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9/11 Anniversary:

Welcome to America

Ammiel Alcalay

9 Apr. 2002

We've had a very mild winter in New York, but over the last few weeks, just when spring was supposed to come, it's gotten cold again. So when you wake up in the morning, you turn the tv on to get the weather on the local news just to see what you should wear. The weatherman says it will be sunny and beautiful. You go out, and there's a thunderstorm. You get to the subway, soaking wet, and wait for your usual train - let's say the F train. You get on but then you realize it's an R train and you end up someplace else. You get outside and try to take a taxi but all you see are horses. You ask someone if they've seen any cabs and they point to a parking meter. You begin to see a pattern emerging. Nothing is really what it seems to be.

You finally make it back home and turn the news on, just to see if there's anything new in the world or if anything's changed. You hear about violence in the Middle East and see a few clips of hundreds of tanks, US made Apache helicopters, and gunships assaulting several hundred policeman armed with light weaponry holed up amongst a civilian population of 15,000 refugees packed into a camp one square mile wide. So far so good. Taxes are due next week and you remember that about a third of your hard earned money has helped pay for the Apache helicopters. A little less than five percent of that money helps pay for your son's school, so you've decided to teach your son at home since the schools are so bad.

You listen to an interview with a young man by the name of Adam Shapiro - he is Jewish and has been living in Ramallah for some time, riding along with ambulances driven by Palestinians. Since his life is worth infinitely more than the life of the Palestinian ambulance drivers, he can serve as a protective shield. As one of the foreigners who walked past the Israeli soldiers guarding the besieged office of the Palestinian Authority, he ended up having breakfast with Chairman Arafat, a president whose authority has recently been reduced to a jurisdiction the size of his desk. In the interview, Paula Zahn from CNN, formerly a playboy bunny, keeps baiting him: "Well, you are Jewish and I understand you are marrying a Palestinian. Don't you feel caught in the crossfire?" Without flinching, Adam Shapiro says that none of this has anything to do with Jews or Muslims, it's about military occupation. You listen and cannot help but conclude that the articulate young man is a person of substance, acting courageously and on principle.

The next day you read in the paper that his parents, who happen to be very proud of their son, have been getting death threats from Jewish extremists. You ponder this and, in the final analysis, consider it an act of terror. They decide, against their better judgement but upon the express desire of their other highly articulate, courageous and principled son, Noah, to get out of town for a while. You see an interview with Noah. He mentions that he called the office of his elected representative, Senator Charles Schumer, asking that his office issue a statement condemning the terror campaign waged against his family. No statement is issued. The Senator, by the way, spends a lot of time expressing his solidarity with the State of Israel, its government, and the policies they are carrying out. He doesn't just express this solidarity, he actually demands that it be paid for with some of that same money you are about to hand over to the government at tax time, some of the money that isn't going to your son's school, to put toilet paper in the bathrooms at the public university where you work, or to fix the pot holes that just claimed another one of those aluminum alloy wheels on your car. You consider his silence on the campaign of terror launched against members of your own community to be somewhat despicable, not at all courageous, and very unprincipled. You also realize you might be next.

You meet a friend who tells you that she just got off the phone with her close friend, Anthony Shadid, a journalist for the Boston Globe whose work you're very familiar with. An excellent journalist, with long experience in the Middle East, a reasoned and careful person who knows the terrain well. You hear from her that "the shot in the shoulder" you'd heard reported about in the major media had missed his spine by a millimiter. He said there was no doubt where the shot came from, and that he was very eager to press for an investigation, particularly after Israeli soldiers had come in to search him after his wound had been treated, perhaps looking for shrapnel still lodged in his shoulder, something he might eventually use as evidence.

You listen to the news and you hear about violence in the Middle East and you remember that the war in Lebanon started because the PLO held a ceasefire for close to a year in 1981 and the Israeli government did not want to negotiate with the PLO then. You remember Sharon swaggering about on the Temple Mount, otherwise known as Haram as-Sharif, with hundreds of armed guards. You reach a little further back into your memory and you remember the house in the Old City that he personally commandeered some years before that. You remember his timing, assassinating Palestinians just after ceasefires had been arranged.You hear him talk about the need to wipe out the "infrastructure of terror" and you wonder why he has targeted police stations, border guards, policemen and all the offices of al-Fatah, the Palestinian secular establishment. You hear that your President is starting to get aggravated and has decided to send an emissary to the region. Several hours after this announcement, you hear that Ariel Sharon has started killing members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and you begin to grasp the logic of the whole operation. With any amount of luck, a suicide bomber will activate him or herself just in time to meet the emissary.

In the meantime, you get e-mails from friends in Ramallah who, for some reason, are complaining about the behavior of the Israeli troops. It seems like most of the troops don't think Arabs have toilets, since they've been shitting and pissing in living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. They've also been lifting whatever they can get their hands on - jewelry, cash, cameras, and electronic equipment, while their colleagues take sledgehammers to the tv moniters, transmitters, microphones, cameras, recording studios and offices of some 50 television and radio stations in town. If they can't get their tanks through the narrow alleys of a camp, they just call in some bulldozers to clear the way. The roads that you can actually drive on, of course, can't be used by ambulances so pregnant women are left to their own devices while the wounded bleed to death.

It all sounds very familiar - you listen to the news and you hear about violence and history and all the "sides" in the conflict. You hear about all these plans, the Tenet plan, the Mitchell plan, and somewhere, deep in the recesses of your mind, you clear out the cobwebs and names like Stoltenberg, Ghali, Owen and Akashi begin to emerge. You keep flipping channels, seeing smoke rise from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, helicopters dropping missiles on Jenin and Nablus, and you remember how your friend Zlatko Dizdarevic once reported, from the bombed out building of Oslobodjenje, the plan of another apparent madman who actually knew precisely what he was doing, Radovan Karadzic: "In Bosnia, you must do everything to make what seemed impossible yesterday, possible today." At this point I have absolutely no doubt that, with the help of his friends, Ariel Sharon is doing all he can.

Welcome to America.

 
 

Ammiel Alcalay's recent book of poetry, From the Warring Factions (Beyond Baroque Books, 2002 buy from an independent book shop, buy from Amazon) has won several literary awards.