[Disclaimer: the names in this story have been changed for the purpose of confidentiality]
I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog…Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies…And I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (21–22).
Leading up to, during, and after my forays in the Middle East, I have often been asked the question, “If you are interested in engaging with the world’s problems, why get on a plane to do so? We have plenty of problems here in the States.” Although I don’t believe that we ought to give some sort of “preference” to an issue or cause based on proximity, I understand the sentiment behind this inquiry. Sometimes I even struggle to give a full answer. Systemic injustices run to the core of our world’s systems of power – no matter where we are. Derek Chauvin’s trial for George Floyd’s murder or the outbreak of violence sparked by planned evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem this past spring serve as reminders of these realities.
I do know this: My experiences overseas, and especially Palestine, have served to give me eyes with which to look back and see the place I was formed – America – in a new light. While teaching English with the Lutheran Church in the West Bank from 2018-2019, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the author’s letter to his teenage son reflecting on his experiences in a deeply racist America. In it, he counsels his son on how to survive and see the beautiful despite existing in a nation that, “[is] an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans…[is] built on the destruction of the body” (Coates 143). In particular, the black body. Wrestling with this book in conjunction with listening to the stories of my friends in Palestine remains challenging and convicting years later. And, it speaks to historical and current realities in the U.S. In this essay, I’ll share more excerpts from Coates followed by poignant stories that came to mind while reflecting on this important work.
“…each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body…I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that this third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things” (Coates, 24).
My friends Farah and Laila are twins who have spent the majority of their lives in a house not far from El-Muqata’a, the complex that has functioned as the center of the Palestinian Authority (PA) since the time of Yassar Arafat. Today, it still houses the current President, various governmental agencies, Arafat’s temporary tomb (his wish was to one day be interred in Jerusalem), and the Arafat Museum.
However, in 2002 near the end of the Second Intifada, this place became the location of a siege. The Israeli military surrounded Arafat in El-Muqata’a with tanks and concertina wire. The neighboring areas began to resemble a war zone. Strict curfews were imposed on all residents in the district. Often families would only be allowed to leave their homes once every several days.
Farah and Laila were nine years old at the time.
Today, they are both artists, and we shared this conversation while sitting in their home art studio. Cigarette smoke wafted slowly to the ceiling as Farah recalled a time she was biking around her neighborhood on her new bicycle. She took a turn onto a street she thought was empty, but upon looking around Farah realized she was not alone: a tank stood on the pavement not far behind her. In that instant, all she could think about was escaping and began pedaling as fast as she could along the road. Unfortunately, she happened to be going up a hill as well. Everyone in the neighborhood knew one another, and family friends noticed her distress. They called her to them and Farah, in her rush, ended up falling off the side of the road into their garden that lay below the level of the street. The neighbors helped her out and brought her inside.
Another time during the siege, Laila and Farah broke daytime curfew in order to play hide and seek with their friends in the neighborhood. It was their turn to hide and, naturally, they found a great spot together. The game commenced and the other children began to look for Laila and Farah. However, soldiers came into the area, realized that the kids were playing hide and seek, and started “playing” with them. Most of the people living on that street were political activists, and as such the military personnel knew their family names. Therefore, in an attempt to get the kids to come out, the soldiers began calling out names. “Daughters of Saif (their father’s name), we know you’re here. Come out!” All the kids ended up coming out because they were terrified. In a tight-knit neighborhood during a time like this, any abnormal exchanges are always noticed. One of the neighbors heard the commotion, came out, and berated the soldiers, as a child’s game should never be used to incite fear.
Only a Few Minutes Earlier
“She alluded to Twelve Years a Slave, ‘There he was,’ she said, speaking of Solomon Northrup. “He had means. He had a family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act [took my son’s life]. It’s all it takes.” (Coates, 145)
The above passage is Dr. Mable Jones reflecting on her son Prince’s death at the hands of police. He had a spotless record and was a successful student at Howard University who was profiled, followed for hours, and shot to death miles outside the plainclothes policeman’s jurisdiction.
Time and time again over this year, the word “capricious” proved itself useful when seeking to characterize the nature of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories. On a daily basis, the very lives and livelihood of Palestinians are subject to the whims of a system that, more often than not, makes absolutely no sense. Some days people are let through checkpoints without issue. Other times, they are turned around without an explanation. A wrong look at the wrong soldier on the wrong day can inspire intense questioning or even place one’s life in jeopardy. That same look a couple of hours later may be greeted with indifference as the soldier focuses on their smartphone.
In January 2019, the Israeli military entered Ramallah city several days in a row. Their stated purpose was to acquire security tapes that would help them find a wanted man. The presence of the military is always accompanied by stone-throwing local young men, who are met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live rounds. After a few days, the military’s operations in the city itself ended. But, they continued incursions in areas surrounding Ramallah such as the road between Ramallah and the neighboring city of Birzeit.
One of those evenings, my friend Amir left our group around 10 PM in order to drive another of our friends back to Birzeit University. It is located about 20-30 minutes outside of Ramallah. While on the road, they noticed about 3-4 cars parked on the side of the road with an ambulance. This seemed a bit strange to them, but Amir was not feeling well, assumed it was a car accident, and kept going on the road. About a half kilometer further they saw many stones covering the middle of the road and multiple Israeli military vehicles. They had driven right into the aftermath of a protest. Amir’s heart began to race and his grip tightened on the steering wheel. He realized that they were the only car on the road, and immediately thought that a lone vehicle heading towards the military would instantly make the soldiers afraid of a car-ramming. Thankfully, the soldiers were already in their vehicles.
Afterwards Amir told me that, if the soldiers had still been standing on that road, he is almost certain that they would have used live rounds on them. One wrong turn only a few minutes earlier could have resulted in the death of two of my closest friends here. And, one racist act, no matter how closely linked to fear for one’s life, would have taken the breath from their very lungs.
Power and "The Dream"
Answers to such injustices, such imbalances, do not come easily. Yet, a common theme I identify in these cases and countless others I could have referenced is that of power. Those who possess power (i.e. white people in the U.S./the “West” at large and Israelis in this context) create for themselves, as Coates calls it, “The Dream,” where they live in a safe, sterile environment that exists in a world completely separate from the people who were used and disposed of while attaining the Dream. Life goes on, comfortable and safe, behind the picket fence, and the lives of people who do not fit this definition can be taken at any moment in the name of preservation of the Dream.
I, in many ways, am a product of The Dream. I will be grappling with this for the rest of my life and hope that the remainder of my journey will be characterized by seeking to undermine this false reality through accompanying communities in solidarity that are systemically barred from access to the Dream. I refuse to Dream when the lives of so many I love do not make the cut. This is not a wholesale rejection of the US or any people/nation for that matter. It is, rather, a desire to invite all people – especially those who are from my home, which I love – to bear witness the uncomfortable truths of the world and pursue a more full, clear-eyed vision of justice and peace and love of neighbor.
That, I think, is the invitation of the Gospel of Peace. Further, it is where we can find what Rilke described as the “country they call life” that we can know by its “seriousness.” This seriousness is not without wonder and laughter. In fact, it contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful things I have ever experienced. But, the weight and reality of The Dream is ever-present.
It appears that the world may be waking up. May we strive to do the same.