Frank Hartmann on Sat, 6 Apr 2002 23:56:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Isle Of Polyphemus - by Wole Soyinka

[ This is the second of eight "Palestine notebooks" from international
writers visiting Pelestine, providing interpretations and analyses of
the conflict. The writer's records are currently published here, where
also the text below is taken from: - Frank ]

The Isle Of Polyphemus

by Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)

It was a startling image, unexpected and unsolicited but, there it was,
instantly replete. Incisive, summative, it offered itself as an
irresistible metaphor that Monday afternoon, our first full day in
Ramallah, at the checkpoint where the road had been cut, and dwellers
of, and visitors to that city were obliged to disembark from their
vehicles, cross the checkpoint on foot, and take up a different
transportation on the other side of the guttered road. A raucous,
potentially explosive junction where traders had set up an instant
market, mostly in fruits, snacks and refreshing drinks. A young man in a
bizarre colourful outfit, with a makeshift bandolier in which plastic
cups were tucked for rapid dispensation of his ware observed my
fascination and offered me a drink. I had not changed any money so I
could not even afford one if I wished - as I patiently explained to him.
But that did not bother him in the least. He had decided that I should
have a drink, and he doled it out, free of charge.

No, that was not the image that summed up the Israeli-Palestinian visit
for me; this was the benign face of our experience - an eager, warm and
hospitable embrace, a need above all, to connect with outside humanity
and be reassured that the world had not forgotten this terrain of deadly
attrition. The crucial image offered itself on our way back from Bir
Zeit University. Exiting Ramallah, we did what everyone else did -
disembark from our buses at the checkpoint - deserted by Israeli
soldiers, as it had become a focal point for attacks . We negotiated the
concrete blocks, crossed the deep gutter that had been cut across the
tarmac and entered taxis organised by our hosts. On return, it was the
same routine - taxis from the university campus, cross the check-point
with a human motley - workers, students, professors, peasants, doctors,
nurses, school pupils etc - walk to the rowdy improvised motor park,
there to await the buses that had dropped us off in the first place. And
that was when the telling image was vividly enacted.

A truck arrived at the motor park and then, instead of disgorging human
beings or goods, out came a flock of dense-fleece sheep, prodded by
their keeper. We watched as the shepherd began to herd his flock - no,
not along the road but down the stone and scrub valley that sheered off
just where the road executed a deep armpit curve. Was this a short cut
acrosss to his destination, taking to country tracks to arrive at
another town or village, or did he merely wish to let the sheep graze a
little before seeking a new conveyance on the other side? We did not
remain long enough to find out. What did happen however was that I
received an instant flash - Ulysses among the Cyclops, trapped in the
cave of the one-eyed Polyphemus.

Let us recall some fabulous details of that adventure tale, several
aspects of which began to take on sobering parallels. Ulysses had sought
shelter for himself and his men in the cave of that gigantesque host
but, having brought them into his home, Polyphemus proceeded to dine
serially off his guests, sealing them in with the aid of a huge boulder
which all the combined strength of the Ulysses band could not shift.
Ulysses took his revenge while Polyphemus was asleep, preparing his bid
for freedom by driving a sharpened and heated log into the single eye of
their cannibal captor. The only question that remained was - how to
escape from the cave.

Now let us recollect also that Ulysses, with his usual cautious guile,
had not given his real name to his genial host but had introduced
himself as - No-man. When the fiery stake sizzled in the giant’s eye in
the dead of night and he bellowed out his pain, his fellow Cyclops ran
to his aid, demanding who or what had caused his anguish. ‘No-man is the
villain’ replied Polyphemus again and again. So his neighbours were
thoroughly disgusted, advised him to seek a cure for his nightmares and
retreated to their own caves. If no man is tormenting you, they cursed,
why do you disturb our sleep?

Came dawn, Ulysses and his rovers remained sealed within the cave,
waiting for Polyphemus to roll aside the rock, which he was obliged to
do in order to let his sheep out to graze. But the pain-crazed giant
still had enough wit left to open the cave just wide enough for the
sheep to exit singly, sweeping any spare space with his vast hands and
over each sheep to ensure that no one was riding on its back. Wily
Ulysses had of course tied his men under the belly of each animal.
Polyphemus caressed his woolly companions, whispered endearments to
them, but missed his quarry to the last man. So far, so instructive? Now
we come to the even more dangerous part.

Once seaborne, Ulysses could not resist taunting his foe, screaming
abuses at the giant. In a fury of the thwarted, Polyphemus flung huge
lumps of rock in the direction of that needling voice, setting off a
virtual tidal wave that nearly succeeded in swamping his tormentors. Too
late. The bird had flown. Ulysses - had he so chosen - could have
returned and stung the blinded Polyphemus again and again. And
Polyphemus would uproot all the rocks - a prominent feature of
Palestinian terrain, dazzling white - and fling them blindly in the
direction of his assailant, miss him completely but provoke one deluge
after another that would threaten to innundate the world and drown all
its innocent inhabitants.

The facelessness of No-man - so many of them, and of all ages and both
sexes - is what enrages the government of Israel, and its current
leader, for whom the evocation of the figure of Polyphemus - even
physically - could not be more apt. In the process of exacting vengeance
on its enemy, it has adopted tactics that will either set off a tidal
wave to drown the world or, more aptly, set it on fire. Unable to
identify and strike pre-emptively at its elusive enemy, but determined
to identify a target, focus the attention of the world on that target,
place a name and a face on the invisible body of Satan, Ariel Sharon has
chosen to obssess himself with the merely plausible but, in truth,
merely convenient and reductionist identity - Yasser Arafat - which is
why failure is being dressed up as reason and frustration as factual
knowledge. We know who our tormentor is, shouts Sharon, echoed by the
government of the United States, and it is none other than Yasser

Arafat! Arafat! Arafat! Long before there was the likelihood of my
venturing near the cave of Polyphemus, I had found myself shaken to the
foundations of reason that anyone with the slightest intelligence, with
even a minimal grasp of the psychology of humiliation and desperation,
could exhibit such inanity as to imagine that, within the context of the
Middle East conflict, any one individual, no matter how highly respected
by his followers, how sacrosant his authority, could control a form of
action that stemmed out of both collective and individual desperation
and trauma. And of course Yasser Arafat is simply not in control of the
many arms the Palestinian resistance. Not even the various groups can
boast absolute control over individual acts of determination and
resourcefulness. Timothy MacVeigh took over two hundred souls down in
one fell swoop. No one has attempted to heap on the President of the
pro-gun lobby the sole responsibility for MacVeigh’s homicidal resolve
to avenge the victims of Waco.

Nor indeed - and this I had cause to point out on a number of occasions
during our visit - nor did anyone hold the Prime Minister of Israel
responsible for the action, many years ago, of the military reservist, a
medical doctor, who opened fire on a congregation of Moslem worshippers
in a mosque, killing a score or more before turning the gun on himself.
The irrationalities of the Israeli government and the United States have
been mind-boggling - they would be ludicrous if they were not fraught
with such predictable tragic consequences. Their insistence for
instance, at the early stages of the recent intifada, that the
Palestinians observe at least a week of violence-free moratorium before
peace talks could begin, was surely apparent to all beings with a claim
to reasoning - except those two world leaders - as a demand of
unbelievable infantilism, long before Sharon recognised and acknowledged
its futility. What my brief stay among ordinary Palestinians did was
simply to compel me to revisit that, and allied policy statements by the
Israeli government, promoted with such galling insensitivity by the
United States government. If I took anything away from our visit,
personally, it was the intensification of my private terror that so much
critical interventionism in world affairs actually rests in the hands of
such leaders with limitless military power.

No, there was no revelation, not for me. Months ago, in an article in
ENCARTA AFRICANA, I used the expression that the Israeli government was
tearing out the heart and liver of Arafat and feeding them to his
children - and who could fail to predict the consequences of such
evisceration! What I obtained last week was a reinforcement of what had
been a source of marvel, and it made me truly afraid for the Israeli -
that many of those who ever believed that their political leader was
treading the right political path had simply never taken the trouble to
project their minds into the refugee camps of the Palestinians, into
their daily existence, even if they could not visit the physical
reality, experience at first hand the daily humiliation and the scars of
memory that fully spell out the condition of nearly all Palestinians

We saw the checkpoints through which thousands of Palestinian Arabs pass
in order to go to work daily at their sole economic source - Israel. We
were trapped within endless motor convoys through which Palestinians
pass daily to and from work - that is, twice a day. Those convoys
reminded me of my own country, Nigeria, between the first military coup
and the Biafran Civil War, and its immediate aftermath. It recalled the
faces of despair, resignation, but also the simmering anger of a
populace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogant
military. This sense of humiliation in Palestine was just as palpable -
you could touch it, measure it and weigh it. It found expression in
numerous ways - from the ordinary people in the streets, men, women and
children, to university lecturers and students, NGOs , writers and civil
leaders. It was affirmed by foreigners who were compelled to share the
lives of the Palestinians, including the staff of the United Nations
refugee organisation, UNRWA. Numerous were the accounts of women who
gave birth at checkpoints because of the inflexible control that was
exercised over the movements of ordinary people, of deaths that occurred
right within ambulances that were trapped in convoys or at checkpoints.
And of course we crunched mortar beneath our feet, picked our way
through the rubble of demolished houses and saw, without any varnishing,
the active policy of land encroachment by settlers - demolish, create a
no-man’s land, then move into the vacated space when the Palestinian
occupants had been harassed beyond the range of guns. These instances of
dispossession, and their chilling methodology, have been meticulously
recorded by UN agencies, foreign embassies and external visitors. The
evidence itself was overwhelming, indisputable.

Was I sufficiently detached during this visit? Of course. And then
again, of course not. It is not possible to take only a clinical,
objective view of the situation in Palestine. When human beings are
being blown up in restaurants, in hotels, and especially with a
singularly grotesque sense of timing - while sitting down to a holy
feast, such as the Passover - one experiences both rage and horror at
the perpetrators. Matyrdom is an abuse of the word when allied to the
murder of innocents. If there are no innocents in any struggle, then let
us give up the cause of humanity. My skin crawls whenever I hear the
expression ‘matyrdom’ used as an equivalent of murder by suicide, and
especially mass murder. And on the other side of terror, the state
variety, to listen to a family give a graphic account of tanks crashing
through their walls at night, bringing down mortar on sleeping members
of the household, crushing innocents in their sleep, it is equally
impossible to remain viscerally disengaged or fail to be morally
assaulted. These had been homes to these innocents for generations. Now
they are being turned breeding grounds for a new species of the biped -
the dehumanised.
The devastating shock waves continue. The horrors that have become daily
diet for both contestants in this ominous conflict were brought home to
me even more drastically only two days ago - Easter Sunday - from the
comparative safety of California where I read about the latest outrage
in Tel-Aviv. The name of the street rang a bell. The explosion appears
to have taken place in a cafe on the same street that Russell Banks
(president of the IPW) and I had gone for an ‘espresso fix’ while
waiting to meet Shimon Peres, having driven directly from Gaza very
early on Wednesday morning for that appointment. It could have been that
very cafe - I am still to find out. In the meantime however, the sharp,
yet wistful features of the friendly young girl who served the coffee
had leapt instantly to my retina, an image that remains stubbornly
superimposed on it. Has she become yet another statistic of the purblind
peevishness of Polyphemus?

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