‘I Have Friends There, and I Don’t Know What to Do’
by Christine Baniewicz
My best recurring celebrity-demagogue fantasy starts like this: My boss calls me into his office…
“Christine,” he says, leaning back into his executive office chair, hands clasped across his belly. I’m perched at the edge of my seat across from him. My shoulders hunch down, preemptively apologetic.
“Mind telling me what the fuck this is about?” There’s a laptop open on his desk and I rise from my seat, cross closer to him, close enough to catch a faint whiff of his older-guy Polo deodorant and there, pasted across his computer screen like a smear of virtual finger paint, is my essay “Tears of Gaza”.
My stomach liquefies. My neck sweats. Physiological apocalypse sweeps across my body and I attempt to say something with dignity, like “I wrote that because I have friends who live in Palestine.” But I’m too far melted down and it comes out soupy, wet, and quiet.
“I don’t give a fuck who your friends are,” he says. His lips are purple. “Get out of my office and take your bullshit with you.” This is the part where I kick myself for not being more careful, for not lining up a backup job because I knew this day would come. My boss is incredibly rich and proportionally conservative. It was only a matter of time.
As I turn to exit the office a lightness steals over me, giddy into my toes with adrenaline and righteous unemployment. When I walk out the front door of the office the air is wet with a redwood-scented breeze. In this part of the story I have a motorcycle, and I grip it between my thighs with the ease of a regular outlaw. I fly it onto the highway. I never look back.
* * *
The reality’s more like this:
It’s Friday. A six-inch stack of invoices are piled in sloppy confusion on my desk beside a clipboard with insurance claim documentation from Tuesday. Unopened mail ferments in the bottom drawer. Kevin, the part-time accountant, clicks and sighs across the hall and my boss is already gone for the weekend and the entire office hums in hibernation, broken only by the jet-engine churn of airplanes passing over on their way north to the Oakland airport.
Tens of thousands of miles east, across the Atlantic ocean and the shores of the Mediterranean sea, saturation air strikes rain down on the Gaza strip, one every five minutes.
I stand. I walk into the kitchen. I refill my blue mug with hot water and return to my desk and another bomb explodes in Palestine. I process an invoice.
On the edge of my desk, near the telephone, is a framed photo of my former acting students giving a theatre performance in a Palestinian refugee camp, where I lived and worked with them earlier this year. I stare at the photo between sentences and wonder if they’re safe. I wonder who will read this essay. Another bomb explodes and the death toll climbs to 28.
And Hamas is firing rockets, whipping Israel into a spastic froth and providing the U.S. media fodder for incomplete narratives of the conflict, narratives about cause and provocation and blame, clamorous fantasies that omit the ongoing injustice of the occupation, exclude us from the problem and clutter the air with noise.
“Quiet for the south,” said Yossie Peled, a recently retired Israeli cabinet minister. “That is the objective of the operation, writ big.”
I imagine a giant’s mittened hand pressing down over Gaza, holding steady against the thrashing protestations of the people there until they exhaust, grow still and cold and quiet, quiet as my corner of the office, as a photograph, as death.
* * *
But this is also fantasy. There is noise for Palestine. I made some last night at an emergency march in downtown San Francisco. The streets and sidewalks were clogged with people clutching plastic bags full of Baby Gap and H&M and Apple. They stared at us the way livestock might.
We shout together: while you’re shopping, bombs are dropping!
Above our heads, criss-crossed by the Muni cables, a giant advertisement gazes down like the face of God, 25 stories tall, selling designer glasses. Some people tape our march on their smart phones. Some cars honk in solidarity. We are flanked on both sides by armed policemen on foot and in squad cars and motor bikes.
Free, free Palestine! And although the fifty or sixty of us (less than one hundred, not nearly enough) are strung out over the length of a city block, weaving through cars as we walk, I can hear the hoarse cry of the chant leader at the front. It bounces off the cavern of towering skyscrapers. Long live Palestine!
* * *
It’s not loud enough.
* * *
I have other fantasies, more productive fantasies that involve me returning to Palestine and bringing my brothers, my parents. I introduce them to my friends. My father, a doctor, spends the week working in a hospital in Jenin and maybe we all join the effort at the wall for a few days, helping to carry disassembled chunks of it to big trucks that will reuse the material to build schools in Gaza — and I can feel myself reaching for this. It’s a taut sensation in my gut that I usually associate with moments of poor writing, and dishonesty. But fuck it, you guys. The violent reality of Gaza is twisting a fist around my ability to imagine anything. So forgive me this dishonesty, because if I don’t spend the next five minutes describing how Israeli settlers will sit in an olive grove with Palestinian refugees to watch a play together or the way my former students will protest as I tease them about their new haircuts and the packed auditorium that will watch them perform their newest play here in Oakland, because they all got Visas without a problem — if I don’t spend some time imagining these clunky fantasies today, I will lose the real battle against despondency, hatred and desperation.
* * *
Another week passes. After more than 170 Palestinians die, Hillary Clinton makes an appearance and a ceasefire is pasted over the gash, just in time for Black Friday. We organize another demonstration in San Francisco and we’re smaller now, maybe 20 people in zip-up sweatshirts shifting our weight outside of the Israeli Embassy. Someone hands me an olive branch they snapped off a tree in the Mission.
I spend an hour chanting and networking and impressing people with my understated wisdom of the West Bank before walking back to the BART through a cold drizzle.
I pause in Union Square to gaze up at the massive Christmas tree newly anchored there. Gold and silver globes the size of basketballs are tethered to its branches. A thousand miles east, not so many thousands as Palestine, my father assembles our artificial tree in the corner of the living room. My brothers help him. My mother bakes apricot kolaches.
And I quiver in the plaza, rooted to the stones as a gust of wind jostles the plastic globes together. I imagine the impotent, faraway fear of Palestinian-Americans with family in Gaza. I wonder, in the gray spittle of rain, how loud the bombs shook through their cubicles this week. This year. This decade. Unlike me, they didn’t choose estrangement from the people they love. It was selected for them by our government in a bug-eyed, half-century-long attempt to secure the resources of their homeland.
My father threads a wire hook around an ornament. Israel violates the ceasefire. No one stops shopping and the organizers pamphlet and the anarchists split a burrito and no one asks me, no one asks me why I’m standing so still in Union Square alone but I can tell you now that if they had I would have said because I have friends who live in Palestine, and I don’t know what to do…
Christine Baniewicz is a writer, composer, and facilitator of community-engaged theatre. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Studies from Louisiana State University, and when she isn’t writing to end the occupation of Palestine, she leads applied theatre workshops around the world as an associate artist with the traveling theatre-arts organization, ImaginAction. She lives in Oakland, CA.