On Witnessing Fires, One at a Time

by Hasheemah Afaneh

There is a long strip of untamed land between the road leading up to my paternal grandparents’ home in Jabal Al-Taweel and the Israeli settlement, Psagot. One can find shrubs, yellow grass, cactus, lost soccer balls, and even, more times than not, Israeli soldiers camouflaged into the land, watching the neighbors and their guests go about their days.

Over the past few summers, the Jabal Al-Taweel neighbor-hood witnessed a few wild-fires emerge in this untamed land. The grayish-black smoke rising into the skyusually gives the wildfire away before the actual fire does. Two summers ago, I was sitting in my grandmother’s veranda one evening, staring through the large windows out onto the street, when I saw sparks of orange appear in the shrubs. The neighbor-hood youth playing soccer outside on the pavement ran to their homes, including my grand-mother’s, to relay the message that a fire had started.

Al-dunya hamya,”  my grandmother, of whom I am the namesake, would comment matter-of-factly. The world is heated.

We watched the clouds of smoke grow larger, as Israeli soldiers emerged, as if from this air, to try and put it out. This swiftness of movement to action was not luck, or that a settler so happened to be adjacent to where I was sitting and she, too, was staring through large windows, and she, too, saw orange sparks appear. It was not luck, at all, for at least one soldier is always on the watch, watching us more so than keeping an eye out for the potential fires that happen every now and then.

This particular fire seemed to be getting out of hand, and so, the Palestinian firefighters were called, by whom, I can-not recall. They parked their fire truck on the road between my grandparents’ home and the untamed land and began their attempt to put the fire out. The fire seemed to be put out within thirty minutes, which was much shorter than the length that the smell of burned land lingered in the air, I’ll tell you that much.

The next afternoon, I was sitting with my grandmother and the neighbors as they spoke about the fire. The Jabal Al-taweel neighborhood women have witnessed the changing landscape - an olive harvest season that was not like what it used to be, threatening economic growth of Palestinian farmers; and settlement fences getting closer and roads getting tighter, threatening Palestinian access to land and movement.

Al-dunya hamya, one of the women remarks. The world is heated.

I thought of how this group of women were speaking about a symptom of climate change without realizing that they were speaking about a symptom of climate change.
I don't even think the Israeli soldiers realize this, as their first question post-wildfire was, “who started it?”, pointing fingers at the neighborhood youth and their friends.

Al-dunya hamya, or the world is heated is, in the literal sense, used to describe weather events. However, it has a metaphorical spin: the world is heated with struggle and strife. I reflect on how the United States has witnessed its share of moments this year depict-ing both the literal and metaphorical meanings of this phrase. Whereas in a small neighborhood in Palestine, the wildfires were extremely small, the fires that raged through the lands across the West Coast were on the other end of extremities. The world is also hot, so to speak, with struggle and protest in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the many others we have and have not heard of. From Palestine to the U.S., we are collective witnesses to the changing environmental and political climates.

“See this picture?” The barista at a local coffee shop in New Orleans said, as she approached me with her iPhone. Her and I, like everyone else living through 2020, are witnesses to a world of social distancing and masking up, so she stretches out her arm, and without getting close but being close enough for me to view what she wants me to look at, I see a picture of a picture of a group of people in front of a home. It was a photograph taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she told me.

“They came to help us clean up and fix our home. We need to go over there and do that,” she comments, nodding her head in the way that one does when their mind is made up. I smiled at the gesture, thinking, if only it was that easy to get over there. 

The over there she was referring to was Beirut, Lebanon. Just two days before, I was working from the same coffee shop she was working at, when a seven-second video of the August 4th blast circulated on the internet. We both were so taken aback when we viewed it that we  could not focus on any task for the rest of the day. For the barista, it brought up the memory of a rescue crew coming to help the locals after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For myself, it brought up the memory of when a gas tank blew up in the home next to mine, killing the father in the household. When I finally got ahold of the Palestinian fire department that day, I was asked, “Are you on the Israeli side [of the area] or the Palestinian one?” In other words, there are places that they would not be able to reach because of the Israeli occupation, even if they wanted to.

All the neighborhood youth, women, men, and elderly could do was witness the wildfire from across the street  and believe that it would be taken care of. In this particular area, they cannot run to stop the fires, even if they wanted to. It is not because they don’t care about the land. They cannot approach because they would risk their lives, and not because of the wildfire but because of open fire. There would be two fires to put out, and no one wants to be witness to that.


Hasheema Afaneh, MPH, is a Palestinian-American writer and public health professional based in New Orleans. Her work centers on social justice and various intersections related to it. You can find some of her work in the Fair Observer,
HuffPost, Shado Magazine, The Markaz Review, 580 Split Magazine, Glass Poetry Poets Resist Series, Poets Reading the News, This Week in Palestine, and others.
Her website is norestrictionsonwords.wordpress.com.  She tweets at @its_hashie.