Sunday, July 20, 2014
I don’t think I’ve ever known what it meant to be Palestinian, in any sense of the word. Emotionally, bureaucratically, physically, even by blood – it was a hazy and loose definition that has played a profound role in my sense of personal and societal identification, despite never knowing what it meant.
I’m proud to say I’m (half) Palestinian. I take pride in Palestinian art as if I had created it with my own hands. I sing the songs of Palestine as if they had sprung from my own soul. I bear the weight of sadness as if it were my own heart shattering, my own father lost. I cherish each piece of evidence of Palestine –as ambiguous as that may be – as if it validated my very existence.
Yet my feet had never stepped foot on the soil of the land I yearn to call mine. My eyes only saw photos, the sounds of Palestine came out of YouTube, and the mourning child wasn’t in my front yard – she was on the television. My heart longed for a land my family had been gone from since 1948, a year etched in every Palestinian’s heart.
66 years away from this land of crusades, religion, civilisation, and war. Yet I, like many others, still live under the shadow of the Palestinian narrative, emotionally tied to a land that has faded into mysticism, grounded only by the stories passed down to me.
At 8 am on July 18th, the Palestine my heart and mind had conjured up since childhood was standing at Allenby Bridge about to meet the West Bank. Fast-forward through 8.5 hours of detention, questioning, shuffling from room to room, more questioning, more waiting, rude soldiers, hot weather, and weary travellers, and Sherin, Hussein, my Israeli visa, and I walked hand in hand under pictures of Arafat and Abbas into Palestine.
Hussein’s grandparents own a beautiful restaurant in Jericho called Mount Temptation Restaurant, and generously welcomed us into their home with lunch and a shower. After washing up and dinner with Hussein’s family we went out to Jericho’s city centre for the evening. In the middle of the traffic circle was a park, packed with people who were protesting what was happening in Gaza. The streets were draped with black flags, and eloquent, elder city leaders were giving impassioned speeches in front of young men waving the Palestinian flag.
As we stood in the crowd cheering, a little boy threw a firecracker at an old man sitting on a bench, and was picked up by a policeman. Everyone smiled as the boy was taken away, and Hussein nodded and said, “That’s awesome.” The fact that the police took him away means they’re doing their job and actually maintaining civil order. If the Palestinian Authority can keep their people in check, it’s one less excuse for the IDF to march through the streets of an Area A sector.
We spent the next day in Ramallah, and I swear that city stole my heart – I want to live there one day. Near impossible to describe, though characterised pretty well by the people we met: Two Irish guys who were travelling around the West Bank building skate parks. The guy in the fattayer store singing Abdel Kader that pulled us into his store for a dance party when he saw me humming along, and sent us off with bracelets of the Palestinian colours. The guy at the corn stand who was about to give us free corn when we forgot to pay (don’t worry, we realised before we were far and went back – he just laughed). The dressmaker who had devoted his life to preserving a piece of Palestinian culture by studying and collecting the embroidery patterns characteristic of each city, and employing women to hand-stitch the patterns on to some of the most beautiful jalabiyah’s and abaya’s I had ever seen.
On the bus back to Jericho we sat next to two girls, Zeena and Haya. Zeena had just finished university and was working as a translator, and Haya was still studying – both majored in English Literature. We needed one more seat on the bus, so they shoved a folding chair in the aisle and we bonded over laughing at how ridiculous the one guy in the aisle looked, and next thing we knew they had invited us over for argileh and coffee, and ended 4 hours later after a sohoor of kusa and shorba. After talking to Zeena’s mom, she said something that stuck with me. “We all have a story, Sarah, and they are all the same. It is a part of us, even if it has never happened to us. But you can either let that story drive you, or make the decision to pick up a pen and write.”
We went to Palestine when Gaza was on fire, and the souls of Palestinians everywhere ignited by the injustice. The night we left Ramallah there was a huge protest in the Kalandia refugee camp (a strange thought – a refugee camp for Palestinians in Palestine) that ended in a clash with the IDF. I saw the wall for the first time, art and barbed wire and checkpoints. I saw the Israeli settlements for the first time, cities that look like a suburban development architect got lazy and created a town out of cookie cutters, sticking out harsh and mechanical atop the rolling hills.
It was all expected, and not what I was afraid of. Truthfully, I was scared that the Palestinian piece of me, that stands tall and proud, would be called out on its ignorance and it would be yet another place I want to belong to, but don’t. That the Palestinian piece of me “wouldn’t count” because my family were one of the millions who fled, who didn’t hold their ground, who became “Lebanese.” That my empathy would be worthless, because I don’t experience the weight of occupation and oppression every day. Yet every time I met someone who asked where I was from, they replied to my “Haifa” with “ahlan wa sahlan!”
I remember being stunned by it. Now more than ever Palestine is divided. Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Muslim and Christian. Blue card and green card. Inside Palestine and in the diaspora. Yet they welcomed us, embraced us as their brothers, and didn’t ask questions, because Palestinian doesn’t mean blood or nationality or what square metre of land you live on – it’s an identity. It transcends armies and politics and brings me, Zaina and Haya, and the Irishman who has no connection to Palestine beyond a desire to help and a love of skateboarding together. It is that identity – not Hamas, violence, or rockets – that has kept Palestine alive, that has brought thousands to action, and that will keep “Palestinian” alive.