Undefeated despair

John Berger
13 January 2006


How is it I am still alive? I’ll tell you I’m alive because there’s a temporary shortage of death. This is said with a grin, which is on the far side of a longing for normalcy, for an ordinary life.

Everywhere one goes in Palestine - even in rural areas - one finds oneself amongst rubble, picking a way through, round and over it. At a checkpoint, around some greenhouses which lorries can no longer reach, along any street, going to any rendezvous.

The rubble is of houses, roads and the debris of daily lives. There’s scarcely a Palestinian family that has not been forced during the last half century to flee from somewhere, just as there’s scarcely a town in which buildings are not regularly bulldozed by the occupying army.

There’s also the rubble of words - the rubble of words that house nothing any more, whose sense has been destroyed. Notoriously, the IDF - the Israeli Defence Force, as the Israeli army is called - has become, de facto, an army of conquest. As Sergio Yahni, one of the inspiringly courageous Israeli refuseniks (they refuse to serve in the army) writes: “This army does not exist to bring security to the citizens of Israel: it exists to guarantee the continuation of the theft of Palestinian land”.

There is the rubble too of sober and principled words which are being ignored. United Nations resolutions and the International Court of Justice in the Hague have condemned the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory (there are now nearly half a million such “settlers”) and the construction of the “separation fence” which is an eight-metre-high concrete wall, as illegal. The occupation and wall nevertheless continue. Every month the IDF’s stranglehold across the territories is tightened. The stranglehold is geographic, economic, civic and military.

All this is clear; it is not happening in some remote, war-locked corner of the globe, every foreign office of every rich nation is watching and not one takes measures to discourage the illegalities. “For us,” a Palestinian mother says at a checkpoint after an IDF soldier has lobbed a tear gas bomb behind her, “for us the silence of the west is worse” - she nods towards the armoured car - “than their bullets”.

A gap between declared principles and Realpolitik may be a constant throughout the history. Often the declarations are grandiloquent. Here, however, it’s the opposite. The words are far smaller than the events. What is happening is the careful destruction of a people and a promised nation. And around this destruction there are small words and evasive silence.

For the Palestinians one word remains undiminished: nakba, meaning catastrophe and referring to the forced exodus of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. “Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me rest my road against a stone.” wrote the poet Mahmoud Darwish. Nakba has become a name that four generations share, and it endures so persistently because the operation of “ethnic cleansing” it names is still largely unacknowledged by Israel and the west. The brave work of the upstanding (and persecuted) new Israeli historians - like Ilan Pappe - is of the utmost importance in this context, for it may lead eventually to such an official acknowledgement, and this would change the fatal name back into a word however tragic that word.

A familiarity here with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words.


One tends to forget the geographical scale of the tragedy in question; its scale has become part of the tragedy. The whole of the West Bank plus the Gaza strip is smaller than Crete (the island from which Palestinians may have originally come in prehistory). Three-and-a-half million people, six times as many as in Crete, live here. And systematically each day the area is being rendered smaller. The towns becoming more and more overcrowded, the countryside more fenced in and inaccessible.

The settlements extend or new ones begin. Special highways for settlers, forbidden to Palestinians, transform old roads into dead-ends. The checkpoints and tortuous ID controls have seriously reduced for most Palestinians the possibility of travelling or even planning to travel within what remains of their own territories. Many can go no further than twenty kilometres in any direction.

The wall creates enclaves, cuts off corners (when finished it will have filched nearly 10% of what remains of Palestinian land), fragments the countryside and separates Palestinians from Palestinians. Its aim is to break up Crete into a dozen little islands. The aim of a sledgehammer carried out by bulldozers.

“There is nothing left of us in the wilderness save what the wilderness kept for itself.” (Mahmoud Darwish)

Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat, makes for a stance towards the world here, such as I have never seen before. It may be expressed in one way by a young man joining the Islamic Jihad, in another by an old woman remembering and murmuring through the gaps between her few teeth, and in yet another by a smiling 11-year-old girl who wraps up a promise to hide it in the despair.....

This stance, as you call it, how does it work?


Three boys squatting and playing marbles in the corner of an alley in a refugee camp. In this camp many of the refugees originally came from Haifa. The dexterity with which the boys flick a marble with one thumb, the rest of the body motionless, is not unconnected with the familiarity of very cramped spaces.

Three metres down the alleyway, which is narrower than any hotel corridor, is a shop selling second-hand bicycle parts. All the handlebars are arranged on one hanger, all the back wheels on another, the saddles on a third. If it wasn’t for their arrangement, the pieces would look like unsellable scrap. As it is, they sell.

On the wall of a low building with a metal door, opposite the shop, is written: “From the womb of the camp a revolution is born every day.” A schoolteacher lives with his sister in the two rooms behind the metal door. He indicates the floor of another room which was the size of two bathtubs. The ceiling and walls have fallen down. That’s the room where I was born, he says.

Return to his present living-room. He points to a photo in a gilded frame which is hanging on the wall beside an official portrait of Arafat wearing his keffiya. The framed photo there is my father as a young man, it was taken in Haifa! A colleague told me once he looks like Pasternak, the Russian poet, what do you think? (He does.) He had a heart complaint and the nakba killed him. He died in this very room when I was 12.

At the far end of the building with the metal door, opposite the shop of bicycle parts, eight paces away from where the boys are playing marbles in the corner, there’s a square metre of open earth where a jasmine bush is growing. It has only two white flowers, for it’s November. Around its root, chucked there from the alley, are a dozen empty plastic mineral water bottles. At least 60% of the camp inhabitants are unemployed. The camps are shantytowns.

When somebody has the opportunity to leave a camp and cross the rubble to slightly better accommodation, it can happen that they turn it down and choose to stay. In the camp they are a member, like a finger, of an endless body. Moving out would be an amputation. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.


The olive trees on the topmost terrace look tousled; the silver undersides of their leaves are far more visible than usual. This is because yesterday their olives were picked. Last year the crop was poor, the trees tired. This year is better. According to their girth, the trees must be around three or four centuries old. The terraces of dry limestone are probably older.

A couple of kilometres away to the west and south are two recently built settlements. Regular, compact, urban (the settlers commute each day to work in Israel), impenetrable. Neither looks like a village, more like a huge jeep, large enough on the ground to house comfortably two hundred settlers with guns. Both are illegal, both are built on hills, both have lookout towers slender as a mosque’s minaret. Their virtual message to the surrounding countryside is: Hands above the head, above the head I told you, and walk slowly backwards.

Building the settlement towards the west, and the road leading to it involved the cutting down of several hundred olive trees. The men working on the site were mostly out-of-work Palestinians. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

The families, who picked their olives yesterday, come from the straggling village in the valley between the two settlements, with a population of about 3,000. Twenty men from the village are in Israeli prisons. One was released two days ago. Several of the young have recently joined Hamas. Many more will vote for Hamas in the 25 January elections. All the kids have toy pistols. All the young grandmothers, whilst wondering what became of the promises they once wrapped, nod in approval at their sons, daughter-in-laws, nephews, and worry every night. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.


The muqataa, Arafat’s headquarters in the Palestinian capital of Ramallah, was a gigantic heap of rubble three years ago when he was held hostage there by the IDF’s tanks and artillery. Now, one year after his death, the Palestinians have cleared the rubble - some argued that it should have been left as an historic monument - and the inner quadrangle today is as bare as a drilling square. On its western side at ground level an austere plinth marks Arafat’s grave. Above it, a roof like the roof above the platform of a small railway station.

Anybody can find their way there, passing by scarred walls and under garlands of barbed wire. Two sentinels stand guard over the plinth. Apart from them, no head of a (promised) state has a more reticent last resting place - it simply declares itself to be there against all odds!

If you happen to be standing by his feet when the sun sets, its radiance is that of a silence. He was nicknamed the walking catastrophe. Are loved leaders ever pure? Aren’t they always full of faults, not weaknesses, flagrant faults? Is this maybe a condition for being a loved leader? Under his leadership the Palestinians Liberation Organisation also contributed, on occasions, to the rubble of words. Yet into Arafat’s faults were stuffed, like notes into a pocket, the daily wrongs his country suffered. Like this he assumed and carried those wrongs and their pain found a home, a painful home, in his faults. It’s neither purity nor strength that wins such undying loyalty, but something flawed - as each one of us is flawed. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.


The northwest town of Qalqilya (population 50,000) is totally surrounded by seventeen kilometres of the wall, with only one exit. The once bustling main street now ends in the wall’s waste land. The town’s meagre economy is consequently in ruins. A market gardener trundles a wheelbarrow of sand to distribute round some plants before the coming winter. Until the wall he employed twelve workers. (95% of Palestinian businesses have fewer than five employees.) Today he employs nobody. The sales of his plants - because the town has been cut off - have been reduced by 90%. He throws away instead of collecting the seeds from a heap of flowers. His large hands are heavy with the admission that henceforth here they have nothing to do.

Difficult to convey the sight of the wall where it crosses the land where there is nobody. It’s the opposite of rubble. It is bureaucratic - carefully planned on electronic maps, prefabricated and pre-emptive. Its purpose is to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The aim of the sledgehammer. Since it began to be built three years ago, there has been no significant reduction in the number of kamikaze attacks. Standing before it, you feel as short as a cigarette butt. (Except during Ramadan, most Palestinians smoke a lot.) Yet, oddly, it doesn’t look final, only insurmountable.

When it’s finished, it will be the 640-km-long expressionless face of an inequality. At the moment it’s 210 km long. The inequality is between those who have the full arsenal of the latest military technology to defend what they believe to be their interest (Apache helicopters, Merkava tanks, F16’s) and those who have nothing, save their names and a shared belief that justice is axiomatic. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

It could be that the wall belongs to the same shortsighted repressive logic as the “sonic boom” bombing that the inhabitants of Gaza are being submitted to every night as I write. Jet fighters dive very low at full speed to break the sound barrier, and the nerves of those huddling sleepless below with their axiom. And it won’t work.

Such a superiority of firepower discourages intelligent strategy; to think strategically one has to be able to imagine oneself in one’s opponent’s place, and a habitual sense of superiority precludes this.

Climb one of the jabals and look down at the wall, way below, winding its geometric dividers’ course towards the southern horizon. Did you see the hoopoe bird? In the long-term view the Wall looks makeshift.


There are 8,000 political prisoners in Israeli jails, 350 of them under 18 years old. A period in prison has become a normal phase to be undergone, once or several times, in a man’s life. Throwing stones can lead to a sentence of two-and-a-half years or more.

Prison for us is a sort of education, a strange sort of university. The man speaking has glasses, is about 50 and is wearing a business-lunch suit. You learn how to learn there. He’s the youngest of five brothers and imports coffee-machines. You learn how to struggle together and become inseparable. Certain conditions have improved over the last forty years - improved thanks to us and our hunger-strikes. The most I did was twenty days. We won a quarter of an hour more exercise time each day. In the long-sentence prisons they used to mask the windows so there was no sunshine in the cells. We won back some sunshine. We got one body-search removed from the daily routine. Otherwise we read and discuss what we read, teach each other different languages. And come to know certain soldiers and some of the guards. In the streets it’s the language of bullets and stones between us. Inside it’s different. They’re in prison just as we are. The difference is we believe in what’s got us there, and they mostly don’t, because they’re just there to earn a living. I know of some friendships that began like that.

The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

Also by John Berger in openDemocracy:

“Shame, not individual guilt” (January 2003) – on the planned war in Iraq

“To the mountain” (April 2003) - on the fall of Baghdad

“Michael Moore, artist and patriot” (August 2004 ) – on Fahrenheit 9/11

“The decisive moment: an interview” (October 2004) – on the United States presidential election

“Quicksilver” - in memory of Susan Sontag (December 2004)

“That have not been asked: ten dispatches about endurance in face of walls” – on killing injustice (February 2005)


The Judean desert between Jerusalem and Jericho is of sandstone, not sand, and is precipitous, not flat. In the spring parts of it are covered with wild grasses and the goats of Bedouins can feed off it. Later in the year there are only clumps of boxthorn.

If you contemplate this desert you quickly discover that it’s a landscape whose gaze is totally directed towards the sky. A question of geology not biblical history. It hangs there beneath the sky like a hammock. And when it’s windy it twists like a winding sheet. As a result the sky appears to be more substantial, more urgent, than the land. A porcupine quill blown by the wind lands at your feet. It’s not surprising that hundreds of prophets, including the greatest, nurtured their visions here.

The light is fading and a herd of two hundred goats, with a Bedouin shepherd on a mule with his dog, is making its evening zigzag descent down to the camp where there’s water to drink and some extra grain to eat. The thistles and rhizome roots give little nourishment at this time of year.

The difficulty with prophets and their final prophesies is that they tend to ignore what immediately follows an action, ignore consequences. Actions for them, instead of being instrumental, become symbolic. It can happen that prophesies cause people not to see what time contains.

The Bedouin family below is living in two abandoned buildings, not far from a Roman aqueduct. At this time of day the mother will be cooking flat bread, daily bread, on a heated stone. Seven of her sons, who were born here, work with the herd. The family has recently been informed by the IDF that they have to leave before the spring. Hands above the head and walk backwards! All the female goats are pregnant. Five months’ gestation period. We’ll face that when we get there, says one of the sons. The stance of undefeated despair works like this.

A refusal to see immediate consequences. For example - the wall and the annexation of still further Palestinian land cannot promise security for the state of Israel; it recruits martyrs.

For example - if a kamikaze martyr could see with their own eyes, before he or she died, the immediate consequences of their explosion, they might well reconsider the appropriateness of their steadfast decision.

The goddamned future of prophesies that ignores all but the final moment.


In the stance I keep referring to, there is something special, a quality which no postmodern or political vocabulary today can find a word for. The quality of a way of sharing which disarms the leading question of: why was one born into this life?

This way of sharing disarms and answers the question not with a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance - these forms of rhetoric are for the small or large leaders who make History - and this way disarmingly answers the question despite history. Its answer is brief, brief but perpetual. One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments: the time of Becoming, before Being risks to confront one yet again with undefeated despair.

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