Taking our fear for a walk

Jun 25, 2011

The media section of the Tahrir passenger list has grown to include Daria from Pravda, Adam and Hassan from press tv, the latter an acclaimed documentarist, as well as Alun from the Danish state broadcaster and Alexandra and Alexei from Radio Canada/RDI. The journalists now number more than a dozen. They are photographing the trainings, doing interviews, filing stories (see last postcard for a sampling). The Belgians, Danes and Australians are frequently getting up to leave a training session to take a call or do an interview with their national media.

I just did an interview with Daria, seated in a restaurant patio on plush cushions overlooking the Mediterranean. She stands out amongst the group, make-up and wardrobe fit for a night out. She is a late arrival and she is puzzled. When she participated in yesterday’s media tour of the boat, she asked about the location of the cabins. There are no cabins, she was told; no cabins, no beds, no showers, no bathing facilities at all. She is also perplexed about the people, who we are, why we are doing this strange thing. Her beat is the Middle East; she was arrested and hooded, taken to an Egyptian prison during the course of the events of Tahrir Square. It is her job. Yet why would you, she asks, comfortable, so far from Gaza, care about Gaza? People have said to me, her perfectly plucked brows rising in question marks, it is about the children of Gaza – why? She is shocked that there’s a 23 year-old Australian who should be surfing somewhere, a 77 year-old who should be playing with her grandchildren; that there are mothers here – Soha left her husband and five year-old son to go camping in Algonquin without her; that, of a Vancouver couple who are here, only one of them is going (why would you allow her to go? she quizzed John; clearly you have not yet met my wife, said he in response).

Daria wants to know two things of me: How did I get here? What’s my excuse? And, secondly, what was the training about? In response to the former, I tell the story I know best, my own, the one that includes stops in Canada World Youth, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chiapas and Colombia; seminary, Thailand, the Philippines, Sudan and Iraq; that was shaped by a long list of inspirers, my mother, my children, my grandchildren – at which point, I take out to show Daria the photos that accompany me everywhere; teachers, theologians, activists, pacifists, economists, friends.

Perhaps a story will help, I suggest. I am in Basra, in a children’s cancer hospital. It is a couple of months since George Bush has declared ‘Mission accomplished’ and five months since the birth of my grandson, Owen. It is 49 degrees, inside and outside, electricity roaring the building into life only occasionally during the course of any given day. In one of the wards crowded with children and their mothers, I encounter a woman, young, beautiful, dressed in the brilliant embroidered weaves of the Kurds. She is holding her son, who is five months old; an Iraqi physician translates for us. The same age as Owen. Her son is clothed in a thin shirt, exposing a purple-hued, scarred and distended belly, evidence of a vain attempt to conquer the depleted uranium-induced cancer that is killing him. The two little boys are suddenly, in my mind, together somehow, sharing a common past of five short months, facing very different futures. Why!? I want to shout. Blond-haired, blue-eyed little Owen will live, playing in parks and streets and sandboxes unsullied by the fine yellow powders of DU, unlikely to stumble over and mistake for a toy a brilliant, wingéd – and death-dealing – cluster bomb. Child of my child. Child of a woman whose name I have forgotten; one lives, another dies. Who decides. What is the world doing about this? What is my government doing this? What can I do about this. That simple.

As for the training, there are three things we want to do, I tell her. We want to get to know one another; we want to learn, in very short order, to trust one another. And we want to take the imaginative journey ahead of ourselves, experience as much as is possible before we get there. We get to know one another’s names, nationality, come to an understanding of the diversity we bring, the barriers of language and ability and cultures that must be scaled as best we can as soon as we can. We want to know that we can reach for someone who was such a short time ago a stranger and know that they are there, their behaviour, the decision-making on the fly, practised, to some degree predictable. Because we have come to know one another and we have been there before, if only in our imaginations.

I tell Daria about the spectrum of experience, stretching from one end of the long, rectangular room to the other, in which we tell by our bodies’ placement along the spectrum what history we bring. After people have had some self-revealing conversations with one another as they figure out where to place themselves, a line forms. At one end, people who are passionate, informed, organisers, who care about the people of Gaza, have written letters to editors and Members of Parliament, marched in demonstrations. At the other, two veterans of last year’s flotilla, one a passenger on the Mavi Marmura*, the other on the Challenger, as well as others experienced in war zones, Gaza, Palestine, in particular, incarcerated, kidnapped, tortured. In between, variations on those themes.

* see below for link to Globe & Mail interview with Kevin Neish

Children’s games! she exclaims. Of what possible value is that?

I try to explain. Each end of the spectrum and between looks to the other and, in an instant, we can see both the gifts and the gaps, the complementary skills and experience, discern the cautious, the reluctant, the rash and the practical. We have pulled back some significant veils on ourselves; bonds are forming. We will soon get to know who are the trauma-listeners, the list-makers, the musicians, the poets, the high-order needs sergeant-majors, the risk-takers, the anxious, the easily-centred, the easily-provoked. We’ll get into little bits of trouble in these land-based days and we’ll make our way through it.

I tell her about the scenarios played out to help us imagine where we’re headed. In plenary, we brainstorm both the venues and the elements of the anticipated encounters. At sea, on the dock at Ashdod, in prison, we list off possible weapons and tactics: helicopters with blinding lights, M-16s, attack dogs, rubber bullets, tasers, live fire, water cannon, what is known as ‘skunk water’, sewage sprayed like water cannon; beatings, handcuffing, pushing, shoving, walking on your body, stress positions for long periods, food, water and toilet needs going unmet, interrogation, lies etc. The participants are divided into five groups to design and script their role-play.

The first role-play is so realistic, so violent in both language and action, the room is shocked. Israeli soldiers board from the stern, rapidly and loudly cursing, hitting, kicking, subduing with startling and ferocious efficiency. Resistance by Jase comes to a swift end with two rapid-fire tasers. The group then breathes to collect itself, debriefs, asks questions, makes suggestions. Other role-plays follow suit, adding new elements each time, moving from open sea to dock to prison. At each point, we discuss tactics, resistance, non-co-operation, submission, compliance, whether to sign the deportation document, whether to walk off the ship or go limp, forcing the Israelis to carry you off, recalling that the Israelis will be filming, hoping for footage that will demonstrate co-operative, friendly encounters and willing passengers. We spend some time talking about long hours in stress positions, what it would feel like to have your stated need for a toilet ignored. We think about that for awhile, some assuming those stress positions; we imagine some amongst us, perhaps ourselves, unable to hold onto urine or faeces, imagine the turning point, feel the warm release, recognise the odour; intentionally, determinedly imagine, right now, our response. Grace, no shame, we must be alive.

Telling of her experience in Cairo, Daria is at first doubtful that such ‘games’ could effect anything: ‘Every experience is different; you can’t know what will happen.’ But now she nods; ‘Yes! That would make a difference, wouldn’t it? Yes. I can see how that would work! Doubts remain etched into her face. Not sure she will get on the boat when the one-hour warning is given.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention