The Isle of Polyphemus

The Isle of Polyphemus

Like the Cyclops in the tale of Ulysses, Israel is striking at its enemy in blind fury.


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
      –The Editors

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.

Came dawn, Ulysses and his rovers waited for Polyphemus to roll aside the rock, which he was obliged to do to let his sheep out to graze. But the wily Ulysses had tied his men under the bellies of the animals. Once seaborne, Ulysses could not resist taunting his foe. In a fury, Polyphemus would uproot all the rocks–a prominent feature of Palestinian terrain, dazzling white–and fling them in the direction of his assailant, missing him completely but provoking one deluge after another that threatened to inundate the world and drown its innocent inhabitants.

The facelessness of No-man–so many of them, and of all ages and both sexes–is what enrages the government of Israel and its current leader, for whom the evocation of the figure of Polyphemus–even physically–could not be more apt. In the process of exacting vengeance on its enemy, Israel has adopted tactics that will either set off a tidal wave 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 world on that target and place a name and a face on the invisible body of Satan, Ariel Sharon has chosen to become obsessed with the plausible but, in truth, merely convenient and reductionist identity– Yasir Arafat–which is why failure is being dressed up as reason and frustration as factual knowledge. We know who our tormentor is, shouts Sharon, echoed by the government of the United States, and it is none other than Yasir Arafat.

Arafat! Arafat! Arafat! Long before there was the likelihood of my venturing near the cave of Polyphemus, I had found myself shaken to the foundations of reason that anyone with the slightest intelligence, with even a minimal grasp of the psychology of humiliation and desperation, could exhibit such inanity as to imagine that within the context of the Middle East conflict, any one individual, no matter how highly respected by his followers, how sacrosant his authority, could control a form of action that stemmed out of both collective and individual desperation and trauma. And Arafat, of course, is simply not in control of the many arms of the Palestinian resistance. Not even the various groups can boast absolute control over individual acts of determination and resourcefulness. Timothy McVeigh took almost 200 souls down in one fell swoop. No one has attempted to heap on the President of the pro-gun lobby the sole responsibility for McVeigh’s homicidal resolve to avenge the victims of Waco.

Nor indeed–and this I had cause to point out on a number of occasions during our visit–did anyone hold the prime minister of Israel responsible for the action, some years ago, of the settler, a medical doctor, who opened fire on a congregation of Muslim worshipers in a mosque, killing a score or more before being beaten to death by bystanders. The irrationalities of the Israeli government and the United States have been mind-boggling–they would be ludicrous if they were not fraught with such predictably tragic consequences. Their insistence, for example, at the early stages of the recent intifada that the Palestinians observe at least a weeklong moratorium on violence before peace talks could begin was surely apparent to all beings with a claim to reasoning–except the US and Israeli leaders–as a demand of unbelievable infantilism, long before Sharon recognized and acknowledged its futility. What my brief stay among ordinary Palestinians did was simply to compel me to revisit that and allied policy statements by the Israeli government, promoted with such galling insensitivity by the US government. If I took anything away from our visit personally, it was the intensification of my private terror that so much critical interventionism in world affairs actually rests in the hands of such leaders with limitless military power.

No, there was no revelation, not for me. Months ago, in an article in Encarta Africana, I used the expression that the Israeli government was tearing out the heart and liver of Arafat and feeding them to his children–and who could fail to predict the consequences of such evisceration! What I obtained during my visit was a reinforcement of what had been a source of marvel, and it made me truly afraid for the Israelis–that many of those who believed that their political leader was treading the right path had simply never taken the trouble to project their minds into the refugee camps of the Palestinians, into their daily existence, even if they could not visit the physical reality, experience at first hand the daily humiliation and the scars of memory that fully spell out the condition of nearly all Palestinians today.

We saw the checkpoints through which thousands of Palestinian Arabs pass daily in order to work within their sole economic source–Israel. We were trapped in the endless motor convoys through which Palestinians pass twice a day. Those convoys reminded me of my own country, Nigeria, between the first military coup and the Biafran Civil War, and its immediate aftermath. It recalled the faces of despair and resignation, but also the simmering anger of a populace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogant military.

This sense of humiliation in Palestine was just as palpable–you could touch it, measure it and weigh it. It found expression in numerous ways–from the ordinary people in the streets, men, women and children, to university lecturers and students, NGOs, writers and civil leaders. It was affirmed by foreigners who were compelled to share the lives of the Palestinians, including the staff of the United Nations refugee organization, UNRWA. Numerous were the accounts of women who gave birth at checkpoints because of the inflexible control that was exercised over the movements of ordinary people, of deaths that occurred right within ambulances that were trapped in convoys or at checkpoints. And of course we crunched mortar beneath our feet, picked our way through the rubble of demolished houses and saw, without any varnishing, the active policy of land encroachment by settlers: Demolish, create a no man’s land, then move into the vacated space when the Palestinian occupants have been harassed beyond the range of guns. These instances of dispossession, and their chilling methodology, have been meticulously recorded by UN agencies, foreign embassies and external visitors. The evidence itself was overwhelming, indisputable.

Was I sufficiently detached during this visit? Of course. And then again, of course not. It is not possible to take only a clinical, objective view of the situation in Palestine. When human beings are blown up in restaurants, in hotels and, especially, with a singularly grotesque sense of timing–while sitting down to a holy feast, such as the Passover Seder–one experiences both rage and horror at the perpetrators. Martyrdom is an abuse of the word when applied to the murder of innocents. If there are no innocents in any struggle, then let us give up the cause of humanity. My skin crawls whenever I hear the expression “martyrdom” used as an equivalent of murder by suicide, especially mass murder. And on the other side of terror, the state variety, to listen to a family give a graphic account of tanks crashing through their walls at night, bringing down mortar on sleeping members of the household, crushing innocents in their sleep, it is equally impossible to remain viscerally disengaged or fail to be morally assaulted. These had been homes to these innocents for generations. Now they are breeding grounds for a new species of biped–the dehumanized.

The devastating shock waves continue. The horrors that have become the daily diet for both contestants in this ominous conflict were brought home to me even more drastically on Easter Sunday–from the comparative safety of California, where I read about the latest outrage in Tel Aviv. The name of the street rang a bell. The explosion appears to have taken place in a cafe on the same street that Russell Banks and I had gone for an espresso fix while waiting to meet Shimon Peres, having driven directly from Gaza very early on Wednesday morning for that appointment. It could have been that very cafe–I am still to find out. In the meantime, however, the sharp yet wistful features of the friendly young girl who served the coffee leapt instantly to my retina, an image that remains stubbornly superimposed on it. Has she become yet another statistic of the purblind peevishness of Polyphemus?

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