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“Remember, remember, the 5th of November…”
Here in England it’s Bonfire Night, a night when we celebrate a failed attempt to blow up King and Parliament and reinstate Catholic rule. Traditional activities include setting bonfires, watching films based on Alan Moore graphic novels and setting off fireworks.
I hate fireworks.
I hate anything that goes bang suddenly and unexpectedly, but I hate fireworks especially. Unlike my mum’s dog, I understand completely what they are. I (just about) grasp the mechanics of it. I can rationally understand that they pose little threat to me. Nevertheless, my pulse quickens and my muscles tense.
It wasn’t always this way.
As you may be aware of if you know me (and if you don’t know me I’ll be surprised you’re reading this), I am half-Arab, specifically half-Palestinian. I grew up in the Middle East, spending most of my formative years in Jordan with my dad’s family. I may not talk about it much, but I am proud of my heritage on a personal level. I feel that it’s given me an outlook on life different to many of my peers, a broader range of experiences.
I spent the last two years of school in Palestine, in a town called Ramallah in the West Bank. My sister and I went to the Friends Boys School (yes, yes, it’s an outdated name, sssh), a wonderful Quaker school where we learnt the IB and where I learnt to drop the barriers I’d raised around myself and actually make more than one friend at a time.
Anyone with a little knowledge of current affairs may look at the above paragraph, look at the title of this post and put 2 and 2 together. Yes, that is the direction this is going in. Before I go into the details of the incident, I want to make something perfectly clear. The incident I describe below? It’s abolutely nothing compared to the terror and the suffering and the pain that my friends and family went through, and continue to go through every day. I was incredibly lucky to be relatively untouched by the horrors of the occupation. That said, while it’s nothing compared to the experiences of my friends, it still affected me quite significantly, making it a Something to me.
Some of the below is hazy, as this happened around 13 years ago, so I’ll try to be a bit conservative with my words. It is how I remember it happening, though.
I was in a class when I heard the news. 2 Israeli soldiers had been caught in plainclothes in a car within the Palestinian territories. It seems they’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As such, they were arrested and taken to a local police station to await their handover to the Israeli government, again in accordance it with the treaty. The police station was quite literally next door to our school.
I remember hearing that there was a lot of displeasure about the decision to hand them over. I also remember hearing a bit of a ruckus during a class; this turned out to be a protest at the police station. Anger and frustration boiled had over and the protest became a riot. The mob rushed the station and killed the prisoners. They didn’t just kill them, this Wikipedia Article is mostly factual (I recall that at least one Palestinian policeman died trying to protect the two prisoners) and it does NOT make for pleasant reading. It also has a relatively graphic picture, so please be warned. It is, in a word, horrific. Mob mentality is a horrible creature.
Following this, an Israeli retaliation was inevitable. Apparently, the headmaster of my school received a phone call advising him that the police station next door was going to be targeted for a military strike. An evacuation of the school was recommended, and was carried out hurriedly.
We were herded into a basement room on the other side of the school as our parents were rung. My dad left work and actually hijacked a car (read: convinced a nice lady to drive him to the school) to pick us up, along with a couple of our friends. We were driven home in fear.
A few hours later, the power went out. That’s how it would start. First the power would go out, then after a while you’d hear the whistling of projectiles and the thudding boom of the missiles hitting their target. The ground would rumble underneath and the bottom of your stomach would drop away.
After the first one hit, we huddled together in the hallway of our flat. It was the only place there was with no windows. Our flat had an open plan living room and dining room, with a set of double doors leading out onto a balcony at either end. Glass doors. If a bomb hit too close, they’d shatter and fill the room with deadly glass shards. We’d have been cut to ribbons. The bedrooms all had at least one window, so we huddled into a frightened mass in the hallway.
Unless I’m mixing my memories, I believe mum was cooking a curry at the time. She kept slinking out to the kitchen to check on it, until she finally gave up. The bombs would drop, we would cry and swear and pray. Eventually, it subsided. No more bombs fell that night.
That wasn’t an isolated incident but it was thankfully the biggest and most serious that happened to me. There was that time that the house across the road exploded, but we were pretty sure that was a gas leak. And that time I watched as bright lights flew over our building, only to be yanked off the balcony by mum because those were tracer rounds being fired in the night sky.
My sister, mother and I came to England as soon as our time at school was over, and my dad went to Jordan a couple of years later. Mum was diagnosed with PTSD and has never been quite the same since. My sister and I eschewed the idea of getting seen by doctors – we felt fine, went straight into into employment and didn’t show any sign of having been affected at all.
I was walking home from work in Loughborough when the first firework I’d heard since returning from Palestine went off. Before I knew what was happening I was on the ground with my hands over my head. I’d reacted instinctively, and got a lot of funny looks for it. I didn’t find it funny. I was chased by explosions and blinding lights all the way home. I’ve never been able to enjoy fireworks since.
Maybe I should have seen a doctor and gotten a diagnosis, but frankly it hasn’t affected my life overmuch apart from an aversion to loud noises (and a certain nervousness around the sound of helicopters). It doesn’t weigh on my mind, or affect me going about my day to day business. I’m more highly-strung than I would have been because of it, perhaps, but I’ve always been what you could call ‘sensitive’.
I’ve gotten a lot better over the years. I joined a re-enactment society who fired muskets and cannon, and had no problem with either of those. There was a hideously hairy moment at an event in Ostend when there was a fireworks display coupled with cannonfire that sent me into fullblown panic attack mode. Thankfully I was surrounded by caring, understanding friends who helped me through it.
Last year, I sat in the beer garden of local pub The Johnson Arms for their fireworks display. My girlfriend held me as they went off, and I flinched at each one, but I stayed strong. I was proud of myself that day.
So next time you burst a balloon or slam a door or let off a firework, please spare a thought for those who have it worse than yourselves, and who are uncomfortable with those noises.
Especially fireworks. I hate fireworks.