It was on the edge of the valley in Occupied Jerusalem where I first met Yacoub Odeh. I expected him to tell me about his mother or grandmother, about their upbringing in the now-colonized village of Lifta, just steps from where we were standing that afternoon. But Yacoub’s Lifta wasn’t that of past generations, of a lost history. When we spoke, he told me of the Lifta of his own childhood.
The 83-year-old skipped up the jagged hills as he led me to a look out over the valley. I lagged behind him, chasing my breath, trying to avoid the eyes of the settlers staggering up and down the hill around us. They threw nods and sneers at Yacoub as we hiked: familiar with the man whose ancestral land they were occupying, and yet so clearly unfamiliar with the contours of the land itself. Yacoub waited for me to reach the top, and with Lifta’s remains before us, he told me that he lost this village to Israel during the Nakba. He was eight years old.
Yacoub moved through the rough geography of the land with a deftness the settlers couldn’t access. It was astonishing to me. Had I plopped him right at the entrance of Lifta and blindfolded him, he could have traversed the village’s disappeared streets all the same. His knowledge was borne from a willingness to learn from the land itself, and from the people who had, no doubt, learned from it before him. Lifta’s past was not just an image Yacoub carried in his mind: it was a physical routine that lived in his muscle memory, one he repeated every day with the same agility he possessed the day he was exiled from it. At this sight alone my thoughts raced, my brain unraveling as if I was being lulled to sleep, my mind about to begin dreaming.
I have been acutely aware of the series of events that led to my birth in the United States for quite some time. I could sit in front of Power Point slides, before an audience of college students, nearly shouting about Napoleon and the Ottomans and Sykes-Picot and the Nakba and the other Nakba and the other Nakba and the Intifada and the other Intifada and the other Intifada until my voice gave out. I was a teenager the first time I visited Palestine, an adult when my mother told me her first memory began with an evacuation of her kindergarten class and ended with Israeli soldiers surrounding her village with tanks. Many of Palestine’s stones had been turned over in my head a million times, rote memories that I spewed and analyzed and explained and cried over and let harden in my imagination as a stagnant series of thoughts. As Yacoub pointed to his former-school-turned-military-base, these thoughts began clanging in unison, ignited into sentience by the past and the present and the future all simultaneously crashing into each other before me. Our tour had barely begun when the jaded part of me that conceptualized a Free Palestine awoke from its sleep.
I have spent the entirety of my life attending American academic institutions. This is where my despair and jaded attitude was first forged — where my own politics and understanding of colonialism found footing. But informed by the stories of my family, I always felt a disconnect between the colonization I knew intimately, and the rhetorically empty variety described by my professors. If you spend enough time within Western academic spaces, you may be familiar with popular, incessant calls to “decolonize the mind.”
This concept — “decolonizing the mind” — is rooted in radical politics, popularized by the inimitable Kenyan Fanonian-Marxist writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. But his original call to action has since been transfigured by the American academy, where scholars, above all else, use it to pat themselves on the back as they try to defend their academic careers from the colonial past and present of the academy itself. As a Palestinian, it was not hard to see it as a theoretical practice with no real praxis… a retroactive attempt to wave away the violence already done, to make invisible the violence still underway. And while it can certainly be a useful tool of reflection and analysis, my primary observations of this process have shown me that “decolonizing the mind” is mainly used as a tool of self-flagellation for guilty academics.
How do we decolonize the way of thinking that is responsible for publishing our papers, responsible for keeping our lights on, responsible for kicking out the people who used to live on the land our lecture halls were built over? All cynical questions — ones that I believed had no real answer. That is until I was standing in the middle of Lifta with Yacoub.
We spent a day piecing through the ruins of Lifta back together, naming every family that once occupied the remnants of the village’s demolished homes, as if they were to return within the hour with bread and fruit from the market, as if they had pots still boiling on the stove. Yacoub stood on a slab of the mountain we were in front of and leaned in.
“Culture moves from generation to generation,” he gestured between himself and I. “If the memory is alive, we will not lose our land.” He tells me that yes, “geographically, [settlers] occupied it,” but sooner or later, all colonization, all oppression, will one day come to an end. With righteous certainty, Odeh explained that settler colonialism relies not only on the theft of land, but on severing the connection between the land and its dispossessed. We cannot free the land if we have allowed it to escape our minds. It needs more than to return to our belonging, it must never leave our grasp. It is necessary for generation after generation to never forget who we are and where we come from, so that when the day of return does arrive, we know exactly where we are going.
Perhaps for those in American academia — attempting to wrap the shivering guilt of the dispossessor in a warm and fuzzy blanket — decolonization of the mind can be an analytical and retroactive means of thinking. And perhaps this is why the process of decolonizing the mind can be riddled with a cynic’s contradictions, for those whose life’s work has been made possible by settler colonialism. But for the dispossessed, decolonization of the mind is a process that begins with our memory and lives in our bodies. It’s not a retroactive process of undoing; it is instead imaginative, regenerative, and, above all else, borne through a hopeful steadfastness, so that when the land does return, it’s met by — and freed by — the minds of people who have never forgotten it. On my next visit to Lifta, I will be a little less out of breath, a little more familiar with the land that Yacoub still calls his home.