There is No Lifting the Rubble from Afar: A Conversation Between Two Palestinian Healers Waging Love Against Genocide
January 31 2024
blog Series: 

rubble everywhere

spills memories

 constant reminders of your hate
seen across the world 

you have spent my lifetime 
dreaming of your security 

I have spent your lifetime
cultivating pomegranates and revolutionaries 

you keep your hatred
I have the rage 

you keep your planes
I have the sky

 you keep your bombs
I have the seed 

you keep your haven
I have the soil 

you keep your settler nation
I have the raven, and my tender heart

—poem and painting by Devin Atallah

Painting by Devin Atallah

In a world of hate waged against us, where is the ocean of love powerful enough to liberate us from this colonial apocalypse? How do we hold our agony, grief, rage, and rubble of this abandoned Palestinian life? Why talk of love in times of genocide, as tens of thousands are murdered with no protection enacted? Why talk of love as genocide courts are in session from San Francisco to the Hague? Why write of love while no ceasefire is demanded by governments in the West who continue to reject the rest? Why discuss love right now, as more than 70% of all buildings in Gaza have been destroyed and more than 90% of Gaza residents displaced? Why talk about tenderness and loving relief while acronyms like WCNSF (Wounded Child No Surviving Family) are inscribed into the lexicon of humanitarian relief? There is no relief.

From Burlington to Beit Hanoun, Palestinians are shot down to the ground. Bullet in the back. Stuck in the spinal cord. Buried by the rubble of colonial violence. What do we do with what remains of life? With what remains of the world? A world dying, crawling toward an ending. Like a child in one of the many hospitals in Gaza that have become the site of the world’s relinquishment and torture after being bombed, surrounded by the debris of his family, thrown out upon the floor. He is an eight-year-old, crawling on the hospital floor, grasping for life, lying beside his sister who is broken, buckling, bloody, and lifeless next to him… Let me touch you, he says with his reaching, bloody hands, where you can see his name written with a permanent pen, permanent pain. Let me free you from your suffering, my sister. Let me soothe you. Let me steal you away from this brutality. There is no relief.

Relationships, however, do remain. We reach for each other. We struggle to dig and lift each other out of the rubble. When Palestinians awaken in wheelchairs and cannot feel their legs, still, we are here for each other. When the rubble becomes our home, and our home becomes the rubble, too often, we are too late. Can love lift a way out of genocide?

We (the authors of this essay) are Palestinian psychotherapists who strive to weave decolonial love into our work as militant healers. Devin Atallah was born and raised in the shataat (in the diaspora), and he currently lives in Boston, within the unceded lands of the Wampanoag and other Indigenous peoples of the northeastern coast of Turtle Island. Nihaya Abu-Rayyan was born and raised in the blad (in the homeland), in a village near Hebron (al-Khalil), and she currently lives in Ramallah.

In this essay, we share enactments of decolonial love, stories of our reaching for one another, of seeking to lift our people up and out of the rubble of colonial violence, even when we cannot be in Gaza to substantially support our people the way we so deeply long for. As we write, we do not want to trivialize the material reality of all the literal lifting that our people in Gaza are faced with in each and every moment right now, as the world turns away or actively encourages the genocide, offering no support in saving the lives of thousands of Palestinians that remain under the rubble. Our people in Gaza are left alone to dig, lift, and search for their beloved.

Is there any Palestinian across the world that doesn’t wish we could all immediately stop Israel’s relentless massacres against our people, and to be there supporting the excavation right now, digging through the debris to find our people? To be there, not only to dig, but to protect, to share water, shelter, bring medicine, food, and fuel, and to support the incredible task ahead of rebuilding? 

Devin Atallah

Every few days, Nihaya and I call each other, offering care and connection as we work in our own settings — My work in the shataat focuses on cocreating spaces of healing and organizing with Palestinians in the diaspora, inconsolable, raging, weeping, and agonizing from afar, struggling as our people are being extinguished in most horrendous genocidal violence of our times. Sometimes, we also turn to fight for our dignity, our jobs, and the integrity of our bodies and humanity in our workplaces, our schools, our neighborhoods, and beyond. Some of us are hit by the bullets of anti-Palestinian racism, like the three young Palestinian men who were shot on Nov. 25, 2023, walking in Vermont. As Kinnan Abdalhamid said in an interview with NBC alongside Hisham Awartani, the person who shot them was not a single ‘sick’ individual but a symptom of a larger systematic issue of normalized hate waged against us as Palestinians. Even as our families remain alienated and fearful, we continue to not only enact our Palestinian love for one another, but we pivot and push for the focus of our energies to be on our people who are on the front lines in Gaza and the West Bank. 

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan

I am a psychotherapist in the West Bank, living between my Indigenous village in the hills of Hebron (al-Khalil) and the city of Ramallah. I travel weekly between the two places to see my patients and then to visit my own family members in landscapes of extreme settler violence and militarized colonial conquest. Each day, I struggle to provide healing and spaces of decolonial love for the people I counsel. I speak with Atallah regularly on the phone or via video chat, and we offer each other support. Atallah provides me with supportive supervision, but most of all, we accompany each other as friends and fellow travelers through terrains of struggle and decolonial resistance in our unique and different front lines of colonial violence. Sometimes, when Atallah calls me, he finds me deep in a cave of my own pain. Under the rubble of my mind. Sometimes, I decline his calls, and we don’t speak for a few days.  I fool myself into thinking that I need to be holding what I am holding alone, in silence, in isolation. When I find the courage to accept his call, I remember why we deserve each other as Palestinian healers, oceans apart. We are tethering together a fabric of life in the face of the impossible horror and hemorrhaging of humanity as genocide crushes, cuts, and seeks to destroy our people completely. 

Devin Atallah

“My dear, what are you holding that you’d like me to hold with you today?”

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan

"Habibi, we are changed forever by this war. I can’t stop seeing the unbelievable pain from the injuries right now — did you see the children’s legs? In that video? Completely crushed? I have never seen this level of unimaginable pain.”

Devin Atallah
“I saw it. Yes. My dear. I saw it.” 

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan

“Try to imagine the emotions this child has, not only when he looks at his crushed legs but when he sees the Israeli soldiers who have occupied the hospital. When this child looks into the eyes of the Israeli soldiers who have bombed and invaded the hospital, killed his family, and crushed his legs this way… What does this baby experience? You know, yesterday, when I looked into the eyes of an Israeli soldier, I felt an entire world of pain and rage. I started my journey at 1 p.m. in the afternoon, leaving Ramallah on foot, finding a car that would take me to Hebron (al-Khalil), which is only 25 miles away from Ramallah, yet I didn’t arrive to Hebron (al-Khalil) until 6 p.m. It took me five hours to travel 25 miles. The problem is that the main checkpoint in Bethlehem was closed. So, I had to take a car through the eastern countryside of Bethlehem, where we finally found a checkpoint that was open. We went through eight countryside villages, navigating between settlements. I was forced to see Israeli soldiers everywhere, with their guns hanging on their sides. And there were so many Israeli flags everywhere. Seeing all these flags made me feel so much rage, pain, and anger. Especially as we passed the settlements, I would see flags every 50 or 100 feet. I would see military jeeps, settlers’ cars, and police. And as we drove through this landscape, I was forced to see all the settlers walking normally in the street. Their heads held high. But we, Palestinians, as we walk, as we move, as we take steps or drive, any kind of movement — everything we do in this time of genocide — is like walking in a minefield…  you don’t know when your feet will hit the mine and explode. In Gaza, there is complete obliteration. But in the West Bank, the feeling is more like moving through a minefield.

After five hours of this, I finally arrived in Hebron (al-Khalil), but there was no entrance into my village — all the checkpoints were closed to cars. There was a high risk of being exposed to shooting if we got too close. So, when we approached the gate that leads into Hebron (al-Khalil), the driver didn’t want to enter and asked us all to get out of the car and walk through the checkpoint on foot. You cannot imagine this scene. So many soldiers.

When we got out of the car, the soldiers looked shocked. I was the only woman. There was one young man and one older man with me. The two men shouted at the driver, asking why he wouldn’t try to drive through. The driver shouted back, saying he wouldn’t risk his life. The two men just stood there. I decided not to wait with the men. I made my choice. I walked. I was approaching the colonial divide with my body, and I knew it. The body language of the soldiers was indescribable as they watched me approach from afar. I wish I could express to you the hate they looked at me with. I just walked, and as I got close to them, my fear went away. When I got close to them, I began to feel tears in my eyes, and I couldn’t see. So, I stopped and thought about getting a tissue to wipe my eyes from my handbag because I couldn’t see my feet. But of course, I knew I couldn’t get the tissue because I didn’t want to move my hand or reach for my bag in case the soldiers – watching me with their hawk eyes – would react and shoot me down, claiming that I was reaching to get a weapon. I kept my hands visible to the soldiers, and I forced myself to open my eyes, blink the water away, let the water roll down my face, and allow my red eyes to river down the tears. I walked on and looked one of the soldiers dead in the eye as I passed him. It was an ocean of experience, Atallah, habibi. I made it through.  But then I felt fear rise in my heart after I crossed because there was another group of soldiers on the other side of the checkpoint. They were collecting wood from a fig tree and putting branches in the street to block cars. They swung their guns around and pointed them directly at me when they heard me approach. My heartbeat reached my throat. I was sure I would be shot down. Right then and there in the street, in my streets, the place where I was born, and where my ancestors lived for thousands of years. I was afraid, but somehow, I was ready.  I looked one of the soldiers straight in the eye. At that moment, I remembered the proverb* that says that sometimes, the only way to make someone listen is to show your red eyes. I realized, at this moment, that my eyes had turned red to protect me. The soldier stood there frozen, shouted something, and I turned and kept walking. He didn’t shoot. I felt my head was separated from my body. We, Palestinians in the West Bank, must focus on the idea of trying to reach where we want to go.”

Devin Atallah

“This is colonial torture — a type of torture by the Israeli colonizers against us Palestinians — to control our movements, to separate our families…  a sadist, disgusting reminder of their fictive superiority.” 

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan

“Exactly! As I walked past these soldiers, they had a fake energy of superiority, as if asking us with their body language, ‘Why are you here?’ But I just kept walking. This is the first time I felt real deep fear. I didn’t have the courage to look at them in their eyes. Their hands on the guns, ready to shoot. I felt that they would shoot if you simply moved your eyes. 

It was a really complicated trip. I remembered what one of my patients shared with me the other day. He said to me: ‘I long for my heart to be like a stomach. When my heart is in pain, I would put my hand in my throat and empty all the foods of pain. As a Palestinian refugee, all my life, I’ve been trying to imagine what it must have been like for my grandparents during the time of the Nakba in 1948. Only today, in this time of genocide, do I understand what my grandparents went through in the Nakba.’”

Nihaya pauses to cry. Atallah pauses, too. We both hold silence for each other and for our own grandparents, our ancestors, who we found hidden in our hearts in this moment of collective listening. 

Devin Atallah

Habibti, do you want to talk more about what it’s like for you to be a therapist right now?” 

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan

“It’s not easy to be a Palestinian therapist right now. To hold your pain and tolerate the pain of others. But it gives me the strength that I have an avenue to struggle. This is how I see my work. I fight by supporting my patients in finding new ways to overcome or to find new meanings for the difficulties they have — to reconnect my patients with life. This is my work as a therapist.

 I have come to believe that the only way to overcome the sense of pain and guilt for those who are killed in Gaza is to keep active. To see every action as action. I support my patients in seeing this — they don’t just cook food for their own children… they cook for their children because they are alive. We need to live in this life. We need to go to school and go to therapy sessions. Everything is an action. Even when I go to the bathroom, when I pour a cup the water, when I make the bed in the morning…

There are no routines right now. Everything is an action. There is a genocide against our routine and our way of living. The martyrs are gathering in heaven for our collective, liberated life. No more routine at this time. Only rituals for life and love. Our colonizers need a land without people. They try to erase the people to keep the land. Our goal is to keep our life so the land will always have its people. The only way we can remain on the land and hold our pain is through the depth of our love.” 

Devin Atallah

“Practicing love is our victory…” 

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan

“Of course! And therefore, we do what we do as healers for our patients and each other. Habibi, when we started this call, I found myself under the rubble of myself. I made a cave. I go into this cave when I feel that contact with humans is becoming harmful to me. But I’m coming out of the rubble. I’m taking off the debris of myself. I’m here, but still dusty. We are faced with the rubble everywhere, but we are not rubbish. We are not trash; we do not belong in a landfill. We need to find out all the names and all the stories of everyone killed in Gaza. We need to deliver our people not only back into the earth but back into their identities.”

Nihaya switches to Arabic and says,

"الإنسان الفلسطيني لا يمكن أن يستطيع أحد أن يفصله عن أرضه وهويته؛ لأن ارتباطه بها يشبه ارتباط المولود بأمه يتغذى من حبلها السري الروحي حياً أو ميتاً، فهذه رابطة روحية تاريخية قوية تربط بين الكل الفلسطيني في كل أماكن تواجده في البلاد أو في الشتات، فلن تستطيع المسافات الجغرافية ولن تتمكن الممارسات والسياسات الاستعمارية أن تقطع هذه الرابطة الأبدية.

No one can separate a Palestinian from their land and identity. Because their connection is similar to that of a newborn to his mother, nourished by her spiritual umbilical cord, whether alive or dead. This is a strong historical, spiritual bond that connects all Palestinians wherever they are in the country or the diaspora. Geographical distances and colonial practices and policies will not be able to sever this eternal bond.” 

Devin Atallah

Akeed. This is so powerful, my dear. I appreciate you and your words and how when we work together, we create a vastness of spirit that can hold each other and our people, not only across space but also across time. Wherever and whenever we Palestinians are, our identities are being targeted and assassinated, and in Gaza, this is happening at the most horrific level and way of our times. It feels like the only way to enact love right now is for an immediate ceasefire. What else can we do? How can we remain persistent, always searching for ways to keep living and loving when we are so helpless to protect our people? Wherever we are, how can we affirm our identities and our legacies as Indigenous people — colonized but never truly uprooted because the spiritual cord remains strong? Our work is to live into these questions: When our intergenerational connection with land, ancestors, and each other is directly under attack, how do we care for our hearts by cloaking the outside of our hearts with armor? While ensuring that the inside remains soft and tender?” 

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan:

“Yes, this is the question we must answer each day by how we live our love. Let us close this conversation with a quote by Prophet Mohammad, peace and prayers be upon him, who said: 

'ان كان نصيبك من الدنيا لين قلبك، فقد نجوت.'

Whoever gets the share of this world with a tender heart, has survived.’

Goodbye habibi…”

Devin Atallah

“See you next week, habibti

* The reference is to an Arab proverb that implies that some people won’t go your way unless you “show red eyes” as in confront in a show of strength.
ناس ما بتيجي الا بالعين الحمراء

About The Author: 

Devin G. Atallah is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. A diaspora Palestinian from the U.S. and Chile, Atallah is an activist, researcher, scholar, practitioner, and healer dedicated to decolonial movements and Palestinian liberation. Atallah’s ongoing work focuses on understanding and directly contributing to intergenerational resistance and healing justice praxis.

Nihaya Abu-Rayyan is a freelance psychotherapist in Palestine. Narrative therapy practitioner and supervisor, co-researcher, and indigenous healer and trainer anchored in decolonial liberational and healing justice praxis.

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