The best thing is to ignore the parameters of discussion that are being presented to you, and to shift those parameters. . . . That is the heart of the struggle for us in the United States where the story is already framed, and they are just trying to discuss things within the parameters. What creativity does is it breaks out of these parameters and creates a new set of parameters. . . . I want to talk about a couple of pivotal moments in my life that taught me how to shift these parameters. For people who are oppressed, why is being whimsy in our actions — meaning, creating that wiggle room, when we are in a headlock, to sing our song — so important?
A few years ago, around the time of the bombings of the trains in Spain — do people remember that? It was a huge global incident, right? — I was working at the University of Maryland, and at that time, I was taking knitting classes. So one evening, I get on the platform at College Park, and I have two bags: one is my school bag and one is my knitting bag. And it was winter. I had all sorts of clothes on, I had a cap on, and I had grown this beard, purely out of neglect. I am sitting there on the platform, and the metro attendant decides to improvise her usual message of “If you see any person that is suspicious please report them to metro.” She decides to improvise that. She started by saying, “If you don’t want what happened in Spain to happen here, then report, blah blah blah,” which scared the hell out of the people on the platform. And of course, what do they settle on except the bearded Arab with the two bags, right? So I’m getting all these stares, and I do get stares usually, but this was ridiculous. Finally, the train comes and I get on the train. I always sit in the seat that faces all the other seats, and I realized that that wasn’t the thing to do on that day. So I am almost on stage, there’s nothing in front of me, it’s one of those seats, and I have these two bags in front of me. And one older lady is looking at me and she is totally sympathetic. She’s the only one in the car that knows there is something wrong with the scrutiny. She is smiling and she is trying to show her disgust with the other passengers. I am getting angrier and angrier. My instinct is to stand up and say, “You’re a bunch of racists and I know why you’re looking at me!” That’s the drive, that’s the overwhelming force. But then I thought about it — fortunately, I take yoga — I took a couple of breaths and I decided to do the last thing this audience would expect: I pulled out my knitting needles and I started knitting. And I knit for like a minute. I wasn’t even following the pattern, just like knit and purl and knit and purl and knit and purl. And then I looked up and everybody was turning around. The only person that was looking at me was the older lady and she was laughing her heart out. I had just shifted the framework. I didn’t confront them on their grounds. They’re in a completely different territory. They don’t know what to do with this, an Arab man knitting on a train. They’re lost. They have to reestablish the logic that has been pressed upon them by media and such. So that was one pivotal moment. . . .
This poem [that I wrote about a friend of our family, Mahmoud Hourani, and also his brother, Hassan Hourani, both Palestinian artists living in Lebanon] is called “Streamers,” and the quote is from Rumi and it speaks to the subject that I’m talking about today: “Beyond the realm of good and evil, a field.” I’ll read the poem:
Mahmoud, the Palestinian puppeteer writes
a one-man play about a love-struck senior
with a writer’s block who is distracted by phone
conversations with his crush across the street. He writes
a novel about a young man living peaceful and ordinary
days in the city of his exile. In Mahmoud’s tiny apartment
hang posters of his homemade star puppet next to Alberto Vargas pinups, next to a marionette that sways on its strings, with the Mediterranean breeze.
He sits with me now at the hip Barometre dipping
Armenian sausage slices in cherry sauce chasing it
with Fatoush and Arak. A puppet himself, he turns
his head in right-angle sweeps as he turns from one
diner to another. Says look at all this: our table crowded
with Palestinians, Lebanese and overlapping mezze plates.
Tells me, God . . . if there is a god . . . gave us sausage and tomatoes and Foul and radishes and mint and asses and tits and Facebook and bicycles and we still find the time to kill each other.
His brother Hasan was a painter, wielded whimsy just like Mahmoud. The lone subject of his paintings was also named Hasan and Hasan was everywhere: hovered in all his canvasses, defied gravity, defied authority, slept on rooftops, his body a hammock between two antennas; floated off the subway as it arced over the Brooklyn Bridge; cycled everywhere, long-lashes-closed, care-free, through cities, and above villages. But why, everyone who knew him would wonder, could he not defy the Mediterranean tide that took him that morning as he took a leisurely dive on a vacation day.
So, should we write about intifadas, imprisonments because of intifadas, a father taken away for a decade, a brother drowning at first dip in the Mediterranean? No, let’s do what Mahmoud does; let us write about an ordinary young man, motoring around Beirut, picking up a friend on Eid, and let’s linger on the silly details, like the fly that lands on the cuff of a gas station attendant or the type of cucumber that the driver is eating. Yes, let’s write about waking up to another curfew day, looking out on the empty streets and looking up to see a sky full of mocking kites, streamers wagging, strings tugging at delighted children that crowd Nablus’s open windows.
Here is a poem about two artists that ends with a story, an actual story that my sister-in-law told me when she was doing a summer with the International Solidarity Movement: on a curfew day in Nablus, that’s what the kids were doing. They were flying kites out of their windows, which I found was an amazing act of liberation and resistance. . . . Immediately after I finished this poem, I took a break, walked around, came back home, and was looking on my Facebook, and I see that somebody posted the following story about the children in Gaza. Basically, what I find is that the kids in Gaza had just broken the world record of flying simultaneous kites. It was 5,000 simultaneous kites flown at the same time, off the beaches of Gaza. And I found it quite compelling that the most confined children in the world, practically, were doing this act. This is the kind of creative action that completely offsets the parameters of discussion. There’s a whole different discussion happening here. . . .
Zein El-Amine is the Assistant Director of Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. This talk was given at the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C. on 16 July 2010. The text above is an edited partial transcript of his talk.