What went wrong in your life

black sea

 

As the rain closes in on the Black Sea coast I get a lift from two grizzled, beer-drinking farmers in a tin-can van that rattles along the 8 kilometres to Bagirkanli, where I know I’ll be able to camp on the beach. After they drop me off in the village I huddle under a shelter by an outdoor stove beside the road, warming myself by the embers. An old woman comes over and fusses over me. She takes my hands in hers and cries out. My hands are quite cold, and my final pair of riding gloves was eaten by dogs, so I’m making do with this stove for now. Her warmth as she holds my hands suddenly makes me want to cry. But as I’ve learned in the course of my cycling long distances, sudden attacks of emotion are usually a signal of hunger. I move on to the beach and find shelter to cook dinner. As I’m eating and looking at the rain a young woman, heavily made up and not dressed for this weather, comes out of a restaurant and sits across from me. ‘Er, you, what?’ Good question. Bicycle, sea? Is my tentative answer at this moment. I say ‘Turkce yok’, my newly learned phrase that literally means ‘there is no Turkish’, which sounds a bit rude to my ears, but it works to convey the message: minimal Turkish will come out of my mouth, sorry. She gets out her phone for google translate and after a while pronounces the words slowly. ‘What… went…wrong… in your life?’ I think a while before replying. Maybe she hasn’t seen my bicycle. ‘Have you not seen my bicycle? You should be asking what went so right in my life.’ It doesn’t get through. Someone from the restaurant comes over with some food. Things are looking up. I sleep on the beach to the sound of the waves and wake to fog sitting on the Black Sea.

fog hills
Hills and fog: cycle touring life on the Black Sea

This woman’s question reminds me that not everyone understands why I choose to travel in such a way – cycling up and down hills, in the rain, sleeping mainly in my tent outside on beaches or in forests – that brings me to this place in this moment, eating pasta and peas from a pan huddling under a shelter on a cold, windy and rainy beach on the Black Sea. I choose to travel like this because I’m free and I enjoy my freedom. Not everyone will understand, but that’s fine, they don’t have to. I keep in my mind the words of poet Mary Oliver, who says: “tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” And I know then that freedom for me doesn’t equal property and comfort but of being able to travel through different countries, of feeling the elements against my skin, or hearing the sea as I fall asleep, and that my journey is the right one for me.

 

Before setting off from Istanbul last weekend, I met Benjamin Ladraa, a guy who is walking from Sweden to Palestine to raise awareness of the occupation. Meeting and talking with him reminded me of the reasons I set out on this journey thousands of miles away, leaving Bristol in September 2017 and ending up in Nablus, Palestine, at the end of November. Benjamin’s been walking already for 7 months, and has 2 or 3 more months to go, through Turkey, Egypt (by boat) and Jordan. At two months to Istanbul by bike and a short plane ride to get me to Nablus, my journey seems like a flash in the pan compared to his, but one motivated by similar reasons. All respect to you Benjamin! Not only for the huge physical and mental challenge of walking that distance, but for consistently speaking out and bringing people’s attention to the occupation of Palestine. We chatted about our reasons for making these long journeys and of going to Palestine, motivated by some vision of justice and peace, and an end to the brutal occupation. Benjamin made a previous visit to Palestine, doing music workshops in refugee camps around Nablus. For me, I set out by bike to make my first trip to Palestine, to volunteer, but also to educate myself, to find out what goes on in these lands.

ben walk to palestine
Benjamin Ladraa, walking to Palestine, finds time to stop for coffee with me in Istanbul

What did I find out in Palestine? Why are me and Benjamin and others motivated to make such trips? This is a brief description of my motivation to go to Palestine and to go in the way that I did, slowly, by bicycle:

 

  • Freedom of movement

For me, this is one of my most cherished freedoms, and one that primarily results from an accident of birth. I did nothing to earn it, I was just born in the UK, and so can travel mostly anywhere I want without any hassle. But I’d rather everyone had this freedom. For example, many of my students in Nablus had never been to Jerusalem, the capital of their own country, because they are not given permits by the Israeli occupiers. I try to imagine what it would be like to not be allowed to visit London, but I can’t get my head round it.

The Palestine Marathon happened last weekend in Bethlehem. The organisers had to loop round the circuit twice because they could not find 26 miles of unbroken, Palestinian-controlled land in the West Bank, a territory that is 250 miles long. Most of the land is cut through with militarised settlements, army bases and military checkpoints. The marathon draws attention to freedom of movement as a fundamental human right that is being denied by the Israeli occupiers. Have a look at some pictures on Al-Jazeera here.

 

  • Rights of the child

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the occupation I witnessed in my winter in Palestine was the treatment of Palestinian children. Children’s rights are protected in international law, and include the following: “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” Shortly after I arrived in Palestine, then 16 year old Ahed Tamimi was arrested and remains in prison, just given an 8 month sentence in an Israeli military court. Her crime: slapping an Israeli soldier who was attempting to enter her property, and consistent with the legitimate right to resist occupation. Along with Ahed, these stats show that there are currently 358 Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons. According to DCI-Palestine the most common charge is stone-throwing. When I was in Palestine, I saw some kids throwing stones at Israelis soldiers, who responded by firing live bullets. Whether you consider children throwing stones at soldiers as a legitimate response to military occupation is up to you. Previously I pointed out the legal apartheid that exists in the West Bank, where Israeli settlers living in illegal settlements in the occupied territories are tried under Israeli state law whereas Palestinians are tried under military law. You can also decide if you think the Palestinian children in Israeli prisons will get a fair hearing. See this for more info.

 

  • Freedom of speech

Democracy, however imperfectly it may exist in practice, is upheld by a liberal notion of the freedom of speech. More importantly, the resistance to oppression thrives on communication: the ability to tell the world, to come together, and to organise. Israel, often termed the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’, is working hard to restrict freedom of speech on several fronts. The pro-Israeli lobby in the US is currently pushing for anti-BDS laws that ban boycotts of Israeli products, calling the boycott movement anti-semitic. The laws are being challenged by BDS and other civil rights campaigners as unconstitutional, restricting first amendment rights to freedom of speech. Read about one example here. Perhaps these censorship laws are a sign that Israel is feeling genuinely threatened by the BDS movement and is trying to stamp it out. I wrote previously about anti-BDS legislation in France and the UK, and the successful challenge to the law in Britain. This is an important front in the non-violent struggle against Israeli settler colonialism and occupation.

Another way in which Israel is repressing freedom of speech is in enlisting the support of tech giants such as Facebook, as we’ve heard in recent days, not exactly a bastion of democracy, to censor Palestinians while overlooking violent racist posts by Israelis. A few days ago, Facebook took down the page of a Palestinian news outlet on grounds of ‘incitement’. Meanwhile Israeli posts on social media about killing Arabs or otherwise racist and inflammatory hate speech is tolerated. The Israeli government claims that Facebook has agreed to 95% of its requests to remove content that it judged to be ‘incitement’. See the report in the Intercept here. Israel arrests and detains Palestinian artists such as poet Dareen Tatour, who I wrote about here. Like all oppressors, Israel knows the power of poetry to speak truth to injustice, that’s why they imprisoned Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qasim. The freedom of artists, poets and activists to speak the truth is at the heart of every revolution.

More info:

Boycott Israel. Support the BDS Movement, oppose anti-BDS laws. Lobby law-makers to support the boycott. My Mum recently wrote to her supermarket asking them to publish a list of Israeli products, and products that were from the illegal settlements in the West Bank.

These sources report on the occupation in a way that you won’t hear on the BBC:

https://electronicintifada.net/

https://972mag.com/

https://israelpalestinenews.org/

http://mondoweiss.net/

 

 

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