Gaza Freedom March–A Hard Choice

Way up—way down today. In spite of staying up writing far too late last night, I woke up early and began writing again.  It’s a scramble to both live and write at the same time—not to mention all the different ways I’m now hooked into cyberspace, all of which, like cheeping baby birds, demand attention.  I went down to the Lotus because I’d offered to write at least one press release,   And there are so many people on the internet at the same time that I am having trouble uploading pictures and sometimes even getting on.

But I finally escaped and went off to the French Embassy, with Elizabeth, the young anthropologist I met on the plane, and Max, a cheerful young man with a giant Palestinian flag which he has managed to unveil on the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, other key monuments.  They were talking about Jewish organizing and friends who had burned out and Elizabeth said, “You just have to understand that your whole life is going to be about resistance”  And that made me profoundly sad.  “That worries me,” I told her.  “It sounds like a recipe for burnout.  You need to know what your vision is, keep focused on that.” “Yeah, yeah,” she said.

I wouldn’t say that my whole life has been about resistance.  Really, I’ve lived a charmed and privileged life, getting to do the things I most love and sometimes even get paid for them, getting to fight for the things I care about and create some visions of my own.  But a lot of my life has certainly been devoted to the creation of a world where, I’d hoped, a younger generation would simply be able to live out their dreams, without constantly battling the same old forces we’d been swatting at for generations,  I’m fifty-eight.  Seems like we should have won already.

The scene at the French Embassy was inspiring.  The French encamped there on the 27th, when their busses were cancelled, and have been there ever since.   They came with tents and sleeping bags and the police basically formed a barricade between them and the street and let them stay.  They are allowed the use of one toilet inside the Embassy, and supporters have been able to bring them food and water.  There was lively chanting (I’ve just resigned myself to the chanting.  Maybe if I stop resisting I’ll learn to enjoy it) and Max unfurled his flag and activists danced it up and down the sidewalk.  People of all ages were having animated conversations while the cops looked on.  Many were interacting with the police, who were dressed in riot gear but had their helmets propped open and were mostly smiling and friendly.  The French Embassy is in Giza and the pyramids are tantalizingly close.

Then we went back to the center of town, to the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate where our hunger strikers were holding a vigil.  Twenty two people are on hunger strike, and while as those of you who know me will know, I’m not a big fan of fasting—at least, not for myself. Not, if I’m brutally honest, for any political or strategic reasons, I just really don’t want to do it. When you hear I’m on hunger strike, I tell my friends, pack your bags, grab the kids, shoot the kids and head for the hills, because it means things are really, really bad, probably beyond redemption.

But I could feel the power in this action and the commitment of the hunger strikers   The steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate are like a stage and it was filled with people, the hunger strikers in the center, flags and banners all around them, and lots of attention from the press.

We ducked behind the flags at the top of the steps to hold a meeting and hammer out a proposal for our big action.  The organizing has gone through some rocky transitions, hampered by a lack of any place we can meet all together, but I felt good about the consensus emerging through a variety of discussions.  I felt we were building to a mass, unified action with some strength, that might not get us to Gaza but might bring Gaza to the center of Cairo and the world’s attention.

An Egyptian activist made an impassioned speech, urging us all to march en masse and then go on hunger strike.  And, although as I said I would personally rather be boiled alive and served up at a State Dinner for Bush and Cheney than go on a hunger strike in the midst of action, I could feel the appeal.  I started to have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was doomed. Then some more rational and perhaps less sleep-deprived woman spoke up and said that we really can’t command everyone to hunger strike.  I decided to go get dinner before the evening meeting and the meeting with the trainers.

But then we got a piece of news, first circulated in whispers, then brought out into the open. Code Pink had persuaded Suzanne Mubarak to intervene, and she had arranged for two busloads to get permission to go.  Only a hundred people, however, and they could not go as the Gaza Freedom March, but only under the banner of Code Pink.  And they had to give the names right away to the Foreign Office, with no time to consult all the other groups or go through an open process of deciding who would go.

At the evening meeting, all hell broke loose.  I was only there for the beginning, unfortunately, because I had a commitment to go meet with the trainers.  When I left, things were calm but they descended into lots of anger, bitterness and recrimations.  Lisa was facilitating—although she and I have had nothing to do with that level of the organizing.  Neither one of us was any part of the decision making around the negotiations or the offer or the choosing of who would go—but because she was facilitating the meeting, she caught the brunt of the energy and when I got back to her she looked really drained.

I wish I’d been there—I could maybe have said something helpful or at least given her some energetic support, but I was working with the trainers on a new agenda and by the time I got back it was all over.  Plus I was wrestling with my own dilemma.  Jodie told me my name was on the list to go.  “But I’ve been to Gaza,” I said.  Ann Wright had announced that one criteria they used in choosing who went was to pick people who had never been there before. She said, no, they meant people who hadn’t been there since the siege began in 2007.  And the names were already sent it—I was on the list whether I wanted to go or not.  I had until 7 am when the bus would leave to decide.  If I didn’t go, one of the alternates would take my place.

I could make a good political case for going.  The Gazans, we were told, wanted internationals to come and support their march on the 31st.  The writer in me longed to go, to see what conditions are like now, to find stories to tell that might move people and help them see the issue in a different light.  That writer part has a ruthless edge—every writer needs one to cut through the thousand distractions of life and focus, and I could so easily believe that the best thing I could do for the people of Gaza was to go and tell their stories.

But it didn’t feel right.  I just can’t begin to express how very much more I’d rather be on the bus to Gaza then preparing to sleep out in the grimy, smoggy streets in the midst of a circle of Egyptian cops among a crowd of hunger strikers.  And I’m a smart person and I can talk myself into almost anything.  But I don’t want to do something that I have to talk myself into the rightness of, over and over again, for months to come.  I’ve done that with other decisions—like whether to stay in the Israeli jail and fight their denial of entry or get on the plane and go.  Eventually I went—it was probably the right decision but I’ll never really know and I was second-guessing it for months after.  I read the computer Tarot—a nice little widget on my iPhone for those moments when I need supernatural guidance and don’t have time to deal or distance enough to read for myself.

The cards were clear   I’m staying in Cairo.  I asked myself, is there a permaculture principle I can bring to bear on this?  Yes—“Value Relationships.”  One of the great political gains that can come from all of this is the relationships we build among activists and movements and organizations.  To take part in something which causes such deep divisions—not because its necessarily wrong but because of how it came down—jeopardizes all of that.   We can do good political work here.  I can help do some work to heal the bitterness and the divisions.

I’m finishing this in the meeting room of the hotel.  Fiona and Arla, who are on the alternative list, come in.  They’re both struggling with the decision. We read the computer Tarot. We bat it back and forth. And now its 3 am.  The sole good of this mess, for me, is at least I don’t have to pack!

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