Activism / May 10, 2024

Palestine Is Everywhere, and It Is Making Us More Free

More letters from the apocalypse.

George Abraham and Sarah Aziza
Students wrap Palestinian flag and Keffiye around the statue of George Washington at the George Washington University encampment protest.

Students wrap a Palestinian flag and keffiyeh around the statue of George Washington at the George Washington University encampment protest in Washington, D.C.

(Probal Rashid / LightRocket via Getty Images)

George and I began writing to each other in the late summer of 2023. Our correspondence grew from a shared exasperation with a status quo that treated Palestinian suffering as integral, intractable, and invisible. We felt torn—compelled to both defend our history against erasure while yearning to transcend it. Together, we wondered—what future is imaginable, at this late hour? Seventy-six years after the Nakba, what would it take to break the cycles of violence, and violent indifference, which foreclose so much Palestinian life? Can our art help us find the way? Who will join us there?

After the events of October 7, 2023, our letters became a way for us to hold each other through shattering weeks, then months, of genocide. As time and catastrophe dragged on, our grief grew limbs. Even as we screamed for a cease-fire, we knew the real work would take us far beyond—the struggle for collective survival demands an entirely new world.

In a later exchange of letters, written in March, we spent some time turning our focus inward. We got intimate—discussing the direct, embodied implications of our Palestinian experiences as US citizens. We explored the ways our position inside this settler-colonial state not only corrodes our flesh but also entangles us with the harm of others—Black and Indigenous people first among many more. This reckoning led us over and over to the need to be in real, radical, and proximal community. Solidarity, we conclude, must be a verb. We need more than words. We need our bodies in each others’ homes, and in the streets.

We must not lose sight that all our resistance remains backdropped by Israel’s unrelenting slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and the horrific, impending invasion of Rafah. But our hope is that the letters that follow add to the praxis we are already witnessing—from global boycotts to campus encampments, and beyond. May we meet on liberated lawns, and shores, soon.

Sarah Aziza

March 1, 2024

Habibti,

Can you believe it’s March? And still, we are gathering in protest. And still, we face an unflinching escalation of US-funded Zionist genocide. Just days ago, we witnessed what Palestinians in Gaza are naming the Flour Massacre, while the still-illiterate CNN called it a “chaotic incident.” Even when our starving people are waiting for basic wheat, they are being massacred recursively: The image of bloodied flour comes to mind, alongside the image of hungry families waiting for parents who will never return.

Many folks have been fasting every Thursday, a call Mizna started back in December, and since we have not received a cease-fire, many are fasting still. Every week is a reminder of how much time has passed, how many Gazans have been murdered, how long a people can last while, if not being bombed, being starved out. Every week, hunger settles into many of us and sharpens our commitments. Here, I cannot help but think of the brave students at Brown who were on hunger strike to pressure the school into divestment. I cannot help but think of the Palestinian history of hunger strikes in Israeli prisons, and the story from years ago when Zionists would gather just outside the walls with grills and meats to torture the prisoners—or hostages, if we’re speaking accurately—with the scent of meat.

Read the first part of this series

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Cover of May 2024 Issue

It is March now, and our people taken hostage—many of whom are children, all of whom have been disappeared into Israeli prisons—still do not make headlines. A few weeks ago, a woman attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference cut through a vigil gathered to read the names of our martyred kin in Gaza, screaming, “Free the hostages!” After, she made a beeline to curse out people at the RAWI table, to satiate this hunger to ruin any Arab’s day, including those not affiliated with the vigil. After the conference failed to protect us, among the only folks physically harassed by security through the action were Black folks. It is March, and still institutions are failing to protect us from genocide-apologists, hungry to pave over Palestinians living and dead.

I return to the first letter you wrote back in September. Remember when we were writing about the living Palestinian body? The questions of chronic illness, of recovery, of the body’s place in our collective imagination of futurity? Remember our conversations at Palestine Writes, when we went to a panel with Mosab Abu Toha and several other Gazan writers—how one of them mentioned their grandfather, a strong and burly man, who became a diabetic after the Nakba of 1948 and eventually collapsed dead one day without warning? Remember our conversation about how we both had similar family trajectories? Though they weren’t from Gaza, I cannot help but think of my father’s cousin who, shortly after his father passed away, died suddenly of diabetic complications. I cannot help but remember his poor mother—how in every memory of her, from my childhood, she is wailing.

When my own father collapsed just over two years ago, as a rare neurodegenerative disease consumed him from the inside out and killed him in mere weeks, the only way I knew how to process my grief was through hunger. Night after night, I would sneak out to the kitchen in search of the next box of Cheez-its, the next tray of acceptable leftovers, the next pint of ice cream. Each time, I would remember my father, in life, yelling from the living room’s view of the kitchen—he always slept in the living room for as long as I can remember, with the TV blaring in the background—asking why I was eating.

I remember how he’d make me finish whatever food I was sneaking in his line of sight so I didn’t bring it to my room and attract roaches to his spotless home. How he’d use that moment of paralysis to shame me for eating, What, a second dinner, or was it your third? How his default insult, in life, was to call someone fat, himself included; how he thought this fatphobia was just a kind of tough love because he never wanted his children to die the same too-early American deaths of his other family members. How he had internalized this false conflation between fatness and bad health and wanted to pass it on to me as an inheritance. Those nights after his funeral, I admit I missed his nagging, damaging as it was to me. I wanted nothing more than to see a roach emerge from some unknowing corner of the house, or some door to slam shut in the distance, or some other sign from his ghost saying, Don’t you dare eat in your room!

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On the second Father’s Day after his death, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I got the news while away in Beirut—and yes, what they say is true, my body felt infinitely better eating non-US food. When I returned to the US, my doctor congratulated me less on my weight loss and more on my metabolic test numbers, telling me to keep it up. I took the diagnosis as a wake-up call, feeling grateful that my (also overweight) doctor wanted to treat me with an optimistic action plan.

My life fell back into the carb-watching and daily exercise I attempted before the pandemic. A part of me knew that restrictive diets hadn’t worked well for me—knew that they only led me back to unhealthy eating patterns in the long term—but it was the only tool I had for convincing myself I was taking my health “seriously.” I tried to relish in the benefits of exercising daily, the mental clarity that came with it over any pressure to lose weight, and that kept me going for a while…

Until October came around.

I was in catastrophe mode, I told myself, as I slowly made my way back to my emotional eating habits.

I’ll be generous to myself now and get back on track once the bombs stop, I told myself, as I’d conveniently forget to work out or test my blood night after night.

And then the bombs didn’t stop. And then my hunger had become a habit: a weed gummy at night, a stomach howling from my day’s small starvations. Some days, it was from accidental starvation, spending the whole day on work I saw as urgent. Other days, it was from intentional starvation: out of guilt, maybe, this physical repulsion at food as our people starved because of the hands that fed me; or maybe, it was disgust at my own body, how my daily blood tests became a reminder of how it could, and would, tear itself apart because of my appetite.

It was just this past week in Omaha—visiting for a long preplanned teaching gig with the lovely Nebraska Writers’ Collective, having, for the first time since October, true alone time with myself—that I first admitted it to myself: I had dissolved into an eating disorder. In my spiraling, doing silly Google searches like “why do I overeat,” after reading through the obvious answers like emotional eating or irregular meal schedules or the ineffectiveness of restrictive diets, such as the Keto diet I had tried before with limited success, I arrived at a study that shook me to my core.

The study showed that eating while distracted often led to overeating. I scanned my memories over the past few months and couldn’t think of a single meal I ate that didn’t involve my being glued to my laptop doing (mainly Palestine-centered) editorial work, or glued to my Instagram following news footage from Gaza, or oversaturated with communication after communication: another unpaid reading, editorial request, or solicitation treating me like an object of pity, interspersed with real-time urgent requests from Palestinians. There was no separation from my spiraling brain and my endless hunger. I lived my death at every meal.

My trip to Omaha was miraculous for so many reasons beyond this self-discovery. From the second I arrived, the (predominantly Black and brown and queer) organizers went out of their way to make sure I was taken care of. Every single detail of the trip, from the itinerary to the reading framing, was thought out with the kind of care I’ve only known from other marginalized folks. When I taught a workshop, Palestinian poems were held in ways that felt rare and miraculous. Here, “genocide” was not a word that wavered on anyone’s tongue.

And it is so unsurprising that the venue eager to host my reading was the unapologetic folks at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, where the generous Miss Karen hooked me arm and arm and gave me an hour-long history lesson before the reading itself connected me with other comrades from Nebraskans for Palestine. Here, meals were punctuated by the kind of caring and rigorous conversation I’ve come to love poets for—the kind of care that returns me closer to my body. With this backdrop, I found permission to ask how I had gotten here, and the openness to accept the truths of my hunger I had known all along.

Here, I return to existential questions of our Palestinian American existence: What version of the US did my ancestors dream for me, for us? Where were Black and Indigenous folks in their imagination, as they decided to come here? How did we arrive at the present day, fueled by a long history of love and solidarity between Black and Palestinian folks on one hand, and saturated with blatant examples of Arab Americans collaborating with whiteness simultaneously?

There is a huge distance between Arab American and Palestinian American, a chasm really, that has never felt so vast to me… Though how many of the latter participate in whiteness via access to the former? As I dig further into the history of Jacksonville Palestinians, I find histories of Palestinian shops in the area working to prioritize hiring Black folks in the segregation era—histories at odds with the familial anti-Blackness I have witnessed, and attempted to reckon with, my whole life. Or maybe this is a conversation at least some Palestinians had with themselves before coming to the US; perhaps, some knew, or at least felt, that our existential threat is the neoliberal world order writ large.

The truth is this: most of my father’s family tree, who assimilated from a middle-class life in Ramallah into a working-class life of sandwich shops in the Southern USA, will have died off only three generations into our arrival in America. Most of them will have died American deaths like heart attacks, strokes, diabetic complications, or murder by guns. By coming to America, we gained legible deaths that many cannot have in the necropolitical regime imposed on Palestine. Could our ancestors have known they were planting the seeds for future generations to enter into our own American suicides?

I keep returning to a conversation I had with my friend Aurielle Marie, who, alongside Camonghne Felix and Tariq Luthun, generously planned and hosted Black and Palestinian solidarity spaces recently despite the horrific AWP conference time. During this time, she raised the question of reorientation. How can we allow catastrophe to reorient our lives, our daily words and actions, in a deeply committed way? How else to imagine with-ness but to rigorously attend to the impossibilities thereof—the sheer necrotic weight of a country founded on genocide that got us here, yes, and the weight of the unimaginable dead we cannot know or know we do not know, for the ways imperialism (and our participation therewith) has annihilated them from our imaginations? What reorientations to our attention are required, at the level of the body, so that we may survive this in the long haul? What forms of care must we enact to make possible such attentional reorientations?

I trust no name for love but such re/committed reckonings, such im/possible horizons.

With love,
G

We must fight the excess of empire with the excess of our bodies. When universities try to compress our zones of protest, we must fight it by breaking their borders. When administrators give notices to stop chanting, we must turn our slogans into songs.

March 14, 2024

Habibi,

Yes, my heart, it is March. I am writing you on the first day of Ramadan, a reminder that there is nothing too sacred for this carnage to invade. March, Ramadan: two calendars, two ways of marking time. Either way we measure it, it has been unfathomably long since Israel’s slaughter went from incremental to unhinged.

I think of Susan Abulhawa’s interviews the past week—emerging from her two weeks in Gaza, a ghost where her eyes should be. How she is desperate to convey not only the scale of literal death but the denigration of life itself, how every act of survival is saturated with cruelty, indignities. How our kin are starved, what unspeakable things they are forced to eat. The dissolution of social order, the agonies of untreated wounds. The nightmare of having no hygiene, no shelter, no proper burials. Untold classrooms emptied, turned to rubble, our proud traditions of education, music, dance—all of it shattered into disparate-yet-universal desperations.

Lately, writing has felt useless. For someone who lives and breathes language, this is a most desolating sensation. But after months of pushing this insanity into sentences, I am reaching a point of speechless exhaustion—in particular, an exasperation with the Western, English landscape. So, I am grateful for your callback to my first letter, to the subjects of chronic illness and recovery, to questions of embodiment. These are not incidental but integral to our attempts to parse possible futures from a blighted present-past. Our flesh: the medium, the material. The message, too.

Your experience at AWP is an apt place to begin talking about what this means for us, as diasporic Palestinians living in the United States. Something about the configuration of the bodies in your group—Arab, Black, Asian, and others, arrayed in visible solidarity with Palestine—brought a carnal ugliness into a place that, on the surface, postured as a literary, civilized space. I am reminded of the shallow, sharp dimensions of that word, civility.


Long before our letters began, we talked at length about this slippage, this uneven and entangling distribution of harm. How, though anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic hatred are particularly sanctioned here, we are also implicated in other forms of oppression. How too many of us have, intentionally or incidentally, failed to grasp the truth about what America does to non-white bodies generally, and our Black and Indigenous kin, specifically.

Failed, because we are too distracted or deluded, too fearful or too entrenched in privilege. Too busy mislocating danger in each other and “safety” in capital or the state. Too busy pushing our bodies to breaking because we believe this country when it tells us that if we just try hard enough, we will prosper. I think of the relatives you invoked, how trauma and racism can live side by side. I recall my father listening to me as a self-righteous teen, having just stumbled upon Lorde, Zinn, and Baldwin: This country is imperialist! It’s racist! He waited for me to catch my breath and then asked slowly, Where would you like me to go instead?

There is a case to be made for leaving this country, abandoning it to its furious march toward fascism and climate demise. But neither my father nor I can return to our plot of land in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, where my father was born in 1960, nor to our ancestral home, ’Ibdis, ethnically cleansed in 1948. Our years in the Gulf were dead-ends of disenfranchisement and discrimination—they love Palestine and hate Palestinians, my father used to say.

So, for now, we find ourselves among the millions confronting a similar dilemma: our homelands, ravaged by Western-instigated wars, coups, austerity, or environmental disaster. Our bodies, seeking shelter in the United States, enter a history of enslavement and Indigenous erasure. My parents taught me that “racism”—of the individual, interpersonal type—was wrong. But in my family, there was no language for the way every aspect of our American existence is entwined with racial oppression, a genocidal present-past.

You speak of how your relatives, dispossessed, came to this country and stepped into working-class grinds, hoping to hoist themselves or future generations up and out of scarcity. Like my father, they likely felt they should be grateful for the opportunity to labor here. Like me, you may have thought, at times, of how lucky you were to study at prestigious institutions, how lucky it was that someone with your legacy could attain success this way.

But our bodies tell a different truth. I think of Mourid Barghouti (always), and how he likened exile to asthma—a chronic illness that can be managed but not cured. And yes, that awful, honest conversation we had with Mosab, about how many of our elders we have lost to abrupt bodily disasters—strokes, cancer, broken hearts. History, for all our mental evasions, will have our flesh.

My own body tells a story that rhymes with yours: I too have struggled with an eating disorder. Mine, anorexia, told me what I could not admit to myself: that despite my good fortune at having been born on the right side of man-made borders, bequeathed a blue passport, I felt so very wrong everywhere. How my very skin shrank back from the options presented to me: either to clamor after the promise of individual “safety” and “success,” or to succumb to scarcity. How, feeling both repulsed by American excess, and starved of acceptance as Palestinian/woman/queer, I could not bring myself to eat.

You beautifully tell of what brought you the presence of mind to recognize what was happening to your body, and your relationship to food. The revelation came in the context of time spent in tender community with Black, Indigenous, and Palestinian kin. I think you are wise to connect these things—embodied solidarity as a starting point for the healing of both flesh and mind. When you ask how we might reorient ourselves toward more reciprocal and responsible relationality, I think it begins here—with touch. We must help each other convalesce from the American sickness of isolation, the too-small rooms this nation teaches us to retreat to.

That’s how I see this country—a topography of closed doors, tight chambers of atomized anxiety and grief. It is under such circumstances, feeling terrified and alone, that we misread and betray one another. I think of Nola Romey, a Syrian man who was lynched by a white mob in Florida in 1929. When the news reached the Syrian community, they responded not by recognizing their common cause with the much-terrorized Black population but by seeking security in whiteness.

The Syrian is a civilized white man, argued one Arabic publication at the time, and should be treated among the best elements of the American nation. The author denounced the crime as an example of racial confusion—surely, they reasoned, if Romey had been identified as white, he would have been spared. Here, an abandonment of our Black neighbors, whose suffering on this continent far precedes and exceeds our own. A move in which it is possible to read both anti-Blackness and an inability to imagine an America in which Black bodies are safe.

And we need not look a century back for such examples. Like any community, ours has proven capable of both great tenderness and great terribleness. We have been comrades and traitors, openly racist or reflexively sacrificial towards our Black kin in turn. The same is true when we look at our relationship with other so-called “minorities.” We have more reckonings to come—some, I think, are already underway. As for our Indigenous siblings, I pray we continue to educate ourselves and our communities on the settler-colonial history of this nation. There is perhaps no more obvious parallel to our current peril than this, and no way in which our daily living in this country is more obviously complicit in harm.

A few months ago, you said theory has been helping you move through horror and grief. Just before October 7, I had begun a deep dive into the writings of modern day abolitionists and land-back activists. I felt compelled to place myself in their line of inquiry so I might honestly reckon with my own complicity in American violence. It is also true that, in my despair as a Palestinian, I needed the instruction of these radical, gracious minds. My imagination had atrophied, infected by too much time in this country, and too much time thinking alone.

And it is at their feet I find myself sitting, again, rehabilitating my sense of possibility with the words of those like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Melanie K. Yazzie, Nick Estes, Angela Davis, and the like. I am struck again and again with the way their words move quickly from scholarship to action. These are not intellectual movements alone but embodied ones. Kaba is a master of this: Her theory is almost anti-theoretical. She demands that we step past the page and into the messy work of kinship, and movement making. Yes, think about yourself, reflect on your practice, OK. But then you need to test it in the world; you’ve got to be with people.

This seems to me where we must go. Not only into the streets together but also into each others’ homes and hearts. We must touch one another. The flip side of the myth of individual actualization is the belief that our failures are individual too—that we must suffer alone. Where else can that leave us but ashamed, disassociated, hungry, sick? I think of Adrienne Rich: “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.”

This is not separate from our struggle to save our kin in Palestine. As my friend Sharif Abdel Kouddous reminded me last week, every empire has a metropole, and we are inside it. How we resist here will have resonance far beyond. Your last letter was a call to reorientation, and I cannot help but be struck by the triple meaning of the word orient here—meaning to adjust with relation to, or bring into due relation to surroundings, circumstances, facts, etc., as well as to familiarize (a person) with new surroundings or circumstances.

Orient also means East.

As we reorient ourselves away from the mesmerizing lies of this country—that docile, assimilative, and atomized minorities can ever be safe—we will also open outward. Eastward, in both a metaphorical and literal sense—beyond this nation’s promises, beyond the lies of the so-called West, toward what some call the Global South—we billions, our lives shaped, though not completely nor equally, by the legacies of colonialism, racism, war. As we choose to step toward one another, we multiply our threat to the forces that seek to devour all of us in different, but related, ways.

Angela Davis said recently. ”We deposit our dreams in Palestine.” Palestine is becoming more than the land—though it is irrevocably that too. It is becoming a shorthand, a strategy a horizon for all this current order has betrayed. Of course, change is not coming fast enough. Of course, no nation or people should be asked to bear the weight of such symbolism—to be made a theoretical emblem while their literal bodies are perishing. I would trade all this polished prose to stop just a single bomb.

Yet we also know that our struggles, which have never been separate, are now merging with terrifying clarity. There is no safety for some, only for all—or none. I pray we continue to dare, to discipline ourselves in hope. And when our faith falters, I pray we are standing close enough to look one another in the eyes. To offer not only thoughts or sympathies, but our hands of flesh and blood.

Yours,
Sarah

A few weeks after this series of exchanges, the two of us went on strike in solidarity with workers on May Day. We spent part of this day writing each other dispatches of our reflections on the encampment movement sweeping campuses across the US and beyond.

May 1, 2024

Habibti,

I am writing to you having just returned home, attempting to support our student movement at Northwestern University and beyond. It was gutting, witnessing everything from afar: Zionist counterprotesters attempting to take over the encampment, student negotiators manipulated by university administration… And so, I left my residency at the Arab American National Museum slightly early to rush back and be with my community.

I feel the need to relate our discussions on the Palestinian body, on care and our collectives, to what I’ve witnessed here. I offer the following thoughts with the disclaimer that I do not want to speak on behalf of anyone but myself, and there is a lot more to be said even about my local context.

First, we need to center care in our movements. When we are grieving for and with Gaza, our kin, who have been unimaginably steadfast, require our endurance. I am glad I have Palestinians and accomplices around me who are checking in on me constantly and reminding me to do whatever I need to support my aliveness. I could not survive being disabled in this movement without them.

Second, on the topic of dis/engagement, I’ve found myself returning to this Wendy Trevino poem a lot. Our student movement, alongside many of our kin from UCLA to Columbia, has endured many attacks by Zionists who, in the same breath, will claim to be the victim. They do not deserve engagement. They will never act in good faith and will only seek to surveil and infiltrate, especially in moments of exhaustion. School administrations are coercive bureaucratic bodies designed to tame our movement and go on business as normal amid a genocide. In this way, the university seeks to uphold a regime that disciplines, compresses, extracts, and disposes of our time. We cannot let them infiltrate, hijack, and manipulate our people.

Third, we must reinvest our energies toward building with local communities who have supported the student movement (especially at elite private schools that have been actively complicit in the material oppression of surrounding communities). How many university students are involved in local community organizing beyond the campus gates? How many of us learn the context into which we enter, as we move through institutions, and show up beyond an ethos of extraction? I think back to my time in undergrad, to Philly-area SJPs like those at Temple University who were dedicating their time and energy to fighting their school’s active gentrification of North Philly.

Observing our movement right now, I ask: How might Palestinian Americans help set a new precedent on local relationships within university settings? One of resource redistribution for communities materially harmed by these institutions, one of capacious justice demanding that the fight for Palestine is the fight against imperialism and capitalism everywhere. Living in the US my whole life, as we discussed earlier, how might we make a small Palestine out of every city we move through? What if Palestinian-ness wasn’t a fixed relationship to a specific plot of land, nor compressed forms such as nation or imperial history, but was instead an orientation to being in the world?

Fourth, identity will only get us so far. I say this with the caveat that I believe in Palestinian identity’s potential to fracture the current apparatus of neoliberal identity and representation politics. But Palestinian identity is only as radical and insurgent as we make it. We have seen diversity directly weaponized against student protesters in our movement very recently. We have experienced the ways empire has been morphing, abusing non-white actors as minions of statist power set to weaponize their apparatus against Palestinians. Whereas this country will tell us to compress our identity into legible vectors of diversity and inclusion, how might we understand our Palestinian-ness as a kind of excessive, unstoppable force with the potential to shatter this entire world order?

An institution, at its core, is a hoarding of wealth. It survives only on material excess, in forms such as endowments that reinvest themselves, wealthy donors selectively funneling their surplus into structures that preserve their own power, and extractions from surrounding communities. At the heart of our struggle is the question of how we fight these excesses, with the strategy in mind of particularly targeting the war machine that financially entangles these institutions with the entity that is responsible for genocide in Gaza, and other warmongering entities making possible this and many other past-present-future slaughters of empire. I believe we fight excess with excess, insisting on living our Palestinian-ness with the whole of our bodies, thereby making Palestine the vector through which we hijack this hoarding with the intent of just and equitable redistribution to the people harmed by this current world order.

It doesn’t surprise me that a consistent rhetoric across many encampments is the notion of world-making. By joining the encampment, we are recruiting our bodies into the struggle to imagine, and live, a better world. It is vast and unknowable, and here, right at our fingertips: the very potential for abundance that has been stolen from our communities and funneled into institutional hoarding.

We must fight the excess of empire with the excess of our bodies. When universities try to compress our zones of protest, we must fight it by breaking their borders. When administrators give notices to stop chanting, we must turn our slogans into songs. When statist entities, and academics acting on their behalf however unconsciously, police the movement’s language with demands of respectability and (bad-faith, imperial) nuance, we must loudly reject the entire grounds in which they stake such claims.

The world we’ve been reaching for is material and here, and it is horizon and infinite; we are reaching for it and we are touching it, and we are touching it in our reaching.

G

To rebel by simply refusing to participate in the necrotic norm is to risk immense violence and loss. And yet, such refusals are necessary, if we are to begin building the world we need. Indeed, as a popular chant proclaims—we have discovered Palestine is everywhere. And it is making us more free.

May 1, 2024

Habibi,

Thank you for this letter. Even though Gaza, particularly Rafah, remains most urgent in our minds, my body has been swept into the encampment movement too. I spent last night protesting at the gates of the City College of New York, just uptown from Columbia University, as the NYPD closed in on both.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been a guest at both these encampments, as well as NYU. Much will be written about this movement, in which a generation born into climate disaster and mass shootings saw a genocide, and knew not to wait on any administration to make it right.

And much money and hot, foul breath has already been spent trying to infantilize and discredit these young adults, accusing them of everything from naivety to antisemitism—yet the vast majority of them have exhibited integrity and intelligence that far outstrips the bad faith of the “authorities.” In these encampments, I witnessed many glimmers of the “world-making” you describe—in acts of creative care, thoughtful political analysis, in real cooperation. And yes, real personalities, real mistakes—but with the right container, such inevitabilities may be held and worked through.

Working through—a radical mode of being in a system that depends on our stasis, and which glorifies mastery. Too few of us are willing to exist in the liminal, provisional state of embodied imagination. Too many of us would squirm to witness the improvisational and imperfect aspects of these encampments, ready to bolt from anything that feels new or amateur. What irony that this is exactly what liberal education allegedly exists for—to be a place for gathering, for experimenting, for intellectual expansion and betterment. And what a gift it was to witness students persisting in these endeavors, despite the national hysteria, and the brutal efforts to sweep them away.

I say all this with no desire to romanticize these demonstrations, or to fixate on the means while neglecting their aim: to end genocide, to liberate Palestine. But these encampments are a bracing example of what we have been dreaming and discussing for months—Palestine as orientation, Palestine as strategy. Its existence, an 80-year experiment in survival inside ever-expanding regimes of slaughter and abandonment. Its liminality, a disruption of the tidy, policed borders between citizens and states. It is for this breach that Palestine is punished—not for its armed resistance against colonialism, but for daring to exist as an alternative.

It is for similar reasons we are seeing the militarized crackdown on student solidarity. On campuses that have been largely co-opted by the elite, the desired student body is one that believes success and safety are scarce commodities, attained by individual efforts inside the narrow channels offered by the university. The imperative to scramble and strive—for admission, for employment, for prestige—is taken as proof of American “opportunity,” rather than precarity. Simultaneously, liberal exercises of “inclusion” too often serve to drain political fervor, blunting critique and diffusing any momentum towards true solidarity.

Just as Palestine threatens hegemonic narratives, so has the overtly political, collaborative, and intersectional nature of the encampments enraged the powers that be. These administrations have exposed themselves as both fragile and fascistic, willing to abandon their proclaimed values—democracy, free speech—to crush dissent. In this sense, these students and their allies are learning, if incompletely, what it means to be Palestinian in the world. To align with those at the margins of empire and capital, to rebel by simply refusing to participate in the necrotic norm, is to risk immense violence and loss. And yet, such refusals are necessary, if we are to begin building the world we need. Indeed, as a popular chant proclaims—we have discovered Palestine is everywhere. And it is making us more free.

In many ways, Zionist and American oppressors are hastening their own decline. Think of the thousands of students abandoned by their school administrators in the last three weeks alone. Think of the hundreds who have faced beatings and arrests. How likely is it that these young people go on to be uncritical participants in the American machine? Which of them will believe this country’s claim of superiority over the “undemocratic” and “barbaric” nations it bombs to “liberate”? How many of them will ever associate Zionism with anything but death? Now, think of all these brutal revelations alongside the immeasurable new connections these events have formed. I’m speaking discursively—how many semesters of political theory equal one night spent in a cell?—and literally—how many relationships, how many movements, will be born by the time this is done?

It has come at far too high a cost—approaching 40,000 officially dead in Gaza, with untold numbers missing, starving, maimed, or languishing with disease. What has happened is unforgivable—how many more mass graves remain? What still might come is unimaginable—Israel, more a pariah every day, also grows more unhinged. The threat on Rafah grows more imminent by the hour, 1.5 million Palestinians in the crosshairs. And yet all these atrocities have not succeeded in their ultimate aim—Palestine endures, and it continues to spread.

And so it was that I found myself on the streets of Harlem last night, the darkness pulsing with police lights and flares. With a single throat, a crowd chanted Gaza’s name. Down the street, hundreds of NYPD officers were entering Columbia University to batter and drag students from Hind’s Hall. CCNY, where I stood, was threatened with the same, and many of us had shown up to witness, and resist. We held signs as simple and radical as “Palestine will be free,” but in those moments, it was not language, but our bodies that spoke. Our bodies which formed a barricade that held the NYPD back for an hour, then two. Our bodies that told the students that they were not alone. Our bodies that watched as more and more bristling officers arrived.

The crowd swelled as members of the Harlem community flocked toward the commotion and recognized themselves in the sight. They joined us in our chants, booed as the officers began to attack, picking at the fringes of the group. It was a moment of organic power, as we stood our ground. Which is not to say I was not terrified; my disabled body trembled at the sight of drawn batons. All at once, the tenor of the block switched. They surrounded us on three sides. When they charged, I was reminded of wolves.

This is the moment we occupy—Palestine is in our midst, no longer a matter of rhetoric. And we have been reminded how literal this country can be. How, when faced with real dissent, it will answer its own citizens with tear gas, zip ties, blows.

I ran, and escaped. Others did not. Eventually, the police entered CCNY, hauling over a hundred students away, adding to the scores arrested at Columbia. Today, with many of the students still in custody, Fordham University erected an encampment in solidarity, and NYU resurrected theirs. It is May Day, and the streets are full of protest, defiance, song.

What comes next, habibi? Is it still possible to divert the worst empire intends—for Rafah, for Palestine, for us? A tent is no match for batons, nor for bombs. And yet. As always, I look to my kin in Gaza. How, faced with no choices, they persist. Remaining, together, when all others have abandoned them. Each of their bodies a defiance. Gathering in provisional, shared shelter in the midst of the long apocalypse.

Yours,
Sarah

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George Abraham

George Abraham (they/هو) is a Palestinian American poet. Their poetry collection Birthright won the Arab American Book Award. They are currently executive editor at Mizna, are coediting a Palestinian global poetry anthology with Noor Hindi, and are an MFA+MA candidate at Northwestern University.

Sarah Aziza

Sarah Aziza is a Palestinian American writer who splits her time between New York City and the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The New Yorker, The Baffler, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Lux Magazine, and The Intercept, among others. Her forthcoming book, The Hollow Half, will be published by Catapult Books.

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