Regarding the Sieve Maker of Tārāb


So I’ve been reading about the Mongols. Not for any particular reason. Mainly in a searching-for-perspective sort of way. The last thing I want is to suggest any direct analogy between the heirs of the mighty Ghengis Khan and the Rise of Trump and other petty ethno-nationalist forces across the globe. Whatever their shortcomings, the Mongols were a proud lot, possessed with an overabundance of vigor. By contrast, however febrile and giddy Trump and Co. may be at the moment, they are a frightened, resentful, and backwards-looking bunch. Even in victory, their voices shake.  

By that perhaps over-broad “Co.,” I mean the authoritarian ethno-religious chauvinism in vogue from Istanbul to East Anglia, Budapest to Jerusalem to Warsaw to Calais. And Manila and Moscow and New Delhi. Etc.

The Mongols made the earth shake. Their conquests, in a very few years, spread from the Central Asian steppe north to Siberia, south into India, west to Central Europe, and east to the Sea of Japan. They would quickly establish what remains the largest land empire in the history of humankind. One little side note: In January of 1260, two years after laying waste to Baghdad, then a city of unrivaled beauty, scholarship and artistry, the armies of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu laid siege to Aleppo. Aided by Frankish and Armenian Christian forces eager to push the Muslim Ayyubids from the Levant, they leveled the already-ancient city, burned its great mosque, and enslaved those few of its inhabitants whom they did not slaughter. The mosque would be rebuilt by the Mamluks and would stand for another 700 years, until April of 2013.

I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1220, Ghengis Khan’s armies, “more numerous than ants or locusts,” arrived outside the gates of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan and what was then one of the great centers of medieval Muslim learning. The city surrendered and the great Khan gathered its notables into the mosque and addressed them: “O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

That, my friends, is a victory speech. Genghis Khan did not hunch over his iPhone at four a.m., oozing tweets like pus from an abscess.

In any case, he proceeded to burn the city. “And the people of Bukhara, because of the desolation, were scattered like the constellation of the Bear and departed into the villages, while the site of the town ‘became like a level plain.’”

But the point of all this comes on the next page of the Persian historian Atâ-Malek Juvaini’s History of a World Conqueror. Eight years after the sacking of Bukhara, writes Juvaini, “a sieve maker of Tārāb in the district of Bukhara rose up in rebellion in the dress of the people of rags, and the common people rallied to his standard.” Juvaini, who had ingratiated himself in the Mongol court, describes the rebel leader with undisguised contempt. Still, we learn from him that the poor came to Mahmud the sieve maker of Tārāb as they once did to Jesus of Galilee: to heal the sick and the paralyzed, to restore sight to the blind. He was said to converse with jinns, or spirits, who, “informed him of what was hidden.” When Mahmud the sieve maker of Tārāb entered the city of Bukhara, the alleys of the market were so crowded with people eager for his blessing that “there was not even room for a cat to pass.” He had in mind a more holistic sort of healing, and instructed the poor to arm themselves with whatever weapons they could find. “My army is partly visible, consisting of men,” he announced, “and partly invisible, consisting of the heavenly hosts, which fly in the air, and of the tribe of the jinns, which walk on the earth.” And so the poor of Bukhara soon took the town and plundered the houses of the wealthy.

Running for their lives, the city’s emirs and notables sought the assistance of the Mongols. They gathered an army, and marched to retake Bukhara. Surrounded by many thousands of his followers among “the people of rags,” Mahmud the sieve maker stood to meet the occupier’s armies without a weapon in his hand nd without armor to protect his body. “At this juncture a strong wind arose and the dust was stirred up to such an extent that they could not see one another.” Believing the storm a miracle, the Mongols and the armies of the wealthy fled. The people in the villages rose against them with spades and axes, slaughtering them as they ran: “… especially if he was a tax-gatherer or a landowner, they seized him and battered in his head.” Nearly ten thousand were slain in this way, Juvaini writes. But Mahmud was killed by an arrow and when the Mongol armies returned and his followers took to the field without him, again without armor, twenty thousand rebels met their deaths. The uprising was defeated.

And so, as we greet the new year, let us not fear, but remember that all mighty empires fall and that no matter who records the history, brave men and women invariably stand against them. And let us remember that even unarmed and outnumbered, we are protected by invisible armies and by the great and immortal tribe of the jinns, and that we sometimes, briefly, win. 


Goodbye coyote


It was two years ago that I moved into this house. It was November, and the summer that had just ended had been hot and hard with too much death in it. I ran every day or as often as I could in Elysian Park, up the hill off Broadway and around to the lookout where the kids smoke weed in their cars and the men linger and check each other out and I would stand by the railing and stare down over the 5 and the 110 and Figueroa and the arching concrete of the Gold Line and Frogtown and Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park and the old county hospital and the Sears building out on Soto and on a clear day I could see Long Beach to the south and the mountains stretching far to the east. It was dry still, the hills brown, and I remember very well when the rains first came, what a miracle it seemed. Within days the entire park was carpeted in green. The tiniest leaves opening to the sun in the dry mud of the hills, millions and millions of them. The seeds had been there all along, waiting. Two weeks later you would never have guessed that the park had ever been anything other than lush with life.

Last winter the rains barely came and now there are dead trees all over the park. Pines, eucalyptus, oak, standing and leaning and waiting to burn. When it happens, something new will surely grow in the ashes. I won’t be here to see it. I’m moving tomorrow and this morning took one last run up the hill through the park. It’s November again. The rains came over the weekend and now the paths, the hillsides, everything but the asphalt is coated again with tiny budding plants, a skein of stubborn green life over everything. I stopped at the lookout, stretching as an excuse to stare out at the streets and hills below me. It was too early for the potsmoking kids. The traffic rolled by beneath me, the whole city going somewhere, hurrying there. The sky was blue, the air scrubbed clean by the storm.

Running towards home I passed a man with two white dogs. Most mornings we passed each other without a nod, his gaze never lifting from his cell phone as his dogs strolled off ahead of him. A coyote emerged on the ridge. It was tall and looked well-fed, its coat thick and unmatted. It was close, just feet above the road. It stood and calmly stared, watching the two dogs as they trotted off. I turned around and yelled to the man that there was a coyote and he should watch his dogs. He barked “What?” and immediately looked away. I repeated my warning, but he was staring at his phone again. The coyote, barely ten feet away now, didn’t move except to cock its head, regarding me with vague recrimination. I had narced and we both knew it. I kept running, laughing now. I had boxes to pack. So goodbye park. Goodbye green shoots and dead trees and patient brown earth. Goodbye stoners and cruisers. Goodbye coyote and silly white dogs. Goodbye L.A. for now.



RIP Renen Raz


Renen Raz died today. He was 28. I didn’t know Renen well and hadn’t kept in touch at all these last two years, but I know that Renen was as sweet and gentle as they come. We met in Nabi Saleh, probably in the summer of 2012. I would see him there many times thereafter, usually in the hills during a Friday demonstration, our conversations invariably interrupted by drifting tear gas. I remember him laughing and shouting with glee to bring my attention to a fat lizard resting on a rock as tear gas canisters fell all around us. I know Nabi Saleh meant a lot to him. He would tell me with pride how many times he had been arrested there, and with a sadder sort of pride that his activism had cost him his relationship with his family. Only once did I see him anywhere else: in the tiny Tel Aviv apartment that he shared with one enormous and very aggressive cat—his arms were always covered in long scratches—and, for a little while, with two puppies that he agreed to take in. People in the US often ask me if there aren’t Israelis who stand up against the actions of their government. Renen was one of the few who do, and did. May his courage and his kindness live on. 


But One Demand


On Threats and Intimidation


Checkpoint 56, Hebron, February 2016 

I spent much of June and July feeling strangely optimistic. It is not a sentiment I am accustomed to feeling. But I was touring for my book and everywhere I went meeting people who were eager and excited to talk. Not all of them agreed with me about everything, which made me still happier, but I was heartened by the very clear fact that people in the US seemed ready, hungry even, for a conversation about the realities of Palestinian life under occupation, a subject that has for years been verboten in this country. Audiences were enthusiastically open to a perspective that they knew is far too rarely voiced here. My interlocutors were in some cases people with whom I disagree, but we were in every case able to speak and listen to one another with openness and respect. You don’t have to pay close attention to debates on Israel and Palestine in this country to know how remarkable that is. But it meant that I was able to end every talk I gave on a note of optimism that was sincere—the fact of our conversation, that it was occurring, and spreading, that it was becoming more and more possible to discuss the undiscussable, that alone gave me genuine hope. It was clear we had turned a corner.

But some realities have not gone away. I cannot think of anyone in the US, whether they are Jewish or Palestinian or neither, who has written critically about Israel who has not been smeared as an anti-Semite and an apologist for terror. And I know no one who has achieved any prominence while speaking out against injustices perpetrated by the Israeli state who has not received death threats for their work. Out of stoicism, stubbornness or shame, very few people talk about the threats they receive, but intimidation of the crudest sort forms the backdrop to the entire conversation about Israel and Palestine in this country. It marks and enforces the boundary line of what is say-able. If anyone does not know where that boundary lies, they swiftly find out. Any serious attempt to represent Palestinian realities is met with unrelenting threats and smears. The threats, fortunately, are rarely acted on. They nonetheless represent a brutal and consistent attempt to intimidate opposition into silence. And they are effective. Editors too receive death threats, and they rarely wish to risk receiving more. 

The crazy thing is that this is normal, and has been for years. In the chapters I wrote about the West Bank city of Hebron, I spoke about the strange idea of normalcy that reigns in that city, where having rocks and worse thrown into your home by settlers counts as “normal,” where beatings in the street by Israeli soldiers are entirely “normal.” I referred to Hebron half-seriously as if it were another planet because the norms of behavior there are so alien to our expectations. But this twisted sense of normalcy extends far beyond the extremist settler enclaves of Hebron, to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, any place where critical political discourse can be counted on to be met with naked threats and campaigns of intimidation.

I don’t see any point in remaining quiet about this. In the last week alone I have repeatedly been called a Jew-hater and a terrorist, a murderer of children and pregnant women. It has been suggested to me that I should, and may, suffer a terrorist attack. I have been wished a painful death and promised that I will “get what is coming” to me. I am not complaining. I knew what I was getting into. I know that others have endured far worse harassment, and actual attacks. But these tactics must be exposed. The climate of fear that they create must not be allowed to stand. There is too much truth out there, and too much hunger for it.