I meet Huwaida Arraf at the Palestinian Struggle and Human Spirit Film Festival held in the working class district of Athlone in Cape Town. It’s a chilly evening but I request we move our conversation outside. The fake Israeli soldiers harassing patrons at a replica check-point inside the foyer of the Joseph Stone Auditorium are far too successful in re-creating a chaotic, hostile ambience for us to have a decent conversation.
Arraf is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and she pushes her hair back as she casually sits herself on the plastic chair beside me.
With her beautiful skin and long, slender presence, I feel as if I am about to interview a film star.
I immediately imagine her saucily tempting 007 to steer away from the Old Russian foes, as she goes on to coax him into challenging Mossad and the Israeli army into freeing Gaza from a forty-year-old blockade: the first Arab Bond girl.
“Shall we begin?” she bursts my bubble.
I know too well that Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), as well as chair of the Free Gaza Movement, wasn’t born to play make believe.
Since its formation in 2001, the Palestine-based ISM has managed to attract an assortment of respected writers, politicians and activists in championing international solidarity efforts against Israel’s illegal occupation in the region.
Arraf has been in the middle of it all; raising funds, delivering lectures across the globe, challenging mainstream representation of the conflict and searching for Israeli pressure points in advancing a solution.
Forget audacious flirting with a British agent … in 2008, the striking lady actually led an international coalition of forty-four activists on converted fishing boats across the Mediterranean Sea, faced up to the Israeli navy and managed to get into Gaza without Bond, Bourne or even a pink Martini making an appearance.
In so doing, they had broken the forty-year blockade of Gaza.
“So, what’s a girl like you doing running around trying to save the world?” I ask her with the smugness of a misogynist pig.
“You want me to re-evaluate my life choices?” she asks humoured by my quirky departure point.
But I am half-serious.
Activists are ordinarily social rejects who dress like hippies, don’t own underwear, hug trees, eat organic sea-weed and walk around with broken guitars, right?
The flattery hardly disarms her and she gets to the point.
Arraf tells me that as an American with Palestinian roots, she often witnessed how her family was treated when she visited Palestine as a kid.
“Even as a child, I soon began to question things when I saw how the Israelis treated my parents; how they separated and strip-searched us,” explained Arraf.
But she says that her activism for Palestine crystallised when she went to live in Jerusalem after finishing her bachelor’s degree in political science. It was this stay, she explains, that awarded her two vital awarenesses; firstly, the sham of the Oslo Peace Accord signed in 1993, and second, the vehemently efficient propaganda machine operating in Israel.
Her hands gesticulate and her eyebrows curl, as she goes on to emphasise how a one-year visit to the Middle East quickly became four, and how she simply couldn’t help but return compulsively.
“Solving the conflict became an obsession,” she says.
Arraf tells me that she kept on thinking about ways to pimp up the strategic element of the Palestinian cause; ways in which they could challenge Israel in non-military ways.
“We cannot match the Israeli army militarily and so I started thinking of ways in which we could inject a strategic advantage into our struggle.”
She says that she felt her unique position as an American with Palestinian roots could give her an advantage in championing the cause, to break through the misunderstandings and the propaganda.
“I was there working with kids around the time the second Intifada broke, and I felt that my privileged position as an American citizen with a Palestinian background gave me the chance to bring the outside world closer to the inside,” she says.
“I thought that since I understood the American mentality and the media, having been brought up in the United States and (yet) being Palestinian, I felt I would also be able to connect with the Palestinians on the ground,” adds Arraf.
“But you’re Christian, married to a Jewish man?” I quiz her
“Yes. But this is not a religious issue,” she replies.
“Sure, but it is often made out to be one, is it not?” I retort
“Yes,” she smiles, “but we both know that this is about Israel contravening international law; it’s not a religious war.”
I ask her then about the utility value of Muslims across the globe sympathising with Palestinians.
Her honesty is remarkable. It is both poignant and inspiring.
Arraf says that while she is not against people using religion to mobilise others into standing up for justice, she says that religious slogans and the over-usage of religious symbols in such a conflict can alienate potential sympathisers.
“When you have kids running around with toy machine guns (at the film festival) screaming Allah-hu-Akbar (God is Great) — mimicking Islamic militant responses to Israeli brutality — it can be counter-productive in recruiting others to the cause.”
“This is of course not the right representation of the conflict. Palestinians are non-violent every day of their lives, when they are dealing with brutality, check-points and the like,” argues Arraf.
She is right, the film festival attracted mostly Muslim patron. The so-called converted-to-the-cause folk: people already sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
Bridging the divide was the real challenge, and Arraf is under no illusions that this is why her involvement remains crucial.
Arraf is not a career activist; she did not select Palestine as an “interesting subject”.
Her zeal for the Palestinian cause is admirable; if only her enthusiasm for peace and justice was contagious enough to inspire a media jaundiced in coverage and lazy in their stereotyping.
One can feel her sincerity; there isn’t an element of pretence in her body language, nor is there an air of ownership that activists often exhibit over their cause.
It almost feels like Arraf simply fell into a rabbit hole and had the courage to follow the signs.
Nine years on and the ISM has grown even bigger than she had ever imagined.
But she is the first to admit that her activism has come at a hefty price.
“I did go back to school, did go back and get my law degree, I did get married, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything else, when I feel there is something I could be doing for Palestine,” says Arraf.
She says that the rest of her life has been put on perpetual hold; she rarely sees her husband, has seemingly abandoned her legal career and lives almost entirely on the road.
“Where I live depends on where I think I can make something happen, because I do believe that we can make something happen,” she adds emphasising the ambivalence with her arched eyebrows.
And she has new plans to break the siege on Gaza.
“We are currently planning a new attempt to get into Gaza. Israel’s attacks on us will not stop or deter us. We just need a new strategy and we’re building it. This time, instead of sending one small boat, we will send a flotilla. More boats, including a cargo ship carrying the reconstruction materials that Israel has banned from entering Gaza, more high-profile personalities, more media and more costly for Israel, should it interfere with our mission.”
“Can I come with?” I salivate.
“Maybe … but we need … ”
“I know. You need important journalists; people who can’t be killed so easily. I-am-sort-of-important-I’ll-have you-know,” I put on a ridiculous smiley face.
That settled it.
Did I really say Huwaida could have made a Bond girl?
What an insult.