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Asking the right questions

A letter of thanks to Juliano Mer-Khamis

To Juliano Mer-Khamis
Director, Freedom Theatre
An Open Letter

Re: Miracles and Revolution

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.

Dear Juliano,

You are never going to read this letter, and even if you could, it is doubtful that you would remember me. But I remember you. We met five years ago at Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank of Palestine. You were giving a lecture on your use of theatre as a revolutionary practice to a group of expat foreign aid workers and students from Britain, Canada, and the United States who were there with the dubious project of ‘helping’ (read: ‘saving’) Palestine. I was there to visit friends, and wondering about my own political position in your home – self-declared saviour? Privileged foreigner engaged in ‘third world’ voyeurism? Activist? Learner? Or nothing at all? Juliano, this may sound trite, but you said something then that I have been thinking about ever since, that will remain in my heart for the rest of my life.

An American university student had just asked you if you could “explain the mentality” of teenage Palestinian suicide bombers. How, the student wanted to know, was it possible that people so young, with so much life ahead of them, could give up their lives so meaninglessly? Why would they kill themselves, knowing that their deaths could never create change in the face of the machine of the Israeli apartheid state? Didn’t they know that it was better to live and cling to hope, rather than die and forfeit hope altogether?

“You are asking the wrong question,” you replied, “You should be asking: What is the miracle at work that not all Palestinians have become suicide bombers already?”

There are rare, terrifying, incredible moments in life when the shadowed landscapes of our private experience are thrown into sudden illumination by the words of a stranger. Juliano, there could be no two lives more different than ours: you, a Palestinian activist and elder in your community; and me, a half-grown, Chinese-Canadian transgender kid struggling to figure out life. Yet I cannot deny that I felt that lightning flash of recognition as you spoke, that guttural sense that somehow what you were saying was related to my life and community as well as yours. And so I am writing you this open letter, despite the fact that you were assassinated two years ago, hoping that I do not presume too much, because I still believe that there is something vitally important about the resonance I felt in your words – and because I think that I may be finally beginning to understand.

I am starting to see that the colonial nation state – whether Israel, Canada, or the United States of America – has a specific project in mind, a project that does not include the bodies of those it deems unworthy to live within its borders. Everyday, trans* people of colour in North America experience violence in the streets and discrimination in educational and employment institutions; our mobility is limited and regulated by state borders, and we are routinely brutalized and killed by the police. Our experiences are by and large hidden from more privileged communities, and when our stories are made available to the general public, we are demonized and ridiculed. What would it mean to replace “transgender people of colour in North America” with “Palestinians and Israeli Arabs,” Juliano? Or “police” with “Israeli Defense Force”?

I am not trying to equate my oppression with yours, because that exercise would be both offensive and pointless. Vast differences do exist between us, and our positions in the colonial web of power, privilege, and violence that entraps this world are not the same. Yet I believe that we are also connected by this web, and this connection is an opportunity for shared understanding – to fight in solidarity.

For I am starting to see as well that there is a deep consequence to denying our parallel experiences – and there are forces invested in hiding them, in preventing us from having this conversation. There is a reason that Israel portrays itself as the only safe haven for queer people in the Middle East, just as there is a reason that the white, gay middle class in North America pretends that same-sex marriage is the only issue of concern to queer people here; this even as Palestinian queer people struggle for recognition of their existence and trans* people in North America mourn the deaths and rapes of our siblings. Our oppressions are connected, Juliano, and I wish you were alive to tell me whether you already knew this, whether you disagree.

But even though you are gone, I still want to tell you: it was your words that helped me see. Your words that helped me understand that the miracle you spoke of – the miracle that I have not yet died – lives in my body, and the bodies of all oppressed peoples who yet struggle to breathe in the confines of the margin. You made me understand that your war is interlinked with mine; your words helped me to understand that I inhabit a place of war. It took me nearly five years to understand this, Juliano, to understand that in fighting for myself I must fight for others and they for me, but now I see. I am ready. I do not forget.

Kai Cheng

From Gaysia With Love is a bi-weekly, epistolary exploration of intersectionality by Kai Cheng Thom. They can be reached at