By Dr Hanan Chehata
The Viva Palestina (VP) Convoy 2009/10 brought together an extremely diverse group of people with at least seventeen countries represented. Citizens of Australia, Poland, Belgium, Dominica, Iran, Ireland and a whole host of other countries and from all walks of life took part in what was a unique international aid convoy; all had one shared purpose to help, in any way they could, the besieged people of Gaza. Aged from 16 to 80+, the convoy members brought with them knowledge and experience from extremely diverse political and religious affiliations. There were experienced activists who were pillars of support for the uninitiated amongst us – of which I was one – for whom the trip was, in very real terms, a baptism by fire.
An English Muslim told me all about his experiences of living in Bosnia and fighting with the Bosnian army against the Serbs. One woman giggled sweetly when I announced rather proudly that some of the convoy members, including myself, had completed the first 24 hours of the VP hunger strike. Our achievement was put into perspective when she told me quite nonchalantly that previous hunger strikes had lasted “Oh, about 30 days”. For some of the younger members of the convoy this was their first time away from home for any prolonged period of time and you could tell that it was both an exciting adventure and a daunting and overwhelming experience.
There were good days and not so good days for everyone, with homesickness for many at Christmas and on New Year’s Eve. For one woman who said that she barely sees her family when she is at home in London and that they barely keep in touch, as the clock approached midnight on New Year’s Eve it all got too much and tears appeared; Christmas and New year are, apparently, the only time that she is virtually guaranteed to have contact with them.
Despite language barriers and a few hiccups and minor misunderstandings along the way, everyone seemed to have embraced the spirit of the convoy. There was some understandable closeness between national groups – birds of a feather and all that – but others revelled in the opportunity to meet people from different countries.
Part of the joy of being on the convoy was travelling to countries which we may otherwise never have visited and learning about their societies and cultures. That was also true about our contacts within the convoy itself. For example, in one of the vehicles I was assigned to there was a British Sudanese woman, a Polish truck driver, an Australian cameraman and a British girl with a Japanese husband. Add my own diversity a half-English, half-Egyptian woman – into the mix and you can see how our conversations, particularly those centring on food, helped to while away some of the more tedious hours on the road at night!
The unstinting generosity of convoy members took a cynic like me completely by surprise. Having been virtually stranded in an isolated car park in Jordan miles from anywhere, a few dozen of us were forced to spend the night with our vehicles while others relaxed in hotels. I found myself outside with none of my close travel companions and, would you believe it, no keys to the van. Resigned to spending the night in a starlit car park on cold concrete, I was relieved when two Belgian women insisted on weighing me down with food and drink from their own supplies; these rations I accepted sheepishly, since I had only recently finished the hunger strike but had yet to eat properly. I was equally grateful when one kind Englishwoman offered me shelter in the back of her ambulance and someone else offered me blankets before I got a place in the tent of a convoy friend from London. It was truly humbling.
Cultural stereotypes were forged and broken on the trip. The Turks, for example, earned universal praise and admiration for being the most well-organised and generous of participants. They had regular meetings and get-togethers and always seemed to know what was going on (even when no one else did); they also prepared vast amounts of food and distributed it to the less well-prepared and you could guarantee that they’d be the first group to get a fire going and have a sing-song on cold winter’s evenings. Their generosity in organising the convoy was unsurpassed and they helped to pay for the ferry to take all of the vehicles to Egypt; they had a key role at the negotiating table as well.
Similarly, negative stereotypes were also erased. There was a bus load of young people from the United States on the convoy and despite the stereotypes that sprang to mind which are frequently accorded to young Americans, these volunteers were a very impressive group of individuals.
Primarily in their mid-to late-teens and early to mid-twenties, I expected them to be loud and boisterous but, while they certainly knew how to have fun, their light-heartedness was always tempered by a maturity that should have been expected purely by virtue of the fact that they had joined the convoy in the first place. The young men in particular took their religious obligations very seriously and assumed big brother status over the young American women in a very chivalrous, non-offensive and non-overbearing way. When some of us decided against staying in the Palestinian youth camp earmarked for our use in Latakia, it was the American men who chaperoned us while looking for suitable alternative accommodation. While the convoy was made up of people from all backgrounds, including Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, humanists and so on, the vast majority were Muslims, and the American Muslims in particular had a very appealing, moderate balance of religiosity in their group. They were all very politically aware but also very balanced in their approach to Islam, unlike some others in the convoy who took a more hard-line approach. It was a young American Muslim who gave one of the most moving Khutbahs (Friday prayer sermons) that I have ever heard and every day they blended together just the right amount of fun, activism and religious behaviour.
The sense of universal brotherhood that developed on this convoy was also evident in the way that many convoy members called each other brother and sister. Even non-Muslims embraced this very Muslim tradition, more so than some of the Muslims; partly because it let them off the hook in terms of remembering everybody’s names and there were plenty of names to remember – and partly because it added to the camaraderie of the mission.
My positive feelings about the convoy are were not shared by everyone; when asked how they were enjoying the convoy, answers ranged from the ecstatic to the very difficult. Some people clashed with their companions and were frustrated by the endless delays (primarily, if not wholly, caused by Egypt’s cynical and bull-headed pro-Israel stance). Others lost hundreds of pounds in cancelled flights and rescheduled tickets only to have to repeat the whole process as the itinerary was delayed for the umpteenth time. Nevertheless, one woman called home to quit her job once she realised that she would be forced to choose between keeping her job and remaining with the convoy until we reached Gaza. She said that she was quite happy to make that decision, which sort of reflects the general positive frame of mind among the convoy’s members.
It was certainly a life-changing experience for me; a priceless, timeless gift. I cannot think of any other way that I would have been able to meet so many incredible and diverse people who, with many differences but a shared sense of humanity, had one vital thing in common a deep and unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause. Even before setting foot on Palestinian soil I felt that my knowledge of the situation had increased because of this journey, and I now feel that I have reached a deeper level of understanding. I met Palestinians living in many countries and was privileged enough to hear their life stories. I also visited four of the refugee camps in Syria and had the opportunity to get to know many of the Palestinians there. It is one thing to read about these things in books and journals but there is no substitute for being there in person and talking to the people who are living through it all. The reality of the Palestinian diaspora can only truly be understood by talking one to one with those Palestinians whose lives it actually effects and, for those of us involved, that has been one of the primary benefits of this aid convoy to Gaza. It was a mission founded and supported upon the goodwill of volunteers, many of whom I am now fortunate to call my friends, and I know that we benefitted more from getting to know the Palestinians than they will ever benefit from us.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.