Not so Bad

Posted on January 4, 2007


Looking over the stuff I’ve written in the past month or two, alot of it seems aimed at portraying myself in a bad light. Some of that comes from having an exceptionally rough few months of it, of wanting to finish the job, so to speak, to view myself in the worst possible light, thus to be reborn in fire, purged of my many weaknesses. But I think this has also been a sort of 180 degree reaction to a lot of my own inability to accept my weaknesses and failures. In so many of my personal narratives–the way I communicate myself to the world–I have been this sort infallible savior, taken advantage of by those around me or by circumstances beyond my control. Like anyone, there’s been a little of that–and add an almost congenital disposition towards poverty–but much of everything that’s gone wrong has been my own doing. I think I got sick of hearing that refrain, of being a victim, and so I had this polarized reaction of wanting to admit all my faults. I wanted to confess; I was the worst! If its true that my mistakes are my own, that’s fair enough–but that also means the things I did right are my own too, how I took on circumstances beyond my control and triumphed. Or at least didn’t suck so much. So here are a few vignettes in that light:

Getting Published: I was never the brightest light on the block. My intolerance for maths borders on the allergic and I had ADD before anyone knew that you could use it to get double the time to take the SAT. But I’ve always been a great writer. Naturally, we all have gifts, but I like to think of this one as especially valuable. My mother and father didn’t really speak much English until I as 8 or 9, and we the Yassin kids went out into the world to learn it for ourselves (with the aid of sitcoms of course). I think that’s where I got my ability to turn structures around in my head until they made sense. Since there was no one at home to ask–my mother has been trying to get her GED for 20 years–I had to come up with the answers myself. I think it was natural for me to head into media analysis since so much of what I had to figure out in the early part of my life came from media, and so much of what is wrong with the world sorties likewise.

I veer into the biopic; but to make a long and on-going story short, I left home at 18 and never went to school and still somehow I’ve managed to have my writing published in a major progressive journal on a number of occasions; most recently an article on media racism and military fetishism in Katrina reporting, as I myself was recovering from the nearly cataclysmic economic fallout of an on-going illness. In fact my entire history of writing has been one punctuated by adversity. I wrote my first article for Extra!, a comparitive analysis of the New York Times coverage of Hong Kong and the civil war in the republic formerly known as Zaire–while I was demolishing apartments in Grammercy Park days. There was no internet back then my young friends, or certainly not the version of it you’re used to now where everything available in the real world is available virtually as well. I downloaded the articles I used for my thesis, old-school; with year Index reference books and nauseating microfilm reels at the library on Saturdays. My second article–a survey of the History Channel’s Black History Month programming–was completed with the aid of a yardstick ruler to toggle the Play and Rewind buttons on the VCR from my Apple IIe, because I couldn’t move the computer close enough to the VCR to refer back to my source material. I got quite good at it I’m proud to say. I also have managed to write a 300 page final draft of a novel through four lung collapses and about 16 housing situations. Oh, and a couple of stupid blogs. Not so bad, right.

Staying In Palestine: Here we are again. Some people would say I’m a bore with this topic, and I’m starting to think they’re right. I’ll get past it eventually, I suppose. In the meantime, I think its fair to note some of the things I did there. Elsewhere in this blog, you’l find a sort of downcast perspective of my motivations for being in Palestine. I won’t go into it too much, but its not like I went there to fight for truth and justice. For the first month or two that I was there, I partied alot and tried to sleep with as many people as possible (which is not very possible). I was inured to the effects of the occupation, I looked around me and felt nothing at the poverty or at the injustice of movement and economic restrictions. And when the Intifada broke out, I went to the Palestinian autonomy borderline and I stood in front of Israeli soldiers shooting at me (there were Israeli snipers too and they killed people everyday in the crowd, seemingly at random) and I never flinched. I sucked in a few dozen lung-fulls of tear-gas, I kept going everyday, until I couldn’t get the soot from burning tires off my face, until my snot came out bright green and I smelt the gas all the time and everywhere. As I said elsewhere on this site, I had very little fear of death. In fact, standing in front of those soldiers for those first two weeks or so, uselessly tossing rocks at their kevlared forms, I felt more normal than I probably ever have. Everything seemed to make sense in those hours. There was nothing to fear but what was right there in front of you, and as long as you risked your life and health, everyone seemed to love you; life’s equation had never been simpler. None of this is anything I’m proud of, really.

But I am proud of a few things I did. I remember, after about a year there, long nights of laying in bed and staring at the ceiling and just wanting to cry. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to live in a place where I could go out on dates, where there were bookstores and good ice cream, where I could wear a tank top without being stared at–or go anywhere without being stared at. I was tired of the guilt. The place was saturated with it. I felt guilt for not doing enough, for still being alive; for being a member of the nation that blew people up at bus stations, for not having done something like that myself; for never having the proper conception of the conflict, for not believing anyone else’s either. I could never never escape it. If I were in a good mood some occasion, it was inevitable that someone would shoot me down, castigating me for not lowering my head at the fact that a child had been shot in the brain by an Israeli soldier around the corner while I had sipped my coffee that morning. This attitude was especially focused at the Americanized children of Felahi, like myself. Somehow, to many Palestinians living under occupation, we were worse than our white American counterparts, who in turn were generally lauded for their efforts and fortitude in doing human rights work.

And the work. It was nothing but an accounting of how horrible everything was and how little we could do about it. My lung had collapsed already, I was tired, I felt sick all of the time, I had lost about 15 pounds and I had become an alcoholic and a chain smoker. But I stayed. I wasn’t like some of the other people there; NGO lifers and academic adventurers, who had hitched their career to the most insoluable conflict on earth. It was no longer glamourous, I had lost whatever feeling of self-importance I had derived from being at the center of the crisis, nothing about being there satisfied any part of my being, and I felt universally reviled, both by Palestinians and Israelis. In fact, I was pretty sure staying there would kill me, one way or another. I left there only once in all that time, to go to Jordan for three days in order to renew my visa. I suppose I was afraid that if I ever took a break, went somewhere ‘normal’, that I would never come back. And eventually and unfortunately, that fear proved well-founded, for that is exactly how I came to leave.

Towards the end, I lived a few 1oo feet from a mosque, and every morning just before dawn, the tape-recorded muezzin would crack, hiss and whir to life. There were long minutes before the muezzin began singing on the tape and generally I would awake to the sound of the needle running around the album from which the tape was recorded from, a horrible end-bringer sort of sound. It usually took long seconds after waking to discern what was going on, even after months of living there. I was always somewhat disappointed that it was not actually an apocalypse, nor a Hebrew or Muslim end of days either. I would look at the ceiling, waiting it out, and appeal to whatever deity was in charge, “how can I keep doing this?”And even though there was no answer, I stayed for nearly another year. I like to think that required exceptional fortitude, but its all in how you score the game, of course. My 75 year old aunt is still there, she’s been there all her life and she’s going to die there too.

There were was one noteworthy thing I remember. I’m sure it wasn’t the only good thing I did there, though I’m having trouble tracing back anything quite like it. It may not seem much to anyone reading this, and indeed, it wouldn’t even qualify as a minor footnote in such a conflict. But its a clean memory, unburdened by acts of ego, of bitterness, of wrong-headedness. Once when the road to Bir Zeit was closed by Israeli soldiers, and clashes had broken out, I carried the young son of a felahi woman down the hill for her to detour around to her home. The kid was about 3 or 4, I think, and as held him in my arms and carried him down, there was the booming of rubber bullets, of armored bulldozers, and tanks, and the smell of gas, but his face was so serene as he looked up at me, as if I was enough to protect him from all dangers. He just kept looking up at me and smiling. I’ll never forget the look on that woman’s face, her gratitude. This was a perfect moment, in which I was a tool for something good, and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to do it.