Tamara Masri

Good Morning, Beautiful World

ISSUE 100 | HOLES | JUL 2022

Almagul Menlibayeva, Nuclear Test Field. Inheritance without a testament, 2012

I first met Gabe four years ago at a dark bar in Berlin. The place was packed, lit only by white church candles, and walking in felt like entering the tunnel of a catacomb taken over by the living. It was Halloween night, and I remember this because Gabe and his three other friends were ordering drinks while dressed in brown hooded robes, hemp rope belts dangling from their hips. A quartet of medieval monks ready to party. Even though we all went to the same college, I only knew of one of the monks, the son of a renowned scholar of Japanese literature and culture. But I bring up Gabe because he started our interaction with a philosophical question, one that I still think about a lot.

“Imagine a genie opens a portal to the Ultimate Reality and invites you in,” Gabe proposed, making a circle with his hands. “Right here, right now, no guarantee of return. Would you go in?”

* * *

The morning of September 6th, 2021, began with a photograph of a hole in the ground, sent to me by my friend Maryam. In the picture, a man—presumably an investigator—is crouched before the opening, outlining the uneven circumference with what appears to be white chalk as though it were the scene of a murder in a police procedural.

Then came the memes, mostly from my dad. In one, the detective is replaced with an image of Rodin’s The Thinker, bent over the void like a question mark. In another, the middle finger is superimposed onto the hole, facing the investigator in a crude but apt depiction of the feeling that captivated Palestinians that morning and for a long time after that. Between the discovery of the Gilboa prison break and the recapture of its last escapee, six exhilarating days during which the dominant feeling was of holding onto a rope in the ocean, a lifeline pulling us backward and forward in time, tying us into knots, binding us together.

In the Israeli press, however, the detective is notably cropped out. The lens of the narrative focused only on the hole itself: the logistics of the Gilboa prison break, the manhunt that spanned across Palestine, and the capture of the six escapees from Jenin that lowered themselves into the tunnel they’d dug and emerged into freedom. Especially Zakaria.

But the hole is not complete without this nameless investigator. His profound confusion is essential to the arc, and to remove him from the picture is to do a disservice to all of those who love a great escape. Evading the pharaoh’s grasp, after all, has always been the best part of the story.

* * *

“Good morning, beautiful world,” Maryam sang when I clicked on the voice note beneath the photo of the hole. She said it in that lilting way that meant that she had some gossip. Still, it was unreasonably early for her to be so energetic; when I do hear from her at that hour, it’s usually a groggy rendition of last night’s dream. But that morning was different. That morning Maryam was very much awake.

“Zakaria and five others from Jenin refugee camp have just escaped from prison.” Maryam did her best to keep up the serious news broadcaster voice but couldn’t. Between bouts of laughter she apologized, the way actors do when they break character.

“Zakaria al Zubeidi,” Maryam said. “From Arna’s Children, remember?”

* * *

I first met Maryam in a small shack in Jenin during the winter of 2015, when I was working as the personal assistant to a film director who was shooting a movie there. The shack was where we stored the props, and I was told to help with the revolutionary posters we would later plaster in a subsection of the camp. When I walked into the shack, Maryam stood from behind a table holding a big paintbrush, the only other woman in the crew. She looked me up and down, moving the paintbrush in my direction for a second, and then continued applying wheat paste to the backs of the posters.

“So, you’re the assistant,” Maryam said in a way that made it hard to tell if she was asking or telling me.

Then she held one poster up and asked if I thought the director would like it, as if she had designed it or my opinion mattered, neither of which was the case.

Even though the movie was set in the present, the poster looked as though it was from the 1960s, like the ones Cuba used to make for the Palestinian cause—bright red shapes, grinning guerilla fighters, Arabic script in rainbow technicolor calling for action. The poster and its unabashed optimism recalled a time when the concept of liberation was steeped in a sense of global comradery and beauty, an aesthetic challenge against the pervading nihilism which seemed to reverberate off the gray walls Maryam and I were tasked with masking. Yes, I told her, he will love it. Then she gave me a brush and we painted.

Maryam told me that she was from Jenin and studied acting at The Freedom Theatre in the refugee camp. When she heard that a movie was going to be shot, she wanted to help out for two reasons. The first was that she believed in movies. The second was the fact that she was going to be a star.

“And you? Why do you look like a foreigner?” she asked me, smiling.

I told her that my mother was American, and Maryam’s expression changed for a second. When the other crew members left us alone in the shack for a cigarette break, Maryam asked me if that meant that I could go into ’48, meaning Israel. I said I could. I didn’t return the question because I assumed she could not.

“Well, I can too,” she said, aware of the unspoken. And then she explained her loophole. Her dad was originally from occupied Bisan but was forced to flee, and his family had been placed in the Jenin refugee camp. But because he worked as a bus driver, he was able to meet Maryam’s mom from Nazareth, and they got married before the laws changed, so Maryam got her mom’s Israeli citizenship.

As the crew members trickled back into the shack, Maryam stopped her origin story and cut to the chase.

“Want to go to a party in Haifa tonight?” she whispered.

I had never been to Haifa. I only knew of it from the Ghassan Kanafani novella Returning to Haifa, in which the protagonist Said and his wife, Safiyya, go back to the city 20 years after being forced to flee in 1948, leaving their home and their baby, Khaldoun, behind in the chaos. When they knock on their old front door, they meet a Jewish couple who had moved in and adopted their son, now a soldier. “In the final analysis, man is a cause,'' Khaldoun tells Said, who in turns tells his son that he was thinking the same thing. And then they separate, in agreement on this thesis, and return to their respective struggles.

I had other associations with Haifa: it had a big grassy hill with the mystical Baháʼí temple on top. It was a “mixed” city, where the Jewish Israelis, for the most part, lived on top of the hill looking over at the sea, and below, the Palestinians, some of whom I heard went surfing and had tattoos. Haifa was open, where in the morning women could drink coffee in cafes that played Egyptian classics like Um Kalthoum and wear shorts, and at night they could dance until the sun rose up from behind the golden dome of the temple if they wanted to.

I nodded: yes, let’s go.

* * *

Outside, we plastered the posters on the dusty cement walls of the camp as Maryam explained the logistics: her theater friends who were also working on the film, I’ll call them Taher and Subhi, would drive us to the checkpoint, and then her Haifa friends would pick us up from the other side.

“Don’t go telling Taher or Subhi, ‘Oh thanks for the ride, we’re going to a party in Haifa,’” Maryam said in her Arabic equivalent of a Valley girl accent. Haifa is where they were originally from, so we wouldn’t want to rub it in their faces, she explained. If they asked, I was going there to get something for the director, and she was there to help me.

I told Maryam that she didn’t need to explain things to me like I was a foreigner, which made her smile.

But Palestine is small, and Taher and Subhi already knew exactly where we were going. In the car, Taher told us that one of his friends who was very good at rope climbing might try to climb the wall to get to the party. But neither Taher nor Subhi wanted to risk prison for it. Not worth it, we all agreed.

“I’m dying to dance, though,” Subhi said and turned up the music as we drove up to the checkpoint. When we got out, he wished us a fun time.

The whole encounter got Maryam all in a rut. She said felt too guilty to go to the party, which as it turned out wasn’t going to happen anyway since the soldiers held me up for three hours.

“Tell them you’re American,” Maryam instructed as if they weren’t already holding my passport. We waited in a small cement room and watched people get patted down, open their car trunks, and drive by. At some point Maryam took out her phone and turned on Rihanna, hoping to get the soldier’s attention. Not really sure how to feel about it, Maryam began to serenade the soldier with the lyrics, something in the way you move. He ignored us and walked away. I was impressed by how unfazed Maryam as she didn’t miss a beat and sang the entire song, louder and louder. When it was over, she turned to me.

“Tell them,” she said, “that you just want to have fun.”

* * *

Since we missed our ride to the party, we ended up getting a taxi to a friend’s apartment in Haifa where we could sleep in the living room. When we walked in, I was struck by how old the apartment looked with its high ceilings, arched windows, and arabesque floor tiles in gold, red, and olive green. Thunder from an encroaching storm began to clap outside, and no amount of the fuzzy and slightly sticky polyester blankets that we cocooned ourselves in could keep the cold of the stone floor from seeping into us.

“This is all very hard for me,” Maryam said, lying next to me, her eyes glossy with elsewhere. Then she explained: The last time she was in Haifa was for her acting teacher’s funeral in the spring of 2011. The apartment we were staying at was on the exact same street as the funeral procession a few years before, where Maryam followed the casket, seemingly in an endless loop, round and round the cul-de-sac.

Juliano Mer Khamis, Maryam’s teacher, had been born in Nazareth in 1959, to communist activists. His father was a Palestinian, his mother an Israeli. After his mother’s death, Juliano took over the theater she founded in Jenin.

Maryam, an energetic 18 year old with a spunk that often conflicted with the cultural confines of the camp, would often hang around The Freedom Theatre. Juliano noticed her ability to connect and challenge people, and he tried to convince her to get on stage. At first Maryam didn’t want to, her parents would never allow it, but he talked to her parents and convinced them that the theater was an appropriate place for a woman to be. Soon Maryam began taking on lead roles. Her favorite was The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Juliano’s final play.

To advertise it, Juliano had Maryam dress up in a red gown, tied a red throne to the top of his car, and drove through the streets of Jenin as she called out to passersby through a megaphone. Thousands of people came to see her perform. When the Jenin cast toured in New York, they were able to see other people’s plays for the first time. Even though Maryam didn’t drink alcohol or speak English, she was treated like a celebrity. She even got invited to her first-ever party.

Yet as Maryam catapulted into her new life, Juliano always made her feel like she wasn’t enough. This was his Israeli side, he joked once, an attitude that kept her on her toes. But the day before Juliano was killed by a masked gunman while driving through Jenin, he sat Maryam down, looked her in the eye, and told her that he believed in her, and that she was going to be a star. Later, turning the conversation over in her head, she would be dogged by the eerie feeling that her teacher had known what was about to happen to him.

Maryam stopped and looked away toward the big arched window that faced the street. Then she saw a laptop and a projector.

“Let’s watch Arna’s Children, then you’ll understand,” she said, set up the movie, and pressed play.

* * *

In the first scene of the documentary, Juliano, the director and narrator, introduces his mother, Arna Mer, an elderly Israeli woman standing at the side of the road in front of a traffic jam caused by a checkpoint. She yells to the soldier in Hebrew, “Stop torturing them!”

Then she turns to the Palestinians trapped in traffic, “Louder, louder!” she calls, rallying for them to honk their horns. Some respond, but most look amused at this woman and the fire inside her.

About 50 years before that scene was shot, Arna had fought with the Palmach, a military brigade active before the establishment of the state of Israel, which levelled several Palestinian villages and would become the backbone of the national army. After that, Arna joined Israel’s communist party, where she met Juliano’s father, Saliba, the party’s secretary. In 1989, she opened The Stone Theater—renamed The Freedom Theatre when Maryam joined the troupe two decades later.

The film’s title refers to Arna’s disciples at the theater, children in the camp who were taught to contend with their realities through art. In her classes, Arna and the children sing songs with lyrics like Why do the children of the world have freedom, and I do not?

On stage, Arna addresses hundreds of Palestinians with her arms raised in the air: “There is no peace without knowledge. No peace without freedom!” she yells, and everyone in the auditorium cheers. Maryam laughed at this part of the movie. It was Arna’s accent in Arabic, which is so distinctly Israeli. Juliano used to call it her soldier accent, but it was also the accent of the fighter. And hearing it in this new way, in the service of getting the children of Palestine to stand up for their rights, was bizarre, alluring, and undeniably effective.

Although the film follows several children, it focuses on the arc of one: Ala, who we first meet as a sullen boy of about nine, fiddling with his fingers and sitting on the rubble of his destroyed home. He doesn't make eye contact with the camera, as though he cannot comprehend what has happened or why he is being asked about it. In another scene, Arna encourages Ala to act—to play-hit her, to release his anger, to embody his pain.

“Can you go back to your home, Ala?” Arna asks him, and Ala looks back blankly at the impossibility of her question.

She tells Ala to pretend that she is in the army, and to treat her as such. He does not get up. Another boy, Ashraf, whose home was also destroyed on the same day as Ala’s, says that he wants to kill the army.

“Show me your anger, then! I'm in the army!” Arna says, and Ashraf gets up and strikes her.

“Very good!” Arna tells him, holding his arm up in the air, in restraint and in victory, as the children laugh. Years later, Ashraf would be killed by the army in the Battle of Jenin, the 12-day siege in which the Israeli army overran the camp.

But Ala doesn’t want to act, he wants to draw. He shows the young Juliano his work: a painting of a pile of rubble with a Palestinian flag on top.

There is a break in the filming; when the story resumes, it is 2002, shortly after the Battle of Jenin. In the aftermath, the army estimated the death toll to be about 23 Israelis and 53 Palestinians. Palestinian officials put the number of Palestinian deaths closer to 500; some say thousands. About 200 homes were destroyed.

Juliano returns to Jenin after recognizing a name in the news: Yousef, one of Arna’s pupils, has perpetrated a suicide bombing in Israel. In the documentary, Juliano juxtaposes scenes of Yousef as a child, playfully acting like a wild dog during theater practice, with a video the adult Yousef shot himself, in which he reads a letter to his family explaining his decision to carry out an attack within Israel. Behind him hangs a photo of a girl who died in his arms when the Israeli army bombed her school. He later stole a jeep with Nidal, another member of the theater troupe, and opened fire in the city of Hadera. Four women were killed and many more injured.

At this point, Maryam stopped the film. Could I see the girl’s picture behind Yousef in his video? Her name was Riham Al Ward. She was Maryam’s neighbor; they used to walk to school together, and she would have been our age if she was still alive. The only reason why Maryam was not at school on the day of the bombing was because her parents had heard an army loudspeaker say that it was curfew. Riham’s parents had not. And that’s the funny thing about escape, Maryam said: most of the time, it isn’t planned. It just happens. Then Maryam pressed play again.

Those children featured in the first part of the documentary who have survived to the second have become gun-brandishing militants; though only in their early twenties, they appear much older. Towards the end of the film, Juliano embraces Ala, who is no longer a taciturn child but a charismatic young fighter full of bravado. He recalls Arna and his painting of the rubble heap that used to be his home with fondness. At the end of their conversation, Ala shows Juliano the hole in the scaffold of a building from where he takes aim at Israeli tanks.

“Why did they show Juliano so much?” I asked Maryam.

“Because he was Arna’s son,” she said, “and they were just babies when she believed in them.”

We fell asleep before finishing the movie. The next morning, I woke up and found Maryam sitting on the windowsill beneath the big arch, looking out. Below us were people running errands as rainwater streamed down the sides of the hilly street. We spoke of our dreams. I had dreamt that we were riding a motorcycle, escaping an unknown enemy. Maryam had dreamt of walking behind a casket in an endless loop. Her dream made sense. Mine did not.

* * *

The psychiatrist and theorist Frantz Fanon also tried to make sense of the dreams of those he treated: patients at a French hospital in Algeria during the revolution. There, Fanon found himself in the peculiar position of treating the minds of both the French officers who carried out torture and the Algerian survivors of it. Of “the natives,” Fanon writes that their dreams are defined by “muscular prowess.” He summarizes what he hears thus:

“I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing, I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motor cars which never catch me. During the period of colonization, the native never stops achieving his freedom from nine in the evening until six in the morning.”

These dreams of action, Fanon writes, stem from the fact that the first thing the native must learn from the settler is to stay in place “and not to go beyond certain limits.” The natives are taught there is no escaping the colonial order which presumes them guilty, suspending them in a “permanent state of tension,” constantly alert while awake, free to roam only in the dark night of the unconscious.

So maybe the dream I had after watching Arna’s Children did make sense after all. When I was a kid, tenish, my mother was taking me to school in Ramallah when she saw a boy around my age in a school uniform running along the ridge of the hills just off the side of the road. After a few seconds, an army van stopped in front of us, and two soldiers jumped out to chase after him.

“Run, baby, run!” my mom yelled at the boy’s receding silhouette. I remember her speeding after the army van as it pulled out and drove away, as though she were the one in pursuit.

* * *

Because Maryam and I never finished Arna’s Children, I did not remember Zakaria. But on the morning of the prison escape, his name was all over the headlines, as though he was the only person to emerge from the hole. Depending on the newspaper, he was labeled a militant, a mastermind, a terrorist, a hero, or just another theater kid. I tried to piece the many Zakarias together from what I’d read and heard about a 46-year old man I’d never met. There were gaps in the story. Most I tried to mend, dug deeper until I found an answer. But some I left alone, kicking up dirt, treading carefully around the rim.

Zakaria al Zubeidi was born in the Jenin refugee camp in 1976, though his family was originally from Caesarea. His father was a teacher and a foundry worker who spent a big chunk of his life incarcerated in Israeli prisons and died of cancer when Zakaria was 17. His mother, Samira, was a good friend of Arna’s and believed in her mission, so much so that she gave the top of her house over to the theater. Zakaria and his brother Daoud took to acting, becoming the core of Arna’s troupe. In multiple interviews, Zakaria recalls his childhood at the theater as the happiest time in his life. In Arna’s Children, there is one scene in which the child Zakaria kisses Arna on the cheek before walking her upstairs to his home, the theater. I can’t distinguish him from the other children in crowded scenes, but I know he was there because he said so in a short film titled “Return to Jenin.” It was a pivotal moment in his life, he said, because he knew it was the last time he would see Arna alive before she returned to Haifa.

When Zakaria was 13, he was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier, which left him with a permanent limp; the following year, he was arrested for stone throwing and spent six months in prison. And so began a series of teenage arrests. During the Battle of Jenin, his mother was killed by a sniper with a shot to the head. A few hours later, his brother Taha was also killed. Later that month, his home was demolished by an Israeli tank.

In the aftermath, Zakaria became one of the leaders in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Israel accused him of being responsible for two terrorist attacks, a charge he denies. In one interview from 2006, Zakaria, who was 29 at the time, is dubbed “the most wanted man in Israel.” The interviewer describes his face, darkened with burns from mishandling an explosive, as sinister, surreal, but also handsome, especially when he smiles. Zakaria tells the interviewer that not one of his Israeli friends called him when his mother was killed, even though she cooked for them, gave them a place to sleep, and invited them to the theater. That was when he saw “real face of the left in Israel” and lost confidence in it, he told the interviewer. And then, with a deep sigh, he added, “So this is how suicide attacks happen. When people lose hope.”

The interview quickly steers away from Zakaria’s personal trauma into a discussion about the ethics of armed resistance. When faced with Apache helicopters and fighter jets, what else can we do? Zakaria asks the interviewer, who makes it very clear that she disagrees with his premise. They enter into a sort of staring contest, like an unspoken challenge. In the end, she writes, “he outstares me.”

* * *

If Zakaria was the protagonist of the story of the Gilboa prison escape, in Arna’s Children he is a foil to Ala. Zakaria is introduced at the end of the film, one that takes place shortly after the Battle of Jenin. He sits on the couch with his friends, among them Ala, smiling and smoking shisha. At the time of filming, his brother Daoud was in prison. The conversation opens with Zakaria saying that the Battle of Jenin has become a myth, a massacre where Palestininas were passive victims. But that wasn’t true, Zakaria asserts: people fought back. Zakaria’s statement triggers Ala because during the battle he had surrendered, whereas Zakaria had escaped by playing dead for five days under the rubble.

“And what did you do during the battle of Jenin, Zakaria?” Ala taunts him.“You were hiding.”

“You surrendered in your underwear! A hero!” Zakaria shoots back with a sarcastic smile.

“And what did you do after I surrendered? Did you even shoot once?”

“At least I didn’t surrender,” Zakaria says, still smiling.

“I saved your life,” says Ala.

“I’d rather die than be sentenced to eternity.”

Eternity, meaning life in prison, the price of surrender. It is unclear how Ala is out of prison, living to tell the tale and taunt Zakaria. I searched for prison exchanges at that time and found one but cannot find a list of the prisoners. Either way, it doesn’t really matter because Ala’s freedom was short lived. In the next scene, his mother is crying over his death at the hospital where he was killed shortly after the conversation took place.

* * *

A few years after that scene was shot, Jonatan, a Swedish nurse with an Israeli mother and a Polish father, visited Jenin and met Zakaria, and described him in an interview as one of the last surviving actors from Arna’s theater. He asked Zakaria what his dream was. “That we build a theater of freedom,” he told the film crew. A few weeks later, Jonatan screened Arna’s Children to raise funds for the project. With financial support secured, Zakaria and Juliano reestablished their mothers’ vision and their shared dream of being actors by opening The Freedom Theatre in an abandoned community center that was being used as a garbage dump. The building’s entrance had an old lock on it that Zakaria opened with the butt of his rifle. Later he would use this image to demonstrate that cultural and armed resistance were one.

That same year, Zakaria entered an amnesty agreement that took him off Israel’s most wanted list in exchange for stopping his military work, which in an interview with NPR in 2008 he said was going “nowhere.” “Theater,” he told the interviewer, “is much more beneficial than a weapon which is aimless and doesn’t have a proper target.”

Zakaria’s amnesty deal did not last for long. In 2011, the Palestinian Authority informed Zakaria that Israel had revoked the agreement without giving a reason despite the fact that Zakaria claimed he never broke its terms. After twelve days in Israeli confinement, Zakaria’s amnesty was reinstated, so long as he remained within the confines of Jenin. According to The Freedom Theatre’s website, Zakaria chose to sleep in prisons under the control of the Palestinian Authority instead for protection.

In 2017, Zakaria began a masters program in Contemporary Arab Studies at Birzeit University. His thesis proposal was submitted in 2018 with the working title “The Hunter and the Dragon,” a study on the state of fugitivity as the Palestinian condition. For months, he labored over the first two chapters and conducted 26 interviews for his fieldwork. But he never finished it: on February 27th, 2019, he was arrested, accused of opening fire at a bus of settlers, and incarcerated in Gilboa Prison in occupied Bisan, not far from Jenin. I scoured sources looking for a conviction to the charges against him until I realized that there might not be one. It seems as though Zakaria had been indefinitely detained for over two years, until September 6th, 2021, when he and the five others from Jenin escaped.

* * *

In Hebrew, gilboa means water breaking from the rocks—a rather fitting definition considering that the six prisoners escaped through the drainage system after digging a hole underneath the sink in their shared cell. Some articles report that various acidic liquids like Coca-Cola were used to burn through the concrete slab that separated the men from the tunnel. Other sources say the tunnel was dug with a rusty spoon or a metal hanger. The dirt was placed in the prison pipes, which clogged the water system so much that other prisoners reported the problem to the guards. (Later, during the investigation, the prisoners were allegedly told not to mention these complaints.) But the backed-up pipes and the rising suspicion they caused meant that the prisoners had to escape a few months earlier than initially planned.

The escapees knew about the drainage system because they somehow had access to the prison’s architectural blueprint, which was posted on the website of the firm that designed it. When I looked up the blueprint, I was surprised by its soft fantasy hues, like a kid’s paint-by-numbers masterpiece that their parents proudly display on the fridge—lilac cells, Easter-green courtyards, sunshine-yellow hallways, burgundy walls with round scribbles inside that look like barbwire.

What did Zakaria think when he saw the prison plans? I wondered. Did he laugh at how cheery it looked, how starkly it contrasted with the bleak reality of gray walls and brown jumpsuits? It never occurred to me that he might never have seen it. According to a source that quotes his lawyer, Zakaria’s decision to escape was spontaneous, and he did not take part in digging the tunnel that took a year to complete. "If someone forgot to lock the door, wouldn't you escape?" Zakaria told his lawyer. He did not know of the escape plan until a few days before it happened, when he requested to be moved into the cell and for the first time saw the hole that led to the unknown.

Learning about Zakaria’s escape reminds me of something Maryam once told me. That there’s always the sense of a cruel joke surrounding Zakaria, she said. The way he smiles when his friends make fun of him. The way the makeshift bomb went off in his face by mistake. The way the Israeli army gave him amnesty and then took it away. The way he got into a cell with a tunnel the day before its occupants were due to escape. The way he went in, the way he went out.

“He’s like me,” Maryam said. “We were born for the stage.”

* * *

On the Wikipedia page for the Gilboa Prison break, the featured picture is of a masked Israeli agent in olive green holding the leash of a muzzled German shepherd in a vest that matches his. A dog that was born and bred for a mission, and on that day her mission was to find the escapees. The image suggests control: over the animal, the narrative, the situation at hand. A reassurance to the public and to themselves that the system will return to order, the pipes will be unclogged, and safety will be restored once Zakaria and the five other prisoners from Jenin are back behind bars.

“Zakaria also had a dog,” Maryam said when I read the last paragraph to her. “We used to call it the Israeli dog,” she said, “because it was that kind of dog.”

“What kind?” I asked her.

“The German whatever, the police dog, the one they use to hunt us down.”

Maryam told me to call our mutual friend to confirm this detail about the dog, which I had been avoiding. “But he will know,” Maryam told me, which was exactly why I didn’t want to call.

* * *

The dog came up again when I read an article published on May 15th, 2022, announcing the killing of Dauod al Zubeidi, Zakaria’s brother, who succumbed to his wounds after a four-hour stand-off in which the Israeli army fired short-range missiles at his house. Tensions were high, the article reports, as it was two days after the journalist Shirin Abu Aqleh was killed by a sniper in Jenin.

“A dog, initially thought to be wearing a military vest and sent into the house by Israeli troops, was seen to be on fire,” the article reports. “It was later confirmed that it was a pet dog that belonged to the family. It died in the fire.”

I called our mutual friend, who was warm and friendly until I told him about writing this piece, that there were a few holes in my story, details I’d like to confirm with him, like if Zakaria had a dog.

“I don’t know what you’re writing, or what you want from me, or why you are asking about his dog,” he said. “But yes, Zakaria had a dog, if that matters.” The conversation ended.

Shortly after that conversation, I called my mother, who trains German shepherds and Labradors for the blind. On the day I called her, her dog of two years, Olana, was in her final week of training before she faced the test that would certify her to serve her greater calling. My mom turned the phone camera to face Olana, who fastened herself to the mop, an obsession my mom could not break her out of.

“I don’t know if she’ll pass,” my mom said, and then reminded me of the service dog hierarchy: the best go to the blind, the second tier go to the police, and the third, the unruly ones who refuse to be controlled, become pets.

Looking at Olana’s misbehaving gaze, I told my mom about the tense conversation I’d just had with my friend about Zakaria’s dog, hoping that she would switch the camera back onto her face.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I told her, referring to my friend.

“But you did,” my mom said. “And you can’t blame him for it, the Israelis have been playing mind games with people like him for his whole life. How does he know that you aren’t a snitch?”

* * *

On the first page of his book The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes, “Decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain species of men by another species of men.”

I first read that sentence when I was 16: one day as I was working at a farmers’ market outside my high school in Ramallah, a beautiful Nicaraguan man approached my stand, bought some heirloom cucumbers, and gave me the book. For a few months, he would regularly take me on long drives in the car his aid organization gave him, and during those drives he talked about Fanon. Once he held my hand, and when he did, I thought this is it. And it really was because nothing else ever happened.

A week later, I learned he was holding the hand of another girl who was also from my school. When I thought no one was home, I cried in the shower. But I was wrong. From outside the bathroom door, my dad yelled, “Stop crying over some stupid Sandinista Mossad agent!”

And after a few minutes, I did. What if my radical Nicaraguan non-lover was a Mossad agent? I thought as I wiped away my tears and came out of the shower all fresh and clean. And to think, he almost caught me.

* * *

During the six-day manhunt, a sense of euphoria pervaded in Palestine and the diaspora, a collective game of hide-and-seek that everyone played a part in, and with one clear rule: don’t be a snitch. There was hope, a far-flung dream that maybe they’d be able to cross the border. Even the Israeli press was astounded by the feat, shocked at such a blunder in their own security. Most within the Israeli establishment were quick to diminish any excitement on the part of the left that could potentially spill over into the mainstream. “There should be no get-out-of-jail free cards for terrorists,” wrote one British-Israeli writer. “This is the real world, not a movie and not a game.”

Still, many Israelis also got swept up in the wave of emotion. One woman had her Facebook account deactivated after making a post calling Zakaria a hero. Another wrote a curious and dreamlike piece published by The Michigan Quarterly Review in which the narrator encounters two men in a parking lot during the week of the escape. The two men ask to borrow the narrator’s car, promising to give it back. Immediately, the narrator recognizes the blackened scars on one of their faces. “I look in the eye of the dragon,” he writes, “turn the other way and start walking. I drop the key on the pavement.”

* * *

It wasn’t a police dog who found the prisoners six days later. According to the Israeli army, Arab citizens of Israel reported the prisoners; the army even tweeted them a thank you. But Zakaria and the five others vehemently deny that they encountered any Palestinians, as though to say that in this story there will be no snitches. The escapees claim that they deliberately avoided Palestinian villages, knowing the risk of collective punishment—which happened anyway when five people were accused of assisting them by carrying the dirt away from the hole.

The fugitives separated into groups of two and survived by eating prickly pear. Two of the escapees were found outside of Nazareth. Another pair was found in a safehouse in Jenin after their phones were tracked; they turned themselves in to avoid violence. The fifth escapee was discovered sleeping in a car park. As for Zakaria, when they finally tracked him down he was walking alone. According to his lawyer, he was beaten so severely at the time of his arrest that he was hospitalized with broken ribs and a broken jaw.

Even after the initial blow dealt by their recapture, the mythic status of the escapees remained. Palestinians were invigorated by evidence of what the colonial narrative tried so hard to dispel: that escape was possible. A few months before her death, Shirin Abu Aqleh reflected on her experience reporting on the prison break and her return to Jenin 20 years after covering the siege in 2002, when she was one of the few journalists who remained in the camp—or at least, the only the journalist Maryam remembered. In Abu Aqleh’s article, published in the October 2021 issue of This Week in Palestine, she wrote that it wasn’t a coincidence that all of the escapees were from Jenin, a city which always raised her morale, offering a surprising strength that “might emerge from a small opening, or from a tunnel dug underground.”

When I read her words, my thoughts began to spiral. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Abu Aqleh was killed in Jenin a few months after her article was published, I thought. Maybe she was killed not because she dared to tell the stories of the people of Jenin but because she believed in them.

* * *

Several months after Zakaria was captured, I dreamt of him. In the dream he stands at the opening of a tunnel. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells me, but I am. I wake up just before I go in.

The dream took me back to a time in college when I woke up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. When I walked into my living room, I found a real live monk sitting on our green velvet couch, drinking what I later learned was rice beer out of a jar.

“Don’t be afraid,” the monk said with his palm facing me in a stop gesture, but I was. And then my housemate Julia strolled out of the kitchen and explained to me that Gilson was a Tibetan monk and would be staying with us. Gilson had escaped persecution in Tibet and now lived in people’s homes in America in exchange for dumplings, which he would make for us in the morning.

* * *

In the winter of 2016, after the movie in Jenin was shot, Maryam moved to Berlin and I followed. She got a job as a theater actress, and I got a job as a waitress. Near the restaurant where I worked was the only library in Berlin that had survived the Second World War unscathed, a beautiful glassy building tucked away behind the main street. During my lunch breaks, I would go there for the big windows that let the light in and the stern librarians who kept the peace.

A few weeks ago, when I told Maryam that I was going to the secret library to write this piece, she decided to join me. This surprised me because she hates libraries and any place where academics might be lurking. It was sunny outside, and Maryam was wearing these big sunglasses that made her seem particularly melodramatic as she walked up the stairs from the darkness of Rosenthaler Platz Station. When she made it to the top, she linked arms with me as we walked to the Phillip Schaeffer Library.

Inside, Maryam and I sat underneath a mounted photograph of the building’s namesake that bore the dates 1894 -1943. I was struck by how contemporary he looked, this young, smiling Philipp Schaeffer with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes and a face I felt I’d seen a thousand times. When I logged onto the library’s internet portal, there was a brief blurb about his life: he was a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese, and for his dissertation he’d translated the ancient Buddhist text the Yuktisastika into German. Then he moved to Berlin, where he worked as a librarian in the building that would be later named after him. He used the library as a base for organizing resistance fighters against the Third Reich. Eventually he was discovered. While in prison awaiting trial, he taught the other prisoners how to communicate by knocking an easy-to-learn alphabet on the pipes. Before he was executed, he was asked why he never informed his friends in the resistance. His response: “Because I'm not a police stooge.”

Maryam opened her notebook to calligraphy so beautiful I called her Zayd Ibn Thabit, the Prophet Mohammad’s personal scribe, and that made her laugh. She said she was writing in Arabic again to help her close the gap. When I asked her which one, she thought for a moment and then put her hand on her chest. “The one between Maryam here,” and then she motioned toward the window, “and the Maryam that’s there.”

* * *

Jenin, Winter, 2015. When we drove back from Haifa to Jenin that night after watching Arna’s Children, Taher and Subhi picked us up from the checkpoint. I remember Taher was playing “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman when the engine broke down along the mountain road. It was still raining; one of us would have to go into the downpour and look for help, and it wasn’t going to be me or Maryam. Subhi offered to get out once the song ended.

You gotta make a decision, leave tonight or live and die this way, Subhi sang out; then he opened the car door, smiled, and waved goodbye as if the rain didn’t bother him. I remember feeling very guilty as I watched the darkness of the road ahead swallow his figure whole.

“He’s not coming back for us,” Taher said after Subhi had faded from view, and Maryam agreed. They explained to me that it was because as a child Subhi had watched his father be killed in the Battle of Jenin. And that was why he never kept promises.

After a few hours, the rain stopped and we walked for half an hour to Taher’s house. We couldn’t make noise so his parents wouldn’t find out that he had girls over. But when we walked in, Taher’s dad was sitting right in front of us in the middle of the living room facing the door. “Taher, who is with you?” he asked, looking right at us. “No one, baba,” Taher smiled, touching his own eyelids to indicate that his father was blind, and went over to kiss the top of his head, which was wrapped in a red keffiyeh.

Taher’s little sister gave me and Maryam pink fuzzy onesie pajamas; mine was too small and made my toes curl, but it was too cold not to wear it. In the twin bed Maryam and I shared, she whispered that Taher’s dad hadn’t been born blind but was blinded in prison. That night we fell asleep back to back, and as I drifted off I wondered why Subhi never returned for us. Later, Subhi would tell us that he fell asleep and forgot about us, trapped in the rain.

* * *

Under the gaze of Philipp Schaeffer, I read Achille Mbembe’s Out of the Dark Night. In it, Mbembe argues that Fanon is one of the few philosophers to truly contend with decolonization as a discipline. He goes back to Fanon’s definition of decolonization as simply replacing one species of men by another species of men. Mbembe shifts the focus onto species in the Latin sense of the word, which came from specere, “to look,” “to see” and meant “appearance” or “vision.” A new species of man, therefore, is endowed with a new spirit, a new vision of a self in which the gap instilled within the colonized between “image and essence” is sealed. At that point, the native is no longer outside of time and history, as the colonial mythos suggests, but emerges from it.

The philosophical aim of decolonization is disenclosure, Mbembe argues, a term he borrows from the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. He describes disenclosure as an “opening, a surging up, the advent of something new, a blossoming.” Emergence as the ascent into humanity, the struggle for life, an active will to community.

Mbembe’s definition of emergence makes me think of spoons, the tool the tunnel of Gilboa was carved out with. How the spoon made its way onto flags, newspaper cartoons; how they were held up during protests, dropped in front of Israeli embassies. The ordinary transformed into possibility, the symbol of emergence we gathered around, the miracle of escape.

“This is why the Fanonian self,” Mbembe writes, “is fundamentally opening, distension, and gap: the Open.” For disenclosure of the world to happen, it is necessary to detach oneself from oneself, precisely to confront what is coming, and what, in coming, causes other resources of life to spring up. Mbembe’s disenclosure was still cryptic, but less academic, more meditative, like a Judo master teaching a lesson on self-defense by pointing to the water breaking from the rocks.

“Maybe to close the gap, we just have to go into it,” I said to Maryam.

Maryam closed her notebook. “Focus on your master’s thesis, not on Palestine,” she told me, and then she left.

* * *

But that night she sent me pictures with the caption “some photos that move me.” One was a graphic photo of Zakaria in the hospital after the bomb had gone off in his face. I called her and told her that she can’t send me photos like that out of the blue, that in English there was a term for this called a “trigger warning.”

“I don’t think Zakaria ever got a trigger warning,” Maryam snapped back in her Valley girl accent.

Anyway, Maryam continued, did I know that it was Zakaria who taught her how to shoot a gun? A fake one, Maryam quickly clarified after I reacted, a prop in a short film directed by Taher. In it, Maryam’s character seeks vengeance against her perpetrator after she survives an attempted honor killing. Zakaria was the one who taught Maryam how to handle the weapon, take aim, and let go.

* * *

“In Wonderland,” Juliano Mer Khamis once told The Guardian regarding his final play, “there are no rules.”

The article goes on to describe the reimagining of Carroll’s story in Jenin. The play opens with Alice, played by Maryam’s best friend Batool, at her engagement party, unhappy with the prospect of her arranged marriage. A white rabbit appears, and Alice escapes her oppression by going down the rabbit hole. But once on the other side, Alice is confronted with her real purpose: to liberate Wonderland from The Red Queen (Maryam), whose character represents the values society has instilled into Alice. In the fantastic and maniacal Wonderland, Alice must learn to confront her inner demons before she can emerge strong enough to face the villains above ground.

I never got to see that production. The only version I got was at Maryam’s 30th birthday party, which was a surprise and Wonderland themed. I remembered that she’d played The Red Queen, so I got her a red tiara, which she loved and wore the whole night.

But later, after everyone went home, Maryam extended herself on the couch, looking into a tiny kaleidoscope another friend had brought her, in which chunks of rainbow shapes inside refracted the light like a prism. Then she put it down and gave me a glassy-eyed look I had first seen in Haifa when we watched Arna’s Children.

“The Red Queen taught me about facing enemies,” she said.

When I asked what she meant by that, she recalled an acting lesson that Juliano had given her before she performed in Alice in Wonderland, a tool he used in real life. He told Maryam that when people called him a spy or a traitor (which one can hear like a constant chorus throughout Arna’s Children), it hurt him. But he couldn’t help that he was born mixed, and he wasn’t going to stop acting on his calling, so he learned to laugh. And Maryam, as The Red Queen, the villain, must learn to do the same. Especially when she is sitting on top of a car, in a big red throne, calling on the people of Jenin to see her act in the show.

“Thousands will come to the play and many will hate you for it,” Juliano told Maryam before she got into her costume. She thought he meant because The Red Queen was the villain, but later she understood that he was preparing her for something else. “You just draw a breath, open your mouth real wide, and go haha.”

* * *

The native, Fanon writes, “laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.” According to his assistant, Marie Jeane Manuellan, Fanon recited these kinds of sentences to her at the hospital without hesitation; her transcriptions would later become The Wretched of the Earth. “His thinking seemed to spring from the movement of his body, like something physical,” she recalled. This physicality, an authoritative absoluteness voiced in his own observations, is part of what makes reading Fanon so enjoyable. Walking through the halls of a hospital in Algeria, Fanon addressed the psychic wounds of his patients with diagnoses that read like a lifeline, written with a searing clarity one can hold onto when struggling through the dark mud of colonial distortion, like side-stepping in a nightmarish funhouse where the only way out—the only true prescription—is liberation.

But no matter how poignant, his sentences can be difficult to translate into practice. Recognizing the enemy, choosing the correct weapon, sharpening it, believing in your own victory, is a struggle. The lifeline can tie itself into knots. Laughter as a weapon guarantees no survival, no freedom, but perhaps it at least provides a form of disenclosure in the Mbembian sense. Or dis-enclosure, as Jean-Luc Nancy first wrote it. And when I see the hyphen, suddenly I recognize the gap and finally understand the term as the opposite of enclosure. And laughter becomes an opening, a method to detach oneself from oneself to confront what is coming.

For Fanon, laughter is also a way of taking cover. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon includes a lengthy footnote in which he observes that “the grin seems to have captured the attention of many writers.” Fanon cites the anthropologist Geoggrey Gorder, who writes that white people demand that Black people be “smiling, attentive, and friendly in all their relationships with them.” He also refers to Bernard Wolfe, who writes, “We like to depict the black man grinning at us with all his teeth…playing the fool, and the wonderful stories of Br’er Rabbit1 to amuse the kids.” For Fanon, the rabbit was an archetype that represented the Black man in an “extraordinary and artful disguise.” He summarizes Wolfe’s interpretation that the stories of rabbit were not merely relics from the African past but stories that developed in response to conditions of Black people in the United States, which were then later compiled and reappropriated by whites. In those stories, the rabbit is “drained of aggressive potential,” shorn of its original trickster spirit, and becomes merely an animal with lewd motives who nevertheless is forever “laughing, good natured, easy-going…who serves with a smile.”

* * *

“Zakaria was supposed to be the rabbit,” Maryam interrupted, and then explained what she meant.

Zakaria was originally cast as the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and in Juliano’s vision Zakaria would somehow drive into the stage on a motorbike and make loop-the-loops to signify the rabbit hole. But later, in a conversation that took place in front of Maryam, Zakaria turned the role down. People would laugh at him if he was the white rabbit, Zakaria told Juliano. No one wanted him to be a cute fluffy animal or a frou-frou actor. They wanted him to be their resistance fighter.

“But the rabbit is resistance,” Juliano told him.

Even though some part of Zakaria wanted the role, Maryam said, he refused. Perhaps where Zakaria saw the rabbit as the docile animal, the laughing fool, Juliano saw the original trickster, the escape artist, the one who always wins. Ultimately, Zakaria offered his young protégé Rabie’ the role. Rabie’ was once involved in armed resistance as a teenager, but after being shot in the kidney when he was 16 he wasn’t in the best of health. In the short film “Return to Jenin,” Rabie’ is interviewed outside the theater, presumably about his role. “Yes, I was a resistance fighter, and now I’m continuing that struggle in the theater,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. Two years after appearing in Alice in Wonderland, Rabie’ died of kidney failure.

* * *

Before Maryam got on top of the car for her notorious ride as The Red Queen, Juliano painted her face white, black and red. Maryam asked for more; a blonde wig, red gloves, anything to keep her from being recognized by her black skin. But no costume could protect her or change the status quo. “How much?” some of the men in the camp yelled at Maryam, intimidating her with the implication that she was a prostitute. But the car did not stop, and so Maryam laughed and laughed, and the megaphone played “Welcome to Wonderland!” on a loop.

Afterward, Maryam was told never to show her face in the camp again. Unknown extremists spread pamphlets around town calling for the destruction of the theater. Within a week of the last sold-out production of Alice in Wonderland, Juliano was killed. Zakaria printed posters for his best friend calling Juliano the resistance fighter of Palestine and plastered them all around the gray walls of the camp.

* * *

“Who killed Juliano?” I asked Maryam on the phone without warning, blurting it out while she was out with friends, as though it was urgent and not something that had been haunting her for the past 12 years. Like we hadn’t talked about all the theories hundreds of times before.

“So now you’re there,” she said. “Is this a detective story?”

No, I said, this was a story about the prison escape and what it meant to us. But I kept coming back to the case in which all relevant authorities seemed to agree not to investigate.

“That’s the biggest hole of all,” Maryam said. “My advice, don’t go in.”

* * *

The phone call with Maryam made me think of Gabe and the idea he presented on that Halloween night a few years earlier, the one about the portal that leads to the Ultimate Reality. How he said he would never go in. I said I would, and Gabe thought this was insane.

“Think about everyone you have ever known,” Gabe told me, trying to convince me of his position. “And now you’re going to trust a genie?”

But I want to see Ultimate Reality, I told him.

“Then look around you,” he said, lifting his glass up toward the wooden ceiling as the beer spilled out onto his billowing monk sleeves.

This is it,” Gabe said, and suddenly the buzzing chatter in the room got louder, as though we were trapped in a warm hive.

* * *

The Yuktisastika, the ancient Buddhist text that Philipp Schaeffer translated in the 1920s, has 60 verses. Since the original Sanskrit version had been lost, Schaeffer translated it from Tibetan and Chinese. The text revolves around the concept of sunyata, voidness. One verse goes, “The great beings (mahātmān) hold no thesis; they do not debate.” The verse takes me by surprise, I’ve always thought that anything that matters stands in relation to a final analysis, a perfectly distilled thesis, a cause to awaken action.

To understand living without thesis, I turned to a 1959 lecture called “The Void” by the philosopher Alan Watts. In the black-and-white video, Watts draws a circle on a blackboard. Sunya, the void, is not an idea, he explains, but an experience, a feeling. “The void is complete spiritual freedom,” Watts says. The state of going with the stream of life instead of resisting it. And then, when you learn how to let it carry you, you and the force of the stream become one, and then it can take you to shore. It’s a central teaching in self-defense, Watts adds, pointing to the circle on the blackboard. “When we see that every moment of life is now it, even our most trivial moments answers the question ‘What is life for?’”

In the credits of Arna’s Children, Juliano listed the names of the children who appear and put little frames around those who, by the time of the film’s completion in 2004, had died. While the text scrolled across the screen, I saw the name of Daoud al Zubeidi, Zakaria’s brother. I made a makeshift outline with my fingers in the air. Then I saw Juliano Mer Khamis listed as the director. I made another outline. The gesture reminded me of my last day in college, when I walked by a group of people, some of whom I recognized, standing on a green hill and gathered around an old tree. When I joined them, I saw the professor of Japanese literature and culture—the father of one of the Halloween monks—holding a giant white rope. A shimenawa, the professor explained, is a ceremonial rope that marks whatever it envelops to be sacred and pure. Then we all held the rope, wrapped it around the trunk, said a prayer, and went home.

* * *

After his recapture, Zakaria was moved to Ayalon prison, where he is currently being kept in solitary confinement. As of yet, the only crime the military court has convicted him of is his own escape, for which he received a sentence of five years. Through his lawyers, Zakaria communicated that he wanted his thesis to be defended in his absence. He requested only a single edit to the text: that the full stop be removed from the end of the final sentence, so that the story of escape could remain open until it reaches its proper ending.

On July 2nd, 2022, Zakaria’s diploma was presented to his daughter Samira, according him highest honors for his demonstration of theory and practice. In its fourth chapter, which was published in Arabic by The Journal of Palestine Studies, Zakaria writes that the chase between the hunter and the dragon “is the inherited experience of being a fugitive in Palestine, passed down from generation to generation.” It reminds me of a picture Maryam sent to me of Juliano and Zakaria, whose heads are touching as they both beam and hold their newborns up to the camera.

When I read the news of Zakaria’s graduation I thought back to Philipp Schaeffer’s translation of the great beings: maybe there is no thesis, only what happened. Fragments assembled from an unfinished story of escape, like tiny shards of rainbow glass jutting out from the rubble. I hold one up and look back to when a hole opened from the ground, a metal spoon glinted towards the moon, a glitch was revealed, an investigator bent over a black void, drew circles in chalk, and questioned the limits of possibility. How the seas cleaved for a moment, how the light entered. Maybe from the place, as Maryam imagined it to me that morning, where Arna and Juliano look down from big golden rocking chairs, rolling back and forth with laughter, yelling, run, baby, run.

1 Br’er Rabbit, an abbreviation of Brother Rabbit, was a trickster figure in the oral traditions of African Americans in the Southern United States and in the Caribbean.

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