By Christine Schmidt
I knew that Mrs. Daoud was Palestinian Bedouin and her husband identified as a Jordanian. They were living in their Brooklyn house when I moved next door in 1984. They welcomed me as their new neighbor.
We practically raised our children together. Mrs. Daoud had eight and I had three. Our children ran between our houses, playing on the swings in my back yards or riding bikes on the sidewalks out front. They played, laughed, teased and generally really liked each other. In good weather, Mrs. Daoud always sat on the patio out front. She was the matron of our block. As soon as she saw me she would motion for me to come visit and watch our children together. For hours. Tea with fresh mint and pastries or my homemade banana bread. She spoke a few English phrases and I spoke a few Arabic phrases. Occasionally, her children interpreted our conversations; at other times our gestures sufficed. Mrs. Daoud taught me how to embroider. She worked elaborate stitches on pieces of velvet cloth; I showed her how to knit. When the grape leaves from her backyard arbor matured, she taught me how make warak dawalie – grape leaves stuffed with fragrant rice and lamb. Sometimes other Palestinian women came by and all our hands worked together. Twice, afterwards, we all went into her backyard where women played on derbekkehs and we clapped and danced together.
The September 2001 weather was lovely. When planes crashed into the World Trade Center, I watched from the roof of my house as they burned and blue skies dimmed with falling ash. For days, bits of charred paper rained on to our block and the pungent burning smell pervaded our neighborhood.
We have a large Palestinian community in downtown Brooklyn. In the days following the attack, as the clinical supervisor for local public schools, I was charged with helping school personnel manage their own fears so that they could respond to children’s fears about safety. I intervened when an Islamophobic principal told his faculty that any schoolyard gatherings of Palestinian women in traditional garb should be reported immediately to the police. Challenging that sort of blatant racism absorbed my days at work. I felt angry and deeply saddened.
That month, Mrs. Daoud didn’t sit outside in her normal block-watching guardianship and her children didn’t play on the sidewalk. After missing her for a week, I knocked on her door. She sat inside, crying, shaking, shrinking into the woodwork. I had a sense that her terror had awakened an earlier trauma. I didn’t ask because I wanted to respect her privacy. Her story would have required her children to act as interpreters. Also, I was afraid of what she might tell me about an earlier tragedy. Boulanger (2018) writes about vicarious trauma as a contagion spread by intersubjective knowing. Knowing involves taking responsibility and in that moment I avoided both. So, I hugged her – a gesture that we often used as a greeting but this time it was a gesture of comfort. I sat with her inside because she didn’t want to go out. I offered to walk with her to the supermarket. At first she declined and then she accepted. I was outraged by the catastrophe that was propelling hatred towards my neighbor. I witnessed her traumatic response to the attack and I felt helpless to do more than walk with her to the supermarket and use my voice in countless protest demonstrations.
As I witnessed the waves of Islamophobia erupting in the United States, I was outraged by the hatred that was exploding all over the country and being directed at people like Mrs. Daoud. Terrorism was being projected onto my neighbors. I understood that the xenophobia erupting in the US was bred from decades of war and distrust in the Middle East, much of it related to Israel. I recalled the narrative I’d been fed as a child – that Israel had been built in an uninhabited desert. My Christian Sunday school collaborated with a local synagogue contributing pennies to grow trees in the barren deserts of Israel. It didn’t occur to me to question this narrative because the pervasive US ideology in the post-1948 years was, “There’s the West and the rest” (A&K Schmidt, personal communication, March 12, 2018). Israel was clearly an extension of the West. The rest didn’t count. Later, as a college student in the 70s I became aware of the “mess in the Middle East” through my young socialist friends who flocked to Israel to work on kibbutz. It never occured to me to wonder how Israel had acquired that land. My thoughts were foggy and I concluded that I didn’t really want to know.
Our children were growing up and leaving home. In 2002 Mrs. Daoud’s daughter Samira married. I attended her elaborate, traditional Palestinian wedding in Bayridge. I danced dabke with the women and was honored to celebrate together. At the end of the year I moved away from the neighborhood. Driven by my own fears and insecurity from living in a house that was too big, I bought an apartment in a fully-staffed building.
The years have passed quickly and I haven’t seen Mrs. Daoud for quite some time. I avoid the old block; It holds a sadness that I don’t completely understand.
I began to learn about the Nakba in 2014 after Israel, backed by the United States, invaded Gaza. I wanted to understand why talk about Palestinian suffering was censored in my mental health organizations with charges of anti-Semitism. Trauma is trauma – except, it seemed, for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Discussion of Palestinian trauma was silenced with conflated accusations of being anti-Israeli, Anti-Jewish, and anti-Semitic. This is when I learned about the Nakba of 1948, a catastrophe rendered invisible by the silencing of discussion. The creation of the State of Israel was ensured by Zionist militias who drove 750,000 Palestinians from their land, murdered thousands and seized their homes (Shavit, 2014). 80,000-92,000 Palestinian Bedouins were expelled from their Naqab desert homeland in what is now called the Negev desert and is a part of Israel (Felshin, 2016). These acts of terrorism uprooted 80% of the Palestinian population from their homeland. Many of those who survived became refugees. It was a catastrophic event. Nineteen years later, in an act of territorial expansion known as the Six Day War, Israel displaced between a quarter million and a half million Palestinians. Many were stateless refugees from 1948, twice refugees. Israel expanded its borders by demolishing Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula and covered the newly barren land from the destroyed Palestinian villages with forests, erasing the history of Palestinian habitation (Nuseibah, 2017; Shavit, 2014). The Palestinians who were not murdered were expelled from their homeland and settled in refugee camps in the Jordan Valley and Golan Heights. Three generations later, this unresolved crisis has burgeoned into a humanitarian crisis of 7 million Palestinian refugees.
These horrific acts of ethnic cleansing were shamefully covered up by Israeli and Western governments (Pappé, 2007). It is one of the biggest stories never told – never told to children and adults in the West. I only recently realized that the pennies I contributed as a child to planting trees in the desert were part of a sinister forestation effort to conceal the ancient Palestinian homes recently destroyed.
Palestinians have been immigrating to Brooklyn for a hundred years, but the largest wave of immigrants arrived after the 1967 war and reached its peak in the 1980s (Nuseibah, 2017). Tragically, they have been cleansed from their homeland. Fleeing repressive apartheid-like policies imposed by the State of Israel that limited home ownership, access to education and employment, many Palestinians took a chance to settle in Brooklyn.
Mrs. Daoud made a home in Brooklyn. She was fiercely proud of her home but she and her children never stopped talking about Palestine as “my country”. I believe that the catastrophe of 9/11/01 re-awakened the catastrophe of 1948 that she had lived through as a child and the catastrophe of 1967 that sowed the seeds for her emigration to Brooklyn.
I imagine that the terror I witnessed in her eyes and in her shaken body in September 2001 was unspoken and unmetabolized trauma, trauma that Davoine and Gaudilliere (2004) describe as “outside the field of speech.” I cannot know because I didn’t ask her. I didn’t ask because I didn’t know about the Nakba. And even if I’d known about the Nakba, it didn’t seem right for me to ask her to expose her children to that trauma through the act of interpreting for me.
I was ashamed of my ignorance. Now I am furious about it. I feel that I owe a moral debt as a Westerner to speak truth and make a space for stories to be told, especially those stories where my ignorance and silence make me complicit. The Nakba of 1948 was an act of terrorism against Palestinians that continues until the present day. Even though I am two generations removed and live in Brooklyn, I feel its pulse daily.
Christine Schmidt LCSW, CGP is a psychotherapist in private practice in Brooklyn, New York, a mediator, and an educational consultant. She has published about the psychological dynamics racism with particular focus on the impact of whiteness. She is on the Steering Committee of the USA-Palestine Mental Health Network.
Boulanger, G. (2018). When is vicarious trauma a necessary therapeutic tool? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 35(1), 60–69. https://doi.org/10.1037/pap0000089
Davoine, F., & Gaudillière, J.-M. (2004). History beyond trauma: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent. New York: Other Press.
Felshin, Nina. (2016, May 13). A Photo Exhibtion About Israel and the West Bank that Chooses Sides. Hyperallergic.
Nuseibah, Munir. (2017, June 1). The Second Nakba: Displacement of Palestinians in and after the 1967 Occupation. Orient XII.
Pappé, I. (2007). The ethnic cleansing of Palestine (Paperback ed). London: Oneworld.
Shavit, A. (2014). The triumph and tragedy of Israel. Melbourne: Scribe.