I was watching footage of the Paris attacks, a few days ago. The theatre. And at some point, after some gunshots, there was a string of explosions. One after another. Jesus, I told myself. They could sweep away the entire block. They were thinking big.
The last blast shook the glass.
It wasn’t Paris. It was Hebron, outside my window.
It was an ordinary day in Hebron.
While in Europe, while the world over newspapers, TVs still talk of Paris, here we’ve already had attacks in Baghdad, airstrikes in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen, relatives drowned in Greece – and among Israelis and Palestinians, of course, where I’m now, random stabbings. For the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Palestinians I live with, Paris is an event like countless others. Topic for discussion for about ten minutes. And there’s no point denying it: the prevailing reaction, here, is indifference. I am not speaking of well-read Muslims, with their fluent English, their PhD, those Muslims we journalists love to interview, to hang out with: I am speaking of poor Muslims, those who are 40 years old yet they look 70, in these homes with no water, no electricity, only photos of dead sons on the wall, those among whom jihadists live and hide – they just shrug their shoulders, and say: Now you eventually understand what we’ve been going through since ever.
I can’t agree, of course – let’s end the war in Syria, rather than turning the whole world into Syria. Yet I’m here, in the Middle East, and I’ve been here for ten years now: among people whose life, not only death, never hits the headlines. And so, although I can’t agree, I can understand.
Of course I can understand.
Because seen from here, suddenly in the West everybody is an expert of the Middle East. Of Islam. They couldn’t mention a single name of an Arab author, an Arab film-maker, they couldn’t locate Qatar on a map, distinguish a Sunni from a Shia, at the most they’ve bought a carpet in Turkey in their life, a lamp in Morocco, but a plane blows up, a child runs ashore, and for days they blabber of wars they never cared.
If nobody, here, listens to these debates, it’s because the conclusion they reach in the end is always the same: Let’s bomb.
And it doesn’t matter that that child was killed by closed borders, not by war. That he was killed by Europe. Whatever the problem is, whatever the country, whatever its complexity, the answer is always the same: Let’s bomb.
It doesn’t matter that we are those who provide the weapons: Let’s bomb.
And it doesn’t matter that airstrikes usually hit only civilians already worn out, that fighters, in Raqqa, hide underground, and wait safely in their shelters, it doesn’t matter that airstrikes target only Syria and not Iraq although the Islamic State is stronger in Iraq than in Syria: any of you has wondered why? – in the end, Arab blood is cheap. Libya. Yemen. Pakistan. Tomorrow anybody can go and bomb. The UN, international law don’t exist anymore, it’s the law of the strongest, nothing more. And without any political strategy. They are not even humanitarian wars anymore. They are just airstrikes. Random airstrikes. In Pakistan drones keep on flattening wedding parties because it’s a tradition to fire into the air in celebration, and a kid, from a US military base, in front of coloured buttons as if he was in front of a Playstation, believes it to be a jihadist convoy. And instead that was the car of the newlyweds. Because in the end life, here, is cheap.
When I moved from Syria to Ukraine, at some point, because newspapers had no interest in Syria, it was the worst moment since the beginning of the war, in Aleppo, but I was getting journalism awards for reportages that went routinely unpublished, after a radio broadcast with the BBC I told the speaker that it was devasting to leave. And in such an awful moment. And she said: It seems you are sad to leave. It seems you are somehow attached to Syrians. Had I spent three years in Paris, in London studying, working at Starbucks, had I been three months on the Erasmus program, everybody would have said: You’re sad to leave, aren’t you? From Syria no.
Or when, years ago, I left Ramallah.
As if here you had no relationships.
As if persons, here, weren’t really persons.
Defeating terrorism is not a matter of airstrikes, but of intelligence. And the true problem is that jihadists live in an environment that doesn’t support them, yes: yet nor it disapproves them. And it’s clear here in Hebron: where all Palestinians say that stabbings make no sense, but in a society where they all know each other, and so they could all speak out, denounce, they could all provide useful information, stabbers are praised like heroes. One of them, a 19-year-old student of Law who gunned down two soldiers, was rewarded with an honorary degree post mortem. But if you are in your twenties and you are Arab, a Muslim Arab, you can only peek at life on the internet. You don’t have any prospect. Any prospect whatsoever: just to barely survive. Just to barely have some food for dinner, amidst these streets, these crumbling houses of mice and cement, trapped in between corrupted regimes, police states, shrinking economies: and the world, around, that looks down on you as a second-class human being. That totally disregards your culture. If you are in your twenties and you are Arab, the dream you are ready to die for is to reach Europe, and come to live a marginal life in one of our impoverished suburbs.
The sort of life we would flee from.
Palestinians in Gaza have been under siege for eight years. They don’t even have water anymore. Only this water which is salt water, it’s sea water, you feel sticky all the day: all days: for years. And an F-16, now an then, that comes and strikes, it comes and you die.
Then we wonder: Hamas.
That’s the environment jihadists disguise themselves in.
That’s the environment we should work on.
And with an instrument much more expensive than bombs: social justice.
When I speak like that, the reply is: But it’s not our fault. The Arab Spring didn’t fail because of us. And that’s true. I mean, if the whole world turns into a battlefield, there’s no doubt that mistakes and responsibilities are to be found everywhere. Yet, if dozens of brilliant Egyptian activists are in jail it’s because prime ministers like Italy’s Matteo Renzi refer to general al-Sisi as a great leader. It’s because corporations like Italy’s ENI got from his government a licence for the exploitation of the largest gas field of the Mediterranean sea. That’s Italy today, seen from a Cairo slum. Egypt, for Italy, can collapse: what matters is that it keeps on selling gas. And that Sharm el-Sheik is safe.
It was my first day in Iraq, and I noticed this man, in the evening, sleeping in the street. I believed him one of the countless displaced by the countless wars of these months, truthfully, and I handed him some money. Instead, it turned out he was sleeping next to a gas station: to be the first in line, the next morning – because there would be fuel enough only for ten, twenty customers. Iraq lies on oil fields, there are drills everywhere. And yet Iraqis have no fuel.
It’s all in your car’s tank.