Opinion: Palestine to the Rio Grande: For whom should we pray?


Published: 01-21-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

Approximately 1 in every 100 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since Oct. 7. The total exceeds 24,000. No one knows how many more are buried under the rubble.

For whom should we pray?

Not long ago a student of Levantine origin whom I know had an encounter with an English instructor over Shakespeare’s “Othello.” In class, while discussing which themes they might discuss, the student said they would like to examine prejudice and racism in Othello, that “malignant and a turbaned Turk.” A bit taken aback, the instructor asked other students if they were interested in such a topic. No one else cared.

Othello was studied that term. Neither Islam nor racism was ever discussed.

That student learned what they hadn’t previously fully internalized; that the “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture,” so described by Edward Said in “Orientalism,” reinforces prejudices that not only have historically prevailed but today are being used to justify continued Western colonial and imperial exploitation — not just on Arabs and Muslims but on people of color and minority peoples.

“... Go, make money. I have told thee often, and I retell thee again and again, I hate the Moor.”

That student learned, as many more of us each day are increasingly learning, that from Palestine to the Rio Grande the three evils of racism, materialism, militarism and extreme materialism, those described by MLK whose birthday we celebrated this past week, remain the compulsions of Western domination and exploitation of non-white peoples.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

For whom should we pray?

“What were you hoping,” Jean-Paul Sartre asked in “Black Orpheus” as France was entering its last decade of colonial domination in Algeria, “when you removed the gags that stopped up these black mouths? That they would sing your praises? ... Here are black men standing, men looking at us, and I want you to feel, as I do, the shock of being seen. For the white man has, for three thousand years, enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen.”

Today, from Algeria to Gaza to Eagle Pass, Texas; from Ferguson to Jenin to Bab-el-Mandeb, no one is singing the praises of oppressors and colonial settlers, whatever the color of their passport.

I have become used to feeling, over the decades, that I am obliged to explain the nature of those peoples and cultures that in part inform who I am — an American, Arab, Muslim, Beyoncé and Boston Red Sox fan from New Hampshire ...

Today, as I think “here I go again” I find myself again believing “... the enemy is us.”

A country, my country, that in my lifetime overthrew a democratically-elected regime in Iran, supplied Saudi Arabia with weapons to kill Houthis in Yemen, supplied biological weapons to Iraq to attack Iran and later invaded Iraq in a war of choice, is today supplying 2,000 pound bombs to the colonial-settler state of Israel, assisting directly in the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

However barbaric and murderous the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, however criminal the war crimes of Hamas — details of which are still emerging — there is no justification, political or strategic, secular or scriptural, for the unprecedented and indiscriminate suffering being inflicted upon a trapped people, displacing over 2,000,000 people and killing nearly 25,000 Palestinians as of this date, most of which are women and children.

And complicit with those war crimes, I believe, are my president, my national security advisor, my secretary of state and thousands of others who are conspiring with the Israeli government.

Gaza today is a vast dystopian graveyard, in part a tragic but predictable memorial to continued Western colonial and imperial exploitation in the Middle East.

It doesn’t matter, too many of my neighbors believe, it only happens to darker peoples at the bottom of the world, to “people unlike ourselves.”

Happens to people who travel steerage, as did my father when he traveled alone to America at age nine at the turn of the 20th century. Only happens to darker peoples who sell everything and walk thousands of miles to try to escape drug cartels and corrupt governments to give their children a chance for a better life, only to drown with their children in the Rio Grande.

Darker people from backward places of unrest and violence who don’t really matter, my neighbors believe, even though most of them are trying to escape from countries we ourselves oppressed, exploited, and broke.

For some time I have been struggling with how to respond to the voices, often white and privileged and speaking from sheltered harbors, who call for coming together, who call to pray together, who don’t understand that societies riven by dissent and division are more easily conquered by the authoritarian forces who care nothing for the Other, for Jews, Blacks, Muslims, LGBTQIA+ peoples or even for Red Sox fans.

“’Those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Nobel Peace Laureate, the late Bishop Tutu said. “It doesn’t matter where we worship or live. We are members of one family, the human family, God’s family.”

I cannot turn a blind eye.

Today I am thankful for the migrants, poets, lovers and sojourners who have taught me more about myself than I knew there was to learn, who taught me to no longer submit to the colonialists, not to submit to those who falsely promise that if we embrace their privilege that someday we might control our own fate.

Colonialism is not just an inhuman enterprise that targets the bodies of uncooperative and un-submissive peoples. It targets their souls. It levels houses of learning and worship, libraries and schools, universities and hospitals; layered like playing cards stained by the blood of children not fast enough to escape the collapse.

It targets, too, the souls of witnesses.

Today, as we witness whole neighborhoods demolished, as we witness thousands of crippled children with missing limbs, most amputated without anesthetic, for whom should we pray?

For whom should you pray?