On Why I Support Gaza; Feel Gaza; Am Gaza

Right around this time of Ramadan in 2011, I had gone to a nearby local Arabic market to pick up fresh dates. The owner of the market, a Palestinian who was fluent in English, Spanish and Arabic, greeted me in a manner that is so familiar to me and my Cuban roots; a grandfather-like laugh that was full of things to share with this apparently young and naive stranger at his market: “You could be my granddaughter”.

While I shopped, he started to tell me stories of a month called Ramadhan. He had no idea I was Muslim, and I didn’t find a need to tell him. I just listened to him like I was used to listening to my grandparents’ stories—full of vivid imagery and memories. He told me how he came during the inception of the occupation and had settled in Miami where he married a Cuban woman and had children. He learned to speak Spanish fluently over the years, and I was further surprised by his usage of Cuban expressions and mannerisms too. He offered me a taste of the dates before I bought them, but I told him I was fasting too. He said I was the first Cuban Muslim he had ever met and ran back to get me a giant container of homemade rice and lamb. He also told me that he cooked for the local mosque every night during Ramadan and bragged that his dishes were everybody’s favorite. I wanted to pay him, but he refused and told me it was his responsibility to feed a fasting sister.

This morning, I wonder about Palestinians like him who have been fortunate enough to escape the terrible bloodshed that has occurred the past few weeks. Those who have settled in lands like the United States and replanted their roots to ensure that their children would live humble, yet safe, lives. The displaced millions. Like the Cubans in Miami, would they continue to hold on to hope and stories of days long gone? Will they show their children pictures of monuments and markets, and tell them stories of safer streets, more wholesome fruit and beautiful beaches like my parents did with me growing up? As a Cuban-American who grew up in the heart of a Cuban community in Miami, I grew up overhearing nostalgic men retelling stories of Cuba at café joints, like Versailles and La Carreta; voices talking about a day when the oppressive Castro regime would disappear; some even wishing el hijo de puta to be dead and forgotten.

Every now and then, you’ll overhear a Cuban wondering aloud of the malparido is dead or alive, but we all know that it wouldn’t make a difference because that land cannot heal overnight. As a child of Cuban immigrants, I sympathize with the Palestinian people, but I carry only a second-handed account of having a homeland raped by oppressive ideologies.

But the fight of the Cuban people and Palestinians are not the same. The Cuban people have not been systematically invalidated as human beings like the Palestinians have; we have not been wrongly branded as enemies to values like “democracy” and “freedom”. Our collective ethnicity, nationality, political affiliation and religion have not been used as tools to guarantee the rejoicing of our collective displacement and slaughter. What happens to the stories and histories of a people whose very identity and existence denies them the right to gain sympathy for their struggle and have the entire world watch while their civilians and homeland is beaten to a pulp?

It has always been in my nature and academic training to see two sides to every story; to dissect narratives for multiple perspectives and meanings, and unearth complications for the sake of avoiding reduction and simplifications. The problem is that the occupation is one of the few narratives without two sides because one side has been systematically silenced; the criticism of the actions performed by the Israeli state onto the Palestinians is nearly impossible without some sort of backlash. Today, I turned on computer to catch up with some news and there was a picture of a Palestinian father holding his daughter–same age as my own– who had part of her head blown off; the little girl’s brains dripped from her skull and I could almost hear his father’s cry. I wondered how many times that image had been seen and not felt; or worse, dismissed as just a casualty of war. This is not a war. When a man goes out to kill deer, he refers to this dynamic as a sport, a hunt or a game. Never does he refer to the imbalance of power between his armed self and his prey as a “war”. Why do we do so with the clear imbalance of arms, resources and death toll between the Palestinians and Israeli Defense Force?

A few days ago, I was asked by a relative why the Palestinian struggle was any more important than the recent deaths of the Ukranian people. The comment came after a discussion of why I had decided to start sharing alternative news about Gaza on my social media page. The response to that is that one life is no more important than another life; and there is a saying in Islam that the weight of one life is equal to that of the entire mankind. All life is sacred, and as such, a Palestinian’s victim’s life is not more important than an Israeli victim’s life. Life is life, and it must be preserved and treated in a dignified way until we return to our Creator. However, it is critical that we stop creating more distractions from what is currently happening in Gaza. The Israeli attacks began at the beginning of July, the beginning of the holy month of Ramadhan, with the claim that Hamas had kidnapped and murdered 3 Israeli boys (a claim that has now been corrected by the Israeli government itself); the attacks on the Palestinians continued while the world was distracted by the World Cup, by the 3 plane crashes and the atrocities occurring in Ukraine. For those who continue to passionately advocate for the Palestinians (even if it’s just by trying to raise awareness), it is critical that  others’ efforts to make the issue a casual one (“oh, this has been happening forever between the Arabs and Jews” or “I am tired of seeing bloodshed,” or “What’s wrong with Israel’s right to defend itself?” These moments must continue to be interrupted with awareness and education.   Allowing others to turn away, is to play a role in passively watching a country and ethnic group wiped off the map. Literally. Victims will always exist on both sides, but a neutral and polite position is no longer logical nor okay.

“Go Back to Where You Came From!”

I had heard stories. But, I never thought the day would come when someone would recommend (for lack of a better word) I go back to where I was “from”. So, I was waiting for a parking spot yesterday at the mall when a lady decides she has a right to it before me. I refused to move my car, as I had been waiting there long before she had. I can see through her window that she is yelling obscenities. She apparently gave up the fight bitterly and as she drives past me with a lowered window, she yells “You know what? Go back to where you f***ing came from!”

GASP!!!!

I wish I could tell you that I rose above the situation…that I bore my patience like any good Muslim should. But, I didn’t. I yelled back in my best English so she knew exactly where I was from. After I texted a friend to tell the story of this xenophobic woman, he said “I’m glad you are better than that”. The truth is that this time, I wasn’t. It reminds me of the monologue titled “I’m Tired” where the Muslim-American character breaks down one day and cusses someone out who attacks her in a similar way.

The crazy part is that Miami is the most diverse city in the country. Miami was built by immigrants–Cubans, Haitians, Jews, and other non-Caucasian groups! I would expect to hear such a comment in a place where “brown” people aren’t common. But in Miami? And besides, I am an American, this is my only country–so the comment was absurd to say the least. What is crazier is that I wasn’t wearing a headscarf, but instead a winter-y hat that covered my hair. I wasn’t “out-of-place” per say. It wasn’t really Islamophobia, but just plain ol’ brown-o-phobia? Did this psycho think she can carry her white privilege over my parking spot? Her invisible knapsack wasn’t welcome here and she wasn’t havin’ it.

What? I am still in shock.

I wish I had more time to remind her that the only folks who have a right to send anyone back to where they came from are the Native Americans….and they are generally still far more polite than she could ever be. But that kind of comment may have cause her to actually think. Heaven forbid I’d shake her whole universe at once.

Raw Conversations

Conchita: Have you ever heard the voice of someone who’s deaf? The voice is crude and ancient , because it has no sense of direction or place, because it doesn’t hear itself and it doesn’t know if anybody else in the world hears it. Sometimes I want to have a long conversation with you, like this. Like a deaf person. As if I couldn’t hear you or myself. But I would just talk and talk, and say everything that comes to my mind, like a shell that shouts with the voice of the sea and it doesn’t care if anybody ever hears it. That’s how I want to speak to you, and ask you things.

(Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz)

Grand Mothers

Mi abuelita. My grandmother. She was 90 when she died. You see, she was diagnosed with cancer. My mother and I were the first ones to learn she was going to die from terminal breast cancer. She was going to die because we weren’t going to tell her. We knew that if we did, she would have tried to fight for her life. At the age of 90, she would have wanted to go into chemotherapy and fight. It was in her character to fight. She was a luchadora, a fighter, her whole life. My mother and I didn’t tell her because we wanted her to spend her last days in the comfort of our home. The doctors said she would last only days. Maybe weeks. My grandmother lasted five months with cancer. She lasted five months because her spirit was that of a fighter. Of a true luchadora.

You see, it had always been in my abuela’s nature to fight. She was born in Cuba and was the eldest of 16 siblings. She had told me that she had to be a mother to them when she was only a child herself. As an older sister, she often fought with her siblings over dolls. Dolls were a luxury in her day. She would often tell me this as a reminder to take my Barbies out of my closet where I had forsaken them. As a mother to her siblings, she also had to fight for their survival. One day she told me a story that created a permanent image in my mind of my grandmother, the caretaker. She told me that at the age of 6, she would help her mother cook. She was so tiny, she said, that she would need to stand on a short ladder to reach the stove. That’s the only image I have of my grandmother’s childhood.

My grandmother came from Cuba to Miami with my grandfather and my mother in the 60s. And they left con nada menos un cambio de ropa. With nothing but a change of clothes. Everything they had was left behind. Their family photos were left in the hands of strangers. Her wedding ring was given to one of her sisters. She tried to bring love letters between her and abuelo. In the airport, a man in uniform took them from her. The man in uniform read los versos de sus corazones, the verses of their hearts, and then threw them away in the garbage. Dejamos todo, my nina. We left everything behind. My grandmother often told me this so I would appreciate the possessions I often neglected.

My grandmother’s siblings had become her children. And I could never imagine how it would feel leaving my children behind. Mi pobre abuelita. She was the anchor of her family. Her family of 20 in Cuba, and then her family of 3 en los Estados Unidos.

In los Estados Unidos, the land of opportunidades, She had to continue being a fighter. She sewed for a living. She had a special closet in her house full of Halloween costumes that she would rent during Halloween. She also altered the fine clothes of regular customers. Usually wealthy women who would pay her a couple of dollars for a hem. But she always made enough money to buy new furniture and pay the rent. She even put a down payment towards my car. She charged five dollars for a hem. Could you just imagine how many clients she had? Could you imagine how quickly her hands worked on the sewing machine to earn another dollar?

My mother told me that abuela never grew tired of sewing. When she didn’t have customers, she would make a pillowcase out of the extra silk a client had left behind. Or she would fasten loose buttons on our clothes.

She always emphasized the importance of wearing good clothing. The family must always be dressed decentemente y presentable para visita. That’s what she taught me. She always expected company. She usually didn’t have much company other than her clients who would come and leave without a word.

Even on that unforgettable February when she was on her death bed, she insisted that we’d remove the rather offensive and imprudent backless patient’s gown. She insisted on looking presentable in case we would have visitors. As always, she didn’t have many visitors. Just my uncle, my brother, my mother and father. But as she began to lose her memory, her family became visita. We became strangers, so she nagged her nurses to dress her in her blusa rosada.

Oftentimes, when sitting in some women’s studies courses as an undergrad, my blood would boil when someone would raise their hand to make a degrading comment about the role of motherhood. I remember the ones wo called themselves “feminists” and claimed to be “liberated”. All usually wearing heavy makeup ad exposing their breasts (to emphasize their freedom). They all liked to say something like, “Domesticity! So oppressive!”   I have never accepted the rejection of motherhood as a feminist ideal. I cannot think of anyone stronger that my mother and grandmother. They both have held the world on their shoulders as wives and mothers.  While I am not a mother yet, I have never felt more empowered in my whole life as I do as a Muslim. And I was never what you’d consider “sheltered”. Gracias a Dios. Al hamd’allah. All Praises be to Allah.

My abuela was a mother. A wife. A seamstress. A cook. She took care of those around her, even stranger, as if they were her children. She took care of her husband in his deathbed; never left his side. She sewed new clothes for her family when there was not the money to buy new ones, because we had to be decente for company. She created feasts every night for dinner. Indeed, she was “domestic” and her “domesticity” stabilized us.

Originally written on February 19th, 2010