Friday, 16 November 2012

A Beautiful Day To Be Alive

After around two weeks in Palestine, I came down with a depressive episode. 

I don't normally talk about my mental health. It's been a year since that time, so I feel like I have enough distance to write about it, and maybe try and draw some lessons for my ongoing life and activism. And i'm doing Movember, so I thought this might be a little bit in the way of an explanation. Male mental health is somewhat stigmatised in a country like Australia, which is a barrier to treatment for many.

And in the face of the bombs raining down on Gaza right now, some of the feelings I've been writing about in this post have risen again, so the best way to work through them seems to be writing about them.

This is dedicated to all the friends, family, partners and comrades who have helped me through dark times. To Frank Tromp - vale. And to the children of Gaza.

When I first arrived at Ben Gurion airport, I was so nervous I couldn't even force myself to smile at the two women on the border security desk. Almost all of my thought in the days prior to my arrival had been on this part of the process, the possibility of being hauled aside and what I would say I'd been doing in Egypt and Tunisia to not arouse suspicions that I might actually think Arabs are human beings. I hadn't thought about getting through without a hitch, and I was quite emotionally unprepared to find myself in a Sherut running alongside the apartheid wall or stepping out in front of the Damascus Gate.

Sultan Suleiman Street, barbeque smoke hanging in the air.

My first few days in Jerusalem were somewhat off the deep end, but the whole experience of life in the holy land still felt surreal, like I wasn't really there, like I was living inside history. It's a simultaneously belittling and uplifting feeling; like the buildings and people around you all bear an ancient weight made up of the labour and lives of thousands of generations of people, and you have a chance to contribute a part of your life to that tradition.

After a few days I began the JAI olive harvest program, which certainly immersed me in life in the West Bank, life under an occupation. The structure of a program like that was good for keeping me moving, and climbing up trees and scratching my hands picking olives all day certainly shook me out of the bubble of surreality and grounded me in the present chapter of that history.


Meeting ordinary people in the West Bank - farmers, residents, workers, families, prisoners - and putting human faces to the suffering I understood on an ideological level didn't only bring me to a deeper understanding of the occupation; it inspired and invigorated me to expand my personal efforts for the Palestinian cause. It also helped me to see that there's a network of people all over the world struggling for justice in Palestine, even if we sometimes feel so few in Australia. The surreality of living in the holy land blends into the impossible reality of life under occupation; I think this contributes to the zest for life and the sumoud of the Palestinians.

Neda the zesty.

The program inspired me to push myself - late nights at the Grotto, early mornings for the harvest, evenings documenting what we'd done. On a day off I started this blog. I felt like the exhilaration of being in Palestine meant that my normal rules about burning myself out didn't apply. But despite the inspiration, I reached the limits of my energy.

After the program finished, I made my way down to Bustan Qaraaqa, a permaculture demonstration farm and project. Several of the friends I'd made doing the harvest had stayed there or knew the long-term volunteers, and I'd found out about it before hand online. It was certainly a fantastic space, and an amazing group of volunteers made it buzz.

As someone who's been involved in permaculture and environment campaigns in Australia, the project really appealed to me; some of the ideas I saw or worked on, like companion planting to make clearing fields more difficult for settlers, using traditional farming techniques to rehabilitate fallow land that hasn't been claimed by the ongoing expansion, or utilising the plentiful roadside plastic bottles to make a greenhouse roof that collects a great volume of rainwater, all make environmentalism another way to resist the occupation.

The reclaimed greenhouse.

However, despite the political interest I had in Bustan, I couldn't give as much energy to it as I would have liked. The thrill that drove me during the harvest program wore off; I found myself sleeping too much, drinking too much, and struggling to motivate myself in the less scheduled and more individual environment of the farm. To finish transcribing the interviews and article notes I'd done in Egypt and Tunisia and finish them became more and more difficult and less and less interesting. And knowing that I wasn't firing on all cylinders brought on some pretty strong guilt - I can't be weak, I have to keep going, I have to do as much as I can while I'm here. I had made some friends in the harvest who were still in Bethlehem, but I didn't have the energy to try and see more of them, or participate in many of the political activities I could have.

Comfort food, Palestinian style - broaster chicken

At first I put it down to another kind of culture shock - this certainly did hit me hard when I first arrived in Egypt - or perhaps missing some of the creature comforts I got in the hotel I didn't at a permaculture farm, but after a while I realised I was pushing myself too hard. To see the occupation up close and personally, just like the holy city, made me feel small and inconsequential - in the face of an injustice with the whole weight of global neo-colonialism behind it, I felt like I could do nothing to make a difference. In a sense, I think what triggered me was a kind of occupation shock.

The guilt I felt for feeling helpless was magnified by the fact that I knew I could go home with relative ease to one of the richest countries on earth, while for the Palestinians around me this weight had been on them their whole lives and didn't appear to be going anywhere. And despite that, the Palestinians live hard, live with sumoud, love and work and struggle far more than Australians who sit in empty cars and avoid each other in the street. I felt guilty for ever feeling weak and alone and depressed when my suffering, too, was so insignificant in the face of the occupation.

Graffiti on the apartheid wall, Bethlehem. I wrote this when I first saw it: "That a Palestinian could spraypaint this on the biggest symbol of their people's dispossession makes me feel ashamed for every day I only got out of my comfortable Queen-sized bed to drive my car to a fast food drive thru"

Seeing my dear friend and fellow Wollongong activist Ella after my time at Bustan, hooking into the network of teachers in Nablus, and having some amazing times travelling the rest of the length of the West Bank, certainly helped me recover. But the thing which cleared my head the most was the fact that seeing Ella again also got me demonstrating - for the Freedom Waves flotilla crew detained for breaking the siege of Gaza (including fellow Aussie Michael Coleman!), documenting the Freedom Rides, and on my last day in the West Bank, joining in the weekly demonstrations against the apartheid wall in Bil'in. To take direct action - no matter how small or ineffective it may be on its own - is our strongest and most empowering collective tool of action.

Demonstration for the Freedom Waves flotilla in Ramallah, 04/11/11

Freedom Riders on a bus being taken through Hizma checkpoint, 15/11/11

Bil'in, 25/11/11

Asides from what I learned about the situation in Palestine (and Egypt and Tunisia), some of the lessons I learned about myself during my travels I've tried (not totally successfully) to apply to my activities here in Australia. It's important that we all take time for self care, and set whatever conditions or limits to our activism are necessary - not only for the sake of long-term committment, but also for approaching our tasks professionally. Some activists I struggle alongside rarely seem to need their own time, while others are ironclad that they have nights or at least one day off every week. I don't want to prescribe a recipe, but whatever your personal limits are, you shouldn't let them be eaten into. To say yes to everything and always be rushing from task to task without an overall clarity on what we're doing is worse than to say no. Here in Australia we're not fighting an underground struggle which uses military means, so we shouldn't take Lenin too literally. The struggle needs us for the long haul.


  1. Thanks for sharing Pat. Its good to hear about your time in Palestine and your varied struggles. Too many good comrades do burn-out and your advice is important. Discussion of mental health, self and collective care, should always inform our struggles - so thanks again for this contribution.

    Lots of Love

  2. Cheers Nick! I've appreciated your writing on related topics, especially the question of love, as well as your contribution about looking to the spaces and communities where we do create a world based on human solidarity for inspiration - both of these things are important parts of strengthening ourselves and our practice :)