If the first day is anything to go by, it will be a packed schedule for the days to come. Chomsky had about 20 minutes after coming back from Khan Younis and lunch, hardly time to get any rest, before he had to go to a next meeting (I skipped because I was too tired!) which was supposed to be small and informal but was anything but. And then there was another meeting that was supposed to be small and informal at the hotel at 6 organised the Gaza Mental Health Center, but when I joined it a little late, I stepped into a packed room of people. It was not small, although more informal than what we had experienced so far. Here I saw a variety of audience, some women in scarves, some without, members of an assortment of local secular civil society groups, a number of foreigners, probably from NGOs or UNWRA. After that, Chomsky was supposed to go to another dinner with left-leaning local people. But he was so exhausted at that point, that it was enough for the day. Fortunately this dinner could be rescheduled for the following evening.
The first day of the conference. We are supposed to be picked up at 8:15. In the end we leave at 9, as we get information from someone from IUG that the cameras aren’t set up yet, so we should delay. We enter a big lecture hall, packed, and segregated: left the women, right the men. A front row on the female side has been kept reserved for us. We make a point of sitting boy–girl–boy–girl. (Photos courtesy of IUG. David Heap is missing from our row: he is constantly on the phone with the activists on the Estelle which is about to be boarded by Israeli forces.)
It has become clear by now that we are perceived as the “international delegation of academics”, and having Chomsky in our midst, we are treated as celebrities. This is something none of us had expected. We thought we would be part of a smaller conference setting and hardly see much of Chomsky, who would be whisked off away to other activities from us. As it turns out over the next three days, nothing is further from it. We are included in all the activities (barring a few meetings and interviews). As we arrive late (not our fault), everyone must have been sitting there for well over 30 minutes. Now comes a fairly elaborate opening ceremony with a number of speeches from a number of university affiliates, and then Chomsky speaks a little bit about language, and then about the Arab Spring. There is some confusion – it appears he has not been told which topic he was expected to talk about today, and he begins by delivering tomorrow’s talk, and then switches after about 20 minutes. But it turns out to be fine, he pulls it off beautifully as usual. After every sentence or two an online interpreter translates into Arabic. After his talk there is supposed to be a 30 minutes break. I will speak in the next session and want to go and get some juice. But before I can go out, I am surrounded by young women in scarves. Everyone wants a photo of them with me, and there are many questions. After about 50 photos, I tell them that they are making me feel like a film star. It makes them laugh. Many of them are beautiful. I wish I could see their hair.
I spend perhaps 15 minutes like this, and then edge my way toward the exit. I don’t see any of the others, and as my session is coming up next, I am anxious to find our organiser and ask him about the distribution of handouts. I brought about 50 handouts but stupidly did not prepare a powerpoint. I was not expecting to be speaking in such a large lecture hall and now worry that given that my session is so close on the heels of Chomsky talk, there will be many more, and especially many non-linguists. I present two talks at this conference, unfortunately the one coming up is not the outreach talk for a larger audience, but a fairly technical one. As I edge out of the hall, the girls are following me. More photos outside. Someone brings me a very welcome drink. More photos, we step into the hot sun. I am trying to see where the others are. There are so many questions. The ones that are repeated over and over again are: How do I find Gaza? Had I imagined it like this? What had I expected before coming? Do people in Canada believe what Israel says about the people in Gaza? … I try to be truthful, but not discouraging. I tell them that there are a growing number of people who are becoming sensitive to their situation, to the injustices, and are supportive of their right to freedom. I feel like I am in an unofficial press conference that I have not prepared for. I am entirely new and unused to this kind of situation. Finally I tear myself away, albeit with regret, because I enjoy talking with these young lively women. When I get to the lobby I spot Antoine, surrounded by men only, stepping in front of a TV camera. (Later he tells me that he gave several filmed interviews, one with Press TV.) I don’t stick around, as now it is past the time my talk should be, even taking into consideration the delay and I want to find my colleagues. Finally someone can help me. It turns out that we have a private air conditioned room on the 6th floor in the building where the dean’s office is for our breaks. No one seems to be too rushed to start the next session. In the end the schedule is recuperated somewhat by moving David’s talk from the pre-lunch session to the afternoon session. After my talk a woman renders her talk via skype from Oman. Right after this session we leave campus: The ship Estelle has just been boarded by Israeli forces, about 30 nautical miles from the Gazan coast in international waters, and Chomsky will give a press conference in support of the Estelle at the port of Gaza. (See media reports from the Guardian and Huffington Post, there are many others).
The Estelle, sailing under the Finnish flag but with an international crew (including Canadian 79-year-old former MP Jim Manly), was one of several such missions to break the siege of Gaza and bring supplies to Palestinians, in support of freedom of travel and trade of Palestinians, and in support of their basic human rights. (The Canadian owned Tahrir sailed in 2011.) As predicted, the ship was boarded by the IDF, confiscated (illegally so, as it was in international waters), and the crew arrested. If the past is anything to go by, the ship may eventually be returned in a dilapidated state.
In the afternoon we have another linguistics session. Now we are split into two different sessions, and the number in the audience has decreased to around 50 in the big lecture hall, and to less in the smaller seminar room, which unfortunately is quite far away from the lecture hall.
After the sessions are over, we are driven back to the hotel. It’s off time, which we are in dire need off. Chomsky and Hagit, however, attend the dinner that was rescheduled from the evening before.