How Am I?

I am an Arab woman who studies the Middle East. My students know what I believe and what I am grieving every day. It is on my face, in my posture. Even as my field of study comes under attack, as those who research the Middle East are criminalized and subject to harassment, my friends and I continue doing what little we can to live with ourselves. We organize teach-ins and edit statements and donate money and go to protests and vigils and scream for people’s right to live while our university endowment helps fund the missiles killing Palestinian children.

You are teaching me that history’s methodology is indifference. 

A few days after October 7, I received an email from a professor in my department asking how I was doing. I lied and responded that I was OK. Below is what I wish I could have sent instead.

Dear Professor, 

How am I? I am witnessing a genocide. Every day brings unprecedented death and destruction. Every day we say it cannot possibly get worse. Every day it does. The bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital on October 17 was overwhelming. My friends held me as we cried in a campus courtyard. Speechless by the level of brutality, we thought: surely this can go no further. “This must be the end,” we thought. We were wrong.

One way I have coped with the scale of violence and vitriol around me is to think of this moment as exceptional, even though, as a historian, I know the architecture for Gaza’s segregation and destruction was laid many years ago. The “Nakba 2023,” an Israeli minister calls it. I reread the article my grandfather wrote in 1948 and wonder how many more generations will have to bear witness to this calculated destruction. I watch videos where hundreds are buried by bulldozers, nameless, in mass graves. More than 50,000 wounded are tended to on the rubble; Gaza’s medical infrastructure is all but destroyed. Most people have fled in desperation to Southern Gaza, where shelter, bread, and drinking water is scarce. More than a million will live in tents indefinitely, homeless and psychologically traumatized. Beyond Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank and elsewhere are facing murder, imprisonment, and harassment. Still, the worst, we are told, is yet to come.

And despite the deepening atrocities, I am asked to condemn Hamas’s violence again and again to prove my right to mourn. How am I? I am angry. Why do I have to continuously defend my humanity? Of course I find the death of all civilians abhorrent. Of course I value all life. But I should not have to prove my palatability as a good Arab woman over and over before I am allowed to break down. The racist, colonial rhetoric of one-sided terrorism and barbarism from the leadership at our university and in the United States more broadly sanitizes the Israeli destruction of Palestine. It reframes unimaginable violence and collective punishment as humane and legitimate. The Israeli Defense Force is upheld as a “progressive” military. The Palestinians, in contrast, can only be primitive, described as “human animals” by Israeli and American officials, but also by some of our campus leaders. I cannot believe how readily we resurrect these tropes. How gleefully we welcome US and other colonial bloodlust in places we deem uncivilized: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Gaza in 2008–09, Gaza in 2014, Gaza in 2019, Gaza in 2021, Gaza today. All this in my lifetime alone. A more technologically advanced weapon is not less lethal, or more just.

I am struggling to accept the deafening silence of those around me. Short of condemning the horrors that are unfolding in Palestine, I’ve seen a broad unwillingness to even recognize the heightened racism and the anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim sentiment across the country and on campus. Some professors are doing important behind-the-scenes advocacy work, which I appreciate—but it is just not enough as students are publicly harassed and intimidated by some of the most powerful people on campus, in the media, and in the corporate world. Your students have been receiving death threats. Can you even imagine what that would feel like? What are tenured professors doing while the administration caves to conservative donor pressure characterizing students as terrorists? Right now, this moment requires visible and public support. I’ve been on college campuses for almost a decade now, watching people cry wolf over “free speech.” What hypocrisy, to now hang your students out to dry when they dare express their opinions. What is a professor’s purpose if not to educate and protect your students? I keep asking myself: what future do I have in academia if I cannot stand up for young adults as they build their political vocabulary or speak to basic human dignities?

How am I? How can I truthfully answer your email? You know I cannot articulate my pain while remaining within the boundaries of our professional graduate student/teacher relationship. While I understand the need for nuance, I am disappointed to see professors, especially imperial historians, hide behind a guise of “complexity,” as if silence is a form of measured intellectual rationality. Calling the annihilation of a people “complex” weaponizes the language of academia to cleanse the death of entire families. I see the careful historical lens you and your colleagues apply to partition, empire, ethno-nationalism. But Palestine is always “too complex”: these Muslim savages couldn’t possibly have a politics, only a pathology. I am having a complete crisis of disciplinary faith; you are teaching me that history’s methodology is indifference. In thirty years, when I teach my students about the Genocide of Gaza without the tired orientalist tropes of primordial sectarian hate, will I have to teach them first that the structure of this world is apathy? That historical analysis is only important to foregone conclusions, deferred to after bodies have decayed? Your “complexity” is submission. You excise the politics of your work, turn material and intimate violence into metaphors and grant applications. It is so extractive and hollow, how you and your colleagues build your careers and stake your reputations on the historical pain and exploitation of empire but willfully ignore the genocidal full stop of an ongoing imperial apartheid today.

“How are you,” some fellow graduate students ask. I wish I could tell them that I feel completely abandoned. They work on imperialism, radical socialism, racism, and power, but say they are “just not protest people.” Everyone loves to envision what they would do in moments of injustice, but it turns out most won’t even call their congresspeople. A friend talked down to me the other day, saying she’s just “political in different ways.” She the intellectual, and me the angry, screaming native. She was talking about her dissertation. A dissertation is not politics when people are dying. But I will beg for even less: I do not need my colleagues to be political, I need them to be human. As I walk in and out of the department these days, some of them have stopped looking at me, as if looking away might make our suffering less real. Maybe for them it does. I don’t know what they’re so afraid of. I am too tired to fight. For weeks I cried every morning. Now I am completely empty inside.

I am exhausted by how much this country cares about the speech acts of college students. As Palestinians face mass death, 18-year-olds become brave for signing a statement, they chant slogans and turn into radicals. I shout alongside them: “We are on the right side of history.” A balm of self-righteousness as Palestinians have been murdered for seventy-five years. How selfish to make it about us. But also, how cruel and deceptive that this country has made it about us, has made us debate taskforces while Gaza is reduced to rubble. Why do we only talk about Palestinians when they are being killed? Even then, we barely do. A professor tells me I should stop watching the news: “It doesn’t seem to be doing you any favors.” Four hundred people died the morning they told me that. But in general, the Western news cycle has all but moved on. I have to scroll to find the updates, the death tolls. Here, our university issues notices with a sweeping indifference: “War in the Middle East.” We have returned to the status quo. It is not news but a punchline.

I was cooking dinner when a British friend said: “It is just so sad that Egypt isn’t opening the border.” What dissonance to her statement: to be so sad that future generations of Gazans, most of whom are already refugees, will not grow up in tents in Sinai. What is so sad is that Israel has killed upward of 18,800 people as of this writing, that the number increases by the hour. What is so sad is that Israel can bomb the southern border with Egypt with impunity. What is so sad is that Palestinians are paying for land with their lives. In most conversations these days, I am asked to ventriloquize Hamas, or Sisi, or Hezbollah, to atone for their failings. To prove we did this to ourselves. Meanwhile I watch the democratically elected politicians of your countries, countries that helped orchestrate the very genesis of this conflict, now play warlord, vetoing and abstaining resolutions and cutting checks on a genocide as they jeer for the other “team” to win. 

How am I? I’m disgusted by myself. The complicity rolls off me. I moved to this country when I was 19 and became a “good Arab,” a benchmark to prove this country’s tolerance, to make people here feel happy about their limited acceptance of a perennial other. My presence allows your politics to become sending this email: check in on the Arab graduate student and move on. In the class I teach for, your colleague lectures us about histories of settler colonial dispossession. He plays the thoughtful intellectual while categorically ordering me not to talk about the ongoing genocide in Palestine. He says it is for my own protection—as if my expertise on Palestine is irrational, and not a defendable academic critique. But I hate that I listened to him. I hate that I don’t stop his lecture and say: “let’s think about comparative dispossession, about meaningful parallels between violence here and violence there.” I hate my own weakness.

In office hours, a student I teach asked me whether, as an Arab woman, I now feel uncomfortable in public places. Two days earlier three college students had been shot in Vermont for wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic. I know she asked because she herself feels unsafe, and my heart broke hearing how the fear in her voice was so large, it could only be expressed as concern for me. How to tell her that her fear is justified? Protests and student groups are being banned. The FBI has been called in. Black and brown students are being criminalized. Everyone is just waiting for us to shut up. I hate your identity politics. But by the rules of your own game, my very existence is not silent. I am an Arab woman who studies the Middle East. My students know what I believe and what I am grieving every day. It is on my face, in my posture. Even as my field of study comes under attack, as those who research the Middle East are criminalized and subject to harassment, my friends and I continue doing what little we can to live with ourselves. We organize teach-ins and edit statements and donate money and go to protests and vigils and scream for people’s right to live while our university endowment helps fund the missiles killing Palestinian children.

You ask if my friends and family are directly affected. This question always confuses me. Every day, more missiles hit my borders while I watch Israeli threats of escalation on the news. Every day my tax dollars in this country pay for the genocidal calls I read in your newspapers: “If we killed 4,000 children it wasn’t enough.” Everyday people with the same names as my friends, my aunts and uncles, my brother, my mother, my father are murdered. In the New England cold I help write out all of the known names of the dead on an impossibly long tarp. I watch frozen as a passerby spits on us. His spit lands on the name of a slaughtered 12-year-old boy. Still, I say I am lucky. I am not scared for my family, yet. They are close, but in places where the violence should never reach them. Historically I know that is not true, I know we could be next. For now, I am still lucky. I am not Palestinian. But I am heartbroken every day. I am so scared for what is to come, and I feel infinitely lonely as I see laid bare this campus’s hierarchy of humanity.

How do you call a ceasefire on a genocide? The “pause” already came and went: a rhetorical sleight of hand in the “Israel-Hamas” war—as your newspapers love to call it. To call anything now a “pause” is insulting, it implies that the fighting was symmetric all along, that two warring parties can put down their weapons and meet at the negotiating table. How am I? On Zoom, I listen to a Palestinian surgeon say it is the IDF’s mission to turn Gaza into a “death world.” He speaks of those left to die slowly in front of their families, of the shards of metal lodged into children, of the white phosphorous raining from the skies, how it bores deeply into soft flesh. My parents listen to the same talk thousands of miles away and we text each other in horror, succinctly, sparingly, barely finding the words. This genocidal carnage is not even disavowed; the Israeli state loudly proclaims Gaza must be turned into a place “temporarily or permanently impossible to live in.” What callous and calculated inhumanity. What good is bearing witness to all this cruelty? Why am I even writing this? How am I? I know that nothing we do here will stop the killing. Every protest I go to is a vigil. Every chant is an elegy. How am I? I will never forget who looked away. We will never recover from this. We cannot go back. Shame on all of us. May we all be forgiven for looking away.

How am I? No. How are you? Are you directly affected? Are you OK?

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