Behind the Separation Wall: Who loves Hamdan, and Banksy

Banksy, Armoured Dove

Disclaimer: the use of the word ‘cripple’ by Hamdan is strictly related to this particular context to illustrate the transition from negative to positive attitudes. It is NOT intended pejoratively, disrespectfully or in any other manner that any person with any disability could find offensive.   

<<Watch out!!!>> I yell eyeballs-poppingly, feeling a Mercedes squeal almost too close when Hamdan forces his assisted scooter – packed with three of us – onto the main road. <<Hahaha! They have no respect for the ‘cripple’, look how crazy they are! No respect, telling you, hahaha!>> I raise my right brow and smile nervously at Hamdan who is apparently having fun with the ride. My mind decides to switch to a numb mode until it all ends, one way or another: chortling heads reaching out from behind the wheels, fingers honking and then pointing at the absurd pile of passengers we are, making our way in a sideless ‘papa-mobile’ (as Hamdan calls it) through the motorized Bethlehem. Some of the drivers shout out to Hamdan, and he shouts back, grinning.

<< What are they saying?! >> I ask over a bunch of wooing teens overspeeding by and taking selfies while showing off their yet to-be-worked-on torsos.

<< They are my friends, they just got married >>, Hamdan refers to the couple that has just slowed down to exchange a few words.

Gunnar is the under one. For a start, there are only two seats in our vehicle; second, because I’m rather selective when it comes to a workaday feminism. His face, quite neutral, grimaces accusingly as he realizes my how-are-you-doing glance. Slightly insulted, I twist my head back towards Hamdan who doesn’t stop grinning. He’s one those cheerful people that always infect you with their mood. It comes to my mind there two types of these: born optimists who have never lost anything and those who have nothing to lose anymore. 

Hamdan already lost his childhood and even his human status because he was the one with a disability, combating collective prejudice and tradition. The unjustifiable deeds he chose to forgive, the motives he justifies, the lives he’s fighting for. If any, this should be our duty: to be happy and to love ourselves so that we can share our kindness and smiles, and make the world a peaceful place: have you ever met happy, loving and kind people who were violent at the same time? Me neither.  

Let me introduce you to Hamdan, a travel guide with disability, who is revolutionizing the reality of many other Palestinians with physical and mental disabilities: rejected, humiliated, unloved, many still locked in cellars – by their loved ones. Hold on, though, before you frown at this social backwardness. Please, listen, but don’t judge: western attitudes towards disability started their humanized shift only in the 1960s.  

One more roundabout and Hamdan stops his vehicle in front of the Palestine Heritage Centre. A peace dove in a bulletproof vest marked by a target, the ‘Armoured Dove’ by Banksy: both the artist’s emotional support for Palestine and an unsympathetic-tourist attraction. Whatever approach you choose, the same piercing truth about our nature comes out.  

Banksy, Armoured Dove

<< You can stand there together, and I can take a picture of you, it’s not a problem, really >>, Hamdan offers while pointing at his clutches, ready next to his feet. I squint at him for a bit, because I don’t know how to refuse, I don’t want a picture next to this wall. He must think I didn’t get what he said and repeats his offer, this time pointing at Banksy. My eyes follow his finger, but the ‘Armoured Dove’ starts fading away. I start shooting at the bird with my Canon before the mind transforms it completely into a bunch of hearts torn apart, the unbearable longing for the one that will never come back.

Done – Banksy’s protest immortalised one more time.

Anyway, which pose would be appropriate against such a background? The only one we’re good at is the classic happy couple hug with a holiday grin. Maybe it would be alright, maybe if I could see only lifeless Banksy. A sudden twitch, something I used to call ‘current passing through my body’ when I was little, brings me back to Hamdan: << Maybe somewhere else >>, I blurt out, hoping it didn’t sound abrupt. << How is it to be a person with disability in Palestine? >> Hamdan sighs through a twisted smile.

<< I spent most of my childhood locked in a room so that nobody could see me. The room of shame, there are many of them, especially in villages. Even neighbours didn’t know about me. The mentality here forced my family to be ashamed of me. If people had found out there was a ‘cripple’ in our family; nobody would have married my brothers and sisters, you know, fearing their children could be born disabled too. >>

I don’t know what to say, because what can you say? And then, we have faces that give our thoughts away, and Hamdan seems amused, maybe cynically, by the ignorant shock/disbelief displayed on mine. And then I think, our modern occidental society is exactly at the same point with mental illnesses. It will take hundred years before a schizophrenic is considered an equally worthy citizen, partner or employee, not a possessed psychopath with a kitchen knife, daily hallucinations, and Gaussian Blur vision. Another hundred for a SINCERE political correctness spit out of respect, not bullshit.

<< One day, I became so desperate I battered my own mom who brought me food. It was the only way I could run away; my isolation put me on edge. I was hiding for some time at my neighbour’s, he found me, but it turned out he didn’t even know I existed, do you understand? The realisation crashed me. You know, families hide their children if they’re disabled or mentally ill, they don’t even register them when they’re born. I’m very lucky I can be here with you, free and registered. >> He chuckles out something like a mixture of harm, anger, strength and determination.

My throat feels squeezed shut with something bitter, while hundreds of sweet little Hamdans would like to run through my head. The narrows of my mind, however, just won’t let them through. Might be the rooms of shame so many disabled Palestinians can’t escape, even though Hamdan, along with other pacifist volunteers and organizations, immersed himself into building a ram strong enough to batter the doors fortified with age-old ignorance and denied love. 

And Europeans, Westerners, Easterners? According to Scope’s report on current attitudes towards disabled people from May 2014, ‘35% [of persons with disabilities] indicated that they had been talked to in a patronizing way and 30% had been stared at due to their disability’. The Americans with Disabilities Act – the civil rights legislation – was passed only in July 1990. The fact that not all public places are fully accessible, or that some governments need to use incentives to encourage companies to employ people with disabilities speaks for itself. I don’t even mention mental disorders.

<< I’m talking about it in my book. I’d love to give it to you, but it’s not in English unfortunately. >> (Never wished more to be able to read Arabic than now!) << It’s in Italian >>, Hamdan adds after a brief regretful pause, and our eyes get bigger in surprise. We exchange those big-eyed looks, Gunnar and I, and then we burst out laughing at a most unexpected coincidence:

<< But we speak Italian! >> Hamdan is absolutely overjoyed, and we still can’t believe this fascinating person decided to write his book in no other language but Italian. It’s not something you can take with a ‘really?’ and move on, so mutual enquiries follow.

<< Incredible! Rome? But this is where I had my rehabilitation! (Wasn’t able to finish it, though.) I love Rome! Can we speak Italian, can we speak Italian, please??? >> In a most adorable manner, Hamdan becomes Italian the moment we switch to this melodic tongue. His body language, a way of speaking, overwhelming glee, and literally everything about him unfold the most capsizing time of his life. I always marvel at this phenomenon of how we change the moment we switch to another language. The coincidence evokes so many ecstatic and peaceful memories that it makes me feel special we can be the go-betweens. For unknown are the benefits of being a polyglot.    

<< I met wonderful Italian volunteers here, in Palestine. They helped me out. I travelled a lot, had my legs operated and they gave me this papa mobile! I made sooooooo many friends in Italy. (I mention them in my book too!) I was very motivated to learn Italian when I was at the hospital – I didn’t understand the people who were cutting into my body, it was scary. After three months I was able to communicate freely. >>  

A few more amazings, incredibles and no-ways later, we approach the Separation Wall which sits just across the street. The concrete, tall, hopelessly smooth West Bank fence is riddled with blanks: desperate dreams, sustaining numbnesses, explosive frustrations. Graffiti, tags, kick-prints, confessions.

separation wall, Palestine

<< Can you tell us the story? >> I turn to Hamdan who is chatting with two petrol station workers who come up when Gunnar and I are reading the pain and frustration off the Wall. Smiles and the presence of intrigued queries about Hamdan’s assisted scooter are all I can figure out without any knowledge of Arabic. Interestingly enough, with nearly 7000 languages, and even more pronunciations, patronizing politeness has the same sound all over the world. Hamdan politely smiles goodbye to his interlocutors and then apologises to us for the distraction.

<< It has a total length of over 700 kilometres (440 miles), and it’s actually more than double of Israel’s border before the Six-Day War in 1967. What’s more, only 15% of the wall sits in Israel, the rest cuts into the West Bank, isolating over 25.000 Palestinians from their jobs and families. >>

separation wall, Palestine

As we are heading down the lifeless road, again as a pile, Hamdan points at the heavy, green metal shutters on our left: << They used to be souvenir shops, all colourful. Now there are almost no tourists in this part of the city. >> I’m trying to picture the street bustling with tourists and coaxing vendors in place of its current post-apocalyptic sillage and, after a while, I dare a taunt: << What about those suicide bombings? Why did they take place? >> Hamdan takes it with non-judgmental forgiving of an experienced tourist guide:      

<< What do you think happens when you lock a wild cat in a cage hoping to tame it? It’s freaking out, then it gives up. But it’s hateful and desperate inside because it’s freedom has been taken away. And when you open the cage, what do you think it’s going to do? >> I merely open my mouth when Hamdan resumes: << It’s going to attack you with all its fury, even sacrifice its life to hurt its oppressor because it’s so mad with despair. This is what happened, that’s why violence is not the way. I had friends who went for suicide because they saw no other way: no job, no life, separated from their loved ones, imprisoned. >> 

<< I always say, peace can be achieved through kindness and love only. And all the difficulties Palestinians are facing, including lack of running water and sanitary facilities, can be overcome only when the peace comes over. I’m not telling my story to complain, but to show the power of love. >>

The bitterness from my throat is now travelling down to my stomach to digest all these things that we think we’ve heard about and even feel entitled to form our opinions and attitudes, because we can google. But it’s physically impossible to digest something merely read about. 

Hamdan’s mobile starts ringing as he pulls up. It’s been ringing over and over again for some time now but it’s the first time he decides to share a cheerful complaint. It’s his young wife.

<< It’s an arranged marriage, but she is a very good girl >>, our guide declares. << And there’s even a baby on the way. >> I suspect she might be his Italian treasure, but no, it didn’t work out with his Italian love. << But this one is a very good wife >>, he reassures us. He’ll call her back later. I can hear pride and happiness in his voice, which relaxes my stomach and melts down the bitter ball. For a while.

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30 Responses

  1. I don’t know how to feel about this. At least I sure how you don’t have have anything to be happy in life.

  2. Lubka Henry says:

    There is a real humanity crisis in that area at the moment. Thank you for spreading the word about what’s happening there.

  3. Laura H says:

    This is such a heartbreaking tale! This is not something I know much about so this was really eye-opening and shocking for me. It’s a world away from the way the West try to treat the disabled.

  4. Anna-Maria says:

    omg that’s so sad im shocked, he is so brave bless his soul. x

  5. This is such an eye opener on humanity. In the society we live in ppl are subject to so many in humane acts its sad

  6. First, let me say thank you for sharing this post! It’s absolutely making me cry at the moment. So heartbreaking but also so heart enlightening, if you get what I mean!

  7. Wow! Thank you so much for this eye opening post. People really do treat other people in a way that goes against proper humanity. What a shame!

  8. Surekha says:

    wow! Hamdan like people teach a lot of things in life. Firstly, to appreciate of what we have and second to fight for what we want. Such a brave soul and I can’t believe disabled are treated that bad in some part of the world.

  9. Imogen Clegg says:

    Wow that’s so sad that he was treated in such a way! Having a disability doesn’t make you any less of a human being than anyone else, how horrible! He is so strong!

  10. Ana says:

    God that is so sad, having a disability does not make you any less of a person and they should be treated as equals because they are no different. Hamdan has a beautiful soul and while it is sad how Palestinians who are disabled are treated, its amazing that he has become a spokesperson for the community.

  11. Carrie says:

    Wow! I can’t even imagine his childhood! How horrible an experience! I can’t wait to hear the rest.

  12. That is so sad. He is such a strong and brave spirit!

  13. Elizabeth O. says:

    That was such a good read. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. I can’t believe parents would treat their disabled children like that, hidden and away from everyone else. I’m happy for Hamdan and the way his life is right now.

  14. Fatima says:

    Never knew that a Palestinian book exists in Italian. This is so sad, he has such a strong and brave spirit.

  15. Liz Mays says:

    It’s really interesting getting some perspective on the occupation from Hamdan. This was a really eye-opening conversation.

  16. Noodz says:

    oh my god I’m close to tears right now! what an amazing spirit he has so strong and brave

  17. Wow, what a sad childhood but the human spirit is extraordinary in what it can overcome. A Palestinian book in Italian, who would have thought. Roller coaster of a conversation!

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