Monday, 16 July 2012

Reflections on my short story 'The Separation Wall'

Since Israel began building the so called defense fence/wall I have not stopped thinking about walls. I visited Hadrian’s Wall several times and its scale has filled me with awe. It runs for 117km and it is 4.6 metres high. Then there is the wall in Belfast separating Protestant from Catholic, and the Berlin Wall, which was 160km long and 3.6 metres high. Not to mention the Great Wall of China. When it is finished, the wall in Palestine will be a concrete wall up to 1000 km long and 8 metres high, with a round watch tower every 200 metres.
People build walls to mark the limits of their own property and protect themselves from the other lurking outside. Their foil, the embodiment of their worst fears, is trying to get through and kill them. So it is not us who are discriminatory and violent, it is them. No, it is them not us for we are perfect. So our fantasies about difference, our anxieties about our status, can result in racial theories that reduce the other to either one of us, benign, or one of them, dangerous. So we conveniently project our darker side onto others, rather than face the daunting task of examining ourselves and trying to change.
In 1989, twenty-eight years after it was built, the Berlin Wall came down. Hadrian and his wall are no more and what remains are a few skeletal ruins. Now it is a tourist site with no political significance whatsoever. Standing there in the stinging cold I realised that the ruins in front of me were the only glimpse of hope I have. Even sturdy stone walls are transient. So empires conquer, decay then collapse to be replaced by other empires. Ibn Khuldun, the Muslim medieval political thinker and sociologist, propagated the cyclical nature of history in his Prolegomena, Muqadima. History, he argued, is a repetition of similar patterns driven by the interplay of the same basic factors: human acquisitiveness and aggression, the need for cooperation and group solidarity, عصبية, authority and the corrupting influence of domination and power.
But what about inner walls, which are constructed out of years of conditioning, preconceptions and fears? How do you convince us and them that violence is futile and begets more violence? How do you cleanse the ears, eyes, mouth and the heart? How do you create deep compassion and respect among warring parties? How do you dismantle the pervasive wall of fear?
One day in February I visited the Roman Army museum at Carvoran and climbed up along the wall until the view of the moor became limitless. It was cold and lonely up there and I tried to imagine what a Syrian soldier, protecting the Roman Empire, would have thought and felt. The Hamii archers must have been highly motivated to leave the warmth and greenery of Antioch for this cold, bleak, volcanic ridge, in pursuit of a regular wage and Roman citizenship. Their foreignness dissipated because they were on the right side of the wall, supporters of a powerful empire, civilised and civilising. What they failed to see perhaps is how similar they were to those they perceived as noble savages, the Caledonian Picts. But for the alien outsider, who crossed continents to prove that he belonged to Rome, the collapse of the patron empire must be doubly hard. It is like losing paradise twice. You lose both your country of origin and the empire you have embraced. The loss, the alienation, the sorrow is two fold.
It was difficult to capture some of these questions in a traditional linear narrative. So I created three narrative lines set in different periods and places that look on the surface disconnected and disjointed, but when all the linear narratives are collapsed into each other a higher narrative might emerge that makes sense. I also wanted the stories to echo each other somehow, something akin to a beggar’s opera. I do hope that the reader would ‘see’ an aerial shot of a number of histories, geographies and peoples. What might remain is this lingering sense of sadness and loss.
This short story marks my return to being a full time writer after fifteen years of chasing my tail as an academic. Academia was one way of making a living, while trying to scrape some time for writing, and it was the reason behind coming to Durham. Then Durham and the north east began developing in my mind and psyche. The narrow corridors of powers slowly became irrelevant and second to the landscape and people. This leafy city was the perfect antidote for the desert, and became exactly the right oasis for a Bedouin Arab like me. People think I exaggerate when I say that in the spring the peninsula looks almost tropical. So some kind of gravitation took place. Now the only cure for existential sadness, obstacles, writer’s block is the landscape. A walk down Potter’s Bank to Prebends Bridge on the South Bailey, up to the cathedral and back, eases me out of my corner.
In the past I used to feel isolated, especially with the two professions I have chosen for myself: academia and writing. I missed my family back in Jordan and I ended up suspended in no man’s land. Nostalgia would come like a viral infection, a diasporic cold. But in the past ten years since arriving in Durham everything has changed. For example, finding ingredients for Arab dishes was a nightmare and I used to travel far and wide in pursuit of flat parsley and fresh coriander. Now I can find pomegranate, molasses, tahini and even North African hot chilli paste, harisa, at Sainsbury’s. A fifteen minute international chat used to cost me about twenty five pounds, now it costs me almost nothing. At home I am connected to my sister’s computer in Amman all hours of the day and night. Of course this ability to sample the world, access it, and be connected to it has other more serious implications. As a professional writer I use technology to both receive and provide information and publicise my work. Contacting my agent and publishers is no longer a complicated and frustrating task. I run my business from my study in Durham, while watching the jasmine tree grow in the garden.
Now I am a guerrilla writer, with a computer slung across my shoulder, I travel the world both literally and metaphorically. But my desktop happens to be in Durham and where I lay my computer, that’s my home.

Every piece of writing is the tip of the iceberg. The number of books and other types of documents read and investigations and interviews carried out lie under the water invisible to the reader, but despite that this large part is what holds the tip up and keep the iceberg afloat, for books are written on and around books. Although The Separation Wall is original and my own creation, the different sections have been inspired and informed by the following:

This section is not based on my own experience. My English neighbours in Durham have been extremely supportive. Whenever things got tough in the past six years they rallied round in an indirect and elegant way.
Over the years I have collected many testimonies by Muslim men both here in Durham and other parts of the world. The main character Khalid is loosely based on a few histories.
9/11 and its aftermath has left its mark on many Muslim men, both in the US and the UK. The mental strain led to a rise in drug addiction, cases of ulcer – ‘those are the lucky ones’ – and clinical paranoia. For example, an Arab man who owned a business in the USA developed clinical paranoia post 9/11. After his shop was raided by the FBI he began seeing agents everywhere. He would draw the curtains, switch off all the lights then pray, afraid to be seen practicing Islam. He was convinced that armed FBI agents were following him everywhere, even to his bedroom. Although he left the USA his mental health has not been restored.
A young Arab fell in love with a Geordie girl, who worked at Safeway’s checkout in Durham. He was educated, well-bred and extremely polite, and has never done anything unlawful or offensive. Her family were so angry that he had approached her that they reported him to the police.

Kalkalie (The Roman name for Qalqilya, Palestine)
The Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, The Wall in Palestine: Facts, Testimonies, Analysis and Call to Action, Pengon, Jerusalem, 2003
Avnery, Uri, ‘The Getto Inside’, on:
I also recommend reading all Thinkpieces:
‘Wall fears grip West Bank’:
‘UN condemns West Bank ‘Wall’’
 Ben Simon, Daniel, ‘One man’s fence is another man’s prison’
‘IDF razes 62 shops in village on seam line to make away for fence’
Gwynne, Anne, ‘Anger tears at Israel's Wall of Apartheid’
Bloom, David, ‘Letter from Jayyous’

Birtly, Anthony R., Hadrian the Restless Emperor, Routledge, London, 1997
Dobson, Brian and Breeze, David, The Army of Hadrian’s Wall, Frank Graham, Newcastle, 1972 (Northern History Booklet No. 28)
Edlin, Herbert, Trees, Bloomsbury Books, London, first published in 1937, 1992
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by E. V. Rieu, Penguin Books, England, 1977
Gardner, Rena, The Country of Hadrian’s Wall, Workship Press, Dorset, 1975 (Designed and printed for the National Trust)
Gregorovius, Ferdinand, translated by Mary E. Robinson, The Emperor Hadrian: A picture of the Graeco-Roman World in his Time, Macmillan and Co., London – New York, 1898
Shotter, D. C. A., The Roman Frontier in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall and Roman Policy in the North, Preston: Carnegie, 1996 

1 comment:

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