Talking Walls in Ramallah

The late winter has brought rain-slicked stones and cold to Palestine. Just like my time in Kashmir in November, I find myself unprepared for the cold. And also just like Kashmir, the unheated hotels bring no relief from the cold outside. My blue jeans which were soaked through during the protest in Jayyous three days ago have still not dried, and my feet have not been warm in a week.

I found some relief this afternoon in a Ramallah restaurant called Pronto’s where the sort of gas heat lamps common on Canadian bar patios are housed inside. (The fire hazard of this sort of thing is quickly forgotten when sitting beneath its delicious heat.) I met boikutt, a Palestinian hip hop artist of some renown who I met here in Ramallah in 2007. We talked about activism, art, music and the Wall.

Boikutt, whose real name is Basel Abbas, supports the idea of painting the Wall. Certainly, as a hip-hop artist, street art like grafitti suits his aesthetic. More than this, though, is the fact that writing on walls has always been part of the Palestinian experience. In the days of the first Intifada, when villages and refugee camps were under curfew, there was often no other way for Palestinians to communicate other than writing on their own walls. Spray-painted messages would announce births and funerals, and would express warnings to the occupying forces: “The PFLP will avenge the death of the following martyrs….”

But boikutt is afraid of ‘commodifying’ the Wall, of commercializing it, and having it become a symbol that, in the eyes of the international community, stands for everything. “The Wall is not the point,” he said. It is much bigger than that.” The Wall appears in boikutt’s lyrics, but only as part of the larger landscape of Palestinian life. Boikutt suggests that without the Wall – and the grand canvas it provides – foreign artists might not be interested in the conflict at all. It is good that the Wall has attracted the solidarity of the ‘Internationals,’ but the Wall is not the Occupation. If the Wall fell tomorrow, life in Palestine would not automatically improve.

Sam, a film-maker friend of boikutt’s had more to say. He explained how the biggest effect of the Wall in Qalqilya – a town in the northern West Bank that is completely enclosed by the Wall – is the increase in Islamic fundamentalism. The municipal government is now run by Hamas. Farmers who have lost their land to the other side of the Wall have no work, no money, and nothing else to do but go to the mosque and pray for God to intervene. He suggested, too, that the Wall has succeeded in eliminating face-to-face contact between Palestinians and Israelis. It is easier to hate someone you cannot see. And it is easier to kill them.

However, Sam believes that the best action against the Wall is to ignore it. Palestinians should not grant it importance, or legitimacy, by rallying against it. He said that the weekly demonstrations do little other than provide a release for anger, and that effort would be better spent improving education and health care in Palestine proper. “We have a bigger wall,”he said.

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