Storytelling and narratives
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If a place can make you cry

Book and author: If a place can make you cry: Dispatches from an anxious state, by Daniel Gordis
When I read it: Spring 2011, in an anxious state
Where I read it: In Jerusalem, fittingly.
Favorite phrase: “For after all, if there’s a place in this world that can make you cry, isn’t that where you ought to be?”

Barbed wire sunsets, here I come again.

Daniel Gordis writes: “After all, if you focused on every victim these days, you’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning. You survive only because you can forget.”

It is the eve of my return to the Middle East, my return to the places where you survive only because you can forget. Gordis rightfully reminds me of the centrality of forgetting for my own survival, but I have so far led a life of remembrance. I like to catalogue, to scribble notes on unlined pages by which to mark the days, to photograph, to document, to tell. My stomach is clenched today. My beloved friend Erin had asked a while ago how I know I am truly passionate about something. I told her there is a certain kind of nausea associated with passion for me – it is as though my stomach knows I am about to dive into my element. The clenched stomach today suggests not only the exhilaration of returning to work I feel passionately about, but also the fear, hesitation, reluctance and trauma associated with the next steps of the journey.

Right before the second Intifada broke out, Daniel Gordis and his family moved to Jerusalem. He, too, felt the desire to catalogue and remember:

So, as we lived through that year, I instinctively chronicled many of our experiences in e-mails to friends, some letters to my family, and many other little vignettes that I didn’t actually send anywhere, but just wrote for the sake of making some sense of everything I was seeing and feeling.

This pastiche, which mirrors some of the reasons I write as well, became the book If A Place Can Make You Cry. Gordis and I have experienced Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East in different capacities and with different loyalties and attachments, thus naturally yielding distinct, often conflicting, narratives. There is one assessment of his with which I agree whole-heartedly:

This just isn’t a normal place. To live here is not to tell a story, but to live one. Living here, you become the story, and it takes over. There’s no avoiding, there’s no escaping. There’s no way not to repeat it. The story is here to stay, and we’re part of it, like it or not.

That is what I have found inspiring and suffocating about life and work in the Middle East: It is so much bigger than you and me. It feels entrenched. Having lived there long enough, it is hard to escape the feeling of resignation and helplessness as your faith in humanity is fueled and challenged on the same day.

How does Gordis cope? In his own words: “I flip on the cruise control — the ultimate statement that life is predictable, even, calm.” I have been there. I have focused my energies on picking the perfect lamp for the tiny, sand-filled bedroom, as though the country’s survival depends on the glow of the just right light. But cruise control is not a good mode for me. It fundamentally requires forfeiting some part of being alive. When I set out on my professional journey in conflict and post-conflict zones, I was craving being moved. I wanted to feel deeply alive, and I have. But what do you do with the places that are so vibrant, so alive, so full of their own story that they swallow you up and the only way you can survive is by forgetting and by turning on the cruise control?

For one, you turn to beauty. “You probably don’t move to a place just because it’s beautiful, but the beauty certainly adds a layer to the love that both of us [Gordis and his wife] feel for Israel.” I am on a quest for beauty, and the quest sustains me. From the obvious beauty of a Jerusalem sunset to the more complex, hidden beauty in the darkest places, I seek to embrace all of it. Once I believe in a place’s sadness and despair, it claws me in and spits me out in a million pieces. Survival does not hinge on forgetting for me; it, instead, requires – as Arundhati Roy would have it – “pursuing beauty to its lair.”

I am apprehensive about returning. I am afraid that, even if I am armed with beauty and hope and a desire to “seek joy in the saddest places”, as Arundhati Roy would also have it, it will not be enough and I will end up on the bottom of a well of injustice and personal despair. When violence erupted in Jerusalem during the second Intifada, Gordis wrote:

Sometimes, these days, I wonder what’s happening to us. Can a land emit a poison, a toxin that confuses, that obfuscates, that virtually guarantees that we become something other than what we want to be? Is there something about this land, or our passion for it, that blurs the vision? What is it about this land that blinds us to the very real and often devastating cost of our love for it, that leads us to ignore the horrific and repeated story of death for the sake of keeping it, a death that often inexplicably robs us of our children, and our children of their lives?

If Gordis is full of questions, I cannot purport to have the answers myself. A question I wish to live in is one Al Giordano posed at the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study on Non-Violent Conflict: “Where is the ray of hope in your stories?” He urged journalists, conflict professionals and activists alike to not tell stories that are entirely void of hope — to keep digging until they find it.

It is time to dig anew.

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