Monthly Archives: July 2021

Why the Ruins of a Little Village Called Lifta Still Matter

In the Middle East stand the ruins of an ancient settlement known as Lifta. Archeological digs have traced its’ origins as far back as the Iron Age. It contains the remains of a court-yard home from the Crusader period at its centre and the ruins of several other beautiful homes, and once housed a vibrant and culturally rich community.

In the first half of the 20th century it had a modern clinic, two coffee houses, schools, a mosque. Lifta was also well known for its fine embroidery. All of that changed in 1948 when the residents of this village were ethnically cleansed. It remains one of the only surviving testaments of that tragic era. But this, too, may change in a very short time.

Following the Nakba, or Catastrophe, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were violently expelled from their ancestral lands. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were razed to the ground in what is now known as Israel. Many had forests planted over them, with trees that are not indigenous to the region and that are susceptible to wildfires, especially thanks to climate change. Many others were taken over by Jewish Israelis with the support of Israeli law. But, in violation of international law, the former residents of these villages are not permitted to return. Many of the families still have the keys to the homes that were stolen from them.

In the 1980s, Israel designated Lifta as a nature reserve, and for decades it as been used by Israelis for recreation. An ancient pool fed by a natural spring became a popular swimming hole. But now the ruins of this ancient village are on the brink of being razed once and for all to make way for luxury villas, a shopping mall and a hotel. The UN had listed Lifta as a potential World Heritage Site, but since Israel left UNESCO in 2019, it is no longer interested in that highly desired heritage designation, especially if it may enshrine a piece of Palestinian history or reveal the crimes that emptied that village decades ago.

Lifta is important because it represented a visual example of the Nakba to Palestinians and Israelis alike. As Israel becomes more entrenched in its apartheid policies, it is symbolic of the lengths colonial settler ideology will go to erase history. And it isn’t just history we are talking about. At this very moment, Palestinian residents of the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are being forcibly expelled from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers and a biblical theme park. These struggles are what make the ruins of Lifta iconic.

Throughout history, colonial settler projects frequently targeted indigenous houses, burial sites, temples, villages and cities for demolition. The Spanish razed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and replaced it with Mexico City. The Americans carved the faces of four white men, known for their role in slavery and in Manifest Destiny, into the rockface of Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (Six Grandfathers), one of the most sacred places to the Lakota in the Black Hills. Australian mining company Rio Tinto just recently destroyed a sacred Aboriginal site that was a 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge.

Perhaps the destruction of Lifta is not on the same scale, but it bares striking similarities. This is of a piece with Israel’s ongoing attempt to erase Palestinian heritage, culture and history. And it enables the Israeli apartheid system to proceed with further demolitions and erasures, while pretending it isn’t destroying anything at all. Lifta still matters because it is a reminder that the Nakba never really ended.

Kenn Orphan July 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

On a Ten Minute Joyride in Space, Capitalism’s Endgame, and a Radical Imagination for the Future

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” – Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

To say we live in bizarre times would be an understatement. How else could you explain a billionaire, who pays virtually no taxes, launching himself into space in a rocket, releasing 300 tons of climate warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and then thanking his underpaid, over-worked employees for whom he doesn’t allow bathroom breaks, and the customers he fleeces, for that 10 minute joyride? Or the corporate media literally giving this stunt endless praise and more coverage than the global climate crisis? Or the near emotionless automaton, aka POTUS press secretary Jen Psaki, actually lauding this spectacle as “a moment of American exceptionalism?”

While all of this was unfolding, thousands of people have been displaced, killed or are missing from record breaking floods in Germany, China and Japan. And in Siberia and the west of North America lakes are drying up and forests are being burnt to ash (again). The type of capitalist adventurism Bezos and other billionaires are engaging in isn’t original. Capitalists of all stripes have used their inordinate wealth on extravagant displays like this for years. But on a planet with a rapidly unraveling biosphere, it is a demonstration of how disconnected the powerful are from the existential moment we are standing in.

None of this is to condemn space exploration. In fact, many people (myself included) love learning more about our solar system, our galaxy and our universe. Many of us (myself included) dream about being able to physically go to space and visit other planets. But the recent jaunts and escapades of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk, are not about that at all. This is space escapism for the ultra-rich at the expense of the biosphere we all share. It is worth remembering that it is the excesses of the capitalist class that have brought us to the brink of ecological disaster. That they would somehow be cast as humanity’s saviors by so many is the very essence of collective lunacy. But what is the alternative?

I have no definitive answers to that question. But I think we could start by looking to visionaries who embody values that are not rooted in an exploitative, capitalist worldview. Kim Stanley Robinson is one such visionary. As a revolutionary science fiction writer, Robinson presents to us a future that is distinctly different than the prevailing theme of dystopia that is in so much of the genre. There are no zombies or gangs of marauding mutants in his works. But there are the real life consequences of climate change, ecological devastation, political discord and economic disparity. Robinson frames all of these complex issues through the lens of radical imagination. He gives us a world that is post-capitalist, post-war, and post-ecological exploitation.

With billionaires competing to privatize the planet as well as space, Robinson offers us a far more appealing alternative. Viewing earth and solar system as a commons to be cared for and protected, even with various countries working on their own projects, sometimes in conflict, his books help us envision the potential of our species beyond this present moment. Without resorting to tired tropes or frequently used literary devices, Robinson pulls us in to our own collective human experience.

The expensive experiments of the uber-billionaires are not only costly to the working class, they are costly to the planet’s ecosystems and human civilization itself. But the left, and I include myself in this, has all too often relegated itself to the margins of this discourse by being excessively cynical. Doomerism has become a sort of cultish enclave for many leftists to hide in and await the apocalypse. It sees the violent ruthlessness of capitalism. It understands that this global arrangement of power and wealth has the potential to destroy everything, including our future. But it frequently fails to possess the courage and radical imagination necessary to engage with the public and entertain ideas and the steps for radical transformation. So, it should come as little surprise that people like Bezos or Musk or Branson would fill the void.

Capitalism is in its end game. And that game involves ruthlessly oppressing the working poor and the global south, as well as destroying our fragile biosphere. And it is in a race to carve up what is left of the planet and venture into space to do the same. But, as the late Ursula Le Guin once said:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

Perhaps it is time we took back the vision stolen from us. To imagine what the world will look like with capitalism gone. And perhaps it is time to be radical about that vision, more radical than an 10 minute joyride in space by a self-absorbed, parasitic billionaire.

Kenn Orphan July 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

In the End, it is the Embrace that Matters Most

I have been in a state of shock since I lost my little feline companion, Pippa. She died so suddenly this week. Just over an hour after I had been holding her on my lap as I wrote, her playing with the computer keyboard as I gently held her paws back from making a mistake on my behalf, purring, nuzzling my chin, she became violently ill. I had no idea that in a matter of hours she would be taken from me.

Pippa was relatively young for a cat, and by all accounts healthy. But the vet believes she had an aneurysm and there was nothing they could do to save her. Since then I have found myself being hit with waves of grief only punctuated by numbness. How fragile life is. I worked in hospice care for 20 years, but if there are some lessons I have learned it is that the death of a loved one always feels unexpected. It is always unwelcome. It always feels as if every bit of joy has been robbed of you.

One of the ways I cope is through writing. It is one balm for the pain. But it doesn’t cover all of it. Not by a long shot. The wound is still there. And one wound leads to another, and another. I realized after our cat Memur died this past winter that I had a lot of unmet grief hiding under my skin. Grief over the deaths of family members like my father, my aunt, my sister-in-law. Grief from the deaths of former loves and longtime friends. His death made me face some of that grief, but I shrunk from much of it and was able to quickly bury it again with the business of life. Pippa made that a whole lot easier.

She grieved too, after Memur died. They were inseparable. Affectionate, comforting and playful with each other. When he died, Pippa climbed unto the bed where his body was and laid down next to it with her head against his head. She stayed like that for hours not moving. For weeks later she followed my partner and I around endlessly, never wanting to be alone. And when she sat on the couch next to us she would press her head firmly into the cushion in a clear display of sorrow.

Regardless of what any tone deaf essentialist might opine, grief is not something unique to human beings. I have observed it many times throughout my life, and in many different species. In hospice care I often observed patient’s animal companions howling in despair after they died, or refusing to leave the bedside, and then laying somber and refusing to eat. This is not an attempt to anthropomorphize, but to think grief is ours and ours alone strikes me as the height of hubris and demonstrates a fundamental lack of curiosity and imagination. Indeed, their very non-humanness can help us gain more empathy for each other and for ourselves.

As many of you know, my mother has dementia. And the only way I can describe that disease is as a reckless and sadistic thief. It robs a person of their memories, their connection to this life and, often, aspects of their personality. My mother isn’t the same person I knew. She is there, and I love that which remains. Her smile, kindness, grace and gratitude are all intact. But the disease robbed so much from her, and from us, her family. And anyone who meets her now will never know the woman I knew. The person who raised me. And that angers me. It angers me that many will only see the disease and not the human being who had a rich, long life before that disease ruthlessly stole it from her. The human being that is still there.  

There is a unique, biting kind of pain when you hear your mother ask you over and over if you are her son. To ask where her mother is, even though she has been dead for over 20 years. To see her face sink in sadness to hear that her mother had died. My sister and I decided not to tell her that dreadful truth ever again. And there is the guilt from getting cross with her for not remembering or asking the same questions over and over. All of this feels like someone punching you in the chest, again and again and again.

So I found solace these past few years in the company of my cats. Those curious beings who are free from prejudices or judgements. The ones who don’t care about the conventions or confinements of human culture, or expectations, or “appropriate” conduct and communication. Who look to you as a companion without conditions except to feed and clean up after them, and provide them with some affection and a warm place to sleep. Whose fur gives our bare human skin a gentle caress that no human could match. They comforted me often when my heart was sore.

Of course, I have had immeasurable love and support from my partner, my family, and so many dear friends throughout the years, but it is hard to explain the importance of a non-human companion to anyone who hasn’t experienced that kind of relationship. Harder still to describe the intense grief one feels at their death. Some may say, “I’m sorry, but maybe you should just get another cat.” Could anyone imagine the same being said about a human being? Has our culture become so divorced from our place in the family of beings on this earth that we would think that any life is replaceable? I do hope to share my life with more of these beings, but they will inhabit their own space, not that of those who are gone.

Right now I am wrapping myself in the warmth of the memories I created with these wonderful beings that graced our human lives. Between the many tears and feelings of despair there is a glimmer of joy. And I have begun to realize that is where joy is really found. We don’t invent it or create it. It doesn’t produce itself by positive thinking or by surrounding ourselves with successful people or by attaining material riches. It is a mysterious and sacred gift to all of us that is never deserved, but always offered. And it is temporary. It comes and then it goes. Like the warm embrace of my mother, who sometimes forgets she is my mother. In the end, it is the embrace that matters most.

Kenn Orphan July 2021

*Title painting is His First Grief by Charles Spencelayh, 1910

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!

The Blindfold is Removable

“​Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” – Albert Einstein

“Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” – Arundhati Roy

It should come as no surprise that I don’t celebrate patriotic holidays. I won’t condemn you if you do, it is just not something I can relate to. But this year’s Canada Day, which coincidentally falls on my birthday, was certainly no day to celebrate. After all, the country is reeling from the revelation of two unmarked, mass graves containing nearly a thousand Indigenous people, most of them small children. For any person of conscience, it is difficult to understand how one can feel any national pride in this moment knowing that there are still more unmarked graves heaped with Indigenous children still hidden around the country.

Thankfully, at the very least, most Canadian municipalities along with most of the citizenry, recognized this somber reality and decided to use the occasion as a day of reflection and remembrance. Few fireworks were set off, which was a blessing for wildlife as well as for countless veterans who suffer the affects of PTSD thanks to endless imperialistic wars abroad.  

After living most of my life in the States I can say, with total confidence, that the same would never occur on the fourth of July in the US. After all, the “Fourth,” much like Memorial Day, is an annual day of collective amnesia. Forget the forever wars. Forget the war crimes and atrocities. Forget the occupations, drone strikes, extra-judicial assassinations, covert actions by the CIA. Forget Julian Assange. Forget the veterans who have come back from those wars deeply damaged and lacking support and care. Forget US arms deals and support of nations actively practicing apartheid and ethnic cleansing, or who rule by military juntas, or by theocratic terror. Forget the crushing, imposed poverty in so many Indigenous communities. Forget the sprawling shantytowns outside of major US cities. Forget that most Americans are drowning in some sort of debt. Forget there is no universal healthcare, even during a pandemic. Forget that the police have killed over 32,000 civilians, most of them Black, since the year 2000. Red, white and blue everything festoons stores, schools, homes, athletic fields, food, mundane objects, people’s bodies, even the mind itself.

Nationalism, as Einstein once averred, is a disease. It separates the human family into controlled, exploitable camps. It weaponizes culture in order to otherize and dominate. It cynically manipulates our collective crises in order to scapegoat or demonize the “foreigner,” the “infiltrator,” the other. It uses sentimental imagery, tear-jerking anthems, and familiar symbols to ensnare and stultify our moral imagination. In a flash of light, a bit of coloured cloth becomes more powerful than the pulsing blood of the living beings with whom we share this world.

But the illusion can only go on for so long on a planet with a rapidly unraveling biosphere. Record heat and drought in the West, fires devouring vast swaths of earth, birds dropping dead from the skies, rising seas contributing to the collapse of skyscrapers. It can only go on so long in a nation bent on ramping up militarism even as it encircles the world with over 800 military bases. Mass graves, ongoing atrocities, dying ecosystems. It can only go on so long as we allow it to. Today’s nation-states are not oases of civilization. They are not bastions of democracy. They are protectorates and storehouses for the wealth of the capitalist class. And they divide every other segment of society that is beneath them from one another in order to exploit us more efficiently. They are an albatross around our collective necks.

Nationalism diverts our gaze from the eternal unto to the temporary. It loathes culture, while it glories in the banality of pomp and circumstance. It cannot fathom the idea of an intricate human tapestry because it can only see national identity as the pinnacle of human expression. History is littered with dead nation-states, their corpses shrouded in what is left of their flags, ceremonial robes, and emblems of supposed greatness. And each of them took untold souls with them on their descent into nothingness. Today is no different.

So, the question is not how long will we allow a bit of coloured cloth to obscure our view, it is how long will we allow it to be our blindfold of choice as our backs are pressed against the wall awaiting the firing squad to commence with its execution? Despite what many might think, the blindfold is removable.

Kenn Orphan  July 2021

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

And thank you for your support and appreciation!