States of Exception, A Tragedy in Unceasing Acts: Development Encounters

Patta Scott-VilliersPatta Scott-Villiers 2013

All names have been changed.

My bare feet are enjoying the soft carpet. Today in Istanbul I am a tourist with time to think, an outsider pampered and lightly fleeced by traders. The carpet of the Rustan Pasha mosque is the colour of the best pink guavas, and the arches and domes are tiled with twining blue-green iznic leaves, tendrils, tulips and pomegranates. Arabic script runs around the wall. I hear the sounds of the call to prayer; there is no God but God.

I’m thinking of Adala and Khatib in the West Bank, Haq, Ustaz, Sira and all of that lot in Gaza. How differently they are reacting to the occupation. And Rachel in Israel, wanting the occupation lifted, discarding ideas one after the other. What a muddle. What excellent people. Adala is a lawyer and Khatib an accountant, they live in a neat village clustered on a hillside in the Jordan valley in the shadow of a tall concrete wall topped with razor wire. Haq is a burly human rights activist in Gaza City. Some years ago, exhausted by the rejection of his eloquence against cases of abuse, he started a youth centre. I can imagine how the young people, blockaded into that strange strip of land, love his witty jokes and enormous smile. He seems to know everyone of any consequence in the sprawling claustrophobic city, among them Ustaz with his round glasses and wide open eyes. Ustaz teaches at one of Gaza’s many universities, leading his students in an enthusiastic tumble of online protest. Haq and Ustaz haven’t met Adala and Khatib face to face. That was the idea, but it didn’t work out. It was brewed up by Oxfam, an aid agency whose people devise a never-ending series of interventions in places like this. Oxfam invited all of us to research new ways of seeing the war, and then found that only I, an Englishwoman and a few of their privileged Palestinian and Israeli workers could get across all the borders and wires and security cordons that crisscross the Palestinian territories.

As I look around the Istanbul mosque, at the dome and its beguiling patterns, the arches and friezes and grace of it all, I think the people who built this place and those who built my culture have a common ethical root. We ought to be able to agree. But of course, I don’t really know which root and whether. After a while I get up, embarrassed. How can someone who isn’t, contemplate in somewhere that is, unless it’s a misunderstanding or an imposition? The proper congregation move in and out. I have a wish to talk, to resolve our differences.

Outside on the loggia I cross the worn marble paving and sit on the lower step of a stone staircase that runs up against the outer arcade of the courtyard. I’m with my sister in law and her husband on a weekend trip to Istanbul. I’m on my way home from Palestine, They came here on a cheap flight from England. We chat and read out passages from a book about Ottoman intrigues. There’s a fold-up awning and pots of sage and geraniums stamped with the moniker of the town council. A man in grey approaches. ‘Good afternoon, how are you? How are you enjoying Istanbul?’ ‘Wonderful,’ we reply. ‘You are lucky with the warm day, it will rain tomorrow. Can I get by? I am going up to my office.’ I want to discuss ethics and history with him, but he ushers us off. I wonder who he is. The imam perhaps, if he has an office here. Is his weather forecast mystical or meteorological? I think of stern teachers raging from pulpits.

Two days ago I was in Jerusalem, with half a day before my flight. I’d finished all my meetings in Palestine and would meet Rachel in the evening to talk the Israeli side of the research. I tumbled by chance into an Ethiopian orthodox church, two chambers painted with rusted golden stars hollowed from the root ball of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. I sat there for a while, this time on a wooden chair. I put money into a wooden plate and the priest nodded. I wanted to talk to him too, about centuries of agreement and disagreement about religious details, territory and trade, but no language. How can someone who isn’t, contemplate in somewhere that is? I invade, I retreat, leaving a faint trail of idealism.

I had supper with Rachel in the city vegetable market, the stalls shut up for the night and the arcades reoccupied by young Israelis eating and listening to music. She is a university teacher like me, an Israeli who wants change. She said, ‘I so wanted to be able to work with the Palestinians in the West Bank. I wanted just to be able to hear what they have to say. But they refused. Told us to keep out of their struggle and get on with our own.’ She and I were trying to work out what to do next. We knew now that we couldn’t all research together, Palestinians and Israelis in a happy little collaboration that breaks the wall in some cheerful subversive way. Round the corner drifted a violin playing a mix of Jewish wedding and Arab oasis dances. She had just come from her grandfather’s funeral, days and days in his house with waves of relatives, friends and comrades of the Zionist pioneer. How does the colonialist make amends? It seems all we do is compound history.

Three days ago I was in Gaza. Haq on the ragged seafront was explaining, ‘we are being paid by the US, the EU and Israel to die slowly.’ And then he laughed. The air conditioner was throwing out cold air, the sea lapped on the beach, the peaches from Israel had been banned by Hamas. Ustaz said, ‘at least we are very well educated.’ Sira tapped at her blackberry. She said, ‘I met a woman at the graveyard. She told me how she brought the body of her father on her back. No one helped her. I wrote a blog about it. Sometimes my blog is sad, but a lot of it is normal happy life. People who comment say they can’t believe that we have normal life in Gaza under the blockade. They think I am lying.’ The conversation lilted around, it had arches and arcades, friezes of Arabic scripts and tiled sections of twining leaves, tulips and pomegranates. The talk was of politics, fruit and every day insults twined together. Their laughter had the rich undertones of suffering.

And before that I was in Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank. Ramallah is a limestone city, its hills crammed with new ministries and apartments. My colleague Mismaa and I were driving across town to her apartment. ‘American and European aid money built these,’ she told me. The citizens strike and demonstrate and the Palestinian Authority pays itself and backpedals. I suppose the money confuses, tempts and enrages people while the West Bank is quietly engulfed by Israel’s hungry settlements. Mismaa is studying with me in UK, and I had asked her to help me lead the research project in her homeland. Mismaa’s husband, back from work, fed us on chicken and pitta. We were playing with the idea of some revolutionary Palestinian-Israeli reframing of the terms of the questions about Palestine. We looked at each other. Mismaa will never give up, she can’t. She just isn’t like that.

Driving to Bethlehem to meet Adala and Khatib, a circuitous route around the orange-lit settlements that are creeping outwards from the tops of hills and ridges, my companions pointed out the olive groves unpicked, dessicating under the lengthening shadow of slabs of concrete and snaking razor wire; mazes of encircling wall and watchtowers watched both ways by teenagers. I saw some Bedouin huddled on a stony hillside in what looked like cardboard boxes. Mismaa told me their villages are unrecognised, so they have no electricity. Unrecognised by whom? Everyone I supposed.

Back in Ramallah, in a hotel near the Ministry of Interior, Mismaa and I met Adala and Khatib again. Adala the lawyer swept into the room. ‘Hello, hello.’ She has a lovely gravelly voice. Her headscarf is a platform for a pair of immense black sunglasses. She said ‘we have been with young people and civil leaders. They were all very cooperative, but they didn’t want to be filmed. Almost everyone we met said that Palestinians shouldn’t be collaborating with Israeli organisations and Oxfam shouldn’t encourage it. Everyone said that this kind of charity only helps the occupation.’ I heard her getting more absolute with every sentence. It is the inexorable nature of occupation, I thought. It builds rickety soapboxes. Adala is my heroine and nemesis, leading a tragic struggle against decades of steely occupation. My nemesis, because we will never agree what it is best to do. Rabeh and Khatib nodded their heads, brown eyes unblinking, adding detail from different villages under the wall.

I asked, in my researchy way, if the statements were accurate. ‘If they are and you can prove it, perhaps you can argue for a change in the way aid is done in Palestine. Something beyond this resignation… But are you putting words into the mouths of your compatriots? Do you have enough different people saying this? Is it only your friends you are speaking to?” Adala gave me a withering look. She talked over me to the others. Her black eyes were sparkling, her acolytes agreeing, insisting. ‘The Israelis should not be trying to help us while occupying us,’ she argued. She faced me. ‘You want us to reconcile with Israel don’t you?’ Then she added, ‘I am not saying you should leave. But you should listen.’ ‘No, no,’ I said, ‘I don’t want you to reconcile…, but, but…,’ I turned my palms up to the ceiling ‘I just want you to be accurate.’ She was right, of course. I get exasperated when I listen to her, so quite a lot of the time I don’t.

Adala and her friends, Haq and his friends are states of exception in their different parts of Palestine. It’s the bitter-real idea of Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher who at one point studied the Nazi concentration camps. He shows how the state makes an exception of certain categories of people, and renders them into an existence that is barely alive, just in order to make itself sovereign. Rachel and I are not states of exception. We are not being dissipated and twisted by those that would rid themselves of us. Rachel once was of course, or her family were. You may ask questions of Adala, and her replies will sound repetitious and distant. She is somewhere beyond you, out in a territory of loss. A place of ghosts. I couldn’t think of anything useful to say to her.

The chorus in Gaza reached a rhythm. ‘See how we are turning on each other, blaming each other! See how we could be once again alive and happy!’ Haq makes us laugh. Not just Haq, we all make one another laugh. They are so elegant and urbane. Adala the tragic queen, barks at them, ‘you normalise and we lose everything!’ If they were face to face, which they are not since she is in the West Bank and the chorus is in Gaza and they are not allowed to meet, Haq’s laughter might work on her, or her fury might work on him.

Adala fixed her black eyes on me and talked again. I said ‘yes, yes,’ but I didn’t mean it and she knew it. I meant ‘stop talking!’ Neither she nor I stopped talking. We clashed on the field of the gorgon, the state of exception outside the walls of the promised land. The gorgon is the war, busy making good out of this divisive state of affairs, yes. We let the gorgon come. We could think of no way to avoid it. Our idealisms locked horns. She the occidentalist and I the orientalist. The Gazans turned back to their coffee and cigarettes, their stories and laughter curling up into the dome of the breezy sky. And I returned to my thoughts in the Rustan Pasha mosque, then made my way through Istanbul’s crowded streets under the aching beauty of its minarets.

Patta Scott-Villiers is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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