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 part 2 in a series of essays he wrote about his time there.
I’ve had much reason lately to think of serendipity and its opposite.
At work, I presently research and compile updates on Palestinian political prisoners detained in Israeli jails.
Many of these men and women are jailed for alleged affiliation with illegal organizations, a cruel irony as every prominent Palestinian political party has been designated an illegal organization. The arrests often take place at night with armed soldiers bursting into a home while the family sleeps, waking the parents, in some cases collecting a child who had been throwing stones at jeeps and armed soldiers that afternoon, questioning the family, demanding certain articles like phones or the addresses of friends in the area, before leaving, often with the living room or the house’s entire interior in disarray. For those that remain, the memory of the experience is quick like lightning, the ringing in their ears like thunder.
I’ve expressed earlier how serendipitous it is that I’ve wound up here, particularly at this point in my life. To think that I’d almost not made it alive to this point elicits quite a bit of head-shaking on my part. I’m left asking the question, “why me?”
Earlier today, I spent the early evening after work with a friend I’m currently living with and we talked, among other things, about the two worlds we straddled, the blue-collared, static existence of cops and addicts and landscapers and public school teachers (all of them friends or acquaintances) and the ivory-towered, kinetic existence of philosophy discussions, unparalleled ambition and stamps in a passport.
I told her of a good buddy of mine, a neighbor from back home, with whom I often drank when I was home a lifetime ago in Newington, Connecticut. We drank at this sports bar on the Berlin Turnpike called Maguire’s. The building had half a car sticking out of its side, near its roof. It was that kind of place. But this close friend of mine was always a joy to spend time with, especially after months and months of manufactured, carefully curated portrayals of self at college. I could be honest with him. My whole self. And I remember confessing to him one time a desire to come back home when everything ended, not sure what that everything was. Maybe I’d be a teacher or learn how to work with my hands and landscape. He told me that if I came back after all the shit I’d gone out and done alongside some of the most brilliant kids in the country, he’d kill me. I chuckled as I told my flatmate the story of my buddy and me, and she nodded in acknowledgement.
She knew what I meant in that moment and in telling her that story. That serendipity had given me too much, perhaps arbitrarily, for me not to do anything with it. Maybe my future is as a landscaper or does entail some return to home (I would dearly appreciate that), but what was missing before and what is perhaps present now is the knowledge/wisdom/wish that that return would be leavened by the experiences I’ve had and not exist in revenge against them.
Apophenia is what William Gibson called it in Pattern Recognition, our predilection for detecting patterns where they may not exist. The detentions, arbitrary as they may seem, are part and parcel of a larger plan, an attempt at eradicating a social and communal enterprise, of removing the pillars, stone by stone, from the ragged temple maintained by a frustrated, sometimes tormenting, often tormented, occupied people. And maybe the things I’ve been blessed with are part of a similarly-scoped, though benevolent, design. I believe this sometimes, that the universe is ordered out of love for me. For us.
Getting older has softened the urge to question and pick apart the gifts I’ve been given.
The streets in Ramallah are without order. Utterly and completely. Town squares are actually roundabouts. There are no dividing lines painted along the curved, pot-holed boulevards. Cars often speed in opposite directions on a street meant for one vehicle. And only three-quarters of those streets are even named. On our way, earlier in the evening, to find the flat we’d finally settled on, we drove around several neighborhoods, lost and exasperated, desperate to find a place that had been easy enough to locate in broad daylight.
But the city has its rhythms. Bio-tempi. Swells and lulls that those who have lived here long enough need not even try to detect.
I learned at some point last year that tragedy is not always crippling and joy is not all-encompassing. Sometimes lightning only looks like lightning, and perhaps what sounds like thunder is not always thunder.
Maybe this place is arbitrary. Maybe the whole situation here is riddled with uncertainty. Maybe it isn’t.
Maybe none of it is, arranged instead out of some confounding, beguiling, unreasonable love for us.