The Continuing Story of Ahed Wahdan
Friday, November 11, 2011 2:39:10 PM
One and a half months ago I wrote about a protest at the Qalandia military checkpoint, where I watched then-14-year-old Ahed Wahdan lose his right eye to an Israeli high-speed tear gas canister. After he was rushed away in the ambulance, I asked all the kids if they had heard of him. Maybe, they said, but he wasn’t from Qalandia. For three weeks after the fact, Ahed more or less disappeared from the media—I Googled his name in English and Arabic, in all the spellings I could imagine, finding out alternatively that he was 13, 14, 15, and 16 years old, but nothing about where he lived or the state of his health. In mid-October he cropped up in a TIME article saying he would give his “whole body for Palestine.” A taxi driver in Ramallah told me he had heard about him and thought he was from Jalazon refugee camp.
Ahed, now 15, was not in any of those places. His village of Surda is north of Ramallah a bit, on a pretty hillside facing northwest. When I came last week, he was sitting with his friend Nimr outside his house, under a fig tree, instantly recognizable for his gauze eye patch. I introduced myself, but it wasn’t until we were having coffee in the sitting room that he recognized me. I don’t remember his reaction exactly. It was a sort of a conspiratorial smile saying, "That was really crazy what happened, huh?"
The personal miscellany unfit for the EI article is here: Ahed wears Nike basketball shoes, though he prefers soccer, and his jeans are slung low. He has a jacket with a Canadian flag pin, but I doubt for any reason. He still hustles out of the room when guests appear to have finished their tea and comes back with a new tray. He’s an FC Barcelona fan and he looks like he could be 18. More generally, he’s quiet.
Getting Ahed to tell me about his life before and after his maiming was difficult. He said he used to go into Ramallah with his friends, hang out, play some video games, and come back to Surda at night. He went to school, preferred the humanities. Worked at the carpenter shop. Couldn’t work there anymore. What else had changed?
“It’s more difficult.”
What’s more difficult?
Interviewing Palestinians in Arabic is usually a race for me to catch up to the last sentence, focus the discussion on a specific subject, and get something other than a cookie-cutter quote about the resistance. In this sense I was more comfortable talking to Ahed’s father, a mile-a-minute blabberer calling himself Abu Hazm.
Abu Hazm was effusive with me from the start, kissing me twice on each cheek, once on the forehead for good measure, clasping my hands and forearms. He called me a “true Muslim” for “rescuing my son,” even after I politely explained I was Christian and hadn’t really done that much. Abu Hazm was soon joined by a family uncle and between the two of them, it was nearly impossible to wrest the conversation away from abstract geopolitics and the grace of Islam, the true religion. We went in familiar circles about Israel, the American military and media, and Muammar Qaddafi. At one point he looked to surprise me with the popular myth that Jews evacuated the Twin Towers before the morning of 9/11. Ahed sat in his chair, sometimes talking quietly with his friend Nimr, sometimes checking his phone.
There were poignant moments, made more so for their rarity, of course. When Ahed said he had heard about a blind carpenter in Nablus who worked with “the power of the heart,” he lit up a little bit and gestured like a blind man feeling around for something. He said there was a guy in Essawiya who had had a glass eye for three years and was married and with kids, so I asked him, “And you?” He laughed and said he just wanted the glass eye.
A telling moment came when Ahed showed me the Youtube slideshow (I can’t find it yet, but if you look at the “Qalandia” blog post and click on the photo links, most of the pictures are there). I’m not sure how it came about, but I didn’t ask to see it. It was completely voluntary. It was so important, indeed, that after the laptop we were watching it on ran out of battery, Ahed brought up the same video on his phone and started it from the beginning for me. When up came one picture in particular (note: very graphic), I turned to Ahed to see his reaction. He actually laughed a little bit, I imagine in the way you laugh when you don’t know what else to do. It was then that he told me he watches the video every night.
Perhaps it was a confession he didn’t realize meant as much to me as it did to him. To me, it stuck out of Ahed’s laconic front—if you’ll permit the simile—like a fresh wound. That’s the shape of the heart of the story to me. I do hope Ahed meets the blind carpenter from Nablus, wins compensation against the odds and lives a beautiful life like Emily Henochowicz and I’m going to work within reasonable professional bounds to see that happen. But now, with prospects so dark, all I can think of is Ahed watching that video on his phone, alone, before going to sleep. Does that count as childhood?
I may have written about this before, but this is the best example in the flesh. If Israel-Palestine ever comes to a just end, it will be borne in by Ahed’s generation. Survivors of physical and psychological torture, Palestinians and Jews alike, even if fed exclusivist and nationalist propaganda from infancy, can still be peacemakers—Ahed’s father, if you look at those quotes from the EI story, is a good example. But it’s an extraordinary burden. We, as Americans paying taxes that arm Israel’s racist, right-wing government, are adding to it. In fact, the high-velocity canister that destroyed a 14-year-old’s right eye and cracked part of his skull may have been American-made.
A number of obvious conclusions come to mind here: Don’t normalize Israel, don’t buy from Israel, don’t visit Israel. March on Washington and demand the elimination of all military aid to the only nuclear-armed colony in the Middle East. Tell the truth about Birthright. I wish so hard those sentences did not sound like stale political talking points, because I believe they make up the only way more children won’t be maimed. But in the absence of any new solutions, there are only new victims. If you strip away the issues that everyone doesn’t want to hear about—American aid to Israel, Israeli dehumanization of Palestinians, Palestinian violent versus nonviolent resistance, politics generally—there’s only Ahed.
He doesn’t talk a lot. I can’t impute feelings and statements to him that he didn’t feel or state, because he was hurt and hiding it and I didn’t know how (or whether at all) to get in. But at this point, I think his stoic face says enough.