Askold Melnyczuk

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USA | 2007

Askold Melnyczuk is a poet and a novelist, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Anegles Times, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, and The Nation. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead, was one of The Los Angeles Times Best Books of 2002, and his first novel, What is Told, was a New York Times Notable Book. His third novel, The House of Widows, was published in 2007.

Report 2007

WHAT IS THE WEIGHT OF A PALESTINIAN? Palestinians must be very light; they must be lighter than birds. They must be like clouds, like the very air. Their deaths weigh no one down. No one’s conscience seems to ache when they’re killed. But I wonder. It’s Jewish wisdom that claims God counts the tears of women and tonight there are hundreds of mothers in mourning. We returned from spending the holidays with my family in New Jersey to the news of this Christmas assault on Gaza. It reminded me of several conversations I had with an uncle the day before. I was telling him about traveling to Vienna to read at their Book Fair. “Vienna,” he said, wistfully. “I remember Vienna.” Over the years I’ve listened to countless war stories, and I had the sense I was about to hear another. “I’ll never forget it,” he said, staring at the wall. “Going down to the shelter under the church. American bombs dropping. My mother alternately pacing and panting beside us, breathing heavily, trying to stay calm so as not to frighten me and my two brothers. I was twelve, the youngest. My father had been arrested and sent to Siberia. Then the smell, the fires. The city smokey the whole day. I’ll never forget Vienna.” How unlike my experience of the city, I thought. These days Vienna brims with life. It’s huge museum complex is a model for the rest of the world. Eventually the smoke clears, and people move on. They put their grieving behind them. Countries once proudest of their military might now celebrate their painters and composers. In a famous cartoon example of gallow’s humor, we see a man strapped to an electric chair. The caption below has him saying: “This will certainly teach me a lesson.” Who knows what a person learns from being bombed? Does Israel expect to frighten a population into submission? Could it not have carried out a more narrowly targeted operation? My father often described how, after partisans had killed a German soldier, the Nazis would retaliate by lining up ten villagers gathered at random and executing them. Ten to one, he said, underscoring the barbarity. At the moment the casualties in Gaza stand at nearly four hundred Palestinians to four Israelis. 100 to 1. What comes after “barbaric”? The people of Gaza have lived under a stifling blockade for years. Journalists and human rights workers describe the malnutrition of the children, the ruined economy, the hopelessness of the people. These are the same people the Bush administration compelled to have an election. Then, when the people, who suffered inside the giant refugee camp for years, chose Hamas, they were summarily told they had made the wrong choice. Since the Bush administration didn’t believe in democracy, that came as no surprise. Still, it’s tragic. The refusal of the U.S. and Israeli administrations to recognize a legitimately elected government made a further mockery of all their lip-service to democratic ideals. And now, under the cover of the interregnum, before Obama enters the White House and perhaps—perhaps—sets a more even-handed tone in the Middle East—the Israelis with their characteristic delicacy have again shown the world what lessons they learned from millennia of victimization. Life isn’t a fable by Aesop. You never really know what people will make of their experience. My uncle survived the bombing. He met my aunt when both of them were young people going to college in New York City. He later learned that she too had been in Vienna during the bombing. She was seven when the earth shook around her. After he graduated with a degree in international relations, they married and he went to Washington to work for military intelligence. Part of his job was helping to select targets for the U.S. Airforce to bomb in Vietnam. I have to wonder what the twelve year-olds in Gaza are learning today. How will they choose to throw their weight around when it’s their turn? Is it possible that an enraged population acting out their grief with acts of retaliatory violence is precisely what the Bush and Israeli administrations would like to see greeting President-elect Obama when he takes office in a few weeks?