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The Ordinary Man of this Neighborhood

[Artwork by Yusif Abdelke (Syria, 1951). Image from Wikipedia] [Artwork by Yusif Abdelke (Syria, 1951). Image from Wikipedia]

The Ordinary Man of This Neighborhood


When all he expected was coldness and pain

And all he received in return

Was a normalcy of life to a power unimaginable

By his afflicted mind,

Then he

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Living somewhere in the state of New York

Has either been exiled,

Or has immigrated

And thinks of himself as having been exiled.

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Now follows the flow;

He sometimes may object to the law

But in general, favors the order

And adapts to normalcy.

Once a fighter far away,

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Now wakes up on a regular basis

Like his other neighbors –

His sometimes nice and sometimes odd

But overall smiling neighbors.

He buys the morning paper

And steps onto the train,

Sipping on his cup of coffee.

Everyday he sees on his train ride

A strip of junk-yards on the side road,

Body shops and food chains,

Heaps of metal, iron, and steel

In unfinished sights of construction.

Everyday he sees

Heaps of undefined entities,

Nameless shapeless masses of deserted beings

Piled together in strips and corners,

In camps,

Deserted and forgotten.

He sees it all

From the corner of his eye

Right before his train passes

The Korean Presbyterian Church of New York,

With an entrance, which he looks up to read

Word for word everyday:

““Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Lamentations 1:12”  1

One twelve, he repeats;

Lamentations one twelve.

The ordinary, rather the ordinaried man of this neighborhood,

A former political prisoner

Abducted and tortured,

Then a fugitive, at last a refugee,

Is now a nine-to-five NGO researcher. 

He takes a picture of the rising Freedom Tower

To post it online from his office computer –

Into the virtual space,

A rather public space for his journal

In his reinvention of homeland

Through his past memories

And current words. 

He is still active in this office,

The space which he has chosen in exile

To tame habit

To tame mind and to normalize habit;

Indeed the space which has chosen him,

Him, a political exile,

Him, a former fervent fighter,

In exchange for his security and stability,

Even though his activism he continues in this space

Even though he continues in his mind;

While his actions are being normalized

And his habits tamed;

Precisely as they wanted him in his country, Palestine:

Normalized, or out.

And now he is both:

Normalized and out. 


Is place, then, not indeed a trap?2

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Chosen for this space,

Happens to be a writer.

He comforts himself –

No, drowns himself

In exile literature

War and refugee literature

Prison literature, 

Words of other ordinaried men from other neighborhoods,

Greek, Syrian, Chilean,

Russian, Iranian, Palestinian,

Only to find out

That exile of the body and the mind

Even exile of the soul

Can occur or not

Can be inflicted or not

By changing places. 

But his real exile

The exile that would occur

That did occur

Was of

An other sort.

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Who used to be a writer

Learned of his own exile

Years after it did occur

Only when he became almost fluent in English – 

The language of his new place.

He learned of his own exile

Only when he learned of the exile

That happened between language and thought,

Between what he had to say

And what he did say;

Between what he had to say

And how he could say it.

He learned of his own exile

Only when he thought or felt

In the language of his homeland – Arabic –

But spoke in the language of the new place;

Yet even more

He learned of his real exile

When he had a thought in the new language

And meant to say it,

But could not say what he had to say

In the language of his own;

Struggling, like Mahmoud Darwish,

To endure opposites,

“Because the opposite of wrong

Is not always right;

Homeland is not always daylight

And exile is not night.”3

While he too has concluded

That exile is not always night

And can bring security and normal sleep

He is still reminded

Of Abraham’s vision of exile:

“When the sun was going down

A deep sleep fell upon Abraham

And lo, an horror of a great darkness

Fell upon him.” 4

And when the sun is going down

Off from his regular office duties

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Sits back on the train

And reads Palestinian literature.

He peeks at a fellow passenger

A young American passenger

Reading the Bible,

Turning the pages

She, from left to right

And he, right to left.


Moving their bags around with a smile

They begin an ordinary conversation

To find out

That they happen to get off

At the same station. 

An ordinary conversation

About her application deadlines

For her first trip to Israel

Her birth-right trip, she clarifies.

She tells him about her trip

And about her right,

But nothing

About her birth.


And so he remembers

And so he laments.

And on that day, when he gets home

He remembers to look into the Lamentations

To repeat to himself

To “behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow,

Which is done unto me.”5

And so he remembers

And so he laments

That “Jerusalem is an unclean thing among them”6

Still, as it was then.

And so he remembers his village in 1967

Before their expulsion

And so he remembers their blood

Before their departure

And so he laments his multiple sojourns

And so he continues to read,

“They cried unto them,

Depart; it is unclean;

Depart, depart, touch not:

When they fled away and wandered,

They said among the nations,

They shall no more sojourn there.” 7

And so he remembers October 1973

And so he repeats to himself:

“In our watching

We have watched for a nation

That could not help us.” 8

And so he remembers again

The 1967 destruction

And he laments to see himself lamented,

“Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us:

Consider, and behold our reproach.

Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens.

We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows.

We have drunken our water at a price;

Our wood is sold unto us.” 9


What makes her think of herself

As an Israeli?

An American

But an Israeli,

An American

And an Israeli?

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Is neither ordinary

Nor at all of this neighborhood.

He, a Palestinian writer,

Former dissident, current exile or immigrant,

Is now thinking about a new novel

After that conversation on the train.

His narrating protagonist

Will be an Arab Jew

Also an unordinary Arab Jew

Who reminds the writer

Or the writer reminds him

That real exile

Is when an Other informs you

That your home is not your home,

That you have a homeland

Which you have not yet seen

And you do not know of,

That no place could be your home

Other than what is pre-assigned and pre-determined for you

Based on some ancient text

Forced by some modern enforcers.

The real exile is the Other telling you

That your home is your exile.


The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Will make his narrating protagonist struggle,

To endure opposites

But also synonyms.

He makes his protagonist suffer the curse

Of the interchangeable use of the terms

“Jews” and “Israelis.”

He makes his unordinary protagonist

Fight for his national identity

Fight the Israelis treating him as a commodity

Worse even, a human commodity,

As they treated his immigrant brother

Who was imported to Palestine as a Jew

And displayed for export as an Israeli.

Deprived of identity,

The brother was imported based on religion

But treated, unlike what he thought,

As second-class citizen

Treated still

Based on his very nationality.

Unlike what they said

Unlike what he thought

Nationality was all that mattered,

And unlike the Palestinian writer in an unordinary exile

Who expected misery but received normalcy,

Regulation and normalcy,

The immigrant brother

Of the Arab Jewish protagonist

Was given the most barren sections

In the promised land of milk and honey. 

And even though he goes to visit his former country

The protagonist will think that his brother

“Came, but did not arrive;

Came, but did not return.”10

By the end of the novel

The brother is indeed an Israeli

Less so a classic Jew,

And unlike the ordinary man of this neighborhood,

The Palestinian who was,

Who is, the Jew of the Israelis,

The protagonist

Will remain in his homeland

An Arab Jew in double-exile:

First, an ancient textual decree

Inflicted on him at the exodus

For his hereditary “ownership” of the land,

Then, a modern political verdict

Declared upon him

For his refusal to leave his home

And own what has been called his own land:


An unclean thing among them.”


After his ordinary conversation on the train

The ordinary man of this neighborhood

Thought of writing this novel.

The idea occurred to him in English

As other ideas these days

Normally do,

But he intended to write it

In the language of his own;

Like that time on the train

When he thought to himself

That she has never been to Palestine

But said nothing;

Neither to her, nor to himself.

The idea of the novel

Occurred to him in his new language;

He thought about it day after day,

On his train rides

Back and forth to the office,

During his breaks

While looking at the Freedom Tower,

And on weekends.

He meant to write it but he thought

He could not say what he had to say

In the language of his own –

All he knew

Was that it did not sound right –

He meant to write it but he thought

He would not know how to say it

In the language of the new place –

For all he knew

It would not sound right.

Such ideas occur to him

On a regular basis

But are then piled up

With other unfinished thoughts of construction,

Heaps of undefined feelings

Nameless shapeless masses of deserted thoughts for writings 

Piled together in the strips and corners of his mind,

In the camps,

Deserted and forgotten

Like a bag of bread on the road. 11

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?"  12


New York; May 2012

1 New International Bible, 1984. Lamentations of Jeremiah, 1:12.

2  “In exile you choose a space to tame habit, a private space for your journal. So you write: Place is not the trap.” Mahmoud Darwish. In the Presence of Absence. Trans. Sinan Antoon. New York: Archipelago, 2011. 83.

3 Ibid. 42.

4 King James Bible, 2000. Genesis 15:12.

5 King James Bible, 2000. Lamentations of Jeremiah. 1:12.

6 Ibid. 1:17.

7 Ibid. 4:15.

8 Ibid. 4:17.

9 Ibid. 5:1 – 5:5.

10 In the Presence of Absence. 130.

11  “Do you remember / The road of our exile to Lebanon, where you forgot me / and the bag of bread? [It was wheat bread.]” Mahmoud Darwish. “Huriyya’s Teachings” in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? Trans. Jeffrey Sacks. New York: Archipelago, 2006. 84.

12 New International Bible, 1984. Lamentations of Jeremiah, 1:12.   


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