gates of Beit Halochem (House of the Warrior), an activities center for disabled veterans and their families. We explain our project to a lean security guard, who tells us we can’t go past the gates, but are welcome to talk to soldiers going in and out of the center. His aged, grizzled face carried the scars of a ferocious life, and I’m slightly terrified of him. Orna and I chat for a while with a younger veteran on his way to a chess class, and after only a few minutes of this the subject of PTSD comes up, and the once-stern security guard, “Roni” lights up like a disco ball. He launches into a series of stories about war buddies, veterans from the center, huge men, strong men, “gorillas,” childhood best friends reduced to incapable inverts, their lives destroyed by trauma. He is so happy we have come, he says, because these stories need to be told. The anecdotes and descriptions spill from him in a vigorous stream, as unending and vivid as the love that he clearly carries for the men they refer to. Roni, to steal a phrase he used to describe a buddy, “has a heart 80 times too big for his body.” When he speaks, his eyes fill with a youthful light and the skin around them is flushed pink with excitement. Every time a club member passes the guard kiosk, he pauses to introduce us (“This is Daniel. He’s a king, a king!”), excuses himself to exchange a few words, and then is right back into his narration. We stay this way with Roni—nodding, laughing, listening—for a full two hours. He will meet with us during the week, he says, to record the text officially. In the meantime, he escorts us into the center (the rules, apparently, have changed), to chat with one of the blind vets who talked with us on the way in, and set up a time to meet.

What is amazing about this exchange is that it’s the first conversation here that I’ve had about war where politics haven’t come up at all. The most fundamental question between us is not, “where do you stand on the situation.” In fact, even attempting to examine that question could launch us into a minefield of hot topics and sore spots, an obstacle course blocking the way to shared understanding. The fundamental question here is: “do you value my experiences, and respect me as a human being.” Roni, with his gleeful appreciation of serendipity and his passionate concern for his friends, makes it very easy for me to answer that question with: “Definitely, yes.”