What You Will Do (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: NONFICTION)
In nonfiction, our winner is Jacob Newberry, for his essay “What You Will Do,” about his experiences in Israel and Palestine.
The essay, Ploughshares' Editor-in-chief, Ladette Randolph, writes, “is the story of Newberry’s own well-intentioned but misguided determination to resolve the differences between the Palestinians and Israelis (one shopping trip into Palestine at a time). It isn’t easy to acknowledge our own failures of understanding and lack of sophistication in a complex world, and yet, if some part of the work of the essay is to know oneself, Newberry has succeeded. This is a work of both beauty and humility.”
Newberry is originally from the Mississippi coast, and is currently a PhD student in creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry, at Florida State University. He recently returned from Jerusalem, where he lived for a year on a Fulbright Fellowship.
“This essay,” Newberry writes, “emerged from my naïve attempts to reconcile a whole series of complications that will probably never be solved. As a foreigner who chose to live in Jerusalem—where the conflict is difficult to ignore—I felt particularly challenged to ‘do something,’ despite being unable to determine what that might possibly be.”
Wake up while you are landing in Israel, the passengers all around you clapping. Smile when the older woman beside you clutches her purse, which you imagine holds a Bible. Be grateful that the flying is over. Take a shared taxi to Jerusalem. For a year this will be your home. Listen to Mahalia Jackson on your iPod—even though you are not religious—while you pass through the Judean hills, the city rising in the distance. She will sing “The Holy City” and it will be just as you had planned. You are a poet from Mississippi, and Jerusalem loomed throughout your vicious, strict, religious upbringing. You have been here, six years before, but entering Jerusalem will always seem important, symbolic. Go to the hostel where you will be staying until you find an apartment. You have been traveling for thirty-six hours and slept for approximately three of those, but it is 8 a.m. here. Keep yourself awake by any means necessary. You do not want to start your year with a bad sleeping schedule. Walk through the city—the warm, sunshine skies cheering you. When you are waiting for the light to change, close your eyes and begin to fall asleep. Keep walking. You will begin your year right.
Spend several weeks alone and unhappy, writing long letters to friends you love and miss. (This is one of your strange Victorian habits, writing letters by hand.) Fill them with melancholy and nostalgia; pepper them with verses from Isaiah and the Psalms, verses you learned in adolescence. Passages about Zion especially. Think often of Zion. Write of it obsessively. Assume it tires your friends, this topic, since you include something about it in every letter. Tell your friends in those long letters why it is important—report on it regularly, compare it to everything in the city. The bridge in the west, for example, which is designed to resemble David’s harp. You will look at its suspension cables and believe fleetingly that they are iron threads in some great vessel’s opening sail: you will believe that you have seen the Old Ship of Zion. Remember songs you sang as a child. When finishing these letters, sing to yourself this line: I’ve got a home in glory land that outshines the sun, and by now it will be partly true: you will have found an apartment, looking out distantly on Zion.
Settle yourself in west Jerusalem. The few friends you have are in Tel Aviv—too far from you to see regularly, though close enough to prevent the ruinous emotional collapse that seems to be lurking very near. Life will be hard. You will spend your days in almost operatic sorrow: bleak, hopeless weeping in the mornings; sudden, irrefutable exhaustion in the afternoons. Above all, you will be lonely. And on some level you will feel a centerless spiritual sickness. This will manifest as physical sickness. This will worsen your despair. Your mother will say things on the phone to you like You are protected in that city by God himself. She believes this. On days when the cold is especially bitter, she will say It must be the Lord’s preferred climate, since that city is his residence. In your weakened state you will almost forget that this is superstition.
But soon you will find friends. Your spirits will be lightened. You will be powerfully grateful. Still, the spiritual sickness will linger. You will not know its name, but you will feel it. You will love Israel on many levels and find it frustrating on many others. In this sense it will not be unlike America. But it will be an alien culture, and you will not try hard enough to love it, even though you know you should.
Go running. This is something you have loved for years. When the winds come up from Judea, when the clouds dissipate in the middle of the sky, when the cars have all passed and you have several moments of silence, you will be struck by a sensation like déjà vu; only it will not be déjà vu. With the white sun shining and your bright heart burning, you will for a moment believe that you have passed into the afterlife, that you are inhabiting already the New Jerusalem, that the Final Judgment has already come and gone. You will not be capable of verbalizing this experience except to recognize that in this moment, you are grateful you do not recall the hour of your own dying, whether it was painful or quick, whether you greeted it with determination or refused it with outrage. You will only know that you are grateful to have missed it. Then a taxi will speed through the curve without slowing, and so you will recall that you are alive. There is nothing you have missed.
On a day of particular sadness, go to Gethsemane with friends. Tell them the approximate age of the olive trees. They will not believe you. They will ask you to say it again. They will say I’m going to Google this, partly as a threat, but mostly in hopes that you know as much as you pretend, at least on this subject. After searching on their phones, you will be vindicated. You will walk toward the Catholic church at Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations; outside of it will be a sign in several languages that says Please no explanations inside the church. And so before going in, you will say to them: I guess I’ll give my explanations before we go inside the church. They will listen carefully. You know the Bible and the history of Jerusalem much better than anyone you know. They each have a guidebook but prefer hearing it from you. While you are telling them of the stone inside the church where Christ prayed that night, of the agony, of the sweat that was maybe blood, of the famed request to Let this cup pass from me, the sound of centurions coming up the valley, the appearing of Judas in the midnight world, that famous kiss, in remembrance and in naming, you will wonder why it is, after these thousands of years, we all are still the same: come to a place despite our doubts, wanting to be told again what we already know. You will be confused that they prefer your telling to simply reading about it on their own, but you will accept it for what it is: their hearts, this day, belong to you. Treat this revelation with the reverence you imagine pilgrims have for the Garden itself. It is not so common a gift.
Go to Ramallah the next day. You will have already visited, but there is much to see. You will not have trouble entering Palestine; indeed, the small bus barely slows as it passes through the checkpoint. This is standard. It will seem promising, as though things are perhaps not so difficult as you have been told. Perhaps life is less unruly in its unfolding than the journalists and analysts and politicians claim. Perhaps, you will think, by coming regularly to Palestine (this is your fifth or sixth visit in a month), you are contributing, however meagerly, to bettering life on both sides. This is foolish but will not seem so at the time. You will reason: every time you visit, you spend money, which, though it perpetuates a great many inequities and stereotypes, is nonetheless demonstrably beneficial.
Strangers in the street will be eager to give you directions when you ask; they will often walk you to your destination, no matter the distance and inconvenience, smiling though they speak no English and you speak no Arabic. When you arrive, you will smile and say the single word you have learned: Shukran. Everyone will seem to be charmed. You will befriend the bank teller, who will take you and your friends for difficult-to-pronounce desserts that resemble orange Jello but which, he assures you, in halting English, are traditional and very delicious. When your friends tell him they live in Tel Aviv, he will not respond. And this is where you will believe you have begun to make a change, however small: because now he has met someone who lives in Tel Aviv and who is kind, even though you are all Americans and not actually Israelis. You will assume this is a first for him. It will seem like a start.
You will reenact this moment in mirrored reversal the next day, back in Jerusalem, with other friends who are Israeli, whom you had invited naïvely the previous day to also come to Palestine and who had reacted with bewildered astonishment. Of course I can’t go, one of these friends had told you. I’m a Jew. This will have seemed impossibly oversimplified but will soon become axiomatic. But before it does, you will still be hoping to effect only the smallest of changes, aiming, you hope, for an achievable goal: telling stories is something that can make a difference. You will be proud of yourself for maintaining idealism without veering into naïve foolishness or neocolonialism. You are only telling stories, after all, and their effect will be small, but that (you will reason) is at the heart of why it just might work; this is how real change happens. So you will tell your Israeli friends, whom you love and who are beautiful and kind, of your day in Ramallah. We met the nicest guy, you will say. We were a bit worried to say my friends lived in Tel Aviv, but he didn’t care at all. Wait for the impact of this statement on your Israeli friends. Small changes, you will think. All they want, your friend will say, is for us to die. Disagree with this. Assume you are well traveled and erudite and sophisticated and very well informed. Say something like All they want is to live their lives in peace, just like you. Try not to be offended when the look on your friend’s face resembles a parent’s. You are good friends; there is room for disagreement without hurt feelings or dismissal. But you have been rebuffed. Even your smallest dose of optimism has been undone.
You will go to bed that night deflated and surprised by your own naïveté. Did you really think you could make an appreciable change in the world’s most celebrated conflict, in a single day, no less? Is it just as condescending and unjustifiable as it now seems, to come in from America, and after three months believe you can and should try to make a difference? But this will be the central question for you, then: what are you supposed to do, and why are you always anxious, always sick? You will think of the people you have met who have lived here for many years, all of whom seem to be terminally indifferent: there is no room, they say, for any change; everything is stagnant. You will wonder if this state of despair (if it is despair) is normal, or inevitable, or if there is another way.
Realize, then, in bed and unable to sleep, that this is the central concern: how to maintain optimism and enthusiasm despite an arraying gallery of failures. This is the heart of your spiritual sickness: your impotence versus your earnestness, both of which are compelling, along with the existential dread that is impossible to shake. You have made no difference, and you will make no difference, and in the end this is precisely what was expected. The only question is to what extent the experience will have disillusioned you. Understand, then, that there are two options (even though this is not true): foolish idealism or cynical defeatism. You are too old, you will reason, and too proud of your own sophistication and intelligence, to fall victim to the first. But you will not be old enough, not sufficiently jaded, to fall victim to the second. There should be another way. Go to sleep. It has been a long day.
Go running the next day. You will still be carrying a great many things with you. Remember how peaceful life can be, as you climb the hills outside Jerusalem, as you silence the music in your headphones when the hill crests and the mountains shine in the haze, green and resplendent. Be grateful for the dark soil that smells of home, just beside the trail. Touch it. Admire the rich brown of your stained fingers. Think of how beautiful life can sometimes be. Be grateful that at least there is beauty and tranquility and simplicity in the natural world. Be grateful, in this moment, for simplicity. When a car drives noisily past, the moment will be gone. Try to recapture it when it drives away. Say the word out loud: simplicity. And then try not to totter over as this word collapses in your mouth. There is no simplicity, no tranquility, without complication.
You are running in the prosperous western side of Jerusalem, which no Palestinians can visit. It feels like any western European city, if sunnier. You are safe to wander in the afternoons and evenings, free to do as you please. The dominant aesthetic is from the Western world, which is why you can occasionally feel at home. You will be struck just then with an unshakable feeling of complicity: with the Occupation, with the whitewashing of conflict, with the culture of triumphant militarism. But this will be too reductionist. There are so many elements, so many historical and cultural considerations that cannot be simply explained away. You will begin to feel dizzy. You will wish you were living at home again, in America, where things are simple. Life is easier there. Familiar. The web of inequities is not so far reaching. There is no systematized exploitation, no history of racial oppression. But this retreat, of course, will quickly fail. Your own privilege and wealth at home are only invisible to you. They have been all along. This recognition will make you dizzier. The layers of complicity in your life in America—with racial and economic injustice, with robber capitalism, with the blind destruction of the natural world, with militarism and empire—are so deeply folded into your life as to be unidentifiable. Close your eyes and breathe. Remind yourself to breathe again.
Run home. Your apartment is in Rehavia, a quiet neighborhood full of wealthy retirees. Since you are neither wealthy nor retired, your apartment is a dump, but it is, at least, a home. (It will continue to be your habit, as you like to say, of living in the dumpiest apartment in the nicest part of town, whatever city you are living in.) Take a shower. You deserve this. At least this is simple, you will say to yourself. Pure physicality. Hot water and a heated room and a cold drink. Your glass of ice water will look beautiful on the counter, perspiring silently in the hot room. Clear your mind. Soreness and endorphins. Relief. Simplicity.
But it will start again, even as you begin to relax: that unflagging doubt. Maybe this house was formerly occupied by Palestinians, before the Nakba. Maybe its inhabitants were forced into refugee camps in the panic of 1948. You will have no way of knowing. Maybe, even though you are of neither Jewish nor Arab ancestry, you are perpetuating a grave injustice just by living here. But this is too reductionist, again. Nothing is so simple as that. Israel is beautiful. You do not disagree with Zionism, only certain elements of its implementation. The Israelis you know are kind and friendly and endlessly interested in visiting America, which you find a continually endearing trait. And who are you to judge the implementation of Zionism? You are not an expert in geopolitical conflict, nor are you steeped in the history of the region. You are just a poet from Mississippi who has always dreamed of living near Golgotha, a twentysomething on leave from your PhD studies to write lyric sonnets recounting the songs that pilgrims sing in unison as they amble across the tiled floor near Christ’s grave. You are not a politician or an analyst or a strategist; indeed, you will sometimes spend an entire evening thinking only about the color of the city’s walls at dusk, glowing pale sienna in the failing sun, wondering if the shade was the same when Isaiah looked over Jerusalem and declared: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation. There is no need, you will say to yourself, to be so conflicted. Just find a way to be happy. Just find a way to accept the great pleasure of a hot shower.
Now turn the water off. You have been in there too long. This is wasteful, and water in this country is in short supply. In fact, some people fear a war over resources will break out soon. Do not contribute to the coming war with your wastefulness.
A few weeks later, go again to Ramallah. You will have worked out, to some extent, the location of your discontent, but you will not have determined how to quiet it. In conversations with friends, in long letters, in feverish e-mails, you will have discerned some of the rationale behind these visits to Ramallah. Always with a friend. Usually with a specific purchase in mind. Tell yourself that spending money in Palestine is actually beneficial, both to the local economy and to the morale of the people living there. Do not give in to the rather pressing counterarguments about the bleakness of consumerism as a political tool. Say to yourself what you have said in muted exasperation to your friends back home: What, am I supposed to solve the Middle East? This is not your war. These are not your people. This is not your country. Even the number of international aid workers and volunteers living and working in Ramallah will satisfy and dismay you: there are others here already, better equipped and more determined to make a difference than you, so you need not feel so superfluous. Their concern is genuine, and some of them are very effective. Others, though, seem to be here only for the mystique of living beside a conflict they have long heard about. They will be easy to recognize, talking loudly on the bus in English, no matter their country of origin, saying things like I think everyone should live in Palestine at least once in their lives. You will nod politely and they will continue. What I’m doing here just feels so vital. They will make you want to disavow any altruistic impulse, if only to avoid sounding so obnoxious. But they are young, you will say to yourself, magnanimously. They have not yet acquired your superior mix of optimism and worldliness. Take pride in your own silence and dignity.
This time, as every time, going into Ramallah will be easy. You will buy a decently constructed pair of shoes from a very nice shop run by a friendly man who remembers you and your tall, handsome friend. The shoes will say Handmade in Palestine, in English, on the hard black soles. This is not the only reason you have purchased these shoes (think: upward mobility, redistribution of wealth, joblessness), but it is a selling point. The owner of the shop knows this. His shoes are more expensive than those at most stores in the city, and each time you have come to visit, only foreigners have been browsing. Smile when you recognize the shop owner’s cleverness. Feel it warmly as a reverse exploitation, one that benefits everyone. Think of the phrases monetizing the conflict and exploiting Western liberal guilt and be proud of your erudition and sophistication. The other shoppers have probably not figured out why they want these shoes precisely, but you have. Your degree of self-awareness is admirable; it is further reason to feel proud. You will imagine then how to naturally fit into a conversation, once you have moved back to America, that these shoes were handmade in Palestine. Saying it openly would backfire, would seem boastful and indulgent, would have very much the opposite of the desired effect. You will think of ways to let it occur naturally. People sometimes ask where a person has gotten his shoes from. Someone might find them beautiful and inquire. But often they do not. What might work better is to stop one night, while walking home from a bar with friends whose approval you seek, to retie the shoes, whether needed or not. This will subtly bring attention to them, and someone might then ask Where did you get your shoes? Then you will be able to reply, quite casually, Oh, I bought these in Ramallah and await the admiration that will come as a result. If you are feeling particularly chatty, you will be able to then talk about reverse exploitation and monetizing the conflict and Western liberal guilt and consumerism as a crass but effective weapon against economic and political stagnation, and you will then have the opportunity to feel erudite and meritorious. It will make a good impression. And the shoes are also beautiful. Everyone wins.
You will think of all of this while you are handing the shopkeeper your money. Satisfaction, if not simplicity, all around.
Then it will be time to leave Ramallah. You will take a bus for four shekels to the Qalandia checkpoint, the main way to cross the Wall and head back to Jerusalem. Once—on your first visit—you stayed on the bus once you reached the checkpoint, with three friends, even though the only other people remaining on the bus were either very old or carrying a baby. When the soldiers came onto the bus to search for weapons and explosives, the four of you continued chatting amiably, until one of the soldiers asked for your passports. Two of you had forgotten them, but as you were all Americans, all young, all smiling and friendly and attractive, the soldier only said: Try to remember your passports next time. He smiled, then added: And you’re usually supposed to get off the bus and walk through the checkpoint. Since then you have tried on each occasion to make this happen again.
So, then: stay on the bus, even though almost everyone else has gotten off. This time the soldier will be a woman, and she will be unforgiving. You need to walk through the checkpoint like everyone else, she will tell you. Do not sigh audibly; this will aggravate her. Because you have waited so long to get off the bus, the line at the checkpoint now is lengthy. Stand together, the two of you, holding your newly purchased shoes in a bag that has Handmade in Palestine printed in red lettering on the side, standing near the end of the line beside an experienced crowd of mostly women. Everyone will be annoyed by the situation, but you will be especially so. Say to your friend, out of weariness and an instinct to respond to stress with humor: What good is Western privilege if we still have to wait in this line? It will seem very clever. But you will both be quite annoyed. There are friends waiting for you in Jerusalem and the process is taking a very long time. What will be worse is your knowledge that this is only the first of three levels of security before passing through to the other side of the Wall.
You will all be crowding toward a revolving door made of iron bars; they will look precisely like prison bars you have seen on TV. The bars will be painted blue. The door will be controlled by an electronic system with hydraulics that you will not pretend to understand. Above it will be a large, ominous camera and two lights, red and green. The door will be locked and thus not revolving, the red light illuminated. Far ahead of you, standing in front of what soon will be the opening, will be an old woman with a green headscarf who is holding many bags, poised to hurry through once the light turns green and the loud clamor begins as the door starts its mechanical wheeling. You will be moving closer, but the process is very slow. Only three people, on average, will make it through the door before the buzzing stops and the loud hammer of metal on metal strikes again. The red light will be illuminated. The camera will be turning quietly from side to side. You will be standing next to a woman in her early thirties. She will have her ID card out and ready, but you will not be able to make out her name. It is in Arabic, in any case, which you do not read. You will have made little progress in thirty minutes. The damp wind makes it very cold. You will resolve not to come often to Ramallah anymore.
At last you will make it through the revolving metal door. Now you will take off your coat and empty your pockets. Place your bag on the conveyor belt. Walk through the metal detector. Once the bag has been cleared, you will turn to two soldiers, who are reclining in front of glowing monitors, warm behind several impenetrable inches of glass, and show them your American passport. The people who pass through every day will raise theirs to the window, folded open already to the photo page. You, however, will make a small show of revealing the gold eagle against the deep blue of the leather cover, the elegant lettering that says United States of America. The soldiers will be happy to see this. They will pay little attention to the photo page. They will wave you through quickly then, and you will say to your friend (who has done the same as you): At least they know a good thing when they see it, and you will both laugh, take your bags, and move quickly past the old woman with the green headscarf, the one with the many bags, the one who was far ahead of you in that long-ago line behind the blue iron revolving door, whose bags are now spread out on a wide black metal table, being meticulously picked through by a teenaged soldier in a dark olive uniform, with a large machine gun on his shoulder. She will be standing several paces back from the table, her hands left limply at her sides, her eyes downcast, waiting in weariness and dejection. As you walk past her, you will stop laughing. She will not have noticed you.
There is one more layer of security: another soldier behind very thick glass. He will also see your passport and smile. Welcome to Israel, he will say to you, and you will be happy. Once through, you will turn to your friend and say That was the worst and he will agree. You will both shake your heads and imagine what the experience must be like for people who go through this every day, like the old woman with the green headscarf and the many bags. I can’t imagine, you will say to each other, quite truthfully. This comment will seem to you magnanimous and large of spirit. This consideration will allow you to disregard your unmanageable guilt, the futile wrestling over your substantial privilege, the purposelessness of your displeasure in the middle of it all. It will feel as though you deserve to exercise this privilege maybe a bit more than the kind of Americans who might go through and not empathize with the old woman with the green headscarf and the many bags. And besides, you will reason, this state of affairs was not created by you, nor can it be changed by you alone. Your awareness of it, then, will seem particularly admirable. This, again, will help to alleviate your guilt.
That night, after meeting your friends, after walking freely throughout the city, after telling them how impossible the journey back was, you will go home, and the old dread will resurface. The hard-to-define spiritual sickness. Just go to sleep, you will tell yourself. It has been a very long day.
The next day, go to Tel Aviv, where you will sit by the windy sea and write a letter filled with longing to someone you love perhaps more than anyone in the world. You write to her often. You will be deeply moved: the water, rising and falling in familiar, unhurried regularity. You will be seated on a bench and it will be windier than you like, but this brings to you the scent of salt in the air and reminds you of home. There will be families that walk by you in the early evening, joggers that rush past in the remaining sunlight, strangers that quiet their blanched mourning for a moment to watch the sea and the lingering star behind. You will all be engaged in an act of benediction: of fellowship with the natural world in its full-throated splendor. It will be miraculous.
You will be overcome by the sea: looking out while the sun declines into the waiting green field of salt and foam, this element of creation seeming to surpass the others. And there will be creatures living splendid and unaffected beside you, hurtling outward in the sweet perpetuity of their only lives. You will write in your letter, and it will feel like healing: I see a gathering of sea birds, descending in their riotous way, to one portion of the ocean’s inconstant surface, to descend, descend, into the very current of another world. You will wish then that you were one of them, that your life were so simple, every moment of it having transpired beside the sea. It will be a blessing, this wish. It will be an answer of some kind.
And so you will not allow yourself to think, just then, that only fifty miles south of you, in a place you will never be able to reach, there may be a poet on the beach in Gaza, looking out at the same transcendent sea, wishing something very similar.