We ate a mountain of Maqloube with almonds and yogurt. Bassam told us about his meeting with the actor Shlomo Wizcinski who is slated to play Bassam in a new play. And Nurit gave Salwa a gift: a silver pendant with the name of her daughter Abir, may she rest in peace, made by a Jerusalem silversmith.
We laughed. It was fun. It was emotional.
And then we saw the images of the attack on the Jerusalem Merkaz Harav yeshiva on the television screen.
And again a cold hand seizes your heart, and again the blood freezes in your veins—you know that the sword that twists inside you shall know no rest until the cauldron of blood is filled and revenge is taken. On the side of the screen, a news-ticker of stark updates from Gaza: eight dead in one hour.
And beside the television, Salwa is bitter with tears for the mothers of the dead.
It was hard. Truly hard.
"Alright," said Bassam when we parted. "At least we'll see each other in Warsaw on Sunday…"
The two of us were invited by Warsaw television and HBO for the premier of a new documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian bereaved families organization Parents Circle-Families Forum. I was glad. I knew that together we would be able to pass on a message of hope to people who mostly had not the faintest idea about the reality of the conflict. I knew that by virtue of our shared grief people would listen to us—and perhaps even talk about peace.
I was naïve. I forgot completely that the average Palestinian cannot just get up one morning, like every free man, and travel to wherever he pleases, when he pleases. Despite a sea of telephone calls, scores of angry emails, pleas and shouts, Bassam stayed at home without a visa.
And thus I found myself Monday evening at the Polish National Theater in Warsaw, alone, in front of a curious Polish audience, two ambassadors, Israeli and Palestinian, and an empty chair—Bassam's chair.
The film began. Deathly silence. Heartbreaking stories of unbearable human suffering, without political demands, without attempts to quantify suffering. Stories of bereavement and futile attempts to give even a little meaning to the incredible, needless loss each family experienced. And an unsure outreaching of a hand to the other side, and a hug, and reconciliation, and the shade of a smile, a bud of hope. Men and women with faces lined with suffering in extreme close-up, telling and telling. And from time to time a sigh can be heard from the audience in the dark hall, and perhaps tears falling—the atmosphere is heavy and onerous.
As the screening ends, His Excellency the Israeli ambassador shifts in annoyance in his seat, in between his bodyguards, his body language communicating impatience and blatant aggression. "Count to ten!" shouts an Israeli from the audience, but it's already too late. He stands and conquers the single microphone, and everyone, including the Palestinian ambassador, sits admonished like disobedient children, listening to the words of his Lordship. And he explains, his Honor, that he had misgivings and hesitancies about appearing at the evening's event after what happened in Jerusalem on Thursday, but out of respect for the bereaved families he had decided to come. And he went on to say that Israel would be resolute in its fight against terror, without compromise. And that there is no comparing the pain of someone who was hurt by terror with that of someone who was hurt as a result of others acting in self-defense…and that Israeli children don't go blow themselves up in the market in Gaza, and…
And then someone from the audience yells at him that Israel sends tanks and fighter planes to Gaza, that the Israeli occupation is also a form of terrorism. Immediately the same ugly argument begins again, and his Honor says that everyone has a right to their opinion, and his press agent has no idea where to bury himself from embarrassment, in front of his astonished Polish hosts.
We too, myself and my son Guy who is with me, cast our eyes downwards in shame at this strange behavior of our representative in Warsaw.
That same morning, across from the remains of the Warsaw ghetto wall, I talked with myself asking how I, as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a person, could express my feelings about Bassam's loss. And I was not able to come to any conclusion. And now, in a split-second decision, I said to those assembled at the screening, "I—am Bassam Aramin! I represent here the missing character of this brave and noble combatant for peace." I told them that the fact that the place of Palestinians is empty in nearly every international forum that speaks about the conflict is a source of embarrassment for all of us! I said that the absence of this bereaved father, this ex-prisoner who chose the path of reconciliation and peace is a great shout against the glaring lack of justice that continues, that tries to prove that there is no one to talk with and there is nothing to talk about and thus we should give up talking…
At that point, the ambassador assembled his bodyguards and left in a suitably royal rage. The head Rabbi said to me that "there is no pain like my pain" and the panel nodded in agreement from Polish politeness.
We went together to be photographed, and afterwards to drink and then to eat, and I was there in my body but in my soul and in my heart I was in Anata. I could not for an instant stop thinking about Bassam and Salwa Aramin. I though to myself that only Bassam, with his nobility and his endless smiles, only he could have made the ambassador embarrassed and lower his glare in shame, only he could have helped him to understand that Gaza preceded Jerusalem, and Sderot preceded Gaza, and that the Occupation preceded Jenin and ad infinitum, a long and endless line of bodies.
But Bassam was not there with me. And I went from that place with a bowed head, wounded and shamed and hurting.
And that is all there is, and with this we must move forward…or not.
Rami Elhanan, Jerusalem, March 13th, 2008
Translated by Miriam Asnes