Archive for January, 2010


January 9, 2010

First, I would like to apologize to you, dear readers, for my lapse in communication. The last few days have been unusually full, and I’ve had little time to write. By the way, did you know that you can subscribe to this blog? I notice that only a couple of people have done so. Rather than tediously checking seven or eight times a day to see if I’ve sent yet another riveting report shooting across the universe, only to be disappointed once again by the stale posts of days gone by, you’ll receive an email informing you of my latest efforts. Just a suggestion.

It took some time, but I made it out of the gorgeous, suffocating, dirty fish tank of Cairo. I planned to leave on Monday, but was told that I had to get a return-entry visa in order to come back for my return flight. To get this visa, I had to enter El Mogamma, an immense, grey eminence of  a government building which appeared to have been designed for the movie Brazil. After winding my way through a labyrinth of corridors, mountains of files (no computers anywhere), metal detectors, human beings wrapped in colorful blankets mysteriously sleeping in hallways on cold, marble floors, the usual heavily armed police, and being sent from one window to another, and another, I was finally given a form and was told “come back tomorrow”. I returned the next day, paid 50 Egyptian pounds, had my passport taken away, and was told “come back tomorrow”. I returned the following day and finally got my visa. The man who handed me my passport back was a devout Muslim, as was clear from his beard, long robe and zebibah, a large, dark callous on the forehead which is the result of pressing one’s head against the floor dozens of times a day in prayer, a religious fashion statement unique to Egyptian men. With my passport, he handed me a book awkwardly entitled How My Great Love For Jesus Christ Led Me To Embrace Islam. “For you” he said, smiling.

Then I was in a cab . . . at the bus station . . . on a bus out of Cairo! Amazingly, the woman sitting next to me on the bus was the same woman who had sat next to me on the flight from America 10 days earlier. There was also another American on the bus who had been on our flight. We had not gotten into Gaza but, by god, we would visit her sister, the West Bank – via Israel, of course. Crossing the Sinai desert, we discussed potential problems with Israeli customs. Of course, it couldn’t be revealed that we had any political purpose or Palestinian sympathies, or we would not get in. I had already gotten rid of my subversive literature and torn out of my notebook all the writing I had done about the events in Cairo and Gaza. I had removed the “I Support Palestine” sticker from my accordion. I was prepared to play “Hava Nagila” (derisively known in the klezmer world as “the ‘H’ tune”) for the border guards if necessary. I was concerned about the pictures in my digital camera, many of demonstrations, and I took out the little information disk and fretted about what to do with it. “You should keester that” said Joseph, a college student who had a Noam Chomsky tee-shirt that he was going to have to get rid of. He also had gotten Chomsky’s autograph one time, for some reason, and told us so. Rather than try shove a hard, plastic rectangle up my ass, as had been so helpfully suggested, I put it in my wallet and hoped it wouldn’t be an issue. I had heard many bad stories about Israeli border guards. It is not unheard of for them to fire several rounds through your laptop computer if they suspect you might be an activist. Once again, however, there were no problems. After passing through Egyptian customs where, as it turned out, I could have gotten in five minutes the visa for which I had waited days in Cairo, I easily lied my way through Israeli customs, the bored young conscripts only half-heartedly searching my bags. Then I took a taxi into a little neon tourist-trap of a town on the Red Sea, ate a shawarma pita the size of a Torah scroll, and took a bus to Tel Aviv.

I was there to meet up with Yonatan Shapira, one of the most remarkable people I know. For those who don’t know him, his story is worth recounting. Yonatan was a captain in the Israeli Air Force, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who, in 2003, caused an uproar in Israel and around the world by instigating 27 Air Force officers, including himself, to draft and sign a letter, in which they refused to fly “immoral and illegal” missions any longer in occupied Palestine. There had been earlier Israeli refuseniks but, though courageous, they had been mainly young conscripts of low rank. The Air Force is the most elite branch of the military here, and pilots have an almost mythic reputation. Since this act of defiance, Yonatan has become one of the most informed, passionate, and wise of Israeli peace activists. He’s also a very sweet man, and a fine musician and singer, with a deep, sexy voice.

My bus was early, so I pulled out my accordion and played a little bit, standing near the cab stand outside the bus station. Oddly enough, when I had played my Jewish music on the street for the Arabs in Cairo, people were delighted. Now, in the land of the Jewish People, someone almost immediately began yelling at me to stop. Fortunately, Yonatan soon pulled up, waving a Palestinian flag out the window and grinning.

To be continued soon . . .

Tales from Gaza

January 4, 2010

The other night, the “token delegation”, the handful of activists who chose to accept the Egyptian government’s offer, returned from Gaza. Some of them gave a short presentation in a hallway at the Lotus Hotel about what they had seen and experienced there. The overwhelming impression that I got from them was that, if anything, the conditions there are even worse than I could have imagined. A “tour of horror” is how one woman described it. One after another, the stories came, most of them unbearably sad:

An entire, huge extended family exterminated by the “most moral army in the world”. A man who spent 15 years saving to buy a house, only to watch it turned into rubble in minutes after he had gotten to live in it only one year. The drawings made by young children: blood pouring from dismembered bodies, a giant eye crying tears of blood. Children disfigured by white phosphorous, children with hunks of shrapnel still lodged in their small bodies. There were many stories like these, and several people wept as they were telling them. Fareed, my Palestinian poet friend, talked about a family of 17 living in one room. Though giving handouts to individuals was discouraged, Fareed tried to slip a little of the money he had raised to the head of the family. He refused it. “That” said Fareed “is a proud Palestinian”. Some spoke of a “siege within a siege”, that is, the Hamas government, which has grown more repressive under the Israeli siege. How can democracy exist under such conditions? There were nicer stories too. A German man spoke of playing marbles with some children, who were having a great time, just like kids anywhere. Afterward, they insisted on giving him their marbles, and he held them in his hand as he spoke to us, overcome with emotion. A couple of people spoke about a hip-hop group they met in Gaza who, to their amazement, had perfectly mastered the mannerisms, dress, and attitude of American rappers. “They manage to do so much with so little” someone said. “While we do so little with so much”. I wish there were more such stories.

This is the reason we were not allowed to go to Gaza. It was never just about preventing a protest march. The Israelis and Americans do not want the world to see what they did there, and what they continue to do. It is for the same reason that all journalists were barred from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

We live inside a fog of lies. We are engaged in a battle between the testimony of witnesses, and well-funded lies. The more money is spent on a particular lie, the more often that lie will be repeated. For the truth to become overwhelming, many people will need to bear witness and, scorched by what they have seen, deliver the truth to those who trust them. Either Israel is a genocidal crazy state, or its detractors are anti-semitic liars. The UN is anti-semitic. The World Court is anti-semitic. Amnesty International is anti-semitic. Jimmy Carter is Anti-semitic. Nelson Mandela is anti-semitic. Arabs are anti-semitic (though they are themselves Semites). 59% of Europeans (the percentage, according to a 2003 poll of 7,515 people all 15 EU countries who identified Israel as the single greatest threat to world peace) are anti-semitic.

Stephen Colbert had a line, when he was roasting President Bush at a White House reporters’ dinner: “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Is it possible that reality has an anti-Israel bias?

David Symons

Notes on a Debacle

January 3, 2010

I have received a number of comments and emails praising me for my participation in what was intended to be the Gaza Freedom March. As a group, we have gotten a couple of letters from organizations in Gaza, offering their sincere thanks for our efforts on their behalf.

I, for one, do not accept their thanks.

For the sake of morale, it is generally best to stress the positive when examining the results of an effort involving months of work and great personal investment by many good and brave people, and I will try to do so. In the case of the fiasco in Cairo (and “fiasco” is the only word that can do justice to the past week) it seems to me that if we are to dredge anything positive from this experience, it must be the lessons we take from it. This will only work if we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves, and refuse to applaud the sort of self-congratulatory speeches that people are apt make in the midst of a decisive defeat.

For those who have not been following this in the international press (there has been little in the US media, with the exception some extensive coverage by Democracy Now!) I’ll give a short recap of December 31st:

At dawn, the police surrounded the Lotus, the hotel where the largest number of GFM delegates have been staying, including most of the leadership. They set up metal barricades, behind which they formed the now familiar human wall of young men wearing body armor, helmets, and clubs the length of baseball bats. The activists in the Lotus awoke to find themselves prisoners, unable to get to the big march that had been planned to coincide with the march in Gaza. I had gotten up in the early morning, and had gone out to buy food for what I was anticipating would be a multi-day stand-off with police. There was a precedent for this. The 300 person French delegation, in an inspiring display of endurance, had been occupying the sidewalk in front of their embassy for the past four days, surrounded by literally hundreds of police in their own mini-Gaza Strip, refusing to disperse. Their ambassador had even come out to spend some of the first night with them (unlike ours, who not only would not deign to meet with us, but actually asked the Egyptian police to detain us). I had already packed everything else I would need to live on the street for several days and had attended a non-violent resistance training the day before. We were expecting arrests at the very least, and had written the phone number of our legal team on our arms. I happened to pass by the Lotus which, at 8:00 in the morning was already surrounded by 50 or so police officers. I forgot about my shopping and ran back to my hotel, the Sun, to tell people what was happening. I assumed that our hotel would meet with a similar fate, since quite a few of us were staying there as well but, in an affront to our sense of importance, the police never showed up. It was decided that, in spite of the Lotus blockade, we would stick to the original plan, which was to leave our various hotels individually or in small groups at different times, protest paraphernalia hidden, posing as tourists. Taking different, circuitous routes, we would all arrive at the Egyptian Museum, a massive building in a prominent location, where we would begin to march in the general direction of Gaza, until we were stopped, at which point we would all sit down and refuse to move.

Of course, the police already knew what was happening, and were waiting. When they closed in, people decided to sit down, blocking traffic. Naturally, the police dragged demonstrators away. A couple of people were beaten, dragged by their hair, or had their shoulders dislocated by police dragging them from the street. I don’t want to harp too much on the violence against protesters, as it is barely worth mentioning in the context of violence against Palestinians by Israelis, and Egyptians by their own government. Torture of dissidents is common here and I am always aware of the privileges I enjoy as a member of the powerful USA gang. My sympathies lie more with the police than with the protesters, who are probably very poorly paid and have far less freedom than any of us visitors. To make a long story short, we were corralled on a sidewalk in the usual “free speech” cage made of hundreds of cops. People were even allowed to enter and leave the cage eventually, though only individually, and if one left, one might have to wait to get back in. It worked out better for the police to have us quarantined in one area, rather than wandering around and causing trouble. Their main objective, I realized throughout many of these sorts of demonstrations, was to keep Egyptians away from us, and vice versa. If any locals seemed curious about what was happening, they were immediately chased away by the police. They are not afraid of us, I thought, they are afraid of their own people. They did not want anyone photographing or filming the demonstrations, and there were always plainclothes guys all over the periphery whose only job seemed to be to stop people from taking pictures. Some were fairly intimidating, while others would simply wave a hand irritably or wag a scolding finger and say “No photo. No photo.” as if they were just camera-shy. There was no way they could stop it, of course, since everyone had a camera, and taking pictures therefore became a form of protest in itself, or a least a way of irritating the police. After about six hours of a couple of hundred people occupying a filthy piece of sidewalk, chanting, singing protest songs, chatting, delivering rousing speeches, and dancing to the sweet, sweet music of someone who had thought to bring an accordion, a vote was taken. Should we stay for days, as the French were doing, stay until after midnight and the beginning of the new year, or quit right away? The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of quitting right away, which I found disappointing, personally. If the French could do it, why couldn’t we? Still, I have to admit that it did seem a bit futile to take over a sidewalk indefinitely, albeit one at a busy intersection. I watched everyone leave, one by one or in small groups, and played my accordion. The police told me to leave too, and I refused. After all, I was the only one left, what harm could I do? I continued playing as they surrounded me. A couple of the cops tossed coins at me and laughed, and I thanked them. When it was clear that I wasn’t going to stop playing the accordion, they started to drag me by one of my arms, though I was able to keep playing with the other. They started to take my bags away. I looked around, and there was no watching except maybe thirty or forty police. This is stupid and pointless, I thought. I got out of there while the option was still open.

Later that night, a New Year’s Eve gathering was called in Tahrir Square. We tried to walk to the Nile, but were stopped by police, and so instead stayed in the square to ring in the new year with candles, and a large number of our old club and gun-wielding friends in attendance. Some people made speeches. I can’t recall ever feeling so sad on New Year’s Eve before. I left the crowd, to sit alone on a bench and look at the moon, which was full and hung directly overhead like a dim, yellowish light bulb. There was no one in the huge square except the activists and the police. Everyone else knew to keep their distance. Eventually, people started calling for music. “Where’s the accordion player?” people were shouting. I tried to slip away, but was caught. They wanted something upbeat. They wanted to dance. My heart wasn’t really in it, but I did my best to help people forget the sadness that we all must have been feeling. It was the least I could do.

No one had really been ready for the incredible challenge of trying to organize a large, physically diffuse and philosophically and linguistically diverse group of people in a totalitarian police state. Making decisions by consensus is difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting, as anyone who has tried to do so knows. Trying to do so without even being able to hold a general meeting is still more difficult. The night before, I attended a planning meeting which filled several hotel rooms, the hotel hallway, the stairwell, and the hallway downstairs. It was simply impossible to hear what anyone was saying, or to see or get anywhere near those who were speaking. The hotel staff tried to squeeze past us to perform their duties. Every so often, a loud simultaneous “Aye!” would be heard as some decision was made, yet there was no way for most of us to find out what was being decided. Nearly every bit of information that one heard from one person would soon be contradicted by another from someone else. It’s likely that the Egyptian police had a clearer idea of what we were going to do than 2/3 of the activists did. It did turn out that some of the supposed hotel employers were actually police spies, though this was hardly a surprise.

Added to the communication problem was the fact that no one had really prepared, psychologically or tactically, for the possibility that we would not be able to get into Gaza. This was no accident. Though we all knew we might not get in, the Egyptian officials with whom the March organizers had been negotiating for months had given indications that we would be allowed in, as long as all of the proper protocol was followed. When it was announced, a week before we were scheduled to enter Gaza, that we were being denied, long after everyone had purchased plane tickets and many delegates were already in Cairo, a sort of panic began to emerge. There had been no discussion of a “plan B” among the larger group and, in fact, such discussion was strongly discouraged by the organizers of the March, who had invested everything in a diplomatic, non-confrontational strategy with the Egyptian government. We had to assume that our emails were being read, our phones tapped, and our meetings infiltrated by Egyptian intelligence, and we were told by the organizers that any discussion of possible protests in Cairo would only antagonize the government and lessen our chances of getting into Gaza.

This strategy of diplomacy, though nobly intended, was a failure. In retrospect, I believe that Egypt never had any intention of letting us in. I suspect that as soon as organizing began for this march, the governments of the US, Israel, and Egypt decided how they would handle it. Their strategy was to continue to negotiate until the 11th hour, withholding an answer but giving every indication of their willingness to cooperate, while for months thousands of activists squandered millions of dollars and untold of hours of labor, and then to clamp down suddenly and completely once it was too late to divert those resources, making it impossible for us to gather or move in large groups, or even to travel out of Cairo. A further divisive tactic, that of offering a deal to the organizers, at the last minute, to allow 100 “good” activists to enter Gaza, to be chosen instantly by edict or not at all, while denying the 1,260 remaining “hooligans” proved extremely effective at damaging the solidarity of the movement, and the credibility of its leaders.

From the beginning, and at every crucial step, we walked directly in the traps that were set for us. Noble intentions, when ineptly applied, are not especially heroic. Therefore, I will not accept the thanks of the people of Gaza, who will continue to rot in a maximum security prison, reduced to what the director of operations for the UN Refugee and Works Agency calls a “subhuman existence”, until they are freed by a less diplomatic, less credulous, less easily divided mass movement.

Did we accomplish anything? Certainly. There was some press, which will help at least to get a few people thinking about Palestine, which may lead to a desire for more knowledge about it. The more one learns about the historical record and the current situation (I’m speaking of actual facts, not the propaganda that passes for responsible discourse in the US) of Israel and the US’s behavior toward Palestinians, the more appalled and outraged one becomes. That sense of outrage occasionally leads to action. Perhaps more importantly, I hope that our little effort, combined with the simultaneous demonstrations that took place all over the world on the 31st, will help the people in Gaza to feel less alone. It’s true that the world has turned away, has forgotten about Gaza. It was thought by many that the especially barbaric and sadistic character of “Operation Cast Lead” would finally shock the world into taking the side of Israel’s victims, but this has not happened. I imagine being at the bottom of a deep well, calling out for help. I can hear voices, and see shadows of people walking past, but no one stops. Also, gratifyingly, many Egyptians have quietly expressed to us their appreciation for our efforts on behalf of their “brothers”, as well as envy that they are not able to do same without grave personal risk. I have been inspired, personally, by the remarkable people I have met here, people whose conscience and bravery and dedication are humbling. If we can make a million more of these people, we will win.

Could our resources have been more wisely used? Without a doubt, though it’s easier to criticize than to envision.

Thank you for reading,

David Symons

Pure Vanity

January 2, 2010

The Gaza Me-dom March (more substantial post coming soon):