Beyond Grief: To Love and Stay with Those Who Die in Our Arms
October 24 2023
blog Series: 
Artwork by Devin Atallah, poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah in The Butterfly's Burden (2007) as: “love is born a living creature before it becomes an idea.”

Today, here in Boston, I received a call from one of my people in my Indigenous village in the West Bank.[1] My people called me to cry together, to be present to the genocide in Gaza, to hold each other and all the pain and horror we feel in our bones. During this same phone call, we celebrated the birthday of an adored member of our community. Even in this time, we were present for the anniversary of birth, loving Palestinian life, remembering and honoring our intergenerational perseverance. Over the phone, we spoke together about how we can find the expansiveness of spirit to be present for children’s lives, for birth, for each other, in times genocide. We cried for all our Palestinian babies massacred and our families facing annihilation by Israeli colonial violence. We remember the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote: “Love is born a living creature before it becomes an idea

What does it take to love our babies, our living, and our dead in the midst of Israel’s genocidal colonial conquest? How do we care for our massacred bodies and all the collective residues of horror as our people are so violently thrown out of human consideration? When can we release our tears and let them fall free? This is not grief. This is our revolutionary, Indigenous love fighting against the apocalyptic violence of genocide. And when we love like this, anchored in Palestinian feminist praxis, we live and die with dignity, and we become the freedom we are demanding.

From this praxis of Palestinian, Indigenous love, I question Judith Butler’s recent interpretations of grievability. On October 13, 2023, six days into Israel’s genocide of our families, the London Review of Books published an essay by Butler titled “The Compass of Mourning,” in which she condemns the violence of Hamas and the Israeli regime, and calls for nonviolence—even though she admits that nonviolence is not a politic that can “possibly operate as an absolute principle to be applied in all occasions.” But apply it, she does. Butler goes on to say that “the wider compass of mourning serves a more substantial ideal of equality, one that acknowledges the equal grievability of lives, and gives rise to an outrage that these lives should not have been lost, that the dead deserved more life and equal recognition for their lives.” She asks if “we can mourn, without qualification, for the lives lost in Israel as well as those lost in Gaza”?

My response to Butler: Yes, we can mourn the Israeli lives lost in the Hamas raid. But as Palestinians, we do not have access to grieve our beloveds killed by Israeli settler-colonial and genocidal aggression.

This is why I cringed and shouted aloud while reading Butler’s whitewashed interpretations. I felt colonial hands guiding her compass, pointing due north. Global South imaginaries of peace and nonviolence have long abolished this northern colonial compass. Where has Butler been? Long shipwrecked on the shores of the Mpondo on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, as Hugo Canham so beautifully writes in Riotous Deathscapes, emergent from the failures of White hope, we, as transnational Indigenous and Black decolonial theorists, have worked to orient away from destructive zones of colonial safety, security, and certainty. We orient toward our waters, our changing seas, and our wells and springs. We find ways to flow, to resist acceptability and categorical knowingness.

As our Palestinian people face the genocidal unmasking of the colonial world, we know that when colonizers talk about “security,” they are in fact talking about “violence.” In the colonial exchange—or the “columbial” exchange, as Colón is Spanish for Columbus—security becomes violence, and violence becomes security. They merge and become the same word.

Tareq Baconi recently wrote, “for decades Israel has operated on the pretense that it can provide security for its citizens while subjecting the Palestinian people to an apartheid regime. Now that pretense has been shattered.” Did Israel lie to or mislead its citizens for over seven decades? No. Instead, the issue is one of semantics. Israel’s promise that it would provide security for its citizens has always been, in fact, a promise that it would provide them with violence, as illustrated in the work of Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian.

As Palestinians, we do not have the privilege to grieve because we cannot mourn our corpses murdered as part of this continuous columbial violence. We know deep in our bodies that to grieve we must have access to the fluidity of time stolen from us along with our land. Grieving is for corpses that had access to livingness while alive, and that were then ceremonially laid to rest in the earth and sky, in cemeteries, in smoke. Colonizers’ bodies have these privileges. Yet we, the colonized, still cannot pick up our body parts scattered across spaces and times. From this moment in Gaza City to forty years ago in Sabra and Shatila; from a few months ago in Jenin to twenty years ago in Bethlehem; from two years ago in Sheikh Jarrah to one year ago in Nablus; from nine years ago in Khan Younis to seventy-five years ago in Deir Yassin; and on, and on, and on. This is why, we, the colonized, cannot grieve our dead. We are obligated to steal our present to fight for our future.

Even when we cannot grieve, still, we choose love. We affirm our Palestinian love with refusal, persistence, and care. As my friend Abdullah, a Palestinian from Gaza, shared with me just yesterday when I visited him and his three-year-old baby, and with love and care I asked him what he is holding on that I can hold with him, he shared this story:

You know Devin, habibi, I am trying to hold on to our Indigenous love right now, more than ever. Indigenous love to me means life-giving relationships between earth, soil, and soul, which I feel in my own body when I am hugging my son. I have been home with him throughout the genocide of the past 12 days, while I am talking on the phone or messaging my family and my community in Gaza.

I was just on the phone with a frontline worker from a Palestinian relief organization who was responding to yesterday’s bombings in Gaza. She was explaining to me how she and others on her team were struggling to find survivors, bodies, corpses. As she was sharing this with me, I noticed that I suddenly began to travel in time, to be flooded with memories of 2008 when I was a translator and a journalist responding to a massacre of farmers in a community in Gaza. I was at a site where 28 members of one family were killed in an Israeli bombing, and as I was struggling to overturn the rubble of the houses, I stumbled upon a woman who was on the ground, shouting and actively giving birth. There was no medical relief yet, and the Israeli army would not let the ambulance into the area.

I kneeled down beside her and noticed she was badly injured and bleeding everywhere. She was having contractions, about to birth her baby. I lifted and held her head off the ground as she pushed her baby out. Once the baby emerged, I knew I needed to cut the umbilical cord, but I didn’t have any tools. My hands and everything around me were covered in dust and blood. I saw that the mother was in a terrible condition and would likely die. I realized I had only three options: try to save her somehow, stay with her as she died in my arms, or leave her and keep looking for others who may have a higher chance of surviving. And what about the baby? I was frozen in this impossible state of nonexistence.

This was hell on Earth. I stayed with her, in hell. These are Palestinian moments that so many of us hold and remember under our skin, especially us from Gaza.

Then, I traveled in time again, and I was back with the frontline responder who was still speaking into my other ear, describing scenes of horror from the present moment, from the now, where body parts are everywhere, people shouting, sharp edges at each step, everything broken and collapsed. She was speaking with me about the same decisions I had to make in 2008: “do I search for survivors or do I stay with people who are dying in my arms?”

On the phone, it was as if we were both running, both losing our breath together, losing everything. It was as if we were falling into the abyss of genocide, a black hole strong enough to swallow our light. I could hear our struggles to breathe on the phone. She knows I know. She knows I understand. I support her in making the impossible decisions, sharing words of love, affection, and support. As we say our goodbyes, I say to her, “ma’ al-mahabba” (with love).

No, Judith Butler, we cannot mourn our dead. As our people in Gaza shout out, nothing is left but agony. The colonial world remains silent. But we hear your screams and your cries, beloved Gaza. We move toward you, we strive to be present for you, we love you. We abandon grief as we watch the clock, waiting for the hour of life to tick while death encloses our every breath. We, the Indigenous in 2023, entrust the land with our pain and with our love. The colonizers come and go. But the land remains, as do our souls. And as our Palestinian proverb reminds us: “The land is equivalent to the soul.”

الارض تعادل الروح

[1] I am not naming my people in the West Bank nor their connection to me to protect their privacy and security in a time of incredible violence against our people.
About The Author: 

Devin G. Atallah, PhD is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB). His research and action team at UMB is the DARA Collective. He is a diaspora Palestinian from the USA and Chile. As an activist, researcher, scholar, practitioner, and healer, Dr. Atallah is dedicated to decolonial movements and Palestinian liberation, and his work focuses on understanding and directly contributing to intergenerational resistance and healing justice praxis. Dr. Atallah developed a Palestinian decolonial healing guide with colleagues, CURCUMs Trees: A Decolonial Healing Guide for Palestinian Community Health Workers, which is available in English and Arabic with Mayfly Books.

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