When the photos of Tariq Abu Khdeir’s bloated face with blackened and swollen eyes first appeared on my Facebook feed in the summer of 2014, I quickly scrolled away from them. I had read his story: I knew he was a fifteen-year-old Palestinian American who was beaten and kicked unconscious by the police while protesting the murder and abduction of his cousin in East Jerusalem. I knew his story was not unusual, but that it had reached the mainstream media because he was an American citizen whose attack was caught on video.
When I finally watched the video of the police beating Tariq, I was snatched out of the present and into a particularly violent incident from my childhood.
Flashback to Childhood
It is 3 am. My sixteen-year-old sister is lying on her side on the carpeted living room floor. The dark gold carpet is divided into puffy sections separated by flat lines, which look like little roads winding through golden fields.
My dad is standing over her, kicking her. A scar marks the northeast corner of my dad’s forehead, which turns a deeper red than the rest of his face when he is angry.
Driving back to our house after a late night, my sister had crashed our family car, a Dodge Dart, into a parked car. Metal collided with metal, crumpling the Dart until it was totaled. My sister was unharmed—that is, until my dad got to her.
My sister is now curling up into a ball to protect herself, while my dad kicks her in the side again and again. Blood soaks into the golden fields, but when I see the stains the next day, the blood looks as though it has seeped out of the land beneath it—evidence of violent crimes committed deep within the earth.
I am watching, curled up in a dark gold– and olive-striped chair, afraid he is going to kill my sister. I don’t know how to stop the violence, and for this, I feel ashamed. Gnawing at my cuticles until they bleed, I try to rip myself out of the scene unfolding before me. I transport myself through parted olive drapes, out the bay window, and into the front yard. Squinting into the freckled sun under the shade of the oak tree, I am touching the mossy hollows in the enormous tree roots where I often created dwellings for my Fisher Price play people.
Although I managed to drift away from the violence as it was occurring, this image of my dad kicking my sister tracks me down well into the future, insisting that I bear it full witness. The most recent time I was jerked back to that gold carpet scene was when I saw the image of Tariq’s bloody face.
After being pulled back into this memory of family violence, I kept experiencing an intense feeling of dread connected to my dad’s violence but also to the current violence in Palestine. As I watched atrocities unfold in Gaza, I felt frozen in a helpless witness role, forced to watch violence that was out of my control but for which I felt responsible.
To take action around Gaza, I had to work through this memory of being unable to prevent the violence that I witnessed as a kid. I had to face the dread that was pulling me into a response from the past rather than allowing me to feel deeply connected to the current crisis in Gaza and to act from that place of feeling.
Healing from Childhood Violence
My healing process has been structured by my dad’s absence. How do you grieve the loss of someone who has hurt you deeply and violently? My dad has been dead for half my life now, but his violence lives in me, impacting how I inhabit my body, navigate intimacy, and even respond to the political world around me.
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