“Dare to look for the handprints, dare to acknowledge the humanity of an invented people.” A Palestinian-American student, writer and activist takes a journey of discovery, in an essay inspired by the culture and literature of liberation, an ancient symbol, and a prehistoric cranium.
By Tamara Masri
Skulls of early man flashed across the screen. Dr. Bailey looked at no notes as he described the anatomical features of the ancient cranium. “Female Neanderthal found in Mt. Taboun, Israel”.. For the first time in my Biological Anthropology class, I felt a small jolt in my gut. Until that moment, the babble and jargon revolving around some chick named Lucy had flooded my head with a kind of collegiate wonder. Like the unfamiliar New England snow, the names given to the various early stages of man wafted around and settled within me. The exact location of the Garden of Eden no longer seemed to matter. Though every concept Dr. Bailey spoke was completely foreign to me, it was not the word Neanderthal that had gotten my attention. It was the fact that I had never heard of a place called Mt. Taboun. For Dr. Bailey, the name of the site might have been as dry as the bones unearthed there. But for me the word hung in the air like a piece of ripe fruit, forbidden fruit, and the Mitochondrial Eve within me was reaching for it. Forbidden, that is, for a Palestinian.
Dr. Bailey continued, now speaking of cave paintings found around the world. He was explaining how early man pressed their palms against cave walls; blowing red ochre around the outline of their hands. He raised his own hand slowly, revealing an open palm. “Hands. Why have we always been so fascinated by them?” Long after class ended the question lingered in my mind, a feather floating on a red ochre breeze.
Now I see hands everywhere. On bathroom stalls, imprinted in cement, worn as amulets, the once unnoticed shape now follows me. And I wonder, why hands, indeed? The figurative hands of past literary greats are imprinted on my memory as well. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote, “Don’t leave the palm of my hand without the sun.” During elementary school, those elusive Arabic words rolled on my tongue, heavy with syllables but lost in meaning. Other symbols I knew well: keys, the sea, Jaffa oranges. Those are the symbols that are etched into every psyche identified as Palestinian. While the land dwindles with each passing year, those are nostalgic symbols of loss that have never failed to be passed down to the next generation—our negative inheritance.
But for hands, the connotation has never been clear. The symbols of loss we carry around with us, sometimes emerging in the midst of controlled and intellectual New England conversation. Those symbols introduce an uncomfortable tide that shifts the once placid conversation into the uncharted waters of “politics”. Friends at school come back from their Birthright trips; conversation is pleasant when they speak of the deep blue of the Mediterranean. I think of how in Palestine, my friends call it the “white sea”. And for the life of me, I don’t know why. Perhaps because when you stand on a rooftop, balance on your tiptoes, and the haze has cleared… you can see a white glimmer. That’s the only way they’ve ever seen that water. But in Birthright pictures, the sea is a deep blue. I begin to speak of our white mirage of a sea, and I see the straining tide tugging at the corners of their bright faces. Politics. I give a tight smile and swallow the symbols. Can I blame them? The Palestinians are just one uncomfortable paradox that doesn’t fit into their newly discovered Jewish “Narnia”.
The next picture: An innocuous camel ride, a boy helps them climb on to the spitting beast’s back. Their bright faces are the dots of exclamation points. How exciting, foreign, authentic! But my friends don’t even know the best of it: it is all already theirs. Their paradox now pulls at the fringes of my smile: an exotic welcome home in a land in which that boy helping them has no place. He wears the familiar tight smile, a chapped crescent moon carved into dark skies of his skin. The silent smile of submission.
This camel, this ride, this land…it’s their birthright, their Manifest Destiny, not his. I’ve seen him and those rides times before. The stage is set: American teenager and camel in center, the boy edging to the picture’s frame. Another photograph snapped, another album of legitimacy complete. Later it will be posted on Facebook, or perhaps even developed, anything to build the sentimental bedrock of the newfound homeland. My friends move onto the next room of this new house of a country, we awkwardly stand between their frames. Place a golden Israeli coin into our dirt-caked palms, and we stand a little further. The faux sun that has pacified the oppressed, unprivileged, and unwanted—my people— for 63 years. No different than the colonized the revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon once described; we are the wretched of the earth.
When arriving in Israel last week, I handed the soldier my American passport. The passport is the only reason I can use that airport. The soldier is a girl my age, a gun strapped around her shoulder; I smile tightly as I hand her the booklet. Every time I do this I hope she doesn’t open it. It is because of my American passport that I know that the Mediterranean Sea isn’t white, but blue. I want her to see the rolling blue waves of my star-spangled passport. I want her to see the white of my colonial skin. But she does not look at me as she opens the booklet, and suddenly she sees something in the fine print: the red that flows in my veins. “The middle name. Eman. It’s Arabic for what?” She doesn’t believe the lie that my parents would name me after David Bowie’s wife. I scramble trying to explain that I carry only an American passport. I am red, white and blue. She only raises her hand, “Stop talking. A Palestinian is a Palestinian.” And I am sent into a room for interrogation. With every question, the image of her hand – that primitive outline of what makes us all human – kept flashing. Driving home I hand over my passport at each military checkpoint for inspection, now freshly scarred with yet another short-term visa. Being the persistent visitor who can’t seem to get enough of the Israeli State is my only fragile connection to home.
Hands continue to emerge in places where I least expect them. I walk through the streets of Jerusalem, and only now do I notice the hand talisman hanging on the walls of old Palestinians homes in Jerusalem. An Israeli girl walks by, a hand amulet glitters on her neck. Hamseh in Hebrew, Khamsah in Arabic – the hand signifies protection. The irony is blatant. A sole symbol of semblance amongst the two peoples, adorned as protection against the wrath of the other.
The hand itself is such a versatile appendage, completely at the will of the mind’s great machinery. The symbolism of the hand appears to be just as boundless and malleable. Perhaps those hands did not emerge cosmically, but rather I finally chose to see them. I read a poet’s verse and adopt the universal symbol of the human hand as our own. It’s a vain and naïve attempt of just another kid trying to find “meaning.” But that’s what a forgotten people do. We collect the detritus of our ancestors; mold them into ornaments to adorn the colorful, crumbling inner cathedrals of our intricate and fragile identities. And so I hunt—in search of that symbol that can’t be taken.
Now more than ever I have visions of running up to that girl in the cubicle, pressing my hand against the glass that separates us. I want her to look at that hand, at something she can’t take away from me. I want to tell her that we are just a people of hands—not carrying bombs but suns within our palms. It is not the red of blood she sees but the red of ancient ochre outlining my handprint. The symbol is a primal bond far older than our teenage selves, far older than this conflict and all the visceral bitterness that has set us so far apart. Though we may emphasize the unique intricacies of those scars in our palms, holistically our hands are the same. I want her to not only see, but to believe in our equality.
But I did none of that as I returned to the masses of the oppressed and tired prisoners. People were killed during the non-violent demonstrations commemorating Al-Nakba, referring to the Palestinian Diaspora. When I heard my cousin was injured, I sent him a message to which he replied, “Everything is fine.” He did not mention that he may be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. An Israeli asked me if he regretted his “mistake”.
After those words sank in, I spent the next month making mistakes in the village of Bil’in.
Every week for the past six years the people of Bil’in and many Israeli supporters protest the separation wall. I went, hoping that clouds of burning tear gas would fill the void of helplessness. Through the haze and chaos, I saw a man in a wheelchair heaving himself up a hill against a crowd of running protesters – toward the gas, bullets, soldiers, wall. I did not know how he could withstand the physical pain, all I could see was his relentless battle to photograph the injustice he was forced to swallow as the law of his life. When I spoke to Rani Burnat he replied in hushed, gentle whispers. A quiet disposition radically contrasts to the image of a man hurling himself and the mechanism that binds him towards the grey fumes of chemicals. Every week more images, more characters, more stories burn within me. A boy once ran between the recovering protesters, yelping with joy. He carried a strange electrical box wrapped in loose wires like a trophy. Someone told me that he had dissembled a security device from the wall itself. He ran ahead of the crowd, up the hill toward the soldiers. He moved swiftly through the smoke, eventually throwing the device over the fence. He ran down the hill cheering, weaving between the descending tear gas torpedoes, dodging and dancing. The celebration and the struggle, inseparable. You see, for the wretched of the earth, everything is a wedding.
I still can’t help but think Darwish was speaking of something distinctively meaningful. Suns in the palms of our hands. The image resonates with gravitas similar to that of the Israeli whistleblower Mordachai Vanunu’s first words when he was released from prison, “You tried, but you cannot break the human spirit!” In fact, it was the photograph of Vanunu’s palm pressed up against a car window inscribed with the details of his kidnapping that told the world of his own injustice. His hand served as a fleshy canvas of truth. Saying such words after 11 years of solitary confinement for “treason,” I wouldn’t have ever believed him. But after living in the urban prison that the Palestinian Territories prove to be, I know his words are true. Perhaps this is what Darwish meant. To take the sun, the spirit, out the palms of the innocent is impossible. Under the smoke and sun, there will always be jubilee.
I think back to Dr. Bailey’s statement: “The most intact Neanderthal remains were found in Taboun, a cave in Israel.” If that cave had to go through a checkpoint, surely it wouldn’t pass with a name like that. The cave itself, with its ethnic name, betrays the country that has adopted it. Taboun in Arabic means oven. And though I may be denied of ever seeing this relic, I can feel the temperature rising in this oven-cave I call my home. The fumes of third world traffic exhaust trace the tight circles of the confined motion of a buzzing people with too much energy – too much potential – and nowhere to go. These grey walls we’ve been placed in only incubate the heat of all these wasted suns.
It is no wonder the handprint was the first art form. Early man must have been so fascinated with hands because that print was proof of his own existence on this Earth. And that is in fact the only crime Palestinians are guilty of: sheer existence. But there is a consolation in knowing that other hands across the world have experienced the similar struggles. A man at Bil’in once told me, “Didn’t Martin Luther King have a dream? Why not us?” I smile at the wonderful naïveté of the cliché, but cannot help but think of the question Langston Hughes once posed, about what happens to a dream deferred.
Indeed, Dr. King’s words have never been more applicable than today, “I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” The equivalent forces that have always polarized the Palestinian image have never been more unpopular. Like in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, they too have been busy projecting images on these cave walls. But it is far too hot now to keep watching the players take turns at shadow games between the flames of empty promises. Though this prison I write from may be larger than Dr. King’s cell in Birmingham, I am reminded of the fact people do overcome. I do believe that the wind of red ochre blows within Palestine. An age has come in which making handprints on these walls has never been so alluring. The walls may rob us of our freedom, but let them remind the outside and ourselves of our own humanity.
For us, Plato’s cave is no allegory but a 63-year old reality we have endured. Darwish, Vanunu, a boy with the camel, a girl with the gun. They are all just hands, some with prints, some without. Their existence within a conversation carries a certain tension, but they are not political. The hands I speak of, the hands I have held, are not about politics. Politicians have hands too, but as Stephan Walt of Foreign Policy noted a few months ago when referring to Congress; hands may also “applaud for apartheid.” The sound of those hands applauding is amplified with Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s sentiment, when he called the Palestinians an “invented people” in early December.
Mustafa Tamimi. Bassem Abu Rahma. Jawaher Abu Rahma. These are the “invented” names that chose to protest non-violently in the past few months. American-made “non-lethal” teargas torpedoes took their lives, human hands no longer.
Let it be known that the hands of the Palestinians are open, empty, and reaching. Whether you hold onto that extended hand now or wait to shake it after all is said and done, that is your choice. Our dream is no different from that of Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, or any people who have been oppressed. Together we share the dream of justice “deferred.” Ours has been blooming in the form of non-violent resistance, and only now are you seeing the blossom. In this garden of a world that my generation will inherit, I know that I will struggle to protect that delicate bud from the weeding hands of the various gardeners we never asked for. And though I take solace in reading the literature of the oppressed, I am reminded that there are multiple fates for a dream deferred. Even blossoms are ephemeral, if they spend their lives fighting the violent heat insulated between these cave walls. Dare to look for our handprints, dare to acknowledge our humanity. For it is the only thing we have left, the only thing we really need.
Here’s to the wretched, the indigenous, the “invented” people who brought me into existence. Our emergence from this cave is inevitable. With fists unclenched, flickering suns illuminate the path to freedom.