Some Thoughts on Empathy and Imagination and a Poem for Palestine (Testing Day)

(Artwork: A Child’s Nightmares in Gaza)

We are in a time when we are charged with the task of resisting racism and injustice of all kinds. Before we can do that effectively, we need to better understand what it feels like to be over-policed, discriminated against, subjected to humiliation, and deprived of basic rights and dignity. The word “empathy” often comes up in these contexts. I think some people simply mistake this for sympathy. It is actually much more. To me, sympathy means feeling sorry for someone—having a sense of how badly we would feel if we were treated in the same way. Empathy requires that we really enter into a situation and try to feel it, not as we would, but as they do. That is much more difficult. Which brings me to the word “imagination.” Many people associate this word with general creativity, artistic talent, etc. Although I love art, I think imagination has a more essential function. I think humans were gifted with imagination so that they could really enter into truly empathetic states. This may require some effort at meditative visualization. But imagination needs data to work with. In the case of America’s struggle with racism, anything people can do to read more of the literature, history, and biography of Americans of color is important in this regard. Getting to know people and their stories is even better. One thing is certain, eradicating systemic racism and learning to live in a multicultural world will not happen just because of positive attitudes—it will take a good deal of time and intentional effort.  

I wrote the following poem at a time of particularly violent Israel incursions into the Occupied Territories during the early 2000s. I tried to empathetically imagine how a very young Palestinian schoolgirl might feel on having to go to school under those conditions. There is a distinct reason for the kind of sing-song rhythm and the rhyming. For what it is worth, I have posted it below.

Testing Day

She is getting ready slowly.
She is having trouble with her buttons.
She is gathering slowly, her things,
Having trouble with her bag, her ties.
And her hands are trembling a bit;
She’s afraid to say goodbye

And out the door and down the alley
Looking down and scuffing dust
And pausing for a sprig of bougainvillea
And rubbing the brilliant petals
Which feel like paper,
Or starched silk.

And her mind is tumbling over words,
But finds no answers there.
She can’t fill in the blanks,
Or identify the matching pairs,
Choose quickly right from wrong,
Or decide which things seem fair.

She is only nine years old,
Pretty and not very bold:
Looks down to hide her eyes,
Wears a scarf to hide her face,
Is on the way to school to take a test,
Her lessons all erased.

Children don’t learn what the teacher says,
But from what meets their eyes around,
One learns things from the look of boots,
Brass cartridge shells, and certain sounds,
By never lifting voice or face
Or eyes from off the ground.

Excuse the sing-song sound of this
The rhythm like a nursery rhyme
A chant a child might make as play
Clenching arms around thin legs,
Backwards, forwards, sway,
In some secret place alone,
In the dark both night and day.                      

Look down so you can’t see the men
Blindfolded, (just their handcuffed hands)
Or see the soldiers’ faces (only the way they stand)
You learn not to hear explosions
(Silence can seem loud as one)
After the gunfire fades away…
Can you stop the screams that come?

And now drawing near the marketplace
She finds that in her world
There’s no place left to look at all
(In faint wind the red silk stirs)
At the steps of the fabric seller’s stall
(No steps, no words, no end)
Where she was standing with her friend
When curfew chanced to fall.

And she is murmuring
“please, please, please”
(Black boots and passing khaki knees)
And the faint rust stains can still be seen
Like the map of foreign countries
You might see in a dream.
(She blinks)
Where the blood came through her friend’s school-book
(Geography she thinks).

Now she finds herself at home
Without remembering how,
Rocking back and forth alone
Whispering, “please, please, please”
Arms locked around thin legs,
Face pounded by her own hard knees,
Brass shells rattling on the empty floor,
Indelibly stained, of her heart.

            (Saudi Arabia, 2003)

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