Walking The Via Dolorosa

I’m a walker. For me, walking is a combination of hobby and exercise. More than that, however, it is a healthy management of anger. I know this because I’ve experienced the results of being confrontational without taking time to cool off. Anger’s positive side is that it can jolt us out of apathy and into action. Like every emotion, however, anger needs centering, a period of cooling-off and reflection before it can manifest its real potential to affect change. So, I walk out the door and stay away until I can control this little beast, anger. When I come back, I’m ready to present my position with reason and resolve.

I need to be able to walk. Walking to relax or to find peace amid the lonely desert beauty of the West Bank or in East Jerusalem has become an impossibility for those of us who live in areas that the Sharon government has tightened like a noose around our necks. We dare not venture to the famous Via Dolorosa in the Old City, but in our own neighborhoods the streets and by-ways have become modern streets of pain like the road Jesus trod on the way to his death. More than 90 new Israeli checkpoints have appeared in our towns and villages. Each day we venture out only to find another block, another malignancy sickening us. The idea of driving vanished when the Israelis unloaded tons of dirt on roads leading in and out of our towns or dug ditches to destroy our streets and prevent thousands of people from leaving home. We have elementary schools, but it takes tremendous determination to get to them. We have universities, but they are out of bounds. We have jobs, but our work is not deemed as important as Israeli security. The endlessly repeated mantra of Israeli security virtually has stopped us in our tracks. It has limited our lives, but not our anger. Young people like myself can no longer walk off our irritation and indignation. So much for Palestinians’ efforts to gain emotional equilibrium.

It seems odd to me that Israelis do not see that every time our space is tightened, their security takes a step backward. We are left with nothing but the resolve to overcome. Anger, in a place where activity is virtually impossible, easily evolves into rage and rage into irrational furor. Modern psychology explains this; are the Israelis unaware of the reality they have created for themselves? We Palestinians face anger, but our oppressors live in fear. Doesn’t this mean that both groups are prisoners of each other?

Ramallah was the one town on the West Bank where Palestinians were committed to investing in the future. Located in a supposedly non-controversial area under Palestinian Authority control, the town became a symbol of Palestinian determination. Surely, no matter what happened elsewhere, Ramallah would remain a safe haven in which Palestinians could enjoy each other’s company.

Coffee shops and restaurants opened; an old home was renovated into a wonderful, modern cultural center, and merchants opened clothing stores and sweet shops. I would joke to guests who wanted to visit the West bank, “This evening I will take you to the New York of Palestine. Ramallah is no East Jerusalem, where metal bolted doors lock tightly by 4 p.m. Come along and mingle with Palestinian society. Join in on an evening shopping spree. If you don’t like falafel, I’ll share a pizza with you.”

I used to be so excited about taking Americans and Europeans to Ramallah that I would uncharacteristically almost jump up and down. Ramallah, then, was the symbol of Palestinian dreams of having some semblance of normalcy at home, in spite of the surrounding hostile settlements. But I see now that our hope was irrational. Oppression even then had locked us in and set us up to experience our own form of denial. Only a few weeks ago, I took a service van through people’s yards to get to a surgery training course in Ramallah. We were unable get there that day, because Ramallah had been amputated from the rest of our country. We drove north toward our destination until we came to a ditch that even tanks would have a hard time traversing. Israeli tanks, however, lined the perimeter with weapons pointing in and weapons pointing out. Seeing the obvious, our van driver turned back. That was the beginning of my daily desperate attempt to get to work.

Now, I, along with the rest of those resolute on getting to work no matter what, take the van in the opposite direction to the edge of Jerusalem, where we exit near Qalandia Refugee Camp. Then, we start walking. “Ah,” you say, “here’s your chance to walk and get your frustration out.” Hardly! We walk through cars parked on the road as if the road were a parking lot. Most days, unreported in the press, Israelis hinder any movement. Shooting and tear gas are par for the course. This isn’t walking in order to regain dignity, reason or peace of mind. My head and chest are filled with the stench and congestion of smoke. I walk hunched up and blinded. I think of survival, not peace. It takes memories of walking the paths around Niagra Falls to cool my rage. There, my vision was refreshed with the soothing mist of the great powerful rush of water. My chest was full of excitement. I saw a huge rainbow signaling promise and hope. That was America. I’m among the lucky ones: I’ve been outside our prison. I have dreams to shore me up. Others of my countrymen have nothing at all except the experience of oppression.

Why, I ask, cannot America’s government understand that Palestinians, like most people anywhere, would much prefer a walk in a waterfall’s mist than a trudge through the smoke of tear gas and hostile fire? Why have they joined with Israel to take away our simple lives? Why do Washington leaders insist that they will always back our oppressors and ignore our very being? As one living the daily trauma of existence in the backyard that has become Israel, I wonder if anyone in America imagines what actually goes on here? Some would surely answer, “yes.” “Yes”-but does anyone out there care? The talk about security, pre-emptive strikes, a people for a land without a people, ignorance of the human realities of being Palestinian, the oil front, the stench of death and the decay of morality: these are the demons that rear their heads inside mine as I walk my own Via Dolorosa.

Here’s the rub. Relief from anger comes in small doses, mostly through work. “Scrub up,” my teacher says to me. “You can do a plantar corn excision on your own today. I will be your assistant, your nurse,” he chuckles. “Am I ready for this?” I ask, forgetting the world outside the clinic outpatient-procedure room. The local anesthetic given, I begin with all the hesitancy of a learner and the compassion of a soon-to-be doctor who fears unnecessarily hurting her patient. I make a nice elliptic cut around the corn and excise it. Then, I gently stitch the wound. The patient smiles kindly, amused by my tenseness. He expresses approval of my work. I excise his other corn with more confidence. I give him pain killers and tell him to stay off his feet for one week, at least. “You’ll need time to heal,” I tell him, proud to have handled an entire operation from start to finish on my own. I walk out feeling happy. I have my work.

But that is not the end of it. A few hours later, the discharged patient is dragged back to our clinic by two men holding him up by the armpits. “My home is in Surda,” the man explains, “the Israelis won’t allow my brother to drive me home. They say I can walk around the mountains if I need to go home. I walked a few kilometers and collapsed. Doctor, please tell them I cannot walk.” Laughing at his innocent thought that the Israeli soldiers would listen to a Palestinian doctor, my teacher says, “Stay in Ramallah until you can walk the mountains.”

I know the joy of walking. Our globe is too closely connected for us not to know what lies beyond our prison. I’ve roamed the ancient streets of Athens; I’ve laughed at street performers in Piccadilly and sipped coffee in a café by Lake Michigan. I know the relief of walking in a cool desert night, stars floating above me. These are mere dreams in my world of gun fire, ditches, harassment and clashes.

Face it, I think to myself, you live in a ghetto, a bantustan, an island far away from any turquoise sea. You’re one of the lucky ones because you have the energy to do whatever it takes to get to work. You can lose yourself in fixing corns on an old man’s feet and feel the inner reward of knowing that you care about and can help Palestine’s injured and crushed. But unreleased anger and unwanted leisure tend to crush the normalcy of a coherent connection with one’s home and being. What is centering when unconditional love of home requires constant warring simply to be? I live in a ghetto prison connected by potholed patches of my own Via Dolorosa. I am not safe at home, nor anywhere in my country. I am not alone, however. Israelis may have their “safe” highways, separation, and disdain for us, the “others” who simply will not go away. Just like us, however, they do not have peace of mind. As they increase the constrictions around us, they pull us together in our anger and longing.

Who, I wonder, is better off? Is it we, the prisoners of our era-or they in the “ghettoed” villages built on our hillsides? I await the return of another time when I or my children, or their children, once again will walk the Via Dolorosa and marvel about what it took to maintain the walkway of peace.

(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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