Waiting in Palestine
June 17, 2013
Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996)
In Palestine people have a tremendous capacity to wait. Waiting to cross a checkpoint, waiting for a permit to authorize getting through the checkpoint, waiting for a teen-aged Israeli soldier to finish interrogating the person in front of you, waiting for the bus on the other side of the checkpoint (because the bus, too, must wait for clearance inspection). The cattle-trade checkpoint is perhaps the most ubiquitous example, but even inside Israel, in Palestinian cities like Nazareth, the patterns of waiting are inescapable. It is a place where waiting is more burlesque than chaos. Every day, from my apartment window in the old city of Nazareth, I would watch the local shop owners sit on their plastic chairs, spitting pumpkin seeds or watching a dubbed Turkish soap opera from a far-away television. Every day was like the day before. There they sat, wearing the same clothes, dependent on customers and tourists, oblivious that they were in fact doing nothing but waiting for something or someone.
Elia Suleiman, a filmmaker from Nazareth, is perhaps the only Palestinian director I know who can capture the absurdity of this setting. In his movie Chronicle of a Disappearance, we witness a string of ‘waiting sequences’: the everyday hours of local Nazarenes. The only music we hear is the sounds of the street, maybe even the ruffling of a tree. A crowd of flashy tourists marches by, someone stops to take a photograph of the man waiting. Silence. Garbage flutters past the man who is holding his forehead in his hand, waiting for something that will not come. In Divine Intervention we see Elia (who performs most of these waiting roles himself) waiting to rendezvous with his girlfriend while watching Palestinian commuters who are waiting at a checkpoint, perhaps the notoriously difficult crossing at Qalandiya. In another scene of the same movie we see a man waiting at a bus stop, even after he was informed that the bus would never come. No matter, he still waits. And in Suleiman’s latest film, one of the shorts in 7 Days in Havana, we see Elia, again, testing his interminable style of waiting; this time in Havana, where he is waiting for his appointment at the Palestinian embassy.
It’s a life of Waiting for Godot, a production staged in the everyday realities of occupied Palestine. It is no surprise, then, that the Jenin Freedom Theatre staged an adaptation of Beckett’s play in 2011 that was performed in both Ramallah and New York. The play, While Waiting, which replaced Vladimir and Estragon with women, is centered on what the two will do while waiting for freedom, waiting for a state. (Despite that more and more Palestinians are against the two-state solution.) But as Kamal Boullata writes in Between Exits: Paintings by Hani Zurob, “(Waiting) goes back to 1948, following the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. The waiting started with standing in line for the UNRWA distribution of food and temporary shelters, for a job to secure survival, for questioning by military and security Arab and Israeli officials, for a son or daughter’s release from an Israeli prison, or for a visa to immigrate abroad.” It is a subject, he says, that has permeated the history of Palestinian literary and artistic expression.
Above: a slideshow of artwork by Hani Zurob capturing the culture of waiting in Palestine
My most dreadful exposure to passing the anxious time of waiting was in 2006, when I tried going to Gaza to visit my father. The permit was arranged by a friend; all I had to do was travel to the Erez Crossing, sign the permit, and wait for clearance to enter the Gaza Strip. I waited 15 hours, in an isolated cell, only to be denied entry and told to find a way back to Jerusalem at 3 a.m. The 15 hours seemed to go on and on: time was meaningless. Everything depended on chance. There was the chance that the Shin Bet officers would change their minds and let me in once they knew that my father was sick and dying, and that I hadn’t seen him in 14 years. Or the chance that my American passport would override the security force’s statement as to why I’m deemed a threat. Maybe my father had some bureaucratic connection that would trump the American Embassy’s? I waited and waited, not wanting to recognize that my life was meaningless while waiting. It was the kind of waiting that I wished I were watching in a Suleiman film, something that I could just turn off or laugh about. It was the first time my “privilege” of being American didn’t work in my favor. I remember how the Shin Bet officer was too busy exercising his thumbs on the photocopied pages of my notebook to be impressed with my claim to civil rights; instead, he sat me down in front of him while reading my notebook cover to cover. I think I might have slept, because I saw myself sitting on a beach in Gaza with my father, listening to the surf. But the crashing waves were quickly replaced by an authoritarian voice speaking bad Arabic. It was since then that I recognized my talents for waiting would never match that of a Palestinian’s. At 3 a.m. they finally denied me entry. My cell phone had long since died; an Israeli soldier took pity on me and called me a taxi back to Jerusalem.
Six months later my father died, without my ever seeing him again.