From the airplane I could see the Rocky Mountains. I could see canyons, suburbs, snow. In the airport I walked around and bought a sandwich and a coffee and a giant chocolate chip cookie and learned that San Bernardino cops burned Christopher Dorner alive. On the airplane, the woman next to me read a book. "Dedicate yourself to leadership growth," said the book. "The workplace has become more pleasant for everyone." I took the above photo the day I left, in the West Bank village of Al-Walaja just south and east of Jerusalem (or, if you prefer, north and west of Bethlehem). Israel is building a wall around the village. All the way around it. The wall, you understand, is not a single contiguous barrier. The wall is many walls. I'm not being metaphorical. One home will remain outside the wall, cut off by the Israelis-only road to the nearby settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. That home will be surrounded by a barrier of its own, most likely not a concrete wall, but a high chain-link and barbed-wire fence. It will be its own island, isolated from the village and the fields and olive groves in the valley below. A tunnel will connect it to the village. The tunnel has already been built. You can see it in the picture. Inside it, someone has spray-painted the words "Free Palestine." Here is a photo of the wall, still incomplete:





We left Ramallah early and sped north to the Salem military court for the hearings of Ashraf Abu Rahma, Wahib Qadus, and Diaa Beni Odeh. The court adjoined the prison of the same name, a dull and rainy sprawl of chainlink, razor wire and concrete blast walls. We passed through gates and metal detectors and turnstiles and tiny private rooms designed for more intrusive searches. But before I tell you what happened in the courtroom, I should mention that I was there when the three men (two men really—Diaa Beni Odeh is just 17) were arrested on a hillside  above the village of Burin. I don't have room to tell you here how gorgeous the view from that hillside was or to describe the green terraced fields in the valleys all around because all of this is already a week old, maybe more, old news already, and by the time we arrived in Salem, Qadus was already all over YouTube, getting beaten and pepper-sprayed by Israeli soldiers as they held him on the ground. You see how one story leads to another and that one to another and another and in the end none of them ever fully gets told? The previous Saturday I had arrived in Burin an hour or so before a tractor pulled up in the center of the village towing nine steel-framed, semi-cylindrical, aluminum "huts."  The idea was to haul them up the mountain and with them establish a new "village" called al-Manatir—the name refers to the traditional Palestinian stone huts built to provide shelter for farmers and shepherds guarding their fields and flocks. The symbolism was intentional: the land in question was under threat from the nearby Israeli settlements of Har Brakha and Yitzhar and the even nearer outpost of Givat Ronen. The settlers around Burin are among the most aggressive in the West Bank, but those stories are better told elsewhere, because we have a court date to get back to and we're four days behind and still haven't made it to the top of the hill. We got there eventually and the huts did too, twenty or so people carrying each one all the way up the steep and rocky slope, cheering and chanting as they lowered each hut into place. Soon the settlers in their flowing white robes were racing down from the outpost on the next hilltop up and dozens of green-uniformed soldiers were running a few steps behind them. In the end Al-Manatir only survived for a few hours, but they were long ones, and my ears were still ringing the next morning. I will tell you about one moment from that day, a moment I didn't remember until much later that night, and then laughed about on and off for days. The soldiers had been steadily pushing us—150-odd protesters and journalists—back with tear gas and stun grenades all morning and we had all been gassed and shoved repeatedly when I saw the soldiers lifting their guns and reaching for grenades again and I pulled my scarf over my nose and mouth and pressed my hands to my ears and ran to take cover beside a low stone wall where a man whose face I didn't see—I only ever saw the shoulders of his brown leather jacket—suddenly pulled me to him and threw his arms around me. I don't know if he was trying to protect me or to comfort himself—it's even possible that I was the one who reached out to him, I can't say for sure in the haze, but either way I returned his embrace and he returned mine and we crouched there with our heads pressed into each other's shoulders, holding tightly to one another until the explosions ceased and the gas had drifted off and we stood and parted, slightly abashed, without a word or a glance. Oh fierce and mighty IDF, do you not know how much tenderness you breed? The day dragged on until the soldiers pushed us to a cliffside and we scrambled all the way down and learned at the bottom that settlers had in the meantime attacked the village and shot a 17-year-old boy in the thigh, and I almost forgot to mention that in the process the soldiers arrested Abu Rahma, Qadus, and Beni Odeh, not, as far as I could tell, for any reason other than that they had annoyed them and were within easy reach. I was right there when they took Abu Rahma, whom I had met in Ramallah a few days earlier at a screening of the documentary Five Broken Cameras, which includes footage of his brother Bassem being killed by a high-velocity teargas canister fired at his chest, but does not mention his sister Jawaher's death from teargas inhalation eight months later. In Burin that Saturday morning, I had seen Abu Rahma yelling at the soldiers, but I had not seen him raise a stone or a fist against them. And at the military court in Salem—you see, I promised we'd get back here—Abu Rahma's case was first. His wife Rana, to whom he had been married just three months, sat on the bench beside me, her eyes huge and rimmed with tears. The judge came in, a fair-skinned young man in his thirties, his cap folded neatly into his left epaulette. We stood and sat down again. Abu Rahma grinned at his wife from across the room. The translator slumped in his seat. A pot-bellied soldier with an M-3 strapped over his shoulder leaned against the wall. The prosecutor wore diamond earrings with her fatigues. Her nails were manicured with perfect French tips. Every now and again a soldier too young to shave would sit down beside her, whisper a few words, linger, leave. Across the room, Abu Rahma squirmed in his shackles. The prosecutor presented secret evidence. Secret from the defendant, that is. And from his lawyer, and the public. Abu Rahma shouted out that he had something to say. His lawyer hushed him. In the end, basing his decision on the secret evidence presented, the judged granted the prosecutor's request that Abu Rahma be detained for another five days without charge. (Five days later, he would grant her request for another three days' extension). The next two cases proceeded in the same manner. The judge instructed the clerk to cut and paste his earlier decision into the official record. We walked back out through the security checks and the razor wire to the drizzle and the car. We drove west for lunch in an old stone house in Nazareth and crossed over again into the West Bank and headed east and then south through the Jordan Valley, the hills lush with winter rain. Some of us, you see, have been blessed with the right documents and skin tone and are hence allowed to pass through checkpoints and borders as freely as the birds fly over them. I don't say this smugly, but with great sadness and a certain amount of wonder that I have at last arrived at the story I've wanted to tell you all this time—not about military courts or prisoners or checkpoints or settlers or teargas or beatings or the man who hugged me, but about the birds, the thousands and thousands of birds we saw in the dim sky and in the trees on the side of route 90 when we pulled off the road just before the sun set beneath the green hills that rim the Jordan Valley. There were white cranes and black birds I didn't recognize, flocks intermingling as they migrated from Central Asia down to Africa and stopped on the way here in these trees, so many birds that the branches looked heavy with white and black fruit and sometimes the sky went dark as they swirled and dove above us and the valley rang out with their calls and cries and flirts and worries and with the beating of their thousands of wings and the push of the air against their bodies and we stood beneath them, silenced, heads back, open-mouthed, unable to find anything to say.



Ducks in Hebron, more from Shklovsky

“If one can say that imagination is better than reality, art is even better because it’s the dream of every structure’s collapse and at the same time the dream of the construction of new structures.”

—from Serena Vitale, Shklovsky: Witness to an Era



Burin, Nablus District, February 2, 2013

I didn't get the angle right for perfect triangulation, but if you can't tell: the soldier is taking photos with his IDF-issued iPhone. A minute earlier he was photographing me. The tear gas came later.


I have found the most beautiful ATM in the world