The Daily Life of Kawther Salam

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April 5, 2006

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This article was written by Isabel Olesti and originally published in spanish in the Catalunya edition of the newspaper El Pais on April 5, 2006. A scan of the original (345KB PDF file) from the print edition was provided by Pen Catalá. A shorter version of the article was posted to the El Pais site, here. They own all the rights to this material.

In truth the human being is an animal of customs. And if you don’t believe it, check your reactions to the bloody scenes, for example from Iraq, which we get served on the daily news shows while we sip coffee. We are so accustomed to seeing them that they don’t impress us anymore, as they did two years ago. They even serve them to us as a second dish, because they have become minor news. The same thing happens with the war between Arabs and Jews: we see how the wall grows (another wall of shame), how the Israeli soldiers invade Palestinian living quarters, enter their houses with pointed bayonets, how they control their lives … And we stay all the same, richly enjoying our coffee just as before, because when things become constant they don’t arouse our emotions anymore, the interest in them is lost, new blood, much more attractive, is needed.

Picture by Tejederas / El Pais

Kawther Salam is a young Palestinian journalist living in exile in Vienna, who has been invited to Barcelona by the Catalan PEN Club to make us remember, precisely, that the invasion goes on, that Hebron continues being a prison for thousands of Palestinian citizens who only want to live in peace and let the politicians deal with each other. Kawther brought with her the documentary film Detained, which shows the daily life of three Palestinian widows who live through two hells together with their children: the Israeli occupation, and the oppression of a Muslim society controlled by men. After having heard her and seen Detained, that coffee has become much more bitter.

Kawther’s life has been no bed of flowers: at 16 she ran away from home to escape from an arranged marriage. Since then she has made a living as a journalist, but, paradoxically, this occupation has almost cost her life. Her chronicles and reports have always defended the Israeli pacifist organizations and criticized Islamic fundamentalism. She has accused various human rights abuses, irrespective of who committed them and at the same time criticizing the corruption in the Palestinian Authority as well as the suicide bombings. During the second Intifada, Kawther became a bridge between her community and the rest of the world because she had a Press ID and was thus able to move unimpeded. But her continued reports put the Israeli authorities on alert. They threatened her, they detained her, and they fined her uncounted times. She remembers that she has presented about 300 criminal complaints with the police for abuses of all kinds. She was subject to sexual abuse by the Israeli soldiers, and finally they forbade her to enter Hebron because of a conference on human rights which took place in Ireland. Kawther has always supported women’s rights in her country, and she has worked on three documentary films focusing on the situation of women, who live rounded up by their own culture and by the occupation. With such a curriculum it is no surprise that she lives in exile in Vienna, because in the end, she has had to save her own skin.

In the year 2000 she met an Israeli film director who proposed to Kawther to make a film about her own life, but she declined and proposed that instead they should make a documentary about three widows who live together with their children in the same building in Hebron. It was difficult to convince the widows to let the cameras into their house, but they needed the money and in the end they accepted, subject to two conditions: that they would be paid and that the film would not be distributed to Arab audiences because they feared retribution. None of both conditions was ultimately met by the Israeli crew.

Kawther enters the aula of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona dressed tight pants and a shirt with colored spangles. She explains us the story behind the documentary, emphasizing some aspects of the film which we should not miss, like, for example, the scene where soldiers armed with rifles play in the snow with Palestinian kids. After the film was shown in Israel these soldiers were arrested. “It is clear”, Kawther tells us “that the soldiers are there to make war, not peace”.

The film shows the everyday of a permanent state of war. The building where these three families live is controlled from the front by the Jews, from behind by the Palestinians. The Israeli soldiers watch the main door, and each time somebody exits the building the soldiers ask where they are going and threaten them. There is another group of soldiers on the roof: they piss on the floor and destroy the water pipes. All the while, the women hang the clothes and the kids play as if the soldiers were invisible. At times their ways cross on the stairs, but they do not exchange greetings; at other times shots can be heard and the boys stop playing cards to look from the windows; on the street children run to hide themselves while the troops aim at something, but it is not clear at what. In another scene the Jewish colonists organize a procession to acclaim the torah, well protected by the soldiers and before the silent looks of their neighbors.

The three widows are not much older than twenty and they complain that their in-laws keep them short of money while taking their widow pensions for themselves. One of them explains that she can’t put on makeup or dress up because everybody would look askance at her. Another one remembers the time of happiness, when she was young and not obliged to wear a head dress. Under control from all sides, the lives of these widows resemble captivity. It would be just fine if public TV had the happy idea of showing this documentary film so that society could see, among other things, the burden which religions represent.

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