Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Art as Life #2

Salem was first accosted in his home in 2003. One evening at 8 pm he heard a light knocking on the door. He answered thinking it was a friend. ِA large man in a white dishdasha and a red kaffieh said, “Assalamu Alaikum”. It was a curious greeting given the circumstances. He responded, “Alaikum Assalam", the courteous response. He was shocked to see his garden full of men. He tried to count them but was abruptly shoved aside by the man in a white dishdasha. He was grabbed by two others and they entered his house. He was immediately beaten to the ground as they shouted obscenities at him. Other men entered and grabbed his mother, who was reading in her bedroom, and his sister. He started to ask what they wanted, but he was shut up by a punch to the face. As they pulled his mother from the bedroom she was hit by the butt of a kalisnakov. Salem covered his mother to protect her. He whispered to her to keep quiet so she would stay alive, because he knew the men attacking them had lost their humanity and had no mercy. The kalisnakov found his shoulder, then his back. He was beaten for four hours, until he could not stand, until he could not see because he was bleeding so profusely from his face and head. He heard his sister pleading with the men, “We will give you everything, just leave my brother.”

At one am the beating stopped. “Perhaps they were tired, I don’t know”, says Salem with a sad smile and a look of agony in his eyes as he recounts the episode. “There is one thing you must understand about me; I never hurt an ant, a fly, a cat, a person. I am an artist perhaps that is why they attacked me.” As he lay on the floor in a pool of his own blood, the men loaded two trucks with the family’s possessions. The trucks left, then returned for a second load. When the house was stripped of everything of value, the men began to leave. They dragged him by the hair to his sister’s side pulling clumps out by the roots in the process. They grabbed his sister saying they would bring her back when he came up with some more money. He said to them, “We have no more money, you have everything we own, but you should leave my sister, we have a very big family and they will come after you.” Whether they believed his weak threat or they were just tired, the men left, leaving his sister behind.

The family abandoned their home and moved in with another sister and her family. Salem spent months in bed recovering from his injuries.

“By 2007 my sister and I had returned to my family home. My mother had died and I lost another sister as well, a lot happens over such a period of time.” The violence never stopped, I was kidnapped many times. One day my sister came home distraught. A neighbor had told her, “We like you a lot, we love your family. For your own good, you need to get outside. Just go.” She told my sister that my name had appeared on a death list of one of the militias." Salem had just directed a short play at his college about war and occupation. He thought that just the creation of a play was enough of a reason to be targeted by a militia. “I don’t know why, it is illogical to destroy a human life just for making something. They kill doctors, lawyers, teachers. For what I ask? It is illogical.” At first, Salem refused to go, but his sister arranged everything then spent an entire night convincing him he had to leave. He left but still regrets that he allowed the only person who cared for him behind.

Salem now lives in a squalid 2 room flat with a shared toilet down the hall in a very poor Palestinian neighborhood. Piece by piece he has sold his furniture to buy material. He has an idea for a fashion show and is busy sewing the outfits. He complains that there is no money to rent a proper hall, with the correct lighting and sound. He carries on, planning a new play, “About war of course”. As we leave, he escorts us out of the neighborhood. We draw the attention of some young men who follow us for a while. I am not sure if it is because a foreigner is in the group, or because Salem looks just a bit flamboyant with his dinner jacket with a hankie in the breast pocket, a black kaffieh wrapped around his neck, a French beret on his head and his orange tinted glasses. Later, my friend tells me that he heard the boys talking about Salem as they followed us. He encouraged him to leave the neighborhood, that he was not safe. Salem balked. He will stay. He has nowhere else to go.