Chronicles of the Occupation and the Resistance
by Ramsey Hanan
408 pages. Fomite Press, $18.95
Describing the Palestinian experience has long been the task of veteran political scientists, artists, and lawyers—rarely are Palestinian scholars at the forefront of telling our stories. So I was thrilled when Ramsey Hanan, an old schoolmate from Ramallah, contacted me earlier this year to say he had left his full-time job as a successful physics professor to become a writer. his first book Fleeting Dreams: Chronicles of the Occupation and the Resistance (out October 4) is a deeply personal memoir that weaves the journey of a quintessential Palestinian academic, complete with a tapestry of emotions that encompasses sadness, anger, guilt, longing, hope (or sometimes hopelessness), and the ultimate question of the Affiliation, through the eyes of a fictional version of himself named “Sameer Zeitoun”.
Hanhan belongs to a generation of Palestinians born a few years after the 1967 war when Israel occupied East Jerusalem (his birthplace) along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who came of age just in time to adjust to pre-insurgency life of 1987 (commonly known as the “First Intifada”, although Hanhan argues that it was in fact that only intifada).
Read the first chapters of Fleeting Dreams brought back vivid memories of my own formative years (I’m about a year younger than the author), including the times we were free to roam historic Palestine (although there were no civil rights) until Israel gradually imposed draconian cage measures imposed, which not only began with the Intifada but accelerated during the ensuing so-called “peace process”.
Hanhan portrays these life-changing times with a captivating innocence, while at the same time recalling otherwise typical childhood experiences, such as: and the agony of being “missed out” because our high school in Ramallah was not mixed until his junior year (which he attributes to “a crude system that celebrates an oppressive culture of gender segregation that we students loathed”).
Vividly describing his childhood, including family travels through Palestine, complete with the names of routes traveled, and reliving the incidents that marked the gradual tightening of the noose of occupation, Hanhan constructs a powerful retaliation to the widespread slander of Palestinians becoming “the taught to hate”. After masterfully pieced together events seemingly designed by Israel to instill obedience through terror in an occupied Palestinian population yearning for a life of freedom – including violent beatings, nighttime raids on homes and forced school closures – Hanhans Sameer finally speaks this “absurd idea” at “:
My parents never taught me to hate anyone and I can’t imagine any other parent would. Nor did my teachers, who protected us, incite me to violence, as some pro-occupation “nonprofit organizations” claimed our schools did… When someone was taught to hate Israel, the lessons were passed directly, by order of the Israeli military governor .
The later chapters of Fleeting Dreams grappling with Sameer’s reluctance to move from Palestine to the United States to attend university, later settle there, and return frequently to Ramallah in the (ultimately abandoned) hope of one day being able to return, a personal dilemma with which I can identify myself closely. Sameer intimately recounts the relationships he developed with fellow students and pro-Palestinian activists during his student days, as well as with professional colleagues (including, inevitably, those who were Zionists) after becoming a professor. The most poignant pages in these chapters, however, are those that describe Sameer’s regular visits to Palestine, especially after the birth of his daughter Ksenya.
On the one hand, the relative freedom of movement he was accustomed to as a child had vanished in favor of the dreaded permit system, and Sameer lists the obstacles he had to overcome to obtain checkpoint permits from the Israeli military during his short stays; sometimes they were granted for just one day, sometimes longer. Even obtaining an Israeli visa for his Chinese-born wife was prescient given the current Israeli restrictions on foreign spouses of Palestinians:
After reviewing her application, the embassy official deadpan told us that it would likely be denied. When we asked why, she matter-of-factly explained “because she is married to a Palestinian.” Apparently they pride themselves on discrimination. To get her visa, Charlene returned to the embassy alone, wearing a large cross and posing as a tourist interested in Jerusalem’s holy sites. It worked.
On the other hand, Sameer’s despair at the changing face of Ramallah is palpable with every visit, as the open hills he frequented as a child gradually disappeared to give way to noisy construction projects and the intervening “garbage mountains” that threw the Country plagued city and country. In addition, people were much more “nervous, irritable, bullying each other, [and] with a prisoner-prison mentality – a collective suicide in slow motion”. If much of the book revolves around the hardships and “suffocation” of being a Palestinian under Israel’s boot, Hanhan nonetheless devotes a significant portion of the text to addressing the taints of his own people, as when Sameer recalls a recent conversation with an old man friend tells:
[Waheed] surprised me when we got to the social ills of our society – the garbage, corruption, etc. – by saying that these are “secondary problems that we can solve when Palestine is free”. I told him my opinion bluntly: if our society is like this, our society can never be liberated. How can we organize a campaign for freedom if we cannot organize our garbage disposal? More fundamentally, what right can we claim to a country we don’t seem to respect? Our social ills are one reason why Israel continues to win.
Hanhan’s analytical inclinations as a scientist are not lost on the reader, considering that some rather unconventional touches are evident throughout his writing. These are subtle at first (e.g. he justifies this with his reluctance to regard the events of 2000-2005 as an “intifada” and his insistence on calling Israeli colonies in the West Bank “robberies” rather than “settlements”. ). Towards the end of the book, however, he lays out his view of Israel’s endgame (using Ariel Sharon’s policies as the main visual for his case) and his own list of lessons and ideas for Palestinians to consider in response. Readers may find some of his pronouncements agreeable, such as rejecting the two-state solution as politicians “stuck in a maze of partition plans,” or stating that “the absurdity of the entire Zionist project is highlighted by this reality”: full armored and equipped soldiers taking children for a deadly threat.” Other ideas might be more thought provoking:
I began to greet the Israeli soldiers [Allenby] Bridge… I reject the subordinate role they have assigned me and instead assert my place as an equal… In the face of their attempts to dehumanize me, my best resistance tool is to assert my humanity.
And, of course, others are still highly controversial, such as the claim that assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, despite his history of brutality against the Palestinians, was more willing to forge peace than any of his successors.
Despite a career based in the United States, the ever-present pull of his Levantine homeland remains a constant and powerful force in Hanhan’s story. The anguish is palpable as he admits he’s gradually “given up on the idea of going ‘back’ anywhere… People can try to capture a particular moment and capture it forever. As the COVID pandemic has taught us, that will never happen. Things are always changing. People are always moving, in time if not in space. So even if Ramallah never changed, I did.” Still, I couldn’t help feeling that leaving his professorship to become an author was some kind of penance on his part, perhaps to alleviate the ‘guilt’ he feels for staying outside of Palestine.
Fleeting Dreams is one of the few books that would make absorbing reading even for those of us who are very familiar with the Palestine question; The fact that I read most of it during my own visit to Ramallah this summer made it even more impressive. As Hanhan retells a deeply familiar story, he articulates long-held feelings that many of us have learned to bury, whether to adjust to life abroad or simply to survive under occupation at home. As such, I highly recommend Hanhan’s debut literary project.
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