We are either living in a reverie or in denial. When someone you know gets injured in this conflict, you expect to have feelings of outrage, deep sadness, or at least the manifestation of these feelings should be the normal outpourings of grief, sorrow and concern. And yet, news of casualties of a latest Israeli atrocity or an inter-factional battle does not faze people as it once did.
I want to be in hysterics. I know it is not something ordinary to say, but the truth is, this conflict has made people accept as normal, things that elsewhere would elicit deep reactions of wailing, or at least tears, or the momentary satisfaction of venting anger by breaking dishes across a room. Are the restrained reactions that many Palestinians have are merely a self-defense mechanism? Or are we really in denial about what is going on in down town Ramallah or on the beaches of the Gaza Strip? Has the daily dose of grim stories become such an ordinary thing in our life that we wake up each morning, wanting, needing a fix of the usual blood-drenched front page that we pour over while doing something as normal as having our morning coffee and scrambled eggs?
So, shouldn’t I be in hysterics? When I heard that a photojournalist that I know, Osama Silwadi, had been shot while doing something quite unexciting as to look out his office window during a procession on Ramallah’s main street, I cannot describe the feelings that went through my head. Funny, but I thought emotions are not supposed to be cerebral, and yet, I block feelings, like so many Palestinians (and even some foreigners living among us) have become used to doing, in order not to allow myself the luxury of sinking into a depression every time I hear a story of a child killed or a family annihilated, because there are far too many to count. Many of us have learned over the years that if you allow yourself the slightest chance to let the situation overcome you, you are done for and you will be unable to function.
Osama used to be a photojournalist for AFP and Reuters before he decided to become a freelancer and create a Palestinian image bank (www.apollo.ps). He is a father of three children, who now lies in a coma in a hospital bed in Tel Aviv, so far away from his family and friends in Ramallah that no one can visit him or offer his wife the support she needs at this time.
As Osama watched the procession below on Ramallah’s main street from his office window this past Sunday, boys were shooting into the air to commemorate a fallen comrade. I say boys because my (female) mind cannot accept the fact that mature men would be so irresponsible as to shoot in the air in a densely populated area, where the chance of a stray bullet hitting someone is not a remote possibility, but a certainty. And so, the bullet traveled from the barrel of one of those boys’ guns into Osama’s now non-existent spleen, up near his heart to lodge finally in his spinal cord.
The prognosis is not good and we all hope and pray for his recovery, knowing that when he finally wakes up from his coma, he will find that his reality has changed so dramatically around him and he will have to grapple with whether or not he will be able to resume his life as he had once lived it. All those times in the field when he knew that he was a taking chance on life by snapping shots of stone-throwing youths confronting soldiers, or non-violent protestors against the Wall, did he never stop to think that life is so fragile in any case that even a simple walk under rickety scaffolding or taking the wrong turn in a road can result in a fatal accident?
Not to sound like a cliché, but such is life, whether you have lived in a conflict zone all your life or not, you cannot cower in your house forever in the off-chance that you might be struck by lightening. Perhaps, however, people who have gone through trauma feel invincible and the sense of danger is blunted and lightly brushed aside, and so it could quite have possibly been those thoughts that went through Osama’s mind seconds before the impact of the bullet ripped through his body.
It is odd how yesterday morning, when I heard the news, all I could think about is how ordinary this news sounded, despite the fact that Osama had been on my mind quite often these past few days, because I was looking at some recent photos I had taken with his voice about light, lines and frame running through my head. I realized with some unease that I lost the ability to be shocked, indeed a friend told me once that he also lost the ability to be astonished by such things as the first flowering of spring or the birth of a child and that is how I feel sometimes, like I am a car in neutral mode most of the time. And while I am deeply saddened by what has happened to Osama, I am unable to reach down into that deep place where I will allow myself to feel more than the very superficial of feelings and I know that tears will not come.
It completely worries me, this sense that we are becoming a nation of zombies, who have turned off the tap of basic human responses to bad and good news alike that something like the recent inter-factional fighting is not so shocking or unexpected. Once you stop being shocked, then you stop being afraid, and once you stop being afraid, you can do anything out of the bounds of acceptable human behavior. The signs of intimidating armed men running unrestrained among the population should be dealt with immediately and decisively.
More importantly, the indications that we are heading toward a civil war that so many are trying to suppress and deny, will become a full-blown reality if this is allowed to continue and then there will be no turning back to a time when Palestinians put the national interests before the factional, if ever there were such a time. If that should happen, there will be more innocent bystanders like Osama, who will pay the heavy price of the craziness that we have sunken to in recent months, and ultimately Palestine will hemorrhage outwards and be drained of its wealth of people, who today still have the ability to save it from becoming yet another tragic tale for the history books.