Twilight Zone / Waltz in Batir
He reads Chomsky and Che, admires Simon Bolivar and Edward Said and dreams of a revolution. Meet Nidal Zeghayer.
Reader Nidal Zeghayer, 22, sent me an e-mail. He'd read what I wrote about Highway 443 and wanted to tell me about the other separation roads Israel is paving around his village of Batir, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. "Will you come see?" he asked. Something about his writing style led me to accept his offer. When we arrived in his village, he was waiting outside, wearing stained clothing: He's in the midst of helping his father paint their house.
Zeghayer is a fourth-year sociology student. His father works as a guard at the clinic in Beit Sahur. The separation roads were immediately forgotten when Nidal and his father Khatem began to talk. Waltz in Batir - a dizzying dance.
In a tiny and meagerly furnished attic, Nidal sits and dreams of the revolution, reading works of philosophy and writing plays, scripts and short stories; he is conversant with the works of history's great philosophers and freedom fighters. While many young men his age look up to soccer players, singers and celebrities, he admires Simon Bolivar and Edward Said. By age 12, he'd read Mao and Trotsky in Arabic translation. Meet a young Palestinian of a different kind - Nidal Zeghayer. He is accomplishing all that his father dreamed of being (and doing), but couldn't.
"He's what I wanted to be. I wanted to be what he is, but it didn't work out. I feel that he has extraordinary abilities," says Khatem in fluent Hebrew. Nidal speaks English well. "My Hebrew ruined whatever English I knew," admits Khatem, who was also a big reader as a youth and used to hide his books in a hole in the yard, to keep them safe from Israeli soldiers who might want to confiscate them. He follows Israeli radio and television programs, likes Yaron Vilensky on Army Radio, admires Benny Begin's eloquence and is up-to-date on Israeli current events.
Khatem studied in Jordan to become a laboratory technician, but life under the occupation led him to work in renovation projects in Israel. He also spent about a year in an Israeli prison. He says his son might get into trouble if his intellectual leanings are misconstrued: "As a father, I worry a lot. Everything he says puts him in danger. There are a lot of informants, people who don't understand what he's saying and just pass it on."
The attractive new stone house stands near the main road in Batir. Five minutes from Jerusalem, but the separation fence prevents movement between them. The last time the two were in Israel was 10 years ago. Nidal's younger brother has never seen the sea, though Tel Aviv is just an hour away. Since that day, there was never an unarmed Israeli in their home.
Nidal is completing his B.A. at Bethlehem University, has already attended several universities abroad and is seeking a scholarship to help him continue; Khatem is investing all his savings in his son's education. "If he has any chance, it will be abroad," he says. Nidal would actually prefer to stay here, but in a big city.
Nidal loved the movie "Waltz with Bashir." He saw it three times, in England. Every morning he reads The Guardian, The Independent, Al-Quds al-Arabi, and Haaretz English edition, online.
"Anarchism is the closest thing to humanism," he says, beginning to describe his fascinating worldview, and looking younger than his 22 years. "Anarchism is certainly more humane than fascism or Zionism. In this part of the world, anarchism is preferable. Your state and the state we seek are not a solution. Two states is the most foolish solution. This will lead to separation and separation leads to chauvinism and nationalism. In separation there are always two groups, the weak and the strong. Separation reinforces the strong and weakens the weak. A single, secular state that will also include the return of the refugees is the only solution. In the long term, this is what will happen, if both peoples fight for it. I love what Homi Bhabha [an Indian-American intellectual - G.L.], a friend of Noam Chomsky, said: that every people invents its own narrative. Zionism has its narrative, the 'Chosen People.' Narratives always lead to chauvinism and nationalism. Not that national rights should be ignored, but it always leads to fascism."
Asked what will happen to the Palestinian refugees, Nidal says: "It's not necessary to return to the same places. What's important are equality and justice. It's a dream and it's not possible in the short term. First there must be a secular, just and socialist society."
Nidal also likes to cook, and likes what Chilean author Isabel Allende wrote about the connection between food and love: "the two things that make the world a better place."
When he was young, Nidal says, he was impressed with Stalin. "I thought that was the way, until I found Mao. Then I started reading Trotsky. I was 12. As a Palestinian, and as a person, I learned a lot from Mao. 'Cast aside illusions and prepare to fight.' Everyone fights in his own way, and my way is through writing."
Nidal is currently at work on a screenplay: a love story between a laborer from Gaza and a new immigrant from Russia. "He works in a garage in Tel Aviv, and their relationship goes through ups and downs until they finally part, a very painful parting, because of the chasm between them. He tries to scrape by and survive and she gets all kinds of benefits because she's a new immigrant. An unequal relationship that creates conflict between them. Something between psychological analysis and sociological conflict. The script needs to be developed more so it can become a historical document. I want to write it in such a way so that 100 years from now people will understand what it was like here, and it's complicated."
"When did Yeshayahu Leibowitz die?" the father asks suddenly. "People in the village were always saying to me: 'Why do you listen to Hebrew all day? It's always Hebrew with you.' But I liked Leibowitz very much." Then he adds: "Nidal drives me crazy with that Edward Said of his."
Indeed, when asked who has most influenced him, Nidal says Said and Frantz Fanon. Said's Orientalism? "Not so interesting, rather what he wrote about culture and imperialism, and intellectualism."
Khatem: "When he was in school the teachers and the principal didn't understand him. They said he was a troublemaker. He didn't fit in. He hardly ever goes out, only to visit his grandmother and to the university. He doesn't have a lot of friends because they don't understand what he's talking about."
Nidal smiles, which makes him look younger than ever. His father has an Israeli friend, activist Shlomo Vazana from the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow. "When I have a phone card I call him sometimes," says Khatem.
Have you ever met Israelis, I ask Nidal. "Only when I worked in Israel as a painter. I generally refuse to meet them. I can't sit with a settler. It's out of the question." What does he think of the Israeli peace activists? "They're not bad, but don't compare [their activities] to other events in history. For example, the Algerian liberation movement. They fought very seriously there - Sartre, de Beauvoir and Fanon. Here they help with milk and bread, but that's not what Palestinians really need. And they're also not changing much on your side. Theirs is the voice of a good conscience. They create another image of Israel, they punch holes in the accepted narrative, but it's not enough. A few writers in Haaretz contribute more than all their activity.
"The Palestinians don't have a real organization fighting for their rights and they can't expect others to fight for them ... No revolution in history was ever led by a government or a bureaucracy. We've became an agency of Israel and of the United States. You can't lead a revolution and fly to America. Our leaders are too fluid in their views. A revolution requires toughness, not flexibility. In music, you can be flexible, but not when you're leading a revolution."
What about armed struggle? "I like what Nelson Mandela said, that colonialism came with violence and the struggle against it is violent. When there's a genuine opportunity for peace, it must be exploited. I favor all means of struggle; try them all until the best way is found."
Khatem interjects: "This is what makes me worry. People are liable to misunderstand what he's saying. I want to see him succeed. Even though I like what he says, as a father it makes me very worried."
Back to the revolution: Nidal says he's a "communist in my Palestinian life": "I like what Sartre said in 1954: 'Anyone who is anti-communist is a pig.'"
He does not envision himself marrying in accordance with Arab tradition. "I'm against marriage. With us it's not marriage - it's an agreement among groups, among families. It's slavery. The idea of a traditional wedding is unacceptable to me. I'll marry in the future, but not this way. If you love someone, you need to live with her. I don't need a show of power with a wedding with the whole village. There is no equality between men and women with us, but nor is there in the West. Even in Germany, where there is no occupation, there is no equality."
Khatem: "I always tell him: With your thinking, you cannot live here. You need to find a different world."
Nidal replies: "I have a British friend who says our dreams are not for here or now, but let's keep on dreaming."
We go up to the attic, to look out at the roads and settlements that are hemming in the village from every direction, the original point of our visit. An electric bicycle lays abandoned on the roof. Nidal received it from his father's former Israeli boss, who later didn't pay his wages for two months. "Maybe I'll take them and write a bicycle diary - like Che Guevara's motorcycle diaries."
We enter his room. A wool blanket on the bed. Che and lots of books: "The Meaning of Sarkozy" by Alain Badiou; "Towards a New Cold War" by Chomsky; "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" by Ilan Pappe; "The Great War for Civilization" by Robert Fisk; books on Rosa Luxemburg and Fidel Castro. A photo album with pictures of Nidal as a young boy, and photos of his father's old hiding place for his books, which are obscured in the event that soldiers might come and leaf through the incriminating album.