Two weeks ago, a loud siren pulled us from sleep. I rose from the bed I shared with my daughter to meet my cousin in the hallway. The night before was Shabbat of Simcha Torah. We’d gathered across four generations with 29 members of our family to share food and light candles. We took photos of the reunion of two sisters, my mother and my aunt, the eldest members of our family. The festivities went late, so we stayed at my cousin’s flat. She is now holding the hand of her youngest child and speaking to me in the dark.
Come, come, she says as the sirens scream.
My daughter and I follow her down stairs into the mamad (safe room or bomb shelter) where we crouch together: two mothers, my grown daughter, and my cousin’s three young children.
Does the door to the bomb shelter lock?
The kids are terrified without the family dog.
Come Neenah! They want the big peaceful black canine to come in.
When sirens stop, the sound of missiles begin.
My cousin’s youngest son looks up at me. B-O-O-M he mouths in slow motion with his voice and hands.
No child should be bombed.
No mother should be bombed.
Now I know how privileged I have been. I used to think of privilege as a list of traits. We call them positionalities. Now I know privilege in relation to bombing. This is the hierarchy:
People who are not bombed.
People who are bombed and have a bomb shelter.
People who are burnt alive in bomb shelters from grenades.
And people who have no bomb shelters.
Then there are all the ones who are murdered by hand.
When you are in a bomb shelter and missiles are firing around you, you must wait ten minutes after the booming stops. Sometimes it continues. Sometimes the safe room can be used to protect you from assailants. My cousins at Kibbutz Alumin waited in their mamad for 10 hours while close friends were being slaughtered. They are now displaced. Their son circulates images of the trees and gardens from before the attack. He wants to remember beauty.
Sirens shake every cell of the body. They come a couple of times a day for the next eleven days and nights while we are there.
I can expect nothing from this world. Anything has become possible.
There are everyday worlds and there is the parallel universe of war. They are two trains on two separate tracks. When the track shifts to war, different people are in charge and there are different rules. In come the warlords you imagined to be free of. They are everywhere. They have been here all along.
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Prepare for change, one cousin says.
Sound advice. In war, nothing works. The worlds you know shut down and are replaced by an alternate unreal reality.
Eventually, the kids return to bed and my cousin and I move to the television. What I don’t know immediately, is that people are being murdered in the South and that the attackers are broadcasting their torture on social media. My cousin wont let me see the feed on her cell phone. She wants to protect me from it.
The TV runs its mouth. Along the right column of the screen is a scrolling list of the cities, villages, and communities under attack at this very moment. There is havoc.
I’ve never seen anything like this, she says. We’ve seen wars, but not like this.
The feeling that morning reminds me of when the pandemic hit. Everything shuttering. Unbelievability. Believe it.
This was a moment in time before the big men were seated before cameras with their flags.
The second day, I write in my journal:
It is 8 am and the only sounds are the birds, rats in the walls, and the big black dog laying down to rest. The children and the women here are asleep. I left my daughter sleeping in our bed on the floor. I couldn’t sleep much more with the rats in the walls conferencing. There have been no real nights or days. The kids lie down at 2 am. I pull on my cousin’s foot and say, time for bed. The only real things are the shadows inside and the fact that there are flocks of parrots meters away in the fields and that intelligence does not work. My cousins know how to read the red signals on their phones and know which direction the missiles are coming from.
I immediately become aware of my naiveté. I know nothing about how to be in a war zone. Before that day I’d never felt a bomb siren with my own body. I didn’t know that sirens precede the bombs. I did not know what a safe room was. I did not know that people live with warning apps on their cellphones to track missiles, bombs, kidnappings, or terrorist attacks. I didn’t know that I should drop to the ground if there is a siren. I didn’t know this could protect you from debris, but not a direct hit. I didn’t know my cousin’s children carried gas masks to kindergarten because of the threat of poison gas. I didn’t know that urban design in a conflict zone has specific elements, that the entire ground level of a region is kept unlocked so that anyone can take shelter in case of missile attacks.
To have these systems is an awful privilege. Without them you are dead. My family never told me these things. Now I know more about how they have been living.
What is safe? Nothing is safe. What is less at risk?
The plan had been to return to Jerusalem the next day and prepare for my mother’s art opening on Sunday. There would be no art opening, no panels or gallery talks. The war recalendared priorities: how to stay alive, how to find one’s family members or friends who’d been abducted, how to mourn the dead.
My aunt’s flat doesn’t have a safe room. There is a mamad in the basement of the multistory apartment that no elderly or disabled person could ever reach in time, but it is used for people on the sidewalk or who happen to enter the building. When the sirens scream warnings, the neighbors in her building gather by the elevator shaft one level below. Elders carefully step down the staircase foot by foot with canes. A family with a newborn brings their baby swaddled in a blanket. 20 people across the generations stand together in the elevator shaft waiting for the sirens and booming to stop. We all look at each other, like what has become of our species?
My mother demands to keep her project moving, but war stops everything in its tracks. Work. School. Caesura.
My cousin says. Let her go back to Jerusalem. She was born there over 90 years ago, and we had just hung a new exhibition of her art work.
“Letting her go back” meant taking her there. Meanwhile, I signed up for the crisis line and The U.S. Embassy starts emailing me notes. The U.S. consulate is sheltering in place. Stay inside. The streets became eerie and desolate.
We take my mother where she wants to go. It has a mamad inside without stairs. This equals safe. On the way back, driving in the dark, we get stuck on the freeway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The pile up is from security services checking inside cars since the attackers are still at large.
In the car, my cousin’s phone app turns red. Missiles begin showering above us.
His wife calls him on the phone, “Eifo atah?” Where are you?
His son calls next. “Eifo atah?”
My elder cousin is a husband and a father.
“We’re like sitting ducks,” he says. He guides the car slowly to the left closer toward a cement wall. “We might need to jump out and hide. I had to do that once.”
I text my kids and share my location.
We make it back. I tell myself to never ask for anything of my cousins again. This wasn’t fair.
I write in my journal:
There is nowhere to go in a war. What will we do for our family and what are we allowed to not do?
The quiet in between sirens ravishes my ears. I can’t sleep. At 6 am the first sirens went off and the missiles began. We spent the day in and out of the bomb shelter. A bomb shelter here is like a refrigerator or a sink. Every place must have one. The bomb shelter is actually just a closet with cement walls. It’s a space to not be murdered.
After the attacks, we watch the convoys of trucks with people in the back entering through a downed fence. The white trucks are filled with men dressed in black with rifles wearing scarves around their heads. They jump out, stand on the corner, shoot at any civilian that moves. Terrified children ask their mothers who these people are. I think, angry-ninja-turtles-with-rifles. People who’ve watched too many video games.
How could anyone orchestrate such an attack and say they care about Palestinian people? What kind of a response do they expect? This feels so personal. They knew precisely how to harm.
Intergenerational wounding. Is this our shared inheritance?
Each siren wrecks havoc on my nerves and body. In a small country the size of Los Angeles, everyone knows someone who was murdered or abducted. My cousins shift my daughter and I up north where they expect fewer missiles. Maybe we’ll be able to get outside.
I walk along the sea. I go inside the salt water to cry with Yemanja, mother of the fishes, while jets zoom overhead. I learn the sounds of sky-breaking-super-sonic. I know this means that a retaliation has begun. More innocent people will be hurt.
My daughter says, everyone in the U.S. is posting on social media to support this country or that. I wonder what cloud hangs over the human race that anyone could support a rifle, an explosive bomb, a kidnapping, or any other form of violence —as if it were a noble act. What world are we in that anyone could be in favor of one bomb or another, one rifle or another, one child or another, one grandmother or somebody else’s grandmother?
My young cousin, who I’ve been working with on the gallery project all year, comforts his close friend whose brother was murdered. The land is injured too. Beautiful places are made graveyards.
I see Fady Joudah, the Palestinian poet and MD, interviewed on television looking completely despondent and broken. He says his young niece is expecting her last days. I reach out to him by email to send condolences and he writes back two simple lines: “49 dead of my relatives so far / and for those who are living, there is a life worse than death.” What can I say? I write him five notes and erase them all. I land on simply “your family deserves perfect care and possibility” and press send. Not enough. Not at all enough.
I bend behind corners to weep, and write my saddest poem because it is true.
What are the stories people have told themselves to become so extraordinarily violent and disparaging of each other? What have we romanticized about identity, faith, or place to justify such heinous acts? If you believe in people, invest in people. If you believe in justice, be about justice. Don’t pin yourself to a trauma trope and think that war is anything but war. War is the loss of lives and infrastructure and dreams and time. War is the worst use of human energy and potential. No good can come from such ravenous stupidity. I do not believe in war. No wars. No one’s war. I do not believe in enemies or hatred or dominance. I don’t believe in any divine force that would bless a bombing. I believe that there is enough space and resources for everybody. I want to believe that someday we can all be ourselves, be in proximity, and thrive. For now, I will side with mothers and children. I will apologize to the future. There is no safety anywhere until we convince ourselves otherwise.
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