Where are the millions?

Wein El Malayeen (“Where are the Millions?”)  is a rousing elegy by the Lebanese-Palestinian diva, Julia Boutrus. Boutrus’s stunning vocals embody a sense of poeticism that both soothes and sends shivers through one’s veins. Like an effigy, her voice rises and bursts into flame and passion. As invigorating as it may be, her lyrics also speak to great disillusionment:

Where are the millions? Where are the millions?

Where are the Arab masses?

Where is the Arab Fury?

Boutrus performed “Where are the Millions?” to the thundering masses of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in 1990. It was an adaptation of a poem written squarely on the Palestinian Question by Libyan poet Ali al-Kilani. The piece narrates a sense of frustration at Arab inaction on the issue of Palestine. Israeli settlements had begun the mass displacement and de-development of Palestinians; Egypt had long normalised relations with Israel; the brutality of Black September in Jordan, and the Lebanese Civil War had seen refugee communities militarised, fractured and massacred. For many of those particularly on the Arab left, this was an epoch of exasperation:

The children of the rich slept peacefully

When it’s time to sleep, the pasha slept while we were homeless […]

I called the armies, they did not hear me

But Boutrus remained an optimist:

[They can] Strangle us, kill us, and bury us in graves

[But] My land will not be slowed

The red blood will irrigate the green of the land

With a taste of lemon

Thirty-four years later, I type from the quad of a college that has borne men who are not just complicit, but outright guilty in strangling, killing and burying in the graves. The men of Oxbridge, as unimpressive, emotionally obtuse (as my dear friend from Jesus would say) and inept as they may now be, have their hands soaked in the blood of Palestinians. Men of the ilk of Balfour, Milner, Sykes and Rothschild, whose names draw infamy in the lands they exploited, but warrant great portraits in our little colleges in county Oxfordshire.

Their endowments fund the woodwork of the Common Rooms, the quads on which you lounge pretending to read, and their charities stain the glass of our chapel windows. And their shattered visages loom from grandiose paintings. Iconography to the old Oxbridge.

But now we live in something of an iconoclasm.  On the 8th of March, Arthur Balfour’s painting was defiled in Trinity College. Months later, encampments have risen in both Oxford and Cambridge. Motion after motion is launched in the common rooms where the men responsible would have rested after their Bullingdon nights out. The cause is the Palestinian cause, to do whatever meagre or grand effort they can to end genocide. 

How banal is it that we may see images of the most morbid, most gratuitous horror; how mundane that you can witness famine, massacre and every ail possible – and live on unaffected?

Not all have responded well. Some complain about American cultural hegemony as if the protests were solely coordinated because Americans did it first. Others see it as an extension of woke demagoguery. More often, some are just cynical.  That is outright silly and absurd, for it is just silly to engross yourself in an institution that is so prideful on moulding the world, on the change it delivers – but equally cower when change is demanded. 

Six months have passed since the beginning of the onslaught on Gaza. The cinematics of genocide are on fullest display. The images that come out of Gaza daily can only be a reminder of banality. How banal is it that we may see images of the most morbid, most gratuitous horror; how mundane that you can witness famine, massacre and every ail possible – and live on unaffected? Six months of trauma, living vicariously through the footage of agony.  

And yet, the people have not lost hope. I have lost hope countless times, but they have not. You can see far too many images of children, some even mutilated by shrapnel, that have passed in their parents’ arms; or nowhere near the coarsened hands of their families. You will see documented the mourning Madonnas, and the men who have lost it all. And yet, the people of Gaza have not lost hope. And we owe it to them not to either.

For as Boutrus sings:

The red blood will irrigate the green of the land

With a taste of lemon

Their blood may be seep, but the land will be green – even if it is as bitter as the taste of lemon.

In April, Hamilton Hall at Columbia University was occupied by student activists. Prior to their eviction, the students renamed the building Hind’s Hall. Hind Rajab was a six year old girl in Gaza. Her family were attempting to escape their neighbourhood in Gaza as their home was being besieged. As they were fleeing, their vehicle was shot by an Israeli tank. Hind was the only survivor in the car. She was surrounded by her dead family members. Hind stayed on a three-hour phone call with the Red Crescent pleading for help:  “I’m so scared, please come. Come take me. Please, will you come?” Hind was murdered after the call.

Hind will live on. She must. I dream of a day that one of the halls or many great buildings in this city may be named after her too. Even if they are not, the millions are here. The millions stand with you Hind.

Image description: The Oxford encampments outside of the Radcliffe Camera.

Image credit: Cameron Samuel Keys