Holding on to Ghosts

Posted on October 17, 2010

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I suppose it’s going around like the flu, and the vectors multiply the closer we get to the mid-term election of the historic presidency of Barack Obama. That presidency was supposed to bring about a plethora of change—it was billed that way by the production company that launched it, the Democratic party. It was billed that way by a pliant media, which for the most part, rarely questioned the civil rights era-Obama connection. And it was billed that way by millions of voters, who really did want to see it—and saw it even as Obama time and time again insisted that it wasn’t there, that he would not be the candidate of change, that business would be as usual, as usual, except for some tinkering with our war machine and a pleasant outlook. Well, it turns out Obama was right, agua-fiestas that he is.

Much of my experience in the political world has been in cyber-space since the collapse of the anti-war movement in mid-decade. It’s a different universe there—many of those people have only gotten politically active and aware since the 2004 election or sometime after. A lot of that energy is dedicated towards unleashing anger, and though it may have had some kind of positive effect, creating a platform for anti-establishmentarian voices of the netroots, it seems that the apogee of that particular movement—one of the comfortable afflicting the more comfortable from their desk or home-office–has also revealed its limits.

Here we are. The old activists are burnt out, they blew their load by 2006, and except for some constructively annoying hold-outs (Code Pink, etc.), have revealed the limits of civil disobedience and demonstration in a populace in which anti-war anger, rather than displeasure, will never reach more than 2 or 3% of the population. The activism of cyber-space has had some historic moments; the netroots have accomplished quite a bit (which, in the wider world, of course, is always very little and not enough), and as always shouts out to FiredogLake and Glenn Greenwald, who have never let up and continue to make a difference in the area of information dissemination.

That leaves the rest of us: anger wilting to bitterness; bold voice turned inward into withering self-critique and bickering; tragically ineffective, with no hope for the road ahead. No, I don’t have any answers. If you want to give up, that’s on you. Go to a ball game, buy some comic books, see the next blockbuster, love your partner and/or animal, lose yourself in art, put a trick stand on your bicycle and hang out in West Oakland. It’s all on you, no one will criticize you for it at this juncture.

But I’d like to tell the story of why I won’t quit caring, and why I won’t quit shouting into the darkness.

As bleak as things seem now, for me, they have definitely been bleaker. I lived in Palestine during the second Intifada. Though I rediscovered the homeland for mostly personal reasons (fun) I got caught up in a tepid war that destroyed the home that I had just found. My lungs began collapsing that first year of 2000, first the right in a collapse so serious that it shifted my internal organs to one side. Then, the left. Every two or three years, a collapse, a slitting open of my side like a fish, a harpoon rammed into my thoracic cavity, a tube put to the hole. That all may never stop.

When I tried to go back to Palestine to find some closure some years ago, to seal the wound of the trauma—not the trauma of having been there, but the trauma of being back in the US, of knowing the world was on fire, while waiting in line to get my morning coffee at Starbucks, before clocking into my corporate temp job—I was denied entry. I lost most of my savings on that useless thousand dollar ticket, I returned jobless, and I realized that it was, for all intents and purposes for someone with my income level, an exile. I would never stand in Palestine again. The little stone home where my father was born, with the collapsed roof, the inner floor covered in goat shit, and the walls in Intifada slogan spray-paint, the one I was going to rebuild and live in, would forever be a dream.

I was tired. Tired of politics, tired of race, tired of hatred, tired of apathy. The only thing I hated more than Israel was America. I hated the American discourse of race, of struggle, incontrovertibly wedded to ideas of affluence, of pleasure of property and wealth—in short, a useless set of ideological tropes, as genuine as the idea that Coke adds life or that an Ipod turns you into a black-shadow dance-genius. I fought that despair nonetheless. I’ve fought it with this blog, as useless and unread as it is. I’ve fought it by always speaking my mind, and never taking the easy way out when the issues I care about emerge. I’ve fought it by being so angry that I’ve alienated half the world.

But I lost that fight recently. In my own my mind at least, though in the world’s eyes, I probably lost it a long time ago. Shortly after they removed a piece of my lung last year, and shortly after I realized that going to UC Berkeley would not be some magic bullet to help me get a meaningful job involved in the struggles that matter to me, I lost it. Where struggle had always been my reason to live, struggle now seemed pointless. It was just an endless succession of things to get through, tests that are never graded, tasks that decay without appreciation and are forgotten in the rubble of a constantly collapsing disposable culture.

More and more I just wanted to divorce myself from all of that. To erase the person I’d been. A long time ago, when I was very young, I tattooed an Arabic word on my left wrist. The word Djurah—wound. To me, it was a symbol of the fight of the Arab world, it was a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. It was a way to brand myself Falastin, to own it, to love it. I cradled that word on my wrist. When my Arab people couldn’t read it because it was so poorly written and elaborated, I protected it from them, for them. Even though I branded myself for love and pride, tattoos in the Islamic world are for slaves and prostitutes—they are haraam. When my Arab people looked down on me, I cradled it from their withering gaze, protecting it for them, from them.

But in the last few years, I began seeing Djurah as an empty brand—a logo, a lovemark. Hollow, without purpose, a reminder that I don’t belong to any one group, that I am not Palestinian, or Colombian or American. It reminded me that in this world of mono-cultures, I am exactly what people want me to be. Nothing. It served to remind me that the Palestinian issue is interminable, lots of light, little heat. Lots of opportunities for drama and tragedy and for Western excitement, but no opportunities for an end to it. No road to a normal life. And for me, a constant symbol that I can’t return to my never-land home. Rebuild my father’s old house. Live.

I grew to hate that tattoo, and over the years I began to consider covering it over with something else, a decision I’ve gotten closer and closer to this past year. On Thursday, I went to a tattoo parlor ready to do it, simply on impulse. But the place was closed. The insufferably pretentious indigoed tattoo artist stared at me through the window, indicating absolutely nothing but disdain for my relatively ink-free skin. Friday, I almost went out again to have it covered. I had the design picked out, had thought it through a little better. An antique pad lock, with a little sacred heart where the key would go—a pleasantly innocuous and ultimately and purposefully meaningless tattoo, signifying nothing. It would be nice to look at, with its reds and gunpowder blues, and I would never again have to answer the question of what the word Djurah meant and what it, in turn, meant to me, and what that meant about me.

Life got in the way, and I forgot to do it, and I tabled it for Sunday or Monday.

In the meantime, I went to Intersection for the Arts on Saturday to see Sharif Abu Hamdeh’s play Habibi. I was ambivalent about it. I thought there was a good chance it would be stilted and muddled with old and worn out tropes about loss and exile. I knew there was a good chance that it would make me angry, because almost everything about Palestine makes me angry no matter what its content or meaning.

But it was a beautifully simple story, with a small cast and a complex structure. It was the story of a father and his son. The father of the old world, the son of the new, they tried vainly to find a place of common ground that recognized the burdens of each and that would give them a place to lay them down together, to be one and see things the way families are supposed to. They longed to see the horizon as one, from a common vantage point. The terrain of that struggle was the contest of names and habits in the every day Western world, which calls over and over again to let down one’s burdens–not to share them, but to walk away from them.

The director used slide projection to add visuals to the story, and one of these was a printed Arabic poem. And in that poem, I recognized the word—or thought I did, it doesn’t matter. The curves and spirals of written Arabic, the ghost that has haunted me throughout my life, inscrutable—mine, but never mine, the language of strange people, the language of my father. Not my language, until I tattooed it on my wrist. How easily it could be lost, that ghost. With just one expression of fed-up, with just a lazy acquiescence to the incessant demand to let go of the old struggles, to find a new place without burdens. It could have all been lost!

From one moment to the next, there was a click. I couldn’t imagine what had possessed me to even think about wiping off that old word, that had haunted and annoyed me for nearly two decades,  reminding me that I am Palestinian, whether I want to be or not. Whether I really am, or not, from someone else’s viewpoint.

I was going to erase away who I was, because I thought it would be easier. I was going to quit. But it wouldn’t have been easier. It just would have been lighter. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see that. I’m grateful that someone went to the trouble to show me that. That’s reason enough for me to put off giving up.

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