Gridlocks of Death, Oceans of Life

Dear world,

This letter is a reclamation. It is a prayer to the universe. It is a plea for you to bear witness.

Often, writing demands to be lyrical, poetic, and beautiful. Even when we write about our struggles, there is an expectation that we write with an inspirational arc—I struggled, and I suffered, but look how I came out on the other side. Or I struggled, and I suffered, but look how beautifully I can write about it; look at how I can knit these words together to form prose that moves you, prose that makes you ache, prose that makes you wonder in awe at the marvels of self-expression. Not for this piece though. For this piece, just honesty and raw exhaustion, however that may be taken.

Where do I begin? Do I tell you how myself and my Arab friends feel that our perception of humanity may be forever altered? Should I tell you about the bottomless oceans of pain I feel seeing Palestinian corpses every day? That I feel utterly depleted and completely spent through, profoundly disconnected from myself, my body, and any ability to feel joy or peace?

During the day, my subconscious is punctuated by images, sounds, desperate pleas and moans of the dying. Thirty-nine premature babies greeting death. Ventilators turned off by the occupying power, a silent violence. Two sweet boys under rubble. One with a face so gentle, a hand so soft, a baby blue jumper stained with blood. The other, buried from sight, save for a little hand, no bigger than my younger cousin’s, protruding from the rubble, tenderly holding the body of his brother. They were caught in an embrace when death came to visit. I think of these boys and the floodgates open. I weep until my eyes are swollen; I heave until my throat is coarse and paper dry. I rub lavender oil onto the back of my neck, my temples, my wrists, hoping to quiet my anxiety. I try to sleep, but harrowing images bleed into my subconsciousness. I dream of being chased by soldiers in a sterile white building, unable to escape. I hiss, and I toss, and I turn. I awaken. It is 3 a.m. I sigh, try to get back to sleep—the nightmares follow. I am awake again. I check my phone and it is 10 a.m. Already, two hundred notifications from five Palestine organizing groups. So many tasks, demands, requests, questions, problems to deal with. I turn around and throw my face into the cool softness of my pillow, wishing this nightmare would end.

The days grow darker faster and the horrors of the world start to sink in deeper. Stormy skies close in all around. A heaviness I am all too familiar with—but have fought off for years—lodges itself right inside, making a home out of my body. I walk around with an unusual guardedness, checking twice before I cross the street. I carry bricks of heaviness on my chest.

This wringing dread, this pinching grief, he is a forced companion who latches and follows.

He climbs with me into bed, where I slump my aching body, wishing for some stillness and rest.

He follows me to the bathroom, where I meet my tired face and sunken eyes each morning.

He trails onto the bus, where I hastily plug in my earphones, drowning him out with music.

He grows in solitude, defiant and stubborn. A foreboding presence, so tangible that if I reached within, I could grip him with my fingers and wrench his fleshy claws out of me.

Dear world, help me loosen the cords of despair that wrap themselves around my body like a snake, starved and ready to devour.

Dear world, help me wade in these waters; do not let me drown.

Dear silent westerner,

Perfume doesn’t cover the stench of complicity.

Do you know what it is like to see bodies just like yours blown to pieces? To bear witness to how truly fragile the human body is, to grapple with Brown mortality? To see Brown flesh melt into liquid clothes?

In the story of Genesis, God creates man from dust on the ground, breathing life through his nostrils. In the Quran, God tells his angels, I molded man from sounding clay and breathed into him my spirit. I find that beautiful.

I like to think we are part of a larger, interconnected web of humanity. For all of our differences, still, much remains the same. I believe there is something sacred about life, and I hope you do, too.

You and I are fleshy vessels, animated by the breath of life—constellations of atoms, layers of bone, meat, and musical pulse. Our hearts, they are the same: four chambers, valves, walls, intricate networks of blood vessels. With every rhythmic beat that pulsates through us, life! Blood flowing like the twigs of a tree. Our blood so kind as to nourish every cell, approximately 37 trillion of them.

You and I, we weep the same, we grieve the same, we fear the same, and we ache the same. So what makes your life more important than mine? Your children more sacred?

I have been forced to conclude that you and I are not born of the same cloth. If a shared humanity is what connects us, then you have failed me. Because you watch my kin get slaughtered in the masses. Pin-drop silence.

My friend, Yahya, is half Palestinian, half Iraqi. He tells his Canadian friends who’ve chosen silence, “you have deeply cut me.”

Why do you look away? Why have you chosen to spin yourself into an impervious cocoon of ignorance? Why do you wash your hands of the crimes of your governments? In your silence, these crimes rot and fester.

Silence feeds oppression. It whispers to it, you can go on with my complicity; go on with my consent. You can rely on me not to make a sound. But as you hold your breath, in the background of your hushed and spikey silence, clusters of bombs rain down on children. White phosphorous sizzles through muscle and flesh. The geography of Gaza is meticulously annihilated. Her land methodically and surgically carved into 2,300 tiny blocks. The army requests her citizens identify their block number or face certain death; lives are reduced to numbers, land to gridlocks of death. Bodies are bundled into mass graves. Forty-five families lost—entire lineages, exterminated.

“There comes a time where silence is betrayal,” said the late MLK.

Your silence is insolent, your silence is audacious. Your ignorance is a muzzle wrapped in barbed wire. It strangles and suffocates.

I borrow from Adriana Cavarero when I argue that the current language of war does not allow us to fully confront the unimaginable loss of life we are witnessing—dispassionate, detached language fails to encapsulate the grisly details of death. The glamorized weapons of western “progress” result in the utter pulverization of the human body—these weapons do not just kill but also mutilate and decimate—splintering bone, shredding flesh and organs, reducing humans to chunks of meat, leaving the precious body “unrecognizable as a human body, erasing all traces of the victim’s singularity” (Gregory 952).

With the apathetic touch of a button, fired by a remotely located military man, Palestinian bodies are undone. “Blown apart, torn to pieces,” the body “loses its individuality”; “the violence that dismembers it offends the ontological dignity that the human figure possesses and renders it unwatchable” (Cavarero 9).

Our bodies make us uniquely human, and I fear that our society has not yet reckoned with what it means, on a psychological level, to witness masses of Arab and Muslim bodies utterly disfigured and dismembered. Nor have we confronted the psychological stain it leaves on those of us who share close bonds of kinship with these people and know all too well they could be us. Being forced to contend with these gruesome questions is part of our latent dehumanization.

But to me, it seems the silent, complicit westerner doesn’t care about any of that—they will concoct sensationalist tales of forty beheaded babies but won’t move a muscle, their consciousness unswayed, when Palestinian children are killed en masse. Sometimes I wonder, do they think a baby’s head miraculously stays tethered to their small body when their home is bombed?

And to the wide-eyed environmentalists: why are dead trees more important to you than dead humans? Do you not see that colonization was the original sin, the father of the anthropocene? That humans and nature are part and parcel of the same ecosystem? Who do you think toils for the land? Do you not think the olive trees heave when the blood of their caretakers is spilt onto fields and melds with the soil?

To the Instagram posters who do not dare disrupt the silence of their circles: do you recognize that justice is not an aesthetic, that your responsibility extends beyond posting, that you must have conversations with your communities, must reach out to your mute and problematic friends and family members?

Do you understand that activism isn’t always easy; that it demands our resilience? Do you remind yourself that transient discomfort arising from challenging conversations with loved ones cannot be more important than shattering the bubble of collective complicity that smothers Palestinian life and endangers those organizing on the front lines? Is your activism a cloak that you put on and take off, or is it a steadfast commitment to pursuing justice in the long haul?

To supposedly progressive and Zionist Jews: how do you reconcile judging what makes you uncomfortable as violent and unsafe but deeming the bombs raining down on children necessary and deserved? Do you not see the racism inherent in declaring Palestinian vitality to be your ruin? 

Over the years, I have known white people who have expressed discontent at my supposed “moralizing”—begin a sentence with an affirmation of our moral obligations to one another and they’ll scorn. They hate to be incriminated in these moral truths because they fear the implications—that they are not doing enough, that they are complicit. But I am long past the point in my life where I had an interest in making these truths digestible to white people. I refuse to couch every sentence about the obligations of apolitical white folks with disclaimers intended to placate and temper fragile egos.

If you care about life, it should disturb you that our political system allocates different valuations of life based on race. Globally, Indigenous, Black, and Brown lives are not accorded the same respect, reverence, or dignity as their white counterparts. The brutalization of BIPOC bodies does not evoke the same rage, sympathy, or outpouring of worldwide condemnations.

In a post-9/11 world, Arabs and Muslims are vilified and criminalized. I instinctively knew this long before I could analyze and name it. I remember being nine and arguing with Islamophobes in Facebook comment sections. I had changed my profile picture to a stock image of a white girl and made my name less Muslim sounding. Guarded by whiteness, I embarked on what I thought was an honorable mission to defend my people against the world’s bigotry—at nine, that looked like entertaining idiots on Facebook.

I recall being seven, one of few Muslim kids at my school in Glasgow, Scotland. Although my experiences were mostly positive, I remember the perplexity that engulfed my body as I tried to make sense of the anger that my Israeli classmate’s mum reserved for me on a school trip. I remember the unbridled rage of a friend’s white neighbor, as she scolded me for no fault of my own.

As I grew, I developed a more political understanding of our collective vilification and dehumanization. I spent many hours poring over heart-wrenching testimonies of brutalization in the Iraq War. Images from Abu Ghraib prison became etched into my memory. The words of an American soldier who, when asked how he could possess such contempt for his Iraqi victims, removing their body parts to keep as souvenirs, replied that it was as simple as taking the antlers off a deer. That’s what we are to them: animals, even less. The words of Zubair, a thirteen-year-old Pakistani boy, who now fears blue skies. When the skies are gray, the drones go away, but when the skies turn blue, the drones hover, and the fear returns. Or the words of Haji Bismillah, an Afghan villager, who, in the aftermath of a US airstrike that killed nine children playing in the mountains, found his son’s head missing. He only recognized him by his clothes.

These stories and political moments seared into me an awareness of our collective dehumanization like hot coal sweltering through bare skin. But now more than ever, I feel the mighty weight of our dehumanization on an atomic level. I cannot stop thinking of Gaza. Gaza with her beautiful, smiling children. Gaza with her people who defy all odds. Gaza, where 2.2 million are trapped and besieged in an open-air prison. Gaza, where a kid aged five has already known wars. Gaza, where the average age of a slain child is five.

When the world said “never again,” how come it never encompassed us?

Yet, in the midst of all of this, I hear about your discomfort. I need to cater to your mental health because you’re tired of your newsfeed being negative.

Do not tell me that the mourning of my own makes you uncomfortable.

Western society’s conception of well-being can be ruggedly individualistic, catering to privilege and whiteness. Turn away, focus on yourself, cut them off, and, my personal favorite, you don’t owe anyone anything. Self-care, yoga, one-on-one therapy sessions, and dazzling walks in nature—that is all you need. But this is not so much a wellness guide as it is the perfect recipe for disconnect, self-indulgence, and complicity. I would almost understand it if I didn’t think it a flimsy excuse, so paper-thin and deeply unsatisfying in the wake of a genocide. How do you not see that we are bound up in one another?

I agree with Martin Luther King. I, too, “must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.” King writes, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

We often joke about the carefree and somewhat hippie-ish lifestyles some privileged white folks lead, utterly care-free and out of touch with political realities. Yet, we don’t pause enough to think of how their carefree existence is sustained. Willful ignorance serves as its primary fuel, a habitual turning away from sour realities and uncomfortable truths. This ignorance neglects the suffering of fellow human beings simply because they don’t immediately impact us.

But our humanity is relational–it is communal, mutual, and interdependent. I believe there is something sinister about a world that tells us that in the face of the other’s travesty, we should close our eyes. One that convinces us that it is best not to concern ourselves with the fates of those who feel geographically distant, even while our governments fund their massacres. Ask yourself, who benefits from your silence? What if our conception of wellness was relational, more collective? In the words of Gwendolyn Brooks, “we are each other’s harvest: we are each other’s business: we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” Being human means attending to our shared humanity, not neglecting it. To be apolitical in a world where lives are decimated daily by politics is to be complicit.

So, shake yourself out of your phantom numbness; do not blunt yourself to the pain of your fellow humans. Cole Arthur Riley, creator of Black Liturgies, reminds us:

don’t rush to escape the dissonance. You can bear witness to pain without being consumed by it. Lament is sacred. Grief is an honouring.

If you find these horrors uncomfortable, then do not bury your head in sand. Do not run away from that feeling. It is a mark of your humanity. If these horrors are trespassing on your lullabies of quiet, lend a tender hand to those of us whose relation to these tragedies extends far beyond discomfort and into the murky territories of mourning and grief.

Do not make peace with brutality, my friend.

Dear body,

I am sorry for how I have treated you. I promise to do better; I promise to take care of you.

I have always been quite obsessive when it comes to activism and organizing. At the moment, it feels like I am standing in a field of landmines and I have to, at any given moment, predict which ones will set off first–for every educational event we put out, for every banner drop stating the truth, for every post raising awareness, always a response. Lawsuits, intimidation, police officers, defamation, campus guards who won’t hesitate to put their hands on our bodies. Part of what makes me effective at organizing is that in the face of pressure from multiple angles, I am good at strategizing. But that also means I am constantly caught in an unrelenting flurry of thinking, planning, fighting, responding. Which perhaps wouldn’t be an issue if I knew how to turn it off, but I profess I haven’t figured the recipe for disconnect quite yet. When every waking moment is spent thinking and feeling not just the weight of the genocide and the mounting number of dead Palestinians but also fending off attacks for organizing and amplifying the voices of Palestinians, it all gets too heavy.

One time, I was talking to a dear friend, Vale, about how overwhelmed I felt by all the horror in the world. I told her I felt miserable, and that I was at a point in my life where I believed that mankind was mostly unkind. Vale gave a litany of wise advice, and she told me to remember my inherent worth. Her words propelled me to think of how, for so long, I have treated myself as a means to an end—I believe the world is unjust and if I have to burn myself out to make it a better place, I will. When people advise me to take care of myself, it often falls on deaf ears. Without realizing it, I had conditioned myself to think of my body as a vessel with no rights of its own—a fleshy one with funny-shaped organs and blood coursing through, but a vessel nevertheless.

When I professed this dilemma to my therapist, Lena, she guided me through a somatic exercise.

“Close your eyes,” she asked gently. I did.

Lena instructed me to direct my own words to my body: “you are a means to an end.”

“How does your body feel?” she asked.

“Disrespected,” I blurted.

“Disrespected,” she repeated. But then the cynical voice in my head sprung up (it often does)—do our bodies have rights over us? (They do.)

Racism is one of many forces that disconnect us from our being. To be viscerally in tune with one’s body is often a privilege denied to those who lead inherently politicized lives. As Arthur Riley puts it:

We have found ourselves too busy for beauty. We spin our bodies into chaos with the habits and expectations of the dominant culture, giving and doing and working. Do not blame yourself for the buzzing terror in the back of your mind; it was injected there at the site of our ancestors’ enslavement. It takes work to undo that, especially when the oppressor still holds the whip today. (38)

Her words were the affirmation I needed. I feel as though I cannot find time to center myself when there are burning realities all around. To focus on my body and its needs feels like an indulgence not afforded to many in the world. But I have to resist that stifling feeling.

Racism exerts a trauma onto the body. We would be wise to remind ourselves that racism “is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth…You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body” (Riley  64).

Because of this, part of resisting our collective dehumanization is resisting the alienation it causes within—the disconnect it forces between our minds and bodies. Arthur Riley reminds us to grieve with our bodies. “We cannot get free disembodied,” she writes (64).

Repeat with me this adage:

I walk the path and whisper to myself, You are no shell. I make the pilgrimage into my deepest sorrows, knowing tragedy doesn’t own me. Your wails are worthy to be heard. Journey to the center with me now; together, we won’t get lost in despair. Your wails are worthy to be heard. (Riley 106)

To honor your body, you must also honor the emotions that dwell within—  so, remember, your anger is sacred. Remember, you do not need to mince your words to appease  western audiences. Remember, resistance looks like taking care of yourself and your body, too.

Easier said than done, trust me, I should know, but so wholly important.

Dear body, (I promise to try to remember).

Dear world,  

I think I forgot to say something. I can’t tell you about all of the pain without telling you about the love.

My community holds me tight; she soothes and consoles me.

My community reminds me, every day, that love, grief, and joy can and do co-exist.

My community keeps me together when I feel torn apart at the seams. She envelops me in love and dazzling curtains of light.

My co-organizers’ gentle offerings to cook in bulk and leave meals in the office. (On some days, I found myself working such long hours that before I knew it, the sky had darkened, it was 6 p.m., my mouth was dry, my stomach empty.)

My Palestinian friends, Yasmin, Amira, Joud, who tell me they are “forever proud” of me. Little do they know how much that means to me.

Aleena instinctively stepping in to protect me when an officer aggressively moved towards me.

Vale, Phoebe, and I’s rituals: I cook, we smoke, we eat with an appetite like we have never had food before.

Paige’s tenderly assembled care package.

Tala,  whose friendship reminds me of all the exciting parts of life.

Yasmina’s pretty little sketchbook, her delightful laugh and endless encouragement to lean into creativity.

Sabrina and I, huddled among trees. The air is chilly but our friendship keeps me warm. I share with her the Arabic music that made me me—the nostalgic embrace of Cairokee and Mashrou Leila warms the air. I kiss the bark of a tree.

Ale, Mar, and Jo mulling in secret, plotting to make my birthday ever so memorable.

Everyday expressions of love and care.

To my dearest community,

Thank you for witnessing, thank you for holding.

Mariam Abdelaziz

Mariam Abdelaziz is an Egyptian-born activist, organizer, and writer based in Vancouver, BC. She recently completed a BA at the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a major in human geography and a minor in political science. For the past two years, Mariam served as the chair of the UBC Social Justice Centre, and she has been organizing with Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights since 2019. Mariam founded and led the 2022 Divestment Coalition, leading to the first successful passing of a BDS motion at the UBC student union. Mariam's research interests include shedding light on overlooked subjectivities and narratives from the Middle East and exploring transnational, decolonial movements for justice and liberation. Passionate about organizing and writing, Mariam aims to blend the personal, political, and academic in her work, hoping to inspire people to move beyond complacency. She can be reached at mariam.wa.abd [at]