In this excerpt of a longer piece I've been writing on violence perpetrated on the Arab world, I offer a small window on why.
The rain poured down on New Year’s Eve outside my apartment. I didn’t know my neighbors, the Iraqi refugees with three or four tall, slender daughters whose DJ-ed engagement and wedding parties sometimes kept me up at night. I had only met their father once. He told me he had lost his son and his right arm above the elbow to the American occupiers of his hometown. I had nothing to say in reply.
He reminded me of my college days, before I ever heard of Jordan, the night of March 21, 2003, as the United States attacked Baghdad. I remembered standing in the lounge of my dorm with a dozen silent, devastated neighbors, watching CNN high on the far wall. It was raining hard beyond the lounge windows in the Baltimore night while the missiles rained down on Baghdad. The lights were off, the other students dark ghosts in the flicker of the television. I was thinking about the Iraqi women, huddling in their darkened living rooms, hugging their children close, trying not to think about death.
Now, on a rainy New Year’s Eve in Jordan, the violence in Baghdad was at a low simmer, and in Amman, it had been pouring rain non-stop for a week. On two sides of my living room, the walls were entirely windows. Sheets of rain lashed against the glass in mighty gusts of wind. I had only one small propane heater for a high-ceilinged, ell-shaped space large enough for three living room sets and a dining room table for six.
I was cocooned on the couch in three wool blankets and that same fleece hat, watching Emirati satellite television. My roommate was home in Michigan for the holidays. Our third bedroom was between tenants. I was unemployed. The television was supposed to keep me from dwelling too deeply on my misery ... or the cold.
The rain poured down, sometimes a steady vertical torrent, sometimes whipped into a tempest by the wind. It pounded against the windows, competing with Oprah for attention, but I wasn’t listening to either. My mind was in the Gaza Strip.
Missiles had been pounding down there for days, lighting the night brighter than lightning, shaking the earth and air stronger than thunder. One Israeli baby had been killed by a Hamas rocket. In her name, all the Palestinian mothers of Gaza were huddled with their children. Hundreds died.
It had snowed in Gaza that winter. I imagined the Palestinian mothers pulling frayed wool ticks and worn blankets as far from the windows as they could, clutching their babies in the damp dark that shivered with the thunder of war. Did their hands tremble with cold, or only with fear?
New York City, 2014
This time, while bombs rain down on Gaza, it’s a perfect New York summer, not too humid, not too hot. I’m sure there’s not a cloud in the Gaza sky, either, except for the clouds of smoke. There’s a perfect, clear view from the reporters’ hotel rooms down to the small, shattered bodies on the beach.
I’ve started receiving emails again from the U.S. Embassy in Amman, warning of Friday demonstrations.
My Arab friends post daily to Facebook—atrocities, pleas for mercy, and articles about almost daily Jewish protests against the violence. My Jewish friends are silent, their voices conspicuously absent. Is the tide turning or are they, like me, losing clarity, losing hope that there are any rational actors left?
I always thought that I could see the strategic advantage to each side. This time it just looks like so much rage and fear and revenge pouring down, the gathered thunder of five generations of trauma.
Gazans have been warned to flee their homes, but to where? I hear a story on the radio of an extended family, more than thirty men, women and children, sharing a one-bedroom apartment. I listen to the grandmother’s voice and imagine their wool ticks spread across the floor, wall to wall, four generations trying to fall asleep, side by side by side, to the thunder of falling bombs outside.
It’s hot and sunny in New York, and I’m thinking of pounding rain and a cold dread dug deep into my bones.
The first frost, and the wind turns suddenly cold. A winter storm rolls through in mid-December, snarling air traffic from JFK to O’Hare.
I remember my white cinderblock Peace Corps house, perched atop a hill on the edge of a plateau stretching eastward to Mosul and northward to Aleppo. To the east, it gets hotter than I can imagine. “It’s hell,” my Iraqi professor told us. “Forget learning the word for hot. Summer is fire in Iraq.”
To the north, the elevation climbs up to the Golan Heights, and higher to Sheikh Mountain, named for its year-round cap of white. The land is lush there, with water and agriculture enough to share with Jordan by summer.
Or it was.
Damascus, but never Aleppo. I regret that now. I don’t know if they knew the luxury of central heat there, or if they warmed themselves with propane space heaters or by burning the remnants of the olive harvest. I doubt there’s much propane in Aleppo now. I doubt the olives bore much fruit this year.
In Leviticus and the Qur’aan, God forbids the killing of even one fruit-bearing tree in wartime, but the Syrian Army and Russian bombers don’t discriminate. The once-great, twice-massacred city is decimated, flattened. Women and children huddle in basements, if they’re lucky. The hospitals are gone, the orphanage besieged.
“We only wanted freedom,” Prof. Abdulkafi says into his cell phone camera. He speaks of his daughter, the children. Voice trailing away, lips tight, he looks heavenward, holding back tears. He fidgets with the edge of his hoodie, and from deep in my marrow, I feel the damp cold of Levantine weather trickle out once more.
Central heat pouring from my vents, snug in my bed in Newark, I tremble with more than the memory of cold. I try to sleep. What else can I do?
If you have charitable dollars to spend for Syrians, I recommend Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated White Helmets, the International Rescue Committee, or Questscope (a.k.a. the little NGO that does).