On my way home last night, I heard a ruckus from a block away of the corner of Wisconsin and M streets in Georgetown. There were so many horns honking, and the traffic gridlock was worse than usual. It was hard to squeeze through a milling crowd as I struggled toward the intersection. I figured there had been yet another fender-bender there. Two nights ago, I watched as a young blonde guy pulled away from his parking spot in an angry rush, and crashed his little black BMW sports car right into the side of a passing truck. That backed up traffic for a while, as exasperated drivers, each alone in his or her little closed capsule of steel and glass, bristled with anger and impatience while trying to get past one another and on their way.But once I got to the corner, I saw that the cause of this cacophony and crush of people was the presence, on all four corners of the intersection, of a group of about 40 young people holding up signs, some charmingly home-made, encouraging DC-area voters to select Barak Obama when they go to the polls in the "Chesapeake" primary next week.
They looked so happy and enlivened, even more so because nearly every car that passed honked energetically. People of all ages and colors were slowing down to roll down their windows and give the "thumbs-up" sign. I felt a rush of excitement and joy, and realized that nothing on the American political landscape had sparked these emotions in me in many years.
Earlier in the day, I'd gone out to the back patio at my office to take a phone call. As I was listening to a doctor's assistant trying to find a time for my regular yearly check-up, I noted with delight that crocuses and daffodils were pushing up through the embankment above the patio, and that small, delicate, violet blossoms were peeking out from a vine snaking through the barren bushes. Was it spring already? Have we turned the corner to spring and escaped another wearying winter?
Two weeks ago, photographs of tens of thousands of Palestinians breaking through walls and cutting through fences to express their will to live and breathe like normal people had given me the first sense of hope and optimism about my area of professional concern and engagement. For the last eight years, the political landscape at home, and in the Middle East, my second home, has been so gloomy that at times I felt I was ready to throw in the towel on any sort of political engagement. Why post essays, op eds, haikus, and satire pieces to The Electronic Intifada alternative news site, which I co-founded with friends with great excitement and hope for political transformations seven years ago this month? Why write letters to the editor about the precipitous slide into fascism in the US? No one seemed to care, or worse: people had given up on caring and hoping out of a profound sense of powerlessness and exhaustion.
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I've often felt, these last two years, like a visitor from another planet. Returning to the US after six years living abroad in Canada and Spain was like being slapped across the face with a stinking, slimy dead fish. We are living through the very worst period in US history. We have lived under the most venal, arrogant, and ignorant presidency in America's history. The Constitution is being shredded, the Democratic majority in Congress is useless, an absurd and horrifying war is eating our young people and billions of dollars a week, yet turn on TV news and you get breathless updates on Britney Spears' psychiatric condition.
Maybe next week the snow and ice will kill those tender green shoots behind my office. But I cling to the hope that we have turned a corner into a political spring and the resurgence of small, but bright, blossoms of hope and creativity on our dark global horizon. It's comforting to hear sounds of honking horns that signify not the breaking of glass, but the breaking of silence and apathy at the intersection of hope and despair, change and resignation.
Laurie King-Irani is a social anthropologist and journalist, and former editor of Middle East Report.