There’s that New Yorker cartoon of a stern-looking book-editor holding a manuscript in his hand and impatiently berating the writer sitting across from him, a young man wearing an 1850s shabby-genteel, knee-length frock coat and sporting Victorian-era mutton chops sideburns.
“Mr. Dickens, Mr. Dickens”, the editor declaims in the caption. “It can be the best of times or the worst of times, but it can’t be both”.
Though AI may not get it, those of us familiar with the first sentence in Charles Dickens’ novel, A tale of Two Cities, will.
We root for the writer in this case because we know that clearly there are instances in real life when the best and the worst of times do indeed mesh.
One such instance is Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year, one that genuinely defines Americans’ common soul as a people more so than does Independence Day — it being a time when your loved ones pick up from wherever they live around the country and get together to give thanks to the Lord for the bounty He had gifted them, a tradition traced back to when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor on Dec. 16, 1620.
But though Thanksgiving, as that tradition has it, is an occasion when we’re expected to be magnanimous, to love and be loved back by our parents and siblings, cousins and nieces, aunts and uncles, along with other close relatives and invited dear friends, the Thanksgiving table is also known to be a fraught affair where tempers flare as, say, a grumpy uncle who can’t hold his liquor, a Republican cousin who believes that the 2020 election was stolen from right under Donald Trump’s feet, a not too subtle son-in-law who begins his bigoted tirades with “I’m not a racist, but ... “ and a lefty daughter active with the Young Socialists of America, all begin to talk at instead of to each other.
Yes, call it a case of the best of times and the worst of times.
Palestinians living in America
For diaspora Palestinians living in America, who like other Americans gathered together for their own Thanksgiving last Thursday, the unimaginable suffering endured by Gazans cast a pall on their celebration of the day.
And I will tell you that the time the nine members of my family spent around the Thanksgiving table this year was tinged with grief; grief that had lodged itself deep in our chests ever since thousands of munitions began to drop daily on Gaza close to two months ago, killing thousands and transforming that little strip of tormented land into a moonscape of debris and a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape of mass suffering.
And the grief stayed there, for though we and the people of Gaza may have lived a continent and an ocean apart, the agonies they were enduring were ours too, an indivisible part of who we were as Palestinians. Thus, as we here in the US sat across from each other at our Thanksgiving table, sharing our feelings, our thoughts, our views, our conjectures on the future, we did so in sonber tones.
Nakba, over again
One thing we were in lockstep about, however, was the dread fact that Palestinians today were living through a Nakba worse than the one they had endured in 1948, the time in modern Palestinian history when the greatest catastrophe that could befall a people — the dismemberment of home, homeland and acre — had befallen Palestinians.
And the images emerging from Gaza of more than one and a half million Palestinians forced out of their homes and made to run for their lives brought that fact into sharp relief.
A relative, who in 1948 had joined the refugee exodus 75 years ago and is now a retired maths professor, began to explain to us why that was so. Everybody sitting around the table looked at him wearily, as if to say, “Come on, Uncle Ahmad, please, don’t preach to the choir”.
You see, Palestinian born and raised here, who may not have set foot in the old sod, have inherited the trauma of the Nakba and know well of the role it plays in our collective archetype as a disinherited nation.
“Look, more than one and a half million Palestinians have been kicked out of their homes”, he persisted, anger palpable in his voice. “That’s more than twice as many as those kicked out in my generation”. Then he went on to explain how in six weeks of war in Gaza, more than twice as many women and children were killed there than in Ukraine after two years of war.
"I blame Biden"
“I don’t blame Israel, Dad”, his daughter Zeinab chimed in quietly. Zeinab, a veteran activist on campus, had bragged earlier that “activism is in my DNA as a Palestinian”.
“You what?” her father asked.
“I blame Biden, Israel’s gatekeeper at the United Nations”, she responded bitterly. Zeinab had campaigned door-to-door for the man during his 2020 presidential run, as had done countless other young Palestinian Democrats, helping his chances at the polls.
“Me too, me too”, everyone around the table murmured in unison.
“He ain’t getting my vote next year”, someone hollered affirmatively.
“Mine neither, mine neither”, came a chorus of voices.
For diaspora Palestinians, this year was indeed the best and the worst of times, a time both of joy and grief — joy that we got together with loved ones, affirming our commitment as Palestinians to survive against punishing odds, and grief that, while we here supped, there were people in our ancestral homeland who were left without a roof over their head and food on their table.
Yet, as it is said in our Holy Texts, He has imbued a reason for every condition willed by him to be in this world.
I for one will go with that, knowing all the while that our people’s suffering will one day end on a note of grace. Inshallah.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.