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from the March 2007 issue

Nora in Wonderland

“Hassan Khader is a poet, author, and translator. And like many Arab novelists and poets, he has turned to the essay. If poetry is historically the first art form of the Arabs, the essay is a close second.”—Ahdaf Soueif 

Unlike Alice's adventures, Nora's didn't start with the appearance of a late and harried rabbit, checking its waistcoat watch. In fact, hers began immediately after her birth, which was sometime in April 2002.

It's safe to assume that she was born in the huge educational compound in Ramallah, under an olive tree or some bushes. On several hundred acres of land surrounded by a high wall on all sides, it accommodates the sleeping quarters and training facilities for young women enrolled in a two-year teacher-training course, in addition to administrative offices. It isn't a bad place for a cat starting out in life. There is plenty of food around and enough space to lead a normal cat life under the branches of the small forest of olive trees and wild plants. But the month of her birth was not safe, for either human beings or animals.

In that month hundreds of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers invaded Ramallah. The first days of the invasion were exceptionally noisy. Heavy bombardment and machine gun explosions could be heard in the city's four corners. A total curfew was imposed.

Surely a cat should not have to worry about such things; after all, war is the business of human beings. The deafening noise left its mark on her, however, because she developed a specific reaction toward sounds which continues even to this day: if a car is passing by and she is in the middle of a deep sleep, she will jump and run like a bullet to the window or the balcony to determine the source of the noise.

In May the curfews became less strict. It became possible to move around until 6 p.m., no more explosions were heard, and life seemed to have regained a sense of normalcy. One of the amazing characteristics of normalcy at that time was how much attention people paid to their balconies and backyards: new pots of flowers and domestic plants of all sizes were suddenly visible all over. Plant sales were booming.

Our return to normalcy was a little bit different. Nina, my wife, and I decided to bring a plan we had discussed a few months earlier to a fruitful end. The plan was to adopt a cat. Well, this was a simple task, easy enough to fulfill given the huge cat population that inhabits Ramallah's neighborhoods. Beautiful, joyful and healthy creatures poured onto the streets in the early evening hours to look for food or company, or just to watch passersby from a safe distance. Some of them have been adopted and have homes; others are less fortunate. These wild cats have developed special skills for survival.

In theory, Nora belonged to the second category. She was around four weeks old when we got her from the educational compound, but her general condition was strong proof of her inability to learn the necessary skills for survival quickly enough: she was very thin, with minor wounds, inflamed eyes, and a runny nose. She may have lost her mother shortly after birth and her chances for survival were not promising.

When we brought her home she was tired and fell asleep immediately. In fact, we could not have imagined how hungry she was. The first thing she did after waking up was to snatch a piece of bread from the table and run away, looking for a hiding place where she could devour her prize.


In most cases people choose a pet's name after adopting it. A friend of ours suggested Nora's name. He is an American of Palestinian origin, a professor of political science, who, like many others, came to Palestine after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 to participate in creating a new infrastructure and, we hoped, a new future for Palestine. I came back from Tunisia that same year with the same purpose in mind but decided to stay. Nina, who is German by birth, came from Hamburg years later in order to live with me in a place that had haunted her imagination from an early age. At eighteen she wrote a "book" about the need for a political compromise and the necessity to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one based on mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence. A belief that I, and many others, share with her.

But as with human beings, names of pets have their own logic and life: sometimes they are discarded and replaced by nicknames or a corrupted version of the original. That's how the name Nora, after many short-term mutations, became Shneer. She would have another name some years later. For the time being, let us say that Shneer recovered quickly, gained strength and confidence in her new surroundings, and turned out to be a beautiful, sweet, and snuggly cat. Yet even beautiful, sweet, and snuggly cats need medical care, something that is not available to them in Ramallah. That's why Nora/Shneer had to go to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is fifteen minutes by car from Ramallah. For residents of Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank, Jerusalem is inaccessible. To go there you must apply for a special travel permit days or weeks in advance and specify the reason of your visit. In most cases you still won't get it.

There are people, like me, who won't apply for such permits because we refuse to recognize the Orwellian system of occupation. People like Nina and my friend the professor, armed with their foreign passports, can cross through the checkpoints without having to apply for a permit—a luxury they enjoy as long as they have no permanent residency status here. The moment they become permanent residents, they become "local" and their freedom of movement comes to an end. That's why they have to content themselves with the three-month tourist visa, which needs to be renewed on a regular basis, either by leaving Palestine for a few days and coming back or by applying for a renewal, which costs a lot of money and consumes a lot of energy and time.

Given Nina's circumstances, and thanks to her German passport, it was possible for Shneer to make her first trip to Jerusalem, for some vaccinations.

Many people would surely envy Shneer. A friend of mine in Ramallah, an architect-turned-writer, had a dog. She used to take her dog for medical examinations in Jerusalem, but since the strict border-crossing policy was implemented in September 2000 after the second intifada broke out, going to Jerusalem had become nearly impossible.

One day she decided to try her luck and went to the checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem. The Israeli soldiers manning it stopped her. After checking her Palestinian identity card, they ordered her to go back. She pointed to the dog, showed them a medical certificate issued by an Israeli veterinarian, and told them that her dog needed a vaccination. A soldier with a weird sense of humor convinced his colleagues to let her in. He said to her: "The dog can enter but you can't; this time we will let you in for the sake of the dog."


As bizarre as it sounds, this incident explains the problem facing me after Nina's return to Germany to finish her doctoral thesis and her desire that Shneer should join her in Germany as well. We conducted all the necessary research to determine how a cat can be sent from Ramallah to Germany, in accordance with the European Union's regulations.

This turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

First, the cat must be vaccinated against rabies.

Second, after three months, a blood sample must be taken to the one certified veterinary institute in Beit Dagan in Israel.

Third, a unique identification chip must be inserted into the cat's neck.

Fourth, a certificate of good health must be issued by the same institute not more than fourteen days before its departure.

Such a complicated task couldn't be realized by depending on one's good looks or a soldier's weird sense of humor. That's why I consulted with some Israeli friends. They offered their help immediately and suggested a solution: they would take Shneer to their house near Tel Aviv, keep her for three months, take her for all the necessary tests and vaccinations, drive her to the airport in Tel Aviv, and ship her by plane from Israel to Germany.

Such an offer is not going to make news, let alone headlines, in this part of the world, where Palestinians and Israelis are always depicted as bitter enemies. While there is good reason for this perception it doesn't tell the whole truth. It doesn't tell how deeply the lives of Palestinians and Israelis are intertwined in a number of unimaginable ways; it doesn't depict friendships and the human need to reach for one another in a complicated situation.

I met these friends—a man and his wife—many years ago at a meeting for academics and intellectuals from both Israel and Palestine. We used to have such meetings on a regular basis in order to promote understanding and dialogue. They continue now, but not as regularly as before. Some of the participants from the Israeli side belonged to a group of historians and social scientists known in Israel as the "New Historians," revisionists who challenge the dominant Israeli view of history and the Zionist interpretation of Israel's 1948 founding. There were also filmmakers, writers and artists. Each one of the Jewish-Israeli participants had a personal story to tell about how and why he or she had to reach out to the Palestinians and engage in a dialogue with them. We had our own stories as well.

My friends' stories were based on certain events that had personal, lasting effects on them. The man had heard about the 1948 Arab-Israeli War from his father, who as an Israeli commander had participated in evacuating some Palestinian villages and towns and forcing their inhabitants to leave. Today, most of them live in Gaza's refugee camps. The wife, who had emigrated with her family from Eastern Europe after the establishment of the state of Israel, had to change her name to make it sound more Hebraized and less Christian and European, which was the fashion then. Both of them were affected by the thoughts and teachings of Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an insightful philosopher with high moral standards who deeply influenced more than one generation of students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. These are the people who offered to accommodate Shneer for three months and to go through the vaccination and paperwork process on our behalf.

But we still had to think about how to transfer her to Jerusalem—the first step—without Nina's access. Another generous offer came from European friends who worked for one of the United Nations agencies in the West Bank. They moved with relative ease between Jerusalem and Ramallah in cars with special license plates and had permits to cross at checkpoints. So we accepted, and fixed a date and time.

I carried Shneer in her cage to their car and watched as they headed off for Jerusalem. In that car, surrounded by strangers, she was terrified and would not stop screaming. Explaining the presence of a screaming cat in a United Nations car to the checkpoint soldiers would have been a challenge, to say the least. That's why they had to cover the cage with a blanket. Later that day, my friends told me about the little miracle over the phone: Shneer stopped screaming the moment they reached the checkpoint. "It's real proof that she is a Palestinian cat," they said.

The Palestinian cat quickly adjusted to her existence in her new Israeli home near Tel Aviv and managed to boss around the two other cats who lived there.

Still, her true identity could not be revealed. She had to go through the hassle of vaccinations, blood tests, and the insertion of a chip in her neck as an Israeli cat. Even when she was taken to the airport in Tel Aviv, no one would have imagined that this innocent-looking creature was traveling incognito.

My Israeli friends joked about this: it's true that she retained the name Nora, which is written in English and Hebrew on all her papers and vaccination certificates, but they Hebraized her name in their own conversations and while on the phone with me. That's how Nora/Shneer got her third name: Norit.


Now, let us stop for a while to think about Alice as she was running after that frenzied rabbit and fell down a dark passage. She found herself in a long, low hall that was lit by a row of lamps hanging from the ceiling. There were doors all along the hall, and on a small table one tiny golden key. The doors were locked. Her mission was to discover how to use the key in order to open them.

With a little imagination, we can see the similarities between Alice's story and Shneer's. Freedom of movement is restricted under the occupation, a different kind of long hall. Shneer, our own Alice, was sucked into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the moment she was born. Of course, no metaphor is strong enough to convey the harsh reality of a checkpoint.

The checkpoint is a physical object as well as a state of mind. Some checkpoints are permanent; in my world, they are usually located outside the West Bank's main population centers. Others are arbitrary: soldiers appear suddenly from out of nowhere and close a certain road or street, only to disappear after few minutes or hours. The checkpoint is a feature of daily life in Palestine.

Many people spend months—years—without moving from one city to another or from the city to the countryside. They stay where they are either because they don't have the necessary permits to move or because they want to avoid trouble and humiliation at checkpoints.

If we think of the checkpoint as a closed door, can't we also agree that only imagination (not politics) can provide people with the vital tiny golden key?

Ramallah, August 2006

© 2006 by Hassan Khader. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2007 Hassan Khader. All rights reserved.

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