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Nabi Saleh’s Tears

January 31, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Christine Baniewicz, Culture, Politics

Reflections on a (Literal) Toxic Mix…

by Christine Baniewicz

I lean against the walls of a small bathroom in Nabi Saleh.

Someone knocks on the door.

“Just a minute.” I sniff and spit into the toilet. Alright, enough. I emerge.

I arrived in Nabi Saleh an hour ago with my colleague, Sarah, and a few students from Jenin. The journey took two hours.

“I hope they don’t spray the water,” I said.

Talib turns to face me. Morning sun bounces off his aviators as behind him, steam rises from a paper cup of coffee.

“The shit water, khara.”

“Ah, yes,” says Talib. “The shit.”

Nabi Saleh is a small Palestinian village near Ramallah. Every Friday, local and international activists gather to peacefully demonstrate against Israel’s confiscation of the village’s land and resources. Every week they are met with a mess of soldiers, tear gas and the affably named “shit water.”

“It doesn’t come off of your clothes for three weeks,” says Sarah. “It’s chemical.”

“Yeah.” I think of the change of clothes I stashed for myself this morning. I hope so.

After endless olive trees and terraced, sand-colored mountains, we arrive in Nabi Saleh. The driver pulls onto the main road. The smell is immediate.

“Oh my God.” I pull my scarf up over my nose. It’s rancid — like skunk spray and rotting flesh. The land is saturated with it.

Everyone in the car follows suit, covering their noses until we pull onto the shoulder and disembark.

“There’s food, and a bathroom if you need it, in this house here.” Some folks in kuffias direct us to a stone house down the road. It is one of a dozen homes that line the street. “Beit Bilal,” Bilal’s house.

The front door’s open; we walk inside. A large table in the main room is covered with hummus and fried eggs. Tea is everywhere. Welcome, welcome!

I shake hands with Bilal. He looks tired behind thick glasses. His hands are work-worn.

“Please,” he gestures at the table. “Eat.”

I oblige him. Talib and Noor entertain his five-year-old niece.

“Come, come,” says Bilal. “I want to show you a film, to understand the situation here.” He leads us into the living room.

We sit facing a large television. Talib lights a cigarette. The film begins.

It’s a home video of sorts; a twenty-minute collage of footage shot over the years in Nabi Saleh.

“They have a machine that fires 60 tear gas canisters at once,” says Bilal, pausing the video in a still image of the weapon.

“Here’s the spring,” he says. The camera shakes, focused on a protected fresh water spring on a hill. Soldiers guard it. “No Palestinians allowed here.”

The film is a nightmare: children dragged into custody, separated from their mothers on suspicion of rock-throwing; streams of high-pressured chemical water sprayed directly on houses; a soldier swats an old woman to the ground with his arm; a tear-gas canister whizzes at fatal velocity past a young girl.

In one clip, soldiers break down Bilal’s door and set up camp on his roof. From this vantage point, they shoot tear gas through the windows of the neighboring house, shattering them and causing the families gathered inside to panic.

I watch as white smoke hisses into the room. Parents shepherd their children into a bedroom away from the fumes.

Inside the room, children sniffle. Gas creeps under the door, stinging their eyes. In desperation, parents toss their own children, as carefully as possible, out of the second-story window into the waiting arms of adults below.

“Fuck.” The children cry — because their eyes sting, because they’re scared to jump, because they’re confused.

The bedroom slowly fills with gas.

I paid for this. My face is hot. 20% of US federal tax dollars for defense. Every pay stub, every tax withdrawn from my measly waitressing salary courses through me. My students curse. Sarah’s head is in her hands.

The film ends and I excuse myself. I evacuate my grief in the bathroom, ribs flapping silently. I finish. I emerge.

Ben has arrived with Ghali from Ramallah, so we make our way to the main road and greet them. A pack of protestors joins us. We walk up the hill.

When we arrive at the top, progressive-looking westerners pour out of busses and our numbers swell — one hundred, maybe more.

“It’s important that you feel safe,” a bearded man says. He wears all black. “If you are arrested, don’t resist or struggle. Anything you do or say will be used against you.”

I’m standing in a ring of newcomers. We’re being debriefed. “If you breathe the gas, it will hurt. Try to cover your nose and mouth, but if you start to feel it sting, just relax. It’s temporary. Breathe slowly.” He gives us his telephone number, in case we are arrested. “I work with an organization that can represent you if something happens.” Everyone nods.

“We will try to walk down to the spring,” he says. “If you don’t want to get arrested, or are scared of the gas, then I suggest you stay back towards the road. Don’t do anything that makes you feel unsafe. Alright?”

Already chants are starting, funneled through megaphones in the center of the crowd. The debriefing ends, and the demonstration begins.

*           *           *

Harree-ay! Harree-ay!” A tiny girl, maybe four years old, toddles ahead of me in a red dress. In a cluster of flags towards the front, a woman leads Arabic chants. I repeat the words I recognize: Palestine, freedom, freedom.

We walk together down the hill, slowly: men, women, old and young, European and Middle Eastern and American. My eyes dart from student to student. Electric tethers issue from heart, tacked onto them and buzzing with signals. I won’t let them out of my sight.

We pass Bilal’s house, round a corner, and head out of the village. It’s open here. Loose stones flank the street in steep slopes on both sides. The Israeli settlement of Halamish is perched on a nearby hilltop. A high fence circles the white, freshly constructed homes.

We round a bend, and there they are: a large, olive-colored convoy of military vehicles blocks the way out of the village. Soldiers fill out the line, toting automatics. The precession shudders to a halt.

There’s a disturbance behind me. Some women from the village fall to their knees in the street, sobbing. I crane my neck, trying to discern the source of concern.

Ben puts a hand on my shoulder and guides me away. “That’s where Mustafa died, come on.”

“Oh.” I step away.

Last weekend a 28-year-old man from the village, Mustafa Tamimi, was murdered while peacefully protesting the Occupation here. An Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at him, from less than 10 meters away. The projectile smashed into his face, instantly blinding him. He bled from his eyes in the street, and in less than 24 hours, he died.

“You, killed, Mustafa!” blares from the megaphones. The crowd repeats.

And suddenly it begins. Without visible provocation, the army blasts a round of tear gas canisters into the sky. They sound like fireworks.

Don’t just turn and run. Ghali’s voice is in my mind, from our conversation yesterday. Follow the trail of smoke in the sky, to see where they will land, and get out of the way.

Like a pack of ponies, the demonstrators spook and disperse. I resist the urge to turn tail and run blindly back up the street. I look up.

About six canisters fly, trailing gas in a high arch towards the rocks on my left. I approximate their trajectory. I sprint away.

The students scramble along with me, down the street and then up the rocks of the embankment. My ankle almost turns on the stones.

Once we’ve reached a safe distance, I turn back towards the army. Some folks are still on the road — a brave five or six sit facing the soldiers. Gas — thick, white and toxic — issues from half a dozen points on the road and in the shoulder. I tie my grandmother’s scarf around my neck and pull it over my nose. I breathe slowly.

Sarah’s on my right. “Headcount?” she says.

I scan the rocks. “There’s Noor. There’s Bahir.” I look behind me. About ten meters away, Talib stands, hands on hips, a black bandana covering the bottom half of his face. “I think we’re okay.”

And before I can catch my breath, more rounds. It’s a dazzling display: twelve up, then another ten; six here, four there. They are fired in every direction.

“What the fuck.” I look at Sarah. She snaps photos. Our breath is heavy from running.

The barrage continues, mindlessly, unprovoked, leaving ribbons of gas in the sky and small clouds of it on the ground.

“I can use your camera?” Noor asks. I give it to him without a word and he begins to film.

As quickly as it started, the firing ends. I hazard moving a dozen meters forward, trying to get a better view of the soldiers. The crowd timidly picks its way back together towards the road.

“Free, free Palestine!” A chant rises in English.

I am barely back on the road before another barrage. More canisters fly.

And then, something else: for no discernable reason, everyone around me flies into a sprint. Shit. Panic grips me and I run. Talib’s just ahead of me.

Shoo?” I call to him. “What is it?”

He doesn’t respond but I don’t wait to find out. I cover 400 meters, scrambling over rocks and road. I run past a pack of Palestinians. “Mai, mai!”  They say.

Water.

I stop at a remote spot off of the road, panting, hands on my knees. Talib’s beside me.

I can’t see the soldiers or their tanks from here; however, the upward curve of the shit water arches in spectacular relief against the sky. It has incredible range.

What a ridiculous, wasteful stunt. Thousands of gallons of water, mixed with a mess of chemicals, pour onto the mountain. I’m not sure what kind of protest this was designed for; I imagine the six seated demonstrators and cringe.

The protest dissipates over the next twenty minutes as more tear gas flies and stinking water flows. The Israeli convoy inches up the road, firing scores of canisters as they go. One drops down beside me, smoking like an alien pinecone. I streak away towards the village, pulling my scarf tight.

The group reconvenes in a hasty blob. I avoided the gas, but Sarah staggers to join us. Her face is flushed and she coughs.

Noor has also inhaled the gas. He chokes and splutters, pawing at his face. A medic comes to his aid, dabbing beneath his eyes with a cotton ball.

There is a temporary lull in activity. I sit beside a small olive grove near Bilal’s house. Noor joins me.

“This is a new thing for me,” he says. “This gas, wow, it feels…” he shakes his head and sniffs.

“Noor,” I say. He looks to me through large green eyes, wet from the gas. “I am sorry, for my country.”

He smiles. “It’s not your problem,” he says gently.

“I will tell your stories, there, when I get back. I will organize something.” Guilt and anger water my eyes.

When it’s clear that the army will roll straight into the village, we decide to leave. We’ve seen enough. Ben, Sarah, Ghalib and the students pile into a taxi for Jenin, and I grab a second one for Ramallah.

On my way out of the town, I spy a collection of protestors, bound on their knees near a jeep. Arrested.

“They’ve made a mistake,” I said to Talib when we stood on the rocks. “The violence is that way.” I gesture to the Israeli settlement. Talib nods.

“Yes,” he says. “It is a pretty fucking stupid situation.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Christine Baniewicz is a writer, composer and facilitator of community-engaged theatre. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Studies and Music Composition from Louisiana State University, and currently coordinates web communications for the traveling theatre-arts organization, ImaginAction. Christine’s original plays and incidental scores have been performed in the US, Northern Ireland and Palestine. She also gives applied theatre workshops to encourage dialogue and creative transformation around social justice issues. Most recently she worked with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Palestine to create forum theatre performances with the acting students there. Visit her blog for written updates, photo and video while she works.  {Photo credits: S.E.T.}

4 Comments to “Nabi Saleh’s Tears”


  1. I really appreciate this, Christine. Thank you. I hope we tell more and more and more stories, like you have here, as long as we need to. And one day, we tell more and more stories about joy and love and beauty, as a result.

    1
  2. Christine’s account is harrowing. It makes it clear that when we are intent on confronting others in order to point out the error of their ways, we must never forget that they are operating from a different set of assumptions and may not want to be converted
    As we see them as in error, they will see us as the enemy. If they have weapons they will use them. If they are soldiers in Palestine or policemen in Orlando they will see us ‘targets’.
    We may want to be their friends, but if they have weapons they will want to injure us: we are the enemy.
    The situation in Palestine presents two communities in opposition unwilling to give way. The Israeli soldiers will not tolerate any transgression. One false move will lead to attack.
    It is important for us to feel able to protest, to confront. It is equally important that we understand the psychology of the protesters and the defenders. All we want to do is to talk. All they want to do is to beat us, or gas us or shoot us ! Why?

    2
  3. Thank you, Christine, for your witness and your writing. A few of us are working to stop a local ski resort from spraying ill-reclaimed water on a mountain sacred to 13 indigenous tribes – to make snow when there is no snow on a desert mountain. The ski resort’s plan, of course, is based solely on making more money.

    Thank you, Christine, for giving me a chance to feel (much more than witness) more genocide.

    3
  4. Bilal Tamimi says:

    Hi Christine
    iam sorry fir what you go throgh in your joirney to Nabi Saleh and thank you so much for sharing whats happend with you and telling the people about Nabi Saleh and about the israele occupation
    thank you again and you are welcome any time to Bait Bilal
    i hope you can share us our story and our videos on facebook on Bilal tamimi and on Tamimi Press page
    bilal

    4

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