HUMILIATION, MARTYRDOM AND DEHUMANIZATION IN RAMALLAH
By Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate for literature, visited Ramallah
last week as part of a delegation from the International Parliament of
Writers. Here is an excerpt of his reflections.
Arafat! Arafat! Arafat! He's to blame! That is what one hears repeatedly
from Ariel Sharon and George Bush.
How can anyone with even a minimal grasp of the psychology of humiliation
and desperation imagine that, within the context of the Middle East conflict,
any one individual such as Arafat, no matter how highly respected by his
followers, how sacrosanct his authority, could control a form of action
that stems from both collective and individual desperation and trauma?
Arafat is simply not in control of the many arms of the Palestinian resistance.
Not even the various resistance groups can boast absolute control over
individual acts of determination and resourcefulness.
Timothy McVeigh took down more than 150 souls in Oklahoma in one fell
swoop. No one has attempted to heap on the president of the pro-gun lobby
the sole responsibility for McVeigh's homicidal resolve to avenge the
victims of Waco. Nor, indeed, did anyone hold the prime minister of Israel
responsible for the action, in 1994, of the Israeli military reservist,
a medical doctor, who opened fire on a congregation of Muslim worshipers
in a mosque in Hebron, killing a score or more before turning the gun
The irrationalities of the Israeli government and the United States in
this regard have been mind-boggling. They would be ludicrous if they were
not fraught with such predictably tragic consequences. Their insistence,
for instance, at the early stages of the latest intifada, that the Palestinians
observe at least a week of violence-free moratorium before peace talks
could begin was surely apparent to all beings with a claim to reasoning
as an infantile demand. In the end, even Sharon had to acknowledge its
Now, watch our modern cyclops flail around like his mythical ancestor
Polyphemus, blinded by Ulysses, hurling explosive boulders in all directions
in the hope of hitting his assailant.
If I took anything away from my recent visit to Ramallah, it was the intensification
of my private terror that so much critical interventionism in world affairs
actually rests in the hands of leaders such as Sharon and Bush who have
limitless military power at their disposal.
No, there was no revelation on this trip. Some months ago, I used the
expression that the Israeli government was tearing out the heart and liver
of Arafat and feeding them to his children. And who could fail to predict
the consequences of such evisceration!
What I observed in Ramallah made me truly afraid for the Israelis -- that
many of those who believed that their political leader was treading the
right political path had never taken the trouble to project their minds
into the refugee camps of the Palestinians, into their daily existence,
even if the Israelis could not visit the physical reality to experience
firsthand the daily humiliation and the scars of memory that fully spell
out the condition of nearly all Palestinians today.
We saw the checkpoints through which thousands of Palestinians pass in
order to go to work daily at their sole economic source -- Israel. We
were trapped within endless motor convoys through which Palestinians pass
to and from work.
Those convoys reminded me of my own country, Nigeria, between the first
military coup and the Biafran civil war, and its immediate aftermath.
It recalled the faces of despair, resignation, but also the simmering
anger of a populace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogant
military. This sense of humiliation in Ramallah was just as palpable --
you could touch it, measure it and weigh it. It found expression in numerous
ways -- from the ordinary people in the streets, men, women and children,
to university lecturers and students, writers and civic leaders. It was
affirmed by foreigners who were compelled to share the lives of the Palestinians,
including the staff of the U.N. refugee organization, UNRWA.
Numerous were the accounts of women who gave birth at checkpoints because
of the inflexible control exercised over the movements of ordinary people,
of deaths that occurred within ambulances that were trapped in convoys
or at checkpoints. And, of course, we crunched mortar beneath our feet,
picked our way through the rubble of demolished houses and saw, without
any varnishing, the active policy of land encroachment by settlers --
demolish, create a no-man's land, then move into the vacated space when
the Palestinian occupants had been harassed beyond the range of guns.
These instances of dispossession, and their chilling methodology, have
been meticulously recorded by U.N. agencies, foreign embassies and visitors.
The evidence was overwhelming, indisputable.
Was I sufficiently detached during this visit? Of course. And then again,
of course not. It is not possible to take only a clinical, objective view
of the situation there. When human beings are being blown up in restaurants,
in hotels and with a singularly grotesque sense of timing -- while sitting
down to a holy feast, such as the Passover -- one experiences both rage
and horror at the perpetrators.
My skin crawls whenever I hear ''martyrdom'' used as an equivalent of
murder by suicide and especially mass murder.
Yet on the other side of terror, the state variety, to listen to a family
give a graphic account of tanks crashing through their walls at night,
bringing down mortar on sleeping members of the household, crushing innocents
in their sleep, it is equally impossible to remain viscerally disengaged
or fail to be morally assaulted.
If there are no innocents in any struggle, then let us give up the cause
(c) 2002, International Parliament of Writers/Global Viewpoint. Distributed
by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media
For immediate release (Distributed 4/8/02)