By Joy Mazahreh
The state of being reduced to storing corpses in ice cream trucks;
Or pleading for help in English at a “press conference” in front of Al-Shifa Hospital (held by children);
Or trying to convince the world that you are dying by showing the corpses of loved ones on camera
Teta Liza was born in Jaffa, Palestine, in 1938. She says she went to the Rosary School for Girls, and after class she would go to the beach and pick oranges from the trees in the park on the way back. She says the beaches in Jaffa are the most beautiful in the world. I believe her. She also says that Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived happily together. She says they lived under the British Mandate but would still travel across the country and celebrate holidays, even Halloween. She was only ten years old when the settlers stole their house and when her family escaped to Jordan. She says they left all their belongings at home and only took the key; they knew they would come back. Teta Liza then moved to Canada and has not returned home ever since. She passed away last week.
This piece is for her.
I was editing my conference paper on Brownness and Being in the Twenty-First Century with the news on in the background. I was revising my thoughts on reading theory in an English department as an Arab woman, on how I struggle to insert myself into the discussion, and how—when I fail to do so—turn to storytelling to talk about what the theory I was reading refused to tell me.
Glances at limbs of unrecognized corpses shattered on the ground did not catch my attention, as I was contemplating where to put a comma in a seemingly never-ending run-on sentence. The red signs of breaking news on TV did not bother me either, it is almost the norm now.
Breaking news does not break me anymore.
No. Nothing will ever be more important than my people’s suffering. I was not unbothered, I was acting unbothered, like many people around me. The truth is, the images of the shattered limbs have not escaped my mind since the beginning of October. The cries of the survivors who escaped death, yet continue to suffer from its consequences, carrying the limbs of their loved ones in plastic bags, have not left my dreams since the beginning of October. It is almost funny that I keep on repeating—since the beginning of October—as if breaking news has not been breaking me since I first set my eyes on a TV.
This is the reality of being Brown, of Brownness and being in the twenty-first century. I am not the only one who is not sleeping and I am not the only one who is pretending to be unbothered. I am not the only one who has survived with an inheritance of loss and grown up hearing stories of death and destruction. I am not the only one who is pretending to live while she knows that her people struggle, even as they encounter death everyday.
Brownness in the twenty-first century is being in a state of war. First, is the war of being out of place, or what Edward Said calls, in his memoir, the “shattering collective experience of dispossession” (1999, 118). Said tells the story of his mother’s undesirable Palestinian identity card:
My father would routinely tell the story (echoed by [his mother]) of how her document would be placed underneath our stack of smart green US passports in the futile hope that the official would allow her through as one of us. That never happened. There was always a summoning of a higher ranked official, who with grave looks and cautious accents drew my parents aside for explanations, short sermons, even warnings, while my sisters and I stood around, uncomprehending and bored. When we did finally pass through, the meaning of her anomalous existence as represented by an embarrassing document was never explained to me as being a consequence of shattering collective experience of dispossession. And in a matter of hours, once inside Lebanon, or Greece, or the United States itself, the question of my mother’s nationality would be forgotten, and everyday life resumed. (1999, 118)
Unfortunately, Said’s mother’s experience only intensifies in the twenty-first century. In the post-9/11 world, every Brown person runs the risk of becoming a suspect of or a subject related to terror. Little do they know that they are, in fact, terrorizing us.
The second war waged on Brown people is that of language and expression, an attempt at humanization after histories of demonization. In the afterword to his poetry collection Rifqa, “Lest There Be Unclarity,” Mohammed El Kurd calls it a “vocabulary void of accusations” (2021, 93). He writes,
When I started writing […] I trained myself to use ‘unbiased’ words. What I’d refer to in Arabic as an ‘entity’ would become a ‘state.’ I wanted my vocabulary void of accusations, so I replaced ‘arrogate’ with ‘confiscate,’ ‘dispossess’ with ‘evict,’ and ‘lie’ with ‘allege.’ This phenomenon is common among writers writing about Palestine, writers who worship the mythology of objectivity instead of satirizing it. There’s a naïve belief that Palestinians will acquire credibility only once they’ve amassed respectability. We do this to appear rational and unhostile. The truth, however, is very hostile. (2021, 93)
This war is closely tied to the third: a war of identity—for the lack of a better word—or what Nada Elia calls “the burden of representation” (2011, 145). She writes,
When the world’s bullies continue to blame the victim, using any available pretext to avoid addressing the crimes they are committing, we need to keep in mind Audre Lorde’s ever pertinent observation, that we are never meant to survive, that our silence cannot protect us, because ‘the machine will try and grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.’ Lorde explains that only death can come from silence, whereas death, pain, fear, but also, hopefully, change can result from speaking out, and it is that last possibility that makes speaking out imperative. (2011, 145)
Both El-Kurd and Elia call for unsoothing protesting voices. We have battled with, instead of battling for how we look, what we say, and who we are. This has gone on for so long that we have accepted the hostility of the world’s bullies as our reality. It is time to be loud enough to shake the world out of its slumber.
Lullabies are not loud enough.
Amid actual wars on the ground, and the ones fought on the basis of belonging, language, and identity, being Brown in the twenty-first century brings hope. Hope lies in the realization that there will always be a story to tell. Maybe theory will never tell the story of my being, yet I can always try to find mine in it. If not, I bring my story to life. I tell my own story.
Being brown in the twenty-first century is a constant state of storytelling.
I wish to end by inviting you to speak up, or to listen, then speak up. If you are still unsure what is happening in the world, ask, then speak up. I extend my invitation to speak up through the words of Palestinian digital storyteller, Jenan Matari, who recently wrote:
Inhale deeply, hold for five.
Exhale three, two, wait.
300 more children die, as I do my breathing exercise.
Look out my window, admire the trees.
Snap out of it. That means more Palestinian mothers brought down to their knees.
Nauseous but can’t throw up.
Sad but cannot cry.
Get back to work. Exhale again three, two. Don’t you dare let out that sigh.
The father. The brothers. The men.
Why doesn’t anyone mourn for them?
“Lucky” to be here. Watching my people die.
Would that have been us, if we stayed in Palestine?
They’ll never understand. Will they ever see the truth?
How many of us dead must be used as a show of proof?
This world. It cannot be real.
How can it keep turning? How will we ever heal?
Elia, Nada. ‘The Burden of Representation: When Palestinians Speak Out’. Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi et al., Syracuse University Press, 2011, pp. 141–58.
El-Kurd, Mohammed. Rifqa. Haymarket Books, 2021.
Matari, Jenan. Inhale Deeply, Hold for Five. 2023
Said, Edward W. Out of Place. Vintage Books, 2000.