Abroad, too, the weeks and months drift by; events remain the same. Riots, crises, conflicts and discoveries follow one another and resemble one another. Life goes on, and finding nothing new under the sun, man attempts to change the sun.
-Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Photo: Robin Kilmer
I started reading the news the day Mohammad Al-Dura appeared on my porch. He was in his father’s lap, on the front page our paper. I had known Palestinians had arms and legs, feet for stepping on flags, hands with fingers for pulling triggers or ignition chords. But their heads had always been masked. Rather than eyes or dimples, they had featureless cloth, sometimes a black and white checkered pattern wrapped their heads, other times it was just black or white, like bank robbers or the Ku Klux Klan. Mohammad and his father though, they had faces—one a man, and one a boy, and their hands held each other. I was fifteen, and closer to the boy than the man. My mother explained the pictures: screaming for help, cowering in terror, still. That day, my mother made me read the news. Every day after, the news itself did. I desperately wanted the violence to stop. Through my camp, I had been registered for, and was eagerly awaiting, a trip to Israel the following summer. I would hike Masada, swim the Dead Sea, and celebrate Shabbat in Jerusalem. The trip was eventually canceled, and America was about to get scary too. In less than a year, during Spanish class, the towers fell.
I must say, the weeks following September 11th were a good time in my life. I was running varsity cross country, and for the first time feeling that I had come into my own within the high school social world. A senior from the team was teaching me stick, letting me drive his Jeep without a license. My mind was never far from the towers though, and times were strange. At a candle-light vigil for the victims, I saw my father join others in song for the first time. When I was a toddler he would sing “Chicken” along with Mississippi John Hurt. That evening, he sang “God Bless America,” although I don’t know what he would have meant by the God part. At night, the wonder of the stars had to compete with the wonder of the planes, criss-crossing our sky and blinking with terrible new potential. But none of it compared to the wonder of growing. I was sixteen, and one Saturday afternoon stepped out of the shower and noticed, to my surprise, that I had abdomen definition and burgeoning visible pectorals. My right hand tracked the growth of my chest every morning in homeroom as I recited the Pledge of Allegiance with, for the first time since kindergarten, a sense of earnestness and awe. The Berkshire Hills turned orange and yellow, ever oblivious to the other changes of the day.
The week after the planes hit, our team had a party. We each drank several two-ounce shots of cheap vodka around a kitchen table in Stockbridge— I was the first to take mine. That night the alcohol ran through my blood like nothing I had felt before or since. I was light and nimble and warm as the world around me pulsated and bent. The next morning we rose and drove to the high school where we joined the effort to paint a 1500 square meter American flag across the hill in front of the building. A few days later, the whole school was photographed sitting around it for the newspaper.
The weekend the United States began bombing Afghanistan, I was in New York. The city was still covered with pictures of the missing, the dead—our dead. Every corner had flowers, phone numbers to call if the pictured were spotted, prayers. I spent that Sunday afternoon making out in Central Park with a fling from camp. We found grass in the sun and then let our sixteen year old tongues take over. As we walked out of the park, Fifth Avenue was waving hundreds of flags. It was Columbus Day weekend, and I was excited by the new air of the new season and the rare occurrence of a hand in mine.
That night I took the Long Island Rail Road to Great Neck for a seventeenth birthday party. It was a crowd of camp friends, many of whom had not seen each other for over a year; with our trip canceled, we had just spent our first summer for a while in different places. In a furnished basement, we drank whatever watery beer and no-name liquor we had—I was angry at a friend who drank too much too fast and spent the rest of the night drooling over the toilet. Some of the other girls held her hair back as she vomited; I told her she fucked up our chance to hang out. The television in the corner talked about the opening hours of a bombing campaign against the Taliban. Later in the night a few of us found a spot down the street, obscured by a pine tree, to smoke pot from a water pipe.
When the weekend ended, and I returned to Grand Central, a middle aged white man with dark hair, a blue shirt and jeans, stood in the great hall holding a sign over his head: “Death to the Taliban.” His display, in this center of the world, did not bother me, or it seemed anyone else. He smiled with bravado and hope, and most of us smiled back. It tickled me as I got on the train.
The Taliban fell quickly as our soldiers lent fire power the good guys of the Northern Alliance. The news was excited:
“The men can shave again! Look at how they fill the barber shop!”
The months passed with college visits and anticipation. When I visited Bard, the students wore strange sunglasses and cursed in class. A white sheet hung from an Ivy covered building with, “Free Palestine” hand painted in dark orange. When I visited Syracuse, there were signs advertising a discussion of “Life in the IDF,” with recently discharged Israeli soldiers. The war in Afghanistan was reported quietly enough for most of us to ignore. Reverence for the morning pledge depleted, and people in the government started to talk openly about a war with Iraq. My community divided between “No Blood for Oil” and “Bomb Saddam.” Two of my friends were arrested in town for protesting against a war without a permit. They loved that they were arrested and the story of their detention was more brutal with every telling. One of them later joined a sniper unit.
I didn’t go to many protests, but decided to make a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Now that I live in the West Bank I hate every filmmaker I meet. I was eighteen and traveled around the northeast taping interviews with young Israelis and Palestinians studying and working in the states. I asked them about their home and their conflict. I heard testimony from a Palestinian college student in Portland Maine about sneaking around checkpoints to enter Jenin and find much of the city in piles. He talked about soldiers who took over his cousin’s house to use as a base, piled the family’s clothing in the center of a room and defecated in it for days. I listened to a red haired Israeli tell of losing his grip on sanity staring into the night on guard at his base. After I turned the camera off, he told me the soldiers used to compete for who could masturbate most in a shift. Two months after our interview, as a civilian, he watched a bus explode outside of his home in Haifa, and then carried bodies out of it.
The weekend the United States began bombing Iraq again, I was with Palestinians in Westchester. They told me that the Arab satellite networks were reporting large numbers of American casualties and a strong Iraqi defense. They weren’t sure who to believe. After the interviews, I joined them for a cigarette. One of the guys was hung over, and took me to the dining hall for greasy French fries.
That spring I spent hours most afternoons in the editing room. I would drive home excited, listening to Guru rap about American ghettos, and feeling that somehow, I was taking my stand: against the war, against the intifada, against the occupation. In May of 2003, I screened my video in the high school auditorium. My family was there, my friends and some of their parents came, my teachers came, and some teachers who I hardly knew showed up out of interest. The movie ended with hope: there were good people living through this conflict, most wanted peace, and they all had faces. The project was well received and I was deeply happy to share its stories and take my stand. That night, lying in bed, I pressed my face against the plastic screen of my bedroom window. Rain was landing loudly against the new, full, leaves of spring, and I could smell the earth drinking. It was the most accomplished I had ever felt, and in that moment I thought, “This peace shit is for dreamers.”