Do you see them?
The fifth gate of grief is…‘ancestral grief’
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: 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
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
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.
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