On April 9, Vittorio Arrigoni — Vik to us — wrote to me in an e-mail that “I will go out immediately after this shame” ends. The “shame” was Israel’s latest flurry of F-16-delivered explosives that landed on the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.
On April 14 at noon I learned of Vik’s abduction at the hands of Salafi extremists in Gaza City. Instantly, we started making phone calls, ferreting out information, asking friends and contacts in Gaza for help. We were assured and sure that he would be out soon: that his kidnappers would know whom they had captured, that they would regret it, would be ashamed.
It was April 14 at nine P.M. that the last frail tethers with which we were all holding on to hope snapped: Reuters reported his death, then the BBC, then news was everywhere, in a cascade, an avalanche, of tragedy crashing across the breadth of the globe into the network of those concerned, those of us sitting and waiting anxiously, in Gaza, Italy, the West Bank, Germany, the United States, all of those touched by Vik’s near-decade of working with the International Solidarity Movement and for Palestinian liberation, hoping to hear anything but the worst about our friend.
Sometime on April 14, one Jordanian and several Palestinian assassins killed Vik with a metal cord, strangling him, turning him into what the people there call a “martyr of solidarity.” He was 36.
Still I can only half-believe that Vik is dead. Maybe I will go back to Gaza City and call his cellphone. He characteristically won’t pick up, but will call me back in minutes and say ween — Arabic for where — and we’ll have coffee and sheesha and go to the gym in Tel al-Hawa from whence his murderers grabbed him and strangled him. But then I look again at that horrible video of him bloodied in front of the camera and footage of my friends in Gaza shattered in Al-Shifa Hospital and mourning in Gallery Cafe and then re-visit the droplets of information telling me he was hanged, and I see that horrible specter in my mind’s eye and I know even though I know we are not supposed to get news of the dead over fiber-optics that Vik is dead and he will not be back.
I first met Vik in Cairo as we were both waiting to get into Gaza. We waited a long time together, with our friend Adie Mormech: from the beginning of February 2010, as the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs delayed and re-delayed the opening of the Rafah portal. Vik was not so happy in Cairo; he was like an animal used to freedom locked up in a cage, pawing at its bars. Mostly he’d come out for a little socializing, or — of course — for demonstrations on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate against the Mubarak dictatorship, “the hated despot,” in Vik’s fierce blunt description. Where he really wanted to be was Gaza, where he could help best.
While we were waiting I started hearing the stories: Vik getting kidnapped off a fishing boat miles off the Gazan coast by the Israeli navy, which tasered him in order to bring him in, after which he swam shoreward until he nearly got hypothermia; Vik almost commandeering a bus deporting him after he had tried to get into the West Bank through its border with Jordan. One time, he told us, he latched onto a bench so tightly that the Israeli soldiers charged with removing him decided picking up the bench was easier than peeling him off of it.
In Cairo, at the end of February, we got the word that we’d be allowed in March 1. We secured our documentation and Vik and I hustled up to el-Arish on the Sinai’s Mediterranean coast. After waiting five hours sitting in front of the Rafah portal, eating dates and drinking coffee with Palestinians waiting to enter, Vik resolute that we would not be allowed into Gaza — “mumkin (maybe) you, not me,” he kept on saying — we were finally ushered through the black metal gate, then quickly through the crossing, then into the Hamas-managed passenger terminal on the far side. Vik’s visage and demeanor changed nearly instantly: flipping through his cellphone, making calls, arranging for a friend to pick us up, smiling, gesticulating more than speaking, showing the Hamas security agents pictures of him in a book from one of the Free Gaza ships — he’d been on several of the siege-busting voyages.
I learned later, while we watched horror-struck as Israeli armored bulldozers accompanied by tanks ripped up a stretch of farmland in the hamlet of El-Farahin, in southeast Gaza, that he had been in Nablus as the Israeli army encircled it with tanks. I learned that from Vik’s by-the-way mutter that he hadn’t “seen tanks so close since Nablus.” Still later I learned that Vik had been one of the few volunteers to visit the shattered Nahr al Bared camp in northern Lebanon in 2007.
I am not sure how I learned that Vik was one of several ISM volunteers to stay in Gaza the length of the Israeli assault on the coastal salient in the winter of 2008-2009, as much of the territory was ravaged and white phosphorus filled the sky. Vik was accompanying ambulances, and would haltingly recount what he had seen in them: burned and holey bodies, often of children. I got the impression that it was the worst thing he had ever seen. Vik’s dispatches from that war, filed at his blog and the Italian leftist paper Il Manifesto, ended with the dictum, restiamo umani — let us stay human — which soon became the title of a book he published about the war and which became the slogan of the Italian sector of the Palestine solidarity movement.
Vik wrote and wrote well in Italian. He saw civil resistance in Gaza as part of the broad sweep of global insurrection against oppression, comparing the faces of the Palestinian peasant resistance to the faces “immortalized in the demonstrations of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the Zapatista Indians of Chiapas,” studding his writing with quotations from and references to Eduardo Galeano and Nelson Mandela.
His speech was spackled with the Arabic vocabulary he had picked up through nine years of working for Palestinian liberation, most of it clustered around the activities of the ISM: ships, politics, demonstrations, farmers, fishermen, resistance, freedom. Anyone who knew Vik knew that he was not great with languages. And anyone who knew him knew that this weakness could not have mattered less. Vik communicated his solidarity far more compellingly by the deed.
Another thing that strikes me was his painstaking negotiation of practicing a politics of solidarity. How to support a government resisting an occupation and simultaneously support active, mobilized youth trying to ignite another intifada? Is there a formula for such things? No. They are worked out in the practice of being, and in so doing Vik was an exemplar, even as he made sure, with a sheepish reluctance born of not wanting to order others around, to keep our collective eye on the target: the occupation.
Vik was heroic. But Vik was not heroic because he was fearless. Vik was brave because he was fearful. I cannot count the number of times I saw him standing in Gaza’s borderlands as Israeli sniper bullets thudded into the ground, kicking up terrifying puffs of dust inches from his feet. Confronting the churning machinery of Israeli violence head-on, Vik knew that he could die. He nevertheless never wilted, not because he wanted to die or was unafraid of death, but because he was doing what needed to be done.
For that reason, Vik chose to live in Gaza and made his home there with those who needed what he could offer — his witness, his pen, his voice, his warmth, his support, his care — more than anyone else.
Finally, Vik’s solidarity was most importantly the quiet accretion of good deeds and accompaniment done, day in and day out, for months on end. Joking with my doorman, accompanying the protesting youth of Gaza, playing with Gaza’s children, befriending Khalil Shaheen and Mahfouz Kabariti, in the serial quotidian acts of accompaniment and friendship that make solidarity and make a life. Maybe most of all the meaning and constancy of this support manifested in Vik’s delay, and re-delay, of his departure from Gaza. As he fretted to Shaheen on Wednesday, 24 hours before he was kidnapped, “How shall I leave Gaza? I don’t want people to think that I fled,” while the shudder of Israeli munitions rocked Gaza. As one friend of his, Shahd Abusalama, said, he was with them through the bombings and through the killings, “suffering with us, more than us, in Israeli prisons.”
That delay cost him his life.
The overriding sentiments from friends from Gaza that I have spoken to in the past week have been sadness, fury, frustration, impotence, and above all shame. Universally they have expressed to me their shame at allowing a guest, a friend, a comrade, be cruelly kidnapped and strangled on their land, in their home, in Palestine. The universality of that shame, I think, attests to its gratuitousness.
The American radical historian William Appleman Williams once wrote, regarding overthrowing the empire, that in so doing “some of us will die. But how one dies is terribly important. It speaks to the truth of how we have lived.” Vik died because he was in Gaza, resisting the occupation, like his communist partisan grandfathers who died resisting the steel and terror of Italian fascism. In that, too, is the truth of his life.
Vik said that he “wanted to be remembered for his dreams.” He dreamed of a free world, a world without walls and without cages and without chains. He knew that while Gaza was encaged, our humanity was lessened, and for that, he exhorted his readers: restiamo umani, let us remain human.
We will try, sadeeq.
And those of us left behind will miss you.
And we will honor your legacy by honoring your dream.
Max Ajl is a doctoral student in development sociology at Cornell University, and served with Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza in the International Solidarity Movement. He blogs at <www.maxajl.com>.