Gaza without Oprah: Alice Walker wages her own war over Gaza, based on her trip there last March, in a new 10,000-word essay. (Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
On March 8, just a few weeks after the 22-day Gaza war that left close to 1,500 Palestinians dead and 15,000 homes demolished, Code Pink, the U.S.-based anti-war group, led a delegation of some 60 people to the Gaza Strip. It included Craig and Cindy Corrie, parents of 23-year-old Rachel Corrie, who was killed in March 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to block the demolition of a home in Gaza. And Alice Walker, 65, author of The Color Purple and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 (the year following Israel's second invasion of Lebanon).
"I feel that what is happening in the Middle East is very important because the situation is so volatile," she told the Electronic Urban Report. "I love people, and I love children and I feel that the Palestinian child is just as precious as the African-American child, as the Jewish child."
Walker had just lost an older sister. Israel's clobbering of sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers, along with the incidental Hamas militant, made her feel a connection to the people in Gaza. "I wanted very much to be with them and to bear witness to what is happening to them, this horrible, catastrophic, terrible thing," she told the Associated Press.
Two weeks ago in her blog, Walker wrote a 10,000-word essay recounting her experience in the context of two earlier visits to the scenes of atrocities: Rwanda and Eastern Congo three years ago. The Rwandan genocide of Tutsis in 1994 resulted in the murder of up to 1 million people. Rwandans fleeing the country to Congo were again victimized in mass rapes and murders. "I have been, once again, struggling to speak about an atrocity," she writes by way of transitioning to Gaza.
The atrocities are not quite comparable. The genocide against the Palestinians is of a different nature. It isn't Palestinians in flesh and blood who are being eliminated, but Palestinian history and identity that's been systematically denied or, when it manages to emerge here and there, as systematically eliminated as the routine of Israeli martial law makes possible. The genocide is cultural, not literal, and even then, calling it such has the ironies of misnomers written all over it: it's Israel's relentless war on Palestinian identity that has defined and solidified Palestinian identity since 1948. (Pre-Israel Jews and post-Israel Palestinians have that much in common: an identity defined by those who aimed to destroy them. That's why they loathe and understand each other so well.)
Walker isn't interested in nuance. Her essay is more of a traveler's stream of impressions and laments, words made to serve an unclear polemic. Walker's compulsion to cuff certain words in quote marks sends the message that she doesn't ascribe the same meaning to those words that most of us do. But her meanings are left dangling. Why, for instance, does she choose to put the word "holocaust" in quotes, or the word "conflict" ("Americans, we know, are, for the most part, uninformed about the reality of this never-ending 'conflict' that has puzzled us for decades")? Or the word "rebuild" ("Later our government would offer money, a promise to help 'rebuild')? Where exactly is the irony in those words? (The word "rebuild" is stuffed with irony: Palestinians are due a couple of billion dollars, pledged by the United States and others after the January war to put Humpty Gaza together again, but Israel's siege is such that a dime has as much making it through an Israeli crossing as an Arab. Walker mentions the crossings. Not the impounded money.) If Walker is pointing us somewhere, she doesn't tell.
The curiosity of the piece, if not quite its value, is in the reportorial details. There's the incongruities of waiting five hours at the Rafa crossing while bombs fell beyond, or of being condescendingly lectured by Margaret Scobey, the Tennessee-born American ambassador to Egypt, about blacks' successful civil rights movement in the United States and "why couldnít the Palestinians be more like us." (Does Scobey really think an Arab with Israeli citizenship could grow up to be prime minister of Israel some day?) There are simple, devastating observations: "By now most of us are aware of the dehumanizing treatment anyone not Jewish receives on crossing a border into Israel. Especially brutal for Palestinians. I thought: even our new President, Barack Hussein Obama, were he just anybody, and not the president of the United States, would have a humiliating time getting into Israel."
But there are also strange juxtapositions and that are either oddly charming or charmlessly grating: "President Jimmy Carterís book Peace Not Apartheid, I had read before leaving home. I also ate a good bit of chocolate." And: "I had not been on a bus with so many Jews since traveling to the 1963 March On Washington by Greyhound."
Then there are the more discursive impressions, more authorial than authoritative, but nevertheless arresting: "I realized I had never understood the true meaning of 'rubble.' Such and such was 'reduced to rubble' is a phrase we hear. It is different seeing what demolished buildings actually look like. Buildings in which people were living. Buildings from which hundreds of broken bodies have been removed; so thorough a job have the Palestinians done in removing the dead from squashed dwellings that no scent of death remains. What this task must have been like, both physically and psychologically, staggers the mind."
And this about hate: "At the end of the table across from me is a woman who looks like Oprahís twin. In fact, earlier she had said to me: Alice, tell Oprah to come see us. We will take good care of her. I promised I would email Oprah, and, on returning home, did so. She laughs, this handsome woman; then speaks earnestly. We donít hate Israelis, Alice, she says, quietly, what we hate is being bombed, watching our little ones live in fear, burying them, being starved to death, and being driven from our land. We hate this eternal crying out to the world to open its eyes and ears to the truth of what is happening, and being ignored. Israelis, no. If they stopped humiliating and torturing us, if they stopped taking everything we have, including our lives, we would hardly think about them at all. Why would we?"
The full essay may be difficult to get through in one go. It takes getting past the fuzzy writing, the looseness with facts, the juvenile comments about Jews a writer of her caliber and years should be well beyond ("Lucky for me, my husbandís family were not the only Jews I knew."). It takes getting past her unserious conclusions. Unlike, say, Arundhati Roy's "Algebra of Infinite Justice," written immediately after the 9/11 attacks as a corrective to American self-pity and disingenuous bewilderment, Walker isn't situating Gaza in a larger context for her readers to understand so much as situating her ideological predisposition against Gaza's backdrop. There's a measure of opportunism here that makes Walker's first person singular tower over Gaza's rubble. The piece is at least 6,000 words too long.
Still, it's worth a try, if only for the way Walker frames her trip. She is, despite the piece's limitations, struggling to understand the place, as anyone would. So she does what comes more naturally, more purposefully, to her than just anyone. She frames the trip through her civil rights eyes--not those of Ambassador Scobey, but those of a woman who can see past the hate, detect shards of hope and speak a few human truths to inhuman atrocity.
Here's the essay in full (again with those strange quote marks), "Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters 'the horror' in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel."
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