In a quiet courtyard nestled deep within Jerusalem’s bustling Muslim Quarter, I sat down to call my mother. My flight back to America would leave the following day, with a nine-hour layover in Rome. Europe haunted me all summer as I traveled through Asia’s graveyards of Western exploits. As I left Asia for the colonial core, I was at a loss for what to do in the city that defined the West’s image of empire for millennia. And so, after not knowing where else to turn, I called my mom.
My mother is a devout Christian first, an artist a close second. It was not too surprising that she suggested I spend the few hours I had in Italy at the Vatican. Beneath the mighty Palestinian Cedars, I listened to my mom muse over the masterpieces of Christianity’s holy city in Europe. She told me it was the first museum that made her cry. For her, there was no way that Michelangelo’s marvels were made by mere man alone; the splendor and the craft had to be the work of the divine.
After I hung up the phone, I sat surrounded by the silence of the courtyard. This was not the first time my Mom had told me her story about crying at the Vatican, but it was the first time I had finally understood what she had experienced, at least a little. My mind drifted back two months and an entire continent away.
Hanoi was a city that welcomed me immediately with a warm embrace. A crowded sleeper bus dropped me off at 5:30 in the morning, and I was greeted by a scene of paradise. The golden sunbeams danced along the tree-lined streets of the Old City, aromas of roasting coffee beans and fresh baguettes lingered in the air as morning bikers cycled past. This was not a paradise of God; this city was forged by the flames of man.
Constructed heaven, noun.
I came up with the idea on my morning commute to class in Downtown Cairo. There’s a feeling I have come to know that I had never been able to describe. Our planet is blessed with these urban centers that overflow with life, and with every breath they scream with vitality in the face of the endless void. Beirut’s cliffside avenues tell the story of the city’s survival through wars of foreign destruction. México’s murals give a physical form to the revolutionary ideas that built the city from the ashes of the colonial tragedies. Algiers is a living testament to a dream thought near impossible 60 years ago. Across continents and eras their residents are proud, armed with the knowledge that they built the cities that people muse for brick by brick. They fought to protect these cities, bullet by bullet. They lived through hellish horrors treaty by treaty. Gun by gun. Occupation by occupation. Martyr by martyr. In the face of global networks of imperial domination, they have meticulously crafted projects of liberation. They have taught the world that the supposed concrete permanence of colonial systems are mere façades to be shaken off and destroyed. In their place, new flowers bloom.
After getting turned away from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum for not having long pants and stopping at a no-name café for the best cup of coffee of my life, I meandered towards a yellow palace hidden by the city’s characteristic curtains of greenery. Peeking out from the lush forests of Hanoi’s old city is the marigold-colored complex of the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. I’ve recently come to love art museums, especially entranced by those filled with contemporary art. I always tell people it’s my toxic trait. In between the all too common cacophonies of splashes and squiggles, I fall in love with pieces of art crafted in our recent past that tell familiar stories, something so close to our lives that you can feel the reverberations of the artist’s story through his paint strokes.
Even though I had done my cursory research into the museum via a Google search and a travel blog review, I was practically flying blind. After making my way through Vietnam’s centuries of porcelain craft in the museum’s basement exhibit, I emerged back to the surface and walked through the sun-lit halls of the main exhibition space. Suddenly, I stopped dead in my tracks. I was surrounded by works of art from the Vietnamese revolution, vignettes from every aspect of life under siege, life at war and life at home. Each work of art was a puzzle piece that fit together to illustrate the soul of the nation. Charcoal sketches of young boys setting up defensive positions outside of their villages. Oil paintings of farm workers and guerrilla fighters sat around a bonfire embroiled in political debates. Bombs depicted as chaotic globs of paint raining down on rural fields. Tapestries of women revolutionaries making their way through thick bamboo forests under the cover of the night. Woodblock prints of Ho Chi Minh sitting behind his desk, endlessly scribbling into his notebook. Paintings of mothers holding their children tight after they received the news of their father’s death.
Around a corner, a sculpture of a family sobbing in a deep embrace, rejoicing the victory of their nation, their mother waving a red banner.
In the last room, there was a massive painting crafted almost entirely in muted green and slate blue tones. The painting depicted a cadre of guerrilla revolutionaries as they made their way through the deep Vietnamese jungle late at night. Only their shadows were visible, reflecting against the moon in the river they were traversing. All of a sudden, a mother and her child walked up beside me. The mother took her daughter by her hand and began to explain the stories wrapped up in the brush strokes of the masterpiece before us. Never in my life had I wished more that I spoke Vietnamese. After a few minutes, the mother starts crying, and her daughter hugs her leg.
I had to walk out of the room so they wouldn’t see I was crying too. Never in my life had I seen the sacrifice, determination and soul of a people on full display. Vietnam was not freed; they freed themselves. In the face of genocide at the hands of a French imperial project, a Japanese invasion of their homeland and the American war machine — who wished the whole country would just burn — the Vietnamese people united under the bold, endlessly distant dream of freedom from colonial shackles. Through their artists, I saw how the entire nation banded together to translate their dream into their reality, completely on their own terms. This was to me what the Vatican is to my mother, but it was the works of man that brought me to tears.
I thought back to my people. How distant in the future is our own freedom? Most days, I have to wake up and squint to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The same empire that rained down napalm and firebombs onto the Vietnamese countryside endlessly moves to condemn the Black race to extermination within its own borders. I think of my hometown. As I write, the Atlanta Police Department works tirelessly to murder an ancient forest in the heart of the City of Trees, only to build the nation’s largest police training center in its place. To the American empire, war knows no borders. The training center will be used not only to train cops in the age-old American tradition of lynching my people, but it will also train the Israeli Police Force on skills and tactics to reinforce the protection of their apartheid state weaponized against the Palestinian people’s existence. Anyone who opposes the construction of this bulwark of state-sanctioned violence in the heart of Black Mecca is to face the horrors of the American “justice” system head-on.
Earlier this month, 61 activists in Atlanta fighting against the creation of “Cop City” got indicted with federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization charges for passing out pamphlets or getting reimbursed by solidarity funds for giving food to protesters. Twenty-three individuals camping out in the forest to halt construction were slammed with domestic terrorism charges. When I heard the news, I immediately rushed to find the list to see if any of my comrades, or I, were on it. As the contradictions that build and divide “American society” heighten with every police precinct built and every brick thrown, the violence that defines the American state rears its head, even towards its supposed “citizens.” I think of my people’s revolutionaries, all too many murdered by the state. What would they do? Every day feels like we are living in the afterlife of the apocalypse.
“‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’” (Mark 13:1-4)
I left the Old City and hiked to the Mount of Olives. There’s a little cathedral called Dominus Flevit (The Lord Wept) to commemorate the spot where Jesus had his vision of the destruction of Jerusalem. I sat on the church wall and looked out at the Old City in front of me, the Dome of the Rock anchoring my vision. I can’t shake the idea that one day in the near future, Israeli cranes will be demolishing the gold-plated roof in front of me that has become the symbol of a nation. People always make the connection between Jesus’ words and the destruction of the Second Temple shortly after his death, but little did he know his vision would come true again two millennia later. As Palestine drowns in the afterlives of Oslo, East Jerusalem has been seized, illegal settlements dot the ancient hills of the West Bank and freedom fighters are locked into life sentences in overcrowded jails. Inside of the sacred Al-Aqsa Compound, bullet holes from raids earlier this year still cover the mosque’s interior. Palestine is living through the wreckage of a different apocalypse.
In the wake of an apocalypse of biblical prophecy, the Palestinian people have not condemned themselves to the oblivion that is futilely forced onto them. Neither have my own people in the forests of Georgia. Neither did the Vietnamese nation in its united struggle against the three-headed beast of foreign imperialism.
At Dominus Flevit, the Palestinian Cedars still tower above me. I close my eyes and imagine that their roots extend all the way westward to the mighty oaks of Atlanta’s Weelaunee Forest, and eastward to the Willows of Hanoi’s congested streets. What are the futures of our peoples? Our struggles? Our futures lie in our roots. Intricately connected across continents, forged by our ancestors, defended by our freedom fighters. Only because of our roots can we live in the canopies of our constructed heavens. There might be something divine about that after all.
MiC Columnist Joseph Fisher can be reached at email@example.com.