A Week in Palestine

A Week in Palestine
by Ivy Kleinbart

When it was over and he returned from that week in Palestine,
I was a coward, afraid to look him in the eye,
afraid I’d see signs of another version of the person I knew.

What a strange dream the morning he left, to see him dressed in fatigues,
standing in the pre-dawn doorway looking down at my still prone body in the bed,
the machine gun he’d stowed in a closet behind a heap of clothes
now slung over his shoulder, saying simply,
“Ok, I’m going. Don’t forget to feed the fish.”

There was no choice in the matter. Nothing to discuss.
It was Palestine or prison. And though we were both opposed to the occupation,
we certainly weren’t calling it “Palestine.”
It was “the territories” or “Gaza” or “the West Bank.”
After all, we were the occupation.

I can’t recall whether, when he left, he knew, or didn’t know, or couldn’t say
where they’d send him, what they’d have him do.
Had he tried to explain, I’m sure I couldn’t have grasped it.
And things were different then—no cell phones—
no way to check in—gone meant gone.

When it was over, the thing that bothered him most, he said,
was picking up a boy no bigger than his own skinny little brother
and forcing him into a jeep to guide them to their “target.”
He never said the word “terror,”
but it was there

in the boy’s face, in silences
between sentences of the story he only halfway told.
I had questions, but either couldn’t bring myself to ask
or figured it wrong to press.
Target, I thought.

I could rationalize and tell you things were different twenty years ago.
The conflict wasn’t full-blown; we still had hope for peace, even.
He was a decent, gentle person, fearless and sternly ethical.
He never would have let anything
happen to that kid.

But what am I trying to convince you of?
Convince myself?

All I can tell you is, his week in Palestine felt like a long time.
I spent most of it alone in his dingy room on the kibbutz,
watching television late into the night, sleeping in his bed
without him, getting up at 6:00 am to cook eggs
in a cement shack a mile deep in the fields for two dozen
men who grew up with him, loved him like a brother,
and understood things about him I never would—
biding my time in that strange place that never came to feel like home,
going to class each day, studying a language I never fully learned,
and remembering to feed the fish.

Issue number: 
Author biography: 

Ivy Kleinbart teaches writing at Syracuse University and co-leads the Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group.  She received an MFA in creative writing in 2007 and an MA in English in 2009 from Syracuse University. Her poems have appeared in such places as NoTell Motel, Bateau, Stone Canoe, and Cactus Heart. Most recently, she co-authored a chapter in the book Generation Vet and co-edited a special issue of the journal Reflections on veterans and writing, which is forthcoming in November 2016. She is also co-editor of The Weight of My Armor, an anthology of veterans’ writing, due to be released by New City Community Press and Parlor Press in December 2016.

This poem grew out of a series of conversations with the Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group around questions of moral injury and the military/civilian divide. In writing this poem, I aimed to bear witness to the truth as I remembered it. I struggled over how to represent the story about the Palestinian boy, who was this totally illegible but real person I found myself wondering about. Ultimately, I wanted to show that war and occupation damage everyone they touch—not only when big bombs go off, but also in more mundane situations.