Into Freedom

For a brief moment there was silence. I had just finished my PhD and was starting a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. His month-old daughter visited him in the morgue, a bloody sheet covering what was left of his face. Our campsite was on a glacier 11,000 feet high. Your involvement is merely to accept. We looked at each other and bolted in the direction of the house hoping to collect some bullets of our own. Pitch Black. ¤
One of the dead climbers from Rainier was my age. He lives in Cambridge, Massachussetts. On mountains, men are reduced to their element. Sushi turned into cigars on leather-bound chairs and later into an invitation to a pre-planned hike up a small mountain in New Hampshire. What I do know, however, is that since I was a child I always fantasized about confronting death — there was pleasure even when I did not survive. ¤
On a humid summer day in 2013, I arrived in Boston with a half-empty truck. Our old neighborhood has not changed except for the rust on the metal doors. I must have turned back twice before I finally got there. A year earlier, mountains were far from my mind. They refused to surrender, so the Israeli army killed them and left. The last time I had seen him was 10 years earlier — we met accidentally on the street. But I reassured myself that another accident was highly unlikely, if not statistically impossible. Several months after our neighbor was shot, my mother woke us up in the middle of the night. At 22, I studied terminal diseases, searching for impossible cures. It detonated right before he let it go. A gentle breeze sighed over the asphalt. The hike was not challenging, but the summit offered a picturesque view. It was gone. The weakened body is forced by will alone to release its grip on the mind, allowing for fluid introspection. It was to take place a day before my flight. It spilled out of me and scattered in the wind. Is it doable?”
Sensing interest, he put his hand on my shoulder and said with a smile: “You’re young. On the way down, a second hike was suggested. Children playing soccer in the yard. To gain tighter control, the Israeli army sealed off the cities. Like anywhere else in the world, boys race to manhood. And so, the simple logic of “If I fear death, I am not a real man” became ingrained deep in my subconscious. Like any child, I had my fair share of false beliefs. He killed a scientist in a cafe. The apartment where Bassem used to live has been rebuilt, but it is still vacant. Whenever I put on my headphones and turned on Pearl Jam or Sonic Youth, my mind would drift away. “Why would you even go?” I mumbled to myself. The road would shut for an hour or two before opening again. The soldiers closed off that road regularly by shooting unannounced warning shots at unsuspecting cars. ¤
I am not sure when they were recruited, but Mohsin was the first to go. I looked up and around. From that point on, my mind would cyclically struggle with how to regain a sense of certainty over life and death. Regardless of why, the family of five he left behind fell into abject poverty, a crisis I had to watch unfold slowly over the years. With wide eyes, he stared at his blood-soaked palms and wiped them on the wall hysterically. She said she did not know him. I whispered that she should get my army men out of the fish tank, but she told me to stay quiet. She stood in the middle of the street and tore the top of her nightgown open and yelled “They tricked him!” The men of the family, with Israeli guns pointed at them, told her to mention God and be patient. We used to drive there often in the late afternoons. I thought that being thrown in an Israeli jail was a stage in life, like graduating from high school or marriage. I remembered an impressive piece of rock and ice. On some absurd level, they were probably trying to prove their manhood to themselves and each other by abusing an entire population. I do not know why they did it. My left hand began to tremble — a crescendo of vibrations. Photographs showed a derailed bus with a few of the passengers still upright in their seats. I had seen it once before. Mount Rainier is a 14,000-footer southeast of Seattle. After the house was renovated a year or two later, newlyweds moved in. It is impossible to know if others felt the same way, but when machine-gun fire hit our school, we reacted peculiarly. During those years, life felt like an open-air prison. The physical challenge was undoubtedly alluring, but it was the uncertainty of climbing that connected with something buried deep within me. I am not sure if it was because he received the news that he was the next in line. Neither did I know what to do with the kippah handed to me at the door. At age 24 and while everyone around him aspired to move to the city a few kilometers away, he left his remote village in the northern West Bank to attend college in the United States with one semester’s tuition wrapped around his chest. But I did not feel cheated. Once there, we ran into two kids from a more distant neighborhood. My mother donned her headscarf and sat in a corner hugging us. The female rabbi began the service with a brief silence followed by, “We are angry at God!” The words filled the hall and echoed within me. They buried the bodies in shallow graves dug in the hills around our house — the same hills I had enjoyed hiking as a boy. The Israeli army had surrounded an unfinished house on a nearby hill where three Hamas operatives were hiding. At the time, I did not know why I was hesitant to mourn a complete stranger. The death toll was high — mostly Palestinians, all unarmed. My father was detained for handing out political leaflets as a college student. Only I remained — whole despite the void. I looked down. Do all men wear it inside of synagogues? After we scribbled our names in the summit log, I stumbled away in a hypoxic state. A fight breaks out and people die. But, to the Israelis, this was a matter of total domination. I do not remember him being religious, but what I do remember is that I never appreciated the bite of his wit. Life under occupation felt like a prison, and he refused to be another wall of it. It seemed so logical. After I finished unpacking, I sent out several messages to acquaintances I thought were in the area. Although we had known each other superficially in college, we reconnected immediately. My younger brother Tariq, whose hobby was searching for fossils and ancient artifacts, quickly joined the quest for treasure. But something always felt unresolved and anger lurked too close to the surface. The pleasure was in how calm I was, how in control, how fearless! He was religious, but definitely not the most religious. I saw him a week or two before he died. He killed a couple and barricaded himself in their house. I tried peeking in from the outside but could not see much. Then he mentioned Rainier. One was an elderly woman, her head tilted up, eyes closed, and mouth open in horror. The bullet must have hit at an angle. The soldiers debated whether or not to show her a photo of the smiling head to get a positive ID. From his obituary, he seemed intelligent, compassionate, and he had a charming smile. For others, it is violent and erratic. He was the 12th from our neighborhood to go. He was an orphan, three years older than me. It was the biggest thing on his face after his head lifted off when his explosive vest detonated. But this was not my first time being a complete stranger. We were waiting for midnight to begin our push for the summit. Almost all the men around me served time in Israeli jails — all for political reasons. By 15, I had a hidden digital folder full of grotesque images of desecrated human flesh I collected from peer-to-peer websites. There was something about him that screamed deviousness. And so, we projected fearlessness and cherished bullets that killed men who could have been our fathers. The evidence suggests that when the eldest of the three tried to resist, he and his partner shot them dead. The black-market grenade he tried to throw apparently had a short fuse. The fastest wind ever recorded directly was on its peak. The walls were riddled with bullet holes that rays of light snuck through. Aside from the two roommates I found online, I knew no one in the city. Not one of us had lowered his head. We began moving up the glacier roped together, unable to see much beyond our next step. Sparrows and jays chattered away in the oak trees. We sat in my family’s garden drinking tea and reminiscing about the time we went bird trapping in the wild and came back with a full cage. My right quickly grabbed it, thumb squeezing into palm. One of them chuckled when he noticed the floating army men. I read the news on my lab bench as I was starting graduate school to become a scientist myself. For me, there was no fulfillment in harming “the other” — they were faceless and their numbers infinite. It reminded me of my father. At 29, I sought adventure on mountains where death could be found. Everyone seemed to have a torture story. In those years, I started exploring manhood. At 12, I trembled in bed unable to sleep because a character in a movie got senselessly killed. Early on, he discovered a secluded wild hill on the outskirts of the city. One morning, a “warning” shot hit a farmer in the head, his two boys still trapped in the car with him. The roads were littered with Israeli checkpoints. It was said that they only had one gun. Out of the eight climbers in our group, seven made it — two almost crawling to the top. But there is no manhood to be found on mountain summits — just a view and a good story. It quickly spread to other cities. I walked down the street and up the hill to the house with the bloody handprints. It smashed the front of his skull and transformed his face into a black hole of brains and blood. The clashes began in Jerusalem. No Israeli patrol passed by our school without being showered with a hailstorm of rocks. An old drunk stumbled through the room toward us. He committed murder a few months before he was to be a father and a man. The circumstances of their disappearance may never be clear, but it is believed that an avalanche swallowed their camp as they slept and scattered it over thousands of feet. Without true freedom on the horizon, anger brewed beneath the surface. Several months later, the Israeli army surrounded the abandoned warehouse where my friend was hiding. The Israeli army came at night, arrested all the men in his family, and blew up their apartment for revenge, leaving a dangerous hole in the side of the five-story building. ¤
Disappointment Cleaver. It was the third such attack in the last six years, and the costliest. My father gave us something fathers rarely grant — he gave us freedom. You can plow through that shit in no time. Another climber, an old sarcastic Southerner who I liked, hurried over: “Let me help you with this. I planted my axe deep into the ice and leaned over it, breathing heavily. It stood alone and unfinished with one wall torn down. I walked past the staircase and stepped into the living room. It is one thing to be afraid of death when you are five or 10, but at 15 there is no room for such childish emotions. On the far horizon, there was a hill. At 18, Bassem was from a middle-class family, small-framed and fair-skinned, with a boyish face. This fantasy hovered over my thoughts like an apparition. The resulting shame put a question mark next to my “manhood.” It became something that was easily undone and needed to be continuously demonstrated and defended. Palestinians prosecuted in Israeli military courts face a conviction rate close to a hundred percent. I walked to school on that same road a few hours later. I had just finished my freshman year in the United States and he his first stint in Israeli detention camps. The mountain engulfed us in erratic winds, rain, and hail as we scrambled on rocks to reach its summit. They showed it to her anyway. At midnight, we put on our windbreakers, helmets, headlamps, and crampons. The destination this time was Mount Washington, which at 6,200 feet is the highest mountain in the Northeast. We affectionately called the place “The Mountain.”
¤
Ahmed Alkhateeb is a Palestinian cancer researcher. I drove back to Boston singing along to The Byrds’s rendition of Dylan’s obscure “Paths of Victory.”
A few months later, I was at a rugged brewery in New Hampshire with a couple of friends. We had just summited Washington again — this time in snow. Hamas was young and still underground, so the single gun theory seemed believable. Mohsin’s mother ran out in her nightgown pulling her hair hysterically. He had a good singing voice and was proud of his amputated thumb, which he had lost working in the family’s woodshop too early on in life. My siblings and I would roam free for an hour or two. He would later be on the news for his smile. She was about to call Shadi to see why he was late for dinner. I lit another cigarette and looked past the asphalt to the other side of the street. My uncertainty naturally turned into fear. He wanted to raise us Palestinian. “The wind was blowing us off the mountain.”
Once we reached the safe end of the narrow path, we unclipped from the fixed ropes and started moving up the icy slopes of The Cleaver. Washington, as I would later find out, is known for its weather. He had the kindness and lowered eyelids of someone who had suffered long enough. I shared with them that I was climbing for a charity that builds playgrounds for Palestinian children. The father, a cautious financial analyst, used cold logic to come to terms with the tragedy; the mother used poetry. They had probably just finished repairing the shattered windows from when the army had blown up Mohsin’s house less than a hundred meters away. One foggy morning when I was still in middle school, I woke up to distant gunfire. Before we went out to the street, my parents commanded us not to go anywhere near that house. With every step I took and the higher I got, this flickering got faster and faster, to the point of singularity. I walked home by myself shortly after without bothering to look for bullets. But I could not shake off feeling like a fraud. His story diverges from the typical migrant in that he did not immigrate at all; he went back to Palestine 10 years later with a PhD in a subject he almost failed in high school. It’s just grunt work.”
And so, following the advice of a drunk, I put my name on several waiting lists for groups climbing Rainier. Make sure to send me their information.”
I knew that most mountaineering deaths happen during descent, but I stepped down from the summit whistling Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
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As I was climbing down from the summit, a dear childhood friend was simultaneously carrying out a deadly operation on the outskirts of our hometown. The wind had regained its strength and was howling fiercely. Manhood is something entirely different, a completely different story. She took me out to dinner and mostly talked Boston in her thick Russian accent. A few months after I turned 15, the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada in Arabic) erupted. He was at the top of his class until he dropped out in ninth grade to help support his family. After the Israeli army withdrew to the outskirts of the city as part of the Oslo Accords, the first Palestinian police vehicle mistakenly got its fair share of rocks just because it was colored a similar shade of Israeli green. ¤
My first encounter with death was when I was four or five. Several hours later, we took a brief break on the high slopes of Rainier, our last before the summit. They blocked the roads with dirt mounds or set up machine-gun nests overlooking them. We glanced at each other to see how the others reacted. He was truly unconventional. “There’s nothing there for you.”
I wore a black suit without a tie. She was named Raya — a “unifying banner.”
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Three years later, I went back to Palestine searching for forgotten memories. Earlier that day, I had watched the hundred climbers who attempted the summit come down. ¤
The Oslo Peace Process quickly devolved into a plot to drag the Palestine Liberation Organization into governing the Palestinian population centers. And so, stumbling down from the summit of Washington — soaked, shivering, and exhausted — I decided to seek a bigger adventure; to climb a real mountain. But to no avail. When I asked curiously if there had been torture, he gave me the smile one gives to a child. My father, a university professor, was already gone, rounded up with the rest of the neighborhood men. It was just … a fluke.”
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I was bundled up in my sleeping bag shivering while the tent rattled loudly in the wind. Once we got to The Cleaver, I clipped onto fixed ropes to traverse a path no more than two feet wide, with a vertical drop below. A few days before I flew out to Seattle, the news broke about the missing climbers. Like the wind, it crescendos and ebbs. The summit of Mount Rainier was as barren and austere as I had fantasized it to be. They intensified their patrols: one during morning lineup and one during recess; they increased the number of tear gas canisters they shot into the school; they beat up the kids they caught more savagely. I do not know why they did it. How I died with a smile, how I died like a man. These arbitrary curfews were declared by an Israeli army jeep that drove through neighborhoods with a loudspeaker screaming in broken Arabic: “No movement is permitted until further notice.” My father said that our neighbor probably did not know that it was happening. It is mostly known for being the most prominent mountain in the continental United States. It was an avalanche, which could happen practically anywhere on the mountain. A geometry teacher once went on a tangent after he drew a shape that reminded him of his experience with the shabeh position — a torture technique in which the detainee sits on a low chair with a tilted base, hands cuffed behind the back. I scrambled on rocks while my brother Tariq continued his quest for those mushrooms with magical powers he had read about on the internet. I was more obsessed with boxing, leather jackets, and the nihilism of The Velvet Underground. I was more intrigued by the house. But it did not take long for someone to suggest walking up to the edge of the neighborhood to see if we could get a better view. At age 18, I moved from my hometown of Hebron, Palestine, to attend college in a small town in Central Pennsylvania — where I was, as far as I was concerned, the only Arab within a 50-mile radius. When our next-door neighbor Bassem heard about Mohsin, he became physically sick for a week. They enthusiastically exhibited their loot: pockets full of M16 bullet casings. I then moved to another small town in Pennsylvania for graduate school. Only one responded. My parents, who underestimated my ability to comprehend and eavesdrop, were in the kitchen whispering. I pulled out the flag of the nonprofit and tried to pose for a photo, but the wind was too strong and the flag too large. Despite the many explanations, what has happened is still an enigma to me. They put his lifeless hand on her so she could feel his embrace, at least for a moment. I had already twisted toilet paper into earplugs and placed every extra article of clothing underneath me. I looked down, axe anchored to the slope, and saw lines of headlamps marching nervously toward The Cleaver. With a wide smile, I invited him home. A climbing guide would later tell me: “The area where they camped wasn’t prone to avalanches. I worried about him ever since. Even with my lamp turned on to its highest setting, I could see nothing but darkness. Rain poured down on my way back, and the only thing on my mind was whether or not the drunk who first told me about Rainier was the devil himself. With slurred speech, he said that he overheard us talking about Washington and that he too had once climbed. We lived on the outskirts of Hebron, and my only road to school was under the watch of an Israeli machine-gun position. An honest friend had suggested that I should talk to someone, but in my head every writer I had ever read whispered: “Seek adventure.” It was not until later that I discovered that a true adventure, like a true love, finds its way to you magnetically. Of course, the rocks did nothing to the armored jeeps — maybe a dent here or there. The suppression was so automatic and so subtle that it took me several months of trying to write a pompous story about mountain climbing to uncover it. It left 500 Palestinian children dead and hundreds of thousands more traumatized. Disappointment Cleaver, a massive rock buttress protruding out of Rainier’s eastern face like a crooked nose, looked down at our camp condescendingly. But the secret of this fantasy — its essence and purpose — lies in the pleasure it provides. They went through every room and turned things upside down. He wore an old blue T-shirt and loose jeans. At 17, I took shortcuts on the way back from school simply because they were more dangerous. As I turned around, I saw the pool of blood under the staircase, bloody handprints all around it. We are all flickering — between being and not-being; between existence and oblivion. The sky was painted azure, disrupted only by a few intersecting contrails. As we were about to continue the climb, a ray of light snuck through from the east, and the sun slowly followed. Against the cloudless horizon stood cascades of defiant mountains blanketed in a warm ribbon of color; red fused with burgundy, turned into yellow, and evaporated into the iron sky. He later opened a small shop selling school supplies next to the school. Its north-to-south orientation forms a barrier that challenges several converging storm tracks arriving from the Atlantic. Fearlessness quickly evolved into defiance. It was most likely his Luciferian countenance: slightly tilted eyebrows and a pointed goatee. I had to feel it again and let it pass over me and through me. The soldiers manning the checkpoints, mostly 18-year-old conscripts, treated everyone — young or old, man or woman — as if they were subhuman. At 20, I tried to pretend that I was like everyone else in Central Pennsylvania. I had all my gear laid out on the bedroom floor. We don’t even know where the snow came from. I looked back at the group and felt deep empathy toward each one of them, a feeling akin to understanding a Buddhist truth in a crowded airport terminal. He was a gentle, soft-spoken, well-liked character from a poor family. I looked to the west. The smell was the first thing I noticed. The house was surrounded by somber men, heads bundled up in their Keffiyehs. I sat in the last row between two elderly couples and listened with a frown. During the height of the second uprising, when he was 22, he infiltrated a settlement. I carefully stepped over the rubble and got inside. Their heads were bowed in defeat. Although he lived out west, his family happened to hail from the same Boston neighborhood as I did, and his memorial service was at a synagogue only a few blocks from my apartment. All the other neighborhood kids had the same marching orders. He seemed distant. It permeated my character and seeped into my actions. He kidnapped three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking a ride outside of a West Bank settlement with the apparent intent of exchanging them for Palestinian prisoners. My nervous fear was exposed. Nonetheless, I sat in front of my computer screen staring blankly. I watched him with suspense — there was no way for me to tell if he knew that I was trying to drown them. All of the attempts to control us failed. This operation sparked a series of actions and reactions that culminated in the 2014 Gaza assault. I will later climb taller mountains. This little death is what I had been seeking all along. I stepped into the main hall and scanned the crowd. His father, his mother, his sister, his childhood friend, and finally his soon-to-be-fiancée all spoke with love about a young man who followed his passion till its bitter end. When a spot opened up a month later, I took it without hesitation. By the time we reached the exposed sections of Disappointment Cleaver, the wind had completely dissipated, as if it was but a guardian of a sacred gate. It took me 20 years to realize that I was not alone in this delusion. He had a hole in his abdomen. The teacher frantically urged us to get away from the windows. I paced around it while running through a mental checklist. I experimented with imagery and abstractions but always arrived at the same archetypal narrative: I am surrounded and outnumbered by faceless armed men. His suicide note was addressed to his mother, begging her to be happy for him. OCTOBER 21, 2018

SIX CLIMBERS DIED on Mount Rainier six days before I climbed it. It was a peculiar musky smell — strong and foul yet mysteriously pleasant. For most, this flicker is slow and subtle like the beating of a slumbering heart. There is not a single line of rational thought that can connect all of the dots. The plot of land where it had stood is now crowded with tall buildings. They left the hall to Lennon’s “Imagine.” Whispers and hums diffused through the overcrowded hall and slowly grew into a sing-along. “Rainier. Some said that the Cleaver was “too steep,” some “too dangerous,” and some, with shell-shocked faces, said: “The wind was blowing us off the mountain.” Half of my group had attempted Rainier a year before, only to turn around at The Cleaver. “Who knows what they left behind,” my mother said. Shadi was the first person I met when I moved to the public middle school. He laid in an unnatural posture in the nook where the stairs met the concrete floor. There was an air of permanence to the whole scene, as if everyone who had ever been up there had laid eyes on the same exact thing. He once sat next to me in a mosque, read some Qur’an out loud, and asked me what I thought “virtue” meant. His mother heard about it from the heavily armed soldiers who stormed their house around sunset. And real men, for some reason, are fearless. The soldiers walked in with their fingers on the trigger. An older man noticed me and yelled for me to leave. A few months later, he blew himself up in a bus in Jerusalem, killing eight or nine people. I noticed more than two bare heads and slipped the kippah inside my jacket pocket. We had a reputation for it. After we shook hands, he immediately started showing me the lay of the land. We shared the same bench for several years. Our next-door neighbor, a grocer, was killed during a shoot-on-sight curfew.