Wole Soyinka was a member of a delegation of the International Parliament of Writers, which visited Israel and Palestine in March. An article by Russell Banks, another member of the delegation, appears in Books & the Arts, and Breyten Breytenbach’s open letter to Ariel Sharon appears at www.thenation.com.
It was a startling image, unexpected and unsolicited, but there it was, instantly replete. Incisive, summative, it offered itself as an irresistible metaphor that Monday afternoon, our first full day in Ramallah, at the checkpoint where the road had been cut, and dwellers of and visitors to that city were obliged to disembark from their vehicles, cross the checkpoint on foot and take up different transportation on the other side of the guttered road. A raucous, potentially explosive junction where traders had set up an instant market, mostly in fruits, snacks and refreshing drinks. A young man in a bizarre and colorful outfit, with a makeshift bandolier in which plastic cups were tucked for rapid dispensation of his wares, observed my fascination and offered me a drink. As I patiently explained to him, I had not changed any money, so I could not afford one if I wished. But that didn’t bother him in the least. He had decided that I should have a drink, so he doled it out free.
No, that was not the image that summed up the Israeli-Palestinian visit for me; this was the benign face of our experience–an eager, warm and hospitable embrace, a need, above all, to connect with outside humanity and be reassured that the world had not forgotten this terrain of deadly attrition. The crucial image offered itself on our way back from Bir Zeit University. Exiting Ramallah, we did what everyone else did: We disembarked from our buses at the checkpoint–deserted by Israeli soldiers, as it had become a focal point for attacks. We negotiated the concrete blocks, crossed the deep gutter that had been cut across the tarmac and entered taxis organized by our hosts. On return, it was the same routine: taxis from the university campus, cross the checkpoint with a human motley–workers, students, professors, peasants, doctors, nurses, school pupils, etc.–walk to the rowdy improvised motor park, there to await the buses that had dropped us off in the first place. And that was when the telling image was vividly enacted.
A truck arrived at the motor park and then, instead of disgorging human beings or goods, out came a flock of dense-fleece sheep, prodded by their keeper. We watched as the shepherd began to herd his flock–no, not along the road but down the stone and scrub valley that sheered off just where the road executed a deep armpit curve. Was this a shortcut to his destination, taking to country tracks to arrive at another town or village, or did he merely wish to let the sheep graze a little before seeking a new conveyance on the other side? We did not remain long enough to find out. What did happen, however, was that I received an instant flash–Ulysses among the Cyclopes.
Let us recall some details of that tale. Ulysses had sought shelter for himself and his men in the cave of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus. But, having brought them into his home, Polyphemus proceeded to dine serially off his guests, sealing them in with the aid of a huge boulder. Ulysses took his revenge while Polyphemus was asleep, driving a sharpened and heated log into the single eye of their cannibal captor. Let us recollect also that Ulysses, with his usual cautious guile, had not given his real name to his genial host but had introduced himself as…No-man. When the fiery stake sizzled in the giant’s eye and he bellowed out his pain, his fellow Cyclopes ran to his aid, demanding who had caused his anguish. “No-man is the villain,” replied Polyphemus. So his neighbors advised him to seek a cure for his nightmares and retreated to their own caves.