Perla Issa steps out of the subway in lower Manhattan. She looks up. The towers try to scrape the sky but fall, hopelessly, short. People scatter while glass rains down from the heavens. A rush of dust and asbestos coats the living and the dead alike. Everywhere the people are rushing, mostly away from this planned disaster, seeking sanctuary. Others run into the fires. She anchors herself to a tree. She refuses to run.
Perla Issa goes to work.
Part Four: Palestine
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business
~TS Eliot, "East Coker".
Around the time the towers came down, Perla Issa learned that her father was Palestinian. She was 23, living in New York and consulting for Chase Manhattan. "I knew the word Haifa," she reminisced on the times it was spoken, always in hushed tones, during her childhood. Palestine was a secret, buried deep in an old family chest. The decision to conceal this part of the family history was deliberate, though not malicious.
In a city that has been racked with sectarian violence, this choice was quite practical. It also reflected a level of privilege that Issa now interrogates. Not everyone has the possibility to pick an identity, and in Beirut, thousands upon thousands have been killed because of a fierce adherence to particular identities. In addition to physical violence aimed at "others," there is the structural violence of poverty. These structures impose themselves in every sector of society. So, a strong school system for the privileged classes is directly related to a dysfunctional schools for the oppressed.
"My parents raised me Lebanese....they taught me that hard work and determination lead to success. I believe that. So, what I have today is the result of hard work....and discrimination."
In Lebanon being "Lebanese" is quite different than being "Palestinian." A nuance that is not lost on Issa.
On September 12, 2001, in New York, though, any and all subtleties of ethnic Arab identities had been incinerated. The US government turned the collective back of its citizens to the open-armed support from the rest of the world, and white America was isolating the new "Others." The Arabs. Issa's co-workers talked about bombing "the Arabs," and "Islamic fundamentalism," and "killing the terrorists."
"They were saying these things....and I was saying back 'You're talking about me. You're talking about my home."
Issa was studying her history. A new, and strong sense of identity was taking shape in her. In many ways, 911 made plain the importance of identity. The choices that her parents were no longer available to her. Nor were they relevant. The US was about to embark on a war agains Arab peoples that, they said, has no definitive end. No longer was sanctuary guaranteed to an Arab person, no matter how privileged she may be.
She broke away from the corporate world and determined that she would go to Palestine. No longer anchored to that Manhattan tree, Issa set her sights on the International Solidarity Movement's (ISM) 2004 campaign.
"Robert Fisk's second chapter [in Pity the Nation] is 'Palestine.' I read the names of places that have always meant fear...I got to thinking that this British man knows [my homeland] better than me."
Her parents were not happy about her decision. Having spent their lives creating safety for their daughter, they were stunned that she would leave such a comfortable life as an engineer in New York to go "there," to Palestine. Beyond that, 2003 was a deadly year for international solidarity workers in Palestine. Between March and April of that year, Israeli soldiers killed Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndal, and shot Brian Avery in the face, permanently disfiguring him.
"My parents were comfortable, and didn't need me to care for them. I could change and be the only one who had to be responsible for these changes." Issa has a remarkable depth to her insights, and complete lack of pretension.
In Palestine she would see the so-called facts on the ground. The ISM works to create new connections between peoples from disparate places. These connections are not easy to quantify, and their results are not exactly measurable. Nonetheless the work has meaning. The links that people forge create new possibilities for action. New avenues for exploration. The fruits of that labor may never be seen by the workers, something that can lead to frustration. Indeed, the progression towards justice is terribly slow.
"I still don't know what makes a difference," she says, looking out the window at the angry Mediterranean Sea. She is someone who is trying.
And for us, indeed, there is only the trying.
**Get your copy of "Chronicles of a Refugee" at Palestine Online Store.