My Name is Palestine

On the road and sea. From Delhi to Jerusalem, crossing Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria. The convoy, all the way, celebrating the liberation of Palestine 

Bhupen Singh  Istanbul (Turkey)/Saida (Lebanon)

The first week of March was eventful. Yet another attack on the Gaza Strip which killed almost two dozen innocent people. Increasing hostility between Israel and Iran with the former blaming Iran for backing Palestine. Even India did not remain untouched. There was an attack on an Israeli embassy vehicle in Delhi, the blame for which was expectedly pinned on Iran. An Indian journalist, Syed Mohammad Kazmi, with two decades of experience in covering the Middle East, was picked up by the police in what is alleged to be a frame-up. An Iranian film, The Separation, won the best foreign film Oscar in the backdrop of the Arab Spring. Amidst this flux, I decided to join the "First Global March to Jerusalem" (FGMJ) to support the struggle for Palestine’s freedom. 

The Asian convoy started from Rajghat in New Delhi on March 9, 2012. The East Asian convoy was supposed to join the South Asian convoy in Delhi but none of them could get visas. The convoy was supposed to reach Jerusalem on March 30, travelling through nine countries. The plan was changed due to visa problems; it was now a march to Jerusalem via India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon. The Indian convoy was meant to cross the Wagah border checkpoint on March 10. Many of us couldn’t cross the border as Pakistan denied us visas. Out of three dozen members of the Indian convoy, about a dozen were journalists. Some "flag-bearers" of Islam were also in good numbers. It was then decided that those who didn’t get Pakistani visas would fly to Tehran and join the convoy there on March 16.

Once inside the aircraft, a mere glance could confirm the "constructed isolation" of Iran. Most of the seats were not occupied, that too when there is only one flight in two days from Delhi to Tehran.

Our motley group was abuzz with different ideas. Even before joining the convoy, some of my friends were criticizing FGMJ as an Iranian stunt to corner Israel. I was clear: I wanted to join in solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle. I also understood that FGMJ had pitched itself against "American imperialism and Israeli Zionism". 

On March 16, we landed at the Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. We were driven to Qom, developed as a world class centre of excellence in Islamic education. People from other Asian countries had also reached there. 

One of the top religious leaders of Iran, Ayatullah Ka’bi, was the centre of attraction amidst hundreds who had gathered there. Slogans for the liberation of Palestine, and chants of Allah-o-Akbar filled the hall. Palestine was spoken from a religious standpoint with calls of Muslim unity even as praise was showered on the Islamic revolution of 1979 and its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. 

It was activist Feroz Mithiborwala, leading the Indian convoy, who drew attention to the fact that this march consisted of people from every religion and faith. The struggle for Palestinian freedom was the struggle for justice, he said. 

Jerusalem is a revered space for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Currently, Israel allows only Jews to enter Jerusalem. It is not even ready to follow UN directives. FGMJ’s demand was that Jerusalem should be open for the people of all faiths. People of all faiths, including Jews, were part of this march, but since Muslims were in a majority, often the issue of the Al-Aqsa mosque came up. For Muslims, it is the third most important place of worship after Mecca and Medina. 

On the face of it, the march had disturbed the US and Israel. People of the Middle East are very angry with Israel. Everybody repeats the same thing: in 1948, a separate Israel was created for Jews by driving out the original inhabitants of the land under the patronage of Britain and the US. Even today, thousands of Palestinians live as refugees in refugee camps in the neighbourhood. Whatever land is left in contemporary Palestine, is also being occupied by Israel by building illegal settlements. 

We were able to see Israeli and Palestinian colonies from the hilltop, near the fort of Arnon. A huge demonstration was held with young and old, and Palestinian refugees

We spent a week in Iran. We went to the palace of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the American-propped Shah of Iran before the Islamic revolution. Now, it’s a museum. Our Iranian hosts took us to the simple house where Ayatollah  Khomeini lived. We visited the American Embassy building which was taken over by Iranian rebels after the Islamic revolution. That too has been converted into a museum. The Statue of Liberty is still there with "Delete" added under it. On another wall there are photographs of US presidents with people aiming stuff at them like a dart game. Such is the hatred for "American imperialism" in Iran. 

We were told that women are ahead in every field in Iran. There is no bias against them. However, wearing a "hijab" is compulsory. Girls in the Indian convoy ventured out only after putting one on. Liquor is banned. Learning music and dance is prohibited. 

Tehran is a beautiful city surrounded by the snowcapped AlBorz mountains with clean streets and skyscrapers. There are no slums; most development plans “are in accordance with Islam”. 

We visited the Iranian Parliament. Speaker Ali Larijani, tipped as the future president, in his speech, narrated the injustices inflicted by Israel and the US. Suddenly, he attacked homosexuality. I didn’t quite pick up the reference. Perhaps he wanted to criticise western civilisations even as I was grappling with understanding  "political Islam". 

One day, all of a sudden, we were called by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He gave an impressive speech and talked about "vanishing" Israel from the world’s map. He referred to our convoy as "the convoy of freedom".  He spoke about the right of Palestinian people to get back their land and the "Al-Aqsa" mosque. He said that “Zionist Israel is trying to create tensions between Iran and Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt”. When we asked him about the attack on an Israeli diplomat’s car in Delhi with Iran being blamed, and US pressure on India to snap all business ties with Iran, he firmly said that ties with India were on the right path. 

Iran celebrated the New Year's Day — "Navroz" — on March 20 with great fervour. We reached "central bazaar" to get a sense of the city. I was surprised to see two separate markets — one for women and the other for men. But I found more women in urban public spaces when compared to India. 

While returning we took a metro and bus ride. I met an Iranian boy at the bus stand. Indian films are a big attraction. However, sadly, they don’t seem to know much about their own cinema which is internationally acclaimed. I asked them about filmmakers like Mohsin and Samira Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. Why are some of them still facing injustice? Panahi is in jail. The answer seemed unanimous: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” 

Wearing a hijab is compulsory in Iran. Girls in the Indian convoy ventured out only after putting one on. Liquor is banned. Learning music and dance is prohibited

FGMJ included people from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq as well as other parts of the world. After Iran, we had to enter Turkey. The Pakistani citizens didn’t get the Turkish visa so it was decided that they would reach Lebanon through Syria. 

After Tehran we headed off to Tabriz and Bazargan in Western Azerbaijan. The convoy was welcomed at many points along the snow-covered road even as the temperature hit -15 degree celsius. We passed by many frozen lakes. Cold, ancient, beautiful. 

As we entered Turkey, we encountered the essence of European culture. There were fewer women in hijabs. In the Turkish city of Iqdir, there is an Armenian War Memorial. We were welcomed by a few Turkish people. The air was palpable with the anger the nationalist Turkish harbour against Armenians with stories of "Armenian brutality" passed on through generations. After Iqdir we reached Erujurum. It was already dark. The public meeting in the snow-covered park was inspiring. The night was again spent on board the moving bus.  

Meanwhile, we were told that Israel had warned all its neighbouring countries like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan not to allow FGMJ to proceed towards Israel’s border —or else it would resort to firing. Some campaigners were terrified; others were angry at this dictatorial attitude. We held a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Ankara. We spent that night in a mosque and discovered that mosques also serve as places of social gathering.

In Turkey, for many orthodox Muslims, Kemal Ataturk and Orhan Pamuk remain adversaries with all kinds of myths being propagated against them.  

Our next stop was Istanbul, a pulsating city both in Europe and Asia, and Pamuk’s home. I wanted to meet him but I was told that he lives in the US. His criticism that the Turkish killed more Armenians after coming to power to avenge the Czar-backed killings of the Turkish people, has been a bone of contention here. Surprisingly, Enes, our host in Turkey, agreed with Pamuk. 

After Istanbul, we reached Kyon, the place where the great mystic and poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, died. The museum at his tomb has a collection of his utensils and clothes apart from the manuscripts of his poems. I was reminded of Rumi’s immortal lines:

Physically I am separate but without life and body we are one and the same…

 O thee that are looking for him! You can be either him or me. He is me and I am him... 

Our next stop was Port Tasucu, where we had to wait for almost 24 hours before a small ship arrived that would take us to Beirut. Once we were docked in the Lebanese capital, we were not allowed to come out for 40 hours. Eatables and drinking water were in short supply on board the ship. It was only after the matter came up in both houses of the Indian Parliament that the Indian embassy intervened and we were "set free". Even the Hezbollah, which is part of the ruling alliance, could not do much for our release. 

Orhan Pamuk’s criticism that the Turkish killed more Armenians after coming to power to avenge the Czar-backed killings of the Turkish people, has been a bone of contention in Turkey

These were angry 40 hours – plus the hunger and thirst. We debated among ourselves and then went on deck; there was a confrontation with the security guards. We shouted slogans. We were in the land of Kahlil Gibran. I remembered Gibran:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you…

Love one another but make not a bond of love,

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls… 

The next day was March 30, Palestine Land Day. In 1976, when Israel announced a fresh attack on Palestinian land, people resisted. Many died in the conflict. In remembrance of the dead, Palestinians celebrate it as Palestine Land Day. It was on this day that we were to leave for the tense Israeli border. 

Early morning, we reached there, passing through the Lebanese city of Saida. There was fencing with gun-toting Lebanese commandos — to bar the FGMJ from proceeding farther. We were able to see Israeli and Palestinian colonies from the hilltop, near the fort of Arnon. A huge demonstration was held with young and old, and Palestinian refugees. (The refugees in Beirut have no rights. This is a foreign land for them. Like their exiled comrades, they too dream only of liberation.) 

Meanwhile, people from America, Africa and Europe joined the march.

People marched towards the Israeli border from the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian sides as well. At some places there were clashes between the protesters and the Israeli Army. Many were injured; one child died. 

We were not able to reach Jerusalem but we were successful in attracting global attention to the Palestinian struggle by protesting at the Israel border.  On the mountain, a Palestinian flag fluttered amidst strong winds, against the backdrop of Arab music. Speeches on freedom were delivered.  I remembered the political slogan of the Palestinian envoy in Delhi before we left on this historic journey: This year in Jerusalem. Every year in Jerusalem.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012