Read time: 13 mins

Do You See Them? & Ansar

by Lisa Suhair Majaj
11 July 2022

Do you see them?

The fifth gate of grief is…‘ancestral grief’

                                 –Francis Weller

 

After all these decades of arguing, 

it comes down to the same damn thing. 

People want to go home. They want 

to have the fabric of history include

them too, in warp and weft. They want 

 

the devastation of exile undone, to exist

on the land, not just in history books. 

To exist, not disappear. Don’t tell me

you don’t see them. They’re right here

in front of you, their history as real

 

as yours. Look, here’s my grandmother

leaving Jaffa at age 15, riding three days

on a white horse to her Birzeit wedding.

It’s 1905, so astonishingly long ago,

you suddenly realise that history


is like magic: it happens when you aren’t

looking, leaves you gaping at the outcome.

Here’s my aunt Mary, killed by an Irgun

terrorist at a Jerusalem bus stop, rushing

to get home to her babies. It’s January 1948.

 

The bomb explodes; my uncle holds her 

as she dies. ‘Something is falling inside me,’ 

she whispers. Then it falls. Now it’s April

1948. Here are my grandmother’s Jaffa neighbours

pushed into the sea, Jewish troops shooting 

 

over their heads. A young man carries

a portly older man on his shoulders,

wades thigh deep into the salty waves

as others balance trunks precariously

on their backs amid panicking refugees.

 

Here’s my grandmother’s family

in Amman, struggling for the stuff of life 

in exile: a loaf of bread, a bowl of lentil soup. 

Here’s their neighbour, remembering 

the Jaffa of his youth. He still wants

 

to go home, says he hasn’t lost hope

and never will, even when he’s dead

and buried. Soon he will be, 

like my elderly aunt—she had the permit;

they could take her back when she died,

 

but her body was tossed from the coffin

at the border, searched roughly for contraband. 

She made it across for burial, but the desecration 

has not been laid to rest. Here’s my uncle 

with his motherless children in Amman,

 

listening to the news. It’s 1967. The rest

of Jerusalem has been taken. Now they’ll never

go home again. Here’s my father, longing

to be laid to rest in his homeland:

Palestine at last. Instead, his body lies

 

in silty Iowa loam, as far from home

as the spinning globe could take him.

It’s 2020 now. Everyone’s old

or dead. My cousins’ skin is translucent 

with age. Palestine floats like a mirage

 

beyond the river, the bridge we call simply 

The Bridge, beyond which Jerusalem

beckons. They want to go back to die

or at least to be buried. But the closest

they can get is the story of their mother

 

in Jerusalem, something falling in her

as she died. Did my grandmother know 

when she got on that white bridal horse 

that she wouldn’t go home again? I remember 

her silver bun, her stern, loving profile. 

 

Widowed with three kids, my father

just a baby, she figured out how to survive.

It was the thing she had to do, so she did it. 

But after all those decades it still comes down 

to the same damn thing. Do you see us?


 

Ansar

 

Ansar: the word’s dark shape gleams 

and threatens. My breath a fleeing boat.

 

Late light slips quietly through unbarred windows:

the speaker excavates a fractured past.

 

At the prison we were engineers, teachers, 

farmers. The youngest prisoner was 12,

the oldest 85. Each morning at 5am

the Israelis made us squat, hands behind our head,

as they counted us, again and again.

Some prisoners used Morse code 

between the cells to talk to each other. 

This was their resistance. 

 

*

I am no longer in this dusky hall, 

this building so new, it seems without memory.

I am someplace blurred and bright.

 

I am journeying again,

in a car travelling south

towards the newly liberated zone.

 

My friend says she needs to see for herself:

Lebanon without occupiers, 

prisons without prisoners. 

 

She steers the car down the middle

of the road, avoiding the shoulders.

‘Land mines. They didn’t leave a map

when they left. We can’t de-mine.’ 

 

I breathe in sharply.

I thought I had left this behind.

 

At the prison camp we find

only traces. When does a prison stop 

being a prison? 

 

Near the gate, a guard sells ice cream

and chips. We pass through 

to a concrete block with many doors. 

I choose one and enter.

 

The cell is so narrow,

I touch both walls at once.

No opening for air or light.

Dank odour seeping.

I pull the metal door

shut behind me

to understand,

press my hands

to damp concrete. 

The dark encases me

in a vertical coffin.

It would be easy 

to die here.

 

Another cell, larger, holds beds

stacked like hollow bricks.

A line strings from one post 

to another, the way prisoners

reach out hands in the dark

to touch each other.

Stained shirts still pinned to it

hang motionless, 

flags of a forgotten country.

They hold no hearts. 

No breath stirs them.

 

*

The speaker’s voice drones on.

Words reach me through a blur—

faint taps like Morse code.

My chest rises and falls.  

I am there. I am here.  

 

When you visit the past, 

you will find many prisons.

You will find many doors.

 

Once a fuse is ignited,

how long does it burn

before the explosion?

 

To live you must breathe.

To live you must remember.

 

I search for that filament,

pull it like a thread,

wind it around the spool of myself.

 

Why are you breathing like a drowning person?

Why are you not breathing? 

 

I am moored; I am unmoored. 

 

*

Soon we will bed down on the floor

of the newly built cultural centre.

We will sleep in the prison.

 

Which one? The one I visited?

The one I left behind?

The one I carry within me? 

 

The doors will not be locked.

The walls will not smother us.

The night will open above us.

Breath will flow, a living current.

 

The full moon rises over Ansar.

In the dark, foxes cry, and owls.

Stars flare, explosions

that burn for hours.

 

I lie awake, watchful,

till morning comes

with its calm light.

About the Author

Lisa Suhair Majaj

Lisa Suhair Majaj, a Palestinian-American, is the author of Geographies of Light (poetry, Del Sol Press, 2009) and other creative work and critical work. She coedited Intersections: Gender, Nation and Community in Arab Women’s Novels (Syracuse UP, 2002), Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist (McFarland, 2002) and Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers (Routledge, 2000). […]

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