Sometimes our biggest barriers are things we imagine or maybe things we fail to imagine.
Shortly after Trump was elected president of the United States of America and instituted a so-called “Muslim ban,” an Arab American nonprofit in Chicago held a press conference outside of O’Hare International Airport. The leadership barked a bunch of empty liberal platitudes about how We-Are-All-Americans. By the time it was over, the crowd had grown to quite a size. It thronged and shifted as the Arab American nonprofit leaders began packing up their bullhorns and banners, and the camera crews started rolling away. And so three young women who had attended the rally decided, suddenly and without much forethought, to push the weight of our non-American bodies into the big glass doors and give the crowd a gesture, a nod. And suddenly, hundreds of people were bursting into the brightly lit international terminal without a plan, just mass and momentum.
I pledge allegiance to no flag. I pledge allegiance to mass and momentum and moments of freedom.
So far, I have found fragments of a future free Palestine in:
1. Cigarettes in summer on a Montreal balcony.
S and Y stayed up that whole night talking about Ferguson and the First Intifada and feminist readings of the Quran. I had driven myself from Chicago to Detroit and through Canada to be there with them. I think that Palestinian national identity is predicated on our collectively shared scattering, on our diaspora, on our dismemberment. I don’t remember when it happened, but I think I fell asleep on the couch that night. If you look at our history, at the history of the formation of Palestinian identity, our national consciousness came into being around the absence of a state. S was transformed by her work on the ground in Ferguson. Y had organized with the unions and popular committees. R Khalidi and other nationalist historians will try to argue that Palestinian national identity preceded the destruction of our infant-state, of our Mandate. But actually, I’m not convinced Khalidi entirely believes that, if you read closely. I think it’s interesting how we come together in our undoing, how it was the dissolution of our stillborn-state that solidified our sense of collective national consciousness.
2. Tucked between the pages of my old journals.
They’re stuffed like sardines into a bulging cardboard box in the basement. Journals are important receptacles for things like stillborn-states and falling asleep on the couch, because if you put those things out in the open, people will challenge you. If you write it down and submit it to a Palestinian outlet, it will get rejected and you will be severely belittled and they will never ask you to write for them ever again. Part of me imagines that maybe one day the basement will flood and the ink will spread across all the pages and everything will congeal into an unintelligible solid mass and I won’t have to look at any of it anymore. But even if that happened, I’d still have to think about it all the time. That’s why people say it but they don’t say it out loud. They say it in clever ways. They say it in muffled thuds and thin, delicate trickles. Even so, rainy nights I fantasize about it as I’m falling asleep. Pools of water seep in slowly from under the foundation.
3. Growing on a rooftop garden in a refugee camp.
Specifically: the rooftop garden of the cinderblock house that my dad was born and raised in. My dad says that when he was a kid, he could see all the way to the sea from this rooftop. I think that people are afraid to talk about these things because they are afraid that if they admit it, they will somehow also be saying that Palestinians don’t exist. Or that we deserved to have the land we come from destroyed. Or that we deserved to be made refugees. But the way I see it, if we say it, we simply refuse to play by the rules of their imperialist, Zionist, rabid-nationalist games any longer. In a refugee camp, there is nowhere to build but up. So Palestinians live on cinderblocks in the sky. We refuse to make nations and states the basis for or rationale behind our right to continued existence. We insist on our own humanity with or without a passport. We dismember their structures, and all of their constructs and mythologies, and we take our gardens up to the rooftops so the spindly green branches of the lemon tree can reach up towards the sun.
4. In a promise made by a child.
I feel like when I was a kid I was a lot less worried about what is conceived of as being reasonable and possible and achievable. When you are a kid in some ways you feel powerless but also you have much more capacity to conceive of infinite alternate ways of being. What’s most beautiful in all of this to me is how we’ve always been more expansive than the state. When you are a kid you can drift and shift between worlds that are real and worlds that are entirely your own collaborative creation, playing wolves in the park with your best friend, or Legos in your little brother’s bedroom. Isn’t that magical, about our minds at that age? How we have the power to fold reality in on itself? I’d like to believe that this makes us more resilient. We’ve never been unified by a state structure, so we’re not bound to one. All the borders and barriers we later learn to build in our brains aren’t there yet. We’re resilient in the face of the collapse of the state, which is anyways always inevitable. And why should we ever settle for a state, when there are so many more beautiful ways that one can imagine freedom?
5. In something that flitted by while my kid cousin sang out the sunroof, hollering into a burst of wind and light as C took us for yet another drive into the city.
I remember linking arms with my cousins as we marched through the camp towards the dirt lot where C keeps her car parked and I remember linking arms with the others at the airport as we marched through the big linoleum-lined hall the same year the state began its long collapse. I remember a mess of cousins clamoring into the back seat of C’s car, too many to fit comfortably, and just enough to fit cozily. I remember that suddenly, there was a line of cops. We were on one side, and the majority of the crowd was on the other. I remember that there was a brief pause, and then we started to chant, and I remember speeding along the streets of Tripoli with that one same Nancy Ajram CD on full blast. We chanted at the top of our lungs, calling out to the crowd on the other side of the cop line. I remember C would ask, on days like that, “cappuccino, wla cocktail?” I remember that the crowd chanted back, and then they kept on marching. I remember watching a mass of people at the O’Hare International Airport Arrivals Terminal thrust forward and dissolve a line of airport cops like they were nothing more than a few pathetic fish thrashing against a mighty stream. I remember driving around and around, and I don’t remember stopping at too many places, but we kept marching on loop between arrivals and departures. I remember at the end of the night sitting on the asphalt outside the airport, our arms still linked, as we walked back towards the house from the dusty dirt lot.
I’d like to imagine that day when we decided spontaneously to hold open the doors to the airport that it set off a chain reaction of similarly suddenly collapsing barriers and then the crowd dissolved the cop line. I’d like to imagine that when one border collapses, it’s like an unstoppable domino effect. I’d like to imagine that we might be a whole lot closer to freedom, to a freedom that doesn’t settle, than we might currently believe. That all of our wildest imaginings can be real, for longer than just a moment. That we already have all the tools we could ever need to get free. I’d like us to grant ourselves permission to imagine: with our heads popping out the sunroof, grinning into a burst of wind and light, all chaos and uncertainty and mass and momentum, and all of our borders vanishing.
For more from the Spring 2022 special issue of MQR, “Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa,” you can purchase the issue here.