Our Fear Will Not Protect Us – Make Connections

We are not in search of a solution we are in search of a conscience; if we are able to find a conscience we will find a solution.

I am afraid too. I am not naive, and I am afraid. But I know fear is a bad decision maker and I don’t shy away.

If we think our fear will protect us we are wrong.

Yes, I have read the stories of New Year’s eve 2015 in Cologne, yes I saw what you saw in Paris too, and yes I have watched as aggression has flared up across an incendiary world. I am more afraid that our uneasiness will create exactly the problem we’re afraid of.

We are not in search of a solution we are in search of a conscience; if we are able to find a conscience we will find a solution.

This incredible outpouring of human despair, the refugee crisis, is happening whether we want it to or not. It threatens Europe precisely because we are catastrophically failing in our responsibility to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of assistance, and the protection of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

It threatens Europe precisely because our policies of deterrence, border control and security have abjectly failed, resulting in cultural clashes and fuelling fear and hate on both sides. Our policies give space to a violence that deliberately exploits the underlying tensions.

A part of me wants to tell you I have more reason to be afraid than many people. I have travelled all over parts of the Middle East, I have lived in the nexus of unrest, as a young woman, alone. Do you think I didn’t encounter the dark underbelly of the culture?

I have personally been the casualty of sexual violence, physical threat, verbal abuse, and harassment. I have had stones thrown at me in hatred, I know that I have more direct reason to fear than most.

But, I didn’t blame a religion. I didn’t blame a nation. I didn’t blame a gender. Most importantly, I didn’t blame me. I stood back up, and watched the sunrise on another day, and here I am.

I learnt to look for the similarities; it is possible to have similar bad experiences almost anywhere in the world, from the ivy league campuses of America through to the river banks of India. It is also possible to find hard working, respectful, peaceful, generous, kind, compassionate, simple human similarities everywhere. It is, in fact, far more possible to find these similarities; these individuals of any religion, nation, gender or colour are the norm.

We need to seek the connections between people, to seek connections between beliefs. If we don’t it is so much more dangerous.

I am also a migrant, and we live in a pluralistic world and this is not going to change; we need to look for the similarities and accept our differences. Whatever our belief systems there are connections between us all, because underneath it all we are human beings – and that is where we are the same.

We most certainly have more in common with the people our governments are bombing than the people we’re bombing them for.

People think the smart thing is to change how you behave, or remove yourself. People think you protect yourself by building a wall, but it’s not true. All that happens is that you shrink to fit behind walls that keep you in, rather than keep others out.

The crowd rages on outside while you sit behind your defences, and one day it turns and swarms towards you because you did nothing to find the connections, to build on similarities; you did nothing to discover what you had in common or what everyone had to bring to the table. You chose to protect and not to grow.

What we are facing today is a policy led humanitarian crisis. Politically we have to listen when those we appoint to advice us, MSF and UNHCR and many other respected bodies, say we have to move away from a fortress mentality to a reception approach; proper processing centres at the point of departure, legal, safe passage, intra-EU relocation schemes and constructive integration and facilities into the host culture.

Morally we have to ask one simple question; “do we believe it is right to leave hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war and terror to die. To drown, to freeze, to starve, to wander stateless, shelterless, useless, worthless and hopeless?” My answer is no. So I have no choice but to walk the talk.

That’s how Akbar Waseem and I found ourselves in a carpark outside the gym where he is a trainer, in Birmingham. Akbar answered the call of a stranger, and reached across the divide to fill my car with 500 books in arabic for Words of Hope, the refugee book drive for the Calais Jungle SineadJon and I started. Adding to the several efforts of other individuals who have collected educational books and stationary from their cupboards and communities, and brought them to add to the collection. Each and every one is following their conscience, reaching out, finding the connection, and being part of a solution.

Thank you today to you Akbar, and your community, for donating so much but, more importantly, for building the connection. Evidence in the comments sections of most articles and posts on the internet aside, my daily experience is that there are more Good People – on both sides – willing to find our similarities.

We may not have much control over the world but sometimes it’s simply about us, which side of history do we stand? How we respond defines us…

Meet Akbar, everyday modern hero!

No One Is Illegal – a Night in Moria

It’s not about who they are, where they are on the sliding scale of human desperation and legitimacy, but who this makes us. Who we are is defined by this.

by Benjamin Gow

Any time you say you’re going to Moria to someone who doesn’t know they look at you, as if to say “did you mean that place in Middle Earth?” It is an ominous name that swirls around on the edge of my mind, mixing brutal facts with grim fictitious overtones from Lord of the Rings.

It is a place where a razor wire topped high fence rings a detention centre, now converted into the first hotspot registration point in Greece, which uncannily resonates with the imaginary abandoned dwarf city –

where Moria means Black Chasm.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow

Our Moria, the real Moria, is the place that earned itself a reputation as the worst refugee camp in the world, and yet, however harsh the complex is, it’s overshadowed by the depravity of the hillside beyond its walls. Here is where the fragile hope that dared to breathe on the shores in the north gets crushed by confused bureaucracy, resistant in its heart to face the truth that death is circling the perimeter.

Six weeks ago I was at Moria and this week I returned again. Such a mix of emotions, and thoughts, blasted through my head. I have been to Africa, and India, and the awful conditions remind me of third world slums I’ve seen, except this one is right here on our doorstep. In the summer I saw the toilets spilling over, people standing ankle deep in mud at the one stand pipe trying to wash themselves, I watched them wrap wet clothes around sticks over fires to dry them. I was mobbed by hungry people as I gave out oranges.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 4

On the other hand, I also saw what had changed from when I was last here, and how now it’s become a sort of civilisation on its own. The tea tent that was a tarpaulin on sticks is now a fully functional, and beautifully decorated, hut; with stone pathways carefully laid leading to and from the rest of the tents. A medical tent has doctors on shift throughout the night, tirelessly looking after each patient; and now has “rooms” to evaluate each one privately.

Small pockets of human dignity and relief that have sprung up give me faith in us, as human beings

Yet, when I turned a corner I saw literally 100s of families, men, women and children, huddling together around fires, burning plastic to keep warm and sharing sleeping bags to cling onto what little warmth it gave them. Even with the tents set up for sleeping, there are just too few and so many people have to sleep on a solid, cold and wet ground.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 6I slept out one night while walking 800km across Spain, I thought it would be a boy’s own adventure. It was a new and scary experience. The idea of being completely vulnerable to the elements, something so out of your control, is the feeling of true uncertainty. All you can do is hope, hope that the forces of nature look kindly on you each day.

I did it once, in the summer, absurdly I slept on a camomile lawn, and I knew that I could get a bed, and a shower, something to eat, a lot to eat, and had a home to go to, yet I was still insecure. Imagine what it feels like to find yourself on a concrete forecourt, shut outside double gates; or on the side of a hill where thousands of people have found themselves before you. With just the open air as a toilet, where the rain washes that down into where you are sleeping as the ground turns to mud. Where there’s too little information, and it changes, the official help abandons the area as the sun sets, and your fate hangs in the balance. Handled by a faceless authority, guarded by an unpredictable police presence with tear gas and batons.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 8

You are also part of a two tier system based on an accident of birth. To handle the administration, Frontex currently defines Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis as refugees automatically, everyone else is on a case-by-case basis.

I met one Moroccan man who told me he had been waiting here 10 days, and will have to continue to indefinitely until they begin registration for his people.

For the first time since I’ve been here I felt useless.

I could do nothing to help him continue his journey. I couldn’t register him myself, or point him in the right direction. All I could do was shrug, and say: “I’m sorry, they will register you soon, hopefully.”

I hope I hid the defeat I felt inside. I’m so used to being able to help people at the beaches. Do you have wet socks and trousers? I have a new dry pair in the car, follow me. Not feeling well or have an injury? take my hand there is a doctor over here. Are you cold from the wind? Let me wrap this emergency blanket around you.

Yet, at that moment, I could do nothing.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 2As we where leaving that evening, I saw this graffiti on the wall “No One is Illegal,” and I thought that was a positive thing to show so many of us here wish the refugees the best. However when I stepped back to move on I saw the whole scene.

I saw a lone woman sleeping at the foot of a concrete wall, underneath the graffiti, with a garbage bin next to her.

We can all think and say nice and encouraging things, but this is the reality – even when the words are literally written above us.

We are staring onto that “Black Chasm”. This crisis is happening whether we accept it or not, the only difference will be how many people we kill with our cruel apathy, in our bungled administration of it.

It’s not about who they are, where they are on the sliding scale of human desperation and legitimacy, but who this makes us. Who we are is defined by this.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 7

Read more reports from Benjamin Gow on his Facebook Profile

Life and Death Play Out on the Same Stage

Life and death play out on the same stage today.

It’s raining, it’s cold and there have been terrible storms at sea. Tragically 34 were lost leaving Turkey today, including children who will never have a chance to grow up. Yet we rescue more than 250…

Life and death play out on the same stage

today.

By Benjamin Gow

It’s raining, it’s cold and there have been terrible storms at sea. Tragically 34 were lost leaving Turkey today, including children who will never have a chance to grow up. They are still out searching, there are reports that 50 left the shores on two boats… As that news filled up our Facebook feeds and sat in the gaps in our conversations, we saw a boat coming in from where we are working on that secret reception centre project. A big boat, filled to the brim, with more than 250 people on it heading towards a beach called Lighthouse 1, where the Greek volunteer group Lifeguard Hellas have a tent on the sand, light a campfire signal and keep watch 24/7.

We were watching from our vantage too and ran down to the beach, suddenly in full “first response” mode again. Right in front of our eyes we watched the boat swerve toward the landing point, rocking back and forth, and the clouds opened up and it began to rain.

And it kept raining, heavier and heavier.

Yet, it was so good to be standing ready and waiting on the shore with open arms, organised as we have trained, confident in what we are doing now and smiling.

The boat stopped far out from shore. Because its keel was deep and ran aground. There are no piers or jetties to draw up on, or walkways to get to shore. Those with wetsuits got into the water and the rest of us stood along the beach, forming our two lines of support. There were children on board, so we passed them along the line first, lifting them high to keep their legs out of the water, next the women, followed by the men.

The waves kept lifting and carrying the boat along the shoreline a little with each swell, and our two line system had to keep shuffling down the beach, throwing debris and driftwood aside to make space.

As the last of the people where brought to shore safely, each and every one of them, then their precious luggage of all shapes and sizes was finally passed down the line and returned to their owners. Those volunteers who had dry clothes helped change the cold and the wet, and others gathered up life jackets and cleaned the beach, and that’s our day.

There was one man who made my day, who I shall remember going to sleep tonight. He thanked everyone, and shook all our hands, as he was carried all the way to the beach. Smiling all the way. He made us all smile.

Under the circumstances, it could not have gone smoother. So congratulations to the refugees for staying calm, and letting us help. Congratulations to those volunteers at Lighthouse, we helped make more than 250 lives just that little bit safer today. When life and death play out on the same stage on a day like today it shows it’s so crucial that we are here.

This is it, you really feel it, out here on the beach you know you are the frontline of the European humanitarian response. And you reading this are part of it too, you really are, thank you for all your support…

read more by Ben Gow on Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Ultimate Sacrifice

My next door neighbour used to tell me the overwhelming memory from her childhood was the sound of mothers crying. Her mother ran the local grocery store during the First World War and the “It is my painful duty to inform you” letters to anyone in the area were delivered there. At six years old, she only remembered a village weeping.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist, Paul Cummins, and stage designer, Tom Piper, 29th October 2014

My next door neighbour used to tell me her memory of her childhood was the sound of mothers crying. Her family ran the local grocery store and during the First World War all the “It is my painful duty to inform you” letters to those left home were delivered to her mother, who had to hand them over to her friends and neighbours. At six years old, my neighbour only remembered a village weeping every day.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, 29th October 2014, Melanie Gow photography
The Headstone

This evolving art installation piece commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of World War I has brought together countless people, including my sons and I, and united their thoughts with one simple vision; opening on August the 5th 2014 to mark the day Britain joined the war, poppies were added every day right up to the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, Armistice day, to represent the people lost to war.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, 29th October 2014, Melanie Gow photography
In Memorium

Every poppy represents a person; someone who had a full life, a family, certainly a mother, maybe even their own children, and they belonged to communities. Look closely at one, just one, poppy and when you feel like you’ve understood that then step back and look at the whole.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, 29th October 2014, Melanie Gow photography
Lone Survivor

To convince that many people they need to make the ultimate sacrifice, and kill others, takes concerted force; and to then get them to act on that conviction takes a lot of forces working with a single intent.

One that uses all its resources to reach invidiously into the real lives of quiet homes, and it fires up, riles, frightens and silences where it needs until is has a consensus. Then it deploys numbers and ranks and units to the battle cry.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, 29th October 2014, Melanie Gow photography
Eternal Rest

The politics and morality, ideology, and technology, economics, histrionics and motivations all manifest themselves in the conflict. A nation acts.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, 29th October 2014, Melanie Gow photography
Pooling Ebb

War memorials, on the other hand, aren’t meant to be acted on in any way. They exist as a statement in hindsight, they are meant to be absorbed, then processed, then learned from.

A war memorial that meets art and theatre production can bring together people with little other in common besides proximity; it can aid communication wordlessly, effectively, within an ever-widening community, with needs and values as diverse as the individuals. It can even facilitate true accountability – between strangers.

Blood swept lands and seas of red, by ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, 29th October 2014, Melanie Gow photography
Tide of Sorrow

Where the blood meets the wall it seems to have soaked into the time-worn stone, like memories in our conscience.  This art makes order out of chaos. It creates a reverent and sympathetic response to the passion and pain of war, it makes us feel alive, present and in the moment.. To be able to powerfully connect to people and things, with all who see it is the uncomplicated force of moral judgement.

As artists, we always dream that this could open up the ability to create a new and, perhaps, a better world.

The generation that won that war went on to create the fairest society in British history; free healthcare for all at the point of delivery, free education, welfare, affordable housing, nationalised infrastructure. There are many lessons we are asked to think about; what are we doing with the sacrifice made by so many.

Rememberance isn’t only about those who fought.

That is what I think of in the two minutes of silence.

The Real ALS Challenge To The Summer of 2014

Damn you ALS challenge you have raised awareness of so many things. You brought the conversation together; you have been the fun, and the light.

If we’d had friends round for dinner the day before, or anytime over the bank holiday weekend, it would have been a very different night. But that day I got tagged into the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and now the conversation at the table had another quality.

Now I had to meaningfully consent or consciously abstain; as the Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, said in a speech leading up to the election in 1992, and I paraphrase, “get out and vote, and if you’re going to abstain make sure it’s a decision and not just apathy; people around the world die fighting just for the right to vote.”

The dinner table was dominated by conversation about the viral phenomenon. We’ve watched the moving video of #alsicebucketchallenge co-founder, Pete Frates, and cried when he walked down the aisle with his new wife on June 1st 2013. We swapped our favourite videos, and put our arguments for and against taking the challenge; and discussed how we reconcile it when a bucket of water to wash hands in against infectious diseases like Ebola is so vital, and yet not readily available?

In this crazy, incendiary summer of 2014, there is so much to make us angry and horrified, and afraid; how do we reconcile it when California is suffering its severest drought for decades; how do we reconcile it when conflicts supported by our government have created “water disasters”, depriving every single person living in these areas access to a safe and secure supply; how do we reconcile it when lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every four hours?

Slowly over the evening I noticed we were sharing our worlds, and our views.

One of us lives in the world of Minecraft and showed their favourite performance from JSano19, a firefighter and gamer. One of us talked about the creative response from Gaza to use the rubble from their bombed civilian infrastructure to create a #rubblebucketchallenge, and raise awareness about that cause. We all loved Matt Damon’s elegant ability to use toilet water to link the Californian drought and his foundation, Water.org, to his challenge. We all watched Patrick Stewart’s laconic response; and we all howled with laughter at the innocent video of the sweet young lady with the foul language, and watched it all over again.

We discussed the flawed methodology, unethical reporting, unjustifiable profits, and moral corruption of the pharma industry – and our reliance on it. We scrutinised the tax returns of ALSA (scored ‘highest rated’ by Charity Navigator), and wondered how will they spend their money. We discussed the mixed values of a world where we feel justified in having conditions attached to any £10 we give to a charity or non-profit on how it can be spent. Yet, we casually spend £10 online on a book with a company that has appalling work conditions, evades taxes, pays its executives obscene amounts, and has aggressively monopolistic tactics in the pursuit of profit alone.

Damn you ALS challenge you have raised awareness of so many things. You brought the conversation together and, in an inflamed summer, you have doused us with fun.

It has raised money for the charity, however, the ALS Challenge has evolved to be the conversation around which everyone can talk about what’s important to them, it has become the connection between us all.

In India it has become the Rice Bucket Challenge, where more than 100 million people lack access to clean drinking water the challenge is to give a bucket of rice, cooked or uncooked, to a person in need. For this very young man it is a way to raise awareness for Organ Donor Register, but you have to watch how because he can’t get cold.

Then we paused and frankly, we thought how lucky we are for having freedom of speech, education, opportunity and widespread, accessible healthcare, oh, and water and sanitation; a level of freedom never enjoyed by any other generation before us.

Those of us in privileged positions, let us notice the good in our lives and make the most of every day, for you really never know what tomorrow brings.

In a shocking twist of fate, the co-founder of the #alsicebucketchallenge and a perfectly-healthy 27-year-old, Corey Griffin, was diving off a wharf in Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA, Wednesday, August 16th 2014, and accidentally drowned.

RIP Corey Griffin, and my thoughts are with your family and friends. Donate or don’t donate to ALS, I challenge all my friends to take a moment to look around; we’ve already won the lottery folks, let’s be grateful for every damn thing and do more, engage, be the light; life is a brief shot at something incredible.

I supported my friend, Stephanie Butland’s, drive on Facebook to support Dilvia, a grass-roots initiative getting food, blankets, and water to the displaced Yazidi still hiding on a mountainside dying of thirst and facing genocide.

If you want daily, powerful inspiration from around the world in your Facebook feed, I recommend the very real Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who takes pictures and tells their stories; daily insights into his subjects’ lives are testament to the power of pictures and words; they will break your heart and make you laugh, and often both at the same time.

The War In Our Mind Is To Wake Up To Our Liberty

It is crucial to live stories worth telling, stop hitting that snooze button, be fully responsible for our decisions, find connections between each other, make our time here count; know that each glorious day is something to be lived.

Living directly under a flight path to an international airport when the wind is not in my favour, the sound of airplanes flying overhead is not unusual. Sometimes I watch them wondering where the people are going, most days I barely notice them. One morning, when I lived somewhere else entirely, I was returning home from an errand when planes went overhead. I paused to watch them.

When I got home that day I turned on the television and saw in the news that 14 women and children had been killed and injured, in that one unsanctioned airstrike across the Good Fence into Lebanon.

Lebanon border, 1991, Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (2)
Lebanon over the Good Fence, Metula, Galilee, Israel, 1991.

The year was 1991 and I was living in Israel.

On my first weekend there my fiancé taught me to strip, clean and reassemble our handgun. I was then taken out to a scrubby patch of land to shoot it at a hand-drawn outline of a head on a piece of torn cardboard. I remember we did this before I knew where the supermarket was.

The thing that shook me the most about that experience wasn’t that I was handling a gun as a priority, it was that I got six out of seven bullets in “the head”. Whether that was beginner’s luck or not I’ll never know as I never fired it again. I was left with the impression that if I ever did, I would actually take someone’s life.

Kirion-Shopping-Mall-Kiryat-Bialik-1991-Israel-Melanie-Gow-www.myofficetoday.co_.uk_-800x533
Kirion Shopping Mall, Kiryat Bialik, Israel, 1991

I didn’t have to carry the gun with me to the Israeli shopping mall across the road as it has armed security. I did have to take it on days out to the beach, even though we only went to areas under armed protection. I did have to take it on outings, which we only did in groups, and I did have to take it in the glove compartment when I drove anywhere. I got used to putting my arm around my fiancé’s waist and feeling it tucked into the back of his jeans under his shirt.

It was also taped under the table I taught English at in our flat. Two of my students were Arabs and nobody in our building would let me teach them unless I had that gun taped under the table between any student and me.

I was teaching English at home as I couldn’t get any official work, unable to clear top-level security for any job I applied for, as I am a gentile. However, for that reason Arabs came to me to learn.

The Wailing Wall, 1984, Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (13)
The Wailing Wall, Israel, 1984

Being a gentile was not something I was aware of until I lived in Israel, where an accident of birth distorted work opportunities, dictated people’s opinions and changed relationships.

As soon as I got my Israeli citizenship I could attend Hebrew classes every week, until the teacher found out I was a gentile. I remember that day we were learning new and useful vocabulary; the teacher pointed out a portrait of the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, hanging high on the wall at the back of the class, and then wrote the words “intelligent”, “generous”, “firm”, “fair”, and “trustworthy” on the board. We then put them in a sentence for context: “The prime minister is intelligent,” we all intoned.

Somehow my status came out and the teacher turned to the rest of the class and told them that under no circumstances were they to trust me. She ended the lesson abruptly and asked me to stay back for five minutes; face-to-face she made it clear that I was not welcome back.

This was at the time when a wave of Russians and Yugoslavians emigrated, during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the war breaking out in the former Yugoslavia. My fellow students were European; as I left they were standing outside smoking cigarettes against the school wall, they were resigned even as they called out to me that some of their neighbours back home had been gentiles, and friends too. I didn’t see any of them again.

Underneath it all being gentile is defined by not being something else; not Jewish. You couldn’t tell I was a gentile just by looking at me and in the context of Israel I was assumed to be Jewish; after all, I was always asked, why would I come to live in Israel otherwise? Love is a suspicious reason, for being simply inadequate.

My future husband said he fell in love the first time he saw me, dancing barefoot around the room learning Israeli folk dances in the Moadon (the clubhouse) of a kibbutz in the mid-80s the first time I was in Israel. I wasn’t there for any idealism I had simply taken a bus across Europe and ended up in Greece, and boarded the boat to Israel because it was a place to go if you wanted to escape Athens in winter. It left from the port of Piraeus and after two nights sleeping on the deck, and a stop in Limassol, Cyrus, you disembarked in Haifa.

Deck class, 1984, boat to Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (12)
Deck class, boat to Israel from Piraeus, Greece, 1984

A two-hour bus ride and a hitchhike the rest of the way into the north of the Negeve desert and there was Kibbutz Ruhama; founded in 1911, it was the first modern Jewish settlement in the desert. For room and board and nominal pay I walked behind the potato plough and cleaned the communal dining room and, between the night shift in the toothbrush factory and days in the henhouses, I learnt the ways of a whole new kind of society first hand. I immersed myself in the liberal and tolerant ethos of equality, social justice and communal ownership.  A kibbutz family adopted me and, eventually, I was drafted in to work in the children’s houses.

Kibbutzim children were brought up in communal homes from six months old at that time, cared for by those who work there; being a volunteer in the houses was a huge privilege. It meant longer hours, but when your basic needs are taken care of you can flourish at what you love. I wrote and took pictures when I could afford a film for the camera, and became conversant in Hebrew one step ahead of the toddlers so I could point to the ceiling and teach them the word “אוֹר” (or) for “light”.

Communal dining room, Kibbutz Ruhama, 1984 Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (11)
Communal dining room, Kibbutz Ruhama, Negev, Israel, 1984

Young and aspirational, I didn’t think love was a good enough reason to stay then either and I came back to England go to college and begin a career. Then the Gulf War broke out; the first scud missile launched at Israel landed 500 yards from that man’s new flat in Haifa, and it turned out that love was compelling.

Interfaith marriages in Israel are not legally possible, although they are recognised if performed abroad; and that’s how we did it. But, on Christmas Eve of that same year, the Military Police Corps came and took my husband for questioning, because he married a gentile. Not that it mattered to anyone else as the occasion wasn’t significant but, I watched Christmas mass in Bethlehem on the television by myself; and I had no idea when, or if, I would see my husband again.

He did come home, three days later and fed up with it all. He told me he had put a copy of the New Testament in his kit bag knowing they were going to search it, and that’s all they needed; he was demoted from an Officer in the Intelligence Corps to Private on the ground at the Gaza strip when his next month in Reserve Service came around.

Kosher Coffee, Jerusalem, 1984, Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk
Old City, Jerusalem, Israel, 1984

I was in Israel at the tail end of a visionary dream, got engaged during the Gulf War, and went to live there during the First Palestinian Intifada. The floor of the airport was littered with gas masks left behind by those with a flight out. We lived with our windows sealed with tape against possible chemical attack, the television was always on as that’s how the national security announcements got out.

Ordinary busses got blown up, Palestinian cars required to carry Israeli plates were burned in protest. I had stones thrown at me by Arab children, outside the Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem during a shopkeepers strike. We carried guns. People put their fatigues on and left regularly. We waited for a ‘tzav shemoneh’, the call-up code for the reserves in the event of a national emergency.

Living in a conflict zone is truly harrowing for everyone, no matter what their ethos is. War pervades the darkest corners of your mind, inescapably.

Without physical security no other human struggle is easy. Living in a country at war with its neighbours and the world, and within itself, means the prevalent threat is so overpowering it colours everything. It is absolutely impossible to plan anything, or even think of anything, beyond the present moment. The war in your mind is real; you don’t plan a future because there is no certainty, you cannot afford casual dissent because everyone relies on unity, you are suspicious because your survival depends on it.

Bombed car, Jerusalem, 1991 Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (10)
A Palestinian car required to carry Israeli number plates burned in protest, Jerusalem, Israel, 1991

Not long before we left Israel we went with a group of friends into the countryside for a picnic, we always travelled in a group for safety. Bombarded by conversation in another language, depleted from living under threat, longing for one moment of serenity, I wanted to be alone. I wanted to hear the heartbeat of the earth and breathe in fresh air and tranquility. No one would let me go without the gun, so I took it to keep the peace.

I walked through the small forest and up a hill into a clearing and finally sat looking out over the beautiful land stretched in front of me. From that perspective you cannot see imaginary lines between peoples, or their differences, you just see the one planet we all live on.

In that silence I heard men approaching from behind. They were quite far away, but by the time I had stood up and turned they had knives out. I felt that if I did not take the gun out and show it I would be beaten and raped and maybe worse, not because I was a woman but because I was the enemy. I took the safety off and said very simply; “I am not Jewish.”

It was a slow gaze down the barrel of a gun to the sight at the end, to gently bring into the focus the eyes beyond it and watch them blink and turn away; to carry on being someone’s father, someone’s brother, someone’s son. This is the haunting story of living life where people don’t spend time getting to know who you are, what you are makes you the enemy.

Imagine if every first impression is dominated by the need to evaluate whether a person is friend or foe. Imagine living every day feeling surrounded by a people who want to push you, your family, your neighbourhood, everything you know, into the sea. Imagine never feeling safe even in a self-imposed ghetto, with armed security. Imagine living with a gun in arm’s reach because the threat to your life is a daily anxiety. Imagine living with people who do not want you to exist.

Also imagine being against those people who live with a singular desire to survive that threat, and all that being true for you too. Imagine waking up every day with war on your mind, having to ask who is really your enemy, how can you change your world so no one dies today. Imagine asking every morning; “will I survive this day?” Imagine that your defiance is in stones, in pleas, in just living. It is horrific for people on all sides.

Little Boxes, Kiryat Bialik, Krayot suburbs, home, Haifa Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk
Kiryat Bialik, Krayot suburbs north of Haifa

It is cumulatively exhausting to live normally in increasingly abnormal conditions, but everyone tried. People just wanted to get degrees, work, flirt, get married, have kids, have barbecues and white goods and a good night’s sleep. My husband and I lived together in his ordinary flat, in a small tower, in a complex in the Krayot suburbs north of Haifa. I endured; sometimes I was a gentile and I took my neighbour’s flour from her during Passover, as leavened produce is forbidden under kosher law. Otherwise I lived like my neighbours; I hung my washing out of my kitchen window like them, I loosely observed the rituals of a different normal, and shopped at the mall, and went to the cinema at the mall, and bought books in the mall, and had a coffee at the mall, and went home.

I noticed my neighbours’ children, particularly when I was trying to write at the flat, were loud and unruly and rarely ever told off. Their mothers told me they knew their children would be drafted into the army at 18 and from then on they would never know if they would come home again; so they let them play as long and as loudly as they wanted.

I may have left Israel, but not without being changed; that intensity of conflict sears an emotional brand on your psyche that you carry with you always.

The Golden Dome, 1991, Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (17)
The Golden Dome, Israel, 1991.

Arab, Israeli, Jew, Gentile, were differences used to maintain a circle of trust I was outside. The consequences of distrust, hatred, and division left me with a wariness, a weariness, when it comes to other people’s casual superficiality. A despair at the division we so carelessly build, with no drive to seek connections between beliefs. If we don’t it feels so dangerous.

The same country, those experiences, gifted me a certainty in the value of tolerance, equality, inclusion, fairness and social justice. I think about those toddlers in my care back on the kibbutz and wonder at a way of life that taught me a belief in a kinder society; and the real meaning of the word “light”, to be or become light.

War is terrible for all who are caught in the ricochet of its violence, for generations. We live in a pluralistic world, this is not going to change; we need to look for the similarities and accept our differences. Whatever our belief systems there are connections between us all, because underneath it all we are human beings and that is where we are the same.

If I’d stayed in that marriage and had my children there Ben, my eldest, would be six months away from being a conscript in the army; six months away from the active front line.

I rarely feel I have the power to do anything about events happening around the world, but I do feel I can try to make a difference in my very small corner of the world. I try to teach my sons that “normal” is different for every one, and yet we all want the same things underneath it all; we are so very similar.

But most of all I ask them to appreciate the priceless gift they have, a life; and to make the most of it.

Streets of Jeruslaem, 1984, Israel, Melanie Gow, www.myofficetoday.co.uk (14)
Streets of Jeruslaem, 1984

In a landscape of seemingly expanding violence, as conflicts flare up and scare us, as horror floods our feeds and tempers clash in other lives lived far away, the question is are we really living ours? I hug my children close and every day I know the advantages we enjoy; liberty, freedom of speech, equality, social justice and security, are very precious. Given all this, it is rude not to make the most of every day.

The war in our mind is to wake up to our liberty. It is crucial to live stories worth telling, stop hitting that snooze button, be fully responsible for our decisions, find connections between each other, live gently, make our time here count; we have one planet and we all live on it. For those of us who won the place of birth lottery, let us acknowledge that luck.

Life is a brief shot at something extraordinary.

Every time I hear the commercial planes overhead these days I remember, and I don’t complain about the noise.