I’m silent on Palestine, at first. There’s no shortage of guilt or shame in that. Everyone who’s been involved in solidarity work knows that there are consequences for advocating publicly for the cause. People lose their jobs and get blacklisted. Others have doors slammed shut in their faces. That’s never stopped me before but, for the first time in my life, I’ve got something professionally significant to lose: my gig at a big, public museum in Toronto that’s given me a cushy, comfortable life.
Those fears are quickly vindicated. My good friend, a celebrated Sudanese anti-racism educator who breaks the silence earlier than most, is fired for her public advocacy for Palestine. A few weeks later, an award-winning Indigenous curator at a major art gallery in Ontario quietly disappears from the institution’s staff listing. An Instagram account then appears, leaking internal memos from some of the gallery’s supporters urging them to remove the curator for her public posts on Palestine. The intimation is clear. Her departure will be tied to the cardinal sin of extending the Indigenous decolonial framework that earned her so much acclaim in Canada to the Indigenous people of Palestine.
Inside, I’m a pressure cooker of self-reproach. I watch in horror as the number of civilian casualties climbs, including an inconceivable number of children. I watch in horror as Israeli officials use genocidal, dehumanizing language to describe Palestinians—calling them, amongst other things, “human animals” and the “children of darkness”—and openly state their intent to collectively punish Gaza’s civilian population by withholding food, water, and medicine. And yet, still, I can’t muster the strength to speak.
To allay my guilt, I make a point not to miss the next solidarity rally. I don’t go with the same brazen gusto I had in my younger years. My keffiyeh, purchased in 2010 when I stayed for a month in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, stays hidden in my closet where it’s lived for almost a decade, yellowed and musty from disuse, since the protests against Israel’s 2014 military incursion into Gaza that claimed over 2,000 Palestinian lives. Instead, my adornment is a black KN95 mask, which serves to obscure my identity if needed. That fear, too, will be later vindicated when the Toronto Police Services’ facial recognition van becomes a mainstay at all future solidarity rallies.
At the rally, I run into a number of old friends. One of my dearest pulls up on her bike at the periphery, the child seat for her infant son bolted to the back. In between impassioned shouts of protest slogans, we catch each other up on our lives. She’s gearing up to return to her position with the city after a year of maternity leave. She’s intrigued by my dating experiences on the apps, which I’ve just downloaded for the first time in my life. We make plans to meet again later and catch up properly. I feel a bit guilty about detracting from our stated purpose of being there, but it’s some much-needed normalcy in a moment of such extreme horror.
Directly in front of us, a bearded Muslim man holds his phone up high, facetiming the rally to his young daughter at home. Swathed cozily in blankets, she looks on with glee. His slightly older son holds on to his father’s hand and stares up at him glumly, no doubt wishing he too could be at home, playing Fortnite or Minecraft instead. I don’t begrudge him that. There are many others, older and supposedly committed to the ideal of shared humanity, who won’t even bother showing up. At least he’s there.
Though the horror is the glue binding us all together in that moment, the rally is a beautiful and empowering and rejuvenating act of community. And yet, it too isn’t enough to push me through the membrane of fear, some part of me stubbornly insisting that fear is the only thing keeping me safe.
The thing that changes comes that weekend.
Unable to sleep, I find myself, night after night, doomscrolling through Twitter. On Sunday morning, I see the post. It’s a screenshot from Queering the Map, an online platform archiving community-submitted LGBTQ2SIA+ experiences from around the world.
This particular pin is from northern Gaza submitted earlier that week: “Idk how long I will live so I just want this to be my memory here before I die. I am not going to leave my home, come what may. My biggest regret is not kissing this one guy. He died two weeks back. We had told each other how much we like each other and I was too shy to kiss last time. He died in the bombing. I think a big part of me died too. And soon I will be dead. To younus, I will kiss you in heaven.”
Though it’s only a handful of sentences and I’m sure this isn’t even its intended purpose, it does to me what most writers only wish their words could do. It breaks me wide open.
I weep uncontrollably for almost an hour. I’m heartbroken knowing that these young men had to love each other in secret to protect themselves from the same sort of conservative community that’s always forced me, an ostensibly straight man, to hide my dating life from my Muslim family. I’m heartbroken that their identity will be used to justify the violence against them and their people. A few weeks later, in an act of pinkwashing, Israeli soldiers will raise a Pride flag in Gaza for the first time and broadcast it for the world to see. And it’s well-known that despite claims they’re a bastion of safety for queer people, Israel blackmails queer Palestinians into acting as informants to keep tabs on resistance activities. I’m heartbroken wondering whether the anonymous poster did indeed join his lover in heaven or if he’s one of the lucky ones struggling to survive through escalating airstrikes and diminishing access to food and water.
But being broken open like that also releases the fear and shame that was trapped inside me. And beneath it, I start to find the words in me again. I find my voice, even in conversations where up until that moment I was too afraid or timid to challenge the easier, more prevailing narratives, no matter how skewed they are. I start writing, posting publicly, not just about Palestine, but other ongoing violence in Sudan and in Congo. There’s a thread binding all of them together, though the part of me that earlier urged me to stay silent urges me to look away from that, too. Complicity. The comforts of my life earned at their expense. Indeed, the genocide in Congo lays that undeniably bare, fuelled as it is by the rush for coltan, a material critical in the manufacturing of the phone and other devices around which so much of my life revolves.
But that’s not the only writing I’m inspired to do. That same day, I also confront my guilt about an unanswered email from a friend and mentor who passed from cancer in the interim before I could respond. I write him back knowing that he won’t see it, at least not in any material way. I thank him for his unwavering support and let him know I’ll be dedicating my next book to him when I get there. Surprisingly, his widow, who’s still monitoring the address, writes back. She lets me know she read the letter to him at his grave. Their young daughters, she tells me, loved it, especially the part where I called him a cantankerous, mean fuck.
And for the first time since the work that eventually became my collection Accretion, I write poetry again. It’s a page and a half of a longer-form piece celebrating my recent relationship and its beautiful ending. I’m so emotionally charged that I’m crying constantly as I write. The piece, I feel, is so strong that I excitedly email my editor for Accretion, asking if he’ll workshop it with me when it’s ready. They’re the first words out of me in years that seem worthy of keeping on a page.
As both an educator and a writer, I’m regularly asked for writing advice by students and mentees. Part of the answer I give is simple. We have to treat writing like a profession, developing the routines and habits necessary to sustain ourselves through the inevitable drudgery.
But that’s only partially true. Writing, and especially poetry, is like a permanently overgrown field that routine and habit won’t ever truly tame. It’s inherently wild because it’s a reflection of life and life is inherently wild. If there’s anything significant we can do to cultivate it, it’s only in choosing the type of lives we lead.
To choose to embrace suffering, whether in experiencing or witnessing it, though our fears may tell us we’re unequipped to handle that. To choose not to stay trapped within the suffocating boundaries of comfort, though our fears may tell us they’re the only thing keeping us safe. Perhaps most of all, to embrace our inherent wildness, the endless contradictions and complexities of ourselves and others, though our fears may tell us that will leave us unmoored without the ballast of simpler, easier moralities.
Only then, perhaps, can we say we’re truly alive. The words come unbidden after that.
Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, and educator. His first full-length collection Accretion (Brick Books, 2020) was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His writing has appeared in filling Station, Open Book, and The Ex-Puritan.