You are recommended not to check your phone first thing in the morning, yet this is precisely what Raya does. She opens Twitter and the first tweet she sees reports the death of Shireen Abu Akilah. She leaves her bed and gets ready. Over the years, Raya has learned to forgive herself for not reacting immediately to news; a response will come to her once she allows herself to process the information. As she climbs up the hill to Birzeit University, meaninglessness overshadows her movements. But hey, you will discuss Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with your students and how one can use the masters’ tools to criticize them, etc., etc. She gives herself a temporary, self-soothing lifeline.
In the office after class, the solemn atmosphere is palpable. Every single colleague is visibly heartbroken. Though Raya is now an adult, she still treats grief with the same bewilderment of a child hurled with a black plastic bag filled with water and a fish, or maybe two, that she must catch in all her clumsiness. The only difference is that Raya, the child, would look around to understand; the adult Raya just looks down. There is nothing to understand.
There’s a proverb in Arabic which roughly translates into this: “Some people’s problems are advantages for others.” Raya thinks one of the reasons she got accepted to lecture at Birzeit University is that many international academics were forced to leave Palestine because Israel denied them work visas. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a research community to produce knowledge. Raya only has one international colleague who, after three years of battling visa issues, still cannot figure out how the system works. He was summoned to the Israeli ‘Civil Administration Office’ at Beit El settlement and witnessed firsthand how matters are run. He got connected with an officer who is a settler at Beit El and saw for himself how the said officer struck out the ‘no visa’ verdict and wrote six months over it.
Uncertainty is the language Palestinians understand. Raya’s first remark when she moved to the UK for her master’s degree was, “I cannot understand the Brits—they have Easter decorations up in January!” The West speaks the language of the future that many here do not have the luxury to think about.
“What would you like me to say about our situation in my upcoming London talk?” Raya would ask her friends.
“That to hell with all of us.”
“Amen, but seriously what is one point you wish as a Palestinian to communicate to an international audience?” The answer that Raya used for the talk came from her friend Majd, “People make the mistake of equating victimhood with perfect moral purity, which means that they spend time arguing over mistakes committed by Palestinians. Being a victim of oppression does not mean every choice you make is right or moral. And making immoral choices does not mean you cease to be a victim of oppression.”
One of the comments Raya received after speaking to an English-speaking audience about the human rights’ situation in Palestine was that “she was perceptive of the misunderstandings of a UK audience.” Indeed, years of trying to convince the West that Palestinians are human beings have domesticated the likes of Raya, who is now incapable of anger—sadness and hypervigilance at being politically correct are the only feelings on her spectrum.
She thinks that speaking English is like wearing a press helmet; she knows that a bullet can still penetrate it, but she can enjoy the illusion of protection while it lasts. “When I die, people will post about me; I won’t be nameless. I count on my friends in Glasgow to make a scene, to demand accountability and seek justice.”
When not working, Raya takes international visitors around Hebron to show them the bleak reality of its old city with certain settler-only streets that she can point towards but cannot cross. Her groups also walk on roads covered by wire mesh to protect Palestinians from vodka bottles and trash thrown from above by settlers. Then she takes them to eat kunafeh or drink coffee. Sipping on cappuccinos, the Californians and New Yorkers nod happily, “This is the real thing!”
All the ‘real’ things are there—mochi, reiki energy healing, lactose-free milk, Maipo Valley wine, action plan workshops. Desperate to belong to the rest of the capitalist world, most shops have their signs in English.
Raya moves between Ramallah and Hebron via Wadi An-Nar or the “Valley of Fire,” a befitting name for a stomach-churning snaky road that feels like a rollercoaster Palestinians must take. Raya cannot help but smirk at the irony of the giant billboards put up by Palestinian companies advertising everything life has to offer when the road is the antithesis of life itself.
Raya’s apartment is in quaint Birzeit. She once hosted her friend Amal who studies at Tel Aviv University and who needed to mail in homework over Raya’s Wi-Fi. Raya remembers a tongue-in-cheek remark once made by a British friend, “Do you know why you Palestinians are occupied? Because you have such lame Wi-Fi passwords.” Raya’s was 2019. Amal asked her to repeat it, but the problem was not the password. It was the location. To Tel Aviv University, Amal was in an unrecognized area and access was denied. Raya, looking out at Tel Aviv from her balcony, could only shrug at the surreal nature of the moment as Amal sent her work to a friend in Istanbul who accessed the Tel Aviv University portal and submitted the assignment on Amal’s behalf.
This same unrecognized area gets recognized and raided by Israeli army forces all the time. The soldiers even break into university dorms. Refusing to believe it the first time it happened, Raya whispered on the phone to the building monitor at 3 a.m. on a cold January morning, “I’m really sorry to call at this hour, but the Israeli soldiers are inside our building and they won’t stop banging on the door of the apartment next to ours.” The monitor replied, “So what? What can we do? You’ve never had your house broken into before?” Not fully processing the nonchalant tone, Raya said, “But this is a university building; there must be a rule or a law.” The monitor wrapped up the conversation, “I will check up on you in the morning, and I’ll send people to fix any door that gets damaged.” The truth is, Raya had experienced Israeli soldiers breaking into her family house in the middle of the night before, but that did not make it any less terrifying. The comic relief moment of that break-in happened when two Israeli soldiers with flashlights in hand flung open the bedroom door, and Raya and her sister sprang up from their beds looking like cats that had just given birth, their eyes wide open and fully awake. The soldiers did not show any reaction to this impressively quick response, but Raya and her sister shared a giggle after the soldiers left. On their way out after breaking the doorknob, the soldiers told Raya’s father not to worry about them wanting to interrogate his son, and not to smoke too much.
Raya sometimes contemplates the possibility that she might be paranoid. She rationalizes, “Maybe I won’t be shot on the spot if I do not instantly understand the soldiers’ broken Arabic and the rolled ‘r’ when they scream lawagha, as in, lawara, or, step back.”
She decided to share her thoughts with her Instagram community. In a post, Raya wrote about her experience of working in a local think-tank in Halhul, north of Hebron. For the whole year that she worked in Halhul, she could hardly remember a day she wasn’t aware of an Israeli watch tower planted by a Coca-Cola factory, just past the entrance of the city. A chronically clumsy person, Raya had to be careful, making sure she did not trip or make any sudden movements. On some days, she tries to talk some sense into herself. Why would they shoot her? She is just a ‘normal’ human walking down the street. Still she feels the need to be careful. Years after her unspoken fear, a video of a young Palestinian man shot to death while crossing a checkpoint circulated on social media. The young man didn’t pose a threat and when soldiers ordered him to keep moving, he did, but they shot him anyway.
Later, Raya was shocked at the number of people who reached out to say they shared her fear. A friend named Ezz wrote, “You put into words the tense relationship I have with my physical body every time I cross a checkpoint. It is like I am ready to blame it for anything that might go wrong, even though I know I shouldn’t.” Putting her emotions into words revealed to her how similar their experiences are. Language, then, ha? How can pain shape language? What about silence? What happens to those who do not speak? How can their silence be expressed? The unspoken words infiltrate every story and make one question the meaning(lessness) of telling one.
You are not recommended to take your phone to the bathroom, yet this is exactly what Raya does. Hunched over the toilet, she watches a video of Shireen jumping happily after successfully completing a gym session. Tears stream down her face as she finally allows herself to absorb the loss of such a clear voice at a time of mumbled, confusing noise; the loss of a role model when the concept is as ludicrous as that of Santa Claus. She mourns the legend, but she also cries over the less known, the people who do not speak English, those who do not reference Geneva conventions and UN resolutions in their conversations, those who do not have international friends, those who tend the land by instinct, without jargon or theory. To become desensitized is important; to keep the heart open means to have it break many times and to mourn the stories that are told and the silence of those untold.