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How do we catch people where they fall? How do we respond to this crisis in a way that doesn’t reinforce its architecture? What kind of politics is being summoned at this time? In this November 16 conversation that was part of our Democracy & Belonging Forum's Edges in the Middle speaker series, hosted by OBI Global Senior Fellow Bayo Akomolafe, we heard from Professor Sa’ed Atshan and OBI’s Cecilie Surasky on holding each other’s pain even as lines are increasingly drawn around whose lives are grievable and whose are not.


Sara Grossman:

Welcome everyone to this conversation entitled Across Lines Grief. My name is Sarah Grossman, joining you from my home in Berlin, and I am the program director for the Democracy and Belonging Forum, which is hosting this conversation. The Forum is a network and research hub that aims to connect and equip civic actors to better respond to the tactics of authoritarian populists by bridging across lines of difference while centering the needs and concerns of marginalized groups. At the core of our work is a commitment to bridging, and bridging can sound like an easy task, but as those of us who do it know it's rarely so simple. Particularly in moments like this, when our tendency is to turn away from each other, bridging can feel at best, dangerous, and at worst, impossible, and yet it is in these moments that we believe we must lean more into bridging, as we know all too well that it is the othering and anti-democratic forces who benefit most from our division of fragmentation.

As the Othering and Belonging Institute wrote in its statement on the Israel Gaza crisis, a feature of othering is drawing lines between those whose deaths are grievable and those unworthy of our grief and concern. Even in the depth of our anguish, when love propels our tears and rage, we must not succumb to the drive to draw that line, especially now when dehumanization is widespread and governments on the internet, in the news, in our communities and in our bodies. When we honor each other's unfathomable grief, we reclaim each other's humanity. Today we are honored to host three people who are willing to demonstrate bridging across lines of difference while holding each other's grief.

The first is the host of this conversation, Bayo Akomolafe, who is OBI's Global Senior Fellow. His work is to help us rethink how we do our work towards justice and to consider if our responses to crises are in fact reinforcing those crises. The second is the Palestinian scholar, Sa'ed Atshan, who is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Anthropology at Swarthmore College. His areas of research include contemporary Palestinian society and politics, global LGBTQ social movements and Christian minorities in the Middle East. The last speaker is our very own Cecilie Surasky, who before joining us as our comms director was deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, where she led campaigns to build grassroots supports for policies that uphold the unalienable human rights of Palestinians. Before I welcome all three speakers to the stage, I invite all of you watching who want to continue practicing bridging work to join us at the Democracy and Belonging Forum. You can find us online at democracyandbelongingforum.org or follow us across various social media platforms at DNB Forum. And with that, I pass things off to you, Bayo.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Thank you, my sister. So usually I would start by saying welcome, except I spent long hours thinking about how to welcome us into this space because this space has been articulated as a lamentation. That is what we're here to do, to grieve together, and it doesn't feel very welcoming or lamentations don't feel welcoming, at least the popular understandings of lamentations don't feel very welcoming. You don't need to have learned the etymology of lamentation, which is a howling or wailing or mourning and a moaning of some kind to understand that it feels at first blush to refute or to undermine any sort of hospitality.

And yet there is a strange kind of hospitality that comes in grief. There is a beauty, there is a welcome in lamentation. That might be preposterous for most of us to hear because we live in a world that is increasingly antagonistic to grieving. I'm a recovering psychologist, as I like to call myself, and I'm acutely aware about the pathology of grief. Only last year, I think in March 2022, the American Psychological Association designated prolonged grief disorder as pathological. So there is a sense in which grieving for extended periods of time could disturb one's claim to citizenry, to productivity, to being proper, to being a proper self, and yet it feels like the world and the events at large are inviting us into a space of grieving and it feels our bodies want to do it, especially in a time when it feels politics isn't serving, isn't touching our yearning, isn't helping us meet each other in the ecstasy of encounter.

So I insist on welcoming you. I say welcome, welcome to this space of grieving where grieving is not just being sad. We perform grieving as mutiny against established patterns. We perform grieving inspired not only by beautiful insights emerging in the world today, indigenous insights as well. We perform grieving as a form of errancy, as a strain away from politics as usual, as a making space for our bodies to do different kinds of things in the world. I welcome you, my siblings from around the world, wherever you're listening from, to the edges in the middle to this Umbari. Before I invite my siblings to speak with me, I want to take a few moments to say or remind you about what this space is trying to do. The Umbari is an [foreign language 00:08:02] indigenous cosmological space.

It's an invitation to have conversations differently. Our aim is not to arrive at a specific truth. Our aim is not to reach consensus. Our aim is not to arrive at utopia. Our aim is not to prove who's wrong and who's right. Those Western seemingly impoverished ways of holding conversation potentially argumentative, useful in some regard, aren't the focus of this space. We are here to touch and be touched. There will be spaces of convergence and divergence, but we understand that that is part of the fabric of being alive and being with nest. I said with nest, not witnessed. Being with nest by a world that is alive.

So we are here to do some different kind of work, and the context of our conversation today is of course the armed conflict, the war in the Middle East, the war between Israel and Gazans. I'm sure you have opinions about this. I'm sure you're touched in some way or the other. None of us can hold this entirely. Wherever you draw the line, there is trouble. Some of us don't even know how to speak any longer because what to say is always going to be wrong from another body's perspective. But peace, as I wrote recently, has never been premised on the algorithms of correctness. Peace has never been calculated by who is right. A different kind of posture or gesture is required if peace is at stake, if peace is the goal. And so what we want to do here today is to hold this experimental third way. Not the third in terms of accumulation of the first and the second, but a third in terms of a fugitive strain away from the ways that we understand patterns to repeat themselves.

Whoever is wrong or right here is not as important as the third space, the different kind of politics that needs to emerge at this time, that can acknowledge that loss exceeds us all, and loss has touched every one of us. So we are here to speak with each other because even justice seems to be an impoverished framework to hold this space. If justice is retribution, if justice is getting even, then the equation will always produce violence. Are there other moves to be made that are not premised on the equation of violence? Are there other kinds of gestures that are alive in this time? If peace is a calculation of a geometric distance between A and Z, are there crossroads and diversions and other ways that we can move out of the violence of the highway so that we can do other things with the world and do other things with ourselves? Could it be that even justice seems limited and that there is a meeting wanting to happen?

We come to you in the limitations and the playfulness of grief. We come to you not knowing the answer, not having even the right questions sometimes, but we're here to do it together in humility with a profound sense of our limitation and our vulnerability. To weave a fabric of loss that might hold us where we fall together. And this is not an obscuration of the facts, but a noticing that even facts vibrate at the speed of mystery, that facts need dwelling places too, and facts need to be held in a container of tenderness.

So I want to bring my dear, dear siblings up into this conversation with me. My dear brother, Sa'ed, and my sister, Cecilie. You're welcome. The welcome is for you too, of course. You can unmute yourselves. Thank you. You're welcome. You're welcome. This is open-ended. I don't know where this might go this, this isn't pre-planned, but I have a question to ask that is part of my welcoming you into the conversation, and I'll start with you, Sa'ed. The question is, what is your story of loss? How have you been touched and marked and enlisted in the grief that is erupting during this time?

Sa’ed Atshan:

Thank you so much, Bayo, for having us. It's a real honor to be in conversation with you, and I'm just thrilled that we can create space for healing and for community. The question that you pose is a profound question, and that has many, many, many different layers. I'll say that growing up in the West Bank and attending a Quaker school there where we studied Holocaust and we studied the diary of Anne Frank and we studied Elie Wiesel's Night, I learned about the suffering of the Jewish people and the traumas that they have faced and the loss and grief that they have faced and that they continue to face., And as a Palestinian, I hold that. I carry that in my heart and I hold all of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the light. So that has become a part of our history on an individual and collective level.

Also as a Palestinian, there has been 75 years now of loss and of grief and of trauma and of displacement and dispossession and disenfranchisement, which is the backdrop for the past couple weeks of the horror and the loss that all of us have witnessed in the Middle East, in Israel, Palestine, Palestine, Israel, whatever you want to call that beautiful land that we all cherish so much. So I'm holding in the light all the Palestinians and all these Israelis who are suffering and grieving with us now, and I pray that this comes to an end as soon as possible.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Thank you, Sa'ed. Sister.

Cecilie Surasky:

Thank you, Sa'ed. There's so many different ways to answer that question, but I will say that at the beginning of COVID, within three months, I lost my father and my son who was 18, and so my wife and I talk about having these PhDs in grief that we didn't sign up for, and it has helped me understand. I mean, I would call that kind of grief for us personally, really, initiation. It's annihilating in so many extraordinary ways, but also an inflection point. And so when you talk about grief as an invitation, within grief, there is joy. This may be obvious to some, but it was not obvious to me until I went through this personally that grief is the most extraordinary expression of overwhelming love I have ever experienced. You have no control over your body, over your reactions. It is an opening to a kind of love that is astonishing in so many ways, and that helped me also understand the experiences of grief that have shaped not only my life, but I think of our culture.

I was thinking about Petra. If you've been to Petra, this incredible wonder in Jordan, and there is a very narrow canyon that you walk through, and it's wild because you go and it's the desert, but you can see that this canyon was shaped by water, but the water is long gone, and all of our landscapes are like that. They're deeply shaped by these oceanic, incredible forces of water. And I now understand grief, particularly when we talk about Israel, when we talk about Palestine, when we talk about certainly Jews, my own community, the ways that grief has shaped the contours of our identities, of our stories, of how we show up in the world and our traumas. I was with a friend... Many people. This has touched me very personally. People I know and love are still in deep pain, on all sides of these borders, and it pains me that even when I tell this, I have to say, "On both sides."

I've been to Gaza multiple times. I've spent a lot of time in the West Bank, a lot of time in Israel. I have dear people in my life have someone in their family who's been kidnapped, multiple people. I was with someone as they found out that their cousin was killed. I have met people in Gaza who can't connect to their families. I mean, it goes on and on. So I'll just say that my grief and love for my child, when I say this, it opened up my heart so intensely. I think this was true prior, but it times a million now that my spiritual understanding and my personal and lived understanding is all these kids are my kids. They all are. They all are. And including soldiers, including Hamas. There has to be some understanding of... Doesn't mean in any way, shape or form... Your kids and people that you love can do terrible, horrific things, but there is a broader understanding of connectedness that is really important for me to hold.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Thank you. Thank you, Cecilie. I want us to be courageous here, to not fear, to take a courageous act deeper into its exquisite and promising ends and go deeper to touch those singular lives that have been the occasion of our grieving. A brother of mine says, "Those you love, you'll lose. It's inevitable." Loss has exploded, especially in the Middle East right now and is enveloping the globe, calcifying our bodies, locking us into certain postures. We want to claim grieving as the generosity of posture that allows us to see differently potentially, but let's not linger at the surface or on the surface or at the edges, let's go deep into it. So Cecilie, I'll start with you again and then I'll move back to my brother. Tell me this story of this singular life that when you think about a story of loss in these times of war stands out as a testament to that loss.

Cecilie Surasky:

This may not be exactly what you're asking, but I do want to share a story of this and the way... You reminded me of this word that I had been searching for for a long time, of ricochet, because I felt like every personal,,, I think this is happening to people all over the world. Every personal, ancestral, political community-almost instrument, like a string of grief is being plucked and they are ricocheting off of each other in ways that people can't. And I just want to share, there was a moment early on where I was talking to a dear friend of mine who is Palestinian, who was crying and saying, "We're watching this unfold on television, and I feel as though the whole world is watching and doesn't care," and in that moment, it ricocheted off me so intensely because...

And I do feel comfortable talking about my own family and my own family's individual story and grief, I don't want to hold someone else's story for them. I have letters from the Warsaw Ghetto from my great-grandmother that have swastikas on them, got through in various ways to my family, and in one of those letters, she said the exact same words, and you can see where it's been censored and my grandparents tried to sort of erase it, but she said the whole world essentially, and you could see what she was trying to say, "The whole world is letting this happen and doesn't care." And the collapse of that grief and history and repetition was just an absolutely overwhelming moment. So that story, my own family story is with me, and that level of loss that my family experienced and many is part of this story as well.

Bayo Akomolafe:

My brother.

Sa’ed Atshan:

Well, I could talk about family, I could talk about friends and loved ones who are in the region now who've been directly impacted on an individual level, and I think that that's powerful for many, many reasons, but what's been striking to me about what we're witnessing now is that we're following it intimately on social media and even strangers are becoming intimate, and there's a sense of kinship and a sense of solidarity and a sense of care for the wellbeing and welfare of people who we've never met, people who we may never meet, and people who are every day we're checking up to see, have they survived, have they made it? That has been an incredibly surreal experience to experience this on this individual and collective level via social media.

There's this haunting video that's really going viral, which is also incredibly beautiful of a girl, probably around eight years old, who's been rescued from the rubble of her destroyed bone in Gaza, and she's on a stretcher, and a young man is carrying her. And in the video you can see that she turns to him and says, "Uncle, are you taking me to the cemetery?" And he responds to her and says, "Cemetery? What cemetery?" In a very gentle way, he responds and says, "You are alive. Look at you, and you're beautiful like the moon." And I can't get that image, those voices out of my head. And I know that that has moved millions of people in the region and around the world, and all of a sudden you have people looking into find out what is her name and how is she doing now, and where is she now?

Which I think to me is a response to this notion of do people care? People are watching this. Does anyone even care? Is anyone intervening? And many people don't, and many people are indifferent and many people are complicit, but also many people do care very deeply, and there is this profound empathy that what's happening now in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel is actually catalyzing among people of conscience. I think that that empathy is really beautiful, and I want to hold onto that.

Bayo Akomolafe:

I do too, brother. I do too. I'm going to invite us to have spaces of silence between, so that we don't just rush through. We want to take things slow. And so everyone that's listening to us as well, please breathe. Don't forget to breathe and take care of yourself as you listen and as you be here with us.

There are those among us that will probably feel, "Yeah, this is fine. This is okay. We can do this," but it doesn't really solve anything, does it? We need solutions now. We need to end this war. We need rights restored. We need entitlements convened. We need our solutions. My siblings, what would you say to that? In no particular order? How would you come into that?

Cecilie Surasky:

I can respond a little bit to that. We're all embedded in the Western academic institutions in different kinds of ways, and I think of that as the epicenter of the idea of the individual rational enlightenment actor and feelings are a threat to that rationality. The body is a threat to feelings. That our ideas are our own, our emotions are our own, and they are separate, and they are something to be sort of kept off to the side, so we can all... But as far as I can tell for the years that I have been paying attention to work around peace in this part of the world, it's all simmering emotions, all simmering and often unintended to.

And in fact, and I noticed this in myself when my amygdala's sort of activated my fight or flight, I go... And I think it's a more masculine quality that I have. I go to the, "I'm just going to be really, really super smart. I'm going to use really big words and I'm going to show them that they don't know what they're doing," but it's motivated by this fight or flight, the need to be right, the need to annihilate intellectually. So I do think that's so much of what's going on and we're not tending to the trauma reactions, the sort of survival reactions. And I'm going to put this in the most optimistic way that I actually deeply think this is true. When I first started going out and talking about Israel and Palestine and doing peace work, we all knew that we would get... Those of us who were Jewish, and I would go out with friends who were Israeli and former IDF soldiers, all kinds of folks, and it didn't matter who we were, we knew we would get yelled at by people who seemed like our grandparents, really yelled at.

There was always going to be that trauma reaction, but one of the things I was not prepared for, and Sa'ed, this would be familiar to you, I think, but I would meet elder Palestinians quite frequently who would just come up and give me the hugest hug and say, "Before '47, we used to live together." Historic Palestine was something around 5%, I think, Jewish and people, and what I felt from them literally was this pain and grief at this separation that happened and this incredible relief at being greeted by and being able to greet their Jewish brother or sister, and that loss. And so I do think what is not tended to when we have moved to the place of the policy intellect, A, it's an area of annihilation and vanquishing your enemy by being right. We see it over and over and over again. So it's a vanquishing energy, and that's not what we need. We need to attend and understand that our grief and our rage, no matter what side of this issue you're on, it doesn't matter, comes from a reaching for love.

I really truly believe that. That's what it actually is. And the reaching for belonging, because it's like, "What I hear you saying is you want to annihilate my people," whichever side you're on, "That you don't love me, you want to eject me and my people from the human domain." and we have to tend to that, that is what's going on underneath, and we don't at all, and we keep going around it. And we also have to tend to our incredible wounds. My grandparents were part of that Zionist movement. I understand completely. There are maze makers in the world, the European powers, they were in the maze. I would've been in the maze. That was a choice that made sense to them. It was completely, as it turned out, at the expense of another people, but I do think that being able to hold that complexity, as well the grief, and I think 75 years of oppression and ethnic cleansing and pain and all the things that happened at Palestine is a really important frame to hold, and I also really want to expand it.

I want to expand it. I want to expand it to include the grief and pain and what happened in the context of Nazism, and what happened, and how that was inspired by how settlers eradicated indigenous people in the land where I am right now, and so on and so forth. It can go on and on. So I do think that this we see in what's happening, I can speak at least in my sense of Israel and Zionism, is profoundly unhealed trauma and grief and the reenactment of it. Sa'ed.

Sa’ed Atshan:

Yeah, that really resonates very deeply with me. And as I consider this, I also realized that the sense of urgency and the sense of the need for action, for praxis, as well as the importance of stopping and of silence and meditation and dealing with pain and dealing with the trauma and actually letting it flow through one's body, that both of these forces are important and that both of these forces actually reinforce and support one another. So there are these calls now for a cease fire. These are urgent, urgent calls, and there are people protesting. There are people disrupting. There are people trying to hold the powers that be to account, including the military industrial complex to stop arming, so that we can stop the killing, we can stop the violence. And that sense of urgency is there for a reason, and the need for action is there for a reason.

But at the same time, there is a desperate need for space to breathe, as Bayo, you, mentioned. And there's a real, real need for meditation, for reflection. And even in the face of bombardment, people stop to pause, to consider, to reconsider, to imagine, to reflect on the past, to worry about the future or the lack thereof, and so for me, as a Quaker, silence is a very important part of our spiritual practice, and so I try to create space for that in my life while also centering the need for action. So thank you for raising that and for thinking collectively how we can strike that balance.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Yes, yes, yes.

Cecilie Surasky:

If I might also add... Thank you for that, Sa'ed, and Sa'ed knows I went to a Quaker high school, which was in Philadelphia many ways, a progressive Jewish high school, and I always joked having come from Philadelphia public school where we were always getting put up against the wall for various infractions, and that the first time I encountered an idea of God was when I went to a Quaker meeting and I saw seventh graders so quiet you could drop a pin, and I was like, "What is happening? This is not the world I grew up in." But I also want to say something about our mourning together, and I learned this in the experience with our son.

We understood that as a profound inflection point, not just for us but for his friends, and so we scooped them all up and it was COVID and we met every day in our garden for a week and then every week, and then every month, and now every year, and actually they're a huge part of our lives, and we were flattened and annihilated together. There was no someone on the outside and someone on the inside. And the thing about grief, and I think it's true collectively as a nation and many, I have heard the same profound loneliness from Palestinians I love and care for, and Israelis I love and care for. What you hear is this sense of such aloneness in both cases for different reasons, and it's so striking to me.

I mean, there are these mirrors, and what I learned was that to heal, we have to heal collectively, we have to mourn together, we have to make a choice about that loneliness and walk towards others, and I know the tendency is to want to go hide in a room, but that's going to be our saving grace. And it is to grieve together and to grieve together in public is also to love each other in public. And I am so clear, there is so much love that exists between so many people, Palestinian, Jewish, other. We have to have the courage to love each other in public and not just in private, and that is the energy and that is the seed of when we talk about peace. So I believe in that wholeheartedly. As Sa'ed said, all of these other things have to happen, but this has to happen too.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Yes, yes, yes. Growing up as a kid in West Africa, I was about 15 when I lost my father, and it was devastating, of course, because he was my best friend. We were friends. It wasn't just a father figure. We played games together. I looked up to him as the model of manhood. I aspired to be like him in every way. So when he passed quite unexpectedly due to a heart condition that sprouted from nowhere, seemingly, it's like the entire world crumbled and there was nothing left. Well, we made a trip to his village to bury him. He was a high-powered diplomat and he died in his station in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is then called Zaire, and his body was brought back in a coffin, and we drove with people to the village.

And I was raised in the city. I've often told people that to be educated in the context where I come from is to be educated out of your world, is to be taken out of your context. The more educated you are, the more dissociated you are. And so this was some kind of a homecoming of some kind. We made our way home and my father was buried and the people that came out to mourn him, at some point I was getting really pissed off because it was this sweltering festival of mourning that just erupted out of nowhere, and we all felt, me and my sisters felt, "Daddy didn't know these persons. Why are they pretending?" They were crying and some people would join the party of mourners that probably didn't even know him, but they just were there together mourning him.

It wasn't until later in my career as an academic and psychologist that I got to learn about the indigenous practices of grieving. That grief is not a private affair, like you say, Cecilie. Grief is a public event, and what it does is that it breaks down the usual neoliberal boundaries with which we establish selfhood. It's your grief or my grief. I'm a greater victim than you are, or you are a greater victim than I am. It breaks down categories. There's something very piercing about grieving together that dislocates the ideas with which we establish and calculate correctness.

So what I'm hearing from us is that there's a spaciousness here. There is an exquisite, maybe call it a sensuous solidarity, that grieving is a performing of sensuous solidarity of some kind, that we're weaving our bodies together in some way. But the stories that we are living and laboring under are very resilient stories. One of those stories is that this is a battle between good versus evil. We're in a civilizational battle of some kind of good versus evil. In your sense of grieving, what is the spaciousness allowing us to notice about that story that has so far enveloped and captured and incarcerated our conversations about this crisis? What is emerging in your experience and insights about the impoverishment of that story? And this is to any of my siblings here.

Sa’ed Atshan:

There's so much to be said of the notion of grieving together, that this is not just an individual exercise, but a collective one, as well as the power of grieving publicly. That also really, really resonates very deeply with me. I know that we are talking about moving away from Western-based academic frameworks, but here I can't help but think of the scholarship of Michael Rothberg, who is a professor of Holocaust studies at UCLA.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Would you say that name again, brother?

Sa’ed Atshan:

Michael Rothberg, professor of Holocaust studies at UCLA. And he has this notion of multi-directional memory, which he critiques the notion of competitive memory. So there's this competitive memory. We feel that if we grieve, if we mourn publicly especially and join the other in their grief and in their pain, and we recognize that this will take away from the recognition of our own narratives and our own wounds to be heard and to be healed and to be addressed. But instead of this competitive approach, this multi-directional approach is much more ethical and much more productive because it expands the public domain for us to hold in the light all of our voices. It's not a zero-sum game. So I think that this sense of solidarity that emerges when we move in that direction, I think allows us to move closer towards healing and ultimately towards restorative justice.

Cecilie Surasky:

I love that. That's beautiful. I think it is so crucial. A couple things I want to say is one of the most... No matter your tradition, if you're in the United States, you get educated about proper, typical funereal behavior by watching movies and television, and by and large-

Bayo Akomolafe:

We all did.

Cecilie Surasky:

Yeah, it's not second line New Orleans for most of us, which is an incredibly gorgeous expressive jazz funeral march that is like a celebration of life embodied. It is people wearing black, highly, highly contained, mostly white people who are standing by a grave and maybe the mother is allowed to sniffle, but it's very silent, very individual, very contained. Contained. So we already have this constant reinforcement that grief is something to hide, to stifle, to not... I mean, precisely what grief does is it takes over your body. That is the ultimate shame in so many ways in this culture and the expression of a certain kind of white, European sort of hegemonic idea of how it should be expressed.

And at the moment, one of the most important and poignant moments, and it is solidarity for me, was in the moment we found our son. He didn't wake up. We were obviously hysterical. And in Berkeley, you could hear, and our neighbor, Manar, who happens to be Muslim and Egyptian, came over, heard what's going on, came over. And once she found out, she started wailing. She just wailed. And in the most alone moment really of my life, I will never forget that expression of solidarity and love and accompaniment, and we all need that.

Israelis need that. Palestinians need that. We need that. The horrors of loss, the loss of one, let alone the kinds of numbers and scale and nature of what's happened and what's happened over the last month, what's happened over 75 years, what's happened over 100 years. I mean, we all need accompaniment in our grief, and when we sense that note of dehumanization, someone's inability to accompany us in some way in our most profoundest of grief, that is this line that becomes a chasm. And so I see much of the... So the other thing I just want to say about that is for myself, and this may be obvious, but this was the most profound learning through grief, which is because we live in that kind of a culture.

For a long time, I could not watch movies because every third character, they would introduce a character who was alone, cranky, a total jerk, intolerable. The backstory always was that they lost their child. It's the quickest way to tell a story about someone who's broken, and of course, I had to go, "Am I broken?" And what I learned from dear, dear friends of mine was the grief will never kill you, but we think that it does. We think it will kill us to express it in this culture anyway. It's trying not to feel it, that's what makes you broken. Trying to stuff it, trying to contain it, a refusal to let it take over your body. And we called it the river, to just let the river take you. So I think that we do have incredible... And if you let it take you, it actually does the opposite. It expands your capacity for compassion and love and care. But if you fight it, you fight it like the culture tells us, you run a very high risk of a kind of brokenness.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Yes, yes, yes. There is a sense, sister and brother, in which, Cecilie, just to piggyback on what you just said, that in the domesticated politeness with which we handle or seek to contain grieving postpones or just disperses the violence in some way. It pushes it, keeps it within our territories and postpones it so that it's not really dealt with, it's just hidden under layers of the everyday. That wailing is like an addressing the animal nature, the potency of grieving together, that wailing is an invitation towards strange kind of generosity that our modern ways of thinking and knowing does not have room for.

So just before we coast into a closing that is also an opening, a little brother called it a clopening recently. I offer that to our lexicon. A clopening, a closing that is an opening at the same time. This is something we spoke about, Cecilie, recently, about the ways we often think about violence. We often think about the violent or violence within a linearity, a stable binary that produces binary roles, a perpetrator and a victim, and that's one way of thinking about the force of violence, but there is potentially another way, and I think we're gesturing towards that in our conversation, and it's the idea of violence as a force field, and this is where the ricochet idea gains form, that instead of focusing solely on the occupants in the room, we notice what the room is doing. And grieving does that. It kind of changes the posture so that we are aware of other bodies and we are open and alive to things that being upright will not allow us to access.

Is there a sense, and this is for both of you, is there a sense in which we can invite this spaciousness to travel, that we can invite more people into this space? The question here then is how do we convene this sensual solidarity? How do we help it materialize and gain more bodies, enlist more bodies? What is the kind of work you think matters now, not to the pathologization or dismissal of all the other precious kinds of ways that people are feeling this moment, but maybe a supplement, a supplementary politics. What would you say is the most electrifying invitation for you now with regards to what we've talked about and with regards to convening sensuous solidarity of grieving together? Which is my roundabout way of saying what do we do or what can be done?

Sa’ed Atshan:

I feel bad always going first. Would you like to talk?

Cecilie Surasky:

Oh, I want you to go first.

Sa’ed Atshan:

So with this very powerful example that you just shared, and again, I'm so sorry for your loss and for your entire family, and I know that this pain will be with you, but the spirit of your son will also be with you forever. So I just want to hold space for that, and what generosity of spirit to share that with us, and it's a privilege to be a witness to that and to share this space. So thank you from the bottom of my heart for modeling that vulnerability and that strength to vulnerability, and also for sharing that example of the solidarity of your neighbor. What we can learn from that.

And to me, that brings up two points that are coming to mind. First is how can we think about decolonizing grieving and how we think about-

Bayo Akomolafe:

Decolonizing grieving?

Sa’ed Atshan:

Yes, and how we think about grieving in the Western context and how can we create more space so that kind of wailing can be accepted as an appropriate form of grief and an appropriate form of solidarity, and that has that transformative effect in giving voice and making space to address that deep, deep pain that exists within one's heart and within one's soul. Making space for that so visibly, so audibly. I welcome opportunities to think about how, going back to your point about expansions, how can we expand that? And also, I realized that it's not a surprise that it is a woman, a mother and mother to mother, but that expression makes it also even more powerful and in many ways more therapeutic.

So for me, as a queer feminist, it's really realizing that much of this struggle is also a struggle of dismantling patriarchy and the foundations of patriarchy so that there's more space for women and more space for queer folks. And also, patriarchy is not just about men dominating women, it's also about the old dominating the young. And of course, we respect our elders and we cherish our elders, but we also have to enfranchise our youth and the rising generation. So democratizing the space for grieving, for public grieving, for theorizing grieving, for practicing grieving in a deeply de-colonial manner and in a deeply queer-feminist manner, I think can get us closer to the healing that we all deserve.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Well said, my brother.

Cecilie Surasky:

That's beautiful. Thank you, Sa'ed, and thank you for the question, Bayo, and of course, I want to know how you think about this, but one of the things I think that's really important, and it's certainly coming from a Jewish peace and justice perspective, it's the layers of grief. I can tell you the layers of grief, ricochet grief, that so many Jews have. I've had multiple breakdowns, but everyone I know, the first time you go to a place like Hebron and the first time you go to Gaza, the first time you see somebody's... I remember being with the head of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, and he said he had just taken another rabbi to see a Palestinian home demolished, and that the rabbi called it the worst day of his life, and that's happening to thousands of particularly young people right now, this extraordinary level of grief.

I think for so long it was always, "Well, we're allies in the movement. It's the Palestinian movement for liberation," and I always would say, "Well, there's two movements for liberation," but now it's a co-liberation movement. It's really important that we understand and Fanon talked about. We all know this, that this is not... The colonizer and the colonized both suffer, and it may look different, and I don't mean to equate that things are the same, but damage is very real. And the history of genocide for us and how we sort of... European powers, I mean, the way honestly I think of it is almost the Hunger Games, and European powers and the United States are the capital, and we have different districts. One is infinitely more resourced by the capital than the other, but they are being pitted against each other by a capital that doesn't actually care about either of them. So I see it in geopolitical terms that way.

But by going to the place of grief and that we start to see the need... Again, we are in it together. I think it's actually condescending and patronizing, this idea that we shall help you or we will be your ally because we're nice people. No, we desperately we need to do this work in our own community and ourselves. And the other piece of... I had a friend who called this the wound of the world, the way that it is reverberating for so many people, and Sa'ed, what you were talking about, about the kind of unprecedented real-time exposure to the actual horrors. I mean, you can see what happened to the people on kibbutzim, you can see what's happening every day in the bombing in Gaza. We are being exposed to all of it.

And I think particularly in the West, I think of the, I don't know, the old Oscar Wilde story, the Picture of Dorian Gray, and the two-sentence version was he was a young man who was sort of entranced with his beauty and essentially gave his soul away, traded his soul to be forever beautiful, but meanwhile, there was this hidden painting that grew older and also more distorted with his sins, and so that picture needed to stay in the attic. And when he encountered it, the trauma, and there's an element of that that's going on. I think for so many people in the West our lives... We're seeing it in Gaza, but it's everything. We have this Faustian bargain that our lives are purchased at the price of conflict, minerals and Congo. I mean, I could go on and on the entire history, we all know that.

And when you're growing up, you can live a pretty good life in certainly that United States and try to protect yourself from the portrait of actually what allows all of this, and as we know, all of this is US military aids to Israel. So I do think that level of grief and trauma for all these young people who are seeing this in a way they never have before is quite astonishing and enormous in a way that we need to grapple with.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Cecilie, thank you so much, and Sa'ed. My final invitation to us is deeply experimental. I didn't know it was going to come up until they came up a few minutes ago as something that I want to invite us to do together. I want to contextualize it this way. We have been speaking about radical accompaniment. I learned a new word a while ago called [foreign language 01:07:32], which is Tagalog from the Philippines, and it means to follow together. It's basically radical accompaniment, to travel alongside. Which is, I feel, perhaps one of those powerful figures that helps me see and recognize that grieving is a choreography of some kind. It's a cartographical project.

My people from West Africa would say, "In order to find your way, you must become lost," and I think in addressing this crisis, popularly we are mostly found, and by being found, I mean we are mostly incarcerated. We're incarcerated by fight or flight. We're incarcerated by the pain. We're incarcerated by the brittleness that is spreading and metabolizing new kinds of responses. We don't know what to do except to scream sometimes. Nuance is getting lost, complexity is dying. And so there is a sense in which the tenderness of grief releases us from that incarceration. It's a traveling alongside. A dear mentor of mine would say, "To grieve is to exchange bodies," and that is such a preposterous thing to imagine in a hyper-individualistic empire, as is the United States. You keep your body to yourself. You don't exchange bodies. You don't melt through, you don't spill through.

But I want us to exchange bodies if we can in some kind of digital animism side between both of you, my dear, dear siblings. If you could offer a prayer, and this prayer doesn't have to be a prayer to, it could be a prayer with, but I would like you to pray from the perspective of each other's supposedly neat sides, that we model this exchange of bodies which life needs to proliferate itself. If we were kept in our independent silos, then life would not be possible. We literally need to spill in order to live.

Is it possible that we do that, that I ask you, my dear sister? And you could reject this. You could say, "No, I would rather not do this." That's also an option. But I would invite you, if you will, Cecilie, to pray from the perspective of Sa'ed in whatever way that comes across to you for our Palestinian siblings, and Sa'ed, that you pray from the perspective of Cecilie, from the Jewish perspective or from the Jewish side. And sides is such a militaristic language. It doesn't rise to the occasion of what I'm inviting us to do now, but language fails us. Can I invite us to do this together?

Cecilie Surasky:

That's such a beautiful invitation. Yeah, the duality is artificial, and we've adopted it as though it is a fact. So that invitation, I mean... Sa'ed, again, I go back to those moments and the stories I've heard also, people who are also from... What I so want for your beautiful, queer, feminist, Palestinian, Quaker self is the experience of wholeness in your community, of complete freedom and joy and belonging. Not just in the place where you're from, but anywhere you go in the world, any table you go to, and the sense of wholeness that has been so fractured these years and wholeness with the land.

Sa’ed Atshan:

That's beautiful. Thank you for that prayer. And I would like to offer a similar prayer in return to you and your loved ones and community in Berkeley, to all the people on the kibbutzes that you mentioned, that they too feel that their crying is heard and that their pain is acknowledged and that they are able to live lives of freedom and peace and justice and dignity for all of us.

And I also share your prayer that we continue to reject this dualism of us versus them and the Israeli versus Palestinian or sides, and I believe that in this conversation and in our friendship and in our collaborations and exchanges of communication and prayers in the lead up to this conversation, I feel that we've embodied what that solidarity looks like and what that shared humanity looks like. I genuinely believe with all my heart that we are on the same side, we've always been on the same side with that [inaudible 01:14:12], and we will continue to do so together in accompaniment. I love this notion of radical accompaniment. So thank you.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Thank you so much, both of you, my dear siblings. May we gather one day and eat food together, eat meal together. Cecilie knows about my joy with ice cream, so I'm hoping that one day we share ice cream or something, something just as joyful.

Cecilie Surasky:

Indeed. Thank you, Bayo, so much for creating this space. This is a refuge. This is the way we need to be able to be with each other, and it's been very harsh and painful. So thank you for this refuge.

Bayo Akomolafe:

Thank you. Thank you. And thank you for listening and being here with us, those of you who are listening from wherever you're listening. Breathe with us. You're not as isolated as you think. You're not as contained as you think. You're not as dissociated as you think. We are in this together in more ways than those words could collectively express. We are in this together. We'll see. Thank you.