Yasmine Musa

Six Lions


First Line of Defence by Lawrence Lemaoana

May 2020

  1. It was the second month of lockdown and the spring stretched before me like Arabic ice cream. My dad announced that he would be out all day, so I put two tabs of acid in a water bottle and headed out to the garden. A perfect time to pretend to enjoy solitude and figure out the riddles of the universe. I pulled out a big picnic blanket, sat beneath the shade of a young apple tree and waited for the new blooms of the cactus flower to speak.
  2. Before Yusef left Berlin and went back to Beirut, he gave me Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. In it, Rilke wrote that the solitary man must remember to see the plants and animals, “patiently and willingly uniting and increasing and growing not out of physical suffering but bowing to necessities that are greater than pleasure and pain and more powerful than will withstanding.” And that is the secret of sweetness, the young poet must realize. I read the lines over and over again that spring and did not understand what Rilke meant, which is why I took the acid.
  3. Bringing the acid to Palestine was Khalil’s idea. Because Khalil is my best friend from high school and I live in Berlin, it was difficult to say no. I took Khalil’s request as a divine calling and asked another friend to lead me on the path of finding a drug dealer.
  4. My friend presented two options: a man named Jesus and the other a mysterious Telegram Group operated by the “Israeli psychedelic mafia.” I didn’t want to fund a group of former soldiers turned hippies, so I chose Jesus.
  5. When Jesus the drug dealer opened the door, he told me that he was shocked to see a “girl” ordering acid. But how can that be? I wondered. My Telegram handle is Princess Jasmine. Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t going to give me the acid until we ate hummus. He was from Israel, he told me, so he knew good hummus.
  6. We ate the hummus in his room under a canopy of blue spirals, neon orange fractals, and an Yggdrasil type of tree. The whole display reminded me of Tara, my upstairs neighbor in the dorm above me my freshman year, the beloved musical prodigy from California who kept me awake all night with her didgeridoo.
  7. By the time I got back to Palestine, Khalil was no longer interested in the acid. He had gotten caught up in Islam so there was no need, as true spiritual work needs no chemical. He had been reading the Quran all year and seemed to be teetering on the edge of converting, much to his parents’ concern.
  8. Khalil belongs to one of the Christian families that founded Ramallah before the refugees, the majority of whom were Muslim, overtook the town. In fact, Khalil’s family is one of “the lions,” the six statues that sit in a circle in the town center. Curiously, Khalil’s lion has a watch on its front leg.
  9. Is it six or seven lions? I think one has a mate and cubs, but I don’t remember. It’s where I sped up on my walk home from school. The space is distinctly, but not strictly, male. The lions with their graffitied manes and the men who sit on their backs dominate the landscape as they watch the traffic go round and round.
  10. In the garden, it was not the cactus flowers that spoke first but the insects. Ants, wasps, and bees rose in a hum, the business of their lives making geometric swarms, teeming with life and venom.
  11. I’ve been walking differently ever since I saw two black snakes burst from their underground burrows beneath my feet. At full length, each snake was about two meters long. I watched them uncoil and recoil into an “enduring form of love and longing” (Rilke), making more snakes somewhere in the invisible.
  12. The acid trip was not going the way it was supposed to. Where was the cosmic joy? Where was the enlightenment? I felt my body decomposing when a vision of the Hindu goddess Kali Ma appeared under the apple tree. Give it to me, she told me, as I tried to shed old skin.
  13. Sometime during that spring, Yusef told me that he wanted to compile an anthology about letting go. Could I write something? Of course, I told him, but I can’t quite focus right now. Maybe it’s the pandemic, but I will try. He understood.
  14. The ancient Greeks had two concepts of time, chronos (linear and sequential) and kairos (an appointment with the purpose of God). I wanted the acid to teach me the meaning of the second.
  15. A bang. A magnetic wave moved through everything, an arrival from the dark side where the laws of nature do not apply. War planes flew across the horizon. But how can that be? There can be no war in a pandemic. We are all innocent right now, I thought, but the flowers told me that didn’t matter. The innocent become compost as well.
  16. I looked to the flowers for relief, for the secret of sweetness. We’ve been waiting for you to feed us, they seemed to say. Pain is compost, the cycle is the greatest teacher, and you must do your part.
  17. I have attributed this nightmare to the fact that I bought the acid from an Israeli named Jesus. A trick planted just for me. Why do I do drugs? Would the real Jesus have done drugs? Did the real Jesus do drugs?
  18. “Forgive me Mother for I do not know,” I said to Kali Ma as she stuck her tongue out and told me none of the secrets I longed for.
  19. To Rilke, one creative thought is like a thousand nights of lovemaking, in which lovers “do an earnest work and gather sweetness, gather depth and strength for the song of a coming poet who will arise to speak of ecstasies beyond telling.” I wanted the ecstasy, not the work.
  20. Can taking acid be considered earnest work? Kali Ma assured me yes, but there was a part of my mind that told me that it all meant nothing. That a drug simply opened up Jung’s collective unconscious where goddesses dance as godless illusions, leftovers from evolutionary processes.
  21. William Butler Yeats did not believe in rationality, he believed in magic. He had dreams of “marvelous illuminated pages” that appeared to him in sleep and said things like, “The secret of the world is so simple that it could be written on a blade of grass with the juice of a berry.”
  22. Is magic not rational? The South African anthropology professor asked the class sometime in 2014. Is it not rational for the shaman to dance for rain in times of drought? The class looked back at her blankly. Afterward, I asked her to sign a petition for Gaza which she did because she had tenure.
  23. “Newton was not first in the age of reason, but the last of the magicians,” wrote the British economist John Maynard Keynes. He bought Newton’s lost manuscripts and discovered that Newton believed the world to be a cryptogram sent by God, a code that only he could crack.
  24. More accurately: Newton believed that the aurea catena also had the ability to crack the code, the golden chain of magi he believed himself to be a part of. Special people designated in each age to receive the ancient Hermetic wisdom. Can I allow myself to believe that every age has such a group? After all, Newton did lock himself in his room during a pandemic and come out with the law of gravity.
  25. Or can the revelation be rationalized as the placebo effect: because Newton believed himself to be divine genius, the law of gravity was revealed to him.
  26. Is the law of gravity even a truth or have we all simply agreed that it is? In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s narrator presents the law of gravity to his son Chris as a ghost story, a figment of imagination becoming physics.
  27. As the planes above me broke the sound barrier, the world took on the quality of a video game. In that space, a memory slid in. It was my first lockdown, the second intifada, 20 years before. I was a kid in the garden when the bullets began to fly and time froze and I moved in slow motion like Neo in The Matrix. “Man only escapes the laws of this world in lightning flashes,” Simone Weil once wrote.
  28. A figure appeared in the distance, my father. Why was he home so early? A fear set in, a primal fear so deep it reached beyond me, like protection from the ancestors who ate magical plants and came up with concepts like kairos. My dad sat down next to me and stared into my dilated pupils. “How can you just sit here all day?” he asked in a way that did not warrant an answer. I was about to apologize for taking drugs when he reminded me that it was Israel’s independence day. That’s why the war planes were over our heads. It’s all performance, make-believe, not real. What he meant was, we are safe.
  29. Let’s go find the kitties, my dad announced. I stood up from the wretched lap of Kali Ma and followed him until we found one under the house steps. The baby had matted yellow fur and eyes so blue, it almost hurt to look at them, like two sapphires burning with the same fear I had when my dad approached. If she does not learn to trust us, my dad said, she will not survive. “Where is your mommy?” we cooed at her in cat-speak, hands outstretched with Kraft cheese.

May 2021

  1. May 1, 2021. On my street in Berlin, I walked by a poster announcing a protest and saw a face I recognized. Is he still in prison? I realized it had been almost 20 years since the school made his son play the trombone in the auditorium, a day after his father’s capture. The performance was for us, the students and the teachers, because we were all so sad for him.
  2. Catharsis, another Greek concept. Krista Tippet describes catharsis as “releasing both insight and emotions that have no place to go, creating an energizing relief.” A way to communalize trauma. Who does catharsis serve, I asked the students over Zoom, not knowing the answer.
  3. May 2, 2021. A celebration in my living room, Yusef was visiting Berlin. My friends Maya and Nasim joined as well. I told them about the poster, the protest, the trombone, the question of catharsis. Maya said that she too had to act out the tragedies of Palestine. In a play called The Murder of Mohammad al-Durra, Maya was cast as the Israeli soldier. She recalled the experience as traumatizing.
  4. The line between tragedy and comedy blurs in Palestine, Nasim offered. Comedy is the fact that his best friend Rami was shot in the ass, but as lore would have it, the bullet bounced off. When Rami recounts the story, he gets up to belly dance, gyrating his “ass of armor.” Tragedy is the fact that on the same day Nasim’s brother was shot in the leg and was left paralyzed. The event was the same, but the laws of physics made their stories different.
  5. When it was time for Yusef to leave, Maya said to him, “There is nothing in Beirut. Come to Berlin!” When she said this, she knew that she struck the wrong chord. Yusef paused then smiled. “That’s why I feel called to stay,” he said and we hugged him goodbye.
  6. May 3, 2021. A knock at my door. It was Nasim, covered in mud. This didn’t surprise me. Nasim is always looking for jewels in the canals of Berlin. He bought a giant magnet from the Internet, which he throws into the water and pulls back out again. Most of the time it’s scooters and bikes. But on that day he came to tell me that he found a bomb from World War II. The police closed down the street. I asked him to stop, but he still thinks he will find treasure.
  7. Is it not ironic that a Palestinian pulls out a World War II bomb? Nasim asked after he took a shower. I told him yes, but it’s safer to keep the bomb under the surface. He disagreed. Germany should thank him, give him citizenship.
  8. May 4, 2021. I checked my English news sources, no headlines yet. Instead I read an article in The New Yorker titled “The Empty Blockbuster Music of DJ Khaled,” whose album, according to Jelani Cobb, seems to “exist solely for the purpose of clout.”
  9. Palestinians and clout, an unlikely combination. When my mom was pregnant with me, she and my dad flew into Ben Gurion Airport. My dad was arrested upon arrival and deported, handcuffed to a seat in the back of the plane and sent back to the United States. The captain waited for the plane to reach international airspace before coming over to him. “Would you like to sit in first class?” the captain asked my dad after removing the handcuffs. Some passengers were bothered, and that was what my dad enjoyed the most, drinking champagne so close to them that their little glasses could clink.
  10. May 6, 2021. I saw Edward Said’s Orientalism in a bookshop. When I opened it, I read the words of Karl Marx: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”
  11. Whenever I think of Said, I think of grace and intellect. When I read descriptions of him, they always mention his glamorous clothes. An example: “Said maintained a taste for Rolex watches, Burberry suits, and Jeremy Street shoes right up to his death, from leukemia in 2003,” wrote Pankaj Mishra. Are the fashion brands of other scholars scrutinized with such detail? Perhaps so and I never noticed. Either way the article conjures an image of Said: the stone-throwing scholar adorned in wealth, discordant with the Palestine he must represent.
  12. Back to Khalil’s lion, the one with a watch on it. If the watch were a Rolex, would the lion be less Palestinian? Would the lion live “in two or more worlds at once without belonging to either?” (Albert Hourani, as quoted by Said, as quoted by Mishra.)
  13. But the lion is not Palestinian of course, it is a lion. A statue of a lion. A remembrance of the Barbary lions, who once roamed the Middle East and North Africa. Last seen wild in a photograph taken in the Atlas Mountains, 1925. In it, the shadowy outline of the last cat walks in the valley below, paw prints mark the sand behind him as he looks ahead, majestic and alone.
  14. May 9, 2021. The Israeli military raided the Aqsa Mosque. Between the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and this desecration of the sacred, social media exploded. Where is the Western media? Why hasn’t DJ Khaled posted on Palestine? Have you forgotten where you come from? Or has it always been about the money? So went the chorus.
  15. May 10, 2021. Nasim caught a safe and I needed to help him pull it out. A dirty metal box plopped onto the bridge. It was locked. Three neighborhood kids watched us and wanted to open it. They are Ahmad, Mohammad, and Taysir. Ahmad and Mohammad are from Palestine, and Taysir is from Albania but somehow learned Arabic from them. Where in Palestine are you from? Nasim asked. “Al-Aqsa,” said Ahmad, the older one, and we couldn’t help but laugh. Still, they remembered.
  16. “The old will die and the young will forget,” Ben Gurion once said, according to my Arabic teacher who taught us those words when I was Ahmad’s age—maybe 10 or 11. It was heeded like a warning, as though we were all assembled there just to prove the old man wrong. But as I stood in front of Ahmad, Mohammad, and Taysir the Albanian, I suddenly understood my Arabic teacher and felt the urge to protect them.
  17. To turn Al-Jazeera on or off. That was the question in our house in the year 2000. My mom’s argument: turn off, too much blood. My dad’s argument: turn on, we need to know. We watched a live broadcast of the police station, which was in between our house and the lions. The camera focused on a Palestinian man who appeared in the window, waving his red hands as though victorious. My mom turned it off. “That is evil,” my dad told me, pointing to the TV like a blackboard.
  18. Taysir came back with some kind of tool. The safe opened to it. There was nothing inside except for two passports, a man and a woman from 1942. “Who would throw their passport away?” he asked, looking at the wilted faces for clues.
  19. May 12, 2021. At night, I watched the Israeli military bomb Gaza. At 3:30 am, they leveled the Jawhara building, which means jewel in Arabic. As it toppled, Al-Jazeera faded to black. I imagined the drone operators waving their hands above their keyboards as though victorious.
  20. May 14, 2021. “I am having trouble focusing,” my Israeli student wrote to me before class. His family was within the range of rockets. He cannot study. He hopes I understand. I told him I do.
  21. Did I not say the exact same thing to the South African professor back in May 2014? Only back then, she told me this: the oppression she grew up with was very different than the situation in Palestine. You have to understand, she said, that the apartheid regime needed the natives. Israel does not need Gaza, which is why they will kill them all. Her eyes were wide open like an oracle’s. I felt sick.
  22. May 15, 2021. Thousands came out to the protest. Walking is not enough, I heard a protestor say. But we need catharsis, someone else said. We need force, said another.
  23. In the evening, my dad sent a video of his cats in the garden. The six of them shine gold in the sunset, playing among flowers, “patiently and willingly uniting and increasing,” as Rilke said they would.
  24. “The dance of my life has always been power, power, power, love, love, love…” the Ram Dass recording droned in the night, his words like lily pads drifting downstream.
  25. “How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms than in the symbols of power?” wrote James Baldwin. When I dream of power, I see Kali Ma, master of time and change, adorned with shiny watches and surrounded by big lions, the totems of her age. She knows the dance of when to let go and when to stay.
  26. A flash from last summer. I was in the garden when I learned about an explosion in Beirut. I called Yusef. He was safe, nothing to worry about. “This blast has taught me that strangers and plants are miracles,” he told me, sounding ecstatic, as I watched a lavender stem bow under a bee. He spoke of Christ, how pain was the ultimate teacher. It took me some time to understand that he was in a state of kairos. Which hospital are you at? He did not know. But what he did know was this: morphine is the grace of the poppies, and that one day he will walk again.

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