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If It Had Been My Son, I’d Find It Hard to Go on Living

Rogel Alpher
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Eyad Hallaq.
Eyad Hallaq.
Rogel Alpher

I can’t stop thinking about the last moments in the life of Eyad Hallaq. I’m not a sentimental type, but when I saw his father on TV, tears welled up in my eyes, and I felt a helpless rage rising in me. I too have a son with special needs. He’ll be 25 in January, close to Hallaq’s age. He was 32 when he was shot like a dog by policemen, in a garbage disposal shed in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Hallaq was all alone when he was murdered in cold blood. He escaped in fright to that shed, searching for shelter after fleeing from policemen who wanted to search him. He didn’t understand them. He didn’t know what they wanted from him. They scared him. I know exactly what his fear looked like, how he was flooded with anxiety within a second or two, from the moment they called him in an authoritarian and threatening tone. I know exactly what his face looked like, what features it took on. I know this from my own son. When he was little, I held him in my arms when he was beset by similar anxieties, hugging him tight until he settled down.

I can’t stop thinking of him hiding there, in the garbage shed, all alone in the world, without someone beside him to comfort him, to interpret the world for him, to explain the situation, to guide him as to how to behave. I think of him and see my son. My son wouldn’t have acted any differently. Hallaq was on his way to the institution that took care of him, where he felt protected and loved. And they shot him. Like a dog, I wrote. That’s a stupid expression. They didn’t shoot him like a dog. They don’t shoot dogs in the Old City. They shoot Arabs. They shot him like an Arab.

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I can’t cope with the thought that at least seven shots were fired at him. Is there anything lonelier than an autistic person cowering and trembling in fear in a garbage shed, not understanding what is going on and why, while policemen empty a magazine of bullets into him. Good God, they executed him. If that happened to my son, I’d find it hard to go on living. The thought of him being massacred in a garbage shed would have crushed me. Even now, as I write, I’m having a hard time. I find it difficult to write, although I usually write with ease. But words are so meaningless. They won’t help Eyad Hallaq and they won’t help his family.

It’s hard being autistic in this world. When my son was seven, the psychologist in the institution in which he studied, who had coached me on how to handle him when he was hysterical, told me to imagine that in the small room we were sitting in there was a huge fan. “Imagine taking a page and tearing it into small pieces, with the fan blowing them all over the room, ceaselessly. That’s what the world looks like to Yotam, your son. One big confusion, a meaningless chaos.” She told me Yotam was a hero for opening his eyes every morning and contending with such an existential condition. Imagine what’s it like to live in such constant chaos, how hard this must be. What an effort is required for doing the smallest and most negligible things.

Eyad Hallaq's father, at his home in East Jerusalem, May 31, 2020.
Eyad Hallaq's father, at his home in East Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Eyad Hallaq was also a hero. On the day of his death he was a hero, walking the Old City streets from his home to his institution. Such a journey in those alleys is no mean feat for an autistic person. It requires inner strength; it demands mobilizing one’s energies. But Hallaq was one of the weak persons of this world, one of the people with soft skulls, a skull that shatters like glass from a blow that an ordinary skull would not even feel. These are people who need to be shown basic humane emotions not so that they find it pleasant to go through life but simply so that they can live.

Not for naught did the greatest – in my view – South African anti-apartheid writer J.M. Coetzee choose to portray the protagonist of his book “Life and Times of Michael K” as a feeble-minded innocent. Where there is no humanity, the weakest members of society are brutally trampled, almost unintentionally. The Old City was a dangerous place for Eyad Hallaq not only because he was an Arab, but because he was autistic. Under a racist apartheid regime, it was probably only a matter of time before the representatives and enforcers of this apartheid, frightening, uniformed and armed people, would bark some words at him, filling him with terrible anxiety. Anxiety which caused him to flee for his life, apparently in order to save himself, but an act which sealed his fate, to die at their hands. It was only a matter of time before the evil engulfing him on all sides caught up with him and terminated his life.

He had good reason to fear them. If only there was someone beside him, telling them that he was autistic, that he posed no danger, not to them nor to anyone else. In contrast to ordinary or “normal” people (what is “normal” about these policemen?), autistic people do not systematically and deliberately hurt other people. They don’t launch wars. They don’t dominate other people. They don’t murder. This is done by “ordinary” people. When Yotam’s younger sister saw me looking at Hallaq’s father on TV, she saw me do something I’ve never done before while watching the news. I cried. I choked up. I muttered angry words, nodding my head. If she wasn’t there, I would have smashed something against the wall out of frustration. My distress bothered her, and after a while she asked me: “Dad, is it true that something like that couldn’t happen to Yotam?” It’s true, I told her, it couldn’t, because he’s a Jew.

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