Over the coming weeks, we’ll bring you a number of ‘Why I am sailing to Gaza’ articles, with contributions from many of the 30-plus Canadian delegates who will be on board the Tahrir when it joins Freedom Flotilla 2 in sailing for Gaza later this month.
On May 31, the one-year anniversary of the massacre of nine peace activists aboard the MV Mavi Marmara, a group of Haligonians came to pay their tribute in front of the library on Spring Garden Road. The gathering was close to spontaneous, a notice having circulated through Internet channels only the night before. The Mavi, as the world remembers, was the Turkish flagship of the Freedom Flotilla, the international armada of ships that was attacked on the high seas by the Israeli Defence Forces, while attempting to deliver aid to Gaza.
Some of the small crowd in attendance garnered make-shift signs of remembrance. Some simply spoke of their frustrated desires for peace, and the distance they felt from the increasingly war-centric Harper government. They came to commemorate Ibrahim Bilgen, Ali Haydar Bengi, Cevdet Kiliçlar, Çetin Topçuoglu, Necdet Yildirim, Fahri Yaldiz, Cengiz Songür, Cengiz Akyüz, and Furcan Dogan, the eight Turks and one Turkish-American who had lost their lives in the attack.
At the tribute, a Palestinian-Canadian, uprooted from her place of birth against her will, and now across the Atlantic, told the attentive crowd her story. It was the story of over five million displaced Palestinians around the world. Of never forgetting her homeland. Of passing that remembrance through the generations to her grandchild, too young to mouth the syllables ‘Occupied Territories,’ but who tries nonetheless.
Later, she would descend from the library to the street, clutching a sign to her chest that proclaimed that Jerusalem was for all religions, not just Jewish. A sea of hungry office workers, lined up ten-deep for chip-truck fish and chips, squinting in the mid-day sun, crowded the sidewalk and parted around her.
I found myself there, at the steps of the library. I was looking for a quote, and maybe a photo. More so though, I was seeking the spark that comes with those vital moments of conversation and connection with others who would try to live their lives in a peaceful manner. Lately I have acted the journalist, and with that role comes a certain self-imposed objectivity, and a forced degree of disconnect between myself and the gathered.
At this tribute though, as Canada prepares to send its own boat across the Mediterranean, laden with humanitarian aid bound for the blockaded Gazan coast, I find myself woven more firmly into the fabric of the story. I am to be a journalist and peace activist aboard the Tahrir, the Canadian Boat to Gaza’s ship in the Freedom Flotilla II. The Tahrir will join an international armada of about 10 ships, the Mavi among them. We will be unarmed, and staffed by a global crew of approximately 1,000 non-violent peace activists. Together we declare Israel’s blockade of Gaza to be illegal, and show our solidarity with the Palestinian people. We are meant to sail in a few weeks.
The political climate in Canada, and indeed much of the world, in relation to the upcoming sailing, is not good. In an effort to un-friendly any and all ports, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has asked that all Mediterranean countries not assist in the harbouring and sailing of Freedom Flotilla II boats. On the home front, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a press release on May 27,asking Canadians to not participate in the flotilla, noting that Israel has a right to defend its borders, especially against weapons smuggling. The implications of this press release will unfold over the upcoming days.
The Canadian Boat to Gaza has stood defiant in the face of such thinly-veiled allegations, and has held firm on its purpose. The steering committee has rejected outright the presence of any weapons aboard, and continues to invite independent observer-verification of this. If Canada’s official aid to Palestine comes in the form of prison and courthouse building and security training, which it does, the humanitarian aid will come aboard the Tahrir. And while John Baird calls for the delivery of aid through Israel, through the International Red Cross, the Tahrir refuses to let Israel play prison warden with the people of Palestine any longer.
On May 31, one year after the Mavi massacre, the Israeli Defence Forces publicly attested to their readiness to defend what they perceive to be their waters. Last year, the world remembers that the Mavi was attacked 70 miles off the coast of Gaza, a distance from Israel that is globally understood to be international waters. As we board the Tahrir train for non-violence ‘until the end,’ the carrion feeders that troll the Internet’s right-wing chat groups cheer for the blood of the peace activists. We are asked by the steering committee to prepare video statements attesting to the peaceful nature of our voyage, which suddenly seem too much like a eulogy.
I have never met anyone aboard the Tahrir, and know them only through Internet communication. We come from all corners of the Canadian landscape, plucked from peaceful pockets of resistance. There is a retired first-nations’ chief. A Quaker. A tweeter. A grandmother. A self-professed ‘queer filmmaker,’ and others. We represent groups, or come alone with our visions of peace. All told, we are supposed to number 45, on a 50-metre ship. With my experience in catering lunch clubs for local offices in the Halifax area, I am to be the head chef.
I do not know if these people feel scared. If they feel ready to die, or be shot, or be hurt, or be strip-searched, or be put in a foreign prison and know that your own country’s government is complicit. I had the opportunity to interview Kevin Neish last year, witness to the massacre aboard the Mavi, and I wanted to be as selfless with my time on this planet. But this is my first Freedom Flotilla, and at times my mind races.
Collectively, I imagine that we steel ourselves by comparing our own potential treatment as outlaws aboard the Tahrir with the daily treatment of the Palestinian people. It provides perspective to a Canadian existence which, to many, is simply one continuous winning lottery ticket in the game of life. Most of us will never face gunfire, or teargas, or midnight raids of our dwellings, or the murder of a loved one. Our problems, however real they might seem, are often largely trivial.
We are asked by the Canadian Boat to Gaza to make mention of what we leave behind. Ostensibly this will make us more human, and less likely to be forgotten by the general public in lieu of the next celebrity marriage. I leave behind, as a privileged Canadian, what you have, perhaps more, perhaps less. I have been blessed with an incredible safety net. Caring parents, a good dog, a girlfriend, siblings, friends, acquaintances, and familiar faces.
I will do my best, over the coming weeks, to inform you of our progress aboard the Tahrir. In the face of international chest-thumping, posturing, and war-mongering, it is a vital time to be breaking Israel’s illegal blockade, and demonstrating that non-violent action continues to be a force of change in the world.
I would ask of you to demand that the peaceful mission of the Tahrir and the Freedom Flotilla II be recognized in government, and that you hold your Harper government accountable to the task in protecting its own citizens. I say ‘your government’ because I suspect that shortly they will wash their hands of those aboard the Tahrir.
Hold your media to task and demand objective reporting. Do not accept the line that this is a ‘complex issue.’ It is a complex issue, but hold yourself in high enough regard to seek out the truth, and know rhetoric and banter for what it is. If statements cannot be supported by fact, then they are not journalism, they are expressions of agenda.
Hold yourselves to task in your actions and in your purchases.
Do not forget the oppressed, those aboard the Freedom Flotilla II, or the Tahrir. Do not forget all of those who have died in this senseless war over land, influence, and religion. Seek your own peaceful solution.
Lest We Forget.
Ali Haydar Bengi
This article originally appeared in the Halifax Media Coop.