To be a Geneticist in a Time of Genocide ...

To be a Geneticist in a Time of Genocide ...

... and an engineer in a time of destruction

2024, Apr 01    

Feelings always find their way to our surface. From the core and to the eyes, through the fissures and through the cracks. They may not show up at a convenient time, nevermind. At least they will show up, and they will do so with the full strength of a typhoon: in the deafening silence of our time, they will make sure to not go unnoticed. Like an ice cold body of water that we kept buried, pressured, subdued under our feet, they have been calling and knocking from under the rubble for so long, pleading to finally run wild and free from the river to the sea, and for what? To be heard ? To be seen ? To exist ? Oh for god’s sake, in this hurricane and by my gaze will you hear our world soul’s ache ?

To be a geneticist is to care about lineages, and through them to find grounding and meaning in a world that seems out of reach. Lineages reach far, they run wild through time and space, they take root in secret places and leave us in the here and the known, sometimes lost but never alone as we remain connected and related at the most atomic level of our genetic components.

Deep beneath our skin we are united.

How can something as small as a DNA strand span its wings as far back as 4 billion years and carry the 8 billions of us to today, together, here. Now. Stranded dreams of a genetic sea, inexperienced molecular rafts only meant to survive but thrust in such a small bottle with waves so high and stakes so heavy - our world. Fathered plumes, fleeting molecular messages drifting in the wind of ages.

Lineages mean so much to us. Through their veins they carry our history, our language, our past customs and future prospects. Through them we inherit our values and meaning, we contemplate our time through the lenses of tradition, and to them we entrust our legends and wisdoms, stories and rites, joys and pains, traumas and lessons, and in absolute faith we do so, for we will never get to see if or how the seeds we sow make it down from the branches to the sea. And because lineages branch out of love, they carry our hopes, our children, our dreams, our tomorrow.

Genes in a bottle
Genes in a bottle.

The small bottle spins too damn fast for us to even dare dreaming of permanence so we learned to mutate in variations and endure through alterations: lineages carry this potential to change, to adapt, to transform, to inherit something, to make it our own, to make it better, and to pass it down.

When a lineage dies, so much is then lost. Not only does the world lose the idiosyncratic and sensible part of what made it unique and irreplaceable, but also do we lose what we could have become in the echoes of past voices. Like an entire wing burning in the human library.

Can you feel the loss?

Familiar smells in my home, new flavors in your dish, a strange accent of them coming from before our time, a way to the past, a way to look at, a way to present, a way to narrate, to relate, to connect. Another way to inhabit a land, another way to build. So many ways to grow. Smells of the landscape, poppy petals in the wind, roots and olive trees anchored deep in the hill.

Can you feel them burning?

In Gaza, clans and families used to weave a precious tapestry. Intertwined generational histories, lineages diving deep in time, but surfacing together, burgeoning in bunches closely connected in space. Generational blossoms, floral evocations of a long tree manifested in places, places as small as a village, a camp, a building. The Mousa lineage traced its roots back to the ancient village of Aqir. Aqir, Akir, Akkur: mutated names for an immutable locus. From potteries to glasses, two millennia of histories. Memories. Feelings. People. The medieval Palestinian geographer Al-Maqsidi used to say one could find in Aqir the best artisans and the best bread. I wished I could have seen it. Do you?

2000 years later in 1945, 2480 Palestinian souls shared the land with citrus trees and banana plantations: hands and hearts rooted deep in the land, smells of orchards flying free between the two mosques. But on the 29th of November 1947, the United Nations adopted the Partition Plan for Palestine. A technical term for a traumatic solution to a traumatic problem in a traumatic time. Nonetheless: when the few rafts that survived a storm feel like they can dictate others which wave to surf and which sea to part, one can ask: did they really survive or had their souls already left the bottle?

This led to Operation Barak, carried out by the Israeli Giv’ati brigade, under the leadership of Shimon Avidan with a simple instruction: “You will determine alone the villages in your zone that should be occupied, cleaned up or destroyed”. Avidan favored the last option. Aqir was their first target and prelude to an even darker time: 4 May 1948 was the beginning of the end for the Mousa lineage. Like the bitter sap that flows down a tree before a winter spell, Mousa’s grandparents fled to Gaza during the Nakba, like 750.000 other Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from their land. Cleansed: such a small hat hiding such rabid violence. Violent displacement in a time of mass destruction: destruction of their lands, destruction of their belongings, of their collective memories, erasure of their culture, identities, political rights and national aspirations. Any engineer should ask: how to mutate if you don’t even have a state to mutate from? Hex of loss: by the wave of a few white hands, Aqir was no more, like so many other villages through Palestine, ruins and ashes conveniently beclouded by newly planted forests: green washing the cleansing.

Nakba means “Catastrophe” in Arabic, and “Shoah” in Hebrew: mutated names for a mutilated hocus.

Traumas are like nightmares, you may wake up at dawn thinking it’s all over but the night will prove you wrong: the fear fed the fear and from there a new darkness was born. Between new shapes and old horrors, a cycle burns under our skin.

13 October 2023 was a new Nakba inside Gaza, and under Israel’s blind bombs Mousa’s home joined Aqir in the memory of their people. Obliteration of smells, of colours, ambiances, annihilation of decades of ingenious engineering tricks. Carved wood, bent steel, the smell of fresh concrete: matters and moments that time and thought only can give birth to. Some things you can not rebuild, nor reinvent, nor relive nore revive. To never share again: this is the meaning of loss. And to avoid more loss the lineage fled deeper to a refugee camp, but sap can only flow so deep before to be caught by the frost.

And the frost found them on October 25th 2023: Bahaa, 10 months old, Jamal, six years old, Ghady, 10 years old, Ahmed, 35, Asma 34, their children Muhammad, 6 years old, Alma, five years, Youssef, one month old. Sila, five years old. All wiped out in an indiscriminate bombing of their shelter. In the heart of a Palestinian refugee camp, ten promising flowers that were on average 12 years old suddenly withered on our human tree. For nothing: half of the bombs used by Israel are dumb bombs without strategic values or military targets. By February 2024, 51 more relatives of the lineage had been killed. So many voices have since been lost and entire lineages wiped out. Not only individuals. Not only families. Not only extended families: lineages.

Silenced voices, exterminated bodies, eradicated gene trees. On the path to extinction, soul to nowwhere.
Silenced voices, exterminated bodies, eradicated gene trees. On the path to extinction, soul to nowwhere.

Half Gazans are children. As of February 29th 2024, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, the number of Palestinian casualties stands at a minimum of 30,000 deaths, with over 10,000 of them being children. Additionally, more than 70,000 individuals have been wounded, and 10,000 are unaccounted for under the rubble. This amounts to over 110,000 casualties, representing approximately 5% of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million. Five percent: in France that would represent 3 millions casualties, 1 million children.

Numb and numbers. I’m becoming number as I turn you into numbers. I’m so sorry, I know this is not how to dignify you, but I don’t want to vilify them either, I just don’t know enough to make you and I and them ever feel like “us” again, as my words feel too small for a suffering that is so large and my vocal folds can not carry, will not unfold, the summed weight of your temporal distress, nor can my neural cells process or recess the total inflow of human agony and the ebb of our humanity. I can hear your vanishing voices propagating back through the ancestral tree, but this is too much death, too much loss, the horror gradient is exploding, our descent to hell is too steep, there is too much fire and all is withering this is so sick but our skin should never be so thick we could ever be able to flee from fear and not feel but so at the end it just fucking hurts so much, shit!

How hard it is to hold so much love in one hand and so much hatred in the other. But by these two weights that sink my soul, wrath is in my heart and justice is on my brow. When anger steers our moral compass, we can trust our needle or remain idle. Compassion says love first and hope, but if you were to witness the wrecking of our faiths and the shattering of our world, you must speak. And it may not be a prayer, it may not be a blessing. And so naturally I wanted to shape a curse.

How much I’ve wanted to curse you, butchers. To curse you with all I know. I may not even know the words for rainmaking but you know the words for raining bombs on ten thousand children, and this had to count for something, this had to call for something. I may not know the name of God when I hear it, but I know the devil’s work when I see it. This is horror reproducing itself, echoes of a past nightmare haunting monsters in human forms, genies of vengeance forever stuck in a bottle getting smaller but still reinventing murder to feel larger. Genocides and massacre, again and forever.

I withheld the spell for months unsure of what I wanted to unleash, in me or in others. You know words, they have a power and a life of their own: beware what message you write into the air. Maybe our pan-nation does not need another damnation.

When you feel stuck, look deeper.

In my nightmare last night I was a child cornered under the rubble, encased in stones and dust, watching a mad werewolf carve its way through the sole opening of the cave, eyes gleaming with homicidal rage, teeth frothered in blood, claws pushing, scratching. Powerlessness is a feeling, a certainty, like sudden doom being slowly chiseled on a surrendered body. I can recall the taste of dirt in my mouth as I realized I was dying.

When you feel stuck, look deeper.

Below my two feet was a small stream, barely a ditch really, and among the grass washed by the freshwater, a small silver fish was looking at me. Mélusine was her name, half-time fish, half-time echanteress, and with a gentle touch she turned me into the same fish, I was so small really, so frail really, so scared. But hidden in the foliage the wolf could not find me and moved by the flow, through the fissures and through the cracks, from the bedrock to the surface, I found my exit and could finally return home free from the river to the sea.

God knows what memory unfolded that night, what ancestral knowledge was whispered from the breadth of my lineage, but I want to think it was a lesson.

Violence will never be the answer, in words or in actions. It never was. Leaning into violence is just turning from child to wolf to become trapped again, mutated roles in the same old cave. In our history of violence, we’re not confined. Waning crescents. Shifting tides. Embrace change as we embrace water: the only thing that should be permanent is a universal cease fire.

Cease fire
Hush the drums of conflict, let silence reign: it's time for peace.

To find fragility in symmetry, unity in oddity, universal adaptation through stable harmonization: this is our only path to salvation. A sensible evolution. Hurting together, but staying connected. Dissonant but persistent. We are strong. We are united and related. We have been linked through times so ancient and lands so immense that your pain became my pain, your loss became my loss, this is why from clay to flesh we were allowed to feel: so I can hear deep under our three skins, the same molecules panicking. To hear their shared rhythm and love the world more for it. Not to beat it. No teeth, no claws, no fear or maws, just small gills to breathe under wide open eyes. So we may look at a reality we may not like: are you the horror or are you the mirror? Deep dive in connection. And from the muddy trench of human emotion to bring back a handful of clear sand: compassion.

Throw the silt into the wind, others calling for a simoun may need it and dawn has to come. But keep one grain, one grain only, and murmur to it: words that heal, words that revive, words that remember, words that relate and retale, words that count and recount, that multiply, that grow, that flow, that flower, that power. Words to rebuild, to extend, to reach out, branch out, connect, coalesce, merge, mesh, cement, bridge, bridges, rivers, seas, cities, skylines, sky, universe, universities, knowledge, language, heritage. Life.

You can forever hate the world for your infinite loss, little poppy, it is okay. Just know you can also hope, and dream with us through other’s night: only then and together will we break the mad wolf’s curse. By the wolfsbane or the nightshade, dawn has to come. Little poppy.

Calling for a simoun