This week I went back to Gaza. I sat watching a young American woman on a barely-lit stage exploding old memories with each name she uttered against a background of bullet-ridden concrete. My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the writing of a young American observer killed by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, is a hugely powerful piece of work, even more so for me because so much of it seemed so familiar.
In 1997, I ignored the advice of my tutors and arranged to study at Birzeit University in the West Bank for a semester. I went looking for a real understanding of what was going on in that fractured land and came away possibly more knowledgeable, but also more confused. The Palestinians are without doubt the most friendly, generous people I have ever met. Their kindness to me, even though I was an Englishman who had ‘stolen their country’ was overwhelming. At the same time, I would visit the old Jewish market in Jerusalem after a suicide bombing and watch the blood drain from the soiled bandages as they burnt.
I met Palestinians who wanted to push the Israelis back to the sea and others who more than anything just wanted their children to see their 18th birthday. I met Israelis who thought that the only good Arab was a dead one and others who risked their safety and reputation to reach out to Palestinians in the name of reconciliation. I learned how to talk my way past military checkpoints, I learned what it is to live where politics is not just a matter of which collection of suits decides your tax level, but life itself. I fear I did not learn as much as Rachel Corrie, nor did I pay such a heavy price for my knowledge.
Corrie writes with coruscating force and it seems amazing that the only intended audience for her words were her parents and friends. Whether you agree with her politics or not, she is someone to be admired because she cared enough to stand up and do something about what she believed to be an injustice in this world and that is all too rare in our generation. See this play.