Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Palestine on my mind

When you are an immigrant, your life is by definition fragmented, divided, often walled. When I left Iran at the age of 15, and started the bewildering process of not only being a teenage girl, but coming of age in a place and culture and language that was wholly unlike my own, I created a wall so high and wide between myself and all that had been, that it took over 15 years to take small bricks out and see to the other side. I tried to forget, actively, because yes, some parts of what I had seen and lived through were not easy to live with, but mostly because in those early years, I did not have the capacity to hold the two worlds at once. I turned away from any communication from friends. These were people I had grown up with; we had experienced the war and our first loves and first heartbreaks together, grown intimate in the claustrophobia of all around violence; I turned away from them and turned towards the new place, language, and customs I had to learn in order to survive. I am ashamed to admit this aloud, but at the time, the two realities could not exist at the same time. These friends still reach out, and still have kept the door open; I have yet to learn how to walk through, my shame and the years between us too large.

In the fifth grade, I wrote a poem that won the best poem in my age group in Iran. The poem was from the point of view of a Palestinian child. I don’t know where that poem is today; this too, is a condition of an immigrant’s life, lack of continuity, loss of sentimental objects and treasures; no first drawings, teeth, shoes of mine made it out of Iran with my family when we left. When you run, a suitcase is a luxury. A few years later, in middle school, I wrote a short story about a Bosnian boy; this too, won the first prize. In hindsight, I think they gave me those awards not because my work was exceptional, but because I was a half-Armenian girl, from an all Armenian school, and empathizing with the plight of muslims. I look back on this to remind myself that long before I learned how to build walls within myself, I was well-versed at dismantling them. I think we all have that capacity, and along the way, the world scares and hardens us into survival mode, and we lose touch with our capacity for true empathy, for holding it all within ourselves; we choose sides and simplify our reality.

I am telling you about my childhood, because I have to tell you that I did not enter Israel and Palestine without bias. I have been awake to the Palestinian plight my entire life. perhaps some of what I learned in Iran was propaganda; I don’t doubt that. I grew up walking past large murals that depicted Israel and America as blood thirsty Satans, digging their claws into Muslim hearts, and squeezing every last drop out. I grew up hearing much more about the Israeli murders of Palestinian youth than I did hearing about Palestinians blowing up buses and cafes. My last image of Tehran is the mural at the airport, proudly declaring ‘We, as a nation, do not recognize the state of Israel.’ I walked in, already sympathetic to a people whose homeland had been stolen; whose youth were killed in droves, families dispersed across many inhospitable landscapes.

And still, I was not prepared for what I saw on the ground: an intricate system of oppression, military occupation, and blatant disregard for international law. The deliberateness of restricting Palestinian movement was something that no news report ever really conveyed to me, and short of experiencing it first hand, I would’ve never understood the impact of it. In the places where the conflict is near its boiling point, Hebron and Jerusalem, the conditions are unequivocally one of apartheid: streets that are only open to Jews, demolished homes, separate court systems, the indignity of the checkpoints, and the complex I.D. system that further separates and fragments an already traumatized population. Upon returning to the States, I am saddened and dismayed that the discourse around this conflict is so muted, so controlled, and so completely racist, colored by the west’s recent history and doomed relationship with the Arab world, that any dissent is quickly shut down; I am disgusted that empathy and the value of human life is apparently less than the value of territory and land. I am horrified at the amount of money that my government pulls from our tax dollars and pours into the funding of a military regime (3.8+ billion dollars a year). I am disheartened that even in progressive, liberal American circles, anti-zionist sentiment is automatically equated with anti-semitism as a way of shutting down the conversation; many progressives who pride themselves on their inclusive politics fail to notice that Zionism is by definition a racist ideology, and one with deep roots in armed terrorism. What I heard over and over from Palestinians is that they want to live in one country, with equal rights, and what prevents that is the uncompromising issue of a Jewish State. A Jewish state will always treat those who are not Jewish as second class citizens, at best. This is not, as many are fond of crying, the only democracy in the Middle East. A system that puts the rights and dreams of one religious group over others is by definition not a democracy. The ugly reality of the settlements in the West Bank, with their particularly aggressive residents, makes the idea of a two State solution a very idealistic dream.

I went to Palestine because I felt a calling, a voice inside that knew it was time for me to connect certain dots. Palestine was the closest I’ve gotten to going back home, since I left Iran and my life became fragmented into before and after. The level of deliberate social fragmentation that I witnessed opened up some old wounds; I came home a bit unhinged, not knowing how to relate to this place I’ve called home for the last twenty years, not knowing how to talk to people who do not know the reality I just witnessed, good, well-meaning people. This was very similar to immigrating here, and having to fit my reality to this, American reality; I have to admit, this is an exhausting task. I returned tired.

My time in Palestine was a mixture of the familiar, the surreal, the heartbreaking, and the spiritual. My days were spent driving from West bank city to West bank city, the best tour guide in all of Palestine at the helm, my American friend, Nora. This driving tour of the region afforded me plenty of time to learn about the intricate and cruel system of checkpoints, ID cards, and the ugly atrocity of the wall attempting to keep Palestinians from having free or easy access to vast array of resources and basic human needs. I visited Jerusalem, Nablus, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, and the devastating Hebron. I taught yoga to four different populations, and learned that when daily stress is that high, the yoga practice manifests as joyful, meditative, and always approached with gusto. I was taken care of and taken in as if I was a long lost daughter returning home; I was asked repeatedly where I was from: Iran,  which was often met with a palm placed on a heart and small bow of the head, and the word respect. A gesture that always made me choke up; no where else in the world would this happen. I ate food that dripped with life, and walked in souqs and bazaars that date back thousands of years. I met remarkable, ordinary people who are doing extraordinary work to educate, to encourage life, to initiate difficult dialogue, to bring about inner peace, to stand up to bullies and oppressors. I met a man from a 70 year old refugee camp, who is teaching theater and the arts and audio recording to the kids, who is empowering children to act and write and perform, because in his own words ‘I don’t want them to die for their country, I want them to LIVE for their country’.

As we drove through a seemingly normal intersection in Jerusalem, I heard the story of a young Arab boy who was kidnapped a few years ago by Jewish settlers at that precise corner. The police later discovered his charred body and determined that he had been made to drink gasoline before he was lit on fire. Nora was telling me this in an even tone of voice, telling me how it was during that summer that kids were not allowed to go outside to play for fear of copycat crimes.

Many times, I wanted to hit pause, tell her to stop, allow me time to grieve and process the last bit of devastating information before pouring forth more, but we kept on: if they could live like this, with no reprieve, the least I could do was to listen. This was tapas practice for me: listening, listening when all I wanted was to hug a bolster and cry for a few hours.

In Hebron, I listened to an old shopkeeper as he showed me the chicken wire ‘roof’ he’s had to erect over the normally open air bazaar because the settlers who have moved in above his shop, into Palestinian homes, used to throw their garbage onto the Palestinians below. I cried as he showed me the egg stains on the pashmina scarves hanging outside his shop, the bags and bags of garbage over head. He said now they pour their raw sewage, and hot liquids down. All I could say was sorry, listening to a man with not much too lose, holding on to his small shop, to bits of his pride and dignity. I felt powerless and enraged.

Also in Hebron, we met with Issa Amro, a prominent non-violent activist who is heralded as the Palestinian Gandhi. He is a ‘declared’ human rights defender by the EU, an OHCHR human rights defender of the year in Palestine 2010. And, Israel has brought 18 counts of made up charges against him in military court as of last fall; his trial began on March 26.

He was taking us through a tour of the old city, showing me the alleyway where he was born and was no longer allowed to walk into because it had been blocked, cemented, telling me about the vibrancy of the old Hebron as we walked through the ghost town, with most shops bolted up and shut. To go from one street to the next, we had to walk through several turnstiles at a checkpoint. There are more then 100 checkpoint within the city of Hebron.

We arrived at the Ibrahimi mosque where 24 years ago, an American Doctor, a settler, had walked in and opened fire on those praying. Eyewitnesses told the New york Times at the time that the IDF soldiers joined him, and 29 people were killed. At the mosque, I met an old man who had been present on that day, 24 years ago. He pointed to the place where the gunman had entered, pointed to the place where he had been tackled, disarmed, and killed. Everywhere, I met Palestinians who recounted the horrors with a deadpan resignation that contrasted the violence they were describing. He was no different. I imagined him 24 years younger. I imagined how a psyche shifts in the face of so much trauma and powerlessness, how resentment can clog the pathways to any sort of peace when your face is constantly rubbed into your defeat.

When we came out of the Ibrahimi Mosque, it seemed that in order to cross the street, we had to show our ID’s. Mind you, a short block away, we had gone through a checkpoint and to leave the block, we now had to go through another. Issa was on his phone, and he handed his ID to the young soldier, who appeared to really dislike him talking on his phone while she checked his ID. She yelled at him to get off his phone, and detained him at the side of the street for the next 45 minutes without giving any reason. She held on to his ID, while another, even younger looking soldier casually pointed the gun in Issa’s direction for the duration of the ordeal; at one point, when a group of passersby had gathered and were taking photos on their phones, the young soldier posed and grinned for the cameras. It was hard not to see him as a little boy playing dress up with a large machine gun.

We were walking the street with Ariel Gold who is the Director of activist organization, Code Pink, when Issa was detained. Ariel began filming and live streaming the events as they unfolded, and she asked me to film as well. Part of Issa’s work in non-violence training is teaching the Palestinian youth, who famously have shown their frustration by throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers (which, in turn gets them shot), to instead use their smartphones and take video of the soldiers' often illegal actions. So there we were, a yoga teacher from Iran by way of California and a progressive American Jew, on the side of a road in Hebron, documenting from 10 feet away Israeli soldiers detaining and harassing a known Palestinian human rights activist. My legs shook violently for forty five minutes, but I somehow managed to keep my camera hand steady. Meanwhile, a Jewish settler had appeared on the other side of the street, and was hurling insults at Issa in Hebrew. It did not take understanding the language to realize that he was taunting him and was trying to get a rise out of him. Later, I learned that he was telling Issa to go to Syria or Iraq, and see what ‘Arabs like him are doing to each other,’ and that ‘when the time comes, your liberal Jewish friends will be the first ones to kill you.’

After 45 minutes, they gave Issa his papers back and let him go. No reason. No apology.

We headed to his house to regroup. Except, that he could not walk with us. He had to take a different road, a longer road, because the direct road to his house was not open to Palestinians. Shuhada street in Hebron has been closed off to Palestinians since the massacre 24 years ago. There are still Palestinians living in their homes on this street, but their front doors have been welded shut, and metal cages put around their windows. In order to get out of their homes, the people living inside, have to climb to their roof, hop over to the roof of their neighbor, walk down into their neighbor’s home and out from their front door. Please, just for a moment, stop reading this, and imagine your life if you had to do all of that just to leave your house.

Many of these homes, had windows that had been smashed, and because it was cold and because it is expensive, they had stopped trying to replace the windows. Instead, plastic bags and fabric had been pressed against the window to keep the cold air out.

On the walk over to Issa’s house, where we would meet him, we heard hundreds of what to me sounded like small bombs going off in the not too far distance. Ariel noted that what we heard was tear gas, and that the Israeli soldiers use it when the kids get out of school to disperse them.

The adrenalin and cortisol from the encounter with the IDF soldiers coupled with the terrible injustice I saw at every corner reduced me to sobs. Issa began reassuring me by telling me that he is used to the treatment, and then later, when Nora and I were on our way to Ramallah, he called to check on the Iranian girl. These were the kindnesses I experienced while in Palestine. 

I came back and I got very very depressed for a good while. All my old friends (mara) began dropping by, and I sat on my porch at the edge of the forest--lush and wet and magnificently calm after the longest winter in recent memory--and I poured the tea that we drank, the sun clearing the tallest redwood earlier and earlier in the morning. Mara bared her teeth; somedays, I flinched, others, I relented and had a listen.

The truth is, since returning from Palestine, I have changed, and so, as it goes, has my practice.  I have settled into a different phase in my relationship to asana, in part due to the inherent challenges that arise from being a teacher of the thing you practice, and in part due to, em, getting older. So, I practice, but the felt sense of it is different, the emphasis placed more on how it makes me feel in the moment and the next and the next and tomorrow as well; I am not looking to cause any unnecessary hurt, if I can help it. To say that the ambition is in the trunk of the car would be an apt description. But I think more than any other factor, what downshifted this runaway train was the students I met in Palestine. They were not drawn to yoga for exercise, for community sanctioned spiritual bypass and self-important 'entrepreneurship' of local minor teachers with DJ and rockstar dress up fantasies tucked away in their shadowy corners. No, they came to meditate, because they are desperate for anything that might help calm their frayed nervous system. They came to learn about how Yoga can help them sit at peace in their own bodies, even if all around them bodies are in defensive holds; when all around them, the body of their land is taken, stolen, raped. They came, because they have heard that contemplative practices are a salve for a psyche that has been oppressed, controlled, traumatized, and frustrated for generations; they came to heal their wounds and the wounds of their mothers and grandmothers and on and on. They did not come to break the body, or to transcend it, or to adorn it in fancy asana. They experience enough violence in their daily life: both implicit and explicit. 

Work saved me. I taught mysore and I went on my felt sense more than on histories, stories,  and thoughts. I walked into the room and let my instinct move me more than my eyes. I forgot people's names and memorized the tone of their breath, the tension I felt under my hands, and the way they responded to my touch. The work got much more interesting: I got out of my own way, and trusted myself and the students to find our way, together, alone. I booked it out of the studio as soon as I was done because all I wanted was to relate energetically; more than ever, I felt deathly allergic to small talk.

On my mat, the primary series day after day, until I lost: kapotasana, a comfortable leg behind the head, karandavasana, etc, etc, who cares. The breath was all I was interested in, and, me, the girl who loved backbends more than anything feared the simplest of them for fear of breaking open the cage of my heart, for fear of my guts spilling out of me, for fear of coming undone.

And I did anyway.

I rolled around on my living room floor, and felt my way into parts of the body I have not felt before. My spine got wavy and snake like, and I found an ease and inner (I mean, really, inner) strength that I had never before experienced. I got strong, but I still didn't feel sturdy. I wobbled a lot, inside, outside. I started an intensive that kept me tethered, engaged in understanding the why/what/how of practice. Many things fell by the way side. I cried. I cursed. I sighed heavy sighs. I lost my temper and apologized. I withdrew and wondered where everyone went, why they abandoned me. I felt like I did not fit in anywhere; the yoga world particularly repulsed me. In short, the trip to Palestine and the return to the States reactivated old parts of my psyche that had been dormant for a good ten years. 

Depression, in all of its sticky stubbornness kept me company through most of Spring. My mind constantly compared the two worlds and I felt like I was not doing enough, that I was not helping anyone who really needed help. All of the first world problems, including Trump and the freak show of our politics, felt trivial and vapid when compared to the injustices I witnessed and heard about in the West Bank. I read the news and all I saw was what was left out, the lies of omission, the whitewashing of the world. My friends, family, and a good number of my students showed genuine interest in hearing about the trip, and I told and told and told until their faces grew long and their eyes turned to their feet: how can this be, what can be done, why.

The days grew longer and longer and wisps of vapor lifted from the earth in the early mornings; the sun baking the mountain, and clouds of insects made me feel outnumbered; I took comfort in this fact. I planted tomatoes and eggplants and cucumbers and dahlias; the mint carpeted the garden, and I put its fragrant leaves in my tea every morning, the tea I brought back from Ramallah. 

The shell around my body began to thaw, bit by bit, two steps forward three back and on and on.

Now it is Summer and though the news is grim: Gaza kept in the dark, new settlements building, A teenage Muslim girl brutalized and discarded in a lake, inside, the heavy blanket of depression has gotten lighter, but not entirely lifted. And I wonder how realistic it is for me to expect it to be gone if a sincere Yoga practice wakes us up to what is, and, when what is is a whole lot of violence, injustice, and darkness manifest. I feel it in my students' bodies, this heavy-heartedness, this seriousness, this need to shed something. We open our pores in practice, and what is coming in is not pleasant. So I practice bandha, internal boundary setting, developing a selective membrane, and I do well for a bit until a flood comes and my boundaries don't hold and I wobble and feel it all again. This too, is practice.

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