Chapel Hill: Opinion

I went to Palestine – Will McInerney

Will McInerney
Will McInerney

Every morning I wake up and I read the news.

And almost every single morning, the headlines are about terror, corruption, crime, death or violence. This month alone there were tragedies in Dhaka and Baghdad and Medina and Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas and Aleppo and Srinagar and Juba and Nice and Istanbul and another and another and another – and another.

It feels like the news will not stop. It feels like the second I write this down there will be another name to add to the list.

In these moments I turn to poetry and I write. Poetry does not have all the answers or some magic solution, but it pushes me to think and to act. Poetry helps me connect and make sense of the complex conflicts in our world.

I want to share a story from several years ago. It is a poem about an overseas trip and simple conversation that changed me. And it is a poem that I often am reminded of, especially during months like this.


I went to Palestine to learn about death – I met Ibrahim

He’s a short man, 5’ 5’’ maybe 5’ 7’’

His eyes are two cups of tea filled to the brim

He blinks slowly

Like he’s afraid to let them spill in front of company

He doesn’t smile much

And he’s got knuckles callused like the knots of olive tree trunks

With a fair share of scars for show and tell

His fingers are cracked like the bent cigarette sticks he slips between his lips

He is old, maybe 60, 65, it’s hard to tell

His hair is a plum of hookah smoke disappearing into the Bethlehem breeze

There is beauty in these tethered ruins cascading from his scalp

It’s strange how nature chooses which go and which stay

His hair is a metaphor for his own existence in this place

It's strange how nature chooses who goes and who stays

The only question is

Who controls the wind these days

Ibrahim doesn’t smile on the surface, matter of fact, he doesn’t speak much either

His tongue is a mason’s trowel forged from a furnace of resistance

His lips are two brick walls battered by decades

On most days this gate is padlocked in silence

His teeth are ivory tombstones erected from the sacred ground of his jaw

He knows what death tastes like

So when he utters a sound

Each word rests in the mausoleum of his mouth

I went to Palestine to learn about death – but I met Ibrahim

On one of our last nights

I asked him from the balcony of his cramped refugee camp home

“Are you happy”

That was a stupid question

He said, “yes, do you see this breath, happiness is my choice”

He points, “Are you happy”

I said “I don’t know”

That was a stupid answer

I went to Palestine to learn about death – but I met Ibrahim

He only speaks when it’s important

So he speaks about life

Ibrahim doesn’t have time for death

He speaks of heartbeats and breath

Ibrahim, you are fear’s obituary in the flesh

A stoic pillar planted in shifting Palestinian sand

A man with every reason to resent existence, but he didn’t

He taught me what happiness looked like

I want to learn to smile like Ibrahim, below the surface

Forget a grin, I want my essence to curl into an arc

I want to learn to grab life with my hands

Let my palms be stethoscopes so the harder I work the louder my heart

I want to speak like Ibrahim and hold my words intangibly tight

They way a newborn grips life

The way a poet holds a pen

The way the winds cradles a kite

Palestine is no fairy tale, but if you want to learn about life

Go to Bethlehem

Ask for the man with teacups for eyes

And a funeral of a mouth

Sure he knows what death tastes like

More than most

But a man rooted in olive trees, resilience, and hope taught me





Conflict is a prism into humanity. It exposes the unthinkably worst in people, and at the same time, it shines light on the absolute best.

Conflict is human, it is complex, and it cannot be simplified into sound bites of suffering. To do so is myopic and quite simply not a reflection of reality. Ibrahim challenged me on this. And it is a lesson I carry close to my heart, especially during months like this.

The news is overwhelming. But rather than averting our eyes, we can reexamine the way we look.

With a poetic lens we can view the spectrum of human stories. Acknowledging the depth of sorrow and loss, and at the same time, honoring the strength and resilience we see. Through this storied and human approach maybe we can heal, maybe we can connect a little more, and maybe we can change ourselves and the world around us.

That’s what poetry does, it makes us think and act with creative force.

If you would like to hear this poem read aloud, check out Will McInerney’s new podcast Stories with a Heartbeat on WUNC. Each episode explores conflicts big and small through a poetic lens.