Sunday, 20 April 2008

Undefeated Despair

by John Berger in Race & Class, 2006

How is it I am still alive? I’ll tell you I’m alive because there’s a temporary shortage of death. This is said with a grin, which is on the far side of a longing for normalcy, for an ordinary life.

Everywhere one goes in Palestine – even in rural areas – one finds oneself amongst rubble, picking a way through, round and over it. At a checkpoint, around some greenhouses which lorries can no longer reach, along any street, going to any rendezvous.

The rubble is of houses, roads and the debris of daily lives. There’s scarcely a Palestinian family that has not been forced during the last half century to flee from somewhere, just as there’s scarcely a town in which buildings are not regularly bulldozed by the occupying army.

There’s also the rubble of words – the rubble of words that house nothing any more, whose sense has been destroyed. Notoriously, the IDF – the Israeli Defence Force, as the Israeli army is called – has become, de facto, an army of conquest. As Sergio Yahni, one of the inspiringly courageous Israeli refuseniks (they refuse to serve in the army) writes: ‘This army does not exist to bring security to the citizens of Israel: it exists to guarantee the continuation of the theft of Palestinian land.’

There is the rubble, too, of sober and principled words which are being ignored. UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice in the Hague have condemned the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory (there are now nearly half a million such ‘settlers’) and the construction of the ‘separation fence’ which is an eight-metrehigh concrete wall, as illegal. The Occupation and Wall nevertheless
continue. Every month the IDF’s stranglehold across the territories is tightened. The stranglehold is geographic, economic, civic and military.

All this is clear; it is not happening in some remote, war-locked corner of the globe, every foreign office of every rich nation is watching, and not one takes measures to discourage the illegalities. ‘For us’, a Palestinian mother says at a checkpoint after an IDF soldier has lobbed a tear gas bomb behind her, ‘for us the silence of the West is worse’ – she nods towards the armoured car – ‘than their bullets’.

A gap between declared principles and realpolitik may be a constant throughout the history. Often the declarations are grandiloquent. Here, however, it’s the opposite. The words are far smaller than the events.

What is happening is the careful destruction of a people and a promised nation. And around this destruction there are small words and evasive silence.

For the Palestinians, one word remains undiminished: Nakbah, meaning Catastrophe and referring to the forced exodus of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. ‘Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me rest my road against a stone’, wrote the poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Nakbah has become a name that four generations share, and it endures so persistently because the operation of ‘ethnic cleansing’ it names is still largely unacknowledged by Israel and the West. The brave work of the upstanding (and persecuted) new Israeli historians – like Ilan Pappe´ – is of the utmost importance in this context, for it may lead eventually to such an official acknowledgement, and this would change the fatal name back into a word, however tragic that word.

A familiarity here with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words.

* * *

One tends to forget the geographical scale of the tragedy in question; its scale has become part of the tragedy. The whole of the West Bank plus the Gaza Strip is smaller than Crete (the island from which Palestinians may have originally come in prehistory). Three and a half-million people, six times as many as in Crete, live here. And systematically, each day, the area is being rendered smaller. The towns becoming more and more overcrowded, the countryside more fenced in and inaccessible.

The settlements extend or new ones begin. Special highways for settlers, forbidden to Palestinians, transform old roads into deadends. The checkpoints and tortuous ID controls have seriously reduced for most Palestinians the possibility of travelling or even planning to travel within what remains of their own territories. Many can go no further than 20 kilometres in any direction.

The Wall enclaves, cuts off corners (when finished it will have filched nearly 10 per cent of what remains of Palestinian land), fragments the countryside and separates Palestinians from Palestinians. Its aim is to break up Crete into a dozen little islands. The aim of a sledgehammer carried out by bulldozers.

‘There is nothing left of us in the wilderness save what the wilderness kept for itself.’
(Mahmoud Darwish)

Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat, makes for a stance towards the world here, such as I have never seen before. It may be expressed in one way by a young man joining the Islamic jihad, in another by an old woman remembering and murmuring through the gaps between her few teeth, and in yet another
by a smiling 11-year-old girl who wraps up a promise to hide it in the despair . . .

This stance, as you call it, how does it work?

Listen . . .

Three boys squatting and playing marbles in the corner of an alley in a refugee camp. In this camp, many of the refugees originally came from Haifa. The dexterity with which the boys flick a marble with one thumb, the rest of the body motionless, is not unconnected with the familiarity of very cramped spaces.

Three metres down the alleyway, which is narrower than any hotel corridor, is a shop selling second-hand bicycle parts. All the handlebars are arranged on one hanger, all the back wheels on another, the saddles on a third. If it wasn’t for their arrangement, the pieces would look like unsellable scrap. As it is, they sell.

On the wall of a low building with a metal door, opposite the shop, is written: ‘From the womb of the camp a revolution is born every day.’

A school teacher lives with his sister in the two rooms behind the metal door. He indicates the floor of another room which was the size of two bath tubs. The ceiling and walls have fallen down. That’s the room where I was born, he says.

Return to his present living room. He points to a photo in a gilded frame which is hanging on the wall beside an official portrait of Arafat wearing his keffiyya. The framed photo there is my father as a young man, it was taken in Haifa! A colleague told me once he looks like Pasternak, the Russian poet, what do you think? (He does.) He had a heart complaint and the Nakbah killed him. He died in this very room when I was twelve.

At the far end of the building with the metal door, opposite the shop of bicycle parts, eight paces away from where the boys are playing marbles in the corner, there’s a square metre of open earth where a jasmine bush is growing. It has only two white flowers, for it’s November. Around its root, chucked there from the alley, are a dozen empty plastic mineral water bottles. At least 60 per cent of the camp inhabitants are unemployed. The camps are shantytowns.

When somebody has the opportunity to leave a camp and cross the rubble to slightly better accommodation, it can happen that they turn it down and choose to stay. In the camp they are a member, like a finger, of an endless body. Moving out would be an amputation. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

Listen . . .

The olive trees on the topmost terrace look tousled; the silver undersides of their leaves are far more visible than usual. This is because yesterday their olives were picked. Last year the crop was poor, the trees tired. This year is better. According to their girth, the trees must be around three or four centuries old. The terraces of dry limestone are probably older.

A couple of kilometres away to the west and south are two recently built settlements. Regular, compact, urban (the settlers commute each day to work in Israel), impenetrable. Neither looks like a village, more like a huge jeep, large enough on the ground to house comfortably 200 settlers with guns. Both are illegal, both are built on hills, both have lookout towers slender as a mosque’s minaret. Their virtual message to the surrounding countryside is: Hands above the head, above the head I told you, and walk slowly backwards.

Building the settlement towards the west, and the road leading to it, involved the cutting down of several hundred olive trees. The men working on the site were mostly out-of-work Palestinians. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

The families, who picked their olives yesterday, come from the straggling village in the valley between the two settlements, with a population of about 3,000. Twenty men from the village are in Israeli prisons. One was released two days ago. Several of the young have recently joined Hamas. Many more will vote for Hamas in January.
All the kids have toy pistols. All the young grandmothers, whilst wondering what became of the promises they once wrapped, nod in approval at their sons, daughters-in-law, nephews, and worry every night. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

* * *

The Muqata, Arafat’s headquarters in the Palestinian capital of Ramallah, was a gigantic heap of rubble three years ago when he was held hostage there by the IDF’s tanks and artillery. Now, one year after his death, the Palestinians have cleared the rubble – some argued that it should have been left as a historic monument – and the inner quadrangle today is as bare as a drilling square. On its western side at ground level, an austere plinth marks Arafat’s grave. Above it, a roof like the roof above the platform of a small railway station. Anybody can find their way there, passing by scarred walls and under garlands of barbed wire. Two sentinels stand guard over the
plinth. Apart from them, no head of a (promised) state has a more reticent last resting place – it simply declares itself to be there against all odds!

If you happen to be standing by his feet when the sun sets, its radiance is that of a silence. He was nicknamed the Walking Catastrophe.

Are loved leaders ever pure? Aren’t they always full of faults, not weaknesses, flagrant faults? Is this maybe a condition for being a loved leader? Under his leadership, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation also contributed, on occasions, to the rubble of words. Yet into Arafat’s faults were stuffed, like notes into a pocket, the daily wrongs his country suffered. Like this he assumed and carried those
wrongs and their pain found a home, a painful home, in his faults. It’s neither purity nor strength that wins such undying loyalty, but something flawed – as each one of us is flawed. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

* * *

The north-west town of Qalqilya (population 50,000) is totally surrounded by 17 kilometres of the Wall, with only one exit. The once bustling main street now ends in the Wall’s waste land. The town’s meagre economy is consequently in ruins. A market gardener trundles a wheelbarrow of sand to distribute round some plants before the coming winter. Until the Wall, he employed twelve workers. (Ninety-five per
cent of Palestinian businesses have fewer than five employees.) Today he employs nobody. The sales of his plants – because the town has been cut off – have been reduced by nine-tenths. He throws away, instead of collecting, the seeds from a heap of lychnis flowers. His large hands are heavy with the admission that henceforth here they have nothing to do.

Difficult to convey the sight of the Wall where it crosses the land where there is nobody. It’s the opposite of rubble. It is bureaucratic – carefully planned on electronic maps, prefabricated and pre-emptive. Its purpose is to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The aim of the sledgehammer. Since it began to be built three years ago, there has been no significant reduction in the number of kamikaze attacks.

Standing before it, you feel as short as a cigarette butt. (Except during Ramadan, most Palestinians smoke a lot). Yet, oddly, it doesn’t look final, only insurmountable.

When it’s finished, it will be the 640 kilometre-long expressionless face of an inequality. At the moment it’s 210 kilometres long. The inequality is between those who have the full arsenal of the latest military technology to defend what they believe to be their interest (Apache helicopters, Merkava tanks, F16s, and so on) and those who have nothing, save their names and a shared belief that justice is axiomatic. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

It could be that the Wall belongs to the same short-sighted repressive logic as the ‘sonic boom’ bombing that the inhabitants of Gaza are being submitted to every night as I write. Jet fighters dive very low at full speed to break the sound barrier, and the nerves of those huddling sleepless below with their axiom. And it won’t work.

Such a superiority of firepower discourages intelligent strategy; to think strategically one has to be able to imagine oneself in one’s opponent’s place, and an habitual sense of superiority precludes this.

Climb one of the jabals and look down at the Wall, way below, winding its geometric dividers’ course towards the southern horizon. Did you see the hoopoe bird? In the long-term view, the Wall looks makeshift.

* * *

There are 8,000 political prisoners in Israeli jails, 350 of them under eighteen years old. A period in prison has become a normal phase to be undergone, once or several times, in a man’s life. Throwing stones can lead to a sentence of two and a half years or more.

Prison for us is a sort of education, a strange sort of university. The man speaking has glasses, is about fifty and is wearing a business-lunch suit. You learn how to learn there. He’s the youngest of five brothers and imports coffee-machines. You learn how to struggle together and become inseparable. Certain conditions have improved over the last forty years – improved thanks to us and our hunger strikes. The most I did was twenty days. We won a quarter of an hour more exercise time each day. In the long-sentence prisons, they used to mask the windows so there was no sunshine in the cells.We won back some sunshine. We got one body search removed from the daily routine. Otherwise we read and discuss what we read, teach each other different languages. And come to know certain soldiers and some of the guards. In the streets, it’s the language of bullets and stones between us. Inside, it’s different. They’re in prison just as we are. The difference is, we believe in what’s got us there, and they mostly don’t, because they’re just there to earn a living. I know of some friendships that began like that.

The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

* * *

The Judaean desert between Jerusalem and Jericho is of sandstone, not sand, and is precipitous, not flat. In the spring, parts of it are covered with wild grasses and the goats of Bedouins can feed off it. Later in the year there are only clumps of boxthorn.

If you contemplate this desert, you quickly discover that it’s a landscape whose gaze is totally directed towards the sky. A question of geology, not biblical history. It hangs there beneath the sky like a hammock. And when it’s windy it twists like a winding sheet. As a result, the sky appears to be more substantial, more urgent, than the land. A porcupine quill blown by the wind lands at your feet. It’s not surprising that hundreds of prophets, including the greatest, nurtured their visions here.

The light is fading and a herd of 200 goats, with a Bedouin shepherd on a mule with his dog, is making its evening zigzag descent down to the camp where there’s water to drink and some extra grain to eat. The thistles and rhizome roots give little nourishment at this time of year. The difficulty with prophets and their final prophecies is that they tend to ignore what immediately follows an action, ignore consequences. Actions for them, instead of being instrumental, become symbolic.
It can happen that prophesies cause people not to see what time contains.

The Bedouin family below are living in two abandoned buildings, not far from a Roman aqueduct. At this time of day, the mother will be cooking flat bread, daily bread, on a heated stone. Seven of her sons, who were born here, work with the herd. The family has recently been informed by the IDF that they have to leave before next spring.
Hands above the head and walk backwards! All the female goats are pregnant. Five months’ gestation period. We’ll face that when we get there, says one of the sons. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

A refusal to see immediate consequences. For example – the Wall and the annexation of still further Palestinian land cannot promise security for the state of Israel; it recruits martyrs. For example – if a kamikaze martyr could see with their own eyes,
before he or she died, the immediate consequences of their explosion, they might well reconsider the appropriateness of their steadfast decision.

The goddamned future of prophecies that ignores all but the final moment.

* * *

In the stance I keep referring to, there is something special, a quality which no post-modern or political vocabulary today can find a word for. The quality of a way of sharing which disarms the leading question of: why was one born into this life?

This way of sharing disarms and answers the question not with a promise or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance – these forms of rhetoric are for the small or large leaders who make History – and this way disarmingly answers the question despite history. Its answer is brief, brief but perpetual. One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments: the time of Becoming,
before Being risks to confront one yet again with undefeated despair.

That have not been asked: ten dispatches about endurance in face of walls

The wind got up in
the night and took our plans away.

(Chinese proverb)

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

Twilight was setting in; the sky wrapped in cool grey fog, was already being closed off by darkness; and the wind, after spending the day rustling stubble and bare bushes that had gone dead in preparation for winter, now lay itself down in still low places on the earth...

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens.


The lives of the poor are mostly grief, interrupted by moments of illumination. Each life has its own propensity for illumination and no two are the same. (Conformism is a habit cultivated by the well-off.) Illuminated moments arrive by way of tenderness and love – the consolation of being recognised and needed and embraced for being what one suddenly is! Other moments are illuminated by an intuition, despite everything, that the human species serves for something.

“Nazar tell me something or other – something more important than anything.”

Aidym turned down the wick in the lamp in order to use less paraffin. She understood that, since there was something or other in life that was more important than anything, it was essential to take care of every good that there was.

“I don’t know the thing that really matters, Aidym,” said Chagataev. “ I haven’t thought about it, I’ve never had time. But if we’ve both of us been born, then there must be something in us that really matters.”

Aidym agreed: “A little that does matter... and a lot that doesn’t.”

Aidym prepared supper. She took a flat bread out of a sack, spread it with sheep’s fat and broke it in half. She gave Chagataev the big half, and took the small half herself. They silently chewed their food by the weak light of the lamp. In the Ust-Yurt and the desert it was quiet, uncertain and dark.”


From time to time despair enters into the lives which are mostly grief. Despair is the emotion which follows a sense of betrayal. A hope against hope (which is still far from a promise) collapses or is collapsed; despair fills the space in the soul which was occupied by that hope. Despair has nothing to do with nihilism.

Nihilism, in its contemporary sense, is the refusal to believe in any scale of priorities beyond the pursuit of profit, considered as the end-all of social activity, so that, precisely: everything has its price. Nihilism is resignation before the contention that Price is all. It is the most current form of human cowardice. But not one to which the poor often succumb.

He began to pity his body and his bones; his mother had once gathered them together for him from the poverty of her flesh – not because of love and passion, not for pleasure, but out of the most everyday necessity. He felt as if he belonged to others, as if he were the last possession of those who have no possessions, about to be squandered to no purpose, and he was seized by the greatest, most vital fury of his life.

[A word of explanation about these quotations. They are from the stories of the great Russian writer, Andrei Platonov (1899-1951). He wrote about the poverty which occurred during the civil war and later during the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture in the early 1930s. What made this poverty unlike more ancient poverties was the fact that its desolation contained shattered hopes. It fell to the ground exhausted, it got to its feet, it staggered, it marched on amongst shards of betrayed promises and smashed words. Platonov often used the term dushevny bednyak, which means literally poor souls. It referred to those from whom everything had been taken so that the emptiness within them was immense and in that immensity only their soul was left – that’s to say their ability to feel and suffer. His stories do not add to the grief being lived, they save something. “Out of our ugliness will grow the world’s heart”, he wrote in the early 1920s.

The world today is suffering another form of modern poverty. No need to quote the figures; they are widely known and repeating them again only makes another wall of statistics. Perhaps as much as a third of the world’s population live with less than $2 a day. Local cultures with their partial remedies – both physical and spiritual – for some of life’s afflictions are being systematically destroyed or attacked. The new technology and means of communication, the free market economy, productive abundance, parliamentary democracy, are failing, so far as the poor are concerned, to keep any of their promises beyond that of the supply of certain cheap consumerist goods, which the poor can buy when they steal.

Platonov understood living modern poverty more deeply than any other storyteller I have come across.]


The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.

A story refers life to an alternative and more final judge who is far away. Maybe the judge is located in the future, or in the past that is still attentive, or maybe somewhere over the hill, where the day’s luck has changed (the poor have to refer often to bad or good luck) so that the last have become first.

Story-time (the time within a story) is not linear. The living and the dead meet as listeners and judges within this time, and the greater the number of listeners felt to be there, the more intimate the story becomes to each listener. Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent. And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity. This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall.

Wherever he went, he only had to promise to tell a story and people would take him in for the night: a story’s stronger than a Tsar. There was just one thing: if he began telling stories before the evening meal, no-one ever felt hungry and he didn’t get anything to eat. So the old soldier always asked for a bowl of soup first.


The worst cruelties of life are its killing injustices. Almost all promises are broken. The poor’s acceptance of adversity is neither passive nor resigned. It’s an acceptance which peers behind the adversity and discovers there something nameless. Not a promise, for (almost) all promises are broken; rather something like a bracket, a parenthesis in the otherwise remorseless flow of history. And the sum total of these parentheses is eternity.

This can be put the other way round: on this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.

Happiness is not something to be pursued, it is something met, an encounter. Most encounters, however, have a sequel; this is their promise. The encounter with happiness has no sequel. All is there instantly. Happiness is what pierces grief.

We thought there was nothing left in the world, that everything had disappeared long ago. And if we were the only ones left, what was the point of living?

“We went to check”, said Allah. “‘Were there any other people anywhere? We wanted to know.”

Chagataev understood them and asked if this meant they were now convinced about life and wouldn’t be dying any more.

“Dying’s no use”, said Cherkezov. “To die once – now you might think that’s something necessary and useful. But dying once doesn’t help you to understand your own happiness – and no one gets the chance to die twice. So dying gets you nowhere.”


“Whilst the rich drank tea and ate mutton, the poor were waiting for the warmth and for the plants to grow.”

The difference between seasons, as also the difference between night and day, shine and rain, is vital. The flow of time is turbulent. The turbulence makes life-times shorter – both in fact and subjectively. Duration is brief. Nothing lasts. This is as much a prayer as a lament.

(The mother) was grieving that she had died and forced her children to mourn for her; if she could have, she would have gone on living forever so that nobody should suffer on her account, or waste, on her account, the heart and the body to which she had given birth....but the mother had not been able to stand living for very long.”

Death occurs when life has no scrap left to defend.


“ was as if she were alone in the world, free from happiness and sorrow, and she wanted to dance a little, right away, to listen to music, to hold hands with other people....”

They are accustomed to living in close proximity with one another, and this creates its own spatial sense; space is not so much an emptiness as an exchange. When people are living on top of one another, any action taken by one has repercussions on the others. Immediate physical repercussions. Every child learns this.

There is a ceaseless spatial negotiation which may be considerate or cruel, conciliating or dominating, unthinking or calculated, but which recognises that an exchange is not something abstract but a physical accommodation. Their elaborate sign languages of gestures and hands are an expression of such physical sharing. Outside the walls collaboration is as natural as fighting; scams are current, and intrigue, which depends upon taking a distance, is rare. The word private has a totally different ring on the two sides of the wall. On one side it denotes property; on the other an acknowledgement of the temporary need of someone to be left, as if alone, for a while. Every site inside the walls is rentable – every square metre counted; every site outside risks to become a ruin – every sheltering corner counted.

The space of choices is also limited. They choose as much as the rich, perhaps more, for each choice is starker. There are no colour charts which offer a choice between one hundred and seventy different shades. The choice is close-up – between this or that. Often it is made vehemently, for it entails the refusal of what has not been chosen. Each choice is quite close to a sacrifice. And the sum of the choices is a person’s destiny.


No development (the word has a capital D as an article of faith on the other side of the walls) no insurance. Neither an open future nor an assured future exist. The future is not awaited. Yet there is continuity; generation is linked to generation. Hence a respect for age since the old are a proof of this continuity – or even a demonstration that once, long ago, a future existed. Children are the future. The future is the ceaseless struggle to see that they have enough to eat and the sometimes-chance of their learning with education what the parents never learnt.

“When they finished talking, they threw their arms around each other. They wanted to be happy right away, now, sooner than their future and zealous work would bring results in personal and in general happiness. The heart brooks no delay, it sickens, as if believing in nothing.”

Here the future’s unique gift is desire. The future induces the spurt of desire towards itself. The young are more flagrantly young than on the other side of the wall. The gift appears as a gift of nature in all its urgency and supreme assurance. Religious and community laws still apply. Indeed amongst the chaos which is more apparent than real, these laws become real. Yet the silent desire for procreation is incontestable and overwhelming. It is the same desire that will forage for food for the children and then seek, sooner or later, (best sooner) the consolation of fucking again. This is the future’s gift.


The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been asked, and the capacity to outlive the walls. Trace tonight her (his) hairline with your two fingers before you sleep.