A Pilot’s Refusal

“What do we live for, if not for conversations like these?” – Akram Zatari

I’m going to talk about an experience which has affected me very deeply.

Image credits: nyblogs

Image credits: nyblogs


Not two hours ago, I attended a seminar in which Seth Anziska, a PhD candidate at Columbia University,  talked to us about his thesis. As a historian, his research thesis comprised of studying about the First Intifada in 1982. He spent the first thirty minutes talking about his history with Israel and how he had a personal attachment to the place. He had lived for a year in Israel, and he claimed that instead of clarifying his questions about life, religion and spirituality, the experience made him rethink them some more. During his undergraduate tenure at Columbia, he received news that one of his friends in Israel had died in a suicide bombing and this made him choose Middle Eastern History as a way of dealing with his internal conflict. He went on to tell one of the most amazing true stories I’ve ever heard and I feel compelled to share that now.

Around the summer of 2010, Anziska started on his research thesis by going to Tel-Aviv. He visited libraries and cultural centers, looking for data, interviews and content. In one of these libraries, he struck up a conversation with the librarian, who took an interest in his project and said that her husband, Hagai Tamir, would be a great resource for him. Hagai Tamir, an architect, was commissioned to be a pilot during the First Intifada. His orders were to bomb a target that was not far from the Ain El-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon. We listened to a clip of the interview between Anziska and Tamir. He told the story of how the structure, a big mansion on top of the hill, had many roads leading to and from it. Tamir was convinced that it was either a hospital or a school. He expressed some hesitation, but he still didn’t think he had it in him to openly defy orders. As Anziska and the rest of the clip filled in the story, the brave man made a last minute decision in the cockpit to veer off the edge of the cliff and drop the bombs into the Mediterranean Sea instead.

The target, as it turned out, was a secondary school for boys. Despite Tamir’s incredible effort, the next raid ensured that the entire region was bombed anyway. But as it was, the gesture of kindness was not forgotten by the people who lived in the region of Ain El-Helweh. Unknown to Tamir, his story had evolved into an urban legend, with every detail enhanced by each narrative. Anziska would discover this as he traveled to Lebanon in the continuing quest for answers.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari had grown up in the region of Saida, Lebanon and he had heard several versions of the story as an adult. Zaatari’s work specialized in exploring the gaps between histories, and he was particularly taken by the story of the pilot who refused. As it was, he and his brothers attended the school in Ain El-Helweh, and his father was the principal there. He wrote several works about the story, one of which was published as a series of conversations with an Israeli documentary maker. Anziska browsing upon this copy in a library in Beirut was startled to find a paragraph where he talked about the legend of the pilot who refused to bomb Ain El-Helweh. Anziska asked for his contact details and managed to set an appointment with Zaatari.

At first, Anziska went on to tell us about how difficult it was to broach such a topic that was so sensitive. Relations between Lebanon and Israel were such that it was difficult for him to mention that he had just arrived from a stay in Tel-Aviv. Yet, here was a golden opportunity to reconcile history.

Anziska went on to tell Zataari about Hagai Tamir, the identity of the mysterious pilot who had disobeyed orders and who was still alive and flourishing in Tel-Aviv. Amazed by the story, Zataari asked Anziska to carry the book with him when he went back and somehow mail it to Tel-Aviv, so that Tamir would know the reputation that preceded him. Afterwards, during his departure, Anziska sent an email to both of them, introducing and connecting them to each other. Hagai Tamir was astounded. He asked Zataari if it would be possible for him to meet him elsewhere in Europe. Zataari agreed.

Obviously there was trepidation on both sides, from both a legal and political vantage. But eventually, Anziska co-ordinated their meeting in Rome and it was truly surreal. It was awkward, to say the least, in order to get two men from such different histories together and hear their versions of the same event. There was laughter, joy and trepidation on both sides. But most importantly, they had their stories to share.

Anziska didn’t share much of the actual conversation between the two gentlemen, partly because he himself was simply an observer in watching two opposing sides meet. For Akram Zataari to grow up in a culture that had painted Hagai Tamir’s kind as antagonists and then to come across the rare person who did not antagonize him, it would have been quite a moving experience. “I have so many questions to ask you,” quoted Anziska from Zataari’s view of when they first met.

Hagai Tamir had brought with him all of his history. Documents which showed his family’s exile from Germany, accounts and descriptions of his life in Israel and so on. Akram Zataari showed him pictures of tanks that he had taken as a teenager, when the First Intifada was still happening. It seemed all the more poignant that such an event was happening at a time when Israel had just attacked the Gaza Strip again. One of the most memorable extracts that Anziska remembered from the interaction was when he asked Zataari if he was comfortable with the rendezvous. “What do we live for, if not for conversations like these?”

I was very moved by the story. It may have been small, there may have been way too many factors about luck and chance in order to defy the odds, but it still happened. This encounter between two people changed their lives and their world view.

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