Refuse and

For Arab Americans, Pain in Familiar Faces

by Elmaz Abinader
April 24, 2002

IT'S THE CRYING women who get to me. When the camera stops on the streets in Jenin, the Palestinian refugee camp destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces, and a scarfed, pie-faced woman cries and yells, her arms flapping outward.

I shudder from her pain, I pale in sorrow and I fear how others are seeing her. Her Arabic is shrill and desperate, and I can't distinguish the words from her anguish. Is she wailing for the children who have been buried in the rubble? Is she calling for help? Has she lost her husband? Do her words damn the United States and Israel for the destruction of her home, her land and her country?

Many viewers don't wonder about her at all. In fact, some of us click by her with the remote, shrug another sad case from our shoulders or even find her image something to ridicule. I have watched coverage of war since the early Vietnam conflict years, and my reactions are always to the narrative at the lower rungs - the lives of the people and what has happened to them. The crying women have always pulled at the insides of me.

My reaction has intensified since October, the first time the IDF entered Bethlehem. Because it's different when the women crying to the camera look like me. Or my mother, or one of my cousins. When the language that is measuring the magnitude of the pain is the language that filled my house when I was young, when that language is the song of prayer and the most intimate words shared between my mother and father.

Other people who have features like the crying woman or like me pass each other in the street and look long at one another; we lift our brows and close our eyes in a shared moment of understanding. Many of us are not Palestinian, some of us have never been to Palestine, a few of us don't even know Arabic. But culturally we are Arab, and in the United States we don't expect much recognition or even trust. We turn to each other, lift our brows and close our eyes.

Sometimes we share the stories. I went to Palestine in 1996, right after the election of Benjamin Netanyahu. The country was on lockdown, and I experienced with my Palestinian friends the excessive number of checkpoints, the absurd searching and questioning as people traveled even the short distance from Ramallah to Jerusalem. Access to work, travel, and goods and services was extremely limited, and the frustration in the air seeped into my system.

Since then, I have been watchful of events in the Mideast and worried with the election of Ariel Sharon, as he has made no secret of his agenda to reclaim biblical land rights. Friends who live there keep me informed through e-mail with news that never makes it to the corporate media in the United States, and with the narrative of their lives affected by these incursions.

Early on in this latest conflict, the e-mails were regular and very revealing. One friend writes from Ramallah, "I must mention the 29 bodies of men killed in cold blood over the last five days, that piled up in the town's hospital morgue, two to the fridge. Since there are more such bodies incoming, hospital staff buried them yesterday afternoon in the hospital's courtyard, by bringing a tractor that tore the asphalt out and then covered the shallow hole with earth. That was a mass grave for people whose relatives did not kiss ... their coffins."

When another correspondent relates her personal experience, my mind wants to throw up its own roadblock: "When night fell, Israeli tanks began to invade and also we saw Israeli troops coming on foot from the valley, and surrounding our house. I could hear them calling to each other in Hebrew. They were against our door and all around. They were firing everywhere a barrage of bullets and there was tank fire. We had to lay on the floor and keep silent. We stayed there, on the floor, for nearly four days in the darkness."

Then the worst thing happens: silence. I put my cursor on "get messages" every other minute while I'm at the computer. Nothing more has come from Palestine in several days, maybe a week. Others query me, "Have you heard anything?" And we lift our brows and slowly close our eyes.

Thursday on CNN, the United Nations team reported what it found in Jenin. "It looks as if there has been an earthquake there," said Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN envoy. "We saw, for instance, two brothers who were digging out their father and their other brothers below the rubble."

Roed-Larsen was horrified at what he found. The bodies, the destruction, the utter disregard for life, the immoral strategy that demonstrates the IDF's ruthless and dehumanizing force.

I stare at the pictures: the woman crying atop the destroyed house; a foreign-aid worker bursting into tears as she views the damage in Jenin; and, yes, the pie-faced, scarfed woman, mouth open, hands out, is shouting at the camera. The woman who looks like me. She lingers when I try to sleep. Her voice is familiar to me, but her pain is beyond something I know.

And now, I can't lift my brows or close my eyes.

Elmaz Abinader, an Arab-American writer, poet and performance artist, is author of "In the Country of My Dreams." This essay originally appeared in Newsday.

[posted 4/24/02]

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