Guest contribution by Rayaan R.
I will not discuss the politics for I do not believe I am yet qualified. I won’t tell you if I stand for a two-state solution or if I am a “one-stater.” I will not list death tolls nor preach about the horrors Israel imposes on my people every day. Instead, I will share the story of a Palestinian who saw home for the first time.
Born and raised in the United States to a mother who lived her childhood in Ramallah and to a father who cannot remember the last time he set foot in his country, the opportunity presented itself for me to see what I had been raised to believe was home. I had seen pictures and sat for countless hours listening to Sitti tell me stories of the Nakba and life in Palestine, both before and after. But now, after so many years of sitting and listening, I was finally going to see all of the places I had heard so much about.
The short bus ride through the Jordanian-Palestinian border seemed to last for hours but the same story replayed in my mind the entire way through. Mama was always so proud to share her thoughts whenever Palestine was brought up in casual convrsation.
“Wallah ya mama, I used to pray in Masjid Al-Aqsa every Friday with my Sitti. I would hold her hand and we would walk there and pray, and after that, she always bought me a treat.”
I couldn’t help but think about the stories I would tell my children when they asked about home. I felt that they wouldn’t compare to the stories I had heard in the childhood but at least I could tell them I had been there and seen home for what it really is.
Sitti and Seedo picked us up from the border and the journey began. It took close to two hours to reach Sitti’s house. I sat in the back seat of Seedo’s car and watched as we passed the olive groves. Some were just blooming while others looked as if they hadn’t been watered in years. I saw the hillsides and the children playing in the street. I saw the floury local bakeries and the men selling fruits and little snacks from carts on the side of the road. Life seemed so simple and ordinary here and it made me wonder if my home had seen any kind of progress lately.
The more I saw, the more confused I felt. The images in my mind from the stories I had heard made Palestine seem like a paradise land. I wanted badly to feel what my family had relayed to me. I wanted the joy of seeing home. I wanted to be overwhelmed with a feeling of peace and happiness.
But I felt disappointed on my first day. I went to sleep that night fearing that my love for Palestine was being clouded by the reality I was witnessing.
We would soon begin our explorations and I knew I needed to find the missing piece, the thing that would restore the good feelings and the admiration I always carried for this land. And there it was. I walked the breathtaking beaches of Yaffa and ate the glorious ice cream of Rukab in Ramallah. I visited the University in Birzeit and saw the holy sites of Bethlehem. I picked and ate green figs from my grandfather’s land.
Still, I felt like I was just passing through.
The last of our adventures included a visit to Jerusalem, something that I had come to dread during my stay. I didn’t want my image of Al-Quds tainted. I felt like a wanderer and wanted to strip that feeling away.
When we reached the Old City I could barely see inside. The ancient walls hid what I had hoped to see from afar. With our American passports we had little trouble entering the city. We walked down the narrow streets with shops on either side. Some sold souvenirs, some sold food, and some even toys. Children raced up and down the market with their noisy toys and toothless smiles as we basking in the summer sunlight. I wondered if Mama had also played on these very same streets when she was young.
I kept wondering. Had Sitti grown up roaming freely in this place? And why was I the only one who was having a hard time seeing the flawless beauty?
We made it to the Dome of the Rock and, oh my, it glistened just like it did in the photos, just the way Mama and Sitti described it. I put my little hijab on and walked in.
Although I was such a young child, I had visited plenty of mosques in the past. But there was something unique here. I didn’t know what it was. Maybe the size, maybe the ornate decor, maybe the expressions on people’s faces as soon as they took their first step inside. I couldn’t pin what the feeling was. I didn’t know if I was happy, surprised, or excited.
We prayed, explored some more, and even got to touch the sakhrah which is said to hint at the smell of Paradise.
Our next stop was Al-Aqsa Mosque, just outside of where we were. Sitti and Seedo were our tour guides with an endless supply of personal stories and history lessons. Based on what I had heard, I imagined something so grand, something overwhelming that would take my breath away.
The building itself was modest and hidden. I had always seen pictures of the Dome of the Rock and assumed it was Al-Aqsa but I was wrong. There was a sense of peace and serenity I had never felt before.
Our journey ended there. I had no idea when I would be back or if I would ever be back. At the time, this thought didn’t bother me because there was a lack of connection to the place I had called home for so long. It wasn’t until I left Palestine that I understood.
I understood for the first time what Palestine meant to me when I stepped off the bus in Jordan. There was a void. Something was different. I couldn’t stop thinking about the men selling their fruit and snacks from their carts. I thought of the beautiful beaches of Yaffa, I remembered the holy sites and the children playing in the streets and it finally hit me. Palestine survived. Palestine was still surviving.
Unfortunately, I have yet to return. It has been 10 years. I keep occupying myself with things that I think will fill the void. I took up dabke, I learned to cook maklouba (the famous Palestinian “upside-down” rice dish), I memorized folksong after folksong, and I dedicated my studies to Palestine. But it wasn’t the same as actually being there. I had really come to understand the word ‘home’ and all it stands for. I now know how mama’s memories can never fade and why she and Sitti talk about Palestine with such joy.
It’s simple. I need to go home. We all need to go home.
Rayaan R. is a 24-year-old college graduate currently pursuing a Masters degree and planning a trip to Palestine. She lives in the United States but lived a brief time in the Middle East.