It was on bloody feet that I arrived in Palestine.
When I was seven, I tromped through the oily jungles of Central and South America, not fully realizing the arches of civil war implicating my blue American passport in its weave. I handed over the document as a currency of empire. Why I didn’t feel that my hands were filthy doesn’t matter. They weren’t. They wove red Guatemalan cloth into my braids. They played patty-cake with girls in the market. They wiped sweat and juice on my pants.
I once marched and rode buses across the Tibet Plateau. I saw the Chinese military jeeps full of armed, ready soldiers roll in to massacre people as I left, clutching an illegal ticket. I watched an execution in Nepal and let my hands hang idle, clean as Pontius Pilot’s. Hands took colorful photographs, while Maoists pulled triggers in the mountains. Hands pulled cotton candy. They sewed buttons.
My family came all the way East across North America, nationalized park after nationalized park, in a van. I managed to buy (with a 20 dollar bill) a fry-bread from a Pueblo woman who, with her hands, fed me. I learned only later Andrew Jackson was the most active in dispossessing Native Americans. But still, my hands were not like MacBeth’s. They collected feathers. They fashioned a bow and arrow. They pet a cat every day.
Hands create beautiful things, if you are careful with them, and all the creation in the world, all the plants I potted and weeded, all the paint and glue I had peeled off, all the children I had cared for and the presents I had wrapped, meant something in the scheme of things. My hands could not be implicated in the atrocities of domination that were inhaling and exhaling above and below me. I was living in this great lung, having neither fashioned it nor chosen my place in its arch. And for a long time, I felt that my sense of responsibility for it might be misplaced, since I had no blood on my hands. But where was that smell of blood coming from? I washed them in work, and took pains to make loving food with them.
Occasionally my mind would wander into strange, perverse places. I dreamed, once, of a pile of bloody, amputated fingers in my salad. Another time I had visions of a slaughterhouse. Another dream was of a bear that had become real from puppet form and was biting me, leaving flaky teeth on the floor. These must have been the hauntings of books I read, or were they memories of something? The macabre visions were rare but chilling, and the dreams even more so. Always, always, there was the faintest smell of blood, just as the smell of rot begins very, very faintly in a kitchen before it becomes critical to root out the source.
Did I dream this, or did it happen, that one day, in a fever or perhaps it was just a cold, I was alone in the house. I woke up, maybe. I washed my hands and my face in a daze. I turned off the water, imagining for a moment that rather than water, blood poured out of the faucet. I turned on the water again, mostly expecting blood, but it was just water. I dried my hands and went into the kitchen to find something to eat, bleary. There was no meat in the house to account for that smell…
Then it occurred to me that I might be bleeding somewhere on my body and not have noticed. I undressed, quickly, almost as if I was afraid of dying, and I was shaking because I feared I might have a serious injury somewhere I simply couldn’t see. I rushed to the mirror, and examined myself, starting at my face, and my neck, my back… my hands, my hands, my hands?… dreading it, I turned the palms up: clean!
Oh, but then, I had been looking up for too long… And when I looked down, I saw it. Blackfeet. Feet caked almost entirely in black, dried blood. I pulled back in alarm, but my feet came with me, and after a moment of roaring panic, I looked down again.
My first thought was that I had been framed for something, or that I had somehow blocked out a crime from my memory… my immediate concern was that I might be implicated in a crime I had walked through, and could be held to stand trial in a court of law.
Clean Hands. I wouldn’t be held accountable for murder, but worse, for stumbling across a murder. The hands create beautiful things, the feet tromp over ugly things. There is nothing noble about it.
I went to the tub, resignedly, and washed my feet in warm water. I took some scratchy steal wool with me, out of zeal. The caked blood came off, almost like a scab… was it? The flesh beneath was raw and ripped, either from my excessive scrubbing or from an injury I cannot say, but it became increasingly unclear whether or not the blood was mine or someone else’s. I felt no relief in thinking it might be my own blood that had dried around these feet.
I had the suspicion that if my blood was there, certainly someone else’s was as well, and that if anything this was a mixture of two bloods, and therefore all the more implicating of some crime. My DNA mixed with another is all the proof in the world of my presence at a crime. I washed my hands thoroughly in the tub faucet. I felt no guilt at all, just terror. It occurred to me to go outside and see if my shoes were bloody, too.
Undoubtedly the mud on my shoes looked like caked blood, and it was hard to say which smelled worse, but it seemed there was no blood on my shoes. There was, however, new blood pooling from my feet, seeping out of the abrasions that had either been the original source of blood in the first place, or now were from excessive scrubbing. Had all of this been imagined and self-induced?
Blackfeet. Like the ‘Indian’. I took no time to put on socks, but staggered back into the muddy shoes I just had inspected, and walked in both numbness and pain out of my house with the passport of empire from Central American, the illegal ticket from Tibet, the camera from Nepal, the 20 dollars from North America, and walked out the door just in time for the call to prayer to begin wailing and rising up in the air. The cacophonous honks and chatter of Ramallah slapped me awake and, looking neither at my guiltless hands nor my filthy feet, I walked forward into a bright morning. There was no court, there was only crime, only people walking about with clean hands and bloody feet.
Kali Rubaii has a BA in International Relations and an MA in Anthropology. She is currently a Anthropology PhD candidate at University of California.
She is a cofounder of ISLAH, an organization designed for those who feel that they were/are complicit in war, occupation, and displacement and who want to take responsibility for harm committed in their name.
Here research interests include:
Time, Planning, and Imagination
Empathy, Indifference and Solidarity
Institutional Violence, Materiality, Home Demolition
She has spent time teaching, studying and living with displaced people in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Rwanda.