Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Going home

The time we had available in Gaza was too short. We had been delayed a day in Al Arish by the shenanigans of the Egyptians but even so, the fact that we were being rushed in and out by the convoy leadership warrents an explanation from them.

Due to the unvetted nature of the convoy personnel, (something that needs addressing on any future convoy), I can understand to some extent the fear the convoy leaders might have had that certain people could not be trusted to behave. We had after all witnessed many occasions where fights were picked with authorities who were actually just being a little over zealous in their attempts to help us. We had seen official photographers and journalists assaulted. We had seen ordinary people, such as toll booth collectors, verbally abused as if we had some rights over everyone else because...well why? Because we were a convoy? Because we were British? Because we were on a "humanitarian mission"? Nothing excuses that kind of ignorance. I think many of our hosts were shocked by the rudeness, complaints and posturing of some of our number. My image of the "Brit" abroad, is of a white guy with a pint of lager and an imperialist hangover. To see people of, say, Pakistani descent behaving with that despicable British arrogance was new to me. Actually I think it was new to most of the Muslim's on the convoy, who despaired of them and constantly apologised on their behalf. They are no more responsible for them, than I am for white people.

The fact that some people quickly established their credentials as "ignorant Brits abroad", perhaps encouraged a leadership culture which was exclusive, often remote, dismissive and aloof. I often felt as though we were children on a school trip who had no business knowing where we were going, when we were going, or when we might hope to arrive. The briefness of time in Gaza was simply exasperating. Naturally we had to attend civic functions, but in fact we were not given anything like enough time to interact with the Gazan people. I, in particular, was there to gather stories and I had precious little opportunity to do so. Therefore the next thing happened...

We were bussed to the Rafah crossing back into Egypt just two days after arriving. No one had explained to us how long we would have in Gaza, or what the opportunities would be for us to stay on. I was determined to stay and made frantic phone calls to do so. We were getting mixed messages. Apparently the government were very happy for us to stay, however the convoy leaders, or so we were told, encouraged the government to insist we all left. It felt as though, after four weeks of driving, we were being dumped by Viva Palestina at the first opportunity. This may be a completely wrong impression, but without any explanation from them such assumptions were rife.

At the Rafah crossing I turned back and walked through to the Gazan side saying that I wanted to stay. I was not alone, Rasser, Bro, Shac and Farouk, the Brummie boys we had met on the ferry to Tangier, also wanted to stay. John, too, flipped his decision and joined us. Confusion reigned, nothing new there then! Eventually a group of about 30 people, some of whom had not been on the convoy, but had joined us in Gaza were addressed by a very concerned British Consular official who begged us to leave. The convoy leadership similarly stressed that we could be trapped in Gaza for a month, or more, if Egypt decided to close the crossing again. Other concerns were more obviously that we might be killed. The Israelis were bombing and shelling as we were leaving. Perhaps they were literally "parting shots", but the idea that the "war" is over is entirely false, you are just not able to read about it, or see it on your televisions. Ask yourselves, why not? Then ask the newspapers and television companies. Another concern, and I really have no idea how true this is, is that gangs might kidnap us and hold us to ransom. I'm flattered, but I don't think they'd get much for me.

It was an excruciating decision. Everything except my common sense was staying "stay", "risk it", "they'll have to open the border again, there's too many of us not to". But head had to rule the heart. I was running out of money. I had to get home to pay my mortgage. These seem such pathetic concerns when Gazans have no homes at all. A compromise was reached whereby we could stay two more days and then be brought back to the crossing and hope the Egyptians would open the border. A gamble, but a good one. However, in reality that meant only one more day in Gaza and that was not enough for me to meet theatre and film workers, young people and to set up future contacts. It also it meant relying on the hospitality of the Gazans and they had done enough already. How could we take more food from people who had so little themselves. I will go back, but not as a burden.

We were a sorry sight dragging our bags back through the Egyptian side, defeated and demoralised. We got a taxi to Al Arish and drove past the fire engine and some Libyan trucks still in the compounds where the battle with the riot police and other more sinister men had taken place three nights previously. Kamal, the Aussie fire engine driver, had been refused entry to Gaza by the Egyptians because he hadn't a British passport, no one has heard from him since. We are all extremely concerned for his well being. Also Aki and Sid the two tyre repair men who were driving their equipement back have been stopped at the Tunisian border with Libya and we don't know how they are going to get home.

We, meanwhile, arrived in Cairo, booked into a hotel where we slept and dreamt like crazy (actually I have been ever since). Next day, making the most of the city, we hit a huge and ancient souk called something that sounded like Shamal Shiek and bought Palestinian scarves to take home to our supporters. To suddenly be tourists was very odd. No policemen following us everywhere we went "for our own security". It all felt frivolous and frivolous felt good. However, the strains of holding our relationships together had now lost their reason and it was time to part.

Catching a plane home we met up with some other convoy members which was lovely, two older women and their son and daughter. When we arrived at Heathrow they were welcomed by their extended families with two banners, "Welcome home our hero Mum" and "Welcome home our hero sister". It was very touching to see such love and pride in their achievements.

Coming home is always strange, but after such a relentless mission, with so little sleep, perhaps the disorientation is even greater. Mind you somethings don't change, my son Tom had had a few parties whilst I was away and had made his usual cursory attempt to clean it up. I unpacked a beautiful gift for him, but he's got his eye on my Palestinian football shirt. I had a feeling I wouldn't have that for long! Being plunged back into cleaning the house, doing laundry and discovering that the bank had bounced my mortgage payment further dulls the senses. "The Convoy Blues, people are calling it. Perhaps I should write a song.

What are we all missing? Dangerous driving, certainly, long hours, little food, endless bread and biscuits, revolting toilets, multicoloured police and security staff, plain clothes men who have perfected the art of sidling silently to eavesdrop on conversions, rows, rumours and diesel fumes, all gone.

But I suspect we are also missing a purpose, an objective, a shared direction, which by following we could become a community. Perhaps we are missing each other, such different people from such different cultures and classes, religions, faiths and interpretations of the meaning, if any, of our being here. Perhaps we are missing the feeling that we can actually change things and make a difference in the world, that politics are ours, in our hands and not in those of grey, baying careerists in Parliament. For four weeks we were free of our jobs, or lack of them, bills, supermarkets, relationships, or lack of them. Free to pursue the agenda of bringing relief to the besieged people of Gaza. Free also to pursue our own agendas, our very personal and individual needs to do this and risk our lives. In so doing perhaps we felt more alive again. Perhaps we all need to drag ourselves out of the numbing, anesthetic, complacency of comfortable Western lives and pitch ourselves into someone else's reality.

The Aztecs believed in the duality of all things, in a Nature formed and governed by the dialectical interaction of opposites, day and night, fire and water, earth and sky, love and hate. Beneath the sun and moon we have travelled, friend and foe, from the richness of one life to the poverty of another, beneath a Union Jack, which has long signalled oppression, but now became a symbol of our solidarity with resistance. As we moved closer, we were only nearing our return. And now home we are somehow still far away, in Gaza.

Until such time as the people of Palestine can live without threat to their lives and land, we convoy members will always be in Gaza. Until that time perhaps we can begin to make that journey again, only this time make it fit for the purpose. I would love to take a delegation of artists, writers, dancers, storytellers, drama teachers and youth workers to Gaza, to work with traumatised children, some of whom were buried alive with their dead parents, who have yet to speak again. Perhaps we can help their voices rise, their stories unfold, their emotions find a route, their intelligence illuminate our fusty assumptions. Perhaps too, we can create a piece of theatre with them and bring it home with us so that those unable to make that journey can sense their reality as we have done. The elite who have so shamelessly buried the story of the convoy just as they allowed the Israelis to ban journalists during the war, cannot stop the truth when it comes from those young people's mouths, minds, hearts and bodies. It seems like a long, long, journey to make such a thing happen, but if you are interested in making it happen then the journey becomes shorter. I have contacts in Gaza who will help us. All we need is the will to raise the money, to make politics ours again, to make a change, to live freely again, to take risks and reap the reward of feeling a little more alive than maybe we have for a very long time. That's not a bad objective when faced with so much death.


  1. Hi Greg I am thinking about Viva Palestina II.
    This time we need to invite other countries to join the convoy. I think Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Turkey will send loads of vehicles.
    E-mail me

  2. I am certainly waiting for vp2 - i hope i could join but i don't know how i'll be then..