Below is an exclusive excerpt of Marcello Di Cintio‘s political-literary travelogue “Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine,” published today, September 4, 2018.
PAY NO HEED TO THE ROCKETS
Life in Contemporary Palestine
By Marcello Di Cintio
256 pp. Counterpoint Press $26
In 1996, Mourid Barghouti sat in a waiting room on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge. He passed the time leafing through the manuscript pages of what would become his ninth book of poetry. But anxiety about the quality of his poems—a typical writer’s doubt—compelled him to return the manuscript to his bag. Instead, he reflected on the first poem he ever published, “Apology to a Faraway Soldier,” which came out on the first day of 1967’s Six-Day War. The Arab armies fell to the Israelis by the sixth day, and the river Barghouti now waited to cross became a border. Barghouti once joked, “I wonder if the Arabs were defeated and Palestine was lost because I wrote a poem.”
In his memoir I Saw Ramallah, Barghouti described stepping out of the waiting room and glancing west across the bridge at the land of Palestine after three decades of exile:
Who would dare make it into an abstraction now that it has declared its physical self to the senses?
It is no longer “the beloved” in the poetry of resistance, or an item on a political party program, it is not an argument or a metaphor. It stretches before me, as touchable as a scorpion, a bird, a well; visible as a field of chalk, as the prints of shoes.
I asked myself, what is so special about it except that we have lost it?
Eventually, a Jordanian soldier told Barghouti he could cross the bridge. He walked with a small bag on his left shoulder and the bridge’s “prohibited wooden planks” creaking beneath his feet. “Behind me the world,” he wrote, “ahead of me my world.”
Nineteen years later, I sat in the same waiting room as Barghouti, or one just like it, and waited for my chance to cross the same bridge. I’d traveled to Israel and Palestine many times since millennial madness first drew me to Jerusalem in the final days of 1999, but I’d only ever arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. The last time was in 2012. I’d signed on as the writer-in-residence at the Palestine Writing Workshop and ran a creative nonfiction course in a beautiful old stone house in Birzeit. Over the course of a month, I instructed nine writers to craft stories from their own lives. Before the residency began, I wondered how many would write about their experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How many would recount memories of their grandfather’s lost olive trees or pen narratives of humiliations at the hands of checkpoint soldiers? I was curious to see if they would write the sort of stories I’d grown accustomed to hearing from Palestine.
They didn’t. One woman wrote about the day her little brother wandered off during Friday prayers at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque. Another wrote a charming piece about eating ice cream in the winter as a child, a mild rebellion that shocked her classmates. “Very few things fail to surprise Catholic schoolgirls,” she wrote. There were many family stories. Some made me laugh aloud, like one writer’s teasing of her mother’s vanity or another’s recollection of her parents’ bizarre indecision around naming their children. Others were disturbing. One young woman wrote a chilling account of the night she quarreled with her domineering father who, enraged, commanded his wife to fetch a knife so he could kill their daughter.
Each of the nearly thirty stories the women wrote in the workshop was uniquely Palestinian, but almost none addressed the conflict—at least not directly. My students’ assignments provided my first glimpses of a complete Palestinian life. Until then, I’d only viewed Palestinians through the lens of the struggle: through journalism, activism, and political discourse. After reading my students’ stories, I started to see the regular humanity of the Palestinian experience. The conflict complicated their lives, surely, but so did strict schoolteachers, threatening fathers, lost brothers, and mothers who needed help coloring the gray out of their hair. My students’ stories revealed individual Palestinian lives that existed alongside the greater collective struggle.
My departure from Palestine after the residency abruptly disconnected me from these human narratives. My diet of Palestinian stories came instead from newspaper reports, press releases, the rambling of politicians, and the coverage of war. Five months after I left Palestine, the Israeli military exchanged rockets with militants in Gaza in a weeklong war that killed at least a hundred Gazan civilians, dozens of them children, and four Israeli civilians. The following year brought the relatively banal news of failed peace talks, demolished homes, and detained children. Israeli soldiers shot to death fifteen Palestinian civilians in 2013, and the occasional rocket fizzled out of Gaza. Numbed by all of this, I almost forgot what I learned from my writing students in Birzeit: there is more to Palestine than the cruel accounting of death and despair.
Then, in the hot summer of 2014, I saw the girl in the green dress. Israel had launched Operation Protective Edge against militants in the Gaza Strip. During a brief lull in the bombing, a series of four photos emerged of a young Gazan girl sifting through the wreckage of a destroyed building. The girl—around ten years old—wore a green dress and pink leggings, and her long hair was tied back in a neat ponytail. She pulled books from beneath shattered concrete and cinder blocks and stacked them in her arms. The books were tattered and filthy, their covers dangling from their bindings. But in the last photograph, the girl walked away smiling.
I’d seen countless photos from the war. Images of wailing women. Bloodied men on stretchers. Funeral processions. Gray and yellow corpses. Few, though, had as profound an effect on me as these four photos of the girl and her broken books. I was tempted to reduce her to an abstraction. In Barghouti’s “poetry of resistance,” this girl could represent all of “beloved” Palestine. Her thin frame might embody the more than five hundred Gazan children who were killed during the fifty days of Protective Edge. She could have been one of them, for all I knew. The shattered building around her might be a convenient symbol of loss, her smile a symbol of Palestinian resilience, her youth a symbol of hope.
But just like the land Barghouti saw from across the bridge in 1996, this girl is neither an argument nor a metaphor. She, too, has a physical self to declare. She is loved not as a line of verse but as a daughter. A sister. A schoolmate. I wanted to see her like I wanted to see Palestine: not as an enduring and unsolvable political problem but as something physical that exists in the present tense. And I wanted to see Palestinians as a people unto themselves, not merely as one half of a warring binary. Not in opposition but in situ.
Most of all, though, the girl in the photos made me long for beauty. All we think we know of Palestine is its ugliness. Palestine is a place of despairing gray broken only by the red of blood and flame. But the girl in Gaza was beautiful in the way all children are beautiful, and more beautiful still for the unexpected flash of her green dress against the gray rubble. So I traveled to Palestine to find beauty. I wanted to touch the bird and the well, not just the scorpion.
Nothing is more beautiful than a story. And nothing is more human. To weave the snarled strands of a life, either real or imagined, into literature is a form of blessed alchemy. Twists of plot and turns of phrase mirror the messy details of human existence. We are nothing more or less than the stories we tell. But the only story most outsiders ever hear about Palestine is a thin volume of enduring conflict. The character of the Palestinian is either a furious militant throwing stones with a keffiyeh wrapped around his face or an old woman in a hijab wailing in front of her destroyed home. This single Sisyphean narrative of anger and deprivation holds the Palestinians hostage, and little beauty is to be found in such a plot.
Inspired by the girl and the books she rescued from the detritus of war, and by my students’ stories, I decided to seek out the brokers of grace itself: the poets and writers of Palestine. They gather the fragments of their existence onto their pages, verse by verse and line by line, and bare the beauty of a place known mostly for its opposite. Certainly, the writers, and those who keep and sell their books, would have different stories to tell than the one I’d grown weary and despondent of hearing. Surely, they could reveal what made Palestine special, other than the fact that it has been lost.
I never got the chance to meet Barghouti himself. The best I could do was to follow his footsteps across the border. And so, after I’d waited in the Jordanian departure salon for an hour with a group of Arab families, a border soldier returned our passports and led us outside. The wooden bridge Barghouti walked across was no longer in use. This disappointed me. I wanted to retrace Barghouti’s footfalls on Allenby’s “prohibited wooden planks.” The new paved crossing robbed the journey of its pedestrian poetry. Instead, we boarded a bus already nearly full of travelers from other waiting rooms. We drove for a few meters before stopping behind a line of identical buses stretching from the Jordanian border to the customs post on the other side. When our driver realized the buses were not moving, he pulled ours out of the line and roared past the un- moving vehicles to the front, where he talked his way past the official at the checkpoint. Then he edged the bus into a space in front of the Israeli border post. Some of the passengers applauded. Half of them passed Jordanian banknotes to the driver as a tip. Uncertain of the protocol, I did neither.
We waited inside the bus for another quarter hour before being allowed to exit into the chaos of the checkpoint. Hundreds of people, mostly Palestinian families, fought to navigate the gauntlet of Israeli security. Mustached men wrestled heavy suitcases through the crowd while their headscarved wives clutched crying children. Many of the Arabs were returning from umrah pilgrimages to Mecca and carried large plastic vessels of water with them, a sacred liquid souvenir from the holy Zamzam well in the Great Mosque.
Each arrival pressed through the mob under the disinterested gaze of young Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The border soldiers always looked bored to me, whether here on the bridge, on the smooth tiles of Ben Gurion Airport, or at the West Bank checkpoints. I never knew whether their indifferent calm was somehow part of their uniform—a way to mask a trained alertness, say—or if the borders simply bored them. Barghouti noticed this, too. When he passed through here, he looked at the face of one of these soldiers. “For a moment he seemed a mere employee,” Barghouti wrote. “At least his gun is very shiny. His gun is my personal history. It is the history of my estrangement. His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land.”
I merged into the current of bodies as best I could and followed the lead of those in front of me. I pushed my way to a counter where I showed my passport to an Israeli soldier in exchange for tags for my backpack. Then I squeezed out of the queue and toward a conveyor belt that swept my bag somewhere inside the building. Finally, I joined three successive lines in front of three different glass booths to show my documents to three different officials. The last, a woman of about twenty years, asked me where I planned on staying and what I planned on doing. She interrupted me when I started to list the Palestinian writers I wanted to meet. “Don’t say Palestine,” she said. “This is Israel. Stop saying Palestine.”