Monday, July 7, 2008

The Body of the 21st Century--A Tortured Site

In the beginning of the 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that the issue of color, of race, would dominate the next 100 years; now I see that the issue of the body, its embodiment of nation, of security, of desire, of difference and inclusion, of ownership and autonomy marks the 21st -perhaps another way to put it is who controls nakedness. We had just been to see "Standard Operating Procedure," the screen filled with the haunting images of brown skinned men, their scrotums and penises, their testicles, under the control of camouflaged wearing American men and women, asserting their power over the softest parts of the human body, the screen filled with images of lost souls, the lost psyches of the young women, so at a loss in their lives, that as one of them said, laughingly, she cannot control her thumb from giving the all's good sign when a camera is pointed at her yet she is given so much power over others. I remember the beseeching eyes of one of the Iraqi prisoners, as his naked body was pushed into place by his laughing seemingly bored controller, all the liquid softness of the eye, endangered sight, when torture becomes synonymous with "softening up." And the culminating irony that we have a man running for President of the United States mostly on his history of having endured torture in another war in another century and who demands more war, more sites of torture. The images of the film will stay with me for the rest of my life, as they should, the poverty of the empathetic human spirit in this, the most rich country of the world, the best, the finest, the most God blessed so the national lyric goes. Extreme forms of nationalism and the human body, the concern of our times.

"'I realized,' said Mohammed," he was after the award stipend for the Martha Gellhorn Prize. I told him I didn't have it with me. 'You are lying,' he said. I was now surrounded by eight Shin Bet officers, all armed. The man called Avri ordered me to take off my clothes. I had already been through an x-ray machine. I stripped down to my underwear and was told to take off everything. When I refused, Avi put his hand on his gun. I began to cry: "Why are you treating me this way? I am a human being.' He said, 'This is nothing compared with what you will see now.' He took his gun out, pressing it to my head and with his full body weight pinning me down on my side, he forcibly removed my underwear. He then made me do a concocted sort of dance. Another man, who was laughing, said, 'Why are you bringing perfumes?' I replied, "They are gifts for the people I love.' He said, 'Oh, do you have love in your culture?'

"As they ridiculed me, they took delight most in mocking letters I had received from readers in England. I had now been without food and water and the toilet for 12 hours, and having been made to stand, my legs buckled. I vomited and passed out. All I remember is one of them gouging, scraping and clawing with his nails at the tender flesh beneath my eyes. He scooped my head and dug his fingers in near the auditory nerves between my head and eardrum. The pain became sharper as he dug in two fingers at a time. Another man had his combat boot on my neck, pressing hard into the hard floor. I lay there for over an hour. The room became a menagerie of pain, sound and terror."

The next morning waiting for me on this small screen was a forwarded article from Sherry Gorelick in New York City sent out by Jewish Peace News. Written by John Pilger and titled, "From Triumph to Torture,"it tells what awaited Mohammed Omer, a prize winning young Palestinian journalist who lives and reports regularly from Gaza, when he returned to Israel from a celebration of his work in London. At the Allenby Bridge crossing he had been seized by eight Shin Bet soldiers while his Dutch escort waited for him to leave the border building. The only way Mohammed was able to leave was in an ambulance.

"An ambulance was called and told to take Mohammed to a hospital, but only after he had signed a statement indemnifying the Israelis from his suffering in their custody. The Palestinian medic refused, courageously, and said he would contact the Dutch embassy escort. Alarmed, the Israelis let the ambulance go." (John Pilger, The Guardian, Wednesday July 2, 2008)

Over and over, I receive messages of enforced deprivation--two Arab Israeli women film makers not allowed back into the country to make a documentary about daily life in Gaza,
leading international peace activists on their way to Gaza not allowed into the county,journalists not allowed into Gaza--and I think again of how much that day with Gila meant when she took us over the line, literally and figuratively, to see Palestinian towns, to buy a bottle of water from an almost empty shop, the Palestinian shop owner refusing payment after reading the Arabic on our women in Black t-shirts, of the afternoon lunch we had with Hannah, Dalia and Haya in the Palestinian quarter of old Haifa, of how much the survival of our human connection relies on seeing with our eyes, hearing words with our own ears, speaking with our own tongues across militarized borders, and if we cannot, reading the words of those kept from us, knowing the names of the invisible, refusing to draw the curtains of our hearts over the daily crushing of human joy. Armies, corporations, governments speak with huge gestures, encased in power and the fear of losing it--I plead with my friends, those whom I know and those who know me only through reading my words--if you go to Israel, take one afternoon, one hour and cross a border, speak with someone who is kept from you, someone you are told to fear, refuse not to see, hear or speak. These bodies as Duboise said carry the themes of our times, our desires and our illnesses, our histories, how soft they are in duress, the places of desire the softest of all, the hanging scrotum ,the falling breast--my mother's hand on my forehead in those rare times when she was there, trying to pull out the fever, let us honor our caring hands and touch through walls. Torture is the end of our humanity.

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