Thursday, September 16, 2010

Remembering Gaza

This was tough writing, but I'm glad I did. For Mondoweiss:

The unending death-news maelstrom assaults the reader with what seems like daily frequency. Our digital distance simultaneously transports us to and shields us from the bedlam. We are assaulted virtually – our empathy enables that – but experience none of the flechette-mangled corpsifying assault that the victim does. We are free to imagine, knowing full well we are wholly incapable of adequately doing so.

News of the murders of Ibrahim Abu Sayed, Hossam Abu Sayed and Ismail Abu Odastruck me with a dull thump. I was saddened, but exhausted. The endgame is within reach – the end of apartheid is knowable and doable – and the Zionists destroy human lives senselessly. I can’t do anything for them. They’re dead already, so just stay focused on the horizon. Remember, this is a marathon effort.

I was surprised at my reaction, at the total absence of anger. I wondered if my rage nerves were temporarily frazzled. Being immersed in Palestine – constantly attuned to it – begins to take a psychological toll. One of our safety mechanisms is to divorce and disconnect. Reality is somewhere else, not here, not now, not on a Friday night.

But a more sinister possibility insistently pushed itself into my conscience. I began to think that I’d become desensitized to the deaths of small numbers of humans. Leave your TV on static long enough, and your brain will tune it out; maintain a steady death rate, and people will tune it out. There was truth in the thought and it horrified me.

I was born in Gaza. My entire extended family is in Gaza. I was there ten years ago, and visited the border recently in February. And yet, I allowed myself to grow numb, to slip into a superficial ritual of affirming their – my – humanity without remembering their daily trials. I found that my memory failed me, and something wooden had taken its place.

Adie Mormech’s piece helped me to remember Gaza. I was reading it when I had the haunting realization that I knew the Oda family. They’re Bedouin, just like the Abu Moors. Their farm is near my father’s farm. And I think that they’re also from Be’er Al Sabaa, and also members of the Tarabin tribe.

I began to wonder: Mohammed Abu Oda, the man interviewed in the article, is that the same Mohammed who greeted my father, my brother, and me early in the summer of 2000 with tea and watermelon at his family’s home? There were small children running around that day. They were shy and had snotty noses. They giggled and ran around, slapping at you when you weren’t looking. The 16-year-old corpse, Ismail Abu Oda, was he one of them?

I remembered my father marching my brother and me around our few dry dunums, triumphantly showing of his newly planted olive trees and fig trees. The Israelis razed them all some years ago. I felt a stultifying, enraged impotence when my father told me – I remember that. Those trees were my inheritance.

And I remember my great uncle – one of Ibrahim Abu Sayed’s contemporaries – rolling his tobacco with large, thick fingers. I remember the way the fat flies settled thick on everything when he looked at me and said, “The earth is like a woman, the more you plow it the more it yields.” He laughed and my father laughed, but warned me not to repeat what I’d heard.

My cousin Eyad later built a two-bedroom hovel on the land near the place where I captured that memory, on the farm he’d inherited from his dead father. I remember his bucked yellow-stained teeth when he laughed. He chain-smoked Viceroys and wasn’t very bright. My father helped him find a job making tea and sweeping floors in an office in Gaza city. I vaguely remember news of his wedding. And I remember the day in 2007 when I learned of his death.

The Israelis declared curfew but failed to tell anyone. Eyad stepped out of his home at dawn and had his face hole-punched open by a sniper’s bullet. Another one buried itself deep in his chest. He was 28 and had three children. His wife was pregnant with their fourth.

I remember that for days I grieved. Images of his decomposition flashed in the contours of my mind as I pictured what was happening to him underneath Gaza’s hard, dry earth. I remember the regret I felt that I’d ever condescended to him, or spoken harshly to him. Later that week, I went out with friends in New York and I remember the shame of having buried it – him – so quickly.

These and other thoughts cascaded into my head. And suddenly I was mourning Ibrahim and Hossam Abu Sayed and Ismail Abu Oda. These three human beings, two of whom hadn’t even begun to live, were murdered. They were family and now they’re gone.

There is no “Why?” here which makes coping difficult. There is nothing I can do for them and that makes it difficult, too. In the face of so much death we have no choice but to push ahead. We also have a responsibility to not forget. The difficulty isn't going away and so we must watch ourselves lest we become become inured to it.

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