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The Silence Within Silence

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Photo: Terri Weifenbach

By Joanna Chen

Yesterday there was a ceasefire. The night before, the booms did not stop. At 3 AM the house shuddered and the walls shook. At 8 AM, as the ceasefire began, silence fell upon the house. I stood at my front door with a second cup of coffee. The cat kept close, curling herself around my bare feet. At 8:05 there was a final crescendo, a deafening boom from the direction of Gaza. A bird lifted into the air, and before I saw the bird I heard its wings beating: one, two, three. I listened to the silence that followed as if I were listening to it for the first time. There are nuances to silence, there are degrees and shades to silence. This was a heavy, ominous one and it lay upon the air the whole day and did not move.

I have been silenced many times by what has happened over the last month in Israel and Palestine, where I have lived for the past 30 years after moving from England.  Back then, I knew nothing about this troubled corner of the world, and precious little about my own religious or historical identity. I did not know I was Jewish until my early teens; I remember the Christmas tree that stood in the living room of our home in northern England, shedding pine needles onto an emerald carpet.  When I was 15, my only brother, Andrew, died in a motorbike accident. Shortly after his death, my mother made the decision to move to Israel where, she said, there were plenty of mothers who had lost their sons and where she thought she could find the empathy she needed. I do not think she found it, for there is none to be found when you lose a child, but she was right about one thing: there are plenty of bereaved mothers and fathers here.

I struggled for years with this new country, language, and culture that I had been unwillingly parachuted into. I did not fit in, did not feel comfortable in the unbearable heat of summer, did not understand the noisy vehemence with which people conduct their lives here. I missed my friends, I missed my childhood home, I missed my brother’s toothy grin and the loud rock music that penetrated our shared bedroom wall. I could not talk about him because no one in this new country knew him, other than my parents, who had erected a wall of silence around what had been my family and never mentioned Andrew. I could not break through this wall so I began breaking through walls that belonged to other people.

I studied communications and landed a job in foreign journalism at Newsweek’s Middle East bureau. I took a certain comfort in this because it enabled me to cross cultural and political borders, to meet people on both sides of the conflict and to witness their own singular moments of being. I met Palestinian mothers whose sons had been killed by Israelis; I met Israeli mothers whose sons had been killed by Palestinians. They all grieve in the same way, they stretch out their hands and their hands are empty. These deaths leave scars of fear and hatred for generations, long after the physical war is over.

To this day, I do not want to take part in arguments over who is right and who is wrong. I have friends on both sides and I will not take sides. I have a family and children of my own. Everyone deserves to live a decent life, raise a family without the threat of losing a loved one, burying a child, mourning a parent.

Perhaps because of this silence, I find myself thinking in pictures of people I know and love, remembering those small moments, those fractions of seconds that bring us together. After all, everyone has a face and a name. I am thinking of Ashraf, a driver who lives in Gaza, who welcomed me into his home with its scrubbed floors and faint smell of simmering rice, back in 2001, who shared food with me and looked after me unquestioningly when I was working there. Ashraf has twinkling eyes and he used to laugh a lot back then, traversing the narrow alleyways in his battered car, stopping off to buy me the best humus, so he said, in the whole of the Gaza Strip before returning me safely to the Erez crossing. We shook hands firmly, and released. I hope he is safe now. I know his house has been razed to the ground and I wonder how he will rebuild a life for himself and his children.

I am also thinking of Talia, a chatty, rosy-cheeked eight-year-old who lives up the road from my house in the Ella Valley.  Like thousands of children in this region, she hears the sirens, the airplanes and the constant booms. She blurted out just one word when I asked her how she was enjoying the long summer vacation. Frightened, she said. And then there was a silence that enveloped us both, the silence of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, or next year.

There is Jane, a poet like me, who lives on the southern border with Gaza and who thinks she heard weeping at the window in the middle of the night. When she went to the window the weeping stopped and I am thinking that the weeping she heard was her own, echoing across the dark walls of Gaza.

I know there are women there who have evacuated their homes with nowhere to go, women who won’t have a home to return to, women who are afraid for their lives. They will have the task of rebuilding the best they can when this is over. It is not over yet because leaders on both sides say it is not.

There are others who have chosen to be there, like my friend Heidi, who has been in Gaza from the beginning and will not leave until she has finished documenting for the rest of the world what not everyone is willing to look at. Heidi is a war photographer and has worked in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan. Her profile photo on Facebook shows her about to climb into a helicopter headed for Baghdad, obstinate blonde curls peeping out under a hardhat. When she called me up the other day I did not recognize her voice, usually soft and controlled, screaming down the phone words I could not figure out. Then she cut off, leaving me with silence.

I speak almost every day to Nuha, a bubbly, funny lady from the West Bank who I’ve known for years.  When she broke her nose a few years ago, I went to visit her in hospital before her surgery. Only family is allowed in here, a stern nurse told me, pointing to the door. Joanna is family, can’t you see the resemblance between us? Nuha murmured, reaching for my hand with her own.  In spite of this, each time I call I find myself wondering if she will answer the phone when I call her because I am Jewish, married to an Israeli and my life is much easier than hers right now.

I also hesitate before calling my friend Rachel, who I met through our mutual love of poetry, and who lives in Gush Etzion, beyond the ceasefire lines of 1949.  She has her own silence, the silence of not hearing from her son for four days. I email her asking how she is, but the subtext of my question asks haltingly whether her son is alive. No news is good news. No news is good news, too, for my girlfriends with young children who are weary of the endless sirens, the lack of stability, the fear, who are asking themselves what kind of a future there could be for their sons and daughters.

I do not want to question these friendships. I know there will be no immediate end to the conflict, but there will eventually be an end, or a long pause, and we will pick up the fragments of our lives. How can we begin to do this? Mahatma Ghandi once said that we must be the change we want to see in the world. Lately, these words have stuck in my head. As I watch events unfolding around me, it is tempting to sit back and say it’s not my fault, this is not of my own doing. Sitting in my garden as dusk falls, Iistening to the airplanes as they scrape the darkening sky, listening to the fragile silence that follows it, I tell myself I will be that change.

In coming to this troubled land, my mother looked for empathy from others. But empathy can not be commanded, it must be given. We must dig down deep into the pockets of our souls, we must cut through the layers of silence, listen to the voices mingling with the past. There are many facets of this Middle East human tapestry that I am not sure of, with one exception: wherever we come from, most of us, so many of us, want the same thing at the end of the day, to sit down with our families at the dinner table and to break bread together. We want to hear how school was, what happened at work, to look at our children’s beautiful faces and to feel how lucky we are. There is nothing lovelier than tucking up your children at night and knowing they are safe.  This is the only thing that can, I believe, ultimately join us together, whether we live in Jerusalem or Gaza, Tel Aviv or Ramallah. A recognition that we all want our children to be safe.

And there are other people who I have never met and can only imagine within the noise of our present existence and the silence that follows. It’s easiest, of course, for me to imagine someone like me – a woman with children, a woman who in normal times enjoys reading books, a woman who likes forests, poetry and fresh-baked bread with labaneh and za’atar, a woman who wants to explore the world and, most of all, to understand what on earth has happened to it.


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