Into Freedom




SIX CLIMBERS DIED on Mount Rainier six days before I climbed it. 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. A climbing guide would later tell me: “The area where they camped wasn’t prone to avalanches. We don’t even know where the snow came from. It was just … a fluke.”

¤

I was bundled up in my sleeping bag shivering while the tent rattled loudly in the wind. I had already twisted toilet paper into earplugs and placed every extra article of clothing underneath me. But to no avail. Our campsite was on a glacier 11,000 feet high. We were waiting for midnight to begin our push for the summit.

Disappointment Cleaver, a massive rock buttress protruding out of Rainier’s eastern face like a crooked nose, looked down at our camp condescendingly. Earlier that day, I had watched the hundred climbers who attempted the summit come down. Their heads were bowed in defeat. 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.

At midnight, we put on our windbreakers, helmets, headlamps, and crampons. We began moving up the glacier roped together, unable to see much beyond our next step. 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. I looked down. Even with my lamp turned on to its highest setting, I could see nothing but darkness.

A year earlier, mountains were far from my mind. I was more obsessed with boxing, leather jackets, and the nihilism of The Velvet Underground. But something always felt unresolved and anger lurked too close to the surface. 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. Your involvement is merely to accept.

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On a humid summer day in 2013, I arrived in Boston with a half-empty truck. I had just finished my PhD and was starting a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Aside from the two roommates I found online, I knew no one in the city. But this was not my first time being a complete stranger. 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. I then moved to another small town in Pennsylvania for graduate school.

After I finished unpacking, I sent out several messages to acquaintances I thought were in the area. Only one responded. Although we had known each other superficially in college, we reconnected immediately. She took me out to dinner and mostly talked Boston in her thick Russian accent. 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.

The hike was not challenging, but the summit offered a picturesque view. On the way down, a second hike was suggested. The destination this time was Mount Washington, which at 6,200 feet is the highest mountain in the Northeast. Washington, as I would later find out, is known for its weather. Its north-to-south orientation forms a barrier that challenges several converging storm tracks arriving from the Atlantic. The fastest wind ever recorded directly was on its peak. The mountain engulfed us in erratic winds, rain, and hail as we scrambled on rocks to reach its summit.

On mountains, men are reduced to their element. The weakened body is forced by will alone to release its grip on the mind, allowing for fluid introspection. The physical challenge was undoubtedly alluring, but it was the uncertainty of climbing that connected with something buried deep within me. 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. 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. An old drunk stumbled through the room toward us. There was something about him that screamed deviousness. It was most likely his Luciferian countenance: slightly tilted eyebrows and a pointed goatee. He wore an old blue T-shirt and loose jeans. With slurred speech, he said that he overheard us talking about Washington and that he too had once climbed. Then he mentioned Rainier. Mount Rainier is a 14,000-footer southeast of Seattle. It is mostly known for being the most prominent mountain in the continental United States. I had seen it once before. I remembered an impressive piece of rock and ice.

“Rainier. Is it doable?”

Sensing interest, he put his hand on my shoulder and said with a smile: “You’re young. You can plow through that shit in no time. 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. When a spot opened up a month later, I took it without hesitation.

A few days before I flew out to Seattle, the news broke about the missing climbers. It was an avalanche, which could happen practically anywhere on the mountain. But I reassured myself that another accident was highly unlikely, if not statistically impossible. Nonetheless, I sat in front of my computer screen staring blankly. My left hand began to tremble — a crescendo of vibrations. My right quickly grabbed it, thumb squeezing into palm. 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.

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My first encounter with death was when I was four or five. My parents, who underestimated my ability to comprehend and eavesdrop, were in the kitchen whispering. Our next-door neighbor, a grocer, was killed during a shoot-on-sight curfew. 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. 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. From that point on, my mind would cyclically struggle with how to regain a sense of certainty over life and death. My uncertainty naturally turned into fear.

Several months after our neighbor was shot, my mother woke us up in the middle of the night. My father, a university professor, was already gone, rounded up with the rest of the neighborhood men. My mother donned her headscarf and sat in a corner hugging us. I whispered that she should get my army men out of the fish tank, but she told me to stay quiet. The soldiers walked in with their fingers on the trigger. They went through every room and turned things upside down. One of them chuckled when he noticed the floating army men. I watched him with suspense — there was no way for me to tell if he knew that I was trying to drown them.

Like any child, I had my fair share of false beliefs. I thought that being thrown in an Israeli jail was a stage in life, like graduating from high school or marriage. It took me 20 years to realize that I was not alone in this delusion. It seemed so logical. Almost all the men around me served time in Israeli jails — all for political reasons. My father was detained for handing out political leaflets as a college student. Palestinians prosecuted in Israeli military courts face a conviction rate close to a hundred percent. Everyone seemed to have a torture story. 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.

One foggy morning when I was still in middle school, I woke up to distant gunfire. The Israeli army had surrounded an unfinished house on a nearby hill where three Hamas operatives were hiding. They refused to surrender, so the Israeli army killed them and left. It was said that they only had one gun. Hamas was young and still underground, so the single gun theory seemed believable.

Before we went out to the street, my parents commanded us not to go anywhere near that house. “Who knows what they left behind,” my mother said. All the other neighborhood kids had the same marching orders. 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. Once there, we ran into two kids from a more distant neighborhood. They enthusiastically exhibited their loot: pockets full of M16 bullet casings. We looked at each other and bolted in the direction of the house hoping to collect some bullets of our own.

The house was surrounded by somber men, heads bundled up in their Keffiyehs. My younger brother Tariq, whose hobby was searching for fossils and ancient artifacts, quickly joined the quest for treasure. I was more intrigued by the house. It stood alone and unfinished with one wall torn down. I tried peeking in from the outside but could not see much. I carefully stepped over the rubble and got inside. The smell was the first thing I noticed. It was a peculiar musky smell — strong and foul yet mysteriously pleasant. I walked past the staircase and stepped into the living room. The walls were riddled with bullet holes that rays of light snuck through. An older man noticed me and yelled for me to leave. As I turned around, I saw the pool of blood under the staircase, bloody handprints all around it. He laid in an unnatural posture in the nook where the stairs met the concrete floor. He had a hole in his abdomen. With wide eyes, he stared at his blood-soaked palms and wiped them on the wall hysterically. I walked home by myself shortly after without bothering to look for bullets. After the house was renovated a year or two later, newlyweds moved in.

Like anywhere else in the world, boys race to manhood. And real men, for some reason, are fearless. And so, we projected fearlessness and cherished bullets that killed men who could have been our fathers.

Fearlessness quickly evolved into defiance. No Israeli patrol passed by our school without being showered with a hailstorm of rocks. We had a reputation for it. Of course, the rocks did nothing to the armored jeeps — maybe a dent here or there. But, to the Israelis, this was a matter of total domination. 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. All of the attempts to control us failed. 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.

¤

One of the dead climbers from Rainier was my age. From his obituary, he seemed intelligent, compassionate, and he had a charming smile. 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. It was to take place a day before my flight.

“Why would you even go?” I mumbled to myself. I had all my gear laid out on the bedroom floor. I paced around it while running through a mental checklist. “There’s nothing there for you.”

I wore a black suit without a tie. I must have turned back twice before I finally got there.

At the time, I did not know why I was hesitant to mourn a complete stranger. Neither did I know what to do with the kippah handed to me at the door. Do all men wear it inside of synagogues? I stepped into the main hall and scanned the crowd. I noticed more than two bare heads and slipped the kippah inside my jacket pocket. I sat in the last row between two elderly couples and listened with a frown.

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. 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. The father, a cautious financial analyst, used cold logic to come to terms with the tragedy; the mother used poetry. They left the hall to Lennon’s “Imagine.” Whispers and hums diffused through the overcrowded hall and slowly grew into a sing-along. 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.

¤

The Oslo Peace Process quickly devolved into a plot to drag the Palestine Liberation Organization into governing the Palestinian population centers. Without true freedom on the horizon, anger brewed beneath the surface. A few months after I turned 15, the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada in Arabic) erupted. The clashes began in Jerusalem. The death toll was high — mostly Palestinians, all unarmed. It quickly spread to other cities.

During those years, life felt like an open-air prison. The roads were littered with Israeli checkpoints. The soldiers manning the checkpoints, mostly 18-year-old conscripts, treated everyone — young or old, man or woman — as if they were subhuman. On some absurd level, they were probably trying to prove their manhood to themselves and each other by abusing an entire population.

To gain tighter control, the Israeli army sealed off the cities. They blocked the roads with dirt mounds or set up machine-gun nests overlooking them. We lived on the outskirts of Hebron, and my only road to school was under the watch of an Israeli machine-gun position. The soldiers closed off that road regularly by shooting unannounced warning shots at unsuspecting cars. The road would shut for an hour or two before opening again. One morning, a “warning” shot hit a farmer in the head, his two boys still trapped in the car with him. I walked to school on that same road a few hours later.

In those years, I started exploring manhood. But I could not shake off feeling like a fraud. 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. 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. And so, the simple logic of “If I fear death, I am not a real man” became ingrained deep in my subconscious. It is impossible to know if others felt the same way, but when machine-gun fire hit our school, we reacted peculiarly. The teacher frantically urged us to get away from the windows. We glanced at each other to see how the others reacted. Not one of us had lowered his head.

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I am not sure when they were recruited, but Mohsin was the first to go. He was an orphan, three years older than me. He was at the top of his class until he dropped out in ninth grade to help support his family. He later opened a small shop selling school supplies next to the school. He had the kindness and lowered eyelids of someone who had suffered long enough. He once sat next to me in a mosque, read some Qur’an out loud, and asked me what I thought “virtue” meant. During the height of the second uprising, when he was 22, he infiltrated a settlement. He killed a couple and barricaded himself in their house. The black-market grenade he tried to throw apparently had a short fuse. It detonated right before he let it go. His suicide note was addressed to his mother, begging her to be happy for him.

When our next-door neighbor Bassem heard about Mohsin, he became physically sick for a week. I am not sure if it was because he received the news that he was the next in line. A few months later, he blew himself up in a bus in Jerusalem, killing eight or nine people. Photographs showed a derailed bus with a few of the passengers still upright in their seats. One was an elderly woman, her head tilted up, eyes closed, and mouth open in horror. At 18, Bassem was from a middle-class family, small-framed and fair-skinned, with a boyish face. I do not remember him being religious, but what I do remember is that I never appreciated the bite of his wit. I saw him a week or two before he died. He seemed distant. 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. 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.

Shadi was the first person I met when I moved to the public middle school. After we shook hands, he immediately started showing me the lay of the land. We shared the same bench for several years. He was a gentle, soft-spoken, well-liked character from a poor family. He was religious, but definitely not the most religious. 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. He would later be on the news for his smile. It was the biggest thing on his face after his head lifted off when his explosive vest detonated. He killed a scientist in a cafe. I read the news on my lab bench as I was starting graduate school to become a scientist myself. His mother heard about it from the heavily armed soldiers who stormed their house around sunset. She was about to call Shadi to see why he was late for dinner. The soldiers debated whether or not to show her a photo of the smiling head to get a positive ID. They showed it to her anyway. She said she did not know him. He was the 12th from our neighborhood to go.

I do not know why they did it. Despite the many explanations, what has happened is still an enigma to me. There is not a single line of rational thought that can connect all of the dots.

I do not know why they did it. 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. Whenever I put on my headphones and turned on Pearl Jam or Sonic Youth, my mind would drift away. I experimented with imagery and abstractions but always arrived at the same archetypal narrative: I am surrounded and outnumbered by faceless armed men. A fight breaks out and people die. But the secret of this fantasy — its essence and purpose — lies in the pleasure it provides. For me, there was no fulfillment in harming “the other” — they were faceless and their numbers infinite. The pleasure was in how calm I was, how in control, how fearless! How I died with a smile, how I died like a man. This fantasy hovered over my thoughts like an apparition. It permeated my character and seeped into my actions.

At 12, I trembled in bed unable to sleep because a character in a movie got senselessly killed. By 15, I had a hidden digital folder full of grotesque images of desecrated human flesh I collected from peer-to-peer websites. At 17, I took shortcuts on the way back from school simply because they were more dangerous. At 20, I tried to pretend that I was like everyone else in Central Pennsylvania. At 22, I studied terminal diseases, searching for impossible cures. At 29, I sought adventure on mountains where death could be found.

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Disappointment Cleaver. Pitch Black. “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. My nervous fear was exposed. It spilled out of me and scattered in the wind. This little death is what I had been seeking all along. I had to feel it again and let it pass over me and through me.

We are all flickering — between being and not-being; between existence and oblivion. For most, this flicker is slow and subtle like the beating of a slumbering heart. For others, it is violent and erratic. Like the wind, it crescendos and ebbs. With every step I took and the higher I got, this flickering got faster and faster, to the point of singularity. Only I remained — whole despite the void.

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. I looked down, axe anchored to the slope, and saw lines of headlamps marching nervously toward The Cleaver.

Several hours later, we took a brief break on the high slopes of Rainier, our last before the summit. 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. As we were about to continue the climb, a ray of light snuck through from the east, and the sun slowly followed.

The summit of Mount Rainier was as barren and austere as I had fantasized it to be. Out of the eight climbers in our group, seven made it — two almost crawling to the top. After we scribbled our names in the summit log, I stumbled away in a hypoxic state. I planted my axe deep into the ice and leaned over it, breathing heavily. I looked up and around. The sky was painted azure, disrupted only by a few intersecting contrails. The wind had regained its strength and was howling fiercely. 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.

I will later climb taller mountains. But there is no manhood to be found on mountain summits — just a view and a good story. Manhood is something entirely different, a completely different story. But I did not feel cheated. 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. I shared with them that I was climbing for a charity that builds playgrounds for Palestinian children. 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. Another climber, an old sarcastic Southerner who I liked, hurried over: “Let me help you with this. 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.”

¤

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. He kidnapped three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking a ride outside of a West Bank settlement with the apparent intent of exchanging them for Palestinian prisoners. The evidence suggests that when the eldest of the three tried to resist, he and his partner shot them dead. They buried the bodies in shallow graves dug in the hills around our house — the same hills I had enjoyed hiking as a boy. This operation sparked a series of actions and reactions that culminated in the 2014 Gaza assault. It was the third such attack in the last six years, and the costliest. It left 500 Palestinian children dead and hundreds of thousands more traumatized.

Several months later, the Israeli army surrounded the abandoned warehouse where my friend was hiding. The bullet must have hit at an angle. It smashed the front of his skull and transformed his face into a black hole of brains and blood.

The last time I had seen him was 10 years earlier — we met accidentally on the street. With a wide smile, I invited him home. 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. I had just finished my freshman year in the United States and he his first stint in Israeli detention camps. When I asked curiously if there had been torture, he gave me the smile one gives to a child. I worried about him ever since.

He committed murder a few months before he was to be a father and a man. His month-old daughter visited him in the morgue, a bloody sheet covering what was left of his face. They put his lifeless hand on her so she could feel his embrace, at least for a moment. She was named Raya — a “unifying banner.”

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Three years later, I went back to Palestine searching for forgotten memories. Our old neighborhood has not changed except for the rust on the metal doors. The apartment where Bassem used to live has been rebuilt, but it is still vacant. I walked down the street and up the hill to the house with the bloody handprints. It was gone. The plot of land where it had stood is now crowded with tall buildings. Children playing soccer in the yard. I lit another cigarette and looked past the asphalt to the other side of the street. Mohsin’s mother ran out in her nightgown pulling her hair hysterically. 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. For a brief moment there was silence. A gentle breeze sighed over the asphalt. Sparrows and jays chattered away in the oak trees.

I looked to the west. On the far horizon, there was a hill. It reminded me of my father. He was truly unconventional. 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. 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. He wanted to raise us Palestinian.

My father gave us something fathers rarely grant — he gave us freedom. Life under occupation felt like a prison, and he refused to be another wall of it.

Early on, he discovered a secluded wild hill on the outskirts of the city. We used to drive there often in the late afternoons. My siblings and I would roam free for an hour or two. I scrambled on rocks while my brother Tariq continued his quest for those mushrooms with magical powers he had read about on the internet. We affectionately called the place “The Mountain.”

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Ahmed Alkhateeb is a Palestinian cancer researcher. He lives in Cambridge, Massachussetts.

 

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