Sunday, July 3, 2016

After the Last [Climatic] Sky

June 21, 2016:
My wife and I are back in our home in Galilee after tarrying for several months in New York. Last night we visited family and dear friends. The sky was phenomenally clear and we stayed up past midnight, a rare event for an early riser like me. It was the coincidence of June’s Strawberry Moon, a reminder of the rich environmental legacy of Native Americans, those forgotten sacrificial victims of othering and settler colonialism, and the summer solstice, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Our last visit for the night was with our age mates Said—Arabic for ‘Happy’--and Nabiha—‘Witty Woman’—, better known in our village parlance by their first born son’s name as Abu- and Umm-Ayman. Said is my retired biochemist fellow villager who has spent more time in his land in the Battouf Valley for pleasure than he ever did in the hospital laboratory that he headed as a career. His hobby farming had kept his family, as well as mine, supplied with fresh vegetables throughout the summer months for many years. Last night he and Nabiha were apologetic about the limited amounts of fresh peas and melons that they insisted on gifting us. Alas, the heat this summer had ruined the crops. As you know, they explained, the Battouf’s best vegetables are grown ba’il—without irrigation—thanks to the nightly dew precipitation in the valley. This year the morning fog lifts early, the dew is evaporated with the first rays of sun that desiccate the vegetation except for a hardy okra plant here and a mutant melon there. To keep himself busy in retirement, my friend had increased the number of goats in his yard and we were treated to our fill of qataif, freshly baked light pancakes stuffed with homemade cheese then deep-fried in olive oil and smothered with spicy syrup. Yummm!!

Always a super housewife, Nabiha still supervises all the household chores despite her failing vision, limited mobility and the confinement of home dialysis. Thank God for small favors! Not everyone has an accomplished biochemist for a husband and not every husband is so loving and dedicated. Said had won her hand in marriage competing with a dozen other suitors, including closer relatives of hers than he was. But that all is history. By the time he retired, they had raised a good family and lived happily for over four decades. It has been only few years now that she stopped her daily trips to their Battouf fields where she pulled more than her fare share of physical labor. She did it more to pamper her children with fresh produce and to keep the traditions of the good old days than for the extra income. Tending the fertile land and gathering the fresh produce was a joy, second nature to the old couple. They passed it on to the next generation effortlessly. You don’t teach kids how to breathe, Umm-Aymen says. By the time Said retired, the family was quite well-off by village standards: He collected a good retirement pay, three out of the four girls worked in the village and their boy, Ayman, was a pharmacist at a hospital in the south of the country. Now Nabiha can hardly ambulate within the house with the help of a cane. She sits in the kitchen and the two surviving daughters are always at the ready to follow her tuitions. She does most of the food preparation for all four remaining members of the family, the two parents and their attentive two daughters. Ayman’s widow and his baby girl, named after one of her late paternal aunts, come to visit every few weeks and that is when everyone gets a life again.

Now, the old couple constantly pleads with God for forgiveness. The good lord continues to test their faith and endurance. But how does one deal with the added curse of the fields losing their productivity. Of late the Battouf Valley is turning sterile. But they insist on sharing what little vegetables Said picks every few days with friends and neighbors. Stores are full of fresh produce from the irrigated fields of Jewish commercial farms. But the stuff lacks the bite of Ba’il produce. It tastes like soggy hay and sinks in your stomach, never fills your body and soul with the flavor of the land in which it grew. Nabiha recalls how her late father used to know from the first bite from which exact area of the Battouf Valley a fresh tomato, a watermelon or a dish of cooked greens came. And Said, like some other locals, believes that there is a direct link between the name “Battouf” and the Netufa Spring at its eastern edge. From there the jump is easy to the Netufians who happened to have introduced agriculture to the human race a dozen millennia ago. Alas, it seems like it all is coming to an end. Unless God envelopes us with his mercy and blesses the Battouf again with more rain at the height of winter and with cooler summers.
This morning I woke up with a peculiar sense of dislocation, a fugue state I first attributed to jetlag. I was fully aware of my time and space coordinates and felt in full command of my senses and memory. But when I looked at the newspaper headlines from yesterday I didn’t understand what I read. The meaning seemed to seep out of the words: First, several headings in Arabic, my mother’s tongue, seemed to be confused: “Government approves additional 82 million shekels to build settlement homes,” one said. Then right next to that another heading read: “Government approves 20 million shekels in a plan to demolish thousands of homes of its Arab citizens.” Yes, we are 20% of Israel’s population and the budgets are proportionate, I figured. But I sensed I missed something. For some reason the two statements didn’t make sense. A third heading said “Saudi Arabia supported Netanyahu with $16 billion.” I could already imagine the next double-speak heading about the ‘Green Patrol’ spraying Bedouin crops in the Negev with Agent Orange. First I was lost between the real and the imagined headings. Then I missed the inner coherence of each statement. Finally words seemed to have been stripped of their meaning, the concepts becoming empty shells: What did ‘state,’ ‘king’ or ‘citizen’ mean? They were collections of letters that I could read and I sounded the words out several times. But each had no significance beyond the auditory impact it made on my neurological system. Looking at words and sentences on the page seemed like scooping ladles of alphabet soup. The whole page meant nothing beyond the different black dots, lines, twists and turns on a white background.

Did I suffer from a serious brain dysfunction, I wondered? I checked my memory again by reciting a few lines of poetry from elementary school days. They flowed nicely with rhythm and rhyme. But I couldn’t tell what they signified. Then I recited ‘Alfatiha,’ the opening chapter of the Koran. I didn’t miss a beat. But what did the word ‘God’ mean? I put the paper down, closed my eyes and breathed slow and deep. This was a peculiar neurological symptom, I could tell and I hoped it was a passing one. I went to my study and turned my Mackintosh laptop on. I immediately connected to the instrument and could navigate in its myriad functions. I felt reassured. I checked my email. A welcome name glared at me from the screen: Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh had sent out another one of his weekly messages to his many thousands of contacts. I recognized the name and immediately connected it to the dark face, the bespectacled focused black eyes and the persistent smile, all stored in my memory. I ticked on the message and read. Slowly I made out words other than the inspiring name. The guy is so spot-on! OMG! His words made sense. Yes, ‘God’ is the friendly big guy in the sky. I Knew Him well, of course. Thank you, Mazin, for bringing me back to reality and full comprehension. Your words make sense:
“From Palestine we send our deepest condolences to Brenden Cox and all the family of the murdered British labor party MP Jo Cox. … The best thing we can do to honor Jo is to redouble our efforts for peace and justice. … Please think of how World Wars were started and the devastations they caused. It was not bad leaders but an acquiescent public. …”

 Mazin then quotes a lovely fable from Kurt Kauter’s  “New Fables: Thus Spoke the Marabou,” to buttress the need for the peace-minded to speak up. He then provides three more links to significant current events and signs off with his standard “Stay Human!”
My wife interrupts me with a loud chuckle from the bedroom. I go over, sit on the edge of the bed next to her and listen to the funny news item from the New York Times: A woman in the Big Apple is offering her sexless cuddling services at the rate of $80 an hour.

I give my wife a good-morning kiss and go back to my study. I choose the last link from Mazin’s email on the strength of Naomi Klein’s name recognition. Lo and behold, in her eloquent 2016 Edward Said Lecture delivered in London on May 5, she speaks directly to me and to my village friends. She addresses our issues and personal concerns more meaningfully than I ever dreamt possible from a lead global environmental campaigner. I wish she were here right now so I can thank her with a sincere hug. Her lecture is entitled “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World.” It ranges far and wide yet feels personal and immediate. She is talking about our Battouf Valley, of course. I can hardly distinguish her voice from that of my village friends. I swear I can detect in her voice that telling twang of mixed fear and hope I heard during my last visit last night. She decries the fact that “… climate refugees aren’t recognized under international law.” And there is no legal recourse for my friends, local, national or international.

Naomi Klein doesn’t shy away from addressing the mother of all Middle East conflicts, Europe’s settler colonialist project in Palestine. The intellectual legacy of Edward Said, another ‘Happy’ Palestinian, and his mythic relationship to land and exile necessitates that. She avers that environmental racism, designated ‘sacrifice areas’ and ‘sacrifice peoples’ and “The trauma associated with these layers of forced separation—from land, from culture, from family” is at the base of the continuing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Said, the legendary exposer of Orientalism, didn’t trust “tree huggers” apparently because of the special experience of the Palestinians with the Jewish National Fund’s successful camouflaging of its “green colonialism” and of its “feel-good conifers” replacing Palestinian habitats. The roots of colonialism, Othering, and massive human rights abuses on one side and of environmental neglect and international debauchery to control carbon resources on the other are one and the same: insatiable greed.

Edward Said “was and remains among our most achingly eloquent theorists of exile and homelessness.” In the spirit of his many relevant insights on the matter, Naomi suggests “climate Sumud” as a strategy. She points to the example of “staying put” practices of the locals in Nauru as they struggle to face the rising seas. Environmental Sumud and the struggle for freedom know no borders. I am reminded of the legacy of such unsung heroes as David Eggers’ Zeitoun in New Orleans (Vintage, 2010), which is one and the same eons-old tradition of steadfastness born of physical rootedness in one’s piece of our shared terra firma. In this same spirit of human solidarity, the one state solution is the ultimate Sumud strategy for us sane Palestinians and Israelis alike. It has been practiced in this crossroads locale over the millennia thus depositing in my native Canaanite genes the layered residues of all the invaders and their slave gladiators from Hittites, Hyksos, Egyptians and Hebrews through Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantine and European Crusaders all the way to the Arabs with a light Turkish flavoring.

Abu- and Umm-Ayman would agree with Naomi a hundred percent. The soil of the Battouf Valley under their fingernails drenched with the oil of the olives they collect from the adjacent hillside gives them instant comprehension of her words. And, like me, they would reach out and hug her. We are ready to offer her all the cuddling she needs free of charge. Who else could better illuminate the relevance of Edward Said’s concepts of ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Othering’ to the global climate change and of ‘Sumud’ as the last global weapon of the weak in facing the impending climate Nakba? Sumud is all that all of us have left. Without Sumud, where would we all set up camp after the last climatic sky?


chrisrushlau said...

Mazin Qumsiyeh sent this blog post out to his list and I'll send him this same reply. When you have no idea what "God" is nor what any word means, that probably means you're starting to think about God. I don't think it's a hardware issue as you describe it and as you include it in your essay, especially as it culminates in the Naomi Klein argument. What is the heart of greed? It is thinking your imagination is the actual world. "In his heart, the fool says, 'There is no God.'" Psalm 14. In our terms, solipsism: "the self alone". This is the basis of totalitarianism, including its liberal version, fascism. The contradiction, that makes the fool a fool, is that the narrative-alone-believer pierces her narrative, despite her denial of the possibility of doing it, in order to link up with the party line, the totalitarian narrative. "Why do I keep on keeping up with the Joneses when I don't even like the Joneses?" The sufferer, let us call her, though this is entirely her own fault, cannot bear to imagine confronting phenomena on her own, without a script, with full responsibility for doing justice.
How does anyone learn to do that? As you say, we don't need to be taught how to breathe. We do need to learn to be adults and to denounce and repudiate ("divorce") the party line, with all the risks of shunning that that brings. But, as Groucho Marx said, I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have me. We must learn to be independent before we can be dependent. That is what distinguishes family from a dysfunctional group: the members do not lean on it or its head (or abuser-in-chief) for their "identity". If you ask them who or what they are, they'll say, like Popeye the Sailor Man, "I am what I am and that's what I am."
You might call this, enjoying your freedom.
Thanks for the excellent description of life in occupied Palestine. It is sort of an updating of A Bedouin Boyhood. Here's the comedy rival: a Bedouin Goyhood.

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