Broadcaster and comedian Jeremy Hardy died on 1 February this year, and left us all in a state of shock. When he was first diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier, I joined him on a long walk across Streatham in South London. The prognosis was ghastly but the conversation was as easy and enjoyable as ever. He asked me about the latest situation in Palestine, and we discussed Brexit, Trump, alternative cancer strategies and our own personal lives. Between the lines, though, flashed the memory of an extraordinary journey we took together almost two decades ago; with it came a sense of mutual gratitude that we had done something both audacious and worthwhile.
I first met Jeremy in April 2002 after spending a month trying to persuade any and every celebrity to join me for two weeks in Palestine to appear in a film I was making. It was the peak of the Second Intifada; the Oslo Accords had more or less collapsed; and another Israeli incursion into the occupied Palestinian territories was on its way. I was desperate to find someone who could make the injustice of it all more accessible to British audiences and had almost given up when someone asked if I had contacted a comedian by the name of Jeremy Hardy. It wasn’t going to work, I knew, but a last bit of resolve made me pick up the phone and dial his number.
His voice came through a very crackly line and, in my desperation, I got all tongue-tied. Luckily, that was to my advantage. Jeremy was hopeless at walking away from someone in distress and I must have sounded heartbroken. “Are you Palestinian?” he asked. “Yes.” There was a pause. “Let me have a look at my diary.” A week later, as we huddled in fright inside a tiny hotel in my home town of Bethlehem as it was under Israeli fire, I asked him what it was that made him say yes to my request. “The alternative was spending Easter in Florida with my in-laws. Palestine won.”
There were reports of civilian casualties outside but carrying out rescue missions was almost impossible. Even ambulances found it difficult to move, let alone us. Israeli snipers were positioned over the rooftops and the sound of gunfire was deafening. A number of foreigners were trapped inside the Star Hotel with us. They had arrived one week earlier as part of the International Solidarity Movement, whose mission was to engage in non-violent direct action to stop the advance of the Israeli army. Jeremy asked a lot of questions and made all the residents of the hotel sob with laughter. “You are all mad,” he would say, “and vainglorious.” It wasn’t really an insult. He was just always good at recognising the messiness of human nature.
By the end of the week, just as we were all getting addicted to him, it became obvious that the siege of Bethlehem would endure, so foreign embassies were working to evacuate their nationals. When the British convoy arrived, I paced the hotel looking for Jeremy only to find him on the top floor in the kitchen. He was helping the two local cooks clean up the mess we had left the night before. There were long goodbyes. Jeremy seemed to have made friends with almost everyone at the hotel.
Beyond the laughter and good humour, which I remember so poignantly now, the truth was that we had ended up with no film. The curfew was imposed almost instantly after our arrival and most of the footage we had shot consisted of a few pitiful scenes of our entrapment inside a building.
A few months later, Jeremy and I spoke again. This time, it was him who called me. “I am wondering if you might have two weeks free in July,” he said jokingly. “I am thinking of going back to Palestine and wanted to see if I can invite you to join me.” He knew how much this meant to me and I knew how difficult it was for him to take that decision; he was a father after all. I offered to get his ticket. It turned out that he had already made his own arrangements and, yes, had no insurance, of course. He knew from the previous visit that we were heading into a war zone.
With this new development, the filming got more serious and we needed a professional to operate the camera, but I had already been turned down by a whole string of burly cameramen. Persuading someone to charge into a conflict zone with zero budget was a tall order.
It was in that sort of predicament that I walked into the kitchen of an office block in London and bumped into a young woman called Katie Barlow. We both used the place for video editing but our paths had never crossed. She was making herself tea. I said I didn’t understand why the English add milk to their tea and we got talking. The last thing I expected was that we would leave the kitchen having shook hands on a deal. Katie was great with the camera and eager to learn first-hand about the situation in Palestine.
The following week, the three of us were there; three mad people without insurance alongside many others just like us; it was a rollercoaster of a journey. We joined the solidarity movement in Jerusalem; succeeded in breaking the siege in Salfit; delivered medical supplies; and acted as human shields in refugee camps. Katie even took it one step further and went on to make her own film in Jenin. The experience challenged us to think harder, be braver, act bigger and feel more for our fellow human beings. There was laughter, confusion, tears and pride and, above all, there was love. Katie and Jeremy have been together ever since, and we became family, both on the campaign trail and in real life. Our film played in more than 100 cinemas and Jeremy toured Britain talking about his experience. Palestine had a new voice.
Jeremy and Katie’s wedding in December 2018 was one of the most moving events I have attended. It was a celebration of their life together as well as an opportunity to say goodbye. We all knew Jeremy did not have long to live. When all of us locked arms with him for one last dance to the tune of Bella Ciao, the room was shaking with emotion. I looked around and saw so many familiar faces, some of them from that little hotel in Bethlehem under fire, some from our later trips and work for Palestine. Jeremy had provided the magic glue that held us together, that gave our campaigning more confidence and power. He always showed up, always spoke even when the issue was unfashionable. Here was a man who knew how to hold his ground and how to be big in a very unassuming way.
Reading the many tributes to him, I felt humbled to recognise just how many other causes and people he had supported when we gave him time off from Palestine and the Palestinians. Now it is my turn to pay tribute in advance of a special screening of Jeremy Hardy versus the Israeli Army, but I find myself even more tongue-tied than when I called him that very first time. How does one describe a man who never spoke in clichés? I cannot even wish him to rest in peace. I would rather that he continues to ruffle feathers, wherever he is now. I want to tell him, “Jeremy, if you meet anyone up there who has influence over our predicament here on earth, we trust you to set them straight. No one will ever say things as well as you. So many of us will always miss you. So many of us are really mad that you are gone.”
There will be a special screening of Jeremy Hardy versus the Israeli Army at 6.30pm on 23 July 2019 at the Greenwood Theatre, London, SE1 3RA, presented by Open Bethlehem and Medical Aid for Palestinians. Leila Sansour will take part in a panel discussion after the screening with Jeremy’s wife, film maker Katie Barlow; Aimee Shalan, CEO of MAP; Chris Dunham, ISM activist and managing director of Carbon Descent; and Jocelyn Hurndall, mother of young British photojournalist, Tom Hurndall, who was killed by the Israeli Army while reporting on the ISM in 2003.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.