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Jerusalem Diary: Stress relief

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The twirling policeman: Raed Abu Awad in action

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

ALLEVIATING STRESS

This is a stress-laden land. Palestinians and Israelis will tell you that the burden of unresolved conflict lies on everyone's shoulders.

This, then, is the brief story of two people who have pursued unusual, aerobic means to alleviate that stress.

For anyone who has driven through the clogged streets of Ramallah, you might imagine that the life of a traffic policeman is a thankless one. However Raed Abu Awad has turned directing the vehicles into an art form.

Raed is 37 and joined the Palestinian police force in 1996. His highly developed style of traffic management arose from an unfortunate incident early on in his career.

Raed found himself wrestling so energetically with the lethal surges of vehicles and pedestrians that one day, as he waved his hand, he clattered an old man in the face. "From then on, I decided to twirl," he told me on a grey day in Manara Square.

[During the intifada] there was lawlessness. People didn't listen to authority. Now they are following directions and they like it
Raed Abu Awad

Now Raed cuts an utterly distinctive and effective figure. He snaps and pirouettes. He whirls his right shoulder in a way no rheumatologist would recommend.

The drivers and walkers in Ramallah are used to him but he still draws smiles and exerts some authority.

As we watched, there was a moment when he was almost upended by a yellow taxi with "No Fear" ranged across its tinted windows. But Raed barely paused in his routine.

That there is a place for the twirling policeman is, says Raed, a measure of improvement from the dark days of the second intifada.

"There is a big difference. In those years, there was lawlessness. People didn't listen to authority. Now they are following directions and they like it," he said.

MARATHON AS A WAY OF LIFE

Raed Abu Awad was, I think, the first traffic policeman I have interviewed at length. The conversation I recorded with Sari Bashi was, without doubt, a first.

Were you to listen back to the full 41 minutes, it would sound either as if she were pursuing me to make her points or as if I were chasing her to demand answers.

Neither is the case. We were running, together.

Sari Bashi is not just a marathon runner, she is an ultra-marathon runner. And this was no gimmick to discuss her day job as an Israeli lawyer and human rights campaigner. She sees an intimate link between her pastime and her profession.

We met mid-morning on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv and I began with an apology.

Our going for a leisurely 7.5km trot along the coast had surely meant that Sari had sacrificed a valuable day's training for the 100km ultra-marathon she is due to run in five weeks' time. "Not at all. I've already done 17km today," she replied.

Thus chastened I turned on the tape recorder. Off I heaved and off she pranced.

 Picture of Sari Bashi running
I might run a marathon - 42km - or more, and just keep going. And I love that feeling of endless possibility. And I'm aware, for a million and a half people in Gaza, that's denied
Sari Bashi

Sari Bashi heads Gisha - an organisation which campaigns for freedom of movement for Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, and offers them legal representation.

Gisha currently has a freedom of information case in court demanding that the Israeli Ministry of Defence explain why it is preventing certain goods, foodstuffs for example, from being imported into Gaza.

As we ease around the odd pocket of pensioners and tourists and passers-by, Sari Bashi reflects that part of the problem with her work is a lack of empathy among many Israelis.

Freedom of movement is so basic, she says, that people have difficulty understanding what it means for it not to be there - not to be able to take up a university place, to be separated from your family, to feel trapped.

"For me, there's a connection to running. One of the things I love is the feeling of total freedom, of moving through space," Sari Bashi said.

She points out that the Gaza Strip is about 40km long. "When I train for an ultra-marathon, I might run a marathon - 42km - or more, and just keep going. And I love that feeling of endless possibility. And I'm aware, for a million and a half people in Gaza, that's denied," she added.

There is more running symbolism, according to Sari Bashi. Thank goodness. As it suggests she will need to speak for longer, which allows me longer to breathe.

The symbolism concerns the struggle which she and the rest of her Israeli and Palestinian staff feel they are engaged in.

Gisha, along with other similar groups, stands charged by its political opponents with using inflammatory language and accepting foreign donations in activities which, unwittingly or not, serve only to undermine Israel's entire legitimacy.

And so, Sari Bashi says she has a stock "marathon" speech for her staff. Their work, she argues, needs to be paced. This is a long and difficult journey, of changing minds and helping clients, one by one.

In fact, she says, two-and-a-half years ago she changed her "marathon" speech to an "ultra-marathon" speech. June 2007 was when the Islamist Hamas group took control in Gaza and Israel tightened its blockade.

And then the obstacles grew higher. "All of a sudden it wasn't just Israel engaging in the closure, but also the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and the international community supporting it," she recalled.

Running ultra-marathons and performing human rights work both demand what Sari Bashi calls "the dogmatic insistence on stretching boundaries".

We have reached the end of our jog. I lean on the door of my car. Sari Bashi smiles and runs off, again.


Please send your comments on Tim Franks' latest Jerusalem diary using the postform below.

Five years ago, I read of an Indian traffic policeman who makes dancing movements to regulate traffic, which livens up his day. Unless this happens to be an act in a film that I might have seen, this looked every bit a creative attempt to spice up what is, otherwise, a weary routine for a lowly-paid policeman. Is this a vivid example of finding the brighter side in any job routine, even if it seemed rather dull?
Anand, Manama, Bahrain

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