Wednesday, January 07, 2009

An Open Letter to the President Elect Regarding Gaza

Today's post is from Laila Halaby, author of the novel Once In a Promised Land, which was named one of the 100 best fiction books of 2007 by the Washington Post. Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother. Her first novel, West of the Jordan, won the prestigious PEN Beyond Margins Award. Visit for more information on Laila Halaby and her work.

Dear President Elect Obama,

Belatedly, I congratulate you on winning the election.
Belatedly, I offer my condolences for the death of your beloved grandmother.
Hopefully not belatedly, I implore you to consider your role in Palestine.

Though I try to avoid watching the news, last night I forced myself to look at coverage of Gaza. I started with CNN or Reuters, and though at that point over 200 Palestinians had been killed, the footage I saw was of the funeral for the one Israeli who died. I watched several men carry a coffin. I saw attractive women crying. It was both public and private and one felt their grief. The message was clear: one Israeli death is one too many whereas more than 200 Palestinian deaths are in a different category.

So I decided to watch al-Jazeera. Do you ever watch it? Shirin Abu Aqle, who has been reporting from the Occupied Territories for the last eight or so years, is looking very, very tired. I forced myself to watch the scenes of destruction, the ambulances, the men and women slumped over the bodies of their family members. I forced myself to listen to the screams, the wailing.

I forced myself to watch these images because I feel that as long as my country is supporting the country that has caused this, I am guilty.

I got to thinking about your campaign and my reasons for supporting you:

You were by far the smartest and wisest candidate.
Your plans were clear and intelligent.
Your ego did not get in the way.
There was another more personal reason.

I also supported you because you are familiar.

Like you, my mother is white and my father was brown and foreign.
Like you, I had a funny name.
Like you, I did not grow up with my father, but his absence shaped the person I became. Like you, I had connections abroad, an entire other world that seemed as though it should in some way belong to me. Or I to it.
Like you, I was, at times, an Other.
Like you, I became very good at gauging situations and people.

This is why I trust you.

Why I knew you were the only candidate who would truly treat other world leaders as equals, thereby earning their respect.
Why I sang your praises over Senator Clinton to anyone who would listen.
Why I wrote letters, wore t-shirts, bought my kids t-shirts, and bought a second bumper sticker for my car after the first one was stolen. (My younger son, who was eight at the time, wrote you a letter and you wrote him back. He has that letter pinned to his door and he was your spokesperson in the third and fourth grade.)

You see, President Elect Obama, the familiarity that I see in you is one of fairness and justice: you can see both sides of a situation because you are both sides and it's why you ultimately choose what is right and not what is popular. You also have a tremendous sense of history, so I know you are aware that what we see today is not everything.

Which brings me back to Palestine.

Gaza is filled with people whose family homes are being lived in by Jewish settlers from all over the world. Many of those people, if they are permitted entry back into the country that was once theirs, have to wait an hour or more for the privilege to walk by those homes on their way to working in a factory to make underwear or t-shirts for western women. They smell the freshly mowed lawns, hear the splashing of children in bright blue pools on land that was once theirs. Most of them try to tune out the past, focus on the few constants they are allowed in this present life: family and faith.

It is never just today. Just as you are not simply a Black man in his forties who got a new job, this is not simply an explosive situation between good guys and bad guys.

Gaza is also filled with very creative people: all sorts of artists, musicians, actors, dancers, who hone their skills and dream. There are teachers and doctors and lawyers and nurses and engineers. And there are lots and lots of students who dream and hope, in spite of the fact that their options are fewer than most of us can imagine.

Gaza is filled, literally, with children who can describe the villages that were taken from their families two or more generations ago. They can tell you the number of olive trees that surrounded the house, or describe the scent of citrus blossoms that filled the air, or the old man who lived two houses down who always sang whenever he walked, and how his voice was terribly unmelodic, but what an enormous void there was when he died. They can tell you these things because their parents and grandparents are determined that they not forget; that they, in turn, will not be forgotten.

It is never just today. Just as you are not simply moving into the White House in a month, refugee camps are not ancestral homes; populating a country that was already populated can involve unacceptable tactics.

Just as we took the time to get to know you, to understand your history, and to believe in you, I ask you to stop looking at today, at what is wrong with today, and to look at how it got that way.

Just as we took the time to get past your funny name, your foreign father, your all-over-the-place upbringing, I beg you to do the same for Palestine.

Until the wrongs of slavery were admitted, there was anger and extremism.
Until the wrongs of occupation are admitted, there will be anger and extremism.
And fathers and mothers like you and like me will continue to live through what is unimaginable.

I will end with something Mohandas Ghandi said, something I know that you believe: "A confession of errors is like a broom which sweeps away the dirt and leaves the surface brighter and clearer."

Very sincerely yours,

Laila Halaby

Thanks to Leila Abu-Saba for the link.

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