Palestinian exiles: When home becomes a foreign land

By Khaled Diab

While Palestinians living in the diaspora are physically separated from , those who remain in the homeland often feel a sense of psychological or spiritual alienation, not to mention an overwhelming dream to roam free.

Palestinians are nostalgic for a disappearing landscape and the days they could roam free.
Image: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 14 January 2020

is an integral part of the modern Palestinian experience. It is so pervasive and all-encompassing that , widely regarded as the national poet of Palestine, asked in a later poem, written after decades of internal and external banishment: “Without exile, who am I?

“I became addicted to exile,” he elaborated in a 2000 interview with The New York Times. “My language is exile. The metaphor for Palestine is stronger than the Palestine of reality.” , the Palestinian poet, echoed the sentiment in his memoir of exile and return, I Saw (2000). On his arrival in the West Bank, after 30 years of banishment, he was moved to remark on how Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land.”

This gradual transformation of the Palestinian homeland, from a fixed physical location to a metaphysical space, echoes (up to a point, at least) the centuries-long relationship of Diaspora Jews with the Holy Land – a place from which they could draw a sense of spiritual belonging, especially at times of exclusion and persecution.

While Palestinians living in the diaspora are physically separated from Palestine, those who remain in the homeland often feel a sense of psychological or spiritual alienation. They feel disconnected from, and disenfranchised in, a land increasingly alien to them, as Israel expands into most of the available space around them.

This sense of metaphysical rather than physical exile might explain why Raja Shehadeh's chose Going Home (2019), “a walk through 50 years of occupation,” as the title of his latest book – with its echoes of the title of his first book, Strangers in the House (2002).

“I continue to be troubled by a recurring dream in which, for what seems to be an agonisingly long time, I search for but cannot find my home,” writes Shehadeh, a prominent human rights lawyer and co-founder of al-Haq, the independent Palestinian human rights organisation. “For someone who has lived the majority of his life in the same small city, who owns a property in it, to feel in my subconscious that I am bereft of a home is a strange affliction.”

This sense of insecurity in Ramallah, where the Shehadeh clan has lived since it was said to have been established as a small town in the mid-1550s, stems from the tumultuous changes that have occurred to the physical and political landscape surrounding the author since his birth, and prior to it.

Born in 1951, Shehadeh did not have first-hand experience of the war of 1947/8, unlike his parents and grandparents. Although his father had been born in Ramallah, he built a life for himself as a successful lawyer in Jaffa, and considered the vibrant coastal town – back then, the more glamorous neighbour of the upstart Tel Aviv – his home. Shehadeh's parents left Jaffa and all their possessions in 1948, “never to return except as wistful visitors.”

“How utterly miserable it must have been for my father to have been forced to return to… the provincial life of Ramallah. But for me, it was the only life I knew,” Shehadeh reflected in his earlier Palestinian Walks (2007), while standing on what had been the old British Mandate road running from Jaffa to Ramallah – the very same road that his parents used when travelling to their summer home in Ramallah, and along which they fled Jaffa in 1948.

“I wonder now how my mother must have felt about ending up living next to a cowshed,” Shehadeh writes in Going Home, “after leaving her glamorous life in the affluent and cultured city of Jaffa, where her husband had a flourishing law practice.”

But the glorified village that Shehadeh's parents were forced to move to was itself to change almost beyond recognition, as the boy matured into adulthood and Ramallah matured into Palestine's de facto capital, in the years following the Oslo accords and as gradually became off bounds to Palestinian aspirations.

The first change in Ramallah was a demographic one. Attracted by new opportunities or pushed away by the conflict, much of Ramallah's original population, which was predominantly Christian, moved abroad. Not long after, Palestinians from across the West Bank and beyond made Ramallah their home after the city became the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.

For the Shehadeh family, emigration was never an option they considered. “My family considered emigrating only once, when the Jordanian authorities' harassment of my father became intolerable,” he notes.

Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967 bolstered the Shehadeh family's resolve to stay put and safeguard their homeland. Shehadeh's lawyer father was one of the first Palestinians to advocate a two-state solution. “My father fantasised about a new era of peace with Israel with a Palestinian state next to it,” Shehadeh recalls. “He strongly believed that it would happen if his advice was heeded. But it did not come to fruition.”

What did come to fruition, eventually, was a measure of autonomous rule in two enclaves, Gaza and the West Bank. Separated by a mere few dozen kilometres, the two might as well have been on opposite sides of the world, with the West Bank further intersected and dissected by settlements and the infrastructure of occupation.

In addition to the injustices that the settlement enterprise imposed on Palestinians, Shehadeh, a keen walker and lover of the hills, personally experienced it as a blight on the sublime beauty of the landscape. “No visitor would now sigh, let alone fall on his knees, as many a conqueror and pilgrim in the past had done, upon beholding the Old City nestled between the hills,” he observed in Palestinian Walks, describing a rare visit to Jerusalem, which he approached from the nearby  sprawling settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. “Now contorted, full of obstructions, walls and ugly blocks, it is a tortured city that has lost its soul.”

This disfigurement is compounded by the jarring architecture of the new settlements and the unchecked urbanisation of the recently rural hinterland. True, this process may have unfolded without the occupation, as the experience of many rapidly developing societies around the world demonstrates. That said, even though ageing in a world changed almost beyond recognition is tough anywhere, for older Palestinians like Shehadeh it presents an additional challenge: the present has become, quite literally, a foreign place, over which they exercise almost no control.

Israelis are familiar with the Tel Aviv “bubble”, that social and cultural forcefield the city has built around itself to shield it from the conflict. Palestinians have their own equivalent in Ramallah; from its elevated location in the central West Bank, Tel Aviv (and Jaffa) can be spotted in the distance, glimmering and unreachable.

The parallels between Ramallah and Tel Aviv do not end there. Both cities grew from modest beginnings: Tel Aviv played second fiddle to the larger Jaffa, and Ramallah was hidden in the shadow of Jerusalem, before the two matured into major cities.

Despite these similarities in terms of (relative) prosperity and an over-abundance of hipsters, Ramallah and Tel Aviv differ in certain key respects. The Tel Aviv bubble is porous and as soft as silk while Ramallah's is more like a padded cell in an asylum, one that cannot easily be exited.

Tel Aviv's inhabitants not only have access to the beach and the sea, they are also free to roam within Israel and beyond (with Ben-Gurion Airport conveniently located just outside the city) – even though many avoid the more conservative Jerusalem like it was a contagion.

In contrast, the bubble that surrounds Ramallah is not entirely of its own making. Ramallah is “a city of illusions inhabited by aspirants, poised to take off but prevented by the forces of circumstance and misfortune,” Shehadeh describes in Going Home. It is a place where “there is no joy; pleasure is blunted by the sad events and incessant bad news that envelop us.”

It is true that the unending conflict and the worsening humanitarian situation feed into widespread distress and unprocessed trauma. But it is a mistake, in my view, to say that Ramallah, or Palestine as a whole, is a joyless place. Far from it, as I discovered during my years in the Holy Land. In a multigenerational conflict, people learn not to wait for better times; instead, they try to make the most of the times that they have, despite and because of the conflict.

People joke. People hang out with friends. People celebrate feasts and festivals. People date. People go to parties. People kick their legs to the dabke (a traditional Palestinian dance)—some even see it as a dance of liberation. People get engaged and married. They organise elaborate weddings, with enormous guest lists to match. One of the more bizarre trends of contemporary Palestinian weddings are the pyrotechnics. One would assume that people living in a conflict zone, where menacing bangs in the night are commonplace, would find fireworks traumatising. But in the summer, one can hear their pops and bangs on an almost nightly basis in some parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

All too often, the boundaries thrown up by the Occupation get in the way, preventing friends and families from seeing one another, especially during periods of curfews and closures. But many do their damndest to circumnavigate these restrictions. Even though most of our friends and acquaintances in Ramallah and the West Bank were prevented from visiting Jerusalem as a matter of course, some did find creative ways to sneak in from time to time, even if only to attend a party.

Suad Amiry, the Palestinian architect turned author, is one hilarious voice who has succeeded in bringing to vivid life the dark comedy that runs through the quotidian struggle for normalcy. In her breakthrough book, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law (2007), Amiry directs her sharp wit at the Occupation. During Ariel Sharon's reoccupation of Ramallah in 2002, she found herself stuck with her mother-in-law, who “still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us.”

Bored rigid by the curfew and feeling defiant, her Ramallah neighbours climbed up on to their rooftops in the middle of the night and started to drum furiously: a spontaneous rave, of sorts, against the Israeli war machine. Elsewhere, Amiry recalls the tragi-hilarious need to pose as her pet dog's chauffeur in order to get into Jerusalem. While Nura, the canine, had a pass to enter Jerusalem, her mistress does not.

During the curfew I experienced on my first visit to Ramallah, plain-clothed armed men roamed the streets. This group would not let me photograph them until they heard my Egyptian accent – which proved to be a useful passport wherever I went over the years.

Her account triggers memories of my first visit to Ramallah in 2007, not long after the Second Intifada had petered out. There was a small-scale conflict spluttering between different Palestinian factions, and one attempted to impose a curfew while I was there. But the owner of the bar I was drinking at simply told his punters to stay put and pulled down the shutters; we continued to drink and chat, minus the view of the street.

That said, no matter how much escapism one can harness, there is no escaping the ultimate reality of the deepening and tightening occupation. The current topography of the conflict, not just the mushrooming settlements but also the walls and barriers, was an everyday part of the landscape for me. I was even exposed to it from my front porch, which overlooked the breathtakingly stunning Jordan Valley, from where I could see with my naked eyes three countries (Israel, Palestine and Jordan), the Dead Sea and at least half a dozen political subzones.

But this reality was once inconceivable for those old enough to remember how things were, people like the Palestinian great-grandmother who was once my neighbour and recently passed away in her mid-nineties. “I never imagined the West Bank could be closed off from Israel,” Shehadeh admitted in Palestinian Walks.

I encountered this sentiment repeatedly amongst older Palestinians, and from their Israeli peers too. They recall with wonder how once it had been possible to savour, relatively unhindered, just how small and diverse this land was; Israelis going to shop and eat sumptuous fish in Gaza, Palestinians enjoying the nightlife of Tel Aviv. Once, it was not at all unusual for Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to have Jewish Israeli friends. The very oldest can recall a dim past when Arabs and Jews were both known as Palestinians and when “Arab” and “Jew” were not regarded as mutually exclusive terms.

Today, the most common encounters for West Bank Palestinians with Israeli Jews are with soldiers and settlers. Even though the settlers live in visible settlements, for Shehadeh and most Palestinians they have a kind of invisible presence: a creeping encroachment that swallows up Palestinian land and the land earmarked for their unborn state, an almost intangible apparition that nevertheless requires the very real and raw presence of the military to sustain it.

Shehadeh recounts the very first time in his long career as a human rights lawyer that he encountered hardcore ideological settlers in this case, a group who had managed to seize private Palestinian land in the village of Beit ‘Ur. “I had heard and read much about the crazy settlers and their even crazier rabbis,” Shehadeh recalled in Palestinian Walks. “At the settlement headquarters, I was expecting to meet devils incarnate, fanatic, crazy people, starry-eyed and religiously inspired, who were forcing us to a confrontation and many years of bloodshed.” But in place of these deranged fanatics, he met a group of “earnest-looking men” who “seemed amiable” and “fully committed to what they were doing”.

“Their enthusiasm was contagious. Had I not been on the other side, I could have fallen for it,” Shehadeh admitted. “What surprised me even more was the lack of guilt they exhibited towards me… They cared little about the Palestinians in Beit ‘Ur, who had been in the village for centuries… Nor did they have any qualms, as I discovered later, about using any sort of trickery or deceit to get their way.”

In an effort to flesh out the human from the political and to understand better the psychology of the different players in the conflict, when I lived in Israel/Palestine I went out of my way to meet settlers, even the most radical and extreme. The weirdest of all these encounters which I recount in my book, Intimate Enemies (2014) must have been with the Beit Romano settlers in the old city of Hebron.

Despite its reputation as the most extreme of all the settler groups, David Wilder, the leader of the local settlers and my host, insisted that his community was not extreme but “ideological.”

David Wilder

In conversation, it was clear that this eloquent American-turned-Israeli, whose surface calm was akin to a powerful volcano just before an eruption, regarded everyone else as extreme not just his Palestinian neighbours, but also what he believed to be the leftist-liberal Israeli political establishment. To place him on the political spectrum, suffice it to say that he considered Fox News to be part of the liberal media. His enthusiasm about his cause was as impassioned as the settlers Shehadeh had met in Beit Ur. Despite his initial reluctance to let me visit his community, once I was there, he could not stop talking.

The fundamental, ultimate, singular issue for him was that as Jews, he and his community had the right, indeed the duty, to live in close proximity to the second holiest site in Judaism the , which had been closed off to Jews since the Crusader era. As someone who believes in freedom of belief, tolerance and multicultural coexistence, I could not and would not challenge his right of access to this hallowed site, believed to be the final resting place of the founding fathers of the Jewish faith and their wives—even if it struck my atheistic mind as little more than a superstition, certainly not something that justified the imposition of such human misery. The trouble, for me, was not the adherence to this fundamental religious right. Rather, it was the fundamentalist, rigid, intolerant, uncompromising vision that surrounded this stance, and the stifling, suffocating reality it had spawned.

When Shehadeh met the settlers of Beit Ur, he had been struck by the void vis-a-vis the Palestinians where he had expected some form of a conscience to reside. In Hebron, Wilder was similarly unfussed.

A blind Palestinian walks past a checkpoint in the old city of Hebron.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The impact of Jewish settlement in Hebron did not trouble him in the slightest. The paralysis forced upon communal life in the Old City, the loss of livelihood for hundreds of owners, the daily violations to the human rights of local Palestinians; all this meant nothing to him. As someone who is troubled by the plight of people on the other side of the planet with whom I have nothing in common and who may even be regarded as my enemies, it was frustrating to see such hostile indifferences to one's immediate neighbours, many of whom I had met. The contrast between Wilder's tone of calm reason during our meeting, and his community's habit of throwing rubbish and other projectiles at passers-by in the old city beneath or the bizarre phenomenon of the nearby Palestinians houses that had been partially taken over by settlers – a room here, a garden there.

In fact, Wilder seemed to regard the Palestinians of Hebron as the settlers on his people's promised land, the real interlopers. While showing me around the settlement, he pointed to a nearby hill which, he said, had been empty when he had first moved to Hebron. But now it was full of Palestinian homes, which he described as a “settlement.” These were not only a demographic and security threat in his opinion, but also an obstacle to the expansion of his community.

Wilder's stance was that Israel must rule the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. If Palestinians could not live with and accept Israeli rule, they could leave and settle in another Arab land. However, he was opposed to granting Arabs equal rights to Jews, thereby demoting the Palestinians to permanent second-class status. Equality, in his view, was tantamount to “creating the tools for your own destruction [and] I don't believe in suicide.”

Wilder even appeared indifferent to the fact that each member of his small community required two or more soldiers to protect and secure their presence amidst the understandably hostile local population. Judging from my observations, many of these young, apparently secular conscripts wanted to be anywhere but there, most especially during the settler community's weekly “tour” through the Qasbah of Hebron's Old City the participants heavily armed, the route cleared of Palestinians. On one of the occasions when I stood close to the settlers, wrapped provocatively in a Palestinian keffiyeh, in silent protest against this thuggery, the panic in the eyes of the unit commander was visible. Perhaps figuring that I could be reasoned with more than the zealous young members of the settler group, he implored me apologetically to move a little further away.

Maybe it is unsurprising that Wilder and the settlers seemed unconcerned even about the moral distress and stress that his community's presence in Hebron caused the young conscripts, given what struck me as a cavalier attitude to their own children. Watching young kids from the settlement playing outdoors on a climbing frame, I realised that I simply could not fathom how parents would voluntarily expose their children to the undoubted trauma of living slap bang in the heart of enemy territory, isolated from their co-religionists and co-nationalists.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

As Hebron clearly illustrates, immobility or limited mobility is a daily frustration with which Palestinians struggle. “I drive around all day in my car, yet feel confined, as though I am going in circles, in a world that keeps on shrinking,” one taxi driver told Shehadeh in Going Home. The exchange echoes conversations that I have had myself. However, there is one sense in which the Palestinian territories have grown. The walls, barriers, bypass roads and checkpoints have turned journeys that once took minutes into epic tests of patience and perseverance. Other journeys, such as travelling between Gaza and the West Bank, have become almost impossible, with many Gazas effectively “exiled” in the West Bank and West Bankers “exiled” in Gaza.

The Oslo Accords may have finally allowed for the word “Palestine” to appear on vehicle numberplates. But rather than roaming independent and free, Palestinian cars are confined to an even narrower closed circuit of roads.

The geographical paralysis with which Palestinians must contend daily was a constant cause of discomfort and guilt for me during the more than five years I lived in Jerusalem. Almost nowhere in Israel or Palestine was off bounds to me, though some places, such as Gaza, were harder to access than others. In fact, as a foreigner I had, in a way, even greater freedom than Israeli Jews, barred from entering Gaza and strongly discouraged from visiting Palestinian towns in the Oslo Accord's Area A (areas under the Palestinian Authority's full civil and security control). This meant that I had the rare privilege of being able to see the territory in its entirety, and to meet a cross-section of the population, representatives of the political divides that run like seismic rifts through this land.

This freedom gave me a keen understanding of the confined and crippled dream of roaming free. Mobility has become a key aspiration for Palestinians, reflected in the growing focus on as a political demand. This aspiration to break free of the straitjacket imposed by the Occupation manifests itself in numerous forms: local farmers and activists marching together to reach farmland or to harvest olive trees seized by settlements; the Freedom Riders movement; demonstrators risking life and limb to enter Jerusalem from the West Bank; the weekly “Great March of Return” in Gaza, during which scores have been killed and thousands injured while challenging Israel's almost hermetic closure of their territory.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

When Shehadeh was younger, his neighbours considered his pastime of taking long walks through the hills a practice once known as sarha (rambling aimlessly) as dull, even passé. Today, despite and because of the mobility restrictions and barriers, not to mention the risks involved, rambling, hiking and rock climbing are very much in vogue amongst the urban and hip.

“When I look back now on all those years in the eighties when I could walk without restraint, I feel gratified to have used that freedom and taken all those walks and got to know the hills,” Shehadeh wrote in Palestinian Walks. “Now when I walk in the hills I cannot but be conscious that the time when I will be able to do so is running out.”


This essay first appeared in the Tel Aviv Review of Books in the winter 2019 edition.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

    View all posts

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

For more insights

Sign up to receive the latest from The Chronikler

We don't spam!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Enjoyed your visit? Please spread the word