Archives for posts with tag: palestine

Phew, it’s been a while. There are times when creativity – whether it be writing, singing, dancing, admiring a beautiful landscape – suffers in the pursuit of specific goals. My blog has been temporarily abandoned whilst I’ve had my head in piles of University application forms, each with different guidelines and requirements.

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Why did I decide applying for a Phd was a good idea? At times I’ve forgotten myself; then I remember that my research idea  – stress and burnout among international humanitarian and development workers – is one that is close to my heart, and drawn from personal experience.

But like most decisions in my life, it seems with this one I’ve hardly chosen the easy route. In 2012 – a stormy and soul-searching year for many – I could have done many things after returning from a difficult year in Palestine. What I craved the most was stability and safety. After all, up to this point my life had been far from settled or grounding: four years in East Africa, ending in a dramatic escape from a slightly psycho Ugandan boyfriend; four years in a squat in Brixton, wondering whether we were next on the eviction list; a year in Palestine, forever fretting over the possibility of being ‘found out’ by Israeli intelligence, and deported for daring to do human rights work in the West Bank.

An image from Banksy which poignantly depicts the reality of feeling constantly under scrutiny in the Occupied West Bank

An image from Banksy which poignantly depicts the reality of feeling constantly under scrutiny in the Occupied West Bank

I’ve had my fair share of uncertainty. And 2012 was no different, despite returning to England and the suburban bliss of my parents’ neighbourhood. I’m still there, at the start of 2013, still not knowing what the future holds. This has to be one of the biggest skills to hone when undergoing a big transition – embracing uncertainty. That and the essential antidote to uncertainty: patience. There’s always a point during a transition where you have to accept that you do not know, and will not know, your destiny for some time. There’s no use in forcing the future, although there’s certainly no harm in building the path you wish for. That is indeed what I’ve been doing the last few months – practising my writing skills with the quiet wish that one day I will write a book; reading journal articles on burnout and writing my research proposal with the quiet wish that one day I’ll be offered a scholarship to study a Phd on the subject (hhhm, maybe ‘quiet’ isn’t the right word, given it’s all I’ve really been talking about to anyone I’ve spoken to recently).

But it’s taken a long time to get to this point of acceptance. When faced with a big transition, the urge is to run to whatever is familiar, even if it’s no longer nourishing or fulfilling. If I’d persisted with chasing familiarity, maybe I would have got that job working with a humanitarian organisation or an international development agency.  I’m glad I didn’t, because I doubt I’d be sitting here now, writing this piece; judging from previous experience, I probably wouldn’t have had any time for self-reflection whatsoever…and I would have been miserable.

Instead I’ve chosen a path of further uncertainty, where there’s no guarantee I’ll get what I wish for. Will I be accepted on my University course? Will I be given a scholarship that will enable me to study the course (I certainly won’t be able to do it otherwise)? I won’t know for some time yet, and meanwhile I have to live with the unknown and trust that whatever the outcome, I will gain something. And herein lies another major challenge for transitioners – learning gratitude.

Gratitude is a learned skill. And as gratitude becomes a habit, so will happiness.

 Julia Cameron

This week I’ve been meditating on gratitude. It’s not easy! Sure, it’s not difficult to be grateful for friends and family, and all the good things in your life. But try reflecting on all those things that have made you unhappy, or angry, or fearful – and find something positive from them. It’s a difficult exercise, but an essential one for transitioners living a life of uncertainty. Each setback, each disappointment, is something we can potentially gain from if we have gratitude for all experiences, good or bad.

So 2013 may have started with further uncertainty; I still don’t have the stability I crave, I’m not yet settled in any way.  But living with uncertainty has given me an inner strength – an inner certainty – which has helped me see clearly what is right and good for me, rather than what is familiar.  And for this new sense of power and courage, all I can feel is gratitude.


Dear Gaza

It is with great sorrow that I hear the latest news about another massacre, another bombing, another retaliation. I feel sorrow for the rising death toll, the pictures of weeping mothers and wives, the murder of children too young to even understand the struggles of their parents, families and neighbours. And I also feel sorrow becuase I know that each death, whether it’s in Gaza or in Israel, will only fuel further hatred, and further violence. I watch as the vicious pattern unfolds once again – attack and counter-attack, claims and counter-claims, threats and counter-threats. A new generation growing up with nothing but anger in their hearts.

In fact anger is everywhere; from the Government ministers to the international solidarity activists holding demonstrations outside Israeli embassies throughout the world, from one Facebook wall post to another, anger is pervasive. It is behind every political statement on Palestine, and every military action on either side.

I know this anger, and I’m by no means immune to it. It is anger that has spurred me on in Palestine, that strengthened my resolve to work there after witnessing the Wall, the settlements, the aggression of the Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. I am only now just processing that anger, releasing it in waves of sorrow and distress after holding it in the pit of my stomach for so many years as a Palestine activist. I am familiar with the anger I hear in the voices of commentators, and even my own father – so incensed is he by what is happening in Gaza right now.

But this time round, dear Gaza, dear Palestine, I am not one of those angry voices. I will not be attending any demonstrations, and I will not be writing press releases or political statements. And I will not be engaging in any of the aggressive political point-scoring, some of it between friends on separate sides of the fence (both politically and physically). I don’t say this with pride, and I do say it with more than a little guilt. My decision doesn’t come from a place of pure wisdom or higher authority, but from a place of accepting one thing: I don’t see the purpose of my anger anymore, and if anything I’m fearful of it – of what this negative emotion does to me, and to anyone engaged in the Palestinian situation. Does Gaza need my inner conflicts, confusion and frustration leaking out into any action I take for the so-called good of Palestine? Because anger often comes from this deeper, more obscure place of inner turmoil. It is not always constructive, or effective – I question now whether my anger over Palestine has really achieved anything over the years except perhaps alienating a few people and breeding further hatred. And what can hatred ever achieve? With anger, and hatred, we lose all sense of balance or compassion. It is easy for our emotions to take over when visiting Palestine, but how often do we stop to question their source and their purpose? It is only once I find the  meaning behind my own emotions and actions that I can understand the emotions and actions of others.

And so, dear Gaza, this time I stand back. I read what I can, and I’m screaming inside. But I will not be expressing my grief on the podium, or in the newsletter or conference room.  Please don’t mistake my non-action for apathy. My non-action comes from a place of understanding that clinging on to anger will serve no purpose except greater suffering. There are many positive actions that can be fuelled by people’s anger over injustice. All respect, and my most sincere wishes, go to those who transform their anger into something beautiful and empowering for the human race. I would one day love to join those who are mindful of every action and reaction, and who have a clear vision of what peace can and should look like, regardless of race, ethnicity or political positioning. But for now, my silence is the strongest thing I can offer as a  sign of love and compassion in this mixed up world.

For more reflections on Palestine activism, anger and mindfulness please read this blog piece from Mindfulness for NGOs: blog « Mindfulness for NGOs.

I’ve made an odd and unsettling discovery these last few weeks. It’s that I can’t watch or ready anything that reminds me of Palestine, and my time there.

It has been a year, almost to the day, that I left that place. I walked away from my beautiful flat overlooking a valley in Ramallah, with tears in my eyes. I knew my time there was up – on many levels, it was simply not sustainable, or fulfilling, for me to be there. And it appears that I am still getting to grips with that fact to this day, one year on.

The view from my apartment in Ramallah

They say that grief comes in five stages – first, denial; then anger; followed by bargaining; followed by depression. Then, finally, acceptance. Well, as some of you may have noticed, I’ve certainly been dragged – kicking and screaming – over the steps of anger and depression these last few months. Bargaining is a more obscure concept, but I can see that’s what I’ve been doing as I’ve slowly pulled myself away from further job applications for human rights or humanitarian positions.

And before these stages, I guess I was in denial; this is the emotional tool we use when living in an environment of intractable conflict, grinding poverty or blatant injustice. We withhold, and deny, the tears when we see another victim of human rights violations, or another humiliation or indignity meted out against an innocent civilian – who may well be a close friend or colleague – because to cry would reveal a disrespectful weakness in front of those who remain stoic and steadfast in the face of adversity. To cry would also suggest we cannot cope with living and working in such an environment, which would then beg the question, why are we there in the first place.

Perhaps the tears I’ve shed the last few months have made up for the restraint, and resilience, exercised through all those years of fighting an idealistic battle for justice and en end to poverty and inequality without daring to admit either distress or defeat. Or maybe the tears were for bigger and deeper sorrows and regrets – I’m still not sure.

What I do see now is that I am far more vulnerable, and far less resilient. I made this discovery last week whilst filling in a survey put together by a group of academics from the U.S., on the subject of stress, burnout, trauma and resilience in human rights workers. The survey provoked in me a mixture of feelings, which raced through me like a torrent – sadness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety. Some of its questions included:

Have you personally witnessed serious violations of the right to shelter, food, water, and other basic rights?

Have you worked with someone who has suffered serious reprisals or threats of reprisals for their work?

Have you personally witnessed disaster or conflict affected communities?

I found myself answering yes to so many of these questions, in reference to so many incidents and situations I’d come across in my working life. This is not a normal way to exist! I was thinking to myself.

Then things got worse – I was then asked about coping mechanisms, and how I respond to difficult situations. And with each answer I realised that my way of dealing with so many difficult situations has been to normalise it – because any other reaction, such as crying, or getting too angry, would appear disrespectful among friends or colleagues in such environments, who live these experiences every day or week or month throughout their life.

If I wasn’t normalising it, I was certainly having an internal battle against my emotions – not letting myself grieve and instead distracting myself with more work or drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It is only now, after having some distance from these events and situations, and whilst I’m spending so much time confronting my emotions, that I realise how much I internalised – whether it was the trauma of witnessing human rights abuses, or of friends being arrested or injured, or simply feeling under-appreciated and worthless at work. This might explain why when I go through a survey like this now, I feel my heart rate increasing, and start to panic. Feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt stayed with me for the rest of the day.

The next day, I had the same reaction when watching a trailer for a new documentary film released this week, Five Broken Cameras, about the nonviolent resistance in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank. As its soundtrack of solemn, urgent Arab oud music played to footage of the village under fire by Israeli soldiers, I started to panic. I had to switch it off before the five minute trailer finished. Great, I thought to myself, in a state of disbelief – I can’t even watch a video clip. In it were the faces of people I may not have known directly, but I saw them every day in the campaigns we ran, in the press releases we wrote demanding their release from prison or for the Separation Wall to be dismantled. What then followed was a sad emptiness and feeling of guilt. This is the same guilt one gets when being faced with untold human suffering, when one chooses to turn the page instead of reading on. I seem to have leapt from one extreme to another; from reading every news item on Palestine and the Middle East, and every article on detention, or torture, or any other realities that have informed, and inspired, my activism – to not being able to look at or engage with anything.

Yet this is what we have to do once we allow in the grieving process; once we recognise that we are not the superheroes or pillars of strength and determination we thought we were. We have to do whatever it takes to recover, and to heal. But NGO workers and activists, and anyone who is working on human rights issues, can spend years denying themselves this recognition that maybe they cannot cope with all that they have seen; that maybe they need to look after and love themselves as much as they try to do the same to others. We instead hold the anger and grief of what we see and experience inside us, and live to fight another day. And yet I’m learning now that the biggest and most challenging confrontation we have is ultimately with ourselves.

It’s been a week for odd and unexpected interactions. I escaped what I feared was a Buddhist cult after feeling uneasy by the rigid prayers and worshiping practices of its followers; nothing like the dharma of the Dalai Lama or Thai and Burmese traditions. I had a psychic screening at Tate Modern’s new, contemporary art and performance space called the Tanks, which was followed by a spontaneous discussion about personal affirmations and poetry with a participant of the performance art piece in the Turbine Hall.

English: Shibboleth, Tate Modern, London

English: Shibboleth, Tate Modern, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I even spoke to some boys at a house party in Brixton – haven’t done that in a while! But the reason it’s been odd is that I’ve found myself opening up in unexpected ways – talking to people I barely know about quite personal matters.

Take today for instance. I visited a Qi Wellness Centre, where I was given a traditional Korean acupressure and sound massage. According to the Qi Master who saw me, I’m holding a lot of anger. Chinese medicine – and its adaptations in Korea, Japan and elsewhere – is all about finding the underlying causes of a particular ailment; trying to understand on a deeper level what is happening to a person when they suffer a physical complaint. In my case, as the Qi Master performed the massage I could feel tensions and knots most acutely in the area of my liver and intestine; which according to the Chinese meridian system, has a direct connection to my right knee – where of course I’ve had an injury for several years. Knots in the area of our bowels are associated with holding onto and repressing anger. The Qi Master asked if I felt I held anger over anything. Funny that, as only last night I was watching a programme about Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been responsible for thousands of deaths and child abductions in northern Uganda and neighbouring countries. This was a conflict I worked on for several years, whilst living in Uganda and Kenya, so perhaps no surprise that I would react in some way. But the emotion that arose whilst watching this programme was hard to describe; I felt myself tensing up, and although part of me wanted to cry another part of me wanted to throw something at the television – particularly when the face of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni appeared, as he is as much to blame as anyone else for the grinding poverty and injustice faced by the population of northern Uganda.

I told the Qi Master that perhaps I hold anger related to the work I’ve been doing the last few years. Although this surprises me, because actually I’m not an angry person. My reaction last night to the programme about Joseph Kony was in some ways more extreme than any I had when I actually worked in Uganda. The same applies to when I read about another Palestinian demonstrator being shot at during a protest against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. I want to shout, scream or cry in a way which didn’t really seem to affect me during the year that I lived in the West Bank and had all of that happening on my doorstep. So yes, maybe I have repressed anger, I found myself admitting to the Qi Master.

She then went on to discuss how tensions in our stomach or bowels may be inherited, or may be a symptom of a previous trauma, or a current emotional problem. I had an eating disorder when I was fifteen, I found myself suddenly blurting out. That was a bad period for me; if I wasn’t holding a lot of anger then I was certainly holding a lot of grief and insecurity – over my appearance (a bit plump with braces) and over the fact that I was being bullied at school and had no friends. I’m glad, and extremely grateful, to say now I’m over all of that. Or apparently not, if the pain in my intestine and bowels, and by association my knee, is anything to go by! I wait to see what comes up in my next session.

On a lighter note, I have to talk about my Tate Modern experience. This is worth a mention, as usually on a visit to Tate Modern gallery one expects to see a beautiful painting, or an impressive and abstract installation. Bar a few predictably provocative pieces in the Damien Hirst exhibition (nevertheless impressive), what my day in Tate Modern was all about was communicating with strangers. The newly opened Tanks in the basement of the gallery had a room with a series of desks and chairs, separated by dividers. At each of these sat a psychic healer; if I wanted to, I could be given a ‘screening’, I was told by the bright and chirpy female usher, as if this was completely normal in an art gallery. I thought, why not? I’m a girl in transition, this time is all about new discoveries. I then found myself being interviewed by a redheaded, bohemian looking woman who, after asking me the basic question of what job I do (which, actually, isn’t the easiest question for me to answer right now), launched into a far deeper inquiry with ‘what are your thoughts on honesty?’ and ‘do you consider yourself an honest person?’ This was followed up by questions such as ‘do you consider yourself a spiritual or religious person?’ and ‘what are your thoughts on power…How would you like to exercise power’ I have no idea what all of this was about – there was no big insight or nugget of wisdom at the end of it. I was simply told that the exercise was part of a bigger creative project aimed at fusing art with spirituality and politics, and that I may be contacted again by e-mail.

Not long after that, I found myself in the Turbine Hall – the sprawling space at the entrance of the Tate Modern which is used for free installations and creative art displays. Here too, unexpectedly, I ended up talking to someone I barely knew about quite personal issues. There I was, sitting on the floor checking my phone, when I man in his sixties (who up until that point had been running up and down the hall with a bunch of other performance artists) sat down next to me and asked, out of the blue, whether I keep any special words close to me, in my pocket or my bag, to give me strength or encouragement. I found myself opening up again, quite spontaneously, telling him about the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and some of her exercises which encourage these kinds of creative affirmations. If I’d been approached by this man in the street, or on the bus, I probably would have shied away like anyone else, or worse still thought he was completely bonkers. But because he was in the Tate Modern, in a place of ideas and creativity, I talked to him like it was quite normal to be approached in such a way. It turned out he had decided to try contemporary dance a few years ago – ‘because you can be terrible at it but still do it’ – he told me. And now here was, taking part in a piece of participatory peformance in the Tate Modern.

All this suggested to me that, unlike the stiff, wary personas that us Brits tend to emulate on the bus or train, or even at a public gathering among strangers, we actually do like to communicate with each other. If we are in a safe space, where we don’t feel threatened and where we can just let go and join in, we actually open up and want to share our experiences. Says the girl who’s writing a blog….but all these incidence have shown to me how if we surrender, if we give a bit of ourselves, then we may be surprised by what occurs, and by what we get back in return.

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