Requited Obsession: Rachel Corrie and Light at the End of the Tunnel

By Hatim Kanaaneh

April 5, 2015

My romance with Americans began on October 15, 1960 when I disembarked from my trans-Atlantic flight in pursuit of higher education. It has continued to grow and accumulate ever since to where it now regularly overflows my reality and floods my dreams.

Last night I received notice that the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice will host a book function for me in Olympia. I had read Rachel’s posthumous book, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” and it shines in my soul with the effect of a bright sunrise. I fall asleep after listening on the Real News Network to Paul Jay interviewing Cindy and Craig Corrie. This dawn, upon arising, I listen to all three parts again. Then, on the nippy early spring morning, I accompany my eight-year old granddaughter to her school. As we walk at the edge of the park, I muss Laiali’s silky mane to call her attention to a flock of pigeons flying overhead in formation. She gives me a sleepy-eyed smile and I shiver: She is neither green-eyed nor blonde. But I clearly caress Rachel Corrie’s head as I stroke Laiali’s hair. On the bus we sit on opposite seats. She pulls out her Kindle to read. That girl will get ahead, I tell myself, pride brimming in my heart; she will go places. Malaika, her ninth-grade sister is closer to the finish line, studying French, Chinese and Arabic and engaging in school projects addressing world-level issues. How much pride, pleasure and, yes, pain will we all reap from her ambitious insistence on making the world a better place? A young woman in shoulder-length blonde hair shakes her head in apparent disgust as she drops the New York Times on her seat. “It is a troubled world,” she wants to say. “And our media is of no help.” She exits the bus at the back door beaming a smile at me. Did she wave? How could two women look so much alike! But no, this one wears an Afro hairdo. She is an African Rachel Corrie! How can that be?!

As Laiali and I hold hands and walk sideways to slice into the breeze off the Hudson we hear a loud “Shalom!” It is another parent we had seen only a day earlier at a friend’s home where we were invited for Passover Seder.

“Salam!” I respond. “She is learning Arabic from her friend, one of the Nasrallah boys in Gaza,” I blurt confused.

Laiali looks askance at me and hides in my coat from the chill wind.

“Are you ok Sidi?” she asks.

Heading back alone, I hurry diagonally across Washington Square Park toward my apartment building. I halt midway. Green-eyed blonde young women enter the park from all its eight entrances. They converge at me from every direction. I resist the urge to call 9-11. Instead I resort to a gentle plea:

“Please Rachel, leave me alone. I have a function to attend, a reading from my new book.”
“Am I in it? Did you address issues of concern to me?”
“Yes, indeed, my friend. It is all about you and your issues, about our common humanity.”
“And Gaza?”
“Yes, Gaza, and Iraq and Vietnam before it and about the International Court of Justice.”
“Ok, then you can go!”

A warm feeling spreads like a tsunami from my belly to my chest and out to my head and extremities. Hot flashes? For a man? At my age?

Like the prophet Mohammad was reported to have done when he first received his holy mission, I crash in my bed shivering. Shortly, I wake up from a vivid dream in which I speak at the Rachelle Corrie Foundation for Justice and Freedom in Olympia, her hometown in Washington State. I see myself addressing a crowd with Cindy and Craig Corrie sitting in the first row:

“Moslems, the world over, are required to pay a visit to their holiest of holies in Mecca. In the new faith that I hereby decree, Palestinians everywhere are commanded at pain of God’s wrath to ascend to your Olympian shrine a minimum of once in a lifetime ‘liman istata’a ‘ilayhe sabila.’ Here I am, your humble servant, fulfilling my faith’s command, for I am ‘able to make the way’ to your shrine. As for all of you sinners, Palestinian and otherwise, the Rachel Corrie Foundation is the site to seek salvation. Come one; come all; confess and be saved. Come all ye sinners and be purified of the arrogance of militarism, of the violent racism of the occupier and of the bent-up anger and vengeful thoughts of the occupied. Admit your sins and be forgiven: The captain who killed little Iman Darwish Al-Hams and then “went out and emptied his gun into this girl, saying that he was confirming the kill of a 13-year-old child;” the commanders who are proud to consider themselves above the law; Supreme Court judges who put Israeli soldiers above accountability and the international law; and soldiers who would claim that they were following orders if only Nuremberg had not already found them to be still culpable. Come and learn from the example of Rachel, our high priestess, how to be human. Then you will be able to deal with your nightmares and to survive your urge to commit suicide. Come to New York for Rachel’s birthday on April 10 and be enlightened by her example as she presents her play ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie.’

“You never knew, Rachel, that in a distant village in Galilee, where Jesus, the son of Mary, once trod, another native son held your hand in friendship across time and space. I had no way of discovering it then but, yes, I always knew you in my dream of a better world brimming with justice and concern for the other. In the cold winter nights of my deprived childhood I snuggled to my mother and you warmed my body and heart. In the loneliness of my exile from my home and native culture in search of a better future, your image kept me company and inspired me with tenderness, love and friendship. And when I cuddled my children to sleep, you smiled at me through their eyes reassuring us all of a better future. How can I pay you back, Rachel?

“Most of us have five senses. Few lucky ones have extra sensory perception. You, Rachel, had a well-developed facility for detecting human suffering. You glowed with justice and equality. Rays emanated from your inner being to circumvent the globe and pick up messages of distress from its four corners. Scanning the globe you knew that, for humanity at large, the litmus test for compassion was the individual’s level of sympathy with the Palestinian people, the pain he or she felt for them “because Gaza is one of the most forsaken places in the world.” That challenged you. The International Solidarity Movement gave the answer. You left the world of ample opportunity and crossed the privilege divide choosing to come to our side. Physically and emotionally you connected the disenfranchised in Rafah and Olympia. You chose to educate America about the facts filtered out by their reporters’ mikes and the TV screens in the comfort of their living rooms, about the meaningful things in life: the dignity of the powerless and how they hold on to hope. Armed with your compassion and convictions and a luminescent orange vest you travelled to Gaza to practice your nonviolent direct action against belligerence. And to stop the dehumanization of Palestinians. You gave Palestinians in Gaza an audible voice and a visible image. And you stood there in contrast to the violence that the mere presence of armed soldiers, tanks and bulldozers in an otherwise normal neighborhood constituted. By your insistent presence you resisted the occupiers’ inherent racism and their dehumanizing of us, Palestinians. You “refused to look away from marginalized people” or to blink facing aggression. And you won. For all of us. For all humanity.

“When the powerful wouldn’t allow the UN to send observers to Gaza you decided to shoulder the world’s responsibility of protecting its weak from the wrath of their oppressors. There is the emblematic Palestinian child confronting a tank with a fistful of stones. And there is you holding your blow horn against the weaponized D-9 Caterpillar.

‘She was a brilliant, bright and amazing person, immensely brave and committed,’ Tom Dale, your British fellow ISM volunteer declares.

‘As the bulldozer approached [Rachel] stood her ground. Rachel was wearing an orange fluorescent jacket,’ Greg Schnabel, another US ISM volunteer says.

‘We thought this might happen eventually. We often spoke in the abstract that eventually one of us would get killed, but we always figured they’d shoot us, or it’d be an “accident”, like in a house that is missiled or a stray bullet gets an unlucky activist. I never dreamed it’d be like this, the intentional crushing of a human being,’ Joe Smith, a third ISM volunteer says.

‘I think my back is broken,’ were your last words gasped to your friend Alice. But it was only the human tissues that yielded. Your spirit still stands its ground against the injustice in Rafah, against the dictates that ‘Each time there’s any resistance, we need to take another row of houses.’

‘How far?’ we, humans, ask.

‘Up to the next row of houses,’ the Israeli zombie commander answers.

“Cindy, your mother, relates an experience of regaining her joy of life through a mystical experience on a moon-lit night in a mountain wilderness. Suddenly, ‘all the color came back into my life,’ she says. Thanks for shining those lights for her and for all of us. Craig, your father, says that he inherited some friends and a cause from you. Thank you for introducing us. You proved George W Bush wrong. You knew I didn’t hate your parents for their freedom.

“Standing here before you, Rachel, I am reminded of the awe that overwhelmed me when I first viewed the Himalayas from the shores of Lake Pokara. You bring home to me my utter insignificance. And yet you reassure me of the power of my human love and creativity. I salute you from the bottom of my heart with all my feelings, intellect and physical being. As Mahmoud Darwish sang to his mother I sing to you, Rachel:

‘Take me as a veil to your eyelashes
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair
With a thread that trails from the back of your dress
So I might become immortal
Become a God.’”


May 23, 2015

We have been guests of Olympia for two days and the reality outshines the dream. The peacefulness of the place and its people drives one sane. We ask to visit three sites. Cindy and Craig gracefully accompany us and answer our questions. At the modest offices of the Rachel Corrie Foundation quiet energy overflows the space. Dedicated volunteers sit with Cindy around a table peering in their laptops, recording in notebooks, opening envelopes, sealing others and keeping the outside world at bay with the pleasant smiles on their faces. Rachel oversees the quiet buzz from her panoramic perch in Jerusalem’s sky in the portrait hanging on the wall by the entrance, a personal gift from Arafat to the bereaved parents before he joined Rachel as another Shaheed of the cause. Did the same arrogant claimants to the exclusive right to holiness pluck them both off? I attended Rachel’s court case and have no doubt who and why she was martyred. I don’t know much about Arafat’s case.

Craig takes us to the Olympia-Rafah mural, a 400-square-meter rough wall covered by the image of an ancient olive tree, not unlike the one in my front yard back in Arrabeh. Except that each of its stylized leaves carries an image, a message from an artist or a group in one of 120 countries. Craig explains what messages some of the artwork carries. Two images nest in my head and explode to fill my consciousness: One is a photo of some children in Gaza, one of them cuddling a rabbit. The distraught child needed consolation and the psychologist recommended getting her an animal friend. On the wall she worships that rabbit in a physical and touching way. Another is of salmon fish swimming, jumping and dancing their way upriver to their spawning grounds, the same waters where they hatched, a local self-evident analogy of the right of return of Palestinians exiled from their homes and native land. And of the Israelis fishing them thin.

At the spacious yard fronting the hall housing Rachel’s memorial at her alma mater, Evergreen State College, Cindy recalls another anecdote that carries meaning beyond its simple narrative: Khalid Nasrallah, one of the Palestinian ‘terrorists’ whose house Rachel died defending, visited the spacious campus and stood where we now did. He looked around at the lush evergreen vegetation and said: “This is paradise! And Rachel left it and came to Gaza to help us!” Yes ISM volunteers leave beautiful lives and promising careers and follow the dictates of their conscience. And yes, Palestinians defined by Israel as terrorists, whether Fulbright scholars or sulfur-bomb amputees, are regularly found fit to obtain American visas. But Israel has succeeded to paint us all as the enemies of civilization, irredeemable ‘terrorists’ by birth.

I stand by the indoor memorial still contemplating my culpability. I stare at the metallic pyramid mounted at comfortable viewing height and am struck how the reflection of the title from the glass casing “Rachel Corrie 1979-2003” fits exactly under the peace dove perched atop the apex of the pyramid. Even more subtly, facing the shiny triangular surface, I view my own reflection in it and I get the message: We all are Rachel Corrie. Indeed, as we say our goodbyes, I fight my tears feeling diminished as I face the two stoic Corrie giants. For a moment I am back to my helpless childhood years, dependent on the loving care of others. I want these ideal parents to take me under their wing, to adopt me. As the infantile core I am reduced to grows again to my present old self I find reassurance in the commonality of goodwill. There is nothing in this average American couple to make them so special except the circumstances that demanded from them to stand up and be counted. And they have withstood the test of proving their humanity. They took a stand on the most flagrant ongoing human rights abuses on the face of the earth. Gaza lives in the conscience of the world in a great part thanks to them and to their, our, daughter Rachel.

That night the thought of the Corries’ example assaults my somnolent mind. It needs explaining. Math was once my strong point and this equation is simple: The Corries are so faithful to Rachel’s vision of peace and justice that they let it take over their lives. Rachel is their daughter. Others are related to her as well but to varying degrees: as siblings, friends, fellow Evergreen College alumni or citizens of Olympia. All these categories have born their relative share in sustaining Rachel’s legacy. Let us extend that equation out further and do the calculus. What about all the residents of Washington State? They can bear their share of commitment in proportion to their diminished connection to Rachel. In similar fashion and with relatively more miniscule degrees, so will citizens of the USA, sisters across the world and every member of the human race, each with his kernel of Rachel Corrie humanity. You see why I have hope! All we have to do is to spread the new faith.

As the Holy Quran promised us, “And its seal is musk”: With their acquired Palestinian sensibility, the Corries accede to the wishes of local Palestinian friends. We are hosted at the beautiful home of the Bushnaqs, fellow countrymen of nearly the same age as we are. Reminiscing over what is sure to be the best cardamom-scented sweet Arabic coffee this side of the Mississippi, we discover multiple layers of friendship and interrelated connections going all the way back to birthplaces less than 50 miles apart. As we enjoy the waterfront verdant ambiance we plot our future get-togethers. And we leave Olympia to link up to two other friends in the environs of Seattle one after the other. The one was an intern at the Galilee Society over two decades ago and the other a volunteer at the organization at its inception a decade before that.

Mahmoud Darwish said it before me: “There are things in this life worth living for.” The world is full of goodwill. Ariel Sharon and the drivers of his weaponized Caterpillars did not taint the whole of humanity in the eyes of the Corries or of the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his ilk will fail at the attempt as well. For me, the example of the Corries will keep the light at the end of the tunnel lambent.

- Hatim Kanaaneh is a retired public health physician. In retirement he gardens, travels and writes. He had published a book of memoirs entitled A Doctor in Galilee (Pluto Press, 2008) and a collection of short stories from his medical practice in his Palestinian home village, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee (Just World Books, 2015)


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