A Hole in the Limits of the World

I talked to a man wearing a sweatsuit with the Palestinian flag on it. He told me that his father came here in 1976. It’s ethnic cleansing, it’s an illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and what you’re seeing is people fighting after they’ve been backed into a corner, he said. He likened the struggle to South Africa and Algeria. It’s the same old imperialism and colonialism, he said.

The other side beckons.

Photo by Ari M. Brostoff.

The video means more to me than I can say. A Palestinian man drives a bulldozer through Gaza’s wall, rending a hole in it. An ecstatic crowd runs through the hole, barbed wire curls limp on the ground, and the Caterpillar logo, caked in dust, is barely visible. The cameraman is hoarse, screaming to the crowd running through the opening. Some of them are young enough to have been born under the occupation, and have only known the world behind the wall. Some things are unthinkable until they happen. I’ve seen countless videos of Israeli bulldozers ripping up Palestinian olive groves, videos where families stand by, watching the steel-toothed shovels turn their homes to rubble, videos of children standing on piles of gnarled metal and dust, throwing stones at windshields. I won’t presume to know, exactly, what the man driving the machine was feeling when he ripped a hole in the limits of his world, but I know that, while watching it, I felt the shock and beauty of something previously unimaginable taking place. The master’s tools can’t dismantle the master’s house, but they can break his prison walls.

I read the news and watched the party line get drawn and toed. “The attack was a tragic and painful reminder of how vulnerable Israel has always been,” proclaimed a Times editorial. On Sunday Peter Baker wrote: “American officials said it was too early to say whether the attack was explicitly motivated by a desire by Hamas or its patron Iran to disrupt President Biden’s effort to broker a landmark deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would profoundly reorient the Middle East.” Some variations of this theme have been repeated by everyone from Volodymyr Zelensky to Mike Pence.

Just as 9/11 was supposedly motivated by Arab “hatred” of “American freedom,” the Palestinians, facing almost certain death and genocidal retaliation, hang-glided into a nuclear superpower because Iran told them to fear the abstraction of a “reoriented” Middle East. This is, of course, a racist trope—that Arabs can only ever be puppets and pawns in a geopolitics that they’re too dumb from bloodlust to grasp. It is a parodic repetition of 2001, unsurprising in a country stuck living 9/12 on loop. The transparent cynicism of pinning the blame on Iran, a country that most Palestinians cannot travel to because they cannot travel at all, would be farcical if it wasn’t the first tragic drumbeat in a march toward war. The US military apparatus has wanted war with Iran since they assassinated Suleimani three years ago, and here, at last, is a pretext.

That swirled across my Twitter feed amid a miasma of stupidity: US politicians were giving full-throated support to whatever violence Israel would mete out in retaliation; mourners were elegizing the two-state solution, as though the ascendance of Otzma Yehudit wasn’t the final nail in that coffin; there was, of course, the unslakable American thirst for Arab blood, and endless hand-wringing. Smarmy moralizing about civilian deaths. (On the terrible matter of killing civilians: The US army has killed over four hundred thousand Arab and Muslim civilians since the war on terror began and none of these people ever gave a shit.)

I played out arguments with Baker in my head: “The idea that the Palestinians who went to war on Saturday did so legitimately, with reservations and good reasons, is both unthinkable and inconvenient. The fiction of the savage Arab terrorist, attacking Israel unprovoked at the behest of its ‘patron,’ rests on the fact Palestinians aren’t allowed to maintain an army, making any act of violence, a priori, terrorism. This exonerates the public from the difficult task of weighing Saturday’s attack against the fact that in 2018 the inhabitants of Gaza marched peacefully for their right to return and an end to the blockade, only to be fired on with live ammunition leaving at least 10,000 injured and a hundred fifty dead, the fact that two million Gazans have been imprisoned in an area about the size of Mobile, Alabama, deemed ‘uninhabitable’ by the U.N., without safe drinking water, consistent electricity, or the freedom of movement for the last seventeen years. The fact that, in their prison, they are periodically subjected to sniper and rocket fire, that more of their land is annexed every year by a regime whose explicit goal is to take it all, and the fact that that they’ve been stranded there, refugees in their own land, without allies, statehood, or an end in sight. The possibilities that any of these material deprivations could constitute a legitimate reason for armed struggle can be dismissed with a handwave, because only armies can use violence legitimately and everyone else is a terrorist, deserving whatever comes to them.”

But I’m sick of making these points, of having these arguments. The hole is open now and the other side beckons.

A friend texted me to attend a march in Times Square in solidarity. I asked what it means to protest in the heart of the empire facilitating this. I’ve aligned my soul and also my mind with Palestinian liberation . . . I feel my body should follow suit, he wrote. When it comes to protest in the heart of the imperial core, you can’t get away from virtue signaling, but I’m pretty well convinced post-Floyd that the street is still a site for struggle.

So we went. We saw the opposition, waving Israeli flags and pride flags with the star of David on them, before we saw the red, white, green, and black. Felix González-Torres’s forbidden colors. But then there was a stream of people, draped in Palestinian flags and keffiyehs, muhajjabeen chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” socialist party members in their red shirts, twenty-somethings who cut their teeth marching for black liberation three years ago, uncles by the dozen, Arab teens proudly sporting the first patchy blush of a beard, screaming in cracking voices. These signs that I was not alone in believing in another world.

We walked east on 42nd Street. The Empire State Building came into view. Last night it was striped in blue and white, a symbol so over-determined it needs no analysis. I talked to a man wearing a sweatsuit with the Palestinian flag on it. He told me that his father came here in 1976. It’s ethnic cleansing, it’s an illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and what you’re seeing is people fighting after they’ve been backed into a corner, he said. He likened the struggle to South Africa and Algeria. It’s the same old imperialism and colonialism, he said.

Clots of scaffolding and guardrails of police constricted the human stream, making it trickle down the sidewalk. The police wore zip-ties off their belts like a threat, and the young Arabs wore their keffiyehs over their faces to mask their identity. The complications of the situation, used to justify so much fence-sitting, were beautifully simplified in the slogans. When people are occupied, resistance is justified. And then that onrush of an ego-fissuring feeling I remember from the 2017 travel ban marches, the demonstrations in front of the third precinct in Minneapolis, of dissolving into a river of bodies, mixing my voice with theirs, and rejecting the cruelty of the given world. When we reached the underpass by Grand Central, the concrete bridge made the chants and drums reverberate. Hours later, I can feel their imprint.

Standing in the bus lane, by a police van, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement told me that he was born in Texas. In exile, he said. When Palestine rises up, the diaspora rises with it, and what you saw yesterday was Gazans refusing to die quietly, breaking out of their open-air prison. How do the people back home feel? Of course they’re terrified, but they’re accustomed to Israeli brutality, bombardment, killing of civilians, and collective punishment. The tides are turning.

In a constricted section of sidewalk, I saw a white woman wearing a shirt that read Stop Cop City Free Palestine. I saw an androgyne with bleached eyebrows and a graceful stride. I saw an old man in a bucket hat and mask carrying a sign that said End All U.S. Aid to Israel, with the signature of the party for socialism and liberation. I saw an old man wearing an Egyptian flag like a cape who reminded me of my father. When my dad was 15, Israel annexed the Sinai Peninsula, and he moved to the United States as soon as he could, where he had me four years before 2001, and then he moved again, to Abu Dhabi, and I’ve carried with me, my entire life, the peculiar melancholy of never knowing what I mean when I say the word “home.”

When we emerged from the narrow section, I saw a man crouched, taking photos by a mailbox, Palestinian flag stuck in the pocket of his cargo pants and a keffiyeh on his shoulders. When he pulled the camera away, I realized that I recognized him, that we’d gone to school together in the Emirates. Our school was full of Arabs who were not Emirati nationals, each of us from families that moved regularly. When we graduated, we all scattered, and it’s no longer surprising to run into my classmates around New York. We hugged and walked and chatted, catching up. Omar’s family left Palestine for Texas, and left Texas for the Emirates. He left the Emirates for Virginia, then went back for a few years to work, and now lives in New York, studying documentary photography. We lapsed quickly into the shorthand of third-culture Arabs, the wallahi bro of it all. And is it sentimental to say that this is what it means to me to be an Arab in the 21st century? To watch a war come on and know that there is nothing you can do about it, to live and die at the whims of the West, to see people you know watch your kin get slaughtered for a decade and a half without a care until they resist, to lose your country to dictatorship, war, ethnic cleansing, debt, and failed revolutions, to always be leaving somewhere and then finding old friends where you end up, to scream Intifada Intifada, Long Live the Intifada with your Jewish friends while a Yemeni police officer watches, to stand in front of the Israeli consulate, listening to a speaker quote Kwame Ture, while a drone hovers overhead? Or is it more simply to share the dream of Theodore Herzl? That rip, that hole, that downed wall. It’s a thirst to be safe and free in a place you’ve never been, and for that voyage to also be, impossibly, a homecoming.

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