In spring 2014 I went to Pennsylvania to see one of my dear American friends whose sister had passed away after a short battle with cancer. Having worked at a hospital and witnessed people whose lives had been harvested by the sickle of this disease, I have learned that, with some types of cancer, it is much better to exit after a short battle than after a long one. In a sense, my friend’s sister was fortunate to depart within a couple of months rather than go through the painful processes of chemotherapy, radiation, followed by usually a high chance of relapse, then death anyway.
After shedding some tears in each other’s arms, we decided to head to the cemetery to visit her sister’s grave. We took a look at the graveside with noticeably few bouquets of flowers, perhaps because she was a poor woman who spent her life cleaning the houses of the rich with cleaning materials loaded with chemicals. After all, poor people are only as good as their last service to the masters of the system, and it is based on that last service that they get to have one more paycheck for just one more month of uncertainty.
At any rate, the visit was peaceful and it reminded us of the direction in which we are all headed. It reminded us that before the power of death, all our “significant” things and concerns can become insignificant. More importantly, we were reminded that death in and of itself is not frightening, what is frightening is a meaningless, or an unfair death. Having been raised in Iraq and having witnessed endless destruction from wars and countless free deaths, I know this lesson well. I took a few flowers from the graveside to dry them between the pages of my notebook in her memorial. As we got ready to leave the cemetery, my friend started talking about how some family members of her deceased sister were already fighting over the old TV, the grill, the outdated desktop, and other “trivial” things her deceased sister had left behind. She also talked about how this “unexpected death” is to affect her own budget and life for many months to come. She works as a kitchen manager at a convenient store: “I have to simply live on bread, milk, and eggs for the next few months, because I do not have any money for anything else. If I am to pay the bills, I have to be extremely frugal for a long time.” Her painful words acted as a stark reminder of how so many American people are becoming increasingly unable to afford dying, let alone living.
On the way back from the cemetery, we decided to buy some bread to cook a small dinner for all of us that evening. She suggested that we stop at a store that specializes in selling breads and pastries near expiration date at half price. The idea of this store is interesting and it made me wonder whether we are headed to a future when people with limited means will be forced to live on what can be called “second-hand breads” or “nearly disposable breads” in order to survive. Unlike stores like Whole Foods Trader Joe’s, and Wegmans, that cater for the upper class and their loyal slaves, this was just a one big room with a strong smell of stale food. The lighting was dim and rather depressing even on a beautiful sunny day, as if to constantly remind its customers of their reality, lest they forget who they are, where they are coming from, and where they are headed on their path to the nightmarish “American dream”.
As we got ready to check out, I went first in line to get the bread for our dinner that evening. The cashier was a woman in her early to mid-40s, with a beautiful chestnut-color hair, wearing a comfortable white shirt and blue jeans, with a cross hanging around her neck. I greeted her in English and told her that she looked Middle Eastern, and the following conversation took place between us:
“Yes. I am Middle Eastern, indeed. I am from Syria.” She said.
-“Nice to meet you my partner in pain.” I said in Arabic, referring to what was then the climax of the crisis in Syria and its painful connections and similarities with the situation in Iraq, including what brought us together in the US.
“Thank you. Are you originally from Iraq?”
“Yes. And you can only imagine how much I feel the pain Syria is going through today.”
“Yes my dear. The day we all feared has come. All those who did not wish us well must be very happy gloating at the destruction taking place in beloved Syria. We who embraced the Palestinians, the Lebanese, and the Iraqis in their crises and called them ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’; we are now being stigmatized and seen as annoying, unwanted, and unpleasant ‘refugees’ disturbing the status quo. Aside from everything else, the reality of what is happening in Syria is hideously, though not surprisingly, distorted by Western media for God knows what purposes.”
I was speechless. I looked into her beautiful amber-colored eyes and noticed that she was courageously struggling to hold her tears back. My own life and journey with wars, hunger, pain, destruction, and injustice have taught me that at certain difficult moments, being with somebody simply means to listen, to hold their hand as they grieve, while acknowledging that no words can possibly provide enough comfort. Silence at such moments is truly more articulate than words. As she finished the checkout, she gave me another look as though asking me to just say something before exiting the store. I wish I had any words that can provide comfort. I wish I could have held her hand and sang for her, but neither the place nor the time permitted it, and so I just verbally recited a part of a song by a Lebanese singer expressing the massive pain of Lebanon, which have become the reality of most Middle Eastern countries today:
“I dream to see you one day…Tomorrow this nightmare will be over, and instead of one sun, many suns will shine… On the land of our beloved homeland, we shall meet again one day.” I said the words and left, without daring to look her in the eyes. In the car, my friend gave me a loving slap on the back saying: “what did you say to that poor woman in Arabic? Did you say something harsh? Why did you leave her in tears like that, you bastard?”
I remained silent. We drove out of the parking lot heading home and all I could think of was the deep connections between the suffering of my American friend who died in poverty, the suffering of the Syrian refugee woman at the store, as well as the free deaths that were distributed almost equally between Iraqis, Syrians, and many other people who happen to be in the wrong time and the wrong place of the new world order. I thought about how so many people from different parts of the world, including form Europe and North America, are struggling today with similar socio-politico-economic ills, very likely caused by the same political players and profiteers, disguised under a million masks, and a million colors.
Although many of us are struggling against the same oppressive powers worldwide, we are all made to think of each other as enemies rather than allies in this global struggle. We have been separated from each other by the most misleading notion that some of us are citizens of the “First World”, while others are sub-humans from the “Third World”. I dreamed of a time when we all realize that we live in one world not three worlds as politicians and warmongers want us to believe.
Reflecting on my day, I thought about how the ties that connect our human reality have always been and will always remain much more meaningful and significant than the trivial details over which we are made to hate and kill each other. I found myself daydreaming of a day when, as the Lebanese singer says, instead of one sun, many suns will shine, but for that to happen, do not we need to wake up first?