From the Edges of a Broken World

Joanna Chen / Reader Supported News
From the Edges of a Broken World Kibbutz Be'eri, Israel: In the aftermath of the October 7th massacre a Hebrew menorah stands silent testament to the horror. (photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece originally appeared on GuernicaMag. The piece was removed from the site, leaving only this brief statement: “Guernica regrets having published this piece, and has retracted it. A more fulsome explanation will follow.”

Reader Supported News does not regret publishing this powerful piece. We realize that there are strong feelings on both sides of this conflict. However violent inhumanity can only be overcome with compassionate thought and action. The author Joanna Chen, labors to achieve both.

The tree lost its mythical powers,
horses huddled at the edge of the earth.
The sniping light turned cold, winter came,
we continued, faces sealed. Only at night
did we sit down with our own names.

It was my auntie Sheila who taught me the importance of reaching out to others, of lending a hand when needed. Widowed early, she was a feisty lady who helped out in hospitals and hospices in the coastal town of Blackpool, where she lived. Auntie Sheila volunteered for years in the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, holding a warm and comforting hand out to/for people of all denominations, without question. She understood the intrinsic importance of person-to-person contact; she believed it was a two-way street, that she also benefited from it. But she also taught me that you cannot care for others if you do not care for yourself first. This is why she went swimming a couple of times a week and enjoyed quiz shows; this is why she allowed herself jelly beans and chocolate-coated figs, a stock of which she kept in her sideboard.

As a child growing up in the North of England, I often stayed over at Auntie Sheila’s house, which overlooked the local park. At night, when she tucked me up in bed, she would lean over and whisper in my ear: You’re my favorite, but don’t go telling anyone. She whispered the same words to my brother, Andrew, and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones convinced we were her favorites.

When I was sixteen, my parents moved us to Israel following the death of my brother in a traffic accident. They wanted a fresh start, but the move was wrenching for me: everything was strange and unfamiliar, even the language. Severed from my family back in the UK, I felt no connection to this land or the people around me. I struggled, and I learned to get by on my own. I immersed myself in grieving, for my brother and for the life left behind.

How can I mourn the distance of years,
of waste, of your silence
seeping into the earth.

When I turned eighteen, my mother, who thought that an enlistment in the Israeli military would help me assimilate, said: We have the world’s greatest army here. And I fired back immediately: Who’s we? Speak for yourself. I never served in the army.

No one came to visit us except Auntie Sheila, who arrived twice a year carrying a suitcase stuffed with Lancashire cheese, frozen legs of lamb, and shortbread wrapped in rustling cellophane from the local market. She never failed to call me on my birthday and on the anniversary of my brother’s death. Her visits continued until she was in her nineties and no longer able to make the journey.

You hand me a clean handkerchief,
Ripe figs. I have been moving away
For years

I struggled along, went to university, and eventually began working for Newsweek, which was when I started to take a real interest in my neighbors, Palestinians and Israelis. But journalism lulled me into the role of spectator, and I kept my distance, hid behind headlines. I was translating poems on the side, from Hebrew and from Arabic; in that work, I found a different relationship to language. Translation shook me out of the apathy that had set in after countless failed peace processes. Literary translation not only demands that the words themselves be transformed from source to target language; it requires deep reading, attention to voice, to the nuances of language. At this level of attention, the surface of a voice is never smooth but rather textured. It consolidates intonation; it fine-tunes inflection. If you look up voice in a dictionary, you will find it defined as a sound arising in the larynx and exiting through the mouth — and also as an opinion or attitude. In working with voice, at its many levels of meaning and texture, literary translation affords me a glimpse into other worlds; it is a creaking door held open to the reader for the length of a poem, the width of a piece of prose. It enables me to transcend borders and build literary bridges from source to target language, from one people to another. And it was a wake-up call for me.

By the time the knock at the door came, I was dead.
Who’s there? asked the photo in the frame.
It is me, I said. I came back to wipe the dust off you.

A few years ago, inspired by my aunt, I began volunteering with Road to Recovery, a nongovernmental organization founded by Yuval Roth, whose brother was kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 1993. The organization transports Palestinian children in need of lifesaving medical procedures to and from Israeli hospitals. Volunteers pick up the children, accompanied by parents or grandparents, from checkpoints around the West Bank and, until October 7, from the Erez checkpoint that leads to Gaza. I usually drive to the Tarkumia checkpoint, close to Hebron, a fifteen-minute journey from my house in the Ella Valley.

Before this present war, I would pick up my passengers around 5:30 a.m., everything still shrouded in shadow when I left the house. As I approached the checkpoint on any weekday, I would see hundreds of men on foot clutching plastic bags of food and walking along to the spot where minibuses awaited them. Headed for work, they would cross over from the West Bank to Israel. Traffic was typically thick at that time of day; it would sometimes take me half an hour to crawl the last half mile to the actual checkpoint, where I would drive through to a parking lot monitored by Israeli soldiers.

Your morning is the morning of others.
Your evening is the evening of others
And we frequently set traps for birds.

Sometimes it took a while for my passengers to get through the checkpoint, so I would watch the sunrise stretching in a blaze of pink across the sky. Occasionally flocks of birds flew over the checkpoint with ease and grace, offering a moment of pause for me. A few months ago, a muster of storks flew right above my car, their necks stretched out, wings flapping. But the last time I went there, which was before October 7, it was early evening, and the sun had already set. I picked up a mother and her toddler, whom she carried in her arms. It was an emergency. We smiled briefly. I opened the car door for her, and together we strapped her frail son into the back seat. I handed him a bag of candy, and he held the bag in his fist, his tiny fingers curled around it. The mother sat with me in the front, occasionally turning around to check on her child, her face raw with fear. On many journeys like this, we spoke in broken Arabic, broken Hebrew, and English. These were simple sentences: How many children do you have? Where do you live? Would you like water? Sometimes we did not speak at all until the end of the journey, when we arrived at the entrance to the pediatric ER of Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. During the COVID epidemic, I drove with the windows open, and we all wore masks. I was careful.

No flag flutters for me,
No bird alights upon the window.
I am a clock on the wall.

At 6:32 on the morning of October 7, sirens filled the air, and rockets began falling close to my village. The walls of the house reverberated again and again. I stood in the garden, surveying the spinach and lettuce in the vegetable plot, the lemon tree heavy with pale fruit. The thuds were sickening. I went inside, locking the door behind me. Muddled reports from the border with Gaza were streaming through social media. As the day wore on, my dread increased. There were many dead and injured; hospitals were running short of blood.

The next day, my husband, Raz, and I donated blood at a hospital in Jerusalem, waiting in line for six hours along with hundreds of other people. As we stood there, we recalled giving blood at an East Jerusalem hospital back in 2014 during an Israeli military operation in Gaza. On that occasion, the blood was being sent to the people of Gaza. Back then, an Israeli friend of mine shook her head when I told her what we had done: You should be giving blood to the Israeli soldiers, not the Palestinians, she admonished me.

For two weeks after October 7, I was unable to focus on my translation work. It felt disembodied, as if the poems I was working on were floating somewhere above my head, out of reach. They made no sense to me. I spent my time volunteering with an Israeli family from Kfar Aza, bordering the Gaza Strip. Their daughter, son-in-law, and nephew had been murdered. Their house had been torched, and they were evacuated to my village, where they were temporarily living at the end of my street. Neighbors. I mopped their floor, did their dishes, washed their clothes. I heated up plates of food when they were hungry and hugged them when they looked like they needed it. What does a person look like when they need a hug? Like they are lost. It was the least I could do.

Everything is burnt by the roadside.
We do not look at each other.

My volunteer work with Road to Recovery came to a full stop. How could I continue after Hamas had massacred and kidnapped so many civilians, including Road to Recovery members, such as Vivian Silver, a longtime Canadian peace activist? And I admit, I was afraid for my own life.

I want to be your foliage,
Dense and cool against the heat,
But I am dry thorns on a hilltop.

I phoned friends to find out how they were doing. Some had sons serving in the army in the south; others were struggling to keep going. A neighbor told me she was trying to calm her children, who were frightened by the sound of warplanes flying over the house day and night. I tell them these are good booms. She grimaced, and I understood the subtext, that the Israeli army was bombing Gaza.

An old friend from the UK called me while I was running an errand. Hello, my love, she bubbled in her broad North Yorkshire accent, and those last two words seared through me, stirring a pang of longing for the rough, gray landscape of my childhood, the openness of it all. I’m okay, I answered after a pause, my voice cracking, and I wished I were not there among people who used pronouns like us and them and ours and theirs.

I texted Nuha, a Palestinian fixer who had worked alongside me at Newsweek for years. I’d been a guest at her home in Ramallah. We’d broken bread together; we’d traveled together through the occupied territories and had drunk peppermint tea at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem.

Nuha, how are you, my friend? I wrote, half-expecting her not to respond. But she did, immediately. Sad, sad, she texted back. We are all devastated in this unjust world. I felt encouraged that we could still talk, but a few minutes later she wrote me this:

Ministry of Health
The water well and oxygen station in Al-Shifa Medical Complex were targeted
Dogs eat corpses dumped in a Shifa compound
The complex is subjected to continuous targeting

I didn’t know how to respond. Beyond terrible, I finally wrote, knowing our conversation was over. I felt inexplicably ashamed, as if she were pointing a finger at me. I also felt stupid — this was war, and whether I liked it or not, Nuha and I were standing at opposite ends of the very bridge I hoped to cross. I had been naive; this conflict was bigger than the both of us. Beyond terrible was inadequate; I was inadequate. A door had been slammed in my face, politely but firmly.

I neither wrote to the two poets I know in Gaza nor posted anything on social media about them. One of them didn’t post for days and days. Was he dead? Had he been detained by Hamas for his ties to an Israeli or arrested by the Israeli military for his ties to Hamas? I had no idea. I’ve never met them in person — the conflict has seen to that — but I’ve translated and edited several of their poems. Their voices are important ones, and I want the English-speaking world to listen to them as much as I want the world to listen to the voices I translate from Hebrew. Now, however, I’m afraid to get them in trouble. A text message or an email from Israel might be incriminating. Hamas might intercept it, who knows? And I wonder if they would even answer me.

I want to be innocent of every line I ever wrote,
I want to cry on every hand that ever hovered over the cover of a book.
A flock of vocabulary jostles at my window, hammers at my heart.

My own heart was in turmoil. It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides. But as the days went by, the shock turned into a dull pain in my heart and a heaviness in my legs. At night, I lay in bed on my back in the dark, listening to rain against the window. I wondered if the Israeli hostages underground, the children and women, had any way of knowing the weather had turned cold, and I thought of the people of Gaza, the children and women, huddled inside tents supplied by the UN or looking for shelter. I stared up at the ceiling and imagined it moving closer and closer toward me. Not falling or collapsing but moving, like an elevator descending into the ground.

The horrors that had been perpetrated rose to the surface of my consciousness at these times. I listened to interviews with survivors; I watched videos of atrocities committed by Hamas in southern Israel and reports about the rising number of innocent civilians killed in a devastated Gaza.

There is a limit to which the human soul can stomach atrocities and keep going. On the other hand, turning away from distressing footage taken by Hamas terrorists, by surveillance cameras, and by people running for their lives or sheltering from missiles meant turning away from their pain. I couldn’t do it.

Instead, I limited my intake of the news and joined a number of solidarity groups, Zoom meetings in which people shared their dismay and shock. But they were mostly Israelis, and much of the talk centered on their own side. One woman expressed anger that Palestinians she knew through her volunteer work had not reached out on October 7 to ask how she was, whether her family was safe. I shrugged inwardly at this sentiment. The Palestinians in the West Bank were struggling with their own problems: closure, the inability to work, the threat of widescale arrests being made by the Israeli army, and harassment by settlers. No one was safe.

A few years earlier, I had joined a course coordinated by the Parents Circle in which Israelis and Palestinians met for three months to learn each other’s narratives. The course entailed not only conversing with each other but also making field trips to learn the history of the Palestinians and the Jews. We went on a tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem; we also went to Lifta, a Palestinian village whose residents were forced to leave their homes in 1948. We had time to talk together during two intensive weekends at the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala. We learned the importance of acknowledging both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives, the importance of understanding the pain of each side. But still, after three months, I left with a feeling of pessimism. It felt like a small drop in a very large ocean of mistrust. In the WhatsApp group, we continued to talk, but there was always an undercurrent of suspicion. The Israelis talked about the Holocaust, about how the Jewish state was the only place they had; the Palestinians insisted that the Jewish state existed at their expense. There was goodwill but not enough to straddle the chasm that divided us.

The hand still moves across the page
and on the balcony plants lean forward,
long-necked, into the sun.

Two weeks after the present war began, I took the plunge and again began driving children to hospitals. My own grown-up children were against this, but I was determined to go. The night before my first drive since the war started, my husband and I decided he would accompany me, just in case. My son scoffed at this: Go on your own if you must, he said wryly. If anything happens, we don’t want to lose both our parents. We woke up at 5:00 a.m., made coffee, and waited for the coordinator to give me the go-ahead. The rules had changed: instead of waiting for them in the parking lot of Tarkumia, I was instructed to leave the house only when my passengers had gotten through security. At 6:30, I got the call, and we drove in silence to Tarkumia. The road leading to the checkpoint was deserted; since October 7, Palestinians had been forbidden to leave the West Bank for work in Israel.

We arrived at the parking lot, and I got out of the car. A small boy with a shock of black hair and his father were waiting at the other side of the parking lot. I hesitated as a soldier came up to me, and I fumbled for my driver’s license and the details of my passengers, sent to me earlier: Jad, age three, accompanied by his father. Suddenly, the little boy waved to me from across the way, and I waved back as they walked over to my car. The father spoke a little Hebrew. We introduced ourselves, quickly strapped Jad into the booster, and drove away. Ten minutes later, I dropped my husband off at the junction below my house. I felt safe. I was doing the right thing. This boy deserves medical treatment; he is not a part of the war, I thought. On this first journey, I focused on only the job at hand: to get Jad to the hospital. An hour later, I said goodbye to them outside the pediatric unit of Sheba Medical Center. While the father busied himself removing an overnight case from the trunk of my car, I unbuckled Jad from the booster, and he held out his arms and smiled up at me. Shukran, shukran, thank you, the father said as I cradled Jad in my arms for a moment. And I wanted to say, No, thank you for trusting me with your child. Thank you for reminding me that we can still find empathy and love in this broken world. I followed them with my eyes as they disappeared behind the glass doors of the hospital, and then I switched the radio on.

Since then, I have made several more journeys to and from Tarkumia. I spent one night editing a website created by a family whose daughter was murdered. I’m working on a translation of short stories for an anthology in English, Arabic, and Hebrew that will be published later this year. I translate each word, each phrase, carefully; I listen for the voices.

I finally called Nuha, and she answered the phone right away. We spoke for a few minutes about our kids, and work, and the whole situation. Hearing her warm, gravelly tones gave me hope. I’m going through a process, she said. We both are.

I think of my auntie Sheila a lot, how she taught me to reach out to neighbors near and far, how there is more to life than my own backyard. There is a very long way to go, but of one thing I am sure: recovery begins now, at home.

The stanzas quoted throughout this piece are translated by the author from Hebrew and from Arabic and included here with the permission of the poets; the original poems are, in order of appearance in this essay: “The End of Naivete” by Yonatan Berg in Frayed Light (Wesleyan University Press, 2019); “Remembrance” by Yonatan Berg in Frayed Light; “To My Mother” by Yonatan Berg in Frayed Light; untitled, by Nasser Rabah, in Arrowsmith (translated with Julie Yelle); “The Evening of Others” in Arrowsmith (translated with Julie Yelle); untitled, by Nasser Rabah, published in The Los Angeles Review of Books (translated with Julie Yelle); “Hebron” in Frayed Light; “To My Children” by Yonatan Berg, forthcoming in Consequence; untitled, by Nasser Rabah, LARB; “Report from a Free City” by Yonatan Berg in Frayed Light.

Joanna Chen is a British-born writer and literary translator, whose full-length translations include Less Like a Dove, Frayed Light (finalist in the Jewish National Book Awards), and My Wild Garden. Forthcoming is Hunting in America (winner of the 2023 Paper Brigade Award). Her writing can be found in Narratively, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Consequence, among others.

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