One magical night in Yaffa

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“Last night feels like a dream,” one of us said, the following afternoon, voicing a sentiment that all three of us were sharing. The night had indeed had all the elements of a dream. There was its lingering hold over us, its obvious evasion of capture in words, and our repeating moments of disbelief that it had happened at all. Even down to the details, it was dreamlike: there will appear a car, and whether you follow that car will depend on whether it moves to the right or to the left. There will come a time when you must take off your own shoes in the middle of driving and put on your friend’s shoes. And there will be lamp-lit alleyways of ancient stone, a crescent moon, and the roar of the sea. This is the story of a night that never should have happened, and one that, because it never should have happened, had to.

It was a most generous invitation that had brought me to Palestine: two dear friends, Malak and Ghassan, recent graduates of a small liberal arts college in the U.S. where I teach, had arranged for me to come and spend time with them and their families, and to see and feel first-hand a sliver of the lived reality that had shaped who they were. My two-week visit would be drawing to a close in a few days’ time, and I had already witnessed so much, so intensely, that I had stopped remembering my dreams.

Every day was just about living to the fullest, savoring every detail, much of it quietly, for words kept failing to do justice; the hardest part of the work of processing would have to come later. By the afternoon of this particular day, Ghassan and Malak had hatched a plan, the general outlines of which involved heading out from our current location in Ramallah toward Jericho, and grilling on the shores of the Dead Sea. I looked at Malak quizzically, knowing that he faced severe restrictions upon where he could travel (having a green ID, and being from a refugee camp), and he gave me a quick reassurance. They chatted between themselves. I do not speak Arabic, and while I wish I had even a minimal grasp of the language, to enrich this experience, in the end this mattered little, as I have such profound trust in and respect for these friends, and such a strong desire to learn whatever they were willing to teach me, that I had put myself entirely in their hands.

Back in the U.S., we had spent our days in the classroom discussing history, theory, political philosophy, movements of resistance to oppression, all the myriad and endless forms through which struggles for justice had been undertaken, and again and again, our discussions would return to the themes of everyday acts of resistance and of the power of subversion. But now we were in a very particular reality. All of us knew that anything was possible, as we got into the car. That I did not know—but could have easily gleaned had I not fundamentally suspended all disbelief in order to try to live this out fully, and to see what they wanted me to see—was that their asking me to sit up front on the passenger’s side wasn’t simply for the pleasure of the views. Nor that their playing around with hilariously exaggerated California accents as a running joke over the previous days was something much more than just a source of amusement. The student becomes the teacher. And a good teacher never ceases being a student. Let it ride.

As we set out, around 4:30 p.m. or so, the sunlight was that of an early evening in late July, and the music playing was Bob Marley. Ghassan was at the wheel. Due to his family’s long-maintained connection to a residence in Jerusalem, he had a yellow license plate on his car, which gave him much more freedom of movement than the other plate Palestinians were likely to have: the green and white one, which didn’t allow one out of the heavily guarded militarized zones of the West Bank. Even with this plate, there were places Ghassan knew his presence would face disallowance by force. Early in the going, we stopped at a gas station, and the two of them discussed whether Ghassan’s wearing flip-flops to drive was illegal. Any trivial matter within one’s control for which one might be hassled had to be eliminated. The two of them took a moment to trade shoes, and the journey continued. We had been driving for some forty minutes when we stopped and idled the car while the two of them chatted, this time in Arabic. We were near a little shop, and I surmised they were checking one last time to see if we had all the supplies we needed. Did we have enough snacks? Should we get more for our time by the shore? No one got out of the car to get any supplies, but Malak shifted in his seat, away from the middle of the backseat, to directly behind me. In a few more heartbeats, we were on our way, coming quickly upon the road sign pointing us in the direction of the Dead Sea. We proceeded in exactly the opposite direction of the sign’s arrow and were moving through a roundabout when Malak asked me from the backseat what my reflections were upon the trip so far, by which he meant the entirety of the last 11 days.

I turned around to face him, to attempt an answer to this most difficult question. I knew something was up but took on his question directly, as it merited. It doesn’t matter what I said. He couldn’t hear me. The two of us were locked into a performance of a normal conversation, but we were not conversing. Something much bigger was happening. I could sense tension, perhaps nervousness, but not to the extent I would have named it as such. I was turned around completely in my seat, looking at Malak and doing my best to follow his cue, but through my peripheral vision and this slim perception of tension, I allowed the thought to enter my mind that this was a checkpoint. A checkpoint, and Malak had no permit to cross.

I kept talking in response to his follow-up question. Our car never stopped but took a pause, then zoomed forth. Malak announced, “I would like to notify you that we’re in Jerusalem right now.” The two of them suddenly yelled with sheer elation, “We made it! We’re going to Yaffa!”

I had seen Malak on celebratory highs before, having seen him accomplish truly amazing things as an undergrad. But I had never witnessed the degree of outpouring of elation I was seeing from him now. I knew what Yaffa meant to him, as he had written about it and spoken about it on more than one occasion. He loved the sea, and he loved Yaffa. It had been taken from him. It was his home, his family’s home. At 22 years old, he had only seen the sea from Yaffa a handful of times – he had never swum there.

Upon our arrival in Yaffa, we had to buy some shorts, to swim in. As a bonus, our hastily thrown together outfits for the beach would make us look even more American. Malak and Ghassan had their exaggerated American accents perfected, ready to go. Why did this matter? Because the police were there, obviously, ready to harass and/or arrest whomever they deemed unacceptable to be in this space. Malak and Ghassan were watching the cops carefully at all times. They saw every single one of the four incidents of police harassment of Arabic-speaking beach-goers carried out in our short time there—one against a whole family enjoying a summer evening grilling meat beside the beach, as we had hoped to do, told to pack up and move on. If we had been caught, the consequences could have been severe. At minimum, Malak would have been accompanied forcefully back to the checkpoint, and a mark made against his record, which would carry its own consequences. There was virtually no limit on what the maximum penalty could have been.

The last time I was in a place where the civilian population had to resort to the phrase “culture of impunity” to describe the feeling of being ultimately or at any time at someone else’s “mercy” was in Ciudad Juárez in the years of the mid-2000s. It began earlier in that decade with a wave of horrific crimes they called “femicide”: the bodies of murdered young women, mostly indigenous, mostly factory workers—migrants from southern Mexico in search of a way to help their families survive—had been surfacing in the desert for a number of years. And now, by 2005, the epidemic of murders was spreading outward, with both narco-traffickers and the police waging war against the citizenry, and more people were being randomly shot down than being targeted directly. Someone had written in graffiti on a wall in a neighborhood I used to visit often, the Spanish words translating to, “It is prohibited to dump bodies here, by orders of the police.” (What a doubly subversive and damning statement of the impotence of the state as alleged protector, especially as highly armed uniformed men loaded down with M-16s poured into the city and began patrolling the streets.) But this was different. The same soldiers were here, loaded down with the M-16, imperialism’s assault weapon of choice. But here in Palestine, under occupation, the violence is all too predictable. It cuts only in certain ways. Nothing random about it. A campaign of brutality aimed very precisely at Arabs, Palestinians—regardless of age, regardless of gender, and in the final instance, regardless even of class. Apartheid. And while it is a sweeping apartheid, young men in their teens and twenties certainly bear the brunt of being targeted most frequently. Young men the ages of Malak and Ghassan.

So with our American accents, with our slack American walks, we ambled along. To push the performance further, Ghassan and I started calling Malak “Eric,” so people would overhear. It was the name a colleague from Türkiye uses in the States when he’s annoyed at people’s unwillingness to try to pronounce his name correctly. He liked the choice. “Eric Hendrix,” he said, and smiled, even as he was fully aware of what the police were doing, with their own attempted performance of an unfailing surveillance.

Meanwhile, those for whom this apartheid had been built calmly strolled along the beach, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, pushing their children in strollers and laughing. It was an obscenity, not because of their ignorance, but because their ignorance was concocted: they knew. They had been trained since a young age to invoke fear reflexively in an attempt to justify all manner of atrocity, if ever questioned. They had made fear itself their strongest ally. But more than that, they were inured to questioning. They had grown up with a calcified veneer of calculated and carefully accumulated ignorance, moving with too much confidence, unquestioning, as if they owned this space. I knew this intimately, having grown up white in the U.S. But the more they clutched to this feigned ignorance, to a determination not to see, the more it would push through and trouble their consciousness (and almost always, again and again, to the detriment of the same people they othered): they knew the history of what had happened, and what continued to happen, to allow them to be pushing that stroller in what probably felt like full comfort, not having even to be aware of their surroundings. They could not distance themselves from the authors of the devastation of 1948, or of 1967, or of 1993, for they participated every day in re-authoring it.

James Baldwin’s musings on “innocence” were constantly on my mind, as I thought about this characteristic I have here called a feigned “ignorance.” And indeed, Baldwin would not hesitate: this was an insistence on “innocence.” As Baldwin wrote, “[A]nyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” Innocence: nothing to see here. A monster: one who laughs and buys their children ice cream cones, as they see a whole family summarily kicked off the beach. Again and again, their own knowledge would prove irrepressible, for their violence against the Palestinian nation had one of its deepest roots in their knowledge that Palestinian grievances were legitimate. They knew, and because they knew, they would do anything to stand between this knowledge and a vocal acknowledgment of it. Therefore, anyone who carried a whiff of criminality, which only meant any hint of a challenge to the fragility of this manufactured numbness that passed for “comfort,” needed to be removed, and that’s what they police were doing. Those for whom this apartheid was built wanted to have a night on the beach, undisturbed by this history.

To be criminal here, on this night, in this way, was the most meaningful instance of criminality I’d experienced. Malak had made it here, his closest friend Ghassan had been the driver who had literally carried us here, and the two of them had shared with me a profound if ineffable experience not only of the depth of friendship but of the taste of liberation, of homecoming. This is why I say that back at the checkpoint, it wasn’t nervousness that I sensed—there was utter watchfulness, to be sure, watching every move of those embodying state authority, but this did not come from fear. It came from self-preservation. Fear and self-preservation are two quite distinct wellsprings of action that one might too easily wrongly conflate, especially if one has never felt the need for resistance. This was defiance. It had nothing to do with fear. The watchfulness persisted while we were in Yaffa, as it had to, but this night was about celebration. Yaffa had been taken, but it couldn’t be kept away.

The stone alleyways of Yaffa

Having seen the police harassment of an entire family who had been grilling, we decided against it—far too conspicuous, even though by that time it was already getting dark. We had been walking awhile—it was time for a nighttime swim. The sky was partly cloudy with a beautiful crescent moon. We put our blanket out on the beach, and then ran into the sea. We did this multiple times, for the sheer glory of it. One time all three of us held hands and ran in together. After we had swum multiple times, we got up and wandered, heading south along the coastline and then into the plazas of the town. Ghassan wanted us to see the ancient stone alleyways. We descended the stone staircase and moved amongst the narrow walls, darkness cast in occasional yellow lamplight, one alleyway, one ramp, and one staircase after another, for a while.

This is one of my favorite kinds of places to be. This one carried a special valence, as some of the families here had been here for generations, remaining in spite of the burdensome restrictions and constant threat of abuse, and other families living here were occupiers. For the Palestinians, one alteration to their home, and the Israelis will call that a violation of the original terms, and eject them from the property. The presence in Yaffa, the feel it has, is still predominantly Arab and Muslim—Palestinian through and through—but at the same time, the city is full of homes that were taken over. As the year 1948 opened, there were 90,000 Arabs living in Yaffa; by the close of that year, there were 3,000. If you’re paying attention, you can apprehend this reality immediately. Walking through these alleys, we didn’t talk much, and when we did, it was almost in a whisper, like a kind of reverence for the past that was living right here, the past that would never be exorcised.

On the way home, we became more quiet. The whole thing was magical—it already felt like a dream, one we were still inside of. It was after 2 a.m. when we got home, still riding a wave of elation. Later the next day, when contemplating what we would do that evening, it was either Ghassan or Malak who suggested that we go back to Yaffa. Whoever said it, I think he was only half-joking. It definitely had a pull. Pretty sure all three of us seriously contemplated it for a minute. Every moment of that night had been perfect, the violence of the occupation perfectly resisted, in so many ways—more than I even knew, I was sure—and all the joyful madness of life embraced. “I wouldn’t want the perfection of last night to be ruined,” I said. The night never should have happened, because the Nakba never should have happened, the occupation never should have happened, Oslo, the scourge of the settlements, none of it. And because the night never should have happened, it had to. Like the waves in the sea, and like love itself, resistance will always find a way, and one day, nothing will hold it back.

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I came to think about a refugee camp I once visited in WB and I found this video.. It is partly in Dutch, but with English subtitles! I have never forgotten this man. He was so deeply devoted to working for the better future of the Palestians.

wonderful, breathtaking. thank you so much anonymous, Malak and Ghassan.


Thanks for sharing this recounting of your experience. Even the micro-victories can taste so sweet.

Such a beautiful and painful essay. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it.