The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story
Some say protests in Gaza are useless. Nothing is gained. There are no tangible results. But they may be asking the wrong question. Sometimes, tangible results are not what matters.
So it is suggested by this powerful collection of personal stories. They are lived experiences of catastrophe, by generations of Palestinians, in the Middle East and far abroad. According to Ramzy Baroud, The Last Earth shows an “epic struggle to feel human.”
In “Shit River,” Marco follows “one straight line”: away from war. He didn’t want “one straight line.” He takes the name “Marco” after Marco Polo because he wants to travel. He was a teacher, like his father, then a paramedic. He falls in love.
But war in Syria makes his path straight.
He wades a river of raw sewage—twice. Rejected at countless borders, he has “no one to console him or to explain to him why three generations of Palestinians were still enduring the same legacy of dispossession and Nakba after all these years, or why a Palestinian is cursed with displacement even if he changes his name, denies his identity, carried a fake passport and claims to be Bulgarian.”
Marco enters Serbia after three months. When police send him back, he’s not “angry, or sad, or despairing, or confused.” He feels nothing. He walks toward Serbia, again: “one straight line.”
Baroud confuses things a bit with the metaphor. The “straight line” after all is not straight. Joe Catron figures that out. He goes to Gaza for a few days and stays years. Joe is the only non-Palestinian in the book but in a strange way, his story, “Alive in Gaza,” is central.
The “epic struggle to feel human” is also Joe’s. He is from Hopewell, Virginia. In Gaza, he knows himself as human. It happens because of death. It hangs over him as it hangs over Gazans. But Joe doesn’t have to be there. He could leave. No one would blame him. He wants to be there.
He learns, finally, that it is not his death he cares about.
Philosophers invented a funny view about straight lines. They say that is how we reason. Acting rationally is achieving ends. Know what you want and find ways to get it. Some even say you can’t live without ends: something to look forward to. They call it hope.
It ignores a more interesting struggle known to ancients and many (ignored or forgotten) cultures. Jean Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon called it self-creation. Fanon said it characterizes anti-colonialist resistance. Sartre said Europeans wouldn’t understand Fanon. They didn’t need self-creation. Or so they thought.
They were enthralled by straight lines.
As a human shield at the El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation centre, with 12 critical patients who can’t be moved, bombarded for days, Joe Catron goes from being “an activist with many questions and few answers to . . . a man, still with few answers but with a clear sense of a calling.”
It wasn’t an end he’d carved out for himself back in Hopewell, Virginia, and then set out to achieve, reasoning instrumentally. As Joe describes it, what happens to him in Gaza is, quite simply, friendship.
“What is gained?” is not always useful. It is a simplistic view of human reasoning that ignores “the epic struggle.” Joe Catron calls Gaza a “microcosm of all the struggles across our imperfect planet.” If he’s right, it’s not because of straight lines. It is for something eminently more motivating: dignity.
The power of that motivation, independent of ends, important though they nonetheless are, is demonstrated in The Last Earth. Its message is urgent.