Dissected Poetry: Ten Toy Cars

This piece was originally published on Riwayya, an online art and literary journal featuring original work from artists the world over.

Ten toy cars
Are all that stand between me and reality,
Where two rooms away
Mother calls my name —
Urgently, but not urgent enough.

I clatter my orange Camaro
Into the generic blue speedster I found
At the bottom of my toy bin just last week.
Pushing air through my teeth, I hiss
The way a banged-up Camaro might sound in the aftermath of a crash.

Like many children, I grew up with an assortment of diecast cars available for any given imagination. If I wanted to simulate a modern metropolis, I knew exactly how to guide my cars through construction sites and school zones. If a volcano erupted in the nearby forest, I knew that my Jeep could handle the marsh pits better than my slick-tired Thomassima III ever could. Even though I made a living out of crashing them, I always did so gently, doing everything in my power to keep the paint from scratching. I owned many more than ten toy cars but these were the ones I couldn’t live without.

She calls my name again,
This time with force.
I neatly rearrange my cars,
Careful not to warrant an imaginary parking ticket.

Mother sits in stillness,
Illuminated by violent flashes of white and blue
Leaving imprints, like sharp razored-wrinkles,
On a face grown weary with time.
Not once does she flinch.

Few are as serious as my mother, and when she says something is important, you’d better believe that it is. In the rare occasion that she watches television, it’s to catch up on news from home that she would otherwise have to hear from her brothers and sisters. Maybe she would rather them catch up on sleep, or maybe she preferred that they not have to repeat and relive any traumatic experiences, or maybe it was because news broadcasts always showed uncut footage. But I never explored why she went to the news first.

I follow her hand as she raises the volume.
Violent sparks of white and blue flash across my own face
Where the blood begins to drain.
I look into the soulless eyes of a boy
Not much older than me.

Mother raises the volume some more.
Aside from the perfect shrill of the ambulance siren,
There is silence.
I am frozen under the collapsed wall
Of a home much like my own.

I had visited family in the Gaza Strip almost two years prior. The intifada had not yet begun but there were signs it was on its way. When it did begin, and when I was safely back in my quaint Chicago home, Muhammad Al-Durrah’s face was all I could see. Far from the protests that were erupting across the occupied territories, mama called me into the living room that afternoon and had me watch the ’round-the-clock coverage of the unfolding situation. For years, she’d do this any time there was breaking news. But on this particular day in April 2002, the news was louder and far more urgent.

“Mama, what is this?”
Still silence. The volume goes higher more.
A group of men climb the wreckage,
Digging away at it with their own bare hands.
I watch their fingers turn to red.

There is a boy under there,
Covered in little else but ruby-colored soot.
The camera pans and shows
That he is not the only one.
Someone in the scene muffles their sobs.

What made today’s coverage different from anything else was that it was still happening. Most of what I had seen before was a recap of what had happened minutes earlier. Footage of Muhammad Al-Durrah’s body slumping over his father’s, which would very quickly become one of the most recognizable shots of our time, aired after the event took place. I didn’t catch it live. But the footage from the scene of this home demolition was live, and mama wanted me to witness it with her.

It is a struggle that lasts many minutes.
There, the men dig for lost treasure.
Here, my knees begin to buckle.
Mother is still unresponsive and
I’m only now beginning to make sense of things.

A news reporter cuts in and
I catch sharp fragments of what he’s telling me.
Reconstructing the scene behind him,
I learn that we are under attack.
A family lived here once, but no longer.

Everything was beginning to crystallize and it was becoming too much to take in. This was not my first exposure to the Second Intifada, much less to Israel’s decades-long occupation. But it was the heaviest I had ever felt. The scene was filled with desperation. Neighbors grappled with enormous slabs of concrete. Between the bent metal rods were signs of a life that once was. Everything was grey. Bodies were pulled out and carried down the rubble where ambulances striped with orange waited with the doors wide open.

We are tainted by the mark of a ruthless army
Flashing its white-and-blue across our sullen faces,
Responsible for every blast and lost life.
The scene begins to register in my newest mental catalogue:
“Why we fight back.”

It all boils over and I bolt out of the room,
Kicking my wonderfully aligned cars out of the way,
The deafening shrill of the ambulance chasing me as I
Race to bury my head in the coldest pillow I have.
An unadultered rage consumes me.

I vividly remember my first encounters with Israeli soldiers, from the ones who arbitrarily refused to grant my aunt permission to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque to the one who shouted at my mother for drinking from a water fountain to the tank-riding recruits who wouldn’t let my father into the cemetery to pray over his parents’ graves. My encounters later in life, albeit limited, would be worse and far more charged, which I imagine has much to do with what came over me as I cried into my pillow that April afternoon.

I wailed, not so different in intensity
From the wailing that, for a brief moment earlier,
Masked the ambulance sounds that still ring in my head.
It was the first time I remember crying for someone else.
I was just eleven at the time.

It is hard to unsee how limp a person becomes
Despite being shielded by the hard glass of a television screen.
The urgency in my mother’s voice made sense.
Her silence, even more so.
I cried myself to sleep.

I am indebted to my mother for exposing me to reality and for teaching me to care at such a young age. Part of my frustration, I’m sure, was because I felt so helpless and caught off-guard. But mainly, seeing in real time and in such dramatic fashion the struggles that my people endure was something I could no longer simply attribute to my imagination. I could no longer pretend to have never bore witness.

This intimate exposure to the Second Intifada
Seared itself into my mind until
It became an unwanted memory,
A knee-buckling, ear-piercing, eye-flooding sensation,
I will never be able to shake off.

As for those ten toy cars,
I left their paint to chip at the bottom of the bin.
Like the orange Camaro in its most pristine,
Life is too fleeting
And there is no more time to play.

Any politically-conscious Palestinian can remember exactly where and when he or she first became acutely aware of Israel’s occupation and his or her role in putting an end to it. For many of today’s young adults, that pivotal moment happened during either the First or Second Intifada or even during Israel’s numerous invasions of the Gaza Strip. For me, it was a series of home demolitions in Jenin in 2002. It was one of my most formative experiences, one that I never anticipate forgetting. The chaos — the unsteady camera angles, the uncensored footage, the ambulances that rushed in and out of the shot — shook me to my core. It is a scene I still replay in my head, one that made me into the person I am today.

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