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Pressure and Escape

In Palestine, nature and poetry are lifelines

A year has passed since the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, Sheikh Jarrah, and elsewhere, and Palestinians are still colonized and facing the threat of expulsion from their lands. The world’s attention to the plight of the Palestinians had faded by the late summer of 2021, only to be heightened once again when Israeli forces assassinated Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11. Even as reports by American news outlets belatedly confirm what many already knew to be the truth about Abu Akleh’s killing, this renewed attention has mostly abated—until the next story of killing and maiming captures the headlines, only for that to abate, and on and on it goes for Palestinians. Throughout all this time, what has not abated is Palestinian suffering under Israeli settler-colonial conquest.

As Elias Khoury brilliantly captures in his novel Gate of the Sun, Palestinians are “a people whose fate is to be forgotten as a result of its accumulated calamities. Massacre erases massacre, and all that remains in the memory is the smell of blood.”

Beneath the headlines of daily Israeli violence against Palestinians, there is the largely unseen, persistent, and heavy pressure of settler-colonial conquest. This has become a fabric of Palestinian daily life. Headlines and stories about Palestinian suffering fail to capture this pressure when they incidentalize cases of Israeli violence: killings, maimings, expulsions, imprisonments, and so on are often presented as singular incidents that one or more Palestinians have suffered on a specific date. Even when these incidents are properly contextualized within the long continuum of Israeli violence, the “smell of blood” that remains, lingers, and builds as pressure is never quite captured in media and policy discourse.   

When I last visited Palestine, in 2017, twenty-four years after I left at the age of fourteen, many things had changed, most notably the construction of the “apartheid wall.” One thing that hadn’t changed was the spirit of the Palestinian people. I was immediately welcomed back into a world of warm and generous hospitality, steadfastness, the familiarity of Palestinian insistence that el haya mashieh, life is moving along okay, and the reaffirmation that Palestine is beautiful and still standing.

The feeling of that pressure came back to me almost immediately, as if I had not been living without it for twenty-four years.

Behind this admirable and courageous face of the Palestinian people, the enormous pressure that Palestinians live under was palpable. It was everywhere. One layer of pressure on top of the other. The pressures of feeding themselves and their families, securing employment, daily dealings with a racist Israeli employer, family squabbles, travel to and from work and social events through dehumanizing checkpoints, the dread of parenting a child who has dreams of freeing their people and joining the struggle, the pain of a loved one languishing in an Israeli prison, traffic, taxes, home demolitions and the threat thereof, knowing how to parent a child who cannot focus on schoolwork because of untreated traumas from witnessing and/or experiencing Israeli violence, patriarchal mores and norms, maintaining dignity in a condition that never tires of stripping it away, fulfilling life dreams, maintaining good health. And then there is the pressure of the failure to achieve freedom. The list goes on and on.    

The pressure is so great, one can no longer see just how deep it has pushed below the surface the Palestinian people. The very idea of living on the surface seems absurd from this vantage point. Even the notion that one can move from the depth of pressure to the surface no longer seems possible or plausible.   

The feeling of that pressure came back to me almost immediately, as if I had not been living without it for twenty-four years. The feeling took me back to another childhood feeling: that of escape, which became especially acute for me when I visited my grandmother’s old house and saw the same fig tree that I used to climb as a young child.

But this was no ordinary feeling of escape. Climbing that fig tree didn’t feel like an escape from reality, but rather a return to reality. It allowed me to reach life. Not a life in the sky or in the mind, but a real life. A free life.

The life below the tree is all too real in its destruction, violence, and death. But in this kind of escape, one does not lose sight of that reality. Rather, one comes to witness its unnaturalness. Up on the tree, I spent hours watching birds, ants, and insects move around. My wonderment and observation of the animals’ movements made me feel as if I were a creature worthy of the natural life these animals enjoyed.

From the tree, one gains a vantage point that contrasts life under pressure with a free life, as a reminder of what life can and should be. In this kind of escape, nature and natural life serves as the energy well from which we can reimagine political life and direct it towards freedom and liberation for the many, not just the few. 

An important element of the decolonial project is a reimagination of our world, our place in it, and who we are and want to be as human beings. This is where poetry and the arts have always played a critical role.   

In an Al Jazeera article last year, Mohammed Moussa, a Palestinian freelance journalist and the founder of Gaza Poets Society, introduced readers to a number of poets who are living under a pressure that even Palestinians outside of Gaza can barely comprehend. The quotes from the poets speak to this pressure, and how poetry offers “an escape valve during times of war,” how “poetry is the only way,” as one poet said, that “she can feel free in Gaza,” and how “literary writing . . . opens a window for us that allows us to breathe.” One of these poets, Omar Moussa, emphasizes that “there is no way to escape a place like Gaza, even by writing poetry.” He explains,

If we see poetry as a gate to escape Gaza, that would seem a luxury that the people of Gaza don’t have. Reality is reality—you just cannot skip that, and writing poetry is just to swindle this reality. Here, there is death, rubble, and a tiny little life, but amidst the concretions of reality there is a flower growing, and it is the flower of poetry.

What I think Omar is alluding to is that an escape as departure from reality is not an escape we want to pursue. As Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish, and other Palestinian intellectuals have taught us, Palestinians who live under Israeli settler-colonial conquest must always fend off the danger of an escape that is purely imaginative, one that departs from the reality of suffering. At the same time, we must maintain our grip on the reality in which we know we belong: the reality of a free life.

Poetry is at its best when it helps us imagine the world we want to live in, while at the same time ensuring that our feet are still firmly planted in the reality that we do live in, no matter how terrifying, suffocating, and destructive it is.

We must maintain our grip on the reality in which we know we belong: the reality of a free life.

As I alluded to earlier, it is probably not possible for media and policy reports, because of their form and syntax, to capture the pressure that Palestinians endure. This is where poetry, and the literary arts in general, are much more effective. If people outside of Palestine want to truly understand life under settler-colonial conquest, then reading Palestinian poetry, from world renowned-poets like Darwish to established and emerging poets, and engaging with all the forms of Palestinian artistic productions, is integral.

These engagements will enrich one’s understanding of Palestine and Palestinian life, death, misery, aspirations, courage, pain, love, endurance, and steadfastness. Art shows how Palestinians not only survive but thrive, even under brutal conditions and the constant heavy pressure of settler-colonial conquest. It is truly an astonishing sight, as grand as any grand monument in the history of human life, just how Palestinians can make so much of so little in their art and creativity. From artists who use barbed wire, corrugated and rusted metal, and textiles from their refugee camps, to the penetrating insights and illuminations that Darwish reaches through words, Palestinian art presents a scathing critique of the reality of colonial modernity. It offers an alternative path that, among other things, no longer distinguishes between natural and political life in a hierarchical manner, but encourages us to think of differences and distinctions as complimentary and horizontal, as opposed to oppositional and vertical. 

It is easy to pass by Palestinians and not even notice the pressure they’re under. It is easy for people reading headlines, even those who sympathize with the Palestinian people, to miss the incredible fact that Palestinians bear a weight so heavy and yet display their ingenuity, creativity, and will to life in small, often unnoticed ways. Ways that are as unremarkable as a small child climbing a fig tree.    

For me, seeing that fig tree after so many years was a reaffirmation that despite all the changes, Palestine stands. I had not realized just how much this fig tree has stayed with me, moved with me, in my movement out of Palestine.

The scene and the melody of the climb up the tree have kept the feeling of a free life for Palestine alive in me. And that feeling is enough, for now. Because we are a people who are forced to always make do with what is just “enough.” When life is only lived on a tree, no matter how little there is, it must be made into an “enough.”

Enough, enough, this colonized life. Enough.