All, or Nothing?

So much has been happening, that I’ve gotten behind in my writing. There have been some dramatic 180 degrees turns in the past day. Just as I start to write, that which I am writing is already obsolete. I’ll try to convey a bit of what is happening in the limited time I have:

Fareed woke me up in the middle of the night. “Do you want to go to Gaza?” he asked excitedly. Fareed is a Palestinian poet and percussionist (which makes for a lot of Ps) now living in New York. We have become friendly over the past few days. “What?” I said, half-asleep and confused. “You’re David so-and-so, right?” “No. Symons” “Oh. Sorry” he said, and dashed off, presumably to find the correct David. To everyone’s surprise (and immediately after the Israeli Prime Minister had left Egypt) the Egyptians suddenly announced that they would allow two busloads, or 100 people, to enter Gaza. Apparently, a protracted appeal to Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian Premiere and Chair of the Red Crescent, who seemingly wields significant power in this otherwise macho country, had paid off in the 11th hour. She arranged this offer to the delegation, reportedly enraging the Foreign Minister, who felt his authority to have been undermined. The March coordinators on this side of the border consulted with their counterparts in Gaza, who urged them to move forward with the offer. They were given less than two hours to submit the names of those who would be going. With such a small window of time, and everyone spread throughout the city and unable to meet, a consensus decision was obviously impossible. The organizers quickly selected 100 people, attempting to proportionally represent as many countries as possible, while giving priority to people who had never been to Gaza before, particularly Palestinians who had never been to Gaza. The list was submitted to the government and accepted, and the 100 packed their things and prepared to board a bus at 7:00 the next morning. As word got around, a strong dissidence began to emerge. The Canadians refused to go unless everyone was allowed to do so. A meeting was called (which I did not know about and did not attend) that went into the wee hours of the morning and apparently was very emotional. Many felt that the government was trying to buy us off with a cheap token delegation, which obviously rendered absurd all of their pretexts for denying entry to the whole group, i.e, that it was not safe and that certain documents had been filled out incorrectly. It was felt by some that Code Pink, the women’s peace group which has been the main organizer of the March, had sold out the movement. As the mini-delegation boarded the buses to Gaza, a regiment (or “mob”, according to one of the woman on the buses) of dissenters headed to the bus depot to stop them from leaving. I was not there, and cannot go into detail, but there was a vehement stand-off between the two factions. This went on for about three  hours, with the dissenters surrounding the buses and chanting “GET OFF THE BUS!” over and over, and many of the people on the buses getting off and on again in anguished indecision, and many ferocious arguments going on at once,  until a remarkable thing happened. An organizer on one of the buses received a phone call from Gaza. It seemed that a parallel debate had been taking place on the other side of the border. The Gazan organizers had just seen the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s press conference on Al Jazeera, in which he explained the “deal” that had been made. According to the Foreign Minister, only the “good and sincere” activists were being allowed through the border, the rest were just “hooligans” who sought to “sow havoc on the streets of Egypt”. The absurdity of his remarks hardly needs to be pointed out, particularly as all of the 100 delegates were chosen by the “hooligans” themselves. The Gazan organizers, though stressing that it was our decision to make, urged the international delegation to reject the “deal”. When this was announced most people (apart from a handful of hold-outs) immediately got off the buses and unloaded their bags. It was becoming clearer that this had been a tactic to divide the movement and, intentional or not, it succeeded beautifully. We had walked into a trap, and the movement was devouring itself. The steering committee immediately issued an apology to all of the delegates.

I was in a meeting at my hostel as this was unfolding, and we kept getting reports from visibly upset people who were coming from the bus stand-off. The meeting was interrupted by a phone call, from which we learned that the 100 delegates were getting off of the buses. After that, more and more emotionally strained people began pouring into our meeting in the small, dingy, smoke-filled lobby of the Sun Hotel. The room was completely packed and chaotic. Code Pink was no longer in a leading role, that was clear. Some new-age type person tried to take charge, to get everyone to hold hands and feel each other’s energy or some bullshit. I was doing my best to keep my mouth shut, as everyone was trying to talk, as I fantasized about catching the next bus out of town. I had been feeling more and more ineffectual and frustrated since it became clear a couple of days ago that we would not be going to Gaza, and that all we could hope to do was hold increasingly fragmented performances for audiences of police officers. I had lain awake the past three nights agonizing over how to do something useful with my time here, to not let down everyone who has supported me on this mission, to say nothing of the suffering Palestinians, who seemed so far away now in the midst of our struggles with Egypt and with each other.

A thin, mild-looking older woman, one of several who had been on a hunger strike for the past couple of days silenced everyone with a story about a man she had met in Gaza a few months before. This man was the mayor of a town which had been literally levelled. The Israelis bombed nearly every building, and then obliterated everything that was left with giant bulldozers which, incidentally, are custom-made by the US Caterpillar Corporation for this exact purpose. The mayor had lived in a large, multi-story building with 30 members of his family. Showing her around the remains of the town, he pointed to an unrecognizable pile of rubble. “That is my house” he told her flatly. The story put a lump in my throat, indeed, it does now as I am remembering this woman telling it, yet it is an utterly unremarkable one in Gaza. This was the reason we had all traveled across the world.

Eventually, our commonality of purpose began to edge out our differences. It is testament to the righteousness of this cause, I thought, that so many people of so many different types, philosophies, ages, and persuasions are all here, so far from their homes. Irish anarchists, Palestinian poets, grandmas from the American mid-west, holocaust survivors, Egyptians (the bravest of all, to dissent here), at least one Chasid, new-age nut jobs, old, bearded hippies, South African anti-aparteid activists, lawyers in khaki pants, professors, and taxi drivers are all here. The energy in the room began to focus on what may be our “last stand” in Cairo, the march we are planning hold tomorrow, to coincide with the march in Gaza. We are going to march “toward” Gaza. It’s possible that you won’t hear from me for a few days, but please don’t worry. The Egyptian police have shown a great reluctance to arrest or in any way harm the foreigners. A passport from a wealthy country acts as a sort of magical protective amulet, and we have a responsibility make use of a privilege that Palestinians and Egyptians do not enjoy. I would like to suggest to whoever is reading this, that they should feel free to contact the Egyptian Embassy at 202-895-5400 and ask for Omar Youssef, or ask your congressperson and senators to do so, and let them know the world is watching.

Thank You,

David Symons

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2 Responses to “All, or Nothing?”

  1. Debra Stoleroff Says:

    Hey David,

    Thanks again for the updates. Democracy Now has been reporting on the debacle in Cairo, but left out these details (though I haven’t yet listened to today’s report). I appreciate your ‘using’ your American passport for what, I agree, in this case are the right reasons… I also appreciated that among the hubbub, you were able to report a humorous moment — the woman who tried to get everyone to hold hands to feel the energy. It always helps to find the humor.

    You made a statement that Codepink was no longer in charge — is that still true? or was that temporary? If it was not temporary, what has developed for a decision making system? Sad, awful and discouraging as all of this is, your experience sounds like an educational moment (that comment coming from an educator of course)

    I look forward to your next update.
    take care, be well, be safe,
    Debra

  2. Caroline Says:

    David- it is such a gift to have your writings in the midst of all of this confusion. I’m sure we all look forward to an update. I have been reading your writing to the guys at work and have pointed many people toward your URL. It is a such a valuable resource.

    CodePink’s gazafreedommarch.org is continually updated, but reading what you’ve written seems much more raw and real, more first-hand than the articles and updates that are posted on official sites. Thank you!

    You are on my mind and in my heart. Take care and do whatever you need to do to feel you have served a purpose. -Caroline

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