On growing up in Ferguson and Palestine

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20140828-AMX-FERGUSON-ISRAEL28 THE WASHINGTON POST The author growing up in Ferguson, with her mother and father. Picture: Family photo

A strange symmetry unites the two places, now more than ever, writes Naomi Shihab Nye.

 San Antonio, Texas - I grew up in Ferguson, Missouri. No one ever heard of it, unless you lived elsewhere in St. Louis County.

Then my family moved to Palestine - my father's first home. A friend says, “Your parents really picked the garden spots.”

In Ferguson, an invisible line separated white and black communities. In Jerusalem, a no-man's land separated people, designated by barbed wire.

My father and his family became refugees in 1948, when the state of Israel was created. They lost everything but their lives and memories. Disenfranchised Palestinians ended up in refugee camps or scattered around the world. My dad found himself in Kansas, then moved to Missouri with his American bride. He seemed a little shell-shocked when I was a child.

Ferguson was a leafy green historic suburb with a gracious red brick elementary school called Central. I loved that school, attending kindergarten through to sixth grade there. All my classmates were white, of various derivations - Italians, French-Canadians, etc. My father was the only Arab in Ferguson. But he ran for the school board and won.

At 12, I took a berry-picking job on “Missouri's oldest organic farm” in Ferguson. I wanted the job because I had noticed that the other berry-pickers were all black boys. I'd always been curious about the kids living right down the road whom we hardly ever got to see.

We had contests to see who could pick the most in the searing humidity. I had obliterated Ferguson's “line.” I felt a secret pride.

My mom often warned, “Be your best self.” This seemed odd.

It would be 1968 before the Supreme Court ordered US states to dismantle segregated school systems and Ferguson began mixing it up. We were gone by then.

In 1966, my father took our family to the West Bank. I was the only non-Armenian attending the ancient Armenian school in Jerusalem's Old City. It was fine to be “the other” for a change, but I wished we could have Jewish friends too. And I wished the Jewish Israelis we weren't seeing across that line could know the families of Palestine as we did, sharing their humble parties under blossoming almond trees.

Our father said that, when he was a boy, Jews and Arabs had been mixed together, neighbours. Now there was power and domination at stake.

In 1967, with the Six Day War brewing, my family left Jerusalem. We settled in San Antonio, a majority Latino city, which felt like a relief. White and black people were minorities. There weren't any lines. Maybe in the air, and in history. But people kept crossing them.

My father, a newspaper journalist, eventually left San Antonio for another paper. I ended up attending college here and have remained until now. We have our first African-American female mayor in history.

Back in Israel/Palestine, nothing improved for the Palestinians and they were always blamed for it. A gigantic ominous “Separation Wall” was built. Americans elected a half-and-half president twice, which gave many of us great hope.

Summer 2014, the news exploded.

Massacres in Gaza - not the first time - people who looked exactly like our Arab families. Regular people. Kids. Sleeping kids. No tanks, no army, no due process of any kind, but they were blasted out of their lives.

Was anyone civilised? A Jewish friend sent me a one-word message that he seemed to be sending out to everyone he knew: STOP!

What could we do?

Of course, we wished Hamas would stop sending reckless rockets into Israel, provoking oversized responses. Why didn't the news examine those back stories more? Oppression makes people do desperate things. I am frankly surprised the entire Palestinian population hasn't gone crazy. If the US can't see that Palestinians have been mightily oppressed since 1948, they really are not interested in looking, are they? And we keep sending weapons and money to Israel, pretending we'd prefer peace.

We send weapons to Ferguson, too.

After unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot, quiet old Ferguson took over the news. Citizens marching, chest placards, “I'M A MAN TOO” “DON'T SHOOT.” It's easy to see how delusions of equality in Ferguson - where a white officer might raise a gun against an unarmed black kid - are simply wrong.

Why is that harder for people to see about Gaza?

People in Gaza actually sent messages of solidarity to Ferguson - Internet petitions signed by Gazan citizens. I thought I was hallucinating. What if they could all march together? 1.8 million Gazans would really clog old Florissant Avenue.

To my knowledge, Israelis have never yet been called militants by the American press, even when they blast whole families to oblivion. It's just “defence.” A newscaster described Ferguson as “a series of stings and hurts.” Try the open-air prison enclave of Gaza for stings and hurts.

On the news, a Kuwaiti running a Ferguson grocery says his store has been looted. I think, “He's the Arab there now.”

Things will change again in Ferguson. Historic inequities in that community will be reexamined, no one will be able to pretend they don't exist. But will we examine them in other communities too?

Will things change for Gaza? If they don't, this nightmare of worst selves will keep happening and happening. Look, it already has. And what gets better? Will the United States ever speak out in solidarity with scores of exhausted people burying their dead, staring up with stunned eyes, mystified?

Washington Post

* Shihab Nye is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets



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