Tochi Onyebuchi, CLS ’15, received a summer grant from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Internship Program and spent ten weeks, during the summer of 2013, in the West Bank. He worked with a prisoners’ rights organization based out of Ramallah as efforts to revive peace talks had reached their highest pitch.
This is one in a series of essays he wrote about his time there.
The day before I left New York, one of my best friends came to visit. She was in for a tattoo convention. After dinner, she gave me an excuse to go out to the water by my apartment. We were in Morningside Heights, crossing into Harlem, and lights made a path out onto the river. It was windy enough for jackets, but just so.
The benches were empty, except where a few couples necked, and we ambled, then sat and reminisced, then ambled some more and she pointed to the lights across the water. “What’s that?” she asked. I couldn’t tell her.
We joked and told stories each of us already knew, and she pointed to a nearby bridge, asking what that was. I hazarded a few guesses (RFK, George Washington) when in reality, I had no idea. To make up for it, I pointed out the ice skating rink and the park for children a ways up the path towards the 160s. And we walked back and I told her of all the familiar haunts, all the places I went to for dinner during finals (Peking Garden, McDonalds, Subway). But I felt more than a little bit of shame at not being able to name any of the parts of my neighborhood towards which she had inclined her head.
Earlier today, on the ride from the Airport Hotel in Jordan past Amman towards the King Hussein Bridge, I watched the orchards breeze by and could not name what grew on them. Then came the shrubbery that dotted the vanilla-colored hills. I couldn’t name that either. Nor did I know what the hills were when they grew into mountains that flanked our coiled snake’s path through the countryside. There were goats and goat herders and colorful trucks with Toyota emblazoned on the back. There were plainclothes policemen perched by the cliff’s edge, tractors on the road and drivers chancing a break past them at their own peril.
The Jordanian security stop was a quiet wait, and the bus ride across the bridge, which seemed much smaller for how much I’d built it up in my head, was uneventful. And when the Star of David replaced the Jordanian flags, I was still in the same unaffected daze that had afflicted me ever since Heathrow. A daze punctured briefly during that flight from London to Amman when the screen on my travel map lit up with the label ‘Palestinian Territories’ as we flew over the West Bank.
Entry into Israel was not the harrowed affair I’d expected it to be.
I’d carried my ignorance with me, though, as I could not name the hilly landscape past the Israeli border, a repaired image on the other side of the fractured mirror that had Jordan in the rear view.
Signs aided me; or, at least, the English subtitles to the Hebrew script. And by the time I made it to Damascus Gate, things had settled, and I retired to a café on Salah Din Street where my ride, accompanied by a close friend, picked me up some time later.
Much of the day after that was filled with him driving us around, naming the different neighborhoods as we passed through them, indicating with an inclined head the tower that the Palestinian Legislative Council had not used since 2006, the various office buildings where we would be working, and the best places for coffee and shisha and ice cream.
At one spot, our car perched on a slope. We looked out over the vast undulating hills in the distance and the houses and apartment buildings embedded in them. Silhouetted against the gray-gold firmament was a massive crucifix. I squinted and it turned out to be a crane.
Before coming here, I’d ceded much mental real estate over to the issue of what to call this place when I would arrive. The King Hussein Bridge to the Jordanians is the Allenby Bridge to the Israelis. The West Bank is part of the Territories, the Occupied Territories, the Palestinian Territories, or Israel, depending on whom you’re conversing/arguing/joking with. What things were called, in my head, seemed of great importance and here I was, unable, through my own ignorance, to name the very things in my own backyard.
At the same time, whether you call it shisha or argileh has no bearing on how good that bit of vertigo from the first hit feels. And whether the sun gilds the underbelly of cirrus clouds over mountains you can name or mountains you cannot does not make the sight any less reaffirming.
The children hanging off the rusted wreckage of a broken car because there are no public parks here do not disappear or self-destruct because you don’t know what to call those children (shebab? gamin?) or what you would name a park that doesn’t exist.
So perhaps it does not matter, this inability to name things. Guilt, coils in my belly like that mountainside road winding towards the Bridge, whispering to me that it is otherwise.