First: what an incredible, inspiring group of people. I feel honored to have played a small part in this mission. The collected life histories of the people who are working for this are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
In the picture, I am with Zohar, in front of the Al-Awda. Zohar is an Israeli Jew who left Israel and has been spending the past decades fighting tirelessly for the Palestinian cause. I understand that this is at least her third sail to Gaza. She is 'the person in charge' of the Al Awda - I was informed discreetly before joining the group that I should not set foot on the ship until she had met me and vetted me. The picture was taken around 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, as we were sitting at the table, for a mix of public outreach and security.
The concern over sabotage of the ships by Israeli special forces lingers everywhere, sometimes just under the level of awareness, other times very overtly. The same concern was described tome by Zaher Darwish, a Palestinian who has lived in Palermo, for over 50 years works for the main Italian Trade Union CGIL, and who was coordinating the Palermo campaign for the ships.
I met him soon after arriving, and he put me to the test right away on Wednesday night, translating from English to Italian during a public meeting (which had earlier included the mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando and the Palestinian ambassador to Italy, Dr. Mai Alkaila).
I translated for a Palestinian physician, who described the situation in Palestine in clinical terms: the 'Palestinian patient' is suffering from a disease: settler colonialism. Fortunately, as he described it, this is a common disease (and he quoted the United States, Liberia and Australia as examples, among others). He insisted that this is the only diagnosis that correctly describes all the symptoms (and he quoted an absurd IDF 'seek and destroy' mission that hunted for a dozen renegade cows that had been purchased by a village).
I quickly found myself in the (somewhat unexpected) role of translator and 'cultural mediator': yes, many of the Italians there spoke some English, but my bilingualism was a definite asset.
I quickly bonded with Shabnam Mayet, a South African Lawyer of South Asian descent, who I first saw directing the legal part of the nonviolence training that the participants underwent to prepare themselves for being arrested, detained and interrogated by the IDF. She has been working with a team on international humanitarian law cases, particularly trying to bring criminal charges against many heads of state, including President Obama (for his use of drones) and Narendra Modi (current President of India). Shabnam and I had a great time talking about social movements, joking about algorithms, and comparing the level of stress necessary to coordinate the legal part of this campaign toorgaizing her brother's wedding.
The Al Awda was scheduled to set sail from Palermo to Messina on Thursday, but there was a mechanical issue with the generator, which prevented it from doing so. This created the additional problem that the ship's moorage (which is what a landlubber thinks a boat's parking spot is called) became no longer available, because the organization that had donated it had lpreviously leased it to someone else after the scheduled sailing date. The Palermo group worked frantically to secure another spot. I had volunteered to watch the boat from 7 to 11 p.m. (though I'm not sure how prepared I was to fight off some IDF commandos, another thing that Shabnam and I joked about a lot) and during my watch I had a brief but hilarious conversation with a Palestinian with New Zealand citizenship, Yusuf (sp?) about 'the Lord of the Rings'. Yusuf had come over to check on the boat with an Israeli Jew, Yonatan. The two of them had spent the 1 to 3 a.m. night watch singing songs together the previous night, and they jokingly lamented how THAT picture somehow was NOT on all the papers.
There was a collection of very committed Jews on the ship, beyond Zohar herself: one from the Netherlands whose parents had survived Auschwitz, and who has been doing solidarity work with Cuba (among many others), another from France, with whom I spent a couple of hours under the canopy in front of the Al Awda talking about colonialism and my work at Northwest Indian College.
Due to the ship's delayed departure, one of my tasks became to arrage ways for the people involved to engage with the city of Palermo, which I had never truly visited and which truly stunned me. I received these 'assignments' from retired Col. Ann Wright, who I had met in Bellingham when she came through on a tour to raise funds for this mission. Together with Shabnam, we arranged for a tour led by some migrant African youth, working through an organization called MoltiVolti (many faces) who also run a fantastic restaurant with a multiethnic staff, as well as coordinating with an awesome association of local artisans who create a space for community and hope in a city and a country in which young people, as well as people in their thirties like me, often feel like there is precious little of either.
I would be remiss in my (inevitably incomplete) list of amazing people I met there if I didn't at least include Larry Commodore, a First Nations man from Chilliwack, Canada, and Joe, who is a survivor of the USS Liberty (look it up); and also Leslie, Lisa, Barbara and Sherri from the US who provided invaluable support as ground crew.
Written by Matteo Tamburini
I grew up in Pistoia, Italy. My father and all his family were Italian. My mother’s family was primarily composed of Irish immigrants to the United States. Lucky to have dual citizenship, I moved to the United States in 1999 to go to college. Since 2009, I have been teaching (and learning) Mathematics at Northwest Indian College, a college chartered by the Lummi Tribe. I have served on the Board of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center since 2010. My primary cultural commitment is my dedication to study the Afro-Brasilian artform Capoeira Angola, under the guidance of my teacher, Mestre Silvio Aleixo dos Reis, of the International Capoeira Foundation, who I have been learning from since 2008.
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