Mini Cheesecakes and Open-Air Prisons

This week I ate at a fancy restaurant where I paid $30 for a salmon lox, warm, flaky croissants, mini cheesecakes and orange juice in stemware. I was paying more for the classy ambiance of a chic establishment that serves small portions on square plates than I was for the food itself. I sat at my table wearing a new jacket, listening to the piano playing in the background and waiting to meet a group of friends I haven’t seen since graduation.

All the while I had this growing feeling in the back of my mind that I am repulsive.

I tried to push aside this nagging suspicion and assured myself that I am a member of the YOLO generation—“You only live once.” But I couldn’t shake it. I felt disgusted with myself, and it wasn’t until sitting in silence on the way home, with a full stomach and a guilty conscience, that I realized why.

I had spent the past couple of nights in two states, each one the antithesis of the other. On one hand, I would pass the hours, my eyes glued to my laptop, reading updates on the growing death toll of Palestinians being slaughtered at the hands of the Israeli government. After I could no longer stomach another new piece describing the drones, shells and F-16s being launched into Gaza, I would sit cross-legged on my bedroom floor, asking God why this is happening. I prayed to Him, beseeching Him to relieve the plight of a weary people who had been oppressed and occupied for more than half a century. I asked God to perform a miracle for these people, something as big as splitting the sea or curing a man from blindness- a miracle like the ones I believe He had performed for Prophets Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all).

When I would sit down to pray, the faces of the Palestinian children I had seen on television- beautiful children, Omar Misharawi, Hanin Tafish, and countless others whose names the newscasters did not know, would fill my eyes. I saw photos of them in life followed by photos of them in death. I saw chestnut brown hair and almond-shaped eyes and tiny hands; these children look exactly like the ones I offer to hold in my local mosque while their mothers pray or socialize, I thought. They could easily have been the toddlers or three-year-olds whose elder siblings I teach at Sunday school. My students would often drag me to their parents after class was over for the day, and proudly show off the giggling, sunshiny little beings that were their baby brothers and sisters.

And yet, these children with the almond-shaped eyes did not have mischievous, toothy smiles on their chubby faces. Instead, they were wrapped in bloodstained white sheets, their eyes closed, arms limp, and tiny lips an unnatural shade of blue. They were held like stiff relics in the arms of their wailing parents. They didn’t have names, only numbers: 13 dead, 45 dead, 80 dead, over 100 dead.

These were the children whose ephemeral lives would be tied and twisted to fit a narrative justifying their murders, so that their deaths would go from being the result of what can only be seen as a systematic cleaning of people to the necessary outcome of a country exercising its “right to defend itself.” But these children didn’t “die too soon.” They died before they could grow up and realize that they live in a world where their existence is a sin. They died before they could get married and give birth to another generation of plagued and unwanted Palestinians. These children died right on time.

And here I was at brunch, pouring Splenda into my coffee and wondering how many calories I had inhaled from the sliver of cheesecake.

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot we can do about Palestine, it’s true. Donating money to relief organizations is the most obvious option, but also the most dubious given the strict blockade on Gaza. Plus money does not accomplish much in the face of a sudden air strike. Expressing one’s anger at what is happening in Palestine seems futile when compared to the enormous voice of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. At times it feels that all options lead to nothing more than echoing the worn-out, guilt-ridden statement, “The Israel-Palestine situation is complicated. What can we really do? Sigh.” As Americans and taxpayers we, whether willingly or unwillingly, pay for some portion of the military operations launched against the people of Gaza. We acknowledge this fact, nod sadly and with resignation, and slip back into our myopic lives.

But then there’s that term—one that is now almost culturally synonymous with the growing (and it is growing) global empathy for the Palestinian cause. This term is solidarity.

Solidarity is the outrage and the support pledged by people the world over, after reading the psychotic calls by Gilad Sharon for the flattening of Gaza and by the Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, to “send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Solidarity is every Facebook status, every tweet, every last blog post that expresses disgust at the actions of this recalcitrant regime. Solidarity is each letter written to a Congressperson or local representative asking that they condemn the bombings on Gaza. Solidarity is woven into the checkered keffiyeh of the six-year-old activist at the anti-genocide rallies in D.C., Milan, Athens, and Johannesburg. Solidarity is billions of heartfelt prayers made within living rooms, churches, synagogues and mosques.

Alone, it will not rewrite policies. Alone, it will not magically reveal the truth about the war crimes committed against the people in this tiny strip of land. What solidarity will do is unite and strengthen the voice against this festering, putrid cancer that is modern-day apartheid. The world defeated it once. United, it can do so again.

And solidarity is me, skipping a brunch at a fancy restaurant for a bowl of cereal, a break from my self-imposed helplessness, and a prayer for the children.
Hiba Akhtar is a girl with a conscience.

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