June 19, 2013
Amy Wilentz on Rachel Corrie
Posted on May 23, 2008
By Amy Wilentz
When she gets to Gaza—a section that represents about a fifth of the book, and, of course, its finale—Corrie’s writing changes radically, with all that the word implies. At first, the change is subtle. Everything is reduced. Her range of emotion contracts, and instead of pure love, angry love, needy love and furious love, Rachel, in the face of the plight of the Gazans, feels only angry love. Instead of frustration with herself, her parents, Olympia, the Bush administration, school, siblings, friends, boyfriend, she feels frustration only at the Israeli government (a nice, broad target for this and other negative emotions, when you’re living in Gaza). She sinks into the reduced and shrunken emotional, intellectual and even physical space of the refugee; Corrie becomes a Gazan. In this sad final section, there were bits I had to skip, because the writing becomes so rote, so predictable, so propagandistic, so meaningless—and it was hard to see such a brave talent, such a wonderful person, become so flat and dull, so prescriptive and hortatory.
And yet I recognize Rachel Corrie in this section. I was young, too, when I had my first tête-à-tête with evil—for me, it was Haiti under Jean-Claude Duvalier and the various generals and civilian juntas that followed. Like me, Corrie was privileged, liberal, educated, literate, American: Naturally the hunger, deprivation and imprisonment of the Gazans among whom she decided to live is—and should be—too dreadful a thing for her to witness without responding in anger toward their oppressors, as the plight of the Haitian people was and remains for me. Rachel was even younger than I was at the moment of her first encounter, however, and she was a member of an organization in Gaza, the International Solidarity Movement. The ISM’s goal was—in part—to stop Israeli bulldozing of Gazan houses by presenting its people as human shields, facing down the scoops of the dozers. In Haiti, I was not part of any missionary group, and had the luxury of forming my own opinions in solitude. I wasn’t organizing a movement, as Corrie was. I did not want my entire social group back in the United States to come to Haiti to help me stop the mechanisms of oppression there, the way Rachel does in Rafah. Rachel took the humanitarian’s way, the activist’s way, the militant’s way. She begins doing press for the ISM, and her journal-writing and e-mail composition evaporate into a kind of boosterish stew of stereotypical (though not untrue) observations about Palestinian suffering and Israeli oppression.
“Time to go,” she writes in an e-mail. “Meeting with the Youth Parliament.” It’s like watching a lesson taught by George Orwell, with Corrie as the example. There in the border town of Rafah, facing the Israeli army, a gifted writer—still able to witness honestly and well, as we see in small glimpses—begins to remove from her work much of what is human, closely observed, specific and concrete, and substitute instead propaganda clichés that, even when true, feel meaningless and shopworn, and finally, tragically empty, especially in light of Rachel Corrie’s fate. Still, I can’t help admiring her committed work and her youthful engagement; the world might just possibly be a better place if more of us believed in humanity’s essential goodness, as Corrie did, and if more of us were willing to leave our gardens, BlackBerrys, malls and coffee shops behind and work for peace and justice. Her innocence is disarming: “The surreal thing,” she writes, a month and a half before her death, “is that we are safe. White-skinned people stand up in front of the tanks and they open their weird tank lids and wave at us.”
There is a sense of Auden’s “while someone else is eating,” in these final pages, of the evils that go on while we continue on with our doggy lives. “I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now,” Corrie writes in an e-mail just a month before she was killed, “and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what’s going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States. Something about the virtual portal into luxury. ...” Her talk of “internationals” and “sister communities” may put you off, but the fact of her sympathy and dedication is inspiring. And, as Graham Greene wrote in “The Comedians,” his novel about Haiti under Duvalier, “Death is a proof of sincerity.”
Because the saddest thing of all about the decline in Rachel Corrie’s eloquence and description, and the simultaneous growth in her activism, is how very short the period of her involvement was. And how much truth, honor and respect was—deservingly—heaped upon her every political pronouncement by the brutality and vicious stupidity of her murderer’s crushing rubber tracks and slicing steel. When it mattered, no one lifted a lid and waved. “My back is broken, my back is broken”—those were Rachel Corrie’s last words.
That’s concrete and specific enough.
Amy Wilentz, a former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, is the author of “Martyrs’ Crossing,” a novel about Jerusalem, among other books.
Previous item: ‘Che’ Goes to Cannes
Next item: Jazz Fest ‘08: Homecoming on Muddy Ground
New and Improved Comments