Finding the Familiar: Palestinian American visits motherland
“I am from there, I am from here, but I am neither there nor here. I have two names, which meet and part… I have two languages. I forget which of them I dream in.” Mahmoud Darwish wrote these lines in a tribute to Edward Said. Perhaps Edward Said would forget which language he dreamt in because it does not matter. All humans have dreams, and all in exile dream of home.
Dreams of home led me to pursue a visit to Palestine, and I decided to pursue it with Know Thy Heritage (KTH), a program aiming to empower Palestinian youth throughout the diaspora by familiarizing them with Palestinian identity, culture, history, traditions, economic situations, political landscapes and social structures. As I told my fellow delegates on our last day together, usually I travel to find something new, but this time I travelled to find the familiar. I saw why my mother serves sage tea every night in the winter, why my father talks endlessly about politics and religion, why dabke makes my sister feel like she can fly, and why, generations after my family fled Palestine, I still feel a sense of dis-belonging in America. Having experienced Palestine from afar my whole life, I found that there was so much to learn from walking its streets. We can never tell all of Palestine’s stories because there are too many, but here are some:
Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. This is a border crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank. Jordanians control the Jordan side, while the Palestinian side remains controlled by Israelis. Between 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967, Jordan ruled in the West Bank. One man explained: the war only took six days because the Israeli army needed six days to march throughout the West Bank.
I hear two workers, as they lift luggage onto the security belt, note to each other in Arabic that we, the delegates, are Arab, but I do not say hello. Here I will not speak Arabic. Maybe I can just get by as a US citizen. I make it through the first part without getting my passport taken away. “No cantes la victoria antes de tiempo” (it ain’t over ‘til it’s over), a Palestinian friend from Chile says. I get to the next officer. To her side is another officer, and behind her sits a little girl. Is it Take Your Child to Work Day? Isn’t this serious? Confidential? I thought we take this crossing very seriously. “How do you say your name?” “Your last name?” “What is your father’s name?” “Your grandfather’s name?” And the questions come to an abrupt end. She slips me a form and refuses to explain to me where to go with it. I follow other Arabs into another section of the crossing, one I didn’t see before, and a part that many foreigners and less conspicuous Arabs never see. This part does not have pictures of peace, handholding, and Camp David. Palestinians carrying Palestinian ID are made to wait in lines that—the only way I can describe these lines is by comparing them to lines of cruelly treated animals in a factory awaiting slaughter, or lines I’ve seen in images of internment and concentration camps. I carry a US passport and no Palestinian ID, so I am spared that humiliation. Those of us with obviously Arabic names carrying Western passports are made to wait in a space similar to a doctor’s waiting area, with a view of the lines of Palestinian ID-holders, for about four hours. I imagine it would be eight hours if we arrived earlier. We talk and get to know one another, and people even take smoke breaks. We’ll be OK.
An officer calls us up one by one to give us our visas and return our passports: “It’s like graduation!” he laughs. You laugh, sir, but actually it is like graduation. It’s a day I’ve been imagining my whole life. “Thank you,” I muster. Thank you for giving me a three-month tourist visa after you kicked my family out for eternity.
Acre/Akka. This is a city situated in the very far north of historic Palestine, now part of Israel proper. Many of its people were made refugees in the Nakba of 1948 and fled to Lebanon where they have been since; however, many Palestinians remained as part of the minority of Palestinians that live in Israel proper and hold second-class Israeli citizenship.
Here, in the Old City, I feel better. The brown-skinned boys jumping off the stones into the water remind me of my little cousins. The sounds of Palestinian Arabic echoing through the market are familiar. We’re still there. The restaurants along the water serve shatta and tahini sauce with every meal. The large rock off the shore reminds me of Raouche in Beirut, another Levantine city not too far away. The electricity cutting off in the Old City also reminds me of Lebanon — I wash my hands before lunch in a completely dark bathroom. The colored eyes of many of the city’s native Palestinians remind me of the crusaders who came and left once and all the empires that might come and leave again. The city’s market is underrated. I buy more gifts here than anywhere else, including a ma’amoul shaper for my mother, incense for my father, a symbolic necklace for my brother, hookah tobacco for my sister, and a teapot for myself.
Bethlehem. Like cities throughout the West Bank, it is surrounded, choked, by settler colonies, which have their own roads. The separation wall cuts right through it, built where there was once a road that connected the city with Hebron and Jerusalem. That cannot be a mere coincidence. Many of Bethlehem’s original inhabitants have long left, whether for economic reasons predating Israel or to escape the pressure of Israel’s occupation.
Bethlehem, “House of Meat” in Arabic, is where we stay. On my first morning in Palestine I visit the Nativity Church, where the siege took place in 2002. It is right across from the Omar Mosque, and in the plaza between the two buildings there later is a demonstration in solidarity with the family of the baby burnt to death by settlers in Nablus. As previously mentioned, Bethlehem itself is affected by the occupation in many ways. In Aida Refugee Camp, one of Bethlehem’s several refugee homes, one sees the separation wall, a watchtower and displacement all from one point. The watchtower is black because the children of the camp set it on fire.
Though Bethlehem’s economy should flourish given the city’s historical importance, tourism suffers on many fronts. Firstly, whenever Israel attacks the Gaza Strip, all of Palestinian society pays the price: the West Bank’s economy, including tourism, plummets. Secondly, Western tourists often visit Bethlehem via Israeli tour groups rather than through the native Palestinians and are often told that Bethlehem is dangerous and/or that its people, Palestinian Arabs, will rip customers off in their stores. The market in the old city of Bethlehem then doesn’t see all of Bethlehem’s visitors, and Bethlehem does not see as many visitors as it should. You can go straight to the Nativity Church without engaging the people of Bethlehem. I pity any pilgrim that does that. One absorbs history by walking the streets, smiling at the people, breathing the air. What is any religious site without its people and its surroundings?
Despite the violent pressure Bethlehem is under, it manages to feel so peaceful. I try such delicious dessert in the Old City, shefayif sitt (women’s lips) and meet such joyful children. One boy, Mahmoud (13), always smiling, tells me about how he buys water bottles in Bethlehem for only one shekel and sells them in Jerusalem for five shekels every Ramadan. He makes about 120-130 shekels in one day (roughly 35 USD). He fears going alone, so his older cousin accompanies him. He is saving up money for the future. Going to Jerusalem is of course really hard for him, as there is a check point along the way, but as his friend says, “We always find a way!” I don’t know about always. Given Israeli restrictions on movement, it will only get more impossible for them to get to Jerusalem as they get older.
When I bid farewell to Mahmoud and his friends, he asks me, “When you come back to Bethlehem, will you come to this neighborhood?” Given all the mobility I have experienced, I am taken aback by this question. If I do not return for another 20 years, does Mahmoud expect to still be in this neighborhood? How many neighborhoods will I have lived in between now and then?
Haifa. The famous Bahai World Center is here, and many Palestinians remain living here as well though it is in Israel proper and many were cleared out in the Nakba of 1948.
Beautiful. Grand. Worldly. Lost.
Hebron. The army and settler colonies are inside the Old City. It is notorious for Jewish-only roads and the violence of ideological settler-colonists.
Wow did I learn a lot about this place and its people! Firstly, they are renowned merchants, with one of the best markets in Palestine. Rumor has it even the market in Jerusalem is run by them. They are known for glass and ceramics specifically, and many Palestinian companies hail from Hebron.
However, Israel shutting down Shuhada Street caused over 1800 businesses to close shop. The Old City has settlers inside of it, who throw debris down on Palestinians. Palestinians installed makeshift ceiling-nets, so settlers began spilling liquids. Some parts smell horrible, in part due to settlers occasionally throwing garbage. Here you see IDF soldiers and settlers inside the Old City, and you walk through a checkpoint to enter the Ibrahimi Mosque, half of which became a synagogue after American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein massacred Muslim worshippers.
Here is another example of a gorgeous city that is choking and suffocating. I only hope it will continue surviving.
Iqrit. Iqrit is a village in Israel proper but unrecognized, like many Palestinian villages, by the state of Israel. This means its people do not get to live in it though the cows get to graze as they please. It was destroyed in 1948, except for the church and cemetery, which are still in use by people from Iqrit. They left to surrounding areas in 1948, told they could return after two weeks. They stayed after the establishment of Israel, taking on Israeli ID but remaining displaced.
Iqrit and other destroyed and/or unrecognized villages in the North have many sad stories, not to mention all the stories that should have taken place there the last 67 years but instead took place in Lebanon’s refugee camps. Getting to these villages does not happen by car. There are paths you can use after you park, which is how I heard it was pre-1948 for many villages. It is a pleasant hike. From Iqrit the nearest human life you can spot, other than Iqrit’s young activists, is in Marwahin, Lebanon, which has its own history of sadness. In Iqrit I see that sage grows the way weeds do, definitely the best-smelling and most useful weeds I ever came across. Though Iqrit’s sons and daughters live in their homeland with Israeli citizenship, they are still struggling for their right to return to their hometown. We are all uprooted, and vulnerable, until we can do that.
Jaffa. Right next to Tel Aviv, this city suffered during the 1948 Nakba as well. Jaffa remains Palestinian Arab, while Tel Aviv next door is the hub of liberal Jewish Israelis.
I swim in Jaffa just as my grandmother did as a little girl. Back then the men would swim during the day and the women at night. She and the girls in her neighborhood would go together.
The water is so warm and salty. Standing on the beach facing it, I see Tel Aviv to my right and Jaffa to my left. Jaffa looks so old and full of history, with its famous clock tower and Ottoman-era buildings. The steps leading to its beach are stone steps, from another era, another world. The town is a bit quiet, and the beach is much quieter than the loud party-filled beaches on the Tel Aviv side.
And I turn my head to the right. There are some skyscrapers that do not really form a cohesive skyline. Their shadows fall to the shore. Is Tel Aviv-Jaffa a story of new-old, fake-real, or civilization-non? I don’t know. What I do know is Jaffa’s place in Palestinian heritage as “the bride of the sea,” and I do not believe it should be overshadowed by anything. Jeena w jeena w jeena, shufna el ‘arous w jeena. I only hope to see her again.
Jericho. Jericho is in the West Bank near the border with Jordan. The Israeli army is always near. Israelis have kidnapped many Palestinian prisoners from this city. It is one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Here I splash in the natural springs, which seem to be nothing short of a gift from God. Jericho is one of the hottest cities in Palestine, and we visit on one of the hottest days. Touring Hisham’s Palace, remnant of the Umayyad Empire, is amazing though I’m baffled by how much space was dedicated to making wine in one of the Islamic empire’s palaces.
I also eat a kind of date that doesn’t ripen and try bananas. Jericho is famous for both. The city’s youth, including the thriving Youth Council, are very welcoming.
Jerusalem. Once divided between East and West Jerusalem, the city is now completely occupied by Israelis. Like Hebron, the Israeli army/police and settlers are constantly inside. Palestinians in Jerusalem are under a lot of pressure due to the judaization process, Israel’s process of making the city more Jewish (and less Muslim and Christian). Some have been directly kicked out of their homes.
The tension in the Old City is thick. I feel like a fight could break out anywhere at any second. Like Hebron, here the occupation is inside; there is no hiding. I never knew that Jerusalem was famous for the sesame bread I grew up eating. It’s my father’s favorite, and my family has enjoyed it everywhere from Kuwait to Jordan to the United States. I see Israeli soldiers munching on it for breakfast outside the Damascus Gate, and I only think: I wish my father were here eating sesame bread. It belongs to him.
Praying in Al-Aqsa feels more chaotic than peaceful. The Holy City is not at peace. Israeli soldiers are escorting people around the compound, and Palestinian women and children begin chanting. The only Palestinian men in sight are elderly, staff or wielding foreign passports. It made the news that many Palestinians could pray there during the Islamic holidays, but those are days when getting to Jerusalem takes even longer than usual. They spend several hours on a drive that should really take half an hour, and the time they can spend there is restricted. Go, pray, leave. Nothing is as it seems, even the so-called favors.
The soldiers give our tour guide, an Afro-Palestinian Jerusalemite named Mahmoud, a hard time about getting in. Some of us want to go to the Wailing Wall, but he would never be allowed to get through to there, given that he holds a Palestinian ID, so we decide to stay with him and observe it from afar. Seeing your own homeland from afar is a sad reality many Palestinians in Palestine/Israel and throughout the world must live with for the time being.
Nablus. Nablus is a vibrant city in the West Bank. Businesses attempt to succeed here, like the famous soap factory and modern olive oil company, but suffer under tight Israeli controls. Like in the rest of the West Bank, Israel confiscates land in the area for illegal settler colonies.
The “hills of fire” and the hometown of knafeh! This city is not Ramallah or Jerusalem, but it is the capital of a fiery nationalism and delicious desserts. Political graffiti lines its streets, and lines move fast for knafeh nabulsiyeh. Like Bethlehem, Nablus has many refugees, including from Haifa, probably since both cities are north.
Nearby we (Know Thy Heritage delegation) visit the Samaritan Museum. If any women are interested, the Samaritan (Samaritan-Palestinian) community needs brides, preferably Muslim but Christian works too. Something that stands out to me in the museum is the traditional unleavened bread, which I realize is just like the saj or shrak I’m used to seeing at home and perhaps more similar to those than the matzo I have tasted in Western communities.
Nazareth. This is a city in Israel proper that remained intact in the Nakba. History says an Israeli officer refused to take the verbal order to clear its natives, so people got to stay. They have Israeli citizenship but suffer from the second-class status to which Palestinian citizens of Israel are subject.
As we near Nazareth I read many signs in Arabic without Hebrew. I am surprised since we are inside Israel proper. By the time we get to Nazareth, I know I am in an Arab city. I thought going to the “1948 cities” would sadden and depress me, but on the contrary, I find the Palestinian-Arab communities there to have a resilient presence, one that gives me hope for the future.
I will never forget the sun setting on Nazareth and the Palestinians I speak to here. From a tour guide in the Church of Annunciation, to the old men sitting around in the White Mosque. One person tells me, “This is your home, and it’s only a matter of time before it is free.”
Ramallah: Where the Palestinian Authority is present. In many ways it has become the Palestinian economic and political capital in the West Bank. One does not need to travel far out of the city to feel the occupation more heavily; villages in the Ramallah district struggle daily with road closures, land grabs and a shortage of housing.
A bubble, just like they said. Yet still a ghetto. So many people in such a tight space. But why? Palestine is full of space. Architects are designing buildings like ships now, thin at the bottom and progressively larger. There is a building with a spinning roof that my cousins are really excited about. I taste the famous Rukab ice cream while in the city. It’s been around since 1941.
Tarshiha. This is another Palestinian town within Israel proper. A couple of young ladies in the KTH delegation are originally from Tarshiha, but their families were forced out in the Nakba and ended up in refugee camps in Lebanon before settling in the United States.
One of the first things I see here is a bit disenchanting: a poster in recognition of people who were “martyred” in war with Lebanon. I am surprised to see this in a Palestinian town until I learn that the town’s municipality merged with the nearby Israeli settlement of Ma’a lot, which has made Palestinian-Arab representation more difficult. In fact the area is referred to as Ma’alot-Tarshiha.
I go into a convenience store here, and I don’t know the name because the signage is in Hebrew. I am not sure if the people working in it are Palestinian until I hear the cashier say in a confused tone in perfect Arabic, “I think some of them are Arab.” I reply to him in Arabic, and his eyes light up. He notes that some of us are speaking English and others speaking something else. We are diaspora, I told him, so we speak many languages. In the back of the store, there is a map tucked away of pre-1948 Palestine.
Driving back into the West Bank, I turn to a friend and ask, “Are we in the West Bank yet?” and she replies, “Are you kidding? We’ve been here for a while.” I cannot really tell until I see the wall, the fences, and the soldiers.
Daniyal and El-Lydd. I want to shout out to one last area of Palestine although I did not get to see it: my village, Daniyal, named Kfar Daniel by Israelis, only four kilometers from the city of El-Lydd, or Lud, where many of my relatives also hail from. From what I hear of el-Lydd, it is now a ghetto. One Nazarene salesman tells me about how it is known for driving the state crazy. Knowing my relatives this does not surprise me. As for Daniyal, someone who visited told me that an almond tree from my grandfather’s youth, right by his old house, is still alive and bearing fruit.