A Quiet, Subtle Story
that was born in the margins
I want to share a piece of writing that has sat in my notes for a while. It’s nothing clever, there’s no plot or dramatic arc. It’s a memory from Palestine, one that I return to often. I’ve hesitated to share this remembrance because it felt unfinished. I had stashed it away, waiting for it to find a place within a larger, polished piece so that it could be worthy of being shared. But, lately, something in me is shifting in how I conceive of writing. I’ve been thinking about what forces shape our perception of what is good, acceptable, or worthy. I am internalizing that not all writing needs to be manufactured into a product. Some writing can simply bear witness to quiet, subtle stories that hold urgent, potent truths.
This shift in my philosophy of creation coincides with a recent decision to decline an offer to enroll in a creative writing MFA program. While I know I would have made the most of the experience, there were too many nagging feelings that just didn’t sit right with me. One of them being the exorbitant cost of tuition (even with a 50% scholarship), and how that prompted me to think about who gets excluded from such spaces. Another hesitance was around the idea of becoming “qualified,” and how problematic that feels, especially in the intersection of art and social justice. I thought about what might happen to my creativity if I take it to such an environment, so early in my journey as a writer.
In the past few years, I have found truly beautiful communities within which to explore writing. I’ve participated in workshops put on by community organizations and individual writers motivated to build a more representative, nurturing world of art. I’ve been in community with Muslim women writing to reclaim our bodies, emerging writers in and from Pakistan unpacking what decolonization means for us, and South Asian writers in the region and diaspora who write to confront oppression. I recently finished a series called Writing with Vulnerability in Mind, which cracked me open in ways I didn’t know I needed.
These experiences have pushed me to think about the function of writing, who I write for, and how to show up on the page with compassion for myself and my subject. I’ve learned how to generate pieces that speak without apology, pieces I never knew I had in me. I’ve made life-affirming friends who have helped me find expansiveness and freedom within my creativity. In all these containers, I have been among writers from all over the world who write not only because they love to, but because they need to. For many of these humans, writing has saved their lives. I want to name and give thanks to those who conceived of and facilitated the spaces where I learned what it means to find myself as a writer - Fatimah Asghar, Fariha Róisín, Roohi Choudhry, and Maniza Naqvi. All women writers of South Asian descent. This is a plug to seek out and uplift their work.
I have discovered that I write because I want to build a home for myself made out of the way I see the world - the sensations, textures, and feelings of being alive. I share my writing as an offering so others may find a home in my language too. So far in my writing journey, I’ve been free from the mental gymnastics of “bringing diversity” to an institution. Instead, I’m engaging in communal healing by making art with my tribe. The former feels like labor; the latter: freedom.
In this month of Ramadan, a time of heightened God-consciousness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how capitalism is the opposite of everything good and true in the world. This decision comes at a time in my life where I’m “figuring things out.” By which I mean, it’s been nearly one year since I left my life and job in Palestine and have been in a cocoon of rest, reflection, and just being. I hate how much I feel like I have to explain this time of “doing nothing,” when really I’m full-time being, growing, healing, and creating. It is so sad how much of our worth is wrapped up in how we commodify our time. I realize that a small part of my motivation for seeking out an MFA was having something that felt socially acceptable and impressive - a rubber stamp to turn a calling into a career. It makes me sad to think that we take someone seriously for their craft if they’ve turned it into work.
While I want to sharpen my skills as a writer and reader, reach an audience, and dream of having a bookshelf full of many works, I first and foremost need to learn how to protect my writing from the forces that dictate what makes literature marketable. I’m starting to understand on a personal level how writing can be a form of resistance to the world order. Writing is a way to bear witness, interrogate the status quo, uplift the righteous, and stare down evil. I want to write from a place of rest, equanimity, and resolve. I’m not saying that this can’t happen within an MFA or that I’ll never pursue writing in an academic setting. What I am saying is that I need to bolster my sense of self and craft so that I can be wiser in dismissing anything that is a disservice to it.
So I’ll do just that – continue to write from outside the gates, commune with artists who exist and create outside of the mainstream, and uplift those who create in the fringes. I’ll write with and for my community, and trust that in the right time - from a place of gentle power - my words will find their way from the margins to the main page.
Without further ado, a quiet, subtle story:
(Working Title: Holding Hands)
I enter the Gaza Strip weekly, my routine the same: cross the border, get settled into my office, and then walk around the corner to purchase fruit and vegetables for the week from Abu Emad‘s market. In my 5 years in Palestine, I have become a regular at this market. Upon entry, I am always greeted boisterously by Mohammed, the man who manages the store, sometimes manning the register, sometimes supervising teenage boys on their tasks, sometimes lounging and listening to the radio. No matter what he’s in the middle of doing when I enter, Mohammed rushes to greet me with a handshake, asking me where I’ve been, and taking great interest in the mundane updates from my life. He entertains my broken Arabic graciously, nodding along with my clumsy sentences as if there’s nothing amiss. Our ritual concludes with Mohammed breaking off a banana from a bunch, carefully peeling it halfway, and offering it to me with a hand over his heart.
In May 2021, one week after a ceasefire is brokered to end the 11-day, Israeli-led bombing campaign, I return to Gaza. My usual commute from the border to my office, hindered by cratered streets, becomes elongated due to lengthy detours. I finally make it to my office, and spend the rest of the morning holding my colleagues in long hugs, honoring their survival. I eventually make my way around the corner to Abu Emad. Entering through the same entrance as usual, my head instinctually turns towards the register across the shop to greet Mohammed from across the market. There he sits, but this time it’s different. He’s leaning back in his chair, his head tilted towards the ceiling, his eyes closed, a perfect embodiment of exhaustion that seems to emanate from the marrow of his bones. His eyes open slowly, as if fighting quicksand. His face flickers when we make eye contact. Reflexively raising his hand in a gesture of greeting, he makes his way to me. His exhaustion transmutes into a lighter energy.
We shake hands, slower than usual, a silent acknowledgement of what had just happened in Gaza. Alhamdulillah al salama, thank God for your safe arrival, he says, acknowledging the several kilometers and Israeli checkpoints I must cross to return to Gaza. Alhamdulillah al salama, I send straight back to him, acknowledging the traumatic 11 days he and the rest of Gaza had physically survived. Our handshake decelerates to a simple handhold through this exchange of greetings. On some level, I know this handhold is a stand-in for a hug, a forbidden gesture between unrelated men and women in Gaza. Mohammed’s eyes sparkle as he continues, “Truly, thank God that you’re here. Because if you’re here, then the war has certainly ended.” By which he means, me – a foreigner with an American passport – if Gaza is safe enough for me to be allowed here, then this ceasefire must be real.
I remain silent while I sit with the painful inequities revealed in such plain sight by this moment, my hand still wrapped in Mohammed’s. Finally, he releases and springs to the next step of our ritual. He pulls a perfectly ripe banana off a bunch, snaps the neck, and pulls four floppy peels halfway down. His wrist moves balletically to hand off the unpeeled side of the banana to me, his other hand on his heart.
Our ritual complete, Mohammed returns to the register while I carry on with my shopping, banana in hand. Alhamdulillah, he says to no one in particular as he makes his way across the store. He collapses into his swivel chair behind the register, reclines his neck, and lets out an expansive sigh. Alhamdulillah, he says again to the sky.