Staying Human

by Mark Chmiel

Felicia Langer, An Age of Stone (Quartet Books, 1988) Trans. Isaac Cohen

It is my simple belief that whatever happens to [the Palestinians], their future and their fate in the last decades of the twentieth century must be the concern of everyone.

A Gazan: Inside or out, this whole place is a prison. We have nothing left to lose.

‘The ones who did not know, did not want to know.’

I register the event. I record the facts.

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An Age of Stone is an account of attorney Felicia Langer’s work  from 1979 to  1988.    Published almost thirty years ago, the book reveals what commitment entails in the day to day life of the author: accompanying the Palestinians, defending them in an  absurd and unjust court system, not averting her gaze from the daily horror these people endured, weeping with the families, raging as a spiritual practice, and resolving never to give up.

______________________

1.

There are pictures that stay in the memory as if carved with a fine chisel.

Of the thousands of demolished homes I remember one house in Silwad.

Of the hundreds of torture victims I see the burnt eyes and the crouched back of Sulaiman.

Of the countless smiles in the darkness there is the smile of Sami.

Of the hundreds of hunger-strikers I see the tiny Mehdi.

Like a great sea reflected in a tiny drop. 17

2.

They injure and cut down, blow up and scatter people all over the place with a kind of evil sophistication and with the efficiency of a computer while I wait in the corner with all my primitive gear which is no more than a bandage and a dressing.

Heretic thoughts of this nature pass through my mind and I try to push them away in case they might weaken me; and i start to cry inwardly.

I have succeeded, with time, in overcoming the outward tears of the early years which once threatened to engulf me pointlessly with torrents of sorrow and pain.

At times I have sought to root them out of myself as though they were an obstacle to my work, until it became clear that I could not survive without them.

I pray that my senses will not be dulled and that I will continue to feel the blade of the knife that cut the old man’s flesh and the blows of the batons on the students’ bodies, and the spit that the torturers discharge into their victims’ mouths, and the freezing chill of the night in Hebron that penetrates the body, and the bitter taste of the tears shed by a crippled man who yearns for news of his two sons.  55

3.

There can be nothing better than the night for concentrated reflection, for consideration, for self-appraisal, for reminiscing, for looking back, for assessing actions. Faces from the near and distant past appear before me, people I have met beyond the confines of the court.

The boy from Hebron who was left by paratroopers at the Cave of Makhpela, unconscious from the beating they had given him; the defendants who sang, ‘Biladi, Biladi’, and the policemen who ran across to punish them severely; the young lad who lay on the ground at the soldiers’ feet in Ramallah, writhing in pain; and others still, whose oppressors I have dealt with in the course of my inquiries showing neither reason nor restraint—yet another of my many sins.

And I remember the expression in the eyes of some of them. If I could only convey what I saw there; could draw the paleness of terror, the blush of degradation, the stiffening of lips with suppressed rage.

And afterwards like a faint glimmer of light in the darkness, the beam of sudden joy in realizing that they were not alone, that someone, weak and isolated  though she may be, had broken the spell of evil and extended a hand to them in a place where the other hands wave batons and the other eyes spit with contempt and hatred.  63

4.

I wonder how strong I must be to pierce the armor of their hostility, to melt the thick layers of ice which numb their emotions, to breach their apathy. 93

5.

In the distance someone calls out loudly, stressing every syllable. May your name be rubbed out! Without thinking I turn towards the sound and the man illustrates what he means by moving his hands as if cutting off a head. Then he repeats the curse as though bidding me farewell.  100

6.

I feel again that something terrible has happened to us. And I continue to press the witness harder, giving him no respite, confusing him as one question follows another until finally he shouts at me, red with anger. “‘Why don’t you go and throw stones with them!’  103

7.

[Halima loved Bilal who had died a mysterious death
She wouldn’t cease in her efforts to find out what happened
The authorities had enough
So she was arrested
Langer spells out what this means—]

They denied her sleep, or washing facilities or a drink.

They stubbed out lighted cigarettes on her body.

They shut her in a cell swarming with insects and rats.

They sent female soldiers to ground her wounds with salt.

They ridiculed her cruelly about her beloved corpse, her dog of a lover.

They incited Jewish criminals to beat her.

8.

[A 12 year old is being held]

His guard is a fully grown man, a reserve soldier, and I ask him how he feels about chaining the boy up.

The man looks at me in genuine astonishment, which is far more repugnant than his shouted refusal when I ask him to let the child see his parents.

The child’s mother is crying and a man from the border police prods her to one side. My question for him is an angry one.

‘Don’t you have a mother?’

He answers with his own question. ‘What has that got to do with anything?’  118

[She later thunders:}

‘The whole world is celebrating forty years since the victory over Fascism, so they had better know there is a generation of people grown up here who have no heart and no conscience.  120

9.

‘I only trust an Arab when he’s dead,’ says the soldier.

He kicks an Arab boy who has asked permission to collect medicine for his mother during the curfew.

When the woman shows the soldier her painful twisted hands he turns on her. ‘Get inside, you whore!’

‘I don’t pity them, because you should never have pity on your enemies,’ he says with all the certainty of his nineteen years.  130

10.

A shatteringly beautiful woman solider,  carefully made up, hurries them along, pushing nervously.

They are unable to walk to the tempo she dictates and they stumble awkwardly. She screams disgustingly at them, refuses to slow the pace and threatens them.

Our glances meet and there is a fury in her black eyes which hits me like a flash of lightning. Hatred distorts her face and spews from her mouth. ‘What do they think, this filth. Do they think I’m playing a game here?!’

‘Cruelty destroys beauty,’ I remark dryly and give a hand to the detainee.

A few steps away two prisoners have been sitting for long hours with their heads covered in heavy cloth sacking. When I protest, the soldier who guards them replies: ‘We have to be tough with them. This is a mitzva.’*

  • Mitzva —a commandment from God (Hebrew).

11.

{Atah’s offense? Writing an article on Ghassan Kanafani’s classic Men in the Sun]

[Atah] says someone changed his article beyond recognition. They call him a liar. And they show the same hostility in an irritated attack on me.

‘What are you so excited about? What is the matter with you anyway?’

‘Thank God I still get excited when I see injustice committed. Look what the guards have done to him. The one and only purpose in all this is to force him to leave his own country. “138

12.

Ismail is smothered inside an impenetrable stinking sack they put on his head. His hands are tied back and he kneels for long hours on the toilet floor. Earlier he was forbidden to use the toilet, so now he empties himself on the floor. His body swells and is full of pain.

Eventually he becomes a stone.

The bag over the head, humiliating and suffocating, has become an instrument of entertainment for the interrogators.They see it as a measure of innocent torture.

A prisoner’s detention order is being extended, and he is brought to court with his head in a bag.

‘Why don’t you just cover his eyes if you are worried about security?” I ask his interrogator.

‘Are you one of his family? And what is it to you anyway!?’ he replies.

‘I am not his lawyer, and I am not a relative. I am just a member of the same species. I am a human being. Do you know what that is?’

13.

In the corridor one soldier explains the formula to  another. ‘For every bottle they throw at us we put someone inside for a good few years. One lot of filth goes in, another lot comes out. Eventually there will be law and order here and then we won’t have to be afraid of them on the roads. Believe me, the ones who are left will be as quiet as mice.’

‘How old are you?’ I ask.’

‘Nineteen,’ he replies.  153-154

14.

When they were committing their crime at Kufur-Salem, I was thousands of miles away, standing at Dachau for one minute of silence.

And I understand  again that the one ray of hope in our terrible darkness is the angry voice that rises up within us.

I understand that in the face of such horror this voice will never be silent.  173

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