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The Isle Of Polyphemus
By Wole Soyinka

Special to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
USAfricaonline.comand NigeriaCentral.com

Nobel laureate for Literature, Professor Soyinka (a Nigerian)visited a decimated Palestine in the first week of April 2002, as amember of the International Parliament of Writers. He examines theissues through an ancient myth and notes: " Several aspects ofHomer's tale began to take on sobering parallels."


The irrationalities of the Israeli government and the UnitedStates have been mind-boggling - they would be ludicrous if they werenot fraught with such predictable tragic consequences. Theirinsistence for instance, at the early stages of the recent intifada,that the Palestinians observe at least a week of violence-freemoratorium before peace talks could begin, was surely apparent to allbeings with a claim to reasoning - except those two world leaders -as a demand of unbelievable infantilism, long before Sharonrecognised and acknowledged its futility. What my brief stay amongordinary Palestinians did was simply to compel me to revisit that,and allied policystatements by the Israeli government, promoted with such gallinginsensitivity by the United States government.... Numerous were theaccounts of women who gave birth at checkpoints because of theinflexible control that was exercised over the movements of ordinarypeople, of deaths that occurred right within ambulances that weretrapped in convoys or at checkpoints.... Was I sufficiently detachedduring this visit? Of course. And then again, of course not. It isnot possible to take a purely clinical, objective view of thesituation in Palestine. When human beings are being blown up inrestaurants, in hotels, and especially with a singularly grotesquesense of timing - while sitting down to a holy feast, such as thePassover - one experiences both rage and horror at the perpetrators.

It was a startling image, unexpected and unsolicited. It offereditself as an irresistible metaphor that Monday afternoon, the firstfull day of my visit to Ramallah with a delegation from theInternational Parliament of Writers, at the checkpoint where the roadhad been cut. Dwellers of and visitors to the city had to disembarkfrom their vehicles, cross the checkpoint on foot, and take updifferent transportation on the other side of the guttered road: araucous, potentially explosive junction where traders had set up aninstant market, mostly in fruit, snacks and refreshing drinks.

A young man in a bizarre, colourful outfit, with a makeshiftbandolier in which plastic cups were tucked, having noticed mycuriosity, offered me a drink. I had not changed any money, so Icould not afford one, and explained this to him. This did not botherhim in the least. He had decided that I should have a drink, and hedoled it out, free of charge.

But this was not the image that summed up the Israeli-Palestinianvisit for me; this was the benign face of our experience - an eager,warm and hospitable embrace, a need to connect with outside humanityand be reassured that the world had not forgotten this terrain ofdeadly attrition.

The crucial image offered itself on our way back from Bir ZeitUniversity. On leaving Ramallah, we did what everyone else did -disembark from buses at the checkpoint. It had been deserted byIsraeli soldiers, as it had become a focal point for attacks. Wenegotiated the concrete blocks, crossed the deep gutter that had beencut across the tarmac, and entered taxis organised by our hosts. Onour return, it was the same routine: taxis from the universitycampus, cross the checkpoint with a human motley - workers, students,professors, peasants, doctors, nurses, school pupils - then walk tothe rowdy, improvised motor park to await the buses that had droppedus off in the first place. It was then that the telling imageunfolded.

A truck arrived at the motor park, but instead of human beings orgoods, out came a flock of sheep, prodded by their keeper. We watchedas the shepherd began to herd his flock down the stone and scrubvalley that sheared off just where the road executed a deep armpitcurve. Was this a short cut across to his destination, a countrytrack to another town or village, or did he merely wish to let hissheep graze a little before loading them into a new vehicle on theother side? We did not remain long enough to find out.

What did happen, however, was that I had an instant flash: Ulyssestrapped in the cave of the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus. Severalaspects of Homer's tale began to take on sobering parallels. Ulysseshad sought shelter for himself and his men in the cave of the giantPolyphemus but the host proceeded to dine serially off his guests,sealing them in with the aid of a huge boulder.

While Polyphemus was asleep, Ulysses made his bid for freedom bydriving a sharpened and heated log into the single eye of theircaptor. With his usual guile, Ulysses had not given his real name tohis host but had introduced himself as No-Man. When the fiery stakesizzled in the giant's eye in the dead of night and he bellowed outhis pain, his fellow Cyclopes ran to his aid, demanding who or whathad caused his anguish. "No-Man is the villain," replied Polyphemus.His neighbours, disgusted, advised him to seek a cure for hisnightmares and retreated to their own caves. "If no man is tormentingyou," they cursed, "why do you disturb our sleep?"

When dawn came, Ulysses and his rovers remained sealed within thecave, waiting for Polyphemus to roll aside the rock, which he wasobliged to do in order to let his sheep out to graze. But thepain-crazed giant had opened the cave just wide enough for the sheepto exit singly, sweeping his vast hands over each sheep to ensurethat no one was riding on its back. Wily Ulysses had, of course, tiedhis men under the belly of each animal.

Once seaborne, Ulysses could not resist taunting his foe,screaming abuse at the giant. In thwarted fury, Polyphemus flung hugelumps of rock in the direction of the needling voice, setting off avirtual tsunami that nearly swamped his tormentors. Too late.

Ulysses, had he so chosen, could have returned and stung theblinded Polyphemus again and again. And Polyphemus would haveuprooted all the rocks - a prominent feature of the Palestinianterrain, dazzling white - and flung them blindly in the direction ofhis assailant, missing him completely but provoking one deluge afteranother that would threaten to inundate the world and drown all itsinnocent inhabitants.

The facelessness of No-Man - so many of them, of all ages and bothsexes - is what enrages the government of Israel, and its leader, forwhom the evocation of the figure of Polyphemus could not be more apt.In the process of exacting vengeance on its enemy, it has adoptedtactics that will either set off a tsunami to drown the world or,more aptly, set it on fire.

Unable to identify and strike pre-emptively at its elusive enemy,but determined to identify a target, focus the attention of the worldon that target, and place a name and a face on the slippery body ofSatan, Ariel Sharon has chosen to obsess himself with the convenientand reductionist identity of Yasser Arafat. Failure is being dressedup as reason and frustration as factual knowledge. "We know who ourtormentor is," shouts Sharon, echoed by the government of the US,"and it is Yasser Arafat."

Long before I ventured near the cave of Polyphemus, it hadastonished me that anyone with the slightest intelligence couldimagine that, within the context of the Middle East conflict, any oneindividual, no matter how highly respected by his followers, howsacrosanct his authority, could control a form of action that stemmedout of both collective and individual desperation and trauma. YasserArafat is, of course, simply not in control of the many arms of thePalestinian resistance. None of the various groups can boast absolutecontrol over individual acts of determination and resourcefulness.Timothy McVeigh took more than 200 souls down in one fell swoop. Noone has attempted to heap on the president of the gun lobby the soleresponsibility for McVeigh's homicidal resolve to avenge the victimsof Waco.

Nor indeed - as I pointed out on a number of occasions during ourvisit - did anyone hold the prime minister of Israel responsible forthe action, many years ago, of the military reservist, a medicaldoctor, who opened fire on a congregation of Muslim worshippers in amosque, killing a score or more of Muslims before turning the gun onhimself. The irrationalities of the Israeli government and the UnitedStates have been mind-boggling; they would be ludicrous if they werenot fraught with such predictably tragic consequences.

Their insistence, for instance, at the early stages of the recentintifada, that the Palestinians observe at least a week's moratoriumon violence before peace talks could begin, was surely apparent toall with a claim to reasoning as a demand of unbelievable infantilism- long before Sharon recognised its futility. My brief stay amongordinary Palestinians drove me to reconsider that demand, and theallied policy statements by the Israeli government, promoted withsuch galling insensitivity by the United States government. If I tookanything away from our visit, personally, it was the intensificationof my private terror that so much critical interventionism in worldaffairs rests in the hands of leaders with limitless militarypower.

Months ago, in an article in Encarta Africana, I wrote that theIsraeli government was "tearing out the heart and liver" of Arafatand "feeding it to his children" - and wondered who could fail topredict the consequences of such an evisceration. What I saw lastweek made me truly afraid for the Israelis - it reinforced my viewthat many of those who believed that their political leader wastreading the right political path had simply never taken the troubleto project their minds into the refugee camps of the Palestinians,into their daily existence - much less visit the physical reality,experience at first hand the daily humiliation and the scars ofmemory that characterise the condition of nearly all Palestinianstoday.

We saw the checkpoints through which thousands of PalestinianArabs pass in order to work at their sole economic source - Israel -and we were trapped in the endless motor convoys in whichPalestinians pass daily to and from work. Those convoys reminded meof my own country, Nigeria, between the first military coup and theBiafran civil war, and its immediate aftermath. It recalled the facesof despair and resignation, but also the simmering anger of apopulace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogantmilitary.

The sense of humiliation in Palestine was just as palpable - youcould touch it, measure it and weigh it. It found expression innumerous ways - from the ordinary people in the streets, men, womenand children, to university lecturers and students, representativesof non-governmental organisations, writers and civil leaders. It wasaffirmed by foreigners who were compelled to share the lives of thePalestinians, including the staff of the United Nations refugeeorganisation, UNRWA. There were numerous accounts of women who gavebirth at checkpoints because of the inflexible control that wasexercised over the movements of ordinary people; of deaths thatoccurred within ambulances trapped in convoys or at checkpoints. Andof course we crunched mortar beneath our feet, picked our way throughthe rubble of demolished houses and saw the active policy of landencroachment by settlers - demolish, create a no man's land, thenmove into the space vacated when the Palestinian occupants have beenharassed beyond the range of guns.

These instances of dispossession, and their chilling methodology,have been meticulously recorded by UN agencies, foreign embassies andexternal visitors. The evidence was overwhelming, indisputable.

Was I sufficiently detached during this visit? Of course. And thenagain, of course not. It is not possible to take a purely clinical,objective view of the situation in Palestine. When human beings arebeing blown up in restaurants, in hotels, and especially with asingularly grotesque sense of timing - while sitting down to a holyfeast, such as the Passover - one experiences both rage and horror atthe perpetrators. It is an abuse of the word martyrdom to apply it tothe murder of innocents. If there are no innocents in any struggle,then let us give up the cause of humanity.

And then there is the other side of terror, the state variety. Ifyou listen to a family give a graphic account of tanks crashingthrough their walls at night, bringing down mortar on sleepingmembers of the household, crushing innocents in their sleep, it isequally impossible to remain viscerally disengaged or to fail to bemorally assaulted. These had been homes to innocents for generations.Now they have been turned into the breeding ground for a new species- the dehumanised.

The devastating shockwaves continue. The horrors that have becomea daily diet for both sides in this ominous conflict were broughthome to me even more drastically on Easter Sunday from thecomparative safety of California, where I read about the latestoutrage in Tel Aviv. The name of the street rang a bell. Theexplosion appears to have taken place in a cafe on the same streetwhere I had gone for an "espresso fix" while waiting to meet ShimonPeres, having driven from Gaza early on Wednesday morning. It couldhave been the very same cafe - I have yet to find out. In themeantime, however, the sharp, yet wistful features of the friendlyyoung girl who served me my coffee leaped instantly to my retina, andremain stubbornly superimposed on it. Has she become yet anotherstatistic of the purblind peevishness of Polyphemus? ·
This report, which will appear in the April 23, 2002 edition ofUSAfrica The Newspaper, is copyrighted by the IPW : ParlementInternational des Ecrivains/International. It is part of the eightParliament writers who recorded their impressions on the trip toPalestine. They include: An Open Letter to General Ariel Sharon,Breyten Breytenbach; The IPW's Journey to Israel/Palestine, VincenzoConsolo; Some reflections on a journey to the Occupied territories,Russell Banks; and From Netanya to Ramallah, Juan Goytisolo



Best way to negotiate withPalestinians.... By DanUllfig in Harbor City, California: Theonly way one goes to a negotiating table is if one feels thealternative ( war ) is worse. As long as Palestinians feel there ismore to be gained by terror than by negotiating, they will notnegotiate. Secondly, as long as Palestinians feel that terror is auseful tool to obtain concesions from the Israelis, they willcontinue with their terror campaign, even while negotiating. What isIsrael to do, other than to retaliate?

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