Guest contribution by Jumana Al-Qawasmi
Some of my earliest memories take place at my grandparents’ house in Ar-Ramtha, Jordan. I was probably three or four at the time. I was the little American daughter of the illustrious doctor on display, surrounded by a string of old men sitting on worn floor mats under the night sky. My father had called me out of the house to recite my full name (an arduous task, as any Arab knows) and to recount the story of my grandfather’s escape from Barkusia, Palestine. After my quiet monologue, my father smiled a broad smile; those smiles would always tell me if I had done well.
These kinds of moments are commonplace to many Arabs—especially Palestinians—I know. The seed of “never forgetting” my Palestinian story of injustice was implanted from the start. Yet, as I mature and develop my analytical skills as an English major, I find these memories—and their lack of engagement in self-reflection—unsettling. Though we are taught the narratives of older generations, there is no reason why we should not learn to engage with them and make them our own.
Throughout my college career, the concept of a “construction of narrative” has fascinated me. In my English courses, chic hipsters and I tossed around this idea (i.e. How do various elements of a tale work together to form a cohesive narrative? How does a character develop an individual narrative in negotiation with an over-arching societal narrative? Does power play into these narrative schemes?). These types of questions began my self-reflective journey against the dogmatic conception of the Palestinian narrative. The nature of the Palestinian narrative as ‘inherited’—thus consequently static—is in some ways, I argue, problematic if not confronted.
First, I suppose I should delve into what I presume a “Palestinian narrative” entails. Broadly speaking, the contemporary Palestinian narrative begins in 1947, when roughly fifty-five percent of Palestine was allocated to Israel in the UN Partition plan. In the following year, the Arab world protested against this declaration but lost when Israel was ultimately established. Many stories my generation inherits stem from this period of mass exodus, each distinctive yet rooted in a commonality. Whenever I meet a fellow Palestinian at some sort of Palestinian event, our Palestinian narratives come up. Perhaps unconsciously, we feel the need to introduce ourselves in the following manner: my name is [insert name] and I come from [insert name of hometown], and [insert whether or not town was destroyed]. In a way, the framing of the Palestinian narrative as one of exile and consequent loss of land replaces the land itself. In essence, Palestinians attempt to connect to a land that they no longer have a legal access to (in the eyes of Israel, at least).
But I always feel a bit queasy when this kind of introduction happens. Does this first line of my narrative (in junior high, unforgiveable teachers would call this the “attention-getter”) imply that I claim Palestine as mine? When I fight for Palestinian rights, do I do so out of idolization for what my family and I have lost? Moreover, does my metaphorical reclamation of land alienate others from creating their own Palestinian narrative, whether or not they actually “come from there”?
But I get it. How else am I supposed to create my Palestinian narrative? Out of thin air? I connect to the land through its people, its music, its turath. I connect to Palestine through politics, through graffiti, through food. I connect to my home through my grandparents’ memories. But this conception of Palestine isn’t the problem. The problem lies in the way our generation inherits a pre-conceived narrative, a story of loss and not of potential. We inherit keys to demolished houses rather than futures as fellow Palestinians. The problem lies in creating a Palestinian narrative where loss is the central theme. While I would never imagine telling any person to forget the past, I only advise that we be careful in incorporating it into our present.
So why should we not complicate our understanding of the Palestinian narrative to some degree? Perhaps, if we can each develop our own conception of the Palestinian narrative and how it operates, we can better engage with people unfamiliar to the struggle. Even more, we can understand our own motivations for fighting against injustice. So, how will you frame your Palestinian narrative?
Jumana Al-Qawasmi is currently studying to become a “Renaissance Woman” at Loyola University Chicago.