The struggle for balance

Palestinian children demonstrate in the West Bank city of Ramallah against the Israeli attacks in Lebanon and Gaza, 5 August 2006. (MaanImages/Fadi Arouri)

Hello to all of you. I am so sorry not to have written for so long. Ever since coming to Jordan I have been trying to compose something to explain the feelings, the conflicts, the daily reactions I have to being in this new and different environment.

It has been much harder to write from here than from Lebanon or Syria. And I realize now that this is what I need to tell you all today. Especially today - because the reasons I haven’t been writing are I think an example of the obstacles we face as loving, caring people in this violent, angry world.

I cried all day when I arrived in Jordan - for many reasons - but mainly because it felt so removed, so distant not just geographically, but mentally and emotionally, from the devastation being wreaked on Lebanon. Every day since, I have struggled here with the balance that plagues so many of us: How to participate in both our own daily lives and the world that often seems so distant from them.

As a foreign service kid moving every two to four years between the States and the rest of the world, this was the single greatest lesson I learned, and also the biggest challenge - how to live in one place always knowing there is another, parallel life being lived in another. That even as I attended my private school in the States, my friends in Baghdad were left behind, surviving the sanctions, the war, the havoc wreaked by our government’s arrogance, ignorance, and greed on the place that I once called home. That as I look out over the Dead Sea from the Zara spa, Palestinians just across the water are being torn from their dignity and their homes, and Israeli planes launching from across that water are dropping bombs on my mother’s country.

Now these lessons return to me as I go from tourist attraction to candlelight vigil or discuss the latest bombing over burgers at the InterCon pool. There are many contradictions here in Jordan, and many similarities to home.
What reminds me most of the States here is the sense of removal from the suffering all around. Here it is much closer than in New York: The remains of what used to be Iraq are a few hours’ drive away; the West Bank should be only an hour were it not for the whims of Israeli border guards; you can drive to Beirut in the time it takes me to get from New York to my family in Washington.

But here life is normal, at least on the surface. Even the taxis don’t always have the news on, and not every cafe is watching Al-Jazeera. Perhaps even here they’ve grown desensitized to the killing - too much to bear watching day in, day out. Perhaps it’s the same in Syria now - just too long to sustain the same kind of attention. Or perhaps they feel as helpless as I do, not knowing how to stop the most powerful countries in the world.

What I realize here is that although I cry each day and curse at the TV, I also go out with friends, drop off my laundry, and fret over what to wear to my friend’s wedding.

It takes a special kind of dedication to remain focused on what we cannot see.

This, I think, is the nature of human beings. It takes a special kind of dedication to remain focused on what we cannot see. I have learned this over years of riding the subway from the schools I teach at in the Bronx or Bed-Stuy through the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York - amazed how just one stop on the train can create so wide a gap, how so much poverty and oppression can be kept from disturbing its privileged neighbors.

I am one of those neighbors. And I struggle constantly with this question:
How do we live our lives without forgetting what lies just beyond them? How do we remind ourselves that everything truly is connected?

It is one month today since the war on Lebanon began. Every day since, Israel’s bombs have been dropped somewhere on my mother’s country. I have not written every day. I have not protested every bomb. I have not called my family every day as I promised myself when I left that I would. Some days it has been impossible - calling cards, downed lines, travel and so on. But other days simply slip away before I get a chance. Some days I am too busy living the reality in front of me to engage with that surrounding it.

We are all human. If we were to see a starving child or a mother with no water to give him, most of us, I think, would stop, would cry out, would find what they need and give it to them.

But our leaders have created so many weeping mothers now, we learn to tune some out. Even the ones in front of us, on the subway or the street corner, can be dismissed as addicts, con-artists and so on. Sometimes we must do this in order to function in our lives. There are many days - weeks, even - in New York that I don’t even turn on the news, knowing that if I watch the suffering, my anger and tears will keep me from everything else. This I think is the most dangerous enemy we face - our own discouraged helplessness in the face of so much suffering.

We all contribute in different ways with the resources we have.

So today I just ask you to reflect, as many of you are already doing, on how to build moments of action into our lives. I don’t have the answer - there isn’t only one. We all contribute in different ways with the resources we have. I guess I just want you to know that I understand, that I too am discouraged, that I often feel helpless and cynical, as though even the help I do give cannot possibly change the state of our world.

But then yesterday my cousin called from Beirut, the one whose amazing family we stayed with for the first few days of the bombing. She tells me over and over again, this woman whose family sheltered us, who has stayed and photographed and spoken and organized, how wonderful I am, how grateful they are, how much my work means. I tell her she is misunderstanding me, I have only packed boxes for just a few hours, sent a few emails, sold a few cards. I am embarassed and guilty that she thinks I’ve done more. But she tells me no, she knows what I’ve done and that’s what she is grateful for - you cannot know, she says, how much it means here. To know that someone cares, to know that Americans care. People are dying every day, she reminds me. One box means a lot. Thank you for packing it. Thank you.

So I wanted to pass on that thank you to all of you, and with it my thoughts - as much for myself as for you. Because I think, I feel, that you feel as I do, one month in, no real end in sight, for Lebanon and Palestine, for years to come - outraged, pained, saddened, desperate, helpless. To those of you acting already on those feelings, I pass on Rayya’s thank you. I pass on the gratitude of many I have spoken with, when I tell them we are not alone, that there are many in the US trying, working for change. When you feel paralyzed by the weight of corruption, of greed, of anger, of ignorance that surrounds you, don’t do as I have done for the last ten days - don’t let it silence you. And don’t denigrate your beauty by saying your work doesn’t count. It does. Margaret Mead has rung in my head for weeks now - I think it’s Margaret Mead. In my heart it goes something like this: “Never doubt that a concerned group of dedicated citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I have been thinking since yesterday of all of you protesting around the world today. Thank you. Thank you for making the effort, for taking the time, for raising your voices. Even if it is, as usual, not covered enough in our media, believe me we know it here. Your messages, emails, blogs and more remind us that that concerned group of citizens does exist, and even if it does not affect the Bush-Ohmert war machine, it sends a powerful message that the world needs to hear.

For those of you who are not going to protest today, who can’t for whatever reason, don’t worry. There is much more work to be done. I just hope we can all keep struggling with the greatest challenge we face - the distances between us, physical and beyond.

Several days ago we saw an image from South Lebanon that will stay with me forever. Since Israel has destroyed every bridge in all of Lebanon, but especially in the South, there is no longer a way of crossing one of the rivers separating water, food and medecine from the people who need it. So a group of civilians trapped there themselves created a human chain, wading through the rushing water to move supplies from hand to hand. It was, in effect, a human bridge, and the sight of it moved me to tears.

I don’t have the answer to how to live our lives and still participate in changing them - I’m figuring out my own every moment of every day. I just know from the deepest place within me that we have to remember we are not alone. No matter how many bridges they bomb, we can and must build new ones. If they can do it with their bare hands, all that is left to them in South Lebanon, then we can each find a way to do something, as often as possible, wherever we are.

So raise your voices loudly today and every day, and know that they will be heard.

Leila Buck is a founding member of Mixed Company, a bi-cultural theater collective, and Nibras, with whom she performed Sajjil for the 2002 New York Fringe Festival 2003. Her one-woman show, ISite, has traveled across Europe, Asia and the U.S., most recently featuring in Lebanon’s Daily Star and The New York Times. Leila is a teaching artist dedicated to using drama to educate about the Arab world through performances and workshops across the US and around the world.

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