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‘Sharon is dead’

Jan 18,2014 - Last updated at Jan 18,2014

On a chilly winter day in January 2006, as a few fellow students and I huddled around a radiator in the girls’ common room of the University of Jordan’s Sharia faculty, news reached us that Ariel Sharon was dead.

I was where I always used to be by that time of the day. The common room was called a prayer room, and served as both. It was almost prayer time.

One of the girls had excitedly come to the door and relayed the big breaking news, breathlessly pronouncing: “Sharon is dead!”

The prayer room was instantly awash with sighs of relief, congratulatory handshakes, big smiles and hushed (and some not-so-hushed) prayers of gratitude.

A few lingering, tight hugs were exchanged, as if to say, “The nightmare’s over now, it’s going to be okay.”

In that small student space that day, we were simply a microcosm of the collective catharsis the whole region was experiencing.

No combination of my words could fully describe the venomous, visceral anger and hatred my friends and classmates felt towards Sharon. He had represented something very real to them: the sparking of the second Intifada; missed births, weddings and deaths; loved ones locked up, and loved ones lost forever.

I shared this pain with and through them.

The big Sharon difference, so to speak, was how much pleasure he seemed to take in all this: ever ready to incite and provoke, acerbic and unrelenting in word and deed.

The Palestinians I knew tried to match that however they could: with generic anti-occupation paraphernalia such as spray-painted Stars of David at the bottom of stairs and on many walkways, and stickers of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and other Hamas figureheads plastered on desks and walls all over the faculty’s two buildings.

But the mere mention of Sharon’s name provoked more frowns and crinkling noses than any other Israeli leader; his actions in life were cursed, and now his death rejoiced over.

Soon after the death announcement, a tray of steaming traditional sweets entered the common room and made the rounds. I could not tell if I was more surprised at how quickly these had arrived (given that these kinds of sweets would not be sold on campus), or that they had arrived at all.

I had certainly never toasted anyone’s death before. In fact, I doubt that my Palestinian-Jordanian friends had either.

I was a third-year foreign undergraduate student at the university, having come to the region to learn Arabic and study Islam. Naturally, a large part of my education turned out to have nothing to do with the set curriculum.

A college experience on one of the largest public university campuses in the region, and in particularly one with such geographical proximity, had been an education in all things Palestine: history, culture, language, and politics, and questions of religion.

This was, of course, the old Middle East, where protests were almost unheard of (campus groups would organise “walks” or “marches” at best), but the raging Intifada was everywhere nonetheless: in those peeling stickers and walked-over Stars of David, and — since this was the Sharia faculty — in classroom discussions on the Islamic legal rulings on suicide as a weapon of resistance and definitions of civilian.

When I was offered the tray of sweets, I hesitated. As much as I saw Sharon as a loathsome character, it seemed to me that we were, that we should be, better than this.

But in that moment, I also realised for the first time how much of the stress and grief of my Palestinian friends I had absorbed over the years.

We were emotionally conjoined to a point where their celebratory mood was perfectly understandable to me.

Eventually, I lifted a sugary treat off the tray, and held it at arm’s length, without taking a bite.

Yet, despite this common room celebration, I remember my Sharia college as being a place that tempered the anger and hatred that the hard life of exile and/or occupation had drilled into my friends.

The majority of my Sharia college classmates were Palestinian. Some even came from Palestine, rather than Amman’s Baqaa refugee camp.

Most memorably for me, a much-loved and highly revered Hadith scholar had once taken a detour from discussing transmission and authenticity in his lecture to make careful distinctions between a Jew, an Israeli and a Zionist occupier.

His aim had been to make the case against the negative blanket statements against “Jews” that were common parlance — to a very reluctant audience.

I was still awkwardly holding my sweet treat when the second newscast of the day came to us. It had been a false alarm. Sharon was in fact still alive, though in a coma.

All of a sudden, everyone’s movements stalled mid-munch or mid-air. The celebration felt awkwardly premature. I took this as an opportunity to quickly put my sugary treat aside, uneaten.

The impasse was, however, quickly broken when one of the sweetest, most docile personalities of the common room shocked me with her buoyant vengeance, declaring: “Even better! Let him suffer!”

Everyone was free to chew and swallow again.

As it turned out, their celebration was not all that premature. That evening, as Ehud Olmert took charge, Sharon effectively exited the stage.

The writer is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School as a British Fulbright scholar. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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