I went to the demonstration against the Ghaza massacre in San Francisco last Saturday. My nine-year old son became so troubled by the images of the slaughtered children at some point that my husband took him home. An old high school friend and I continued with the march down Market and Mission streets. A group leading the march was carrying a bullhorn, yelling out slogans that other marchers echoed: “Free, free Palestine,” “No justice, no peace,” etc. Periodically, the bullhorn cried out “Takbir” and the group broke into “Allaho akbar. Allaho akbar…”
I did not repeat allaho akbar after the promptings of the bullhorn but let me tell you how I felt. I felt that allaho akbar was the closest expression of the combination of the mourning and rage that I was feeling.
Earlier that day my friend, let’s call her Mina, came to our house to go to the demonstration with us. We were both instinctively dressed in black. As we walked to the BART we talked about how we shrink from talking to the everyday people in our lives about how we feel about what Israel is doing. The day before, I had run into the Palestinian father of one of my son’s friends, picking up our kids from school. This man, let’s call him Raouf, and I can talk. We understand each other. As we were talking about Ghaza a couple of other mothers walked by, offering him some mild, liberal inanities about what is going on. Then they rolled their eyes and said, “It’s time for regime change”—and they walked on. I did my best not to glare at them; I know that it’s stupid to take my anger out on them. Now, Raouf is one of the kindest and most dignified people you are likely to meet and he speaks to people with friendly but restrained honesty. He does his best not to appear threatening; the fact that he’s Christian helps. But the fact is, after the liberal ladies left, Raouf and I were relieved. The painful truth, we both know, is that these people don’t really feel what is going on. There is nothing you can do when someone doesn’t feel something.
On our walk to the demonstration Mina and I exchanged accounts of our recent encounters with this lack of feeling—and then we shut up about it. There’s really not much to say. But we were both boiling inside with very strong emotions. When those strings of allaho akbars were released on the street we stole glances at each other but said nothing. Neither of us would be caught dead shouting allaho akbar on the streets of San Francisco. We are both deeply unreligious and very cognizant of how all those impressionable young people of our generation who shouted allaho akbar on the streets in Tehran so many years ago regretted their folly big time. Perhaps I myself would have let out some allaho akbars had I been in Iran at the time, so far be it from me to blame others. But there was a different feel to those allaho akbars in Tehran and the ones I was hearing yesterday. It’s not easy for me to say this, but this time I almost responded to the calls for takbir. I had to suppress an urge that almost bubbled to the surface. Somewhere very deep in my consciousness I registered the capacity of this phrase, Allaho Akbar, for expressing the combination of sorrow, pain, and rage that everyone around me was feeling.
After the demonstration I came home and checked for news. I regularly go to InformationCleaningHouse.info for news links and commentary. On the homepage there was a picture of a mother hovering over the bloodied body of a ten-or-so-year old boy stretched on a metal slab in a morgue. The boy had died with eyes open and arms outstretched. I completely lost it over this image. I cried with heaves that perhaps only mothers are capable of. I have a son that age but that’s not the only reason. The fact is that every single Palestinian child looks so much like any other kid I have ever seen. These children feel as much part of my life as my own, my best friend’s, or the random kid whose back I give a pat to when he or she rams into me on the playground. I have no words to describe how I felt looking at the picture of mother and son in the morgue. All I can say is that again from deep inside my consciousness came: “Astaghforellah.” That’s what I kept repeating: “Astaghforellah, astaghforellah…”
Then there were the young men at the demonstration, wrapped in kafiyehs and oozing very angry male energy. They acted the way young men do when they want to look as menacing and bad-ass as possible. I’m used to this act. When I taught in an inner-city college most of my young black kids put on this act. I got a kick out of it and I didn’t blame them either. The preppiest and tweediest of them explained to me that even with them ladies nervously clutch their purses in elevators. Looking at those young Palestinian men, boys really, my heart bled. The pictures of toddlers wrapped in bloodied shrouds did my son in and I trembled for those young men whose anger screamed grief as much as it did revenge. I tremble for the young men who have no choice but to fight. I tremble that what they expect of themselves—and what society expects of them—is to fight, to defend, to set right. For every woman, child, or old person who dies only God knows how many young men are slaughtered.
I also got reminded of the Israeli father of a former classmate of my son’s. This guy oozed conflictedness. He had left his job with the Israeli army and eventually Israel itself because he couldn’t handle being part of what his country was doing. His photography exhibit of pictures of the wall were vandalized in Tel Aviv and he had become a pariah in his own family. When he had left the army his mother had said, “So you’re not going to defend us anymore?” One schmuck of a Jewish mother. We have a similar kind in Iran who put white headbands on their little boys and offer them for martyrdom. I recoil in horror from this kind of motherhood.
Raouf’s younger brother, a deeply hurt and angry young Palestinian—a Christian sympathizer of Hamas, I might add (I also know many Christian Lebanese who are sympathizers of Hezbollah)—was packed off by his family to San Francisco during the second Intifada to keep him, basically, alive. I identify with the Palestinian mother who ships her son out of the country. To me, quite honestly, it is a Solomonic situation. To me, the real mother is the one who cannot bear to see her child hacked in two. Call me whatever you want but I’m never going to expect my son to defend me or my country or my anything. I just want my son to live and be whole—without a missing arm or a blinded eye, as Raouf put it. But… and there is a big “but” here. We can think whatever we want as parents but there’s nothing we can do about how our sons feel. There’s nothing you can do when someone doesn’t feel something and there’s nothing you can do when someone does. These young Palestinian men are feeling things very strongly.
I felt very bad the night after the demonstration, couldn’t fall asleep. I rummaged through the medicine cabinet for any painkiller or tranquilizer that I could find. Drinking a couple of beers had not helped, I needed an opiate. I spent a delirious night with images running in my head of the boy in the morgue, my son, the young men in kafiyehs, and my 25-year old stepson. My stepson has been wearing a kafieyh in solidarity with Ghaza. I see him in Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall; he has that kind of capacity for compassion and courage. But I am selfishly glad that he is more involved with the Zapatistas than the International Solidarity Movement. I saw those young Palestinians as so many young men like Raouf’s brother, like my Zapatista-sympathizer stepson, and indeed like my own son in a few years. I felt myself in the embrace of those outstretched arms of the boy in the morgue. I wept and I wept. I am weeping still. My mind swings between echoes of astaghforellah and allaho akbar. I am incapable of saying anything else.
Remember the guy who said religion is the opiate of the people? He was right on more than one thing, you know! There is pain for which we take whatever opiate there is, in the medicine cabinet or on the street. I’m at that point. Forgive my rambling.
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