Mother of All Good Things

Emily Raboteau

(New York City)

This month marks the publication of Emily Raboteau’s new essay collection, Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”, from which “Mother of All Good Thingsis extracted. Decolonising Travel Senior Editor Faith Adiele sat down with Emily to discuss how motherhood changed her identity as a travel writer, her first explicit piece of environmental writing, and an impactful solo journey to the West Bank, where water usage became a lesson in political and social inequities. Their discussion is interwoven with excerpts from the essay. 

1.

Faith Adiele (she/her):  Congratulations on the new book! It’s already garnered raves from the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Kirkus, ELLE Magazine, L.A. Times, and Electric Literature and was selected as one of Heatmap’s 17 Climate Books to Read in 2024. Now, I’ve been a fan ever since your American Book Award-winning travel memoir, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora. How does travel—as you put it in the Preface, “journeying both far afield and closer to home”—inform the environmental essays in Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”?

Emily Raboteau (she/her):  Thanks, Faith! This particular essay, “Mother of All Good Things,” was my first explicit piece of environmental writing. It’s about the abuse of power. Specifically, it’s about the Israeli occupation, vis a vis inequitable clean water and electricity use by Israeli settler colonialists and Palestinian shepherds in the West Bank. It grew out of the first lengthy solo international trip I made after having kids. They were three and five years old at the time of my trip. Before I had kids, I described myself as a travel writer. After they were born, my wings were somewhat clipped because I didn’t like leaving them for too long. So I learned to turn my traveller’s gaze upon my home place, which is New York City, where my family lives in a frontline community (in the Bronx). Many of the essays in this collection study social and environmental injustices in NYC. All of them look at grim asymmetries of power in the face.

Before having kids, I’d been to Brazil’s sertão, to the steppes of New Mexico, and to Andalusia in Spain, where the spaghetti Westerns were filmed. None of those deserts was as dry as [the desert of Palestine] . . . 

The semiarid South Hebron Hills were stubbled with brown scrub and thistles and strewn with bone-coloured rock. Though it was not quite summer and not yet noon, my guide, Ahmad S., estimated the temperature had climbed to 37 degrees—or, as my mind translated it from Celsius to Fahrenheit, almost 100. “Drink,” the water lab technician reminded me. I lifted my canteen to my lips and, without thinking, drained it. A first-world privilege, this—to be thoughtless about water.. . .

“Throughout history, people always gravitate to the same places, wherever there is water,” Ahmad said. “We have limited water here. This, as much as the rest of it, is the root of the conflict.” 

2.

Adiele:  In June 2016, you travelled to Palestine on a dual quest—to connect with your childhood friend Tamar, an Israeli Jew who works for Community Energy Technology in the Middle East (Comet-ME), a Palestinian-Israeli nonprofit, and to write about fiftieth anniversary of the occupation. When you started to put together this collection, you couldn’t know about the current Palestinian war, so what about that journey 8 years ago called you to include this story, and how did you update it for 2024?

Raboteau:  Ahmad is one of my friend Tamar’s colleagues at Comet-ME, an organisation that puts up clean water systems and solar mini-grids in Palestinian communities, to help them stay on their land, which is being shamelessly grabbed by Israeli settlers. I chose to include this essay in my book—which studies survival tactics among historically resilient peoples—because I understood that the indigenous people I got to talk to in Palestine, including Ahmad and Azzam, had lessons to impart. It was also important for me to connect to liberation struggles beyond the United States, which so often endangers Black life.

The temperature mounted as the morning wore on. We scrambled from tent to tent, hounded by a loping, red-eyed desert dog. Ahmad recognized the animal from his last visit but suspected it had since gone rabid. 

I can’t say if it had rabies—it wasn’t frothing at the mouth—but I can say I didn’t want to get bit. Maybe the dog had gone mad by circumstance. Certainly it looked unhinged and toothsome, and so we avoided it. . .

Ahmad went about checking the water metres to estimate daily use. The water crisis is rising for the entire Middle East due to increasing desertification, but here, in the poorest communities, the problem is most pronounced. Back home in the United States, another water crisis inflected by systemic racism was unfolding in Flint, Michigan, predominantly Black, and also poor. I could not help thinking of Flint, here in Susiya. Ahmad spoke in litres and cubic metres, throwing out statistics like the scientist he was. The daily allowance for domestic use by a family of five to ten people was no more than 200 litres, he explained, though the World Health Organization recommends 100 litres for just one person. 

Even without a grasp of the metric system I did understand that Ahmad’s figures adhered to a stark and troubling scale that measured not just water consumption but relative human worth. In the remote communities of the South Hebron Hills, the average person has recourse to as little as 20 litres of water a day. That’s far less than your average Palestinian, who (according to the Palestinian Water Authority) consumes 73, which is in turn less than half of the 183 daily litres consumed by your average Israeli. In fact, the Israeli settlements of the West Bank receive almost limitless supplies of water through Mekorot, Israel’s government-owned water company. Haaretz reported in 2012 that Israel’s 450,000 settlers used as much or more water than the total Palestinian population of about 2.3 million. 

“It is not only that they have more water than us but that they have stolen our water,” Azzam Nawajaa insisted when we visited his tent. Azzam was a shepherd in his fifties with skin as tough as leather, a treasure trove of classical Arabic poems committed to memory, a sophisticated understanding of the area’s inequitable water use, and a sense of outrage about its political leverage. He wore a red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh. His sun-creased eyes blazed when he spoke. The walls of his tent and the water tank outside it were festooned with Palestinian flags. Following the Six-Day War, the state of Israel banned this flag in Gaza and the West Bank, and a later law banned political artwork composed of its four colours: black, white, green, and red. Though the ban was lifted after the Oslo accords, Azzam’s flag still signified resistance. One of his wives served me a glass of very sweet tea as Ahmad tested their family’s water. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of her hospitality—how many precious millilitres did the glass contain?

3.

Adiele: Through shadowing Ahmad, a young Palestinian lab tech as he tests water for Comet, and interviewing villagers in their homes, you get a first-hand look at the inequitable distribution of water between two neighbouring communities in the West Bank—Susiya (Palestinian) and Susya (Israeli). Water becomes the metric in this Tale of Two Villages, as well as a global warning.

Raboteau:  A global warning about water scarcity, indeed. Water is at the centre of the climate crisis. According to the U.N., about two billion people worldwide haven’t got access to safe drinking water today (SDG Report 2022), and roughly half of the world’s population is experiencing severe water scarcity for at least part of the year (IPCC). These numbers are expected to increase, exacerbated by climate change and population growth (WMO).

“Have you seen how green it is up there by their nice villas?” the shepherd asked me, pointing out of the tent’s mouth to the Jewish neighbourhood across the wadi about a kilometre away, one of five satellite outposts comprising the settlement of Susya. Its greenery made it easy to spot, as did the red-tiled rooftops of its homes, its cell phone tower, and the symmetrical utility poles connecting its overhead power lines. Azzam described its amenities. “They have lush gardens, watered lawns, and irrigated farms.” He speculated they might even have swimming pools. I agreed that it looked like an oasis. In truth, it looked to me like a balmy patch of Southern California dropped into the set of Mad Max

“Have you seen our garden?” Azzam asked by way of contrast. He pointed first at a rosemary bush inside a car tire, and then downhill at a stand of parched olive trees growing at strange angles from the rind of the earth. “They get water from an Israeli pipe that is prohibited for us to use. We’re forbidden to access twenty-seven of our cisterns since they took our land, and we’re forbidden to build new ones.” 

Azzam explained through Ahmad that in Susiya, they reuse the water for cooking, then washing, then watering plants—not a single drop is wasted. Most years are so dry that there’s not enough rainfall to fill the few accessible cisterns, and the community must supplement its supply by buying water from Israel at a high price. A tanker truck that delivers this water requires a permit and is forced to take long detours to avoid Israeli military checkpoints and roads off-limits to Palestinians, resulting in further hikes to the cost of water. “Water sucks up a third of our income,” Azzam lamented. 

We said goodbye to Azzam. Again, the mad dog: it stalked Ahmad and me with slow-moving thighs and a stare as blank as the sun on our short walk to the neighbouring tent.

4.

Adiele:  Looking at this essay now, would you say that it anticipates or provides context for the current war? 

Raboteau:  I’d say the essay both anticipates the current war and gives context for decades of conflict leading up to it. I think about what Nasser said to me about swallowing anger all the time. There’s only so much abuse people can take before it comes spilling out.

“We feel despair,” a man named Nasser Nawajaa told me inside. He sat cross-legged on an unravelling floor mat and invited me to sit. “I hope we’ll find some measure of justice through your pen.” 

Nasser is Susiya’s unofficial spokesperson, an activist accustomed to talking about the local conflict to the international press. He was born some thirty years before, in one of the caves claimed by Israel as part of the archaeological park. Like Azzaam Nawajaa—the two men share a surname as members of the same extended tribe—the subject of water consumed him. Our meandering discussion of life under the occupation kept running back to it, like a river to the sea. I felt my lips grow chapped just listening to Nasser talk. He still mourned the cisterns destroyed in 2001 with fresh hurt, detailing how they were packed with bulldozed dirt, poisoned with rusty scrap metal or the corpses of animals, “raped” by excavator drills operated by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). He spoke about the shameful lopsidedness in the basic quality of life. 

“For one thousand litres of water, we pay five times what they pay in Israel. Meanwhile, their water supply company funnels a pipe straight to the settlements through our land,” Nasser said. “We asked Mekorot to give us an opening in the water pipe. We told them we’d pay for it, even though it’s ours. They said, ‘No. You’re an illegal village.’ They have all the water and electricity they want, even though it’s they who are illegal. Let’s put aside the international community that says so. Even according to Israel, these outposts are illegal.” Nasser referred to the peace treaty reached twenty years earlier in the Oslo accords, after which there were to be no new settlements built. The number of settlers had tripled since that time. “It’s illegal for Mekorot and the Israel Electric Corporation to supply outposts like this, and yet they do it all the time.” 

I asked Nasser how access to clean water and electricity through Comet had affected his family. He gushed about how it had made life easier but emphasised the differences in Susiya (the Palestinian village) versus Susya (the Israeli settlement). “The revolution of electricity is like a river that can’t be stopped. This has given our dark life more light. Our children can study later, we have electric outlets to charge our cell phones, and it’s made a small revolution in the lives of the women. For example, they no longer have to carry water or shake a goat’s gut full of milk for four hours to make cheese. We have electric butter churns now, and the Internet. 

“But there’s no way to even compare what kind of power we have here versus what they have there. They’re on an electric grid. We’re still begging for permission to crawl out of our caves and work our land, when it’s clear they’ll never give us permits to live here. Nobody wants to live in a cave. I’m asking for the right to exist in the twenty-first century, where people have already been to the moon and sent satellites to other planets.” 

“What do you do with your anger?” I asked Nasser. 

He looked thrown from his script. “It’s hard to keep it swallowed up inside. For some people, it spills out,” was all he could say. 

I pictured the jets of water surging from fire hydrants wrenched open by my neighbours on the streets of upper Manhattan so the kids could keep cool in the dog days of summer; my children’s little hands splashing happily in the spray, the reprieve from the fiery heat, the overflowing gutters, the gallons upon gallons of water, the lamentable waste.

Outside Nasser’s tent, the dog had curled up inside a rusted-out car body, where it bit at the fleas colonising its ribcage. Ahmad scooped up a rock to hurl if it pursued us again. I must have looked concerned for the animal. “It’s part of our culture to throw stones to protect ourselves when we feel afraid,” said Ahmad, apologetically.

5.

Adiele:  Something I really appreciate are the connections you make to, as you put it, “the long liberation struggle in the United States.” You open the essay with Du Bois:Just as Du Bois said the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the colour line, I’d heard it said, with a nod to Saïd, that the problem of the twenty-first century was the question of Palestine.” And you’re consistently drawing parallels to such issues as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or the anxiety of raising Black boys in America. 

Raboteau:  I connected on a deep level with Lama Hourani, a feminist I met in Ramallah. The fears she expressed for her thirteen-year-old son could have come out of my own mouth, as the mother of Black sons in the U.S.A.

I met [Lama Hourani] at a trendy café in the bustling central West Bank city of Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority. She confided that her biggest fear for her thirteen-year-old son used to be that he’d become a suicide bomber. “My fear has changed now that he’s getting older,” she confessed. “These days, I’m afraid he’ll be accused by an Israeli soldier of a stabbing, or whatever lies they will invent to justify killing him.”

Compared to the rural Palestinian mother I’d encountered down in Susiya, Lama was cosmopolitan, but like that woman, she was also tough. An outspoken woman of fifty with a master’s degree in foreign trade, Lama wore army-green silk pants, a silver necklace, and her hair cut in a stylish bob. She wasn’t wearing a headscarf or fasting for Ramadan. Lama claimed to be an outlier in her community for having birthed only one child, late in life. She’d moved to Ramallah from Gaza in 2007, after Hamas took over, and worked with NGOs to fight for Palestinian women’s liberation, taking on taboo topics in a mock parliament that argued for civil—rather than Sharia—law, debating marriageable age, polygamy, divorce, custody and inheritance rights, and the freedom to choose one’s own partner. She joked that she was the only woman in the world proud to be fifty. This was because at her age, seemingly no longer fitting the profile of a menace to the state of Israel, she was allowed to travel through the checkpoint into Jerusalem. But she was afraid to go, and besides, she would have to go alone since she wasn’t permitted to enter Jerusalem with her husband, nor her child.

“I raised my son with sumud, to stay put,” Lama said. You could hear the Gauloises Blondes she chain-smoked deepening her voice, but not quite masking its despair. There was a mysterious keloid scar on her forearm and another on her right hand—the hand that held the cigarette. “I’ll never leave Palestine. I’m committed to the struggle, but I wouldn’t blame my son if he wanted to immigrate to America or some other country. We’re not free here, in our own land.”

Even within Palestinian borders, she feared travelling beyond Ramallah, especially at night. She had a strategy of driving at the start of Shabbat, when she’d be less likely to encounter hostile Jewish settlers out in public. She felt terrified on the road to visit in-laws in Nablus with her son in the back seat. If he made the wrong face, or said the wrong thing at a checkpoint, it might provoke a soldier to violence, and if her child were attacked, apprehended, or murdered, there would be no justice.

I felt chills: Lama was describing a version of the fear felt by Blacks in the United States, a version of my own anxiety. This was the summer of mounting civil unrest over police murders of unarmed Black men and boys, increasingly filmed with cell phone cameras and shared through social media as evidence of iniquity. As if reading my thoughts about home, Lama remarked, “Of course, it’s just as corrupt in the West. In the States, you’ve got a prestigious constitution meant to protect everyone, but it’s a lie. Everywhere you step, you see segregation. Isn’t that right?”

6.

Adiele:  The piece ends with another journey into Palestine, this time with an Israeli—physicist and Comet cofounder Elad O.—the morning after two Palestinian cousins shot up a café in Tel Aviv, killing four Jews.

Raboteau: That was an interesting moment for me, when Elad told me to make myself look like a mother. The implication was that I’d look less threatening, more invisible, as a mother. Yet, my stance as a loving mother to threatened children is the source of my activism, my rage. Remember what James Baldwin wrote: “The children are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality.” According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, more than 13,000 children have been killed in Gaza since October 7th.

“We’re not in a land of logic,” [Elad] said. “The one thing that’s illegal here is the law itself.” 

Case in point was the highway we drove upon, Road 60. Though Elad and I could take it freely in his car with Israeli plates, the road was riddled with dozens of military checkpoints that slowed travel for Palestinians, who might be turned back or rerouted by Israeli soldiers onto dirt byroads, restricting or choking off their movement altogether. Other roads in the West Bank were cut with trenches, obstructed by earth mounds or concrete blocks. All of this fragmentation was in the name of security—to defend the Israeli settlements that are themselves illegal, according to international law. 

“Try to look local,” he advised as we approached one of these checkpoints at Gush Etzion Junction. Local? We were in Palestine. What did he even mean? To look more Israeli? “Less like a journalist,” he clarified, “more like a mother.” He told me to put away my notebook and pen, smile, and wave nicely at the soldiers. I did, and we sailed past without incident. It would not have happened so smoothly had we been Palestinian.

7.

Adiele:  Though most of your time was spent in the occupied Palestinian territories, there are moments in Jerusalem with your friend Tamar and her group of Palestinian and Israeli co-workers, who dine together and plan to expand their energy efforts. Do you have an update on their work?

Raboteau:  Yes, I am still in touch with Tamar. She and her team are praying for a ceasefire and feeling despair. Settler violence has increased exponentially since the time of my travel, settlements are expanding, Israel is grabbing the land, and Tamar says it feels that the world has turned a blind eye. The hopeful feeling I described at the iftar meal is hard to locate anymore.

In the eight years since Comet first electrified Susiya, it had largely succeeded in its mission to electrify the South Hebron Hills. That is, most of the so-called cave dwellers in this part of the West Bank were now connected to an alternative energy source—the wind or the sun. The team wasn’t just tilting at windmills but fighting a real giant, in the guise of the occupation. Since 2008, Comet had erected 10 small wind turbines, 569 solar panels, and more than 100 household water systems like the ones I’d gone to check with Ahmad, serving approximately 2,500 Palestinians in its effort to help them remain on their land. While continuing to maintain these existing systems, Comet’s next stage would be to expand its reach beyond the South Hebron Hills and establish new ones. This expansion offers an alternative to the state of Israel’s. It strives not to take but to give, not to extinguish but to illuminate. . .

Elad had somehow ripped his trousers on a coaxial cable. “The occupation did it,” he declared, and everybody burst out laughing. The Muslims returned from praying, loose-limbed, to the table. It was time for dessert. We stuffed ourselves silly with qatayef, coffee, and dates until at last we were full. I gazed up at the sky, now punched through with a thousand stars and streaked with meteors. Its perfect clarity made me gasp. That night felt free in part because no veil of light pollution obscured it. We were one hour from Bethlehem, at the edge of the world, in the Milky Way. We were that far off the grid.

“Mother of All Good Things” is extracted from Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” (Henry Holt 2024) and earlier versions appeared in Orion and Kingdom of Olives and Ash.

Emily Raboteau

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Emily Raboteau writes at the intersection of social and environmental justice, race, climate change, and parenthood. Her previous books are the travel memoir, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (2013), winner of an American Book Award and finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the cult classic novel, The Professor’s Daughter (2005). Raboteau’s essays appear in the New Yorker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, Best American Science Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and elsewhere. She is a professor at the City College of New York (CUNY) in Harlem and lives in the Bronx with her husband, the novelist Victor LaValle, and their two children.

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