JW: Your visit to Shuafat was centered around a wonderful man named Baha Nababta, a 29-year-old community organizer. You walked around Shuafat with him as people talked to him. What things did they turn to him for?
RK: I stayed with Baha and his family for a weekend. He was sort of a de facto mayor of this incredibly crowded refugee camp, a trusted source that people could go to for a whole variety of problems. The first thing I saw him deal with was a lack of water in one of the un-registered, not-up-to-code high-rise buildings that people are forced to live in there. This building had had no water for a few days. They take water illegally from lines that pass near Shuafat and they are forced to do that. Another problem was a man whose baby had died in a clinic, and the man had tried to kill the clinic doctor. A situation clearly created by a lack of decent medical care, a lack of any legal structure, of recourse for catastrophic loss. Baha was forced to deal with a lot of very complex situations that arise in a place that doesn’t have a civil structure.
JW: What did Baha mean when he told you ‘we need police here’?
RK: That was something that I wrote down in my notebook. As I say in my essay about Shuafat, I quickly repressed this, because it didn’t fit with my own ideas about police. Here, we want to defund the police. Baha wanted police. But it’s important to consider that he was coming from a place that is caught between two different authorities—not attended to by the government of Israel, not attended to by the Palestinian Authority—and as a result, Shuafat is in chaos. Baha was speaking to the lawlessness and opportunism that he was trying to push back against. And that’s what ended up getting him assassinated in the street in the middle of the day in front of 100 people.
JW: Yeah. I have to say when I read that part at the end, I shouted unintentionally, “No!” And my wife came into the room and said, “What happened? What’s wrong?” I was embarrassed and I said, “Oh, I’m just reading Rachel Kushner’s book.” But the end of this essay is something huge and horrible.
RK: It was devastating to learn that Baha had been murdered. An Israeli dissenter and activist who had worked with Baha wrote me, “I cannot comprehend the sacrifice of all the good ones.” Baha was one of the good ones. Optimistic and positive without being unrealistic. He had a natural grace. It was really demoralizing to people that he died in this way. It hurt so sharply, and it still hurts.
Rachel Kushner’s novels, The Mars Room, The Flame Throwers, and Telex From Cuba have been translated into 26 languages and won many awards. Her new book, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020, includes work that appeared originally in The New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, The Paris Review, Art Forum, and The New Yorker. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Listen to Rachel Kushner on the Start Making Sense podcast.