Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Naomi Shihab Nye on Hope, Despair & Gaza

I stood, astonished, on the Great Wall of China the other day, but found it hard to concentrate on lost emperors or invading nomadic tribes. They seemed too far away. My thoughts kept swinging between relief and sorrow -- President Obama -- yes!-- and the rubble of Gaza. While we wandered the top of a wall that had survived thousands of years, the sad people of Gaza were sitting on their smashed homes.

A chilly gray afternoon right before Chinese New Year– my friend Angie, resident of Beijing, pointed out that not one other human being besides us – including guards or guides -- was visible in any direction. “This never happens,” she said. “This is the most popular place.”

For more than an hour, we walked alone, stepping on ancient stones very carefully, peering through balustrades and watch towers, whispering about the spookiness. The distant view obscured by mist or pollution, we could nevertheless see the mighty wall snaking up mountains and down. It felt eerie to experience it in such solitude –as it might feel to have a late-night one-on-one with the Sphinx. Angie took my arm – she said, “As if you’re my mom” --and I felt glad for it.

The gray stones of the Great Wall seemed similar in color to the concrete of the sad Gaza buildings.

I thought about the silver-gray airplane that went down in the Hudson River, how TV commentators on CNN and China TV were raving about the miracle of everyone surviving. Each stunned passenger was a cherished person to all other airline passengers worldwide, and all transfixed viewers.

The swiftly counter-pointing next story said 400 or 500 more Palestinians had died in Gaza. We could see their blasted houses, the hideously terrifying bombs. Reports now included the dubious use of phosphorous by the democratic Israelis. This contrast seemed gravely striking – cherished passengers, uncherished citizens.

Ehud Olmert talked proudly about the Israeli military operations as if they were a game. His soldiers were smiling as they rode around on big tanks. He used the word “accomplishment” many times. They were “exceeding” their own intentions. He acted vaguely, reluctantly sorry, when his soldiers blew up all the U.N. relief food. But he never acted very sorry about the citizens.

How much of a stretch might it be to imagine those thousand-plus people cherished to one another? How hard for a Jewish person whose own ethnic legacy includes recent torture and wholesale killing?

It seemed strange – such a highly armed country, making mighty out-of-proportion use of its arsenals for more than 20 days, repeatedly calling the raggedy poor, desperate Palestinians “militants.” Wouldn’t Olmert be militant if someone had stolen his home and put him in a cage? And could anyone in any other country justify wholesale bombing of entire neighborhoods – schools, hospitals, service centers – just because some guys with weapons also lived there? This is collective punishment of an entire population and it’s common knowledge it’s been going on in Palestine/Israel for decades. Some kid throws a stone – expect olive trees to be slashed to the ground for miles around. And what about the looming Israeli “separation wall” that stole more property from Arab citizens, has made life dramatically more difficult for everyone on both sides, and undercuts all good possibilities of cooperation?

I thought about the not-yet-abandoned belief that a wall might keep anyone out. How insulting to treat other human beings, especially the native ones, as if they do not deserve the same respect your own citizens do. President Obama stands now in mighty contrast to the sorrowful legacy of American racism we feel grateful to be “beyond.” He said in his inaugural address, “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.” Where does Israel stand on the empathy compass?

An Arab man said, “I’m too old to shoot off missiles! I’m just trying to feed my family.” A boy dug garlic bulbs out of a mass of concrete. A Jewish friend lost her own beloved Palestinian comrades, three young sisters who had worked across borders for peace and dialogue. How many other people would we have been lucky to know? How many families of innocents are grieving? How many lives changed forever? Is it possible, just possible, these sorrowing survivors will be less peaceful because of what they have experienced?

On the Great Wall, two distinct birds could be heard calling out in the distance – Angie knew both their names -- then a silence as huge as history. The cable car driver who had sent us up the mountain told Angie he was going home -- we’d have to get down on our own. I gave her a lovely hand-stitched eyeglasses case from Gaza as a little gift for coming with me -- it just happened to be in my pocket. We took many deep breaths and climbed slowly down as evening fell over us, balancing on the big steps, discussing the miracle of our private meander, how young Chinese people dream more of going to Australia than to the United States, and our new American president, who believes in the hope so many worlds desperately need more of, right now.

Naomi Shihab Nye is the author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, including You and Yours (BOA Editions, 2005), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, as well as 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002), a collection of new and selected poems about the Middle East; Fuel (1998), Red Suitcase (1994), and Hugging the Jukebox (1982).


So It Shall Be Written said...

Beautiful observations and descriptions, Naomi. If only we could get to where these things really begin: the human heart, where, oddly enough, we all yearn for the same things. I am hopeful that our president, who has inspired so much hope, will hear the voices of those in Gaza, who have suffered so much, too much.

Your words help. Thank you.

Ernie Wormwood said...

We are all comrades of every country who need to live that way every day. Thanks for this post.