Guest contribution by Hasheemah Afaneh
“This is for you!” my little sister exclaimed in Arabic as she grabbed my wrist, trying to put her bracelet on it.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked her, pretending I did not know the answer, just so I could smother her with kisses when she pronounces the name of the city.
“Al-Quds!” she exclaimed with the sweet assurance of a little child.
“Yeah? Do you want to go back to Al-Quds next Ramadan?”
“Why not?” I asked, thinking her answer would be along the lines of her not liking the place.
She lowered her wide-eyed gaze and said, “The soldiers… they’re scary.”
When she uttered those words, I squeezed her tightly in my arms, wanting to protect her and all the other children from a form of cruelty in this world that presents itself as Israeli occupation soldiers.
As she resisted my embrace and ran off to play with her toys that have inhabited our living room, I observed her with the half smile and knotted eyebrows I do when trying to fight back tears. All I could think of were the Palestinian children that live in far more repulsive circumstances under occupation than my few travel inconveniences. I wondered how they would answer such a question and I imagined many three-year-olds, five-year-olds, and ten-year-olds to answer it the same way. Then, my mind wandered to how my little sister and the other children will, hopefully, go through a transition from children to young adults, answering such questions with their own voices.
I remember when I was a child walking the streets of Jerusalem with my mother, brother, and grandmother and thinking the very same thing. “The soldiers… they’re scary.” I never wanted to make eye contact with them, and holding my mother’s hand was what kept me feeling safe from the soldiers.
Eventually, I grew out of my fear. I learned that many of those “scary” soldiers were more or less my height, some were more or less my age, and they did not want to make eye contact with me any more than I wanted to with them. I learned that not all weapons fire the same thing — some rubber bullets and some live ammunition. I learned that a lot of people –– women, men, children, and the elders –– stopped fearing the soldiers a long time ago. I learned that fear is a tactic used in war to prevent people from observing their surroundings and raising their voices in protest.
If someone was to ask me today why I do not want to go Jerusalem, as much as I do and enjoy it when I do, my answer would include the humiliation that I experience when I’m yelled at by a soldier a few years older than myself simply because I did not understand what she asked. My answer would include the heartache I feel when I stand in the long lines at Qalandiya checkpoint, thinking about the many who have homes just meters away yet cannot pass through. My answer would include the awkwardness when I am handed a permit to visit a city because I need permission to travel in my own homeland and to a place that is a mere half hour from where I live. My answer would include the judgment I make when I see people, colonists and settlers, rushing through the city without paying an ounce of attention to the bitter history echoing through its walls to the mall. Maybe one day, my answer would include a phrase I have been hearing a lot lately, “because I want to go without permission.”
Similar questions will probably be asked to children that young adults like myself have been asked before, and their answers may remind the young adults of what theirs once were. The same questions will be asked to the latter only in a more sophisticated way, and reflecting on their previous answers, they may have new ones, like I do. Every time the clock strikes twelve on the night of December 31, another year comes where a young adult has left their spot on the “children” list only to give it to another child. Another soldier is added to the list of soldiers ready to “scare” the little ones and grant permission to people who want to explore parts of this tiny yet beautiful bit of land called Palestine, asking questions of their own.
Hasheemah Afaneh was born in one place and raised in two. Between her university studies and her family and friends, she observes, makes comments in her head before realizing they need to be said out loud and writes about them. She blogs at norestrictionsonwords.wordpress.com.