This Is Not Propaganda, This Is Real Life

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The story of a boy from Palestine.

Submitted: June 04, 2012

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 04, 2012




The day was December 29th, 2009. I woke up the same as I always did. Sweat blanketed my skin, caused by the warm mix of semi-tropical and desert air that surrounded me in my slumber. I got a full night's sleep tonight - it was awesome. The loud explosions or sirens which seemed to pierce my ears on a semi-regular basis were peacefully absent. I didn't need a blanket to sleep.

I lived on the Southwest side of the Old City neighborhood, which was relatively upscale compared to the mass of slums and poverty further to the west. Even in the nice neighborhoods like the Old City, economic growth had been stunted from the outside and necessary resources were constantly being taken from us. Land area in the city was on a constant decline. There were half a million people stuck here within 17 square miles. No room to move, socially or physically, out of the territory. This caused large amounts of poor people in a confined area, which in turn led to much unrest.

Our neighborhood was nice enough to have an internet connection, however. I read the New York Times news reports on my family's computer (A beat up HP from 2001 that sounded like a jet engine). Today's headline read "Palestinians launch 50-70 rockets into neighboring territory". What these headlines failed to mention was that these people were not necessarily just Palestinian, they were radicals. If this attack was launched by an American into Mexico, the paper would not read "Americans attack Mexican school bus", but would instead single out an individual or group. Why couldn't they do that to us? My mom and I would never kill a kid, but the papers seemed to depict the people here in such a ruthless and savage light. "We are just poor" I used to think myself occasionally. "We're not monsters. Some of us just get too frustrated sometimes."

Still glistening with sweat, I threw on a pair of cargo shorts and an old t-shirt which had been delivered from the aid agency in The United States. It read "Detroit Tigers" across the chest. The logo was big and colorful, with an orange tiger clawing it's way out of the hole in the D as if it were climbing through the jungle. This vivid graphic is why I liked the shirt so much (and probably why this was the fourth day this week that I was wearing it!). It kind of hung off of me in the too-big way a coat hangs on a wire hanger. I was a little tall for fourteen, with thick dark eyebrows, light brown skin, and medium length hair to match, I hadn't quite grown into my body yet. I wasn't sure what "Detroit Tigers" meant, but I was happy to just have a shirt on my back. Especially with a cool looking tiger on it.

I didn't go to school today because the school week had been slashed back to three days. The territory didn't have enough money to fully fund a five day school week, and even if they did, the funds would surely be allocated to water or food. This is a child's dream come true and I, of course, was no exception. No school meant seemingly infinite amounts of time for me to do what I wanted, and that was painting.

This was a dangerous city, probably one of the most dangerous in the world. It was full of all sorts of shaded alleys, hidden corners, and dark crevices that your mother wouldn't want you to be in at night. Then again, no one's mother would have wanted their children to grow up here in the first place. Sometimes the rockets and bombs would come at night, and my mother would have to come into my room to sit with me. She would sing me an ancient Arabic lullaby until I calmed down. She told me not to be scared; that my brother and father were out fighting to make that sound stop. The bombs would be dropped by the planes that sped above our heads with a booming sound. The planes that moved fast through the sky and had the pale white and royal blue flags painted onto their tails. I knew what the flag meant; everyone did.

Most kids my age had given up with school. They had gone to fight in the war or campaign for it's causes. By the time children reached my age in the city, it was expected that they would drop out of school. I didn't want to do that, though. My father and my brother always talk about how they are out fighting for peace, fighting for our freedom. I love them to death and I wish them the best, but I will never understand how you can expect to gain peace by fighting. That seems like an impossible goal to me. This is why I stay in school. I stay because I don't want to fight. How can we gain peace when all we do is prolong the killing?

Mornings without school usually started the same way, and this day wasn't an exception. I ate breakfast with my mother. She really was a remarkable woman. It was usually bread, specifically the kind that hurts your teeth to bite and cuts your gums when you chew it. My mom would stand in line at the United Nations aid building at 4:15 every morning, hours before I had even considered waking up, to wait for the pale blue trucks with the bright yellow logos to drive down the dusty road and hand out the bread. She would only take enough to feed me and herself, for we were not a gluttonous family. She always told me that I was the future of the family. She told me that by the time I grew up, maybe the wars would be over and I would have an opportunity to move us out of here.

"Take this, Mahmoud" she would say on the days when she didn't get enough bread to feed the both of us. "You're a growing boy and you need it more than I do". Food was pretty scarce. Water was scarce too. Sometimes the men with guns who wore a patch with the blue and white flag matching the blue and white flag on the tails of the planes would come and take the water. You could always tell if they took the water because the sinks wouldn't turn on in the morning, which was gross because I couldn't even shower before school sometimes. I guess I can't really complain, though. My family had it relatively easy since my dad and brother were in the military and had meals provided to them. My mom only had to look out for two people instead of four.

My mother was a lucky one, too. She had a job. At least for a while. At the airport to the south of the city. She was a baggage handler for Royal Jordan Airlines. She would be in charge of putting the bags on the plane and then taking them off. All this changed three years ago, though. The big silver planes that boom through the sky with the pale white and royal blue flags painted on their tails bombed the runways of the airport. The state doesn't have the money to fix the runway, so the entire airport is broken and unusable. Now my mother is unemployed like half of the city. Literally. 50% of the city is unemployed. She does odd jobs during the day to make sure she has a little money for us, but honestly, like a lot of people here, we rely on the UN aid.

When the men in the planes with the blue and white flags painted on the tails destroyed the runway, it made it extremely hard for help to get to us. It's like they wanted to make sure nothing could land to bring the people of the city any help, or that nobody could move out. It's like they wanted the people of the city to die.

Sometimes my brother and father came home when they are on holiday from the military. I can never tell if they know that I silently disapprove of their fighting. They tell of how they are working to bring help to us. I wonder how they do that by just creating more violence. They talk of how they are trying to bring help into the country, keep the water on, and give everyone a job. They also tell about how they are not usually successful and how they get shot at - some of their friends killed.

After eating the bread with mom, I sneakily waited in my room for her to leave the house. I don't know what she thought I did all day. Certainly she didn't think I actually stayed inside of the apartment like she told me to! There was just too much going on outside, on the streets, in the blank canvass known to many as the city.

"Mahmoud!" my mother screamed.

I wouldn't answer her, though. At least not for the first couple of times that she called. I wanted to give her the illusion that I was busy, so she would think I that I would be occupying myself as she went off to one of her odd jobs.

"Mahmoud!" she screamed again, this time her voice was getting louder, with a hint of anger.

I guess I'll let it go one more time.

"Mahmoud! I brought you into this world, and I expect you to answer me when I call to you!"

"Wow, mom, really? You're pulling that card on me?" I said, with a little bit of a joking tone.

"I knew it would get you to respond", she said. "I'm going out to find some work, probably in the strawberry farm to the East. It's a bit of a commute, but I should be able to bring back some dinner. Be safe today; I love you".

She always said the last part. Every single time she left me alone. I guess that's how you can tell that she really did love me. I didn't understand how people can think we're monsters when I have the same conversations, jokes, and love with my mother that happens all of the time on American TV shows. I just didn't get it get it.

Mom walked out the door, and I instantly started to get my black duffel bag ready. My passion, at least for the past half of a year, was painting. Not the type of painting that you think of when you think of famous painters like Van Gogh or Picasso. That wasn't very possible here. I didn't have the supplies. What I did have, however, were a few cans of spray paint and some construction paper which could double as stencils if it was cut in the proper way.

I don't know how I got the passion for painting, maybe it was just the time I was wandering down near the beach about a seven months ago. I was walking down there with my friend Younis. He was younger than I was. My guess was, based on his size, that he was around eight or nine years old. He looked just like me though, and seemed to have an uncanny knack for understanding everything I said.

Whenever I saw Younis, I felt bad about the school week getting cut back. He was bright. He had the prospects for a future which, unlike many, could take him out of this city. He could make something for himself. Maybe that's why I felt so connected to him. I wanted to help him by taking him under my wing. I would have liked to have done more for him.

One day, our wanders took us down by the coast on the Western edge of the city. It was beautiful as the water met the beach, and then turned deadly as the beach met the rubble. Concrete and reinforcing steel bars were strewn all about the streets. Even through all this destruction, Younis and I could look out and see the big ships on the sea. These big ships didn't move, they only bobbed up and down on the blue trampoline of ocean just as someone's head does at an American classic rock concert like in the videos we watched on YouTube (Eric Clapton was my favorite, but Younis liked Tom Petty). These ships were sporting the blue and white flags, the exact same as the men who sometimes came to turn the water off, or the planes that race above us in the sky and drop the fire. The boats are here for the same reason that the airport was bombed: to keep others from entering the city. One time a raft carrying food for us was stopped by the big gray battleships. I think the people on-board the raft were killed.

As we walked down by the coast, we would search through the rubble of buildings that had just been destroyed. Often times, we would find nothing but the remains of a family's home. Perhaps some carpeting, maybe a broken television set or radio. More often than not, the piles of disheveled concrete were stained with crimson blood.

As we were going through one of the unidentified piles of rubble, which Younis identified as looking like it was probably a school of some sort, we found an especially unexpected surprise. In a cabinet which had been miraculously preserved as it was seemingly ripped form it's wall sat seventeen cans of spray paint in all different colors! Red, Green, Blue, Purple...the list went on and on. I was never really into art, but when you have too much free time, as we had in the city, you were constantly looking for things to occupy it.

After finding the paint, Younis and I experimented with it very sparingly. We were influenced by what little we could look up on the internet about graffiti in New York City in the 80's and the famous street artist Banksy. We started making stencils to emulate these heroes, using rusted x-acto knives to cut cardboard or paper or whatever we could get our hands on. Soon, cuts on our hands from the knife became more common than wrinkles. Paint would frequently become one with our skin, and stain the inside of our duffel bags in its bright neon colors. Younis developed a very steady hand at cutting the stencil, where I developed a knack for drawing the shape. It was very hard to get the shading done correctly for spray stencils, and I was amazed at how well we could make it work with so little practice.

Within a month we were out in the public. In the empty parts of the city, we made our canvas. We each carried a couple of cans of paint in our duffel bags which we would sling over our shoulders for a day of painting. No one suspected kids with bags as potential vandalizers, but even if they did, everyone in the city seemed to have greater problems than what a couple of kids were doing with spray paint.

We vowed to ourselves to only spread positive messages and to paint in areas where an explosion of color on concrete would brighten an otherwise dreary landscape, and that's just what we did. We thought our explosions could counteract the other explosions happening in the city. Leaving the apartment building and walking, sometimes for miles, to find a great spot to leave our art. Often times we painted the red and green flag of our country, as a sign that we were united with everyone else despite the destruction. Other times, we would just paint messages of a positive nature. Anything that could be used to inspire. That is what the people of the city really needed: inspiration. We traveled to the bad parts of the city to paint on abandoned train stations, hospitals, bombed out buildings, and sometimes we even just painted on the street itself.

This day, however, we planned to do our riskiest project so far. It was our biggest street-art project yet. Younis and I had used our paint really sparingly over the last six months, so we only had a little left. All that remained was the bottoms of the red, blue, green, and white cans. It would only be enough to cover an area of about two feet on a wall if you used all of the colors, so we had to be sure what was painted was painted effectively.

This project was a big deal for us, but as young people, I don't think we totally grasped the giant risks of our decision. Our plan was to, in broad daylight, climb over the walls that separated our city from the rest of the country. On the opposite side of that wall, we would make our painting. It would be small, but the stencling would be the most intricate that we had ever done. We weren't trying to start a fight with anyone, we just wanted people from the outside to see what we thought. We wanted them to see that not all of us were the same.

Perhaps we thought it would make us seem more humane to them. Or maybe it would show them that we weren't savages. That we had appreciation for things like art and humanity. I don't know.

So as my mom left on the day of December 29th, 2009 to go to work, I picked up Younis from his family's apartment next door, and we set out for the wall of the city to the north. It was far away, and required us taking four different bus lines to reach. The city was a mess on this day. I guess some idiot had launched a rocket somewhere because the water had been turned off again and the big planes with the blue and white flags on the tails responded by killing 13 innocent civilians with bombs in the city.

We had to do some pretty heavy duty sleuthing to get to the other side of the fence. You see, because my brother and my dad were in the military, they had maps of the tunnel system that was used to get us aid from time to time. They kept trying to keep us out of their country, but we were determined to get the supplies to live. I found the maps to the tunnels about three years ago when I was rummaging around the bedroom in our house, bored on a day without school.

I'd studied the maps before, checking again and again to see when would be the best time and route for us to take. The best tunnel seemed to be the smallest one, on the northern edge of the city. It was marked as a small, single-file tunnel to be used specifically for the shipment of water only. The map also had scheduled maintenance times for the water pipes, and this one seemed to be blank for all of today. All appeared well for our plan.

After getting off of the bus, finding the tunnel was really relatively easy. It was unmarked, but sat very close to the wall. There was a small water tower, rusted and not more than 10 feet tall which underneath housed a square green steel hatch with a latch to pull up on. This area of the city was pretty dull today due to the lack of businesses in the whole city. No one noticed them when they opened the small hatch and descended the skinny ladder into the tunnel.

It was a relatively short and uneventful journey for us through the tunnel. There were no lights, and the walls were made of dirt like you could imagine. It wasn't anything more than it was supposed to be. Enough room for a pipe to run over head which carried some water and enough room for a man to stand along that pipe to fix it if something went wrong.

Our duffel bags swung as we walked, and the cans clinked with the crashing of metal on metal as they were tossed about in the bag. The tunnel itself was only about an eighth of a mile long, which was interesting because when we came out on the other side underneath a similarly decrepit looking miniature water tower, it was a different world. On the other side of the wall were bustling businesses like you see advertised on the television. Nice cars drove the streets, which were free of rubble and steel casings which frequently flooded the sidewalks of our city.

The plan was a simple and easy one: to set the stencils on the ground next to the wall, and one by one, make the picture. Younis would hold them on the wall, and I would take the different paint from one of our bags and spray it. This one would be using multiple colors, and therefore would be what is known as a "multi-stencil" painting, where the stencils would be layered over one another. This meant that you would have to let the bottom layer dry before you could add on top of it, adding to the time of the operation.

The especially intricate design called for five different stencils, which I estimated would take about 25 minutes to complete. Younis agreed. The first four stencils went off without a hitch. You would be surprised how many people neglected to question what a couple of kids were doing up against a wall for 20 minutes.

The most finite details of the painting were in the final stencil. If Younis didn't hold it steady enough, the details would be lost, and the entire painting would be a sham. All of the risk would have been for nothing. He held it straight, and I quickly grabbed the correct can to spray.

That's when it happened.

I heard a man. He was yelling.

"Hey you!" he yelled. "Drop the weapon in your hand! Drop it now and slowly walk towards me!"

I turned to catch a glimpse of the man, the can in my hand catching a ray of sunlight and shining brightly the way that metal does. That was when I saw it. He was wearing tan and green camouflage, which didn't make any sense to me because we were in a town. He had large arms, a tan helmet, and a machine gun slung over his right shoulder. I also noticed the patch stitched onto his left breast. It was pale white and royal blue flag.

It was the same white and blue as the planes that took away my mother's work and my family's income.

It was the same white and blue that killed 13 innocent citizens the day before.

It was the same white and blue that kept us in poverty and without food, shelter, and school for so long.

It the same white and blue that was constantly trying to find ways to kill my father and brother.

It was the same white and blue that was painted on the tails of the planes that kept me and mom up at night with their loud noises.

It was the same white and blue that turned off our water, causing a drought that was slowly killing the city

Most of all, it was the same white and blue that I sought peace with. The same people that I thought could understand me if only we could sit and discuss our differences.

I only had enough time to notice the white and blue patch before the man yelled again. "Drop the weapon, kid! We I see it in your hand. Put it down now!" the solider said as he reached over his right shoulder.

I knew what he was reaching for. I kept the can in my hand, not knowing what the soldier meant by weapon. I could not tell what he was saying entirely, because my English was barely even passable. I held my arms up in the air, the can still in my hand. The other two soldiers who were flanking his sides also yelled, and subsequently grabbed at their right shoulders.

The soldiers looked nervous. Perhaps they hadn't slept much. They looked tired, but not the kind of tired that you get after not getting enough sleep. It was the kind of tired that takes years of stress and hard work to embed into your soul. Maybe they had been fighting the same war that we had. Maybe their fathers were being shot at by people from our country.

If the school's funding wasn't inhibited, maybe we could have learned the language the soldiers were speaking. And if we could have learned the language the soldiers were speaking, maybe we could have talked to the armed men or understood their directions. And if we could have talked to the armed men, maybe we could have explained the situation. And if we could have explained the situation, maybe things would have ended differently.

Younis didn't know what to do, so he dropped the stencil and started to whimper. He was only a small kid. The construction paper stencil started to gently float down to the ground, getting caught by the occasional wind flow. Before it could hit the ground, eight shots rang out. I don't know who they were fired by, whether it was the yelling tired looking man or the two comrades beside him.

In this moment, I noticed that there were four new holes between the D and the T in my favorite "Detroit Tigers" t-shirt. As I fell back, my arms crashed to my sides and the paint can fell out of my grip. The can was pulled to the cement, creating the last sound I had ever heard. As I was falling to the ground, I saw Younis, the boy with such a bright future if someone had only given him a chance. He had been killed, also. His wounds far more gruesome than mine. This is the last sight I would have ever seen.

As our bodies lie there, our work remained on the wall. It was a little unfinished, still missing the red, but the point of the painting was obvious.

The painting was of two hands holding one another, as if in harmony. One hand was painted in the red and green colors of our flag, and the other was painted in the blue and white of theirs. The caption above read "Free Gaza". It was meant to be peaceful. All we ever wanted to do was spread a positive message. It was always our goal

Maybe the headlines in the New York Times tomorrow will read like this: "Israeli Army kills two Palestinian militants outside of Gaza". I hope they will not. We were not militants, we were only painting for peace. Like the article I read in the New York Times this morning, we are not all just Palestinian. We were radicals for peace. I hope instead they read "A beautiful painting was found on the wall separating Israel from the Gaza Strip today". You simply cannot counter violence with violence. We were trying to counter violence with art, for that is the most effective way to combat violence.



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