Sunday 13 May 2012
It is not easy to carry the responsibility of a collective memory in early childhood. For the first few weeks after I started school at the age of six, I used to go home to my mother almost every day in tears. The other children taunted me for being “Palestinian”. I asked my mother to explain to me what it meant and why we were different. She said that we Palestinians had so many things in common with our Jordanian brothers: “We are all the same,” she insisted. But – and there was this big “but”– “We have a home and lands in Palestine to which we cannot return for the time being, but to which we shall, one day, inshallah.”
I then embraced this belonging and my Palestinian identity in every single composition the Arabic or English teachers asked us to do for homework. I peppered my texts with mentions of Palestine, my grandfather’s lost land. Palestine appeared everywhere, in my drawings, in my accessories, in every single expression possible. The dream of a free Palestine has not left me since then.
When I was nine, I read all the stories that Ghassan Kanafani wrote for children. I remember the book cover with the title Ard el-Bortoqal al-Hazeen (The Land of Sad Oranges). I also kept that with me. Even to this day, the presence of oranges or the slightest hint of their tangy odour makes me feel melancholic for lost Palestine and the sad eyes of those Palestinian kids illustrated in that book.
My parents used to tell me, “When we die bury us in Palestine. If you can’t manage that, then try to bring some of its soil and bury it with us.”
This huge responsibility of belonging to a place I’d never seen and would probably never visit, of identity and of memory instilled in me how important the right of return is to Palestinians. This is my cause which I should stand for no matter what. But what is my identity? The question of who I am has echoed in my mind for years. I found part of the answer in Mahmoud Darwish’s poem I Come From There.
I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
And “there” for my father is the town of Silat al-Harethyiah near the city of Jenin, which he left in 1957, originally to serve for three months in the East Bank border town of Ramtha. He was a police officer. Back at that time, the West and East Banks of the Jordan were one open territory ruled over by Jordan.
My father’s service took longer than he has imagined, so my mother joined him six months later. They were newlyweds. My father was 21 and my mother was 18. My father was still on duty, a decade later, when the 1967 war broke out. This marked the beginning of my family’s displacement, and my parents were given a “nazeheen card”. Nazeheen are Palestinians displaced from the West Bank and Jerusalem as a result of the 1967 war.
My father was forced to sell the house he built in Silat al-Harethyiah because my grandfather feared that the Israelis would take it over under what they call the Absentee Property Law, which was created to enable Israel to seize the maximum amount of property, especially since it is Israelis who created the displacement which led to this “absence” of the original owners.
Growing up as a Palestinian in Jordan did not “de- Jordanize” me, but it did not make me less Palestinian either. It only reinforced both my Arab identities and my desire to exercise my right of return. This right is recognised in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 and is enshrined in numerous bodies of international law, including customary and treaty law. Article 13(b) of the Universal Declaration of Human Right states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
Like exiled Palestinians everywhere, I am in a constant state of deferment, as if we are all sitting in a waiting room awaiting the return train home. In recent years, I have been struck by the realisation that there are so many things in my life I keep on subconsciously postponing, as if I were in a temporary state of transit.
This reminds me of the late grandmother of my friend Ahmad Ameen, a screenwriter who lives in Amman. After his grandmother, a refugee from Jaffa, passed away, he and his mother started to sift through the belongings in her room. “I looked under the bed to find dozens of black bags sitting there. I crawled under the bed and took them out one by one. They were dozens of black bags containing expired canned food,” he told me in dismay.
“Was she in a constant state of waiting?” he asked me. “Or did she simply carry her identity as a refugee with her wherever she went?”
And the burden of memory is not just about not forgetting, it also carries other burdens. One is the immense pressure, known to vulnerable minorities everywhere such as Jews, to make something of your life in order to attain a measure of security. “As a Palestinian, you need to overachieve, to secure something for yourself because you will most probably be somewhere else soon, and the risk is very high that you will lose it all,” my friend Deema Shahin reflected. This can be referred to as the “culture of return”.
But would I actually return? I sometimes ask myself: “If I have the choice, would I really want to live there? Would that really be home to me?” At times like this, I answer myself: “If you give up on this, if you accept the concessions made since Oslo, our right of return will sooner or later be exhibited in museums.”
Then, the unruly horse of my imagination would gallop off with me, and I’d imagine my future children taking their children on a guided tour to the ruins of our memory. I’d imagine them saying in a foreign language: “Here they dreamt, here they fought, here they aspired, and here they died of frustration…may their memory rest in peace.” In panic, I’d rephrase the last part: “…and here they died of frustration, and here their memory survived, peace be upon them.”
But the trouble with our painful memories is not only the risk that we may forget, but also that there are those who do not wish us to remember, who wish to punish Palestinians for feeling pain at their loss, at their Nakba, their Catastrophe, of 1948. In March 2011, the Knesset enacted its controversial “Nakba Law”, which denies state funding to institutions, including schools, which “undermine the foundations of the state and contradict its values”, which has been read to include the marking Israeli Independence Day by Palestinian citizens of Israel as an occasion of mourning for Palestinians.
Here I would like to paint a contrast rather than draw a parallel. Whereas Israel denies the right of Palestinians not only to commemorate the loss of their homes, but also their right of return and even their right to visit, Israel has a “Law of Return” for Jews which allows, organises and facilitates the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world to what was once Palestine, but where Palestinians now live under occupation and apartheid.
Over the past two decades, land expropriation through the construction of the illegal Israeli separation wall and aggressive settlement building has left Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with fewer resources, and even without homes, due to demolitions and evictions.
Rather than seeing more Palestinians driven off their land, we should be seeing the return of Palestinian refugees. When the Resolution 194 was passed, it did not stipulate that peace was a prerequisite for return. Over the past 18 years, the peace process has been trudging from one swamp to another, until it completely drowned in its own shortcomings. The peace process is dead and the only way out is to acknowledge that and work on creating new structures that could lead to a comprehensive solution. For decades now, the international community has found comfort in managing the conflict instead of ending it. Living the illusion of resuming negotiations in the current state of affairs will only contribute to increasing the frustration of Palestinians in the current Arab revolutionary context.
When I am asked how the right of return will be implemented, my answer is through one secular democratic state for Palestinians and Israelis together, a state where all citizens enjoy equal rights. This can only happen when the Israelis remove all forms of occupation, discrimination and hatred established within their education system and policies.
So far Israeli politicians have failed to present us with a true partner of peace. All we see is the shifting of Israeli governments from left to extreme right, and they all proved not only a lack of political will but also to be violent. Their poor proposals did not respond to the minimum Palestinian aspirations.
Israeli society should realise that their politicians have put them under the worst form of siege, that of the endless fear of extermination and distrust of the whole world. Peace cannot be achieved with such a recipe. Peace cannot be achieved if Israelis fail to recognise and implement our rights.
Today, away from the failures of politics I still see my free Palestine coming. The work of our memory hasn’t even begun yet. The work of our memory is too powerful for a state of occupation to control. It goes beyond everything because we keep it alive within us and for generations to come. On Nakba Day, we remember hundreds of Palestinian villages that were wiped off the map by Jewish armed groups. We remember hundreds of innocent Palestinians who were killed while defending their lands and homes. Our memory will be at the vanguard of the endless battle for our rights and our freedom.