by Salam Awwad
I shield my eyes from the sun that is scorching everyone beneath it. It is another day of the heat wave that has hit Palestine. After over a week of temperatures easily above 100 degrees—most places void of air conditioners and fans—my body becomes accustomed to the heat and I learn to endure it just as the locals do. I squint, trying to catch a better view of what was happening in the valley far ahead of me. I can make out the colors of the Palestinian flag—the red, green, black, and white dancing through the air as the hot wind flirted with them. I can hear the cries of protest ringing in the distance as the group of a hundred individuals—Palestinians, internationals, and even some Israelis—diligently march toward the other side of the village.
We are in Bil’in, a small farming village on the outskirts of Ramallah located in the West Bank. For the past 10 years, every single Friday after jumm’a* prayer, the people of the village march to the “forbidden” end of the village. Here, the apartheid wall cuts through their farmland splitting their village. My friend Hamde, a local to the village, would often tell me stories about grazing his father’s sheep on the hills of Bil’in as a young boy—hills that could no longer be seen as they have been razed, and in their place stand illegal Israeli settlements. Every Friday these people march to defy the rules and restrictions that are enforced upon them on their own land.
I stand back that Friday, not joining in the march due to my swollen ankle. Having hurt it the day before while walking down make-shift roads of the village, I know I won’t be able to run on it to escape danger if it comes, so I watch from a distance. Before the protesters even near the wall, I can see three Israeli tanks set up at the end, each manned with at least six soldiers. I continue to stare, anticipating what I know will come, having experienced it the week before. My focus is suddenly disrupted by a little Palestinian boy who notices the improvised wrap on my ankle and asks me if I would like to have the EMTs in the ambulance wrap it properly. I walk with him to the ambulance nearby; every Friday, this ambulance stays out here to treat any injuries that may ensue from the protest.
I climb inside and am greeted by two EMTs, who are also eagerly watching the demonstration. One of them moves to the back and sits in front of me; I take my sock and shoe off as he lifts my leg up next to him. As he wraps my ankle, he asks how it got hurt. When I explain to him that I hurt it the day before, he jokingly says in Arabic: “If you hurt it yesterday that means it is not my responsibility to treat it! I only treat people who get hurt in the demonstration.” After exchanging laughs and answering the same questions I get from everyone in Palestine: “What village are you from?”, “From what family are you?”, “How long have you lived in America?”, the mood in the ambulance shifts from light-hearted conversation to seriousness. I see the clouds of white tear gas start to fill the air around us as the EMT sitting in the front seat tells me to quickly shut the door before any gas gets in.
I hear the pounding footsteps in the distance, accompanied by rubber bullets and the blast of tear gas canisters being launched from the tanks. My thoughts go back to the week before, recalling how I had been caught in it, desperately trying to run back up the hill on an unpaved road as the tanks continued to drive closer and closer while increasing the amount of tear gas canisters they launched. The tanks and soldiers had gotten so close that multiple canisters had started to land at my feet, tear gas spraying straight into my face—the canisters not more than an inch away from hitting me. I had forced myself to keep moving, knowing that if one of the canisters were to hit me from a close distance, it could be the end of my life. It would burn right through my skin and into my body, just like it did to Hamde’s cousin a few years earlier, burning hole in his chest and killing him.
Here I was today, sitting in the ambulance and hoping that everyone was safe—or as safe as they could be, at least. The ambulance needs to drive down into the demonstration, in case anyone is hurt and can’t make their way up, but I tell them I want to get out first. After a few minutes, the gas clears and the EMT says I can open the door. I get out as they drive away, leaving me standing there, now surrounded by a dozen or so people who had run all the way up from the dip of the valley. Most were doubled over, coughing from gas inhalation, trying to catch their breath. Before I could even think to help anyone, the familiar sound starts to fill the air again; more gas was being launched, and the tanks had driven closer than any of us had noticed. They start launching the canisters in a direction so that the wind will carry the gas towards us, and within seconds I find myself gasping for air. The heat and dryness of the air make the tear gas even worse. I can hardly see as my eyes blur and my skin starts to burn from the contact with the gas. The gas fills my lungs and burns my chest. My insides feel like they are ablaze and as I eagerly try to suck in air, I am met with suffocation. I can’t move.
Through the thick white clouds of gas that surround me, a hand reaches out and grabs mine. AbdelKhaliq, a 15 year-old local that I befriended on my previous visits to Bil’in holds tight to my hand, running, leading me to safety. He pulls me into a car, closing the door behind me as he gets into the front seat. He turns with a worried look on his face, asking me if I’m okay. I try to answer that I am fine, but can’t make a sound as the words are trapped in my burning throat and my concentration is focused on getting myself to breathe. He stares at me for a few moments before getting out of the car. I can still hear the sound of tear gas canisters being launched as I sit in the car that, although filled with hot and thick air, was free from any gas. A few minutes pass when I see AbdelKhaliq walking back towards the car. He sits once again in the front seat and turns with a big smile on his face, hand extended towards me: he is holding an ice cream cone. He nudges with his head for me to take it, still keeping the smile on his face. I stare at him before gradually taking it from his hand; I can’t help but to burst out in laughter.
In that moment, as our laughter fills the car, I am reminded that Allah’s beauty has no boundaries. Here I was in what seems like one of life’s ugliest moments, under apartheid and occupation, surrounded by people that are abused and mistreated, who have every justification to resent the world they live in that ignores their plight. Here I was sitting in a car with a kid who has lived every year of his entire life surrounded by violence and hatred from his oppressors, and he is smiling. He is laughing. He is caring and compassionate, despite the environment of hatred and racism that he is forced to live and grow up in. I am reminded that even in what seem like the ugliest moments of life, beauty blooms: Allah’s beauty manifests. In that moment, with my ankle swollen and throbbing, my clothes covered in dirt and dust, my eyes and nose still burning, and my throat partly closed from inhaling teargas, struggling to breathe as I sit in a random car where outside the window Palestinian flags wave through the thick, white clouds of gas filling the air, with a rainbow ice cream cone in my hand and a 15 year-old boy smiling and urging me to eat it, I find myself in one of the most beautiful moments of my entire life, and no amount of teargas sting could ever make me regret being there.
*jumm’a - congregation prayer performed every Friday amongst Muslims
Photograph by Hamde AbuRahma