The sky was burnt orange, framed by the window in Inga’s room. Our bodies were sticky from a near sleepless night and the rickety ceiling fan fed us back our own sweat. A sandstorm had settled upon Haifa, engulfing the city with a fiery fury, transforming the terrain into a smudged smattering of its usual self. I couldn’t see the ocean, the trees, or the neighboring apartments. Yet I somehow felt secure in this obscured existence, entangled and isolated with Inga.
We were cradling each others hangovers acquired from the night before roaming Masada Street, a short, serpentine road adorned in street art and aligned with eateries, thrift stores, and bookshops. Inga had decided to move to Masada for the summer and we had adopted it as a sort of getaway from academia, an artistic refuge. That night, Inga’s roommate Alex had invited us to a jam session at the hole-in-the-wall falafel shop he worked at next door to their apartment. Alex had to leave early to begin a nightshift working his second job at the minimart across the street, but that didn’t hinder the both of us, as well as our friend Angel, from staying until 3 a.m., singing and strumming and sipping on endless cups of beer.
I sat cross-legged on a blanket laid out on the sliver of sidewalk in front of the falafel shop, sharing it with my friends and some strangers who were speedily becoming my friends. After some time humming and beating along to the improvised tunes on a tambourine, I finally gained the courage to ask for the guitar and played my usual medley of covers – “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind, the intro to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” and “Landslide” capoed on the sixth fret. I watched Inga chatter and smile and wondered if things were still weird between us after my alcohol and spliff induced breakdown in Ramallah, but the jubilance and acoustics distorted my interpretation of her feelings.
My uncle was in a sort of subtle panic the night before I was set to embark on my trip to Palestine. At first I was surprised at how indifferent he was about the trip. Even knowing full well that, as an American-Israeli citizen, I was illegally traveling to Palestine, he remained awfully quiet in the car ride to his home when I told him my plan. But as soon as we arrived to the house, he began the lecture and inquisition.
“Where are you staying?”
“Area D Hostel.”
“How are you getting there?”
“Who are you going with?”
“ Inga and Angel.”
All my answers were unsatisfactory. He was confused at my lodging at Area D Hostel, since there was no “Area D” in Palestine. I tried explaining that the name was just a witticism, but he wasn’t too amused. Sheruts, he said were too risky – may as well just take taxis. But perhaps the most disconcerting information was that I would only be traveling with women from my Holocaust Studies graduate school program. I was able to assuage his worries, giving him the address and number of the hostel and promising (lying) how I’d only take taxis. Since my Inga and Angel’s womanhood were unchangeable, all I could do was ensure him that we would be responsible. He then went to the bomb shelter in the kitchen to get my cousin’s old IDF backpack for me to use.
“Hide the Tzahal patch,” he warned before seeing me off.
After catching a bus from Har Adar to Jerusalem, a sherut from there to Beit Hanina, and another sherut from there to Ramallah, we finally found our way to Area D and settled in our shared room overlooking the Jamal Abdel Nasser Mosque. As the sun set, the mosque’s greenish-yellow light glowed through the wall of windows and the summer air hummed with the clashing cadences of the city’s call to prayers. We had no plans for the evening so when one of the volunteers at the hostel asked if we wanted to join him and some friends for a night out, we said yes, packed into his car, and headed to a place called Snow Bar.
To be a patron at Snow Bar was to be removed – removed from the forms of hostility and oppression that had engulfed the region and refused to let go. The space felt nearly transcendental, with bikes dangling in the trees and low-hanging clouds of smoke encircling every table. The mismatched Christmas lights entangled in the tree branches overhead illuminated our faces and formed small halos on the base of the hookah, which we each took turns smoking.
“They’re my enemies and I’m trying to tell you it’s not their fault,” Amir, hostel employee turned host, declared hose in hand. The words drifted out of his mouth as effortlessly as the rings of smoke.
“These young soldiers, they’re 18 years old, 17 years old,” he explained. “You’re a teenager, they take you to the army – they deserve to have more experience, different experiences. They take you to the army, they give you this big machine, this weapon, tell you ‘This is your job. Those Muslims, those Arabs, they hate you! They want to kill you and throw you in the sea!’ So they make you this brainwash, then they stand at the checkpoint.”
He looked away for a moment, then came back to us.
“I would love if I get all these Israelis here and show them around. Because if I say that I’m fighting for equality and humanity, then I should care about them, too. I shouldn’t just say, ‘Oh, there’s Israelis in Palestine, we should kill them all. We should stab them all.’ Some Jewish people occupy my land, but you don’t say, ‘Ah, all Jewish people are fucked up.’ That’s not right, that’s not true. I have a problem with Zionism, not with Judaism. It doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism. The Jewish people are abused. Abused. They told them, “If you don’t have your own state, you’ll have another Holocaust...”
His perspective was merited, precise even. A few months earlier, I had interviewed my uncle for a paper I was writing about the effects of transgenerational Holocaust narratives on collective family memory and Israeli identity. So when I inquired about trauma inherited from his father – a man who spent his early twenties in and out of Romanian labor camps – my uncle bypassed introspection and instead spoke on behalf of his homeland.
“You know back in the Holocaust, nobody was able to defend the Jews. Now, when you are here in Israel you are able to defend. And we say that’s what makes us to be strong. We don’t depend on anybody. Even though America is our best friend, in the end, when it will come to some point, it won’t be with American interests, so we’re on our own. That is why we think we need to be strong, to be better than the others around us, not only military but in all the issues of life. Study, painting, economics. All of those things are coming from the Holocaust. They happened from the Holocaust.”
With my uncle’s insights, Amir’s interpretations, and the hookah’s fumes all rattling in my head, it became apparent to me that the State of Israel had been in a prolonged and ever intensifying state of PTSD from its inception and that the IDF was merely the abusive embodiment of past suffering. And here was yet another causality, a twenty-six-year-old whose homeland was under occupation, an occupation that had taken two uncles, two friends – “one of them being killed in my hands, we were together, we were playing football when they killed him” – had detained a father – “he’s still in jail since last year” – and had kidnapped a brother. And for what?
Two hours went by, maybe more. Although the amber coals were disintegrated to ash, the young orator kept taking hits. Under the table, a knotted pair of hands, my left and Inga’s right, was taking turns resting on each other’s thighs. Neither of us could let go.
It was then that someone suggested we relocate. There were a few extra people in the car this time around – a 20-year-old from Connecticut with an affinity for Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and a childhood friend of Amir’s from Hebron. The city seemed empty and enclosed on us, like a fisheye lens curving the Jerusalem stone buildings toward the car. Our destination was the third floor of an old hotel converted into apartments. The apartment, which belonged to an Australian girl and two Swedes, was both bohemian and ornate with a crooked chandelier hanging in the center of the living room and tattered upholstered sofas and chairs.
Angel, Inga, and I scooted into the back corner of an area meant to be a shuttered veranda being used as someone’s bedroom and sat on the pillow-covered floor. The room was already crowded with ten or so people and I very much doubted there would be any space for us. But Inga crouched close beside me, leaning her head and back against the bottom of a window. Amir, his friend and the Connecticut boy sat on the low-lying twin bed in front of us, cautiously robotic with their movements as to not knock over the side table lamp.
A few people started passing around spliffs and joints and after a few overlapping rotations I started getting quiet. The multilingual chatter blended with “To Pimp A Butterfly” playing on Amir’s phone and projected with a glass cup, Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics loosely hanging in our ears. I was overwhelmed by the moment and the thought of the moments that got us there. At some point Inga sensed my contemplations and shifted her body towards mine.
“Yeah. It’s just...a lot.”
I might’ve been referring to Amir’s story or the space and everybody in it. It could’ve been depression from a recent breakup and the knowledge that my adoration of Inga would always be an opaque, stunted feeling placed behind the bold shock of love given and withdrawn. Whatever the meaning, I was now open and hollow.
“You know, you surprise me.”
“You can get rough during sex. Like really rough.”
“Yeah, I just never expected that from you.”
She was lost in my words and I guess I was lost somewhere in them, too.
“Sometimes it’s too rough for me and I get flashbacks from high school. I was sexually assaulted when I was eighteen. And when you smell like cigarettes I really get reminded of him.”
I couldn’t quite gauge the look that gradually befell her face, originating in her bottom lip and rising to her eyes. Were they squinted? Widened? Averted? I wasn't looking anymore.
She must've been disturbed by the grin on my face, which didn't once subside into an expression matching the gravity of my words. And what were these words? A confession? An accusation? Were they even audible over the room’s commotion? Or were they ricocheting inside my head, slipping down my throat, and landing precariously on my tongue, only to be swallowed back up again, as they had done since that night five years ago.
After the conversation I couldn’t remember much, but I guess the night became the early morning and then, eventually, ended altogether.
My final month in Israel with Inga drifted on in a fog of pain and ecstasy. There were nights spent at Hof HaCarmel Beach dizzying ourselves dancing barefoot in the grass of an empty amphitheater overlooking the Mediterranean. There were meals had at Café HaPina – our favorite – at the end of Masada Street in near silence, the only meaningful noise the gentle clinks of Inga’s glass of red wine on the rustic wooden table and the sudden clicks of the shutter on my film camera. But, through it all, there was a voice in my head whispering and screaming sinister tales of all my shortcomings and overriding what might have been between the two of us.
After returning home to New York, hospitalizations became ritual. I had perfected the art of insanity, entering into it with overdoses and fits, yet, once there, I couldn’t find my way out. And so I remained in this state of disarray, earning myself a barrage of temporary medications and labels until two finally stuck:
1. Major Depressive Disorder
2. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So began the wondrous symptoms of PTSD, the nights of deliriously changing my sweat soaked pajamas, sometimes more than once, and the days of silently calculating and pondering which men on this subway car, in this Shake Shack, in this family were guilty, too. So began my emails to Inga, who had also returned home to Warsaw. I was in need of some sort of salvation from the onslaught of suicidal ideations infesting my mind, visions of possibility that were becoming increasingly satisfying with each passing day. I craved grounding and affection, a connection to someone with mutual love who couldn’t witness the person I had become, and, in turn, continue loving me.
At first we discussed how coursework for our masters degree was coming along. Mine, of course, had stalled indefinitely. But Inga sent me hers to read and edit and correct for any sentences that might have lost or altered meaning from Polish to English. Her essays explored the intersections of feminism and art during the Shoah, topics that, we understood, were lacking in the overall academic discourse in the field of Holocaust studies, and so we took it upon ourselves as young queer scholars to give light to it.
One might think, and reasonably so, that by immersing myself in Holocaust literature and research I was only carving deeper into depression. Yet, despite my family’s puzzlement, that was not and would never be the case. Receiving Joana’s emails at 4 a.m. sprinkled with rudimentary Instant Messenger styled <3 ’s and ;) ’s and bundles of exclamation points after sentences like “I will be forever indebted and grateful” gave me pulses of life, as did her work. “Women and the Warsaw Ghetto,” “From ‘gender issues’ to narratives of gender.” I couldn’t get enough of her voice and what it gave to the voiceless. I couldn’t get enough of her nods to Susan Sontag and Judith Butler and all the women who wrote to resist and persist, nothing more and nothing less.
On May 8th, a day after her birthday, an email arrived in my inbox titled “The sound of silence”:
How are you? How are things going? I would love to hear from you and it makes me worried to have no replies for you. I just hope everything is ok and you just have simply no time to answer all your groupies.
Almost a week later I replied:
hi love, and happy belated birthday to you! what did you do to celebrate? boy, do i miss you..
i've been having a difficult time lately -- i was in the hospital all of last week for my depression/panic attacks. when i'm like this i tend to isolate myself, which only exasperates the problem but in those moments of desperation i feel like it's best to not talk to anyone to bring people down.
i don't know about you, but i'm really struggling with my schoolwork. i've procrastinated for months thinking i have more time, but now theres only a few months left and every time i go to do my work i stop myself in my tracks because i'm flooded with negative thoughts on how i'm incapable of completing this degree.
i'm sorry for venting to you like this -- i've just been keeping a lot of this to myself. i've skipped skype sessions with my advisor the past few weeks because i feel so guilty for not accomplishing the tasks we set out together. i've got myself caught up in this awful cycle and it's up to me to stop it and start doing my work.
can you just come to the states already?!?
so much love, netti
I signed off the email with a color film photograph I had taken the previous summer from the second-story balcony of a lunch spot the first hour into our Ramallah trip. In it, the corner of the brick balcony above is blurred in the foreground, and the slim metal bars used for protection make it look like a cage. But clear and focused in the background rises a flagpole, and atop it a Palestinian flag so creaseless and pronounced that it may as well be permanently sewn into the wind. And yet the most striking feature of all is a person climbing the pole, their angular frame a blackened silhouette in the grainy white-blue sky. I could still remember that moment, my friends’ laughter muffled by the streets below, the sun touching my hands, and this triumphant figure, a statue most likely, but perhaps not. I held steady on this sight, framed by the dirt speckled, rounded rectangle viewfinder of my camera, until, eventually, the shutter covered it black and I was forced to move on.
But how could I? How could anyone? Trauma – our own and that which is transferred through touch or distance, through stories told or withheld, through actions or inactions – ripples through us like stains in sandstone, colored lines imbedded in our makeup. “Being an extreme and extended traumatic experience,” I wrote in that one completed essay, “the Holocaust carved vivid marks of maladjustment into the lives of Holocaust survivors,” and those marks continue cutting through land and time. But perhaps there might be other marks, like a photo of a Palestinian flag, or a beautiful woman sipping wine, or the sound of a C-chord floating into dawn.