Writers often romanticize their subjects. At times they even
manipulate their readers. A book - or any piece of writing for that matter -- is
meant to provide a sense of completion. Sociological explanations are offered
to offset the confusion caused by apparent inconsistency in human behavior. At
times a reader is asked to take a stance, or choose sides.
This is especially true in writings which deal with
compelling human experiences. In Behind
the Wall: Life, Love and Struggle in Palestine (Potomac Books, 2010), Rich
Wiles undoubtedly directs his readers, although implicitly, towards taking a
stance. But he is unabashed about his moral priorities and makes no attempt to
disguise his objectives.
As I began reading Wiles� book, various aspects struck me as
utterly refreshing in contrast to the way Palestine is generally written about.
We tend to complicate what was meant to be straightforward and become too
selective as we construct our narrative. And we tend to consider the possible
political implications of our writings, and thus compose the conclusions with
only this political awareness in mind.
Much of this is understandable. The situation in Palestine
is appalling, and also worsening. If our writing is not meant to influence
positive change, then why bother? But a hyped awareness of the consequences and
over-politicization of narratives and texts can prove limiting and
intellectually confining. Worse, at times it provides a particular
contextualization of the conflict -- with all of its internal offshoots and
external outcomes -- that does much injustice to other important contexts. It
neglects facts and paints an unrealistic picture of a subject already confused
in the minds of many readers.
Thus, when the conflict is deciphered by a writer, all
players take positions. Israel is pitted against �the Arabs.� Palestinians are
often sliced off into two competing parties, while Israel is largely shown as
maintaining a sense of political and institutional integrity. Palestinians are
radicals or moderates, Islamists or secularists. The �conflict� is right in the
center, and within it are the sub-topics: the peace process, the occupation,
the settlements and numerous others. Without such lucid configuration there is
no structure. Publishers get frustrated. The writer is urged to revisit and
restructure his work.
But real life is not a well-organized academic argument. It
can be, and often is chaotic, strange and puzzling, but it is real. Only by
understanding reality the way it is -- not the way we feel that it ought to be
for any reason -- can we meaningfully position ourselves to appreciate the
subject at hand.
Can we understand the conflict in Palestine and Israel
without subscribing to the same language, confronting the same political and
historical milestones? Can Palestinians be understood outside the confines of
political and ideological affiliations?
That is what Rich Wiles attempted to do in Behind the Wall, and in my opinion, very
Wiles relocated the conflict historically, geographically
and sociologically to the side most affected by it: the Palestinians. The book
is located in the West Bank, mostly Aida refugee camp, where Wiles spent years
dedicating his time and efforts as an artist and a writer to help children
share their stories and talents with the rest of the world. The writing is a
non-elitist, part and parcel, which is a prerequisite to a factual
understanding of the struggle in Palestine. Equally important, Wiles provides a
depiction of the Palestinian not as the victim, despite the protracted process
of victimization that Palestinians have endured for generations. Wiles�
subjects might have been imprisoned or deeply scarred by war, but they are
confident and complex human beings.
A chapter entitled �A Child and a Balcony� starts with this
line: ��On Friday, December 8, 2006, I was shot.� Miras is unemotional as he
tells his story.� Miras should be emotional, but he is not, and Wiles doesn�t
attempt to rectify the seemingly inconsistent behavior. It turns out that
Miras, a child (now a promising young photographer, thanks to Wiles� help)
almost died when a bullet carved its way through his body and penetrated his
abdomen from one end and emerged from the other. He was playing with his
siblings and cousins at a balcony in the refugee camp, when an Israeli sniper
hit him from the watchtower. The story is short, but rich in emotionally
powerful detail: the father�s panic and near hallucination, the mother�s
confusion, the sense of solidarity that unifies the refugees and strengthens
their resolve even when their situation seems so helpless.
Wiles is not an anthropologist or a detached ethnographer,
and he doesn�t pose as one. He is part of the story, at times an important
character. In �Memories,� he accompanies a young Palestinian boy on the journey
of his life, from the confines of the small refugee camp to Jerusalem. The boy
is visiting his very ill grandfather at a hospital on the Arab side of the
city. (No other member of the family was granted an Israeli permission to make
the short journey, thus the need for Wiles� intervention). Wiles provides an
extremely honest and vivid account, bringing to life the bravery of the boy and
the sense of freedom he experiences as he crosses the checkpoints into
At the same time, Wiles does not attempt to assemble the
perfect, heroic and infallible character of the Palestinian. He includes the
story of a son of drug user who was mysteriously killed (perhaps by a
Palestinian group that suspected him as a collaborator with Israel). The son
became involved in the resistance to redeem the family�s honor. His impulsive
resistance (an attempt to burn a hole in the Israeli wall that surrounded his
refugee camp) earned him time in an Israeli prison. Yasser Jedar (known as
Yasser �Wall� owing to his obsession with trying to bring down the Israeli
wall) was certainly not a poster child revolutionary. But he is refreshingly
real, which is what should matter the most to an inquisitive reader.
Wiles� work is an important contribution to what I insist on
referring to as a �People�s History of Palestine.� In order for this genre to
endure and flourish, it must remain honest and duty-bound to the truth -- to
reality as it is, not how we wish it to be.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist
and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is �My Father Was a
Freedom Fighter: Gaza�s Untold Story� (Pluto Press, London), now available on