Wednesday was a significant day for me; in that way that we create significance out of peculiar things. Wednesday marked a passage of time. After spending five months in Palestine, I’ve now spent five out.
It has been five months of processing; grieving; remembering and also forgetting. It has taken me five months to grasp even the slightest bit of perspective what I saw, to even begin to articulate what I experienced.
For months, a noise in the nighttime would send me frantically searching for my passport and preparing for soldiers’ weapons to peek around the doorframe. Even now, as the initial shock has faded and trauma (and bones) have healed, there are days when Palestine grabs me by the ankles and refuses to let go.
Much of what I carry are stories. Returning to a place that knows and understands little of what I saw has been a challenge. In response to innocent but uninformed questions; eagerness to see my scarred arm, I long for the chance to describe my experiences in more than three-minute conversations. This hunger to be heard drove me first to written word. In five manic weeks during August and September, I wrote many of my most burdensome and immediate memories in a series of short essays. These were self-published as a short book.
With a suitcase full of books, I left the northwest by train in October. Over 600 people heard these stories in October and November, as a part of the “Missing Headlines” speaking tour. The wonderfully diverse range of events took me to college classes in Flagstaff, churches in Oklahoma, and a living room gathering of friends in upstate New York (among numerous others).
Long after I’d lost any sense of horror at many of my recollections, their indignity was validated in the riveted audiences. So often I drew strength to continue speaking from the inevitable tear-stained faces, the horrified gasps.
Once I heard on NPR that the first time we remember or recount an experience, we re-live it. Our brain actually believes the event is happening again. If we continue to tell the story, it becomes increasingly removed from our actual memory. Eventually, we rely on our accounts of what happened instead of the memory itself.
In this way, I have told the stories away from myself. I’ve built a buffer of words from the trauma and crush of blinding tragedy. It took an unassuming crowd to cut through this distancing, and a startling moment of honesty to bring reality rushing back.
The day after Halloween, I spoke about Palestine to a group of sixth graders. We were in Austin, Texas. They dressed in red and blue uniforms, all 70 of them, and crowded around lunch tables. The cafeteria lady swept pretzel sticks and dust clods from under our feet.
Playing it safe, I open cautiously. “How many of you went trick-or-treating yesterday?” 70 wriggling hands snap into the air.
“How many of you had awesome costumes?” Again, 70 synchronized hands.
“Um… ok. How many of you have heard of a place called Palestine?” A few arms raise slowly. Their hands bend like question marks.
“Right. So… well, I lived there. For a while, actually. Before I tell you about it, does anyone have any questions about Palestine? Like, what I saw, or what it’s like there?” Just moments before, I spoke to ninth-graders whose initial questions were wildly off-target. I’m prepared for anything from my sugar-fueled pre-adolescents. A curly-headed kid in the front row immediately raises his hand; dances his fingers eagerly.
“How did this war start,” he asks, staring solemnly, “And who’s fault is it?”
“How is it gonna end?” demands a girl perched at the end of a cafeteria bench. Inquisitive eyes focus on me from every seat.
This crowd wants answers, so I click to the first slide. “These kids are Muna and Mohammad. They’re about your age, actually. They live in…um…in the craziest house in the world.”
“There are laws that protect everyone on the planet,” I explain. When those laws are broken, Palestinians lose their land. They get attacked just for having marches, and soldiers stop Palestinians at checkpoints, even if they need medical care.
Thirty minutes later, we’re back to questions. I’ve covered a vast span of geo-politics in spark-note-form, gambling that they would absorb concepts as well as my blood-soaked pictures and scarred arm.
A surprising number of hands jockey to be called on, and I pick an earnest boy two tables back.
Of the two-dozen times I’ve presented, of the countless days I’ve recounted stories or debated statistics in informal settings, no moment has been more potent than the Austin schoolboy’s question. He ripped open my outrage and disbelief at what passes as daily life in Palestine; challenged my own complacency and distance from the statistics I share. What is it about youth? With startling precision, those students exposed the core of my experience.
Bizarre and disturbing suffering, which no person can explain with logic or reason. It doesn’t make sense.
Although time and story-telling have healed much of my trauma, certain memories remain. These residual chunks recently snapped into context when a friend shared the words of Ernest Hemmingway. “To understand is to forgive,” he writes.
Upon hearing this, I was immediately flooded with the faces; the images; the stories that I just can’t understand. When the boy in Austin asks, “Why do they stop the moms?”, my dull silence is this—I do not understand; I honestly do not know.
For all of my storytelling, there are some memories of which I have never spoken. Images I return to in dreams, or late into sleepless nights. Perhaps the specifics are not what matters. I cannot articulate the precise manner that some of this transpired; can never in ten thousand years explain for you the nuanced ways in which suffering was visited upon my friends and upon strangers whom I shared cramped spaces with. Certain events seem to have shackled themselves to me, and these are the ones which have had the most profound impact.
I can reflect on my life now; on its striking unfamiliarity to life before. When people ask how long I’ve been back, I tell them five months. In reality, there is no “back”. Four days after Emily was shot, before she had left the hospital, I flipped through my notebook and came to comments written the day before everything collapsed in our world. They seemed to be written by a different person (just five days prior); a friend I once had, maybe. Someone gone from the world.
All ISM activists experience this to some degree. We leave Palestine on buses and then airplanes, which take us to the country listed on our passport. We do not “return” to our homes, because the selves we brought to Palestine were left in the olive grove or city sidewalk where we first witnessed inexplicable evil; where we met anguish beyond what a lifetime supply of words could describe.
In many ways I have finally found the space to understand and contextualize much of what I saw. With time comes perspective. The truth is that much of what I saw was raw suffering. What I saw was brought about by United States foreign policy.
Five months away from Palestine, five months removed from these experiences, I wish I could offer hope, or a logical explanation. I wish I could write from a place of distanced reflection. Instead, I can only share the confusion and horrified shock of Austin sixth-graders. What I speak of, what I witnessed, are gratuitous and systematic breaches of fundamental human rights. What I speak of, it just doesn’t make sense