David Graeber – Hostile Intelligence: Reflections from a Visit to the West Bank

Source: International Times

In Nablus, every street seems to have a men’s hair salon. There are literally thousands of them. Most stay open until at least 2 at night; often other than mosques they’re the only places lit up and open at two at night; and it seems any time you pass by one, there are likely to be four or five nicely coiffed young men clustered inside, watching someone get a haircut. The odd thing is that women’s hair salons seem entirely absent. Occasionally you do see impressive posters for women’s cosmetics and hair products; often, the women are blonde (and a surprising number of Palestinians in Nablus are, in fact, blonde; even children), but the shops are absent. I asked a friend why this was. He explained that while Palestinian society was traditionally considered the most liberal Arab society outside of Beirut, and young women never used to go with their hair covered, things started to change in the ‘90s with the political rise of Hamas. But in the case of women’s hair salons, there was another, much more immediate factor. During the ‘80s, Israeli intelligence agents began taking advantage of their existence to spike the sweet tea with knock-out drugs, and take nude pictures of women so as to blackmail their husbands into turning collaborator or informant.  So now women’s salons exist, but they’re not visible from the street, and women no longer take tea from strangers.

My first reaction on hearing the story was: Did this really happen? It sounds like the very definition of a paranoid fantasy. But Palestinians in Nablus are living in an environment where insane things do happen; where there actually are people conspiring against them; spies, informants, security forces of a dozen varieties including many with advanced degrees in psychology and social theory do exist and are actively trying to come up with ways to destroy social trust and tear apart the fabric of society. Innumerable stories circulate. Only some are true. How can anyone possibly know which?

And of course that’s always half the point in such situations. The Stasi, the East German secret police, at one point developed a technique of breaking into dissidents’ homes at night and rearranging their furniture. Doing it left the victim in an impossible situation. Either you tell people that spies broke into your house and rearranged your furniture, leaving many with the impression you are insane, or keep the information to yourself, and gradually begin to doubt your own sanity. Sometimes, in Palestine, you feel you’re in an entire country that’s been given such treatment.

In this case, however, the rumor turns out to be at least partly true. Someone put up a web page for Mossad agents with guilty consciences to make anonymous confessions. And one did, indeed, make reference to drugging the tea in hair salons.

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