By Lindsey Cook
Lindsey Cook was twenty-four when she went to Ramallah, six miles north of Jerusalem, to teach fifth through nine grade at a Quaker girls’ school in 1987. Her students would soon be caught up in the Intifada or Palestinian uprising and Lindsey herself shot with five metal bullets by an Israeli soldier. In this chaos, her classroom became a second home for young girls searching for both a personal and a national identity.
The Friends Girls School (FGS) is a short walk from my apartment in a privileged pocket of town. My classroom is filled with twenty-five eighth graders, a mass of awkward young bodies and curious, polite faces. They sit back in their chairs, pencils in hand, and stare at my blue jeans and fluorescent shoelaces, as I stand at the chalkboard and explain that I’ll be teaching Ethics, Social Studies and Gym. A serious-looking girl interrupts.
“Ah, Miss, excuse me.”
“You may call me Lindsey.”
“Miss Lindsey, I think… “
“I think you spell Ethics with a t.”
Many of my students have lived abroad with their parents and have returned to get to know their culture and reconnect with relatives. All are fluent in English and far more capable than I when it comes to math. I let them work out the problems on the blackboard, showing one another how they came up with each solution. They are glad to have this independence.
Our classroom, in an old mansion, overlooks a stone wall and some fields and has a clear view of the town. When there is trouble. they are the first to see the black smoke of burning tires and hear the muffled shots.
“Suha, get down from that window!”
“But Miss, something’s happening.” I walk to the window. A mass of sixth graders follow and lean over the window ledge.
In the distance, we hear a crackle of live ammunition. An older girl peers into the classroom from the hall.
“Miss, someone’s been killed by the Jay’sh (Israeli soldiers) and there’s shooting everywhere. I’m here to pick up my sister Amneh.”
We have been told how to handle these early departures, how to shepherd the girls out of the classroom and into an enclosed courtyard near the driveway.
After we turn the girls over to their parents, the headmistress says, “This is your first killing here?”
“There’ll be a general strike called for tomorrow. No schools, no transport, no shops. Everything shuts down.”
The next morning I wander through Ramallah. The shops are shielded by metal doors and the main street is littered with debris. A woman was shot as she was leaving the bakery, but I don’t know which bakery. An army jeep roars past, gears grinding and rounds the corner at high speed, then a foot patrol enters from the opposite direction. The minara, the city square, is now a silent battlefield.
After a week of strikes, the merchants return. Construction workers travel across the Green Line to build Israeli homes and school resumes. And I outline the day’s assignment for my eighth graders.
“Yesterday I asked you to define some of the terms we see in newspapers. Let’s start with human rights.”
“The right to food and education, and to health,” offers Samira.
“Yeah, but you can’t separate human from political and civil rights,” shouts Reem, born and raised in Florida. “People need the right to vote, to free speech, to walk anywhere they want or they go crazy.”
Noura, Chicago-born, and fiercely intelligent, chimes in. “We should have fair trials and the right to elect the people we want. If we support the PLO, we shouldn’t be put in prison.”
“Ok.” I say, “How about writing it down? Show me how these issues impact your daily lives.”
“Israel discriminates against us. Some of the Israelis are good to Palestinians but they are few. The Government isn’t going to give us rights.”
“We don’t have the right to vote, to have our own flag and wave it, and we can’t wear the colors of the Palestinian flag. I can’t think of any rights the Palestinians do have. The Israelis think we are like animals.”
“The Israelis say that if you’re not Jewish, you’re not human and don’t belong here.”
“You know what I hate?” shouts Reem from the back. “I hate being called a terrorist.”
“Yeah,” says Kefiyah, the class loner. “You’re an Arab, so the world thinks you’re a terrorist with this weird religion.”
Judaism intrigues them, as it is the basis for their Christian and Muslim beliefs. Yet Zionism means a loss of their land and identity.
“I hate the Jews.” Neda concludes.
“All Jews, Neda? What about those who criticize the occupation?”
“I never see them. I only see soldiers and mustoutaneen (Israeli settlers).”
“Miss, were a lot of Jews really killed in the Holocaust?”
“Historians say six million.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yup. Along with hundreds of thousands of Gypsies and Communists and mentally ill and homosexuals and anyone else the Nazis considered undesirable. In addition, you had tens of millions of people who died in the fighting or of starvation or …”
“OK, we get it.”
“But why,” a small voice rises from the back, “are we being blamed for it?”
By November the last strips of warm air surrender to cool damp breezes. The skin softens as rains fall sporadically, first a light shedding and then in torrents to flood parched fields.
Drainage is poorly constructed and streets transform to rivers. Clothes are sodden against chilled skin but for a short time the lungs are grateful for the cool fresh air. My roommate, another teacher named Sandra and I converse like a bored couple.
“Have you noticed how cold the water is these days?” she says. “The clothes are moldy before they dry. There’s no food in the fridge and I’m sick of lentil soup.”
Meanwhile, our days are packed and the class discussions are getting more intense.
“Today we are going to talk about isms.”
“Yo, Miss!” shrieks Reem. “Nationalism, internationalism…”
“Capitalism, Socialism, Communism …” from tall, pretty Zahira. “Zionism and anarchism!”
“I have my own ism,” Mouana volunteers. The others giggle.
“In Mounaism, Palestine will have a socialist government so the poor will not be forgotten. All the people will have freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, and other political and civil rights. There will be no discrimination or inequality. Everyone will be treated equally no matter what nationality or religion. “
That day we also debate Feminism vs. Nationalism. Which is more urgent? The arguments are surprisingly passionate.
Kefiyah takes the Nationalist position. “We believe that Palestinian women must first work to create a Palestinian State and then, with a new State, ask for equal rights.”
“Ask?” someone hisses from the back.
Fadwa, the only daughter of the Palestinian leader Faisal Husseni, moves forward and says,
“A Palestinian state will be no better than the occupation if it is controlled by men.”
It is now the dead of winter: The thick stone which kept our classrooms cool in summer now traps the cold. I’m longing for our December break. “Don’t buy your ticket yet,” the headmistress warns. “It’s tense this month. If we lose any more days to strikes or clashes, we may forfeit our holiday.”
I walk down West Bank streets and keep my chin high when soldiers pass. In the night, I wake to the sounds of gunfire and manage to fall asleep again, The next day, an Israeli truck hits a car full of Palestinian laborers, killing four and seriously injuring several others. Deaths by road accidents here far surpass deaths caused by political violence and terrorism. But in the weeks ahead, this one will escalate into a full-fledged conflict. Two dead, one dead, three. Nablus follows, then riots in Jenin, Ramallah and Hebron. The streets of Ramallah are so tense I fear venturing into the town center to buy food.
My colleague Laila stops marking her exams and stares at me from across the table. “Something’s happening, something big.” Between her sentences is the soft, far off sound of shooting. Pphhg, pphhg.
“It’ll pass. It always does,” says a Palestinian teacher.
“No. Ramallah’s in chaos. People say this is like demanding a divorce after twenty years of an abusive marriage,” says another.
We are told that mid-year exams must be held regardless of poor preparation. The old school auditorium is filled with wooden desks lined row after row, hard wooden chairs tucked under, clean while papers on top. Some seventy girls sit tensely, as the shooting gets louder, closer.
One student finally breaks. “How am I supposed to concentrate with this outside? It’s crazy,” she yells, as she marches out of the auditorium.
Rain collects as a thin lake on my veranda and seeps under my bedroom door. Every few days I exchange soggy editions of The Jerusalem Post for new dry pages, and press crumpled paper into cracks around the door frame. I nail a quilt over the door though the icy air continues to push through cement and stone. We are told to wait—school will resume once tensions ease. In the meantime, storing food becomes an art. A partial strike, set by shopkeepers as an intifada protest, leaves us until midday to purchase our supplies.
In the market, Sandra and I stock up on winter vegetables, local wine, and candles for periodic power cuts. She slips onions in our knapsacks. “Counters tear gas,” she says.
I’ve never been shot before. With charming naivete I believe I am somehow immune from the violence.
Yet first, there is a kick to the right leg and a double fist on the spine from an Israeli soldier, for refusing to leave an area when ordered. Then I run directly into a canister of gas. A suffocating white cloud blocks the last escape route. I am alone, except for the soldiers across the street.
Be calm, girl, I tell myself. Be calm. They’re leaving.
Engines roar, the soldiers climb into the jeeps, but a gun is pointing at my face.
My students once taught me the sick little phrase, “If it’s wet and warm it’s alive.” Instinctively I press my hand against my throbbing neck then inspect my fingers. A modest patch of red. I’m going to be ok. They were using plastic-coated metal bullets, not live bullets, though at thirty feet these can gouge an eye, crush a windpipe.
Classes resume on February 4. In a far-off comer on the third floor are the nine planets speckled with dust. December’s lessons are still visible on the blackboard. But we barely have a chance to clean up and get started.
“I think there’s trouble outside.”
I glance out the window. “It’s just a few young men standing around. Ghadir. Why not write out problem eighteen on the board?”
“Yes, Miss.” As Ghadir raises a piece of blue chalk, we can hear the sound of shoes slapping against the pavement. The boys are being chased by soldiers.
“Oh Miss, GAS!”
A sharp, nauseating smell fills the room. Ghadir stands frozen beside the blackboard. I rush to close a last, unnoticed window but the girls’ eyes are tearing up as they race from one desk to another.
“Back to your seats! The windows are closed!”
Ghadir stands frozen beside the wall. “Sit down, sweetheart,” I say stupidly. “The soldiers are gone.”
She starts to cry.
By April, the Israeli government has again closed the schools.
Spring in the West Bank is breathtaking. The afternoons are soft and gilded with a warm sun. There is a simplicity to life which the fearful tension of this period cannot erase. Vegetables are plentiful even if violence complicates the purchase. The community is growing organized.
Now, after clashes, the wounded are taken to a ‘secret clinic’ in someone’s living room. A welfare committee distributes food to the needy. Intifada gardens pop up everywhere, on lawns and in forgotten fields.
Sandra and I start teaching English from our apartment. In the hallway, little children recite the alphabet. I drag rickety chairs into my bedroom, throw several pillows on the floor, and introduce ten gawky teenagers to Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
When formal classes resume, my fifth graders want desperately to describe what they’ve seen.
Amneh: “At night the Israelis pass through our neighborhood, and the boys throw stones and Molotov cocktails. The soldiers come back to break the windows and doors.”
Shiree: “Last week five Jeeps came to our town while we were watching television. They stopped at our house and started to break the glass with the tops of their guns. And then they fired shots into the house. We were shaking—wanting to go out and ask them why they were doing this—but we couldn’t move. I thought I was going to die.“
One day as I wander through the town center, my path is blocked by a soldier. He has pinned a man up against a shop door and is beating him. I stand silent, with several others who are fearful of intervening. The beating seems to take place in slow motion. Then I notice a young girl beside me. She’s one of mine, holding the hand of her little brother. I can’t protect them here.
By July the air is so thick with heat that girls struggle to stay awake. Paper fans flutter around their heads. The eighth and ninth graders organize a trip to the sea and pile excitedly into a rented bus. Samia brings a cassette player, and we all listen to the rock band, Genesis.
Well this is the world we live in
And these are the hands we’re given
Use them and let’s start trying
To make this a world worth living in
We drive for nearly two hours, descending over the Green Line into lush plains, forests, and over thick smooth highways. Our first stop is a public park with a pond and pedal boats. The girls engage in a water fight until one boat flips and all fall into the pond, soaked and laughing. The Israeli boat-keeper watches, amused. I photograph their silly poses and smiles. Then we leave for Netanya.
Here, there is a long stretch of sandy beach. The main boulevard is choked with fast-food restaurants, knickknack shops, and cheap clothing stores. The girls have two hours to explore the seaside on their own. A man approaches on a dark gray horse and offers me a ride for ten shekels. I mount the mare who smells of salt and take her to the water’s edge. Then I photograph Sandra against a setting sun. We walk back to the bus, but the girls are nowhere to be seen.
“They’re coming,” shouts Noura, the first one to arrive. “But Reem’s hysterical and the others are crying and…”
“We were on the beach and there was a problem. And Reem started writing PLO in the sand. This big Israeli turned on Reem and asked if she was Arab,” one of the girls explains, “Then he said, ‘What’s this PLO’? All you Arabs are terrorists!”
Minutes later, I hold a sobbing Reem in my arms. As the bus lurches forward. I stroke the girl’s hot forehead, as Genesis plays
Oh superman where are you now
Well everything’s gone wrong somehow...
In July, the schools will close but final grades have yet to be calculated. Israeli authorities ignore our arguments that only 65 percent of the year’s material has been covered.
By fall, the Friends School is on the verge of bankruptcy. Sandra and I are told to find other work. The British Council in Jerusalem hires us to teach English to Palestinian medical staff in Hebron. Half of my English-speaking students leave the country, Reem is lost to some supermarket her father runs in Florida. For several years she writes to me, and then my letters are returned, stamped “Addressee unknown.”
Lindsey Cook worked for the UN as a mediator between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian refugees, and helped coordinate development aid as part of the peace process after the Oslo Accord. She later served a Human Rights Officer for the UN in Somalia and Yugoslavia and is now Climate Change representative for the Quaker NGO in Geneva. This is an excerpt from a book in progress.