Community Member Submission by Leena Yassin
I got into writing for the stage during the fall of 2009, having just recently entered middle school. It’s somewhat an odd age to begin given that all that I read up until that point was mundanely prim and formulaic, bound by rules and laws written by “Dead White Guys.” But something was different about performance writing– it seemed to defy the laws and constraints of other genres. It seemed to lend itself to work that calls out laws which oppressed.
So I went on to immerse myself in it, writing tons of poetry and drama on all the laws of the world that I felt strongly about, from the Apartheid laws subjected to Palestinians to their border laws to laws governing exile. I felt like I had made the case for Palestine in each of my writings as if I were defending it in a court case. With this new addition in my toolbox, I, a Palestinian, felt empowered enough to believe that like the “Dead White Guys,” if I utilized this genre and produced words that were eloquent enough, I would be respected, just as the white guys were when they wrote those American ten commandments, the Bill of Rights. After all, it stood the test of time for a reason, for its genius and that if emulated, would grant my words reverence. The Bill of Rights seemed to have so much weight, that social studies teachers repeatedly reminded us that “it is wonderful in the way it prevents us from being jailed for government dissent, which would happen in other countries.”
How I learned that we were both wrong.
When Steve Salaita was denied a position at the University of Illinois for a series of anti-Zionist tweets, it didn’t matter if there was context, misinterpretation, or how sophisticatedly he could explain his innocence. When Zahra Billoo was kicked out of the Women’s March for the same reason, no magic words of rebuttal could restore her respectability, the same kind of respectability that makes people like her a target.
And when the Holy Land Foundation 5 (HLF-5) were incarcerated and ripped from their families to be caged like animals, not even the unconditionally prevailing Bill of Rights itself could prevent their abuse. No number of reasons could disprove charges; no number mattered. No number of children fed or hospitals built or funds raised, not amendments numbered 1, 4, 6, and so on — — the only relevant number was that of the 19 men, the one that is stamped over every respectable Muslim entity until it is a shared sports jersey of a team that we never signed up to play for.
We the people, the people being those not demoted zoos, often assume this to be hyperbole in our state of cognitive dissonance. “But are you sure they didn’t have any connection to terrorism? How were they incarcerated?” One teacher asks me, wrapped up in the glorious concept of Civil Liberties and the heroic image of US law enforcement as triumphant crime catchers.
The answer requires that an old adage be modified: Truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is the basis through which oppressors can oppress. The Holy Land Foundation was a respectable charity made up of several equally respected fathers in their communities, model citizens with engagement and professionalism that they outwardly exuded. Their charity was so prosperous and respectable, it had become the largest Muslim charity in the US.
It started out in 1987 with Shukri Abu Baker, the CEO of the charity, witnessing the birth of his first daughter, Sanabel Abu Baker. She was born with multiple chronic illnesses; her survival and ability to live beyond her first few years was miraculous. She epitomized resilience, which seemed to be in her blood as a Palestinian. But beyond any chance or luck, what stood between her miraculous life and the inability to survive was her circumstance. Being blessed with strong medical care by the will of Allah was key.
Allah also willed that has servants be the ones to use what they were given to extend his blessings. It was this experience and realization that inspired Shukri. In the gratitude of witnessing Sanabel’s experience, he gained passion for providing others with similar resources everywhere.
Hence, the Holy Land Foundation was born. Like a child raised to give back to the world, the charity took off within several years, sweeping the country and abroad with relief for the impoverished. The organization received tons of spotlight from various groups, won numerous awards, and stood at the frontlines to relieve families from multiple catastrophic events at home, including the Oklahoma city bombing. The group grew alarmingly esteemed, so much so that they completely disrespected and dismantled the case that would grant their communities the dehumanizing stereotypes.
When there are no arguments to prove a Muslim guilty, officials resort to lack of evidence as proof itself. Possibility of guilt, not proof of guilt itself, is the gateway to prove guilt. In the name of the War on Terror, the Bush Administration enacted an Executive Order set to shut down the organization in 2004, based on an accusation that the HLF had funneled money to terrorists. It objectively wasn’t true; the HLF had tracked the exact destination of each and every penny ever donated, and not one had reached a terrorist’s hands. Yet objectivity wouldn’t prevail. Several years and 2 trials later, 5 members of the organization, Shukri Abu Baker, Abdulrahman Odeh, Mohammad Elmezain, Mufid Abdulqader, and Ghassan Al-Eishi were incarcerated in maximum security prisons, with sentences ranging from 15–65 years, after having their homes raided before their families’ eyes.
Why? Because it was founded in the same year as Hamas. Because an anonymous witness said so. Because of what was said at a made up HLF meeting. Because the word Muslim means Islamist. Because one of the members had a brother who supposedly supported Hamas, and brothers are always one and the same. Because they gave to terrorist groups that aren’t actually terrorist groups because the US government was giving to those same groups. Because any and every foreign entity that a Muslim gives to will always be a terrorist group.
Because when you’re Muslim and Palestinian, there is no such thing as context and nuance. Everything you say can and will be used against you, including your silence — — it might be taken as terrorist approval. There is no room for reason or rights. There is no room for humor, lest your laughter be taken as clowning around about the terrorism you allegedly perpetuated. In a clear use of humor, when an HLF member joked about re-pronouncing “Hamas” as “Samah,” the Arabic word for compassion, it was admissible as evidence and obtained by illegal wiretapping, no explanation needed.
Because Muslims aren’t guilty until proven innocent — — no amount of proof could ever convince those that target guiltlessly.
When my brother and I would rant about stories like this, he’d often tell me that somebody needed to totally own the Zionist case by articulating the most indisputable arguments in the most well-spoken manner possible. We exchanged the best evidence that could totally, in his words “end the Zionists’ career” in its precision, not censorship, so I believed as I was immersed in various book groups and academic circles. Writing naturally lends me an escape — judgement through intellectual merit transcends all. After all, the best way to silence someone is through a good argument.
Challenge accepted. A few years ago, I wrote what ended up becoming one my favorite pieces, which would poke fun at the censorship of Palestinians by using exaggeratedly “suspicious” language that is taboo for Palestinians to use. As a writer, I always loved using satire, and this piece would take all the conspicuously harsh sounding language and use it in a way that could convey irony. I threw every forbidden “terrorist affiliated” word in the book, in a manner which I believed to be so obviously satirical, I had no hesitance to sign up to perform it at a local Muslim event. Nothing, I believed, could be suspicious here.
On the day of the event, amidst a practice in my room, I suddenly got a call. “Salam, the team needs to see you early because we need to discuss your piece a bit,” the woman said.
“Oh… that’s fine! I’ll be there soon!” I responded with nervous excitement. I didn’t mind tweaking a thing or two, so I showed up early, mentally reviewing my words and instantly assuming that I was being called to fix their quality. I scanned the spacious hallway of the event hall venue that to locate the correct confidently postured official in the haystack of professionals, the one that I’d be pleased to meet to inform me on how to improve what I’d worked so hard on. Some suited man approached me at the corner of the hall, and despite the sound of our meeting getting lost in the chattering of the crowd, he seems to be intentionally lowering his voice.
“Are you the girl that’s performing drama tonight,” he asks me softly.
“Yes. Pleased to meet you, Brother. What was it that you wanted me to correct?” I ask, swallowing back the elevated adrenaline.
“Your writing is excellent,” his says warmly, perhaps as some pre-apology about bearing the bad news. I half-smiled back, humbly unsure of what to say.
“And because it is so powerful, the language might be too strong to be able to perform,” he confesses, lowering his head slightly.
I pause awkwardly, unsure whether to feel flattered or sorry, whether to thank him or apologize. Either way, the adrenaline dissipates into the heaviness of feeling my heart sink, in a silent moment where the words I’m excited about become toned down to the state of being unheard.
“You have the word “explosion” in here and the word “bomb.” If someone trying to smear our cause hears this, they-“
“I understand,” I interject, smiling at him with gratitude that he had taken the time to read the Palestinian’s Miranda warning to me, or that whole oath we had signed by default in agreeing to promote our rights in a manner that wasn’t dangerous, because Palestinian rights are often the most dangerous things that could be.
I understood. I understood that what it means to be respectable to a Palestinian is fundamentally different than I had once believed, but what I understood more is that the discussion can be futile. If people wanted to hear something dangerous they would claim to find it out of thin air, and no sacred words of the Dead White Guys would matter, because they didn’t belong to us. Our relationship to the Bill of Rights had died before they had a chance to even exist.
I pulled out my script on my phone, watered down my words with a few keyboard clicks to something it was never written to be. The best way to silence myself was by making a good argument too threatening to not be silenced.
Long live the Bill of Rights. Although my genre is quite different, I still hope I can emulate its grace, that grace that I know would render all the falsely accused political prisoners innocent were we the ones it applied to. As long as it isn’t, I will continue to write. I will write for the HLF. I will write with all the satire and figurative language and artistry in the world. I will write that way because explicitly denouncing the terrorism which was never ours to denounce has never made our lack of affiliation any more clear. I will keep writing for those that don’t want me to write, until we aren’t demanded to be respectful, but to be respected by those that want nothing but to humiliate us.
Leena Yassin is a college student studying English and Art History. She is passionate about writing and frequently performs various creative genres in the Twin Cities. In her spare time she bakes Zaatar bread and plays with her nephews.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect AMP-MN’s views.
This community submission is in response to the Palestine Book Club December read Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five by Miko Peled. If you would like to submit a piece to the AMP-MN blog, please email your idea or writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.