Our language can only approximate the horror of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
January 26, 2024
I am held up at airport security—waiting for the TSA to determine that I am not the other Ismail Ibrahim, the one wanted by the FBI—when the vision first appears to me: a conflagration, a light, followed by blackness. I see my leg bleeding into the Sinai, severed below the knee by the shrapnel of a bomb. I see my boot still attached to my foot.
It is November 2023 and I am traveling from New York to Cairo to see my mother and attempt a voyage to Rafah crossing to report a story about the aid trucks held back for weeks at the border. I have let others believe that I am going to help the people of Gaza, but I know my motives are also selfish: I want to write something for my glory, to assuage my guilt that I am doing too little to stop the unfathomable horror, and to get closer to the only thing I know to be real. Perversely, I feel the need to see it, this site that was bombed, that might be bombed again. I’ve become obsessed with bombs, their nature, what it is about them that can veil murder. I write merely for my own understanding, of what makes the bombs not stop. There is, of course, no combination of words that can keep bombs in the bellies of planes. Writing is not magic.
Yes, my leg or my arm being blown off, that would be the perfect opening to a piece, I think. As long as it doesn’t kill me.
A New York Times report from 1916:
“BOMBS DROPPED IN EGYPT: British Report 11 Hits Out of 20 Attempts Over El Mazar
LONDON, Sept. 9—‘Three British Aeroplanes,’ says a British official statement reporting military operations in Egypt, ‘again bombed El Mazar yesterday. Eleven of the twenty bombs were seen to take effect in the enemy camp.’”
The Middle East has been catching bombs for about as long as the West has been dropping them.
I’ve watched countless videos of market squares exploding, seen images of the aftermath, and spoken with survivors—yet I still find bombs impossible to comprehend. In images, gray dust covers the martyrs, dulls the red of their blood. They’ll go to their graves with small pieces of their homes still in their lungs. About twenty-nine thousand explosives had already hit Gaza by mid-December. Language and thought break when trying to comprehend this, when trying to communicate this. A bomb is unfathomable, divine. It falls from the sky like weather and no one is responsible. I watch a woman on French television say “a bomb that explodes, causing destruction and collateral damage, will undoubtedly kill children. But these children will not die with the impression that humanity has betrayed everything they were entitled to expect,” as though no human was involved in building or dropping the bomb. Sometimes I think dying is the only reality, and we stumble from illusion to illusion until it happens. There is an illusion animating the current massacre: that a Kalashnikov turns a human into a corpse, but a bomb turns a radar image into a number.
Outlets attempt to quantify the horror with various metrics: tonnages of munitions, number of bombs, death tolls, or the equivalent in nuclear weapons. None make any sense to me.
Death tolls of various bombing campaigns:
Firebombing of Tokyo: 80–100,000.
Firebombing of Dresden: 25,000.
Operation Rolling Thunder: 21,000.
Bombing of Cambodia: 50–150,000.
Bombing of Yemen: 9,000.
Number of bombs dropped in various bombing campaigns:
5,771 on Guernica in 1937.
7,423 on Afghanistan in 2019.
29,199 on Iraq in 2003.
In November, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor reported Israel had dropped the equivalent of two nuclear bombs on Gaza.
The night before I left for the airport, my wife had asked me what I was seeking, why I would go to Rafah, what made the trip worth potentially leaving her a young widow. An unmediated experience of death, I wanted to say, and I meant it, but I knew it was pathetic to court death, and how unreasonable that answer would sound to her. Because I couldn’t understand it, and I still don’t. There are numbers for the dead, images of flattened blocks, voice recordings I hear from people in Palestine who say they feel reborn after a night of bombardment. There are the other voice notes I’ve listened to, from doctors in Khan Younis, enumerating the dead, describing performing surgeries for ten hours straight when a family member is suddenly carted in.
Despite the images, the stories, the information, I still don’t understand what’s happening. These horrors stacked upon horrors are swallowed by the civilized Western powers because they are executed by an army, and not by militias, because bombs are indiscriminate and impersonal. The real monsters, they tell us, are the ones who look at you when they kill you. I file away the fact that two twentieth-century Jewish philosophers—Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber—both thought face-to-face interaction was the beginning of moral action, and the fact that a bomber pilot never has to see the face of their victims. I file away, too, that Buber lived in Edward Said’s aunt’s home in Jerusalem after she and her family were forced into exile. I’m failing to make these facts cohere, but they are stars in my still-forming constellation.
On my first night in Egypt, I have dinner with my mother and my cousin Ahmed, who just graduated university and is waiting for his term of mandatory military service to begin. That he was born in Egypt and not Gaza is a matter of a few miles; that I was born in the United States and not Egypt is a matter of chance.
At dinner my cousin is morose, barely speaking. I wonder if he fears the possibility of Egypt entering the conflict, or if he is sad just because it is happening. He is more likely to be killed by an airstrike than I am. I always feel guilty, when I return to Egypt, that my Arabic is broken, that I live in a country without an inflationary crisis, that my highest ambition is this, to arrange English words perfectly for you, the educated citizens of the empire. I have this feeling that if I’m killed, I’ll deserve it, but I know that my fantasies of dying are just a ward against my guilt.
I spend my days in Egypt trying to fix my trip to Rafah and working my day job as a fact-checker. Much of my work involves harmonizing word choice with events in the world. It is slippery work, where so much disappears in the gap between word and world.
Bomb. Does the word contain the particular? Can it contain the life of a Gazan woman who was killed in an airstrike? Her memories of the home she was displaced from in the Nakba? The feeling of strength, of divinity, coursing through the pilot who dropped the bomb? Can any word—wail, scream, howl—equal the sound loosed from the throat of a parent holding the corpse of their baby after an explosion destroys a refugee camp? The emptiness that will haunt the rest of their days whenever they anticipate, but never hear, the sound of their child’s footsteps?
Every word is already an abstraction, already a mediation. There are the dead and the dying over there, and this is the sideshow we put on about them. I’m playing my part now. Little letters jumbled and arranged to try and make sense of it, or distract from it. I can’t seem to write what I wish to, my words are always about something, approximating it, when what I thirst for is to be ripped from this glowing parallel world of glyphs and figures into the Real. All abstractions would dim under the bright, blinding light of a bomb, and I’d never have to speak again. Linguists theorize that language and reality interpenetrate one another, a euphemism, I think, for hate fucking.
The Israeli military is using an AI they call “The Gospel,” to help them pick targets in Gaza. They have also used Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) manufactured in the United States. In October, they deployed white phosphorus, which the author Sven Lindqvist, in his study A History of Bombing, calls “the most dangerous fire bomb.” Phosphorus “ignites on contact with air. Its area of impact is extremely large, as burning drops of phosphorus fly off at a wide range. These drops cause deep sores that are difficult to heal.” In November, they reportedly used the AGM-114 R9X missile, also known as the “ninja bomb,” to target journalists in the Al-shifa hospital parking lot. After an airstrike on Maghazi refugee camp on Christmas Eve, an Israeli official admitted the military selected inappropriate munitions; the official says the army “regrets the harm” caused in the strike. About half of the explosives Israel dropped between October 7 and mid-December were unguided munitions or “dumb bombs.” In early December, the Israeli army reported striking four hundred targets in a single day. As of the end of the year, the aerial war has damaged or destroyed seven in ten homes, two hundred heritage sites, and most of the civilian infrastructure. The United States has not disclosed the full list of weapons that it is providing to Israel, citing “operational security,” but Bloomberg obtained a list of what Israel has requested from the United States, including two hundred Switchblade 600 drones, two thousand Hellfire laser-guided missiles, three thousand M141 bunker-buster rockets, four hundred 120mm mortar rounds, and fifty-seven thousand 155mm shells.
In the end I learn I cannot make it to Rafah. The caravan of journalists and aid workers to which I’d yoked myself failed to obtain the necessary permissions from the Sisi regime. I stay in my mother’s home in Giza. I sit in her backyard that looks out at the pyramids, and I spend my time eating her home cooking. I feel relieved at first, and then disgusted with my relief because it reveals to me what I’ve always known about myself: my cowardice.
Back in New York, I’m crying less, and sleeping better. My dreams are no longer a procession of beheadings. I should be happy about this, but I take them as signs that I’m growing callous. I can’t conceive anymore, the way I could when this all began, that each number is a corpse and each corpse had once been a universe. I am fact-checking a piece by the poet Mosab Abu Toha. In an interview he says: “I’m thirty-one years old and November 19, it was the first time in my life I see an Israeli soldier. I see an Israeli tank. I see an Israeli rifle. Which is, I think, very strange. You have been under bombardment. You have been living under siege and occupation, and you haven’t seen any soldier in your life, but you are bombed from the sky, you are bombed by tanks. You do not see the people—the soldiers who are killing you and your family, and who bomb your houses.” Abu Toha stumbles on the word people and then pauses before he qualifies and says, “the soldiers.”
I listen to the recording over and over again thinking something will cohere in that silence. My wife sits on the couch while I email the IDF, asking them to comment on Abu Toha’s detention. Our home has a loud boiler, and Christmas lights. It is warm and orange here. We have plenty of food, and a feeling of safety glows in me. It is too sweet, this moment, too mundanely sweet to even describe, and I understand the horror of a bomb for an instant, but only as a human-scaled negative: a bomb obliterates the possibility of scenes like this. Instead, one is left carrying the corpse of their spouse or child or parent out of the ruins of a home that will never again be a refuge.