Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”

06/20/2012 § 1 Comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 25, 2012.

There’s a mandatory term — I believe it’s three years — during which all Israeli citizens serve in the army; as an American, I can’t really comment on the effect or effectiveness of such a policy on aligning citizens behind nationalistic policies, but I’ll assume that Shani Boianjiu can. Her story is divided into four sections that pattern, more or less, the titular instructions on the increasing level of force allowed for dispersing unruly civilians — protesters, mobs, rioters, whatever. There’s shock (stun grenades), tear gas (self-explanatory), rubber (as in bullets), and live fire, and the sense one gets from reading is just how accepted these measures are. At the same time, the officer and her four soldiers, guarding the checkpoint on a more-or-less abandoned stretch of road, don’t actually know the protocols: they have to relearn them as they go. It’s a world in which they’re both so inured to violence and so removed from it when it comes time to suppress a demonstration, they’re doing little more than following the carefully prescribed motions, using weapons that look more like fake guns than real fake guns. On the flip side, too, you have only three protesters — two men and a boy, the other people in their village being “not serious” enough to protest an inconvenience (or oppression) that they’ve become so accustomed to — who know only that they should want to provoke a response and get media attention, but are unclear on how to do so. On top of all that — this is a finely layered, balanced, and textured story — you’ve got a parallel between how the officer, Lea, often finds herself unable to feel anything (news of a blown-up little girl or a mother killing her raped daughter for honor’s sake doesn’t phase her: the extinction of white-tailed eagles, on the other hand, catches her off guard), to the point where she needs Tomer, her subordinate and lover, to grind her into the concrete, and how these Palestinian citizens, oppressed to the point of being as unclear in what they’re protesting as the soldiers are in what they’re guarding, find themselves needing to cause military action so that they can feel what they believe they’re supposed to feel, perception being the name of the game and all.

Yes, Israelis and Palestinians are different, but they’re both so defined and limned by their decades long conflict that, well, don’t they have at least as much in common now, too? Such is the conclusion Boianjiu is driving toward — in addition to all the ways in which she subverts expectations, filling her riot-responses with the utmost of politeness, empathy, and respect. Each day, they return, asking to be dispersed, which means that each day, Lea has to increase the response (hence the fourth sections), but in that final day — “live fire” — she finds a way to avoid killing anyone, exploiting a technicality and arresting the boy (who, in daring to pick up a rock, can be held for at least a few days). The story ends as follows:

That night, Lea was twenty-one. Tomer, nineteen; the boy, thirteen. They passed by the concrete barricade in silence and with synchronized steps. Through the eyes of a villager looking out from the light of a very distance house, they could have been a family.

The tragic nature of this conflict always reminds me a bit of that old Dr. Seuss tale, in which a north-going Zax and a south-going Zax meet, and wind up standing there, unflinchingly stubborn, as the world moves on around them, so it’s meant as a complement when I compare Boianjiu’s presentation to Seuss’s, particularly in the way all of the people in this story seem to have moved past the conflict (look at the demonstrators, who wear Guns N’ Roses T-shirts, speak in Hebrew, and write in English) and yet continue to be defined and pulled back into that conflict. “‘Whore,’ the man said to Lea as Tomer took the boy by the arm. It was what he needed to say to her. After all, she was a female checkpoint officer. He played the role of the poor Palestinian, but it felt forced and she was embarrassed for him.” Likewise, the boy is not frightened by his arrest; if anything, Lea’s the one who is afraid: what sort of person is she, to spend three years of her life guarding a meaningless strip of land, her biggest achievement reduced to the arrest of a harmless teenager?

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