06/06/2024

For months, I’ve watched devastation from five thousand miles away. But what is the task of the diasporic witness?

    Afew weeks ago, I got an upper molar filling at one of those hip dental practices targeted towards millennials, all green tiles and personalized screens. In the dental chair, I watched an Anthony Bourdain episode on Beirut, then lunged for my phone as soon as I was alone.

    For months, I’ve watched hundreds of clips of dead children. Men with their limbs blown off. Babies whose faces are covered in burns. Mothers cradling white-shrouded children. These children, these babies and men, are somewhere I’ve never been, somewhere my father was born, somewhere my grandparents, my uncles, my great-grandparents, lived for years. For months, I’ve watched American officials scrunch their foreheads in consternation at press conferences. My dissociation has become more norm than exception: I walk down Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn as though I’m gliding, as though someone is transporting my body through sheer will. I enter rooms and freeze, stop speaking mid-sentence, forgetting where I’d begun. My grief is dormant during the day, masked by alternating helplessness and frenetic bursts of energy.

    The exiled has the option to look away, but that option is only an illusion: to look away is to further disconnect yourself

    ~

    The foxes shake my grief awake. I’d forgotten about zoos. I’d forgotten about animals. I let out a sob so loud someone knocks on the door to see if something is wrong. Everything OK? the technician says when I emerge. It is no longer clear where is safe to grieve Palestinian life, even Palestinian foxes, so I shake my head. Just a long day, I say in my perfect American accent.

    ~

    “Where would history be without the witness?” Robin Wagner-Pacifici writes in Dilemmas of the Witness, and later clarifies: “What will the witness record? Will the witness attend to the scene or will he or she turn away? How will the witness recount and represent the act after its occurrence?” But this is the modern role of the witness. In Greek, the word for witness is martis, as Giorgio Agamben writes, derived from the verb remember: martis becomes martyr. Those “who thus bore witness to their faith”, as Agamben defined them. In Arabic, the word istashid means to have borne witness to God: that is, to have been martyred.

    Palestinians stand amidst the rubble of a mosque and buildings following Israeli bombardment around Rafah, on Wednesday.
    Palestinians stand amidst the rubble of a mosque and buildings following Israeli bombardment around Rafah, on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

    ~

    One of my favorite lines by Darwish: I am from there. I am from here. / I am not there and I am not here. Five thousand six hundred miles away, the diasporic witness is witness to their dying, to their bearing witness to God, and witness to their witness. Therefore: a diptych of witnessing. Only one is left to speak on it.

    ~

    Instagram has become a boneyard: a site of demolition, of howling children, amputations and third-degree burns and heads flattened between slabs of concrete. I watch a boy with half a face let out garbled sounds through rubble. Here’s a hand under a crushed building. Here’s an ambulance wading through flooded water. Here’s a doctor stripped of clothes, his hands held over his head.

    ~

    “Exile is strangely compelling to think about,” Edward Said wrote, “but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place.” This rift is by design. It is not theoretical, the mere poetic byproduct of longing. The disconnection between the here and there, between the diasporic and the person on the ground, is an extension of the violence of dispossession. It means that the exiled has the option to look away, but that option is only an illusion: to look away is to further disconnect yourself. The diasporic witness must root themselves in steadfastness, must engage not in the individualistic, late capitalist tacks of avoidance, detachment, distraction, productivity, but in the practices being modeled for us by those that are still there.

    ~

    Here is the most shameful thing I could confess: I forget about the land all the time. I forget about the sea. I forget about the stones stacked into houses, forget my grandparents and great-grandparents lived next to water. I forget about their sage, their za’atar, their olive trees. I forget about their sunsets. This is connected to a larger grief: I forget about land in general. I’ve spent my life in cities. I am American and Arab, but come from a long line of farmers and peasants and merchants – a great-grandfather who traveled the sea for textiles and garments, another who spent his life caretaking the earth, people who knew the land and water intimately, as recently as two generations ago.

    ~

    This forgetting feels like treachery. When I finally do dream of Gaza, after weeks of nightmares about shrieking children, nightmares about debating talking heads, my dream-self drives down a road, finds a rooftop, kneels to touch water, with the same thought echoing: This is a place and I’m here.

    ~

    On a July day in 1948, David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “We must do everything to ensure they never do return.”

    ~

    Let me start at the beginning. Let me start at a beginning: my father was born in Gaza. What, then, is my claim to Gaza? A good witness should be wary of how the I rearranges the air in the room. Nonetheless: my claim is my father. My oak tree of a father, born without a passport, now an American. His mother and father married in Gaza in 1954. My grandfather’s family was living in a refugee camp near the beach. My grandmother had a house in Haret el Daraj: the neighborhood of stairs. He was born on a Wednesday by a midwife, the third son. One year later, his family moved to Kuwait, and he spent every summer of his childhood in Gaza. He played with chicks in a courtyard. He learned soccer there. He was bathed by his grandmother. He ate her hot bread. He was born in Gaza because the other villages – Iraq Sweidan, al-Majdal, places of farming, of almond trees and grape crops – were eradicated.

    ~

    The idea of sumud has become a multifaceted cultural concept among Palestinians: it means steadfastness, a derivative of “arranging” or “saving up”, even “adorning”. It implies composure braided with rootedness, a posture that might bend but will not break.

    checkered image of a beach interwoven with a picture of a plant with berries or olives
    ‘When I say I forget about the land, I am naming the truest defeat of all.’ Illustration: Samin Ahmadzadeh/The Guardian/Hala Alyan/Getty Images

    ~

    Diasporic identity is a matter of engagement: how coupled you feel to your roots, to your homeland, to language, to your kin across the world. The most effective displacement is that which becomes metaphysical. Ben-Gurion wasn’t just talking about physical return, a horde of Arabs brandishing keys, but something more embedded. The fantasy he had was the diasporic not returning even in imagination. I am not there and I am not here. When I say I forget about the land, I am naming the truest defeat of all.

    ~

    What is the role of the diasporic witness? To remain steadfast in what she has seen, what she has understood and learned. To remain undistracted. I write a poem. I write another poem. I cut my hair. I watch a young child’s skin burn from white phosphorus. I spend my time on the L train clicking through headlines. I construct arguments that go nowhere. I give talks about endurance, about reorienting our thinking around care, about building our capacity to keep watching. Then I go to a holiday gathering and spend two hours trying to convince a woman why withholding water in Gaza is a war crime. Eventually, she acknowledges that this is terrible – if that is the case. I decide this scaffolded concession is the best I’ll get, and pretend to take a phone call.

    ~

    In the courtroom, a witness is the most precious resource there is. Entire cases are made, or broken, based on their presence, their legitimacy, their trustworthiness. A good witness doesn’t debate the truth, she stewards it. A good witness doesn’t get sidetracked. A good witness is the evidence of what has happened.

    ~

    Who, then, does my shame serve? It further cuts me off, further dislocates me

    Every morning, I see new, soft-cheeked children. Sometimes they are dead. Sometimes they are shaking so violently, I can hear their teeth through my AirPods. Across five thousand miles. Their onesies. Their mouths slightly parted. Their glassily open eyes. My consent is required to see the children: I must click to unblur their bodies, the cut of their screams. Who is the blurring for? Who does it serve? The more dead you witness, the more dead the algorithm will serve you. The algorithm needs emojis, cheeky spellings of cities to circumvent the algorithm, a watermelon emoji, so that you can continue to witness. The algorithm then needs your solemn face, a photograph of your latte, your daughter’s hand, to grant the witness you bear access to more views.

    ~

    I always sign out of my Instagram. I watch and watch. Then I log off. At the core of this is the shame. The shame of the here. The shame of all that the here offers: spare water, radiators, antibiotics, the ability to log off. The additional step of logging on, a farcical pretense of distance or discipline, I’m not sure which. My fingers can beckon disaster; they can tuck it away.

    Who, then, does my shame serve? Shame is an emotion of contraction. It further cuts me off, further dislocates me from there.

    ~

    How to believe the diasporic witness?

    ~

    In legal settings, there are guidelines on how to cross-examine a witness, make a question of her truth. A witness is most easily discredited by showing they’ve already been discredited, using their past or selfhood as indictment.

    There is a story about five babies left to rot in a hospital. They were found decomposing, insects nesting in their limbs. I wait for the story to break in English before sharing it, then marvel at how well the project of delegitimization has worked on me.

    The diasporic witness is discredited for their proximity to the land or disputed for their severance from it. Why don’t you go back to Gaza, I’ve been told. Or: Keep writing from your warm house. Compared to those there, the diasporic witness is ridiculously buffered: by our passports, our time to muse, our code-switching. But in the end, we are Palestinian mouths, are Palestinian eyes: those wayward thresholds, they are to be doubted. Our allegiance will always be questioned. Our truths will always come with an asterisk.

    ~

    When the list of martyrs is released, I don’t search the names for my own, for my father’s last name, his mother’s last name. What could I do with that name, in black ink, next to people I’ve never known, will never know? How to explain that when I do see that name, my name, later that day – in my office with the succulents and art poster from Reykjavik – in an email from my boss, I think for a brief, disorganized moment, Who?

    people hold food containers near large pots
    A group of volunteers distribute food to displaced Palestinians who were forced to migrate to the south and are struggling to find food as Israeli attacks continue, in Rafah on Wednesday. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

    ~

    We have been let into the lives of the people in Gaza in the most awful, intimate ways. We’ve watched them bury their granddaughters. We’ve watched them recognize their mother’s limp arms. We’ve watched them keel and mourn and beg, in their most despairing moments, in the face of inexpressible physical pain. We’ve watched their home videos. Their befores. We’ve watched their first and last birthday parties.

    ~

    In my graduate psychology training, one story haunted me. The story of Kitty Genovese, a bartender in her late twenties, who in 1964 was raped and stabbed outside her apartment building in Queens. There were dozens of witnesses reported, only two of them called the police. By the time I was taught the case, much of it had been debunked – the number of witnesses, the extent to which witnesses had been aware of the attack and remained unresponsive – but it nonetheless launched a body of research into the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility in times of crisis. The causes of silence were eventually believed to be more complicated: elements of male-female power dynamics, as many believed it to be a lover’s quarrel; the assumption that others would intervene; not recognizing the severity of the attack; only hearing or seeing parts of the attack, not the entirety. But some core facts have remained unchallenged: there was an attack and people ignored cries for help; dozens witnessed something and their witnessing ended there.

    ~

    Tragic, the newscasters say, as though the starvation and massacres are acts of God. Tragic, the government representatives say. Tragic, the president with my vote says. The president I toasted a mimosa to on election day. Fourteen years sober and I still sipped that sugar. It was sunny and strangers played music and I danced on the pavements of Williamsburg. Now I watch that president bypass Congress to send in more weapons, and in the coming days witness what those weapons do to the bodies of my kin. The task of the witness is to cultivate steadiness. The task of the witness is not to raise her voice or shake her hand, to stay calm, to remain legible.

    ~

    The thing about diaspora is that the option of looking away is a trick mirror – doing it is never a relief. In the courtroom, on our phones, in the streets: a witness who does not speak, does not act, does not remember, cannot be called upon.

    ~

    What the diasporic witness must remember: our claim to the land is non-negotiable. It requires no permission. It requires no mediation. I don’t need that claim sanctioned by anyone. That is where my grandparents lived. Their grandparents. Their grandparents. You can destroy all the libraries and archives and villages in the world, you can make return impossible, you can rename a city, you can blow up a university, refashion a history book, and it still won’t change that fact.

    ~

    In the face of incomprehensible destruction, what does the diasporic witness have to offer? What do we build in a rift the size of countries? Our poetry? Our hoarse voices at a protest, seared by what we’ve been spared? A last name pronounced in two languages. The promise of a long, unruly memory.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *