While listening to Salam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, speak in a hotel in Ramallah, I find myself daydreaming. Around me, everyone else scribbles notes, snaps pictures, or listens raptly enough to come up with hard-hitting questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These seem like natural reactions to the situation—good Harvard students carefully recording this important man’s words in order to document the experience.
I try my best to listen closely, too, as I watch Fayyad pace around the podium. But if you asked me today what, exactly, Fayyad talked to us about, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
I could tell you instead that, in the film reel of my daydream, Fayyad is cast in the part of a gregarious but world-weary uncle. His movements around our dining room are dynamic: He doesn’t stay behind his podium for longer than a few minutes, instead walking around or in front of it as though it’s an obstacle that prevents him from connecting with the crowd. Depending on whether he is joking or advancing an argument, his facial expressions bounce between a cheeky grin and a polite smile that droops around the corners with wear. His humor sounds quick and casual throughout the address, but the jovial tone he uses starts to seem incongruous if you look too closely at the stooped figure and tired, blank expression behind it.
In my daydream, Fayyad is in his own dining room, holding a rare gathering for his entire extended family. The adults relax in various positions around the table, joking and debating after their large meal, but he stands, commanding the center of attention with the loudest jokes and smartest arguments. Once in a while, he leans on a corner of the table and seems, suddenly, very old.
Back in our dining room in Ramallah, Fayyad comes to a full stop as someone asks a question. He locks eyes with his interlocutor and inclines his whole upper body toward them. The student stutters over his first few words, and Fayyad nods encouragingly to keep him going. He clasps his hands to indicate the full pause in his own speech.
I imagine that, back home with family, Fayyad’s youngest niece catches his attention. She is looking up at him with a strained expression, torn between voicing her excitement and remaining quiet in this adult-dominated space. He stops another conversation short and drops to his knees to lock eyes with the little girl and hear her out as she attempts to explain that she just finished her first day of kindergarten. He looks dignified even in this squat, and I realize he reminds me of my own uncle.
As we leave Ramallah, I carry this image with me. But I also wonder whether I have just squandered this opportunity to hear an important man speak about important issues.
I reason that I am out of practice. After these three years at Harvard, I have not sat through a single event at the JFK Junior Forum in the IOP or gone out of my way to hear any famous visiting speaker on campus. I don’t see the value in these events: Why see or touch or hear an important woman in person instead of reading her ideas on paper or watching her speak on a screen, unless you are counting the satisfaction of telling others that you met a celebrity? The popularity of posting selfies with visiting celebrities convinced me there must be an element of vanity in going to see Toni Morrison speak at the Norton Lectures before—or, worse, instead of—reading Beloved alone and unseen in your dorm room. These in-person encounters seem less about listening and learning to begin with, and more about seeing and being seen.
I also reason that I am tired: We are more than halfway through a 10 day trip around all of Israel, running on an average of four hours of sleep a night and coming straight out of midterm season at Harvard. Daydreams break me out of the overwhelming reality of this present and let me fall back into myself for an hour.
I decide that I can justify tuning out of a talk that could have taken place anywhere—such as Harvard’s campus, where I skip hearing similar speakers on a near-daily basis—because I need the energy to immerse myself in fully experiencing the sights and activities that can’t take place anywhere but Israel.
Looking back now, half a year later, I’m less able to justify my behavior. After daydreaming through Fayyad’s talk I also drifted off into real sleep while listening to a retired Supreme Court Justice in the Jerusalem YMCA, thought about friends back home on the hike up Masada, and tuned out our tour-guide to listen to snippets of conversations happening around me while walking through Jaffa.
I don’t remember all of the historical and political details our leaders explained to us in each of those locations, but I do retain my impressions of each place. In the film reel of my memories, the Jerusalem YMCA is a medieval castle, Masada is a newly colonized hill on Mars, and the old city of Jaffa is a Middle Eastern twist on Old Town Square in Prague. Each is populated by its own set of characters based loosely on my experiences in Israel or brought in from other memories of related places. The YMCA houses an aging queen inspired by the justice we saw there, but her granddaughter is a princess drawn from the Disney movies I saw when I was little. Masada belongs to a colonizing army of men dressed like the Israeli soldiers we saw at its peak, but also to the friends I thought of on my hike. Jaffa to me means honeymooning tourist couples discussing where next to go and my aunt getting us lost back in Prague.
These are mental snapshots—not pictures that can be shared online to prove something about myself to others, but images that help me to understand something about myself, as I exist in the world they captured for me. They do not fit neatly together, and the larger narrative makes sense only to me. I can’t replace them with an image or a text, which would keep a record of these people and places but could not let me live alongside them like I did in Israel.
Now, back at Harvard, I realize that I may know how Toni Morrison makes use of magical realism in Beloved, because I have read her book. But I don’t know what character she may have become in the story I could have daydreamed as I watched her speak in person.