Journal of a Chosen Grief

by Sarah 

Inspired by Mahmood Darwish’s work Journal of an Ordinary Grief. Selections in bold are taken from this edition.


I’m searching for my heart, which fell away that night.

  • January 2009, New York City 

The words that I command you today shall be in your heart.

A family holiday gathering during the bombardment of Gaza.

IDF nicknamed it “Operation Cast Lead,” like auditions for a school musical or piping at Home Depot.

A beloved relative toasts to our family’s health and happiness, and in the same breath, our safety from “the Arabs.” My face burns and I spit back a weak retort. I’m too young, a wannabe rebel with no battleground. “WHAT? How can you say that…Not all…” He mutters to the side, as if divulging a deep secret,

“I don’t care if Gaza becomes a parking lot.”

His words sear into my brain. I think of them

When I walk along the way, when I lie down and when I rise up.  

She didn’t say goodbye. And you didn’t say: Go, and come back. 

  • June 2015, Taba-Eilat Border Crossing 

“Where are you from?”

She looks skeptical. She flips through my worn American passport littered with faded stamps from countries she was taught to fear. The Israeli border guard’s blow-out is impeccable, her voice steel. She takes in my Italian-but-not name, light skin, dark hair, modest clothing. Even though this is probably the 10th time I’ve entered Israel, I can’t help but lean away from the casual, almost stylish sling of her giant AK-47. I exaggerate my American accent,

“New York.”

“Where are your parents from?” she asks.

“New York,” I answer.

I wait for the next question, the one I know is boiling behind her lovely eyes, “What is your ethnicity? What is your religion?”  She glances over at my travel buddy, a European-Egyptian friend.  She asks tiredly, “Are you traveling together? Why are you here? Who do you know in Israel? Where are you staying? How long are you staying?”

I don’t have many straight answers. They take me into a small office and provide a light afternoon snack of interrogation. I give my elevator speech bio, carefully omitting anything that might seem too activist-y. Literacy nonprofit, bookstore cashier, volunteering with a UN agency, AmeriCorps, thesis on peacebuilding. But, Shit, I swear to myself. Was mentioning “peace” too suspicious?

An hour later I cross into Eilat and close my eyes at the heavy sun, hail a taxi straight to the border with Jordan, desperate to rid my body of Israel’s sweat. There is a bright blue sign painted with doves and “PEACE” in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. I immediately compose a sardonic Instagram caption in my head – “3 countries, 1 hour. What is peace, behind wire?” I exchange pleasantries with the cute Arab driver, who flirts with me and I happily flirt back. We both shake our heads wearily and tsktsk together at the current state of affairs, but only my smile is stretched thin by guilt. I text my friend hours later, splayed out at a cheap Aqaba inn.

She had been held at the same border for eight…EIGHT hours. She’d finally made it to Eilat and had to stay the night, late for the job expecting her in Jerusalem. She held an E.U. passport, a letter of invitation on letterhead, a masters degree from an Ivy League School. She held an Arab last name, a complexion darker than mine. I never had to say to the IDF soldiers,  “I’m Jewish, you don’t have to worry.” But that’s what they wanted.  

Homeland is this alienation that preys upon you. 

  • March 2013, Manhattan. 

I’m meeting my grandma for lunch, something I should do more often. We cover the usual…weather, work, politics, online dating, real estate, family drama. I’m complaining about my mom’s anxiety when abruptly the conversation veers into the past. 

“My mother died inside way before she died outside,” my grandma is saying.  

(I know very little about my grandparents except vague snippets…Poland, Germany. Transatlantic crossings via migrant ship and military ship. Harlem, Pelham Parkway. The G.I. Bill, CUNY. A serendipitous meeting in an elevator at a Jewish ad agency. Jackson Heights, Valley Stream. Some estranged cousins in Argentina. Some alcoholic uncles.)

 “What? What do you mean?” We are standing on the stairs of my work building, about to say goodbye. I almost trip up the steps as her words pour out.

“When we got to New York, we waited out the war but it was impossible to communicate with our family back home. In those days we didn’t have reliable phones or technology, only mail and telegrams. We wrote to our old Christian neighbors in Berlin. They were starving, desperate, the city was in bombed-out ruins. Our neighbors told us they would look into what happened to our family if we sent them money for food and supplies. We scraped together a sizable sum, wired it to addresses we knew by memory. There was a few weeks of silence and then we heard the news: everyone who stayed was killed. Gone. My mother just lost it. She became a shell of herself and I had to take care of the family. That’s why when I say she died young, I mean she was long gone before she was gone.” I take a beat, not sure how to respond. It seems too specific, too dark, too ridiculous to be true. But then again, all of World War II is like an apocalyptic tale impossible to ever fully grasp. “Wow…I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” My flimsy words offer no salve. I am an inadequate buffer against the hot torrent of her past. Her eyes are glazed over when she hugs me goodbye. I hold onto her for an extra moment but I don’t think she notices.

Are we anything more than our stories? 

  • September 13th, 2001, the Bronx 

We crest a small hill and slide down the Bruckner expressway, hearts for a second in our mouths. The wheels beat out a steady bassline below us. We’re commuting to my grandma’s apartment on Rosh Hashanah, the same drive taken millions of times.  

On a clear night you can usually see the entire NYC skyline from this industrial nook of the south Bronx.  

But tonight, Manhattan is a mouth dropped open:

Two front teeth punched out:

Lonely smoke clouds the stars:

The car is suffocated in silence:

My mother’s white fingers press against the dashboard, as if by sheer will she can stop us from crossing the Triboro Bridge. Maybe if we never get there it will have never happened.  

New York City is my defibrillator – it saves me from myself, shocks wonder into my system. 

My mother’s brother had been in the World Trade Center Tuesday morning…

thank God not that day in the Twin Towers.

It had taken us hours to hear that he was safe in Jersey, had sprinted out as soon as he heard the crash (he had already been in the 1993 bombing and knew what to do). I saw more of my parents’ tears that day than in the rest of my lifetime.  

I would have killed to stop my mother from crying again.  

And what was its crime?” I asked. “It resisted us,” he answered. 

  • July 2015, Jerusalem. 

I’m having the most delicious iftar of my life on an Old City rooftop. I’m one of several guests but I immediately feel at home, leaping to follow bits and pieces of the cacophonic multilingual conversation. I embarrass myself with over-enthusiastic shukrans and photos. The group slowly floats to a circle in the corner. A smattering of ages and nationalities, all vehemently anti-occupation.  

This beautiful meal feels like the most holy form of resistance. We are as sharp, as profound, as true as the apartheid wall-turned-art canvas. 

Lamb and rice turns to watermelon and cigarettes. The conversation turns to how long the family has lived here – since the late 1940s, when they were pushed out of their ancestral home by an unkept promise of return. The conversation has mostly been in Arabic, but suddenly, “But those Jews…” I hear in English.“Jewish people cannot be trusted.” I blush, internally debating whether to disclose that I am Jewish. I keep my mouth clamped shut, a hot lump in my throat. 

  • March 19, 2003 

I have woken up every day this month with a biting nausea, dragging myself into high school but wanting to stay in bed forever. I’m exhausted from arguing with my friends, family, teachers, yelling at the TV. I attend a peace vigil with two of my friends. I heard the biggest anti-war rally on record took place in DC last week, but the media didn’t cover it.  It all feels pointless, a charade, screaming into the wind.

My sign reads WAR covered by the word INSPECTIONS, below reads: INSPECTION WORKS, WAR DOESN’T.

MAKE LOVE NOT WAR, says another.

WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR, says my favorite.

I hold a vigil candle close to my face and let the scalding wax drip onto my fingers, hoping it will leave a scar.  

“Be it a map, a massacre, a land, or an idea.” 

  • December 26, 2015, Westchester 

Another family gathering, in the thick of Trump’s noxious presidential run. I mention I had a layover in Turkey on the way back from my last trip, how lovely it was, how I’d like to return soon. My dad responds, “I have no interest in visiting there. I have no interest in THAT culture.” I roll my eyes, try to brush it off. I mock him, “What culture? Turkish culture? Ottoman Empire culture? Byzantine culture? European culture? Middle Eastern culture? Muslim culture?” He hisses, “Islam,” as if it is a four-letter word.  

  • July 2015, Nuweiba, Sinai, Egypt. 

My feet are tender, my knees ache from kneeling on a pristine beach of stone rainbows. I pore over each rock, wanting to find a perfect one to bring home as a souvenir. We’d made it to the coast in record time through the famously dangerous North Sinai desert, taking the tourist-prohibited back roads thanks to my friend’s father’s retired military friend. The Red Sea coaxed each stone smooth and fine as a lower back.  

I’ve never been that spiritual, but for the first time in my life I think I feel God.  

The following week, I’m in Jerusalem when I hear insurgents claiming allegiance to ISIS attacked one of the military checkpoints we had passed through – killed over 50 soldiers. Israel closed its borders with Egypt. 

I try to summon back God. I feel nothing but the roar of the lion’s den.  

I forgot my rock on the beach.


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