Sunday
Oct192014

The bardo of becoming

 

 

"Oh child of noble family, you will see your home and family as though you were meeting them in a dream, but although you speak to them you will get no reply and you will see your relatives and your family weeping, so you will think, “I am dead, what shall I do?” And you will feel intense pain, like the pain of a fish rolling in hot sand. But now suffering is no use. Oh child of noble family, blown by the moving winds of karma, your mind without support rides the wind like a feather, swaying and swinging. You will say to the mourners, “I am here, do not weep,” but they will not perceive you, so you will think, “I have died.” And now you will feel great pain. Do not suffer like that. All the time there will be a gray haze like the gray light of an autumn dawn, neither day nor night. Oh child of noble family, at this time the great tornado of karma—terrifying, unbearable, whirling fiercely—will drive you from behind. Do not be afraid of it. It is your own confused projection, dense darkness, terrifying and unbearable. It will go before you with terrible cries of “Strike!” and “Kill!” Do not be afraid of them. You will feel that you are being chased by various terrifying wild animals and pursued by a great army in snow, rain, storms, and darkness. There will be sounds of mountains crumbling, of lakes flooding, of fire spreading, and of fierce winds springing up. In fear you will escape wherever you can, but you will be cut off by three precipices in front of you, white, red, and black, deep and dreadful, and you will be on the point of falling down them. Oh child of noble family, they are not really precipices…"

Tibetan Book of the Dead, Trungpa/Fremantle translation, edited here and there

Saturday
Jun282014

What they're talking about when they're talking about "searching"

 

That’s a ceiling, the ceiling of the third floor of the Abu Arab family’s home in the Balata refugee camp, just outside the West Bank city of Nablus. At 1:30 in the morning of June 18, Israeli soldiers blew open the doors to the house. They went from room to room, overturning and smashing furniture, until they came to the third floor, the construction of which had been just completed a few months earlier. Ra’ed Abu Arab had gotten married, built himself an apartment atop the home in which he had been raised—the only place to build in Balata is up— and moved in with his new bride. When he opened the door for the soldiers, his cousin Khaled told me, they punched him in the face and dragged him down the stairs. “Tell the kids to cover their ears,” one of the soldiers said. A moment later the family heard an explosion. Only later did they learn that whatever device the soldiers had detonated had blown out all four walls of a corner room, leaving a crater in the tile floor, concrete debris on the neighbors’ window ledges, holes in the concrete ceiling, holes in the screens of the neighbors’ windows, a hole in the new flatscreen TV mounted on the wall one room over. The soldiers arrested Ra’ed and his cousin Mohammad. The rest of the family—20 people, most of them children—were confined in one small room on the first floor for more than four hours while the soldiers continued ransacking their home.

All of this comes as part of Operation Brother’s Keeper, the aptly named (as in Cain’s “am I my…,” as in fratricide, disavowal and deceit) campaign undertaken by the Israeli military following the disappearance of three Israeli teens while hitchhiking in the West Bank on June 12. In the weeks since, troops have raided more than 1000 Palestinian homes, businesses, charities, universities, and media organizations in their “search” for the missing youth. More than 500 Palestinians have been arrested in raids similar to the one on the Abu Arab house. None have been charged with a crime. Five men and one teenaged boy have been shot to death by Israeli soldiers and two elderly Palestinians died of heart attacks while their homes were being raided. The arrests continue, but over the last week the campaign has begun to wind down. By the time I arrived in Balata, the Abu Arab family had cleaned up, stacking everything worth saving in the kitchen, moving the ruined furniture and carpets to the second floor, knocking out what little broken concrete still separated the room from the open air so that where the exterior walls once provided shelter and some illusory degree of security there was now a precipitous drop to the narrow alleys of the camp fifteen meters below. The Abu Arabs do not know and have not been told on what grounds their home was destroyed, what charges, if any, Ra’d and Mohammad will face, or when they will see them again.

Here's the view from the living room:


Thursday
May292014

Some important details

 

Last week I published a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the killings of Nadim Nuwara and Mohammad Abu Thaher in Beitunia on May 15. In the aftermath of the boys’ deaths, Israeli officials—from low-ranking military spokespeople to the Minister of Defense and the Ambassador to the United States—have claimed that no live ammunition was fired by the IDF that Thursday, that the surveillance video that captured both boys’ deaths was either falsified or edited in a manipulative fashion (the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has since posted the unedited footage, seven and a half hours worth, online) and that the boys may have been killed by an unseen Palestinian gunman. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren suggested last Thursday to an as-usual-fawning-and-unquestioning Wolf Blitzer that the boys may not have died at all. Having seen their bodies, and their grieving families, I can assure you that they did.

In the LARB article I quoted a doctor who treated both boys and who told me that their wounds were without question caused by live fire. Nuwara was shot in the chest, Abu Thaher in the back: both bullets passed through their bodies, leaving exit wounds. The rubber-coated steel bullets used by the IDF can and often do penetrate the skin and can be lethal, but they cannot pass entirely through a human torso even when fired from a relatively short distance. I interviewed four eyewitnesses to the killings, all of whom said live fire was used. (The concussion from a live shot sounds differently than that of a shot when rubber-coated bullets are fired. I have met 11-year-olds in the West Bank who can accurately tell what sort of munitions are being fired by ear alone. All four of the eyewitnesses I interviewed had witnessed many such clashes and knew the difference well.) Three of them testified that they saw Israeli commanders choosing targets and pointing them out to snipers just before each boy was killed. 

Last Thursday, to complicate matters slightly, CNN released footage showing a soldier firing his rifle at approximately the time that Nuwara was killed. He fires, another soldier reaches to take the rifle from him, and the camera leaps to the scene in the road, where a group of youths can be seen carrying away Nuwara’s body. It was easy to conclude, as many did, that the soldier caught by the CNN cameraman had fired the killing shot. Yesterday, Haaretz reported that the soldier in question was assigned to a communications division and was accompanying a unit of Border Police at the scene. Robert Mackey reports in the New York Times that the soldier has been suspended: as a “non-combat” soldier accompanying another unit, it was a breach of protocol for him to fire his weapon at all.

One thing is worth noting: the bullet that killed Nadim Nuwara was almost certainly not fired by the soldier caught on the CNN video. It was almost certainly a coincidence that he fired his weapon at approximately the same moment that Nuwara was hit. And he almost certainly was shooting rubber-coated bullets: the video is hazy, but his rifle appears to be equipped with the sort of extension that is attached to the barrel of an M16 to allow it to fire rubber-coated bullets. Mohannad Darabee, one of the witnesses I interviewed, told me repeatedly that he was sure the shot that killed Nuwara did not come from the group of Border Police who had gathered on a driveway just uphill and slightly back from the road. Darabee walked me to the spot where Nuwara fell, and to the spot from which the Border Police (and the now-suspended soldier) had been firing. The corner of a building stood in the way: there was no line of fire that would have allowed those soldiers to hit Nuwara.

However, another, larger group of Israeli soldiers had gathered behind a concrete blast wall on the edge of a parking lot about 200 meters from the spot where Nuwara was hit. (See image above.) It was there, Darabee said, that he saw a commander choosing targets through binoculars. Those soldiers had an unimpeded shot at Nuwara. Forgive me if this is all a bit hard to visualize: The Guardian produced a graphic that maps it all out. But I want to make this very clear, because the waters have been muddied considerably, both through deliberate obfuscation and by speculation about a video that reveals less than it appears to: the fact that the soldier caught on video by CNN was apparently firing rubber-coated bullets only confirms the accounts of eyewitnesses who testified that the bullet that killed Nadim Nuwara was likely fired by another group of soldiers gathered at the edge of the parking lot. Abu Thaher, who was shot about an hour later, and was standing in the middle of the road, easily visible from the Border Police officers’ perch, could have been killed by either group.

 

 

Monday
May262014

 .


 

Lying in bed last night, I read on Twitter that Subcomandante Marcos had died, that he had committed suicide. My heart stopped for a moment. Of course he didn’t die, not exactly, but he had released his final communiqué, in which he announced his own dissolution and insisted that he had never existed, not exactly, that he had never been anything more than a character, a hologram, the clown suit that Zapatismo wore for the media and for the outside world. Marcos was, he insisted in this final communiqué, nothing more or less than “a complex distraction ploy, a terrible and marvelous magic trick.”

Those who had loved and hated him, he wrote, “now know that they have hated and loved a hologram. Their love and hate has been useless, sterile, empty, hollow. There will be no museum or metal plaque on the house where I was born and grew up. There will be no one who goes on living having once been Subcomandante Marcos. No one will inherit his name or his position. There will be no all-expenses-paid trips to lecture overseas. There will be no transfer for care in luxurious hospitals. There will be no widows or heirs. There will be no funerals, no honors, no statues, no museums, no prizes, none of what the system does to promote the cult of the individual and devalue the collective. The character was created and now we, his creators, the Zapatistas, destroy it. If anyone understands this lesson given by our compañeras and compañeros, they will have understood one of the foundations of Zapatismo.” 

The hologram will forgive us our grief. I was 22 when I went to Chiapas in 1995. I had just finished college and spent six months saving money and sleeping on various friends’ couches, waiting for my girlfriend to graduate so that we could go to southern Mexico, where a year earlier the Zapatistas had taken up arms against the government. It seemed, somehow, the only alternative to Getting a Job, living encubicled, to a florescent-lit hallway of recycled air and grey industrial carpet stretching on into the future forever. I don’t know what I expected and didn’t know what I wanted. I am sure that I was infuriatingly naïve and romantic. I’m proud of that. We arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas in June. The brief, armed phase of the Zapatista rebellion (“Here we are, the always-dead, dying again, but now in order to live.”) had ended months before. The rebels, defeated militarily, had retreated to the Lacandon jungle, where they remained, their communities surrounded and besieged by the Mexican army and paramilitary militias.

My silliest fantasies—picking up a rifle to defend the world’s last great revolution, because surely the indigenous people of Chiapas needed the advanced military skills of a bookish white boy from suburbia—did not come to pass. I never met Marcos. I went into the jungle only twice. Mainly I stayed in San Cristóbal, where I found work teaching English. I befriended all the kids who sold chewing gum in the city’s central square, and the kids who had nothing to sell, who descended on the tourist cafes in a giggling, larcenous swarm, eating food off people’s plates, pocketing stray valuables, dipping their fingers in every sugar bowl and racing out again. I learned Spanish, in part by translating the communiqués that Marcos sent to the local newspapers every few days. I learned words I didn’t even know in English, words for phenomena so pervasive at home that we didn’t bother to name or to discuss them, though they were, at the time, swiftly upending the world. Words like “neoliberalism.” Struggling to decipher Marcos’ prose, to navigate his puns and dodges, to cut through the tangles of a syntax that I could barely unlock in its most basic forms, I learned, almost by accident, to love my own language more, to have some sense of its infinite possibilities, not just for protest but for play, not just for meaning but for flirtation, for hide and seek, for a subversive, half-lit joy. I learned that the best political writing took the form of a love letter, that love and art and laughter and a hunger for justice did not need to shiver through the night in separate stalls.

That summer the Zapatistas called for a national referendum, asking Mexicans to vote on five yes-or-no questions about the future of the country and of the Zapatista movement. On the day of the vote, August 23, I remember standing on the sidewalk with my girlfriend, both of us mute, watching thousands and thousands of people, indigenous people from the highlands of Chiapas, people who for centuries had been silenced and excluded and murdered when they dared to object, as they arrived in San Cristóbal from villages many miles distant, marching in silence to vote, to be seen and to be heard, to demand a role in the construction of their destinies.

I left Chiapas at the end of that year. I went to New York and got a job in a grey-carpeted cubicle. The media’s affection for the Zapatistas was already dissolving. They would soon be consigned, cynically, to leftist cliché. But what I saw that day—those thousands marching in silence, their backs straight with pride and dignity, refusing the role that history had assigned them—remains at the basis of my understanding of the possible despite all the wars since, declared and undeclared, despite the massive consolidation of a ferocious and paranoid kleptocratic class, despite the rising temperatures and rising seas and the ever-rising tide of shit and lies and murder and murder and shit and lies. “We chose rebellion,” says Marcos, hologram or no, “that is to say, life.”

It wasn’t Marcos who I saw that August day. He was, okay, just the hologram, just the clown suit worn by those unnamed thousands. But that’s no reason not to bid him goodbye with love and deepest gratitude, no reason not to mourn his exit. In his final communiqué he signs off twice, the first time gravely: “My voice will no longer be the voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. …whoever has understood will know that it doesn’t matter anymore, that it never mattered.”

Then come the postscripts. I’ll quote from the sixth one: “without the clown suit, can I go naked now?”

 

 

 

 

Sunday
May182014

Birds

 On Thursday afternoon, two young men—really they were boys still—were killed not far from where I’m sitting, both of them unarmed, both of them shot in the heart by Israeli soldiers. Their names were Nadim Nawara and Mohammad Odeh. I went to their funerals, listened to their loved ones wail. I’ve been writing about it all day, will post a link when the article goes up. I’ll try to remember to. But I wanted to say that I spend a lot of time here watching birds. Not with any expertise, not trying to identify them—though for the record, I mainly see starlings, swifts, pigeons, crows, parrots—just watching them fly, roost, fly, listening to them chatter and sing, wondering what they are talking about and what think about us humans here below with all our dramas, fighting, killing, dying, carving up the land. If they think about us at all. I prefer to believe that they do not. The birds above are frigate birds. I shot the video far away, on another continent, where they are, I hope, still flying.