Guest contribution by Mohammad Horreya
This is long overdue, I’ve meaning to put my visit to Palestine, which has been sitting heavily on my mind, into a post since I got back. It’s not an easy thing to do, to find words for a 14-day-long trip that I’ve been dreaming of since I was eleven. I don’t even think I have the words for it, but I will try.
I’m 23 years old now, so Palestine has been permeating my mind for twelve years. Each year that passed saw more books that I consumed, more poems that I drank, and more pictures I dreamt about. But I think I should first start off with a bit of background. Contrary to what a lot of people believe about me, Palestine in my household was more of a centerpiece than the topic of discussion at the breakfast table. The only discussions I remember hearing of Palestine growing up were ones my parents had with each other or with old guests who would come over with pipes as thinking props in hand and vocal chords as megaphones.
The first time I asked my mom about Palestine was when I was ten. I had just come back from school and was sitting at the dining room table, excitedly pointing to flags in a book and asking my mom to which countries they belonged to. My teacher had assigned the class a national identity project. I reached a blue and white flag with a star in the middle and asked my mom about that one. My older brother, who was sitting with me, interjected with a teasing laugh and told me that’s where I’m from. My mom gave him a well-deserved smack on the head and confidently retorted, “inta falasteeni” — you’re Palestinian.
I had no idea what that meant or what kind of significance it carried until the following years. Stomach pains, heartaches, and tears — lots of tears. That’s what I quickly came to associate with being Palestinian. But also pride. Enough pride to drown out everything else.
It was 2001 when I attended my first protest. The Second Intifada was in full swing. I asked my dad what we were doing and he responded, “our people are being killed back home,” but I didn’t quite know who my people were or where home really was. The protest was the most overwhelming display of solidarity I can remember, and it seemed as if my entire city was chanting and marching around the Parliament building for Palestine. I remember feeling proud, extremely proud.
I couldn’t wait to tell my teacher that I was at the Parliament building that we had spoken about in our social studies classes, so the very next day I enthusiastically and impatiently delivered to him the news.
“We were protesting around Parliament on Saturday!”
He asked me what we were protesting about, smiling.
With all the strength I could muster, I told him about the people being killed in Palestine. His emotion rapidly changed and served as my first lesson on just how taboo the world Palestine is. Over the years, I would learn this more and more, and in very humiliating ways.
Living in a predominantly Asian community, I had no Palestinian or otherwise Arab friends growing up. This made it all the more difficult to connect with Palestine and to really understand my identity. In fact, it wasn’t until my first year of university when I made friends with another Palestinian who wasn’t related to me. But by then I had already experienced the extreme heartache that often comes with deep, private emotional investment.
It was my senior year of high school, and as my peers anxiously checked their university application statuses as frequently as possible, I spent my breaks focused on the Gaza Strip. Israel had launched an invasion against the territory dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”. As soon as I walked through the school doors, I would quickly make my way to the library to reserve my spot. It had become my daily routine, and when a friend caught on and asked me what I was doing, I responded with as few words as possible while wiping my cheeks clear of any stray tears.
“Checking the news,” I said, quickly doing a Google search on white phosphorus. Sticks to the skin, causes third degree burns.
For the first time in my life I felt helpless and utterly useless. What was I doing here? I didn’t care the least about university applications and prom, yet I had to hear the discussions day in and day out.
Israel’s offensive finally ended but the pain didn’t go away. My yearning to learn more about my motherland and visit it one day grew stronger than ever. It was then that I promised myself that everything I will do — all of my successes and victories — will be for Palestine.
That summer, as I worked hard to save money for tuition for my first year of college, I asked my family if I could take next year’s summer off to visit Palestine. “Ask your dad,” my mom would say, and of course I knew what that meant. I always believed that my parents wanted me to go but were too worried. So I stopped asking. I wanted to save them the embarrassment of having to tell me that I can’t visit our homeland.
The school year began and I connected with another Palestinian on campus. We became very good friends and eventually started a Palestine solidarity student group during our second year. That’s when “Operation Pillar of Defense” began. It felt like 2009 all over again. This time I had to walk by the smiling faces of Zionist students standing in front of campus buildings and spewing propaganda and lies. This time it was the tears of my friend that I saw. She was agitated by one of the Zionist students who openly defended the ruthless assault on Gaza’s innocent. I felt that I finally understood Mahmoud Darwish’s words:
“The Palestinians are the only nation in the world that feels with certainty that today is better than what the days ahead will hold. Tomorrow always heralds a worse situation.”
I wanted to march to one of the Zionist tables and flip it over. But I knew better and held myself. This experience made me stronger.
It was later that year that I opened up the discussion to my parents. I needed to visit Palestine. In hindsight, this wasn’t the smartest or most strategic move but it was blunt and radical. I applied to An-Najah University in Nablus for a semester abroad and only told them when I had been accepted and approved by my university.
“So, I’m going.”
Obviously I didn’t end up going. Instead, my parents enticed me with a post-graduation trip. I was upset that I had been deprived of yet another opportunity but that did not stop me from working hard on the homefront.
During my final year in college, the Students for Justice in Palestine on my campus had its most successful year. The undergraduate students’ union at the annual general meeting approved a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions motion whose goal was to cut university ties with companies profiting from Israel’s human rights abuses in Palestine. What a way to graduate. That was my convocation ceremony.
Soon after I took my last final exam, my family and I traveled to Jordan for my sister’s wedding. I thought it would be wise not to remind my dad of his promise just yet, but I was going and nothing was going to stop me. It wasn’t until a week after the wedding — just four days before my dad was scheduled to return to Canada — that I told him about my plan. My brother and I were going to Palestine. Naturally, it didn’t go well. A few weeks prior, Israel had made serious allegations that three Israeli teens were kidnapped by Hamas. The teens would later be found dead, and the allegations that Hamas was behind the kidnappings turned out to be untrue. But Israel needed a reason to repeat its previous two invasions on Gaza, so why not manufacture one. For now at least, Hebron was under siege.
Virtually every member of my family had joined in on the ensuing arguments. ‘You have to be smart… you just graduated… you have to return home to work… something bad can happen to you.’ I just walked out of the room and my mom quickly followed, she reminded me of her promise and said that she was not going to go back on her word. That’s all I needed to hear.
On July 3, 2014, I made my first visit to Palestine.
My brother and I were initially planning to rent a place in Ramallah to stay. While we knew of distant family in Tulkarem, we thought we would have more freedom being on our own. But our grandmother insisted. Staying with family would put everyone at ease, so for their sake, we didn’t argue. We alternated between households, spending the days roaming the streets and the nights learning about our family.
Before we left Jordan, one of my mother’s uncles instructed us on how to get from Jericho to his home in Tulkarem. There was a bus we were supposed to take and a bus driver we were supposed to introduce ourselves to. My brother and I were new here, so how was he supposed to know who we were or where we wanted to go? But my uncle put me at ease. Everyone knows everyone here. I smiled.
My brother and I passed through the Arab border and, surely enough, saw the lineup of buses. I pulled out my phone to take a picture. A confused man looked at me and asked why in the world would I take a picture of a row of busses. I couldn’t shake the grin off my face.
“If it’s the first time in your country, even the ordinary is special,” I told him. He laughed back and agreed.
The old man continued talking about how it was much beautiful years ago, but that with every passing year, we lost more and more. As much as I would have liked to continue talking to him, I remembered my uncle’s number one rule: don’t ever discuss politics with anyone. It’s a rule I would very quickly learn is impossible to obey.
I arrived in front of my uncle’s home, the same house my mother was born in. As I gathered my belongings and made my way to the home, the front door swung open and my uncle greeted me with a hug. I called my parents to let them know that my brother and I had arrived. Shockingly enough, my father played ignorant to the fact that we were in Palestine. “I thought we decided you weren’t going to go anymore,” he said in a more snappy and not-so-eloquent way. I spoke to my mom and asked her to calm my dad in between descriptions of my surroundings. I was so happy to feel at home. Nothing could bring me down.
Three days later, the town was buzzing with news of what the locals referred to as “Intifadit Ramada,” or the Ramadan Intifada. My uncle took us to roam the streets of Tulkarem. The people looked so alive. Each person we passed greeted us with three kisses and the kindest words. I was absolutely convinced that my uncle was the most important man in the city. Forty-five minutes passed by and we hadn’t walked a single kilometer. My uncle told us that people used to be much friendlier many years ago but I couldn’t fathom how they could be any friendlier than how they were today. When we visited a local pharmacy later in the evening to pick up a few things, a little boy walked up to me and poured me cup of coffee just like that. The pharmacist insisted his son pour my uncle and I another cup before we left. I had never seen hospitality like this before. I quickly learned that this is common practice in almost all shops.
Aside from the extreme generosity displayed here, traveling throughout the West Bank was extremely difficult. I faced many restrictions, mostly from the Israeli soldiers but also form my family. I had to be home before sundown. Traveling between cities after nightfall was dangerous because settler attacks were rampant. This was something I never had to experience living in Canada. Sure, muggings happen all over the world, and the night is normally less safe than the daytime, but harassment from Israeli settlers is a nightly affair. I had to make sure I was where I needed to be before 8 pm.
But more restricting were the Israeli checkpoints and land crossings that Palestinians had to get through. Each roadblock, each Israeli guard preventing you from moving forward, and each slab of concrete meant to contain you is designed to humiliate you. The arbitrary rules and procedures are meant to discriminate against Palestinians and to discourage them from wanting to stay.
One of my most vivid experiences happened at the Qalandiya checkpoint into Ramallah. This is probably one of the largest checkpoints in Palestine in terms of size and volume of travelers. Because my brother and I were traveling on foreign passports, my uncle instructed us to stay on the bus. We didn’t need to be processed through the checkpoint like everyone else. The bus could just pass through with us on it. I protested like I did when I crossed the first time. I wanted to go through the checkpoint like everyone else.
To illustrate the scene for you, there is a long line with a revolving door at the end which lets in three people at a time into a holding area where IDs and passports are shown one at a time. After one person is permitted to pass, an Israeli guard waves you through to the next door. When I had gotten through the revolving door, two elderly women wearing traditional Palestinian dresses were ushered in behind me. I walked up to the first window and flashed my passport and a form of identification that had been given to me. After five long minutes of unnecessary waiting, typing, and chatting over the phone, the Israeli guard gave me the wave. As I repacked my passport in my bag, I heard nearly inaudible whispers behind me. One of the elderly women behind me whispered “now!” and dashed through the second door that had opened for me. The guard was on his phone and had his head down, oblivious to it all. I was ecstatic. This woman who probably didn’t have the Israel-issued permit she needed to cross through to another part of her homeland had made it through!
I tried to get through the second door but by this time it had closed and locked. It only opens once for every one person they admit through. This wasn’t a problem for me though. I just waited until the second woman finished with the guard and pointed out to him that the door had not opened for me. He buzzed it open once again and I walked through. I waited on the other side for my twin brother but was able to catch the Israeli guard’s frustration. Thinking my brother was me, he snappily told him that he had already let him through as he gave one final puzzled look at his passport.
My brother and I continued moving forward. Just as I was about to tell him about the woman that had snuck through, we saw two Israeli officers handling her very aggressively and pulling her by the shoulders back out of the checkpoint. She hadn’t made it through after all. She protested, saying that all she wanted to do was pray.
“Let me go pray!” she kept saying. “I just want to go pray!”
I felt ashamed. Why do I deserve to go through more than this woman who breathed Palestine her whole life? It wasn’t fair.
All in all, four things upset me more than anything else. The first was being called an ajnabi, a foreigner. The second was when people chose to speak to me in broken English rather than in their beautiful Arabic tongues. The third was when my uncle would interject with “Canada” before I could say “Beit Dajan” every time I was asked where I’m from, as if there is more pride in being from a place far outside of occupied Palestine than of being from within. The fourth was when some of my family members objected to the thought of me living in Palestine one day. They argued that I didn’t fit in, that I would be a stranger in my own home and that this would hurt me beyond anything else. I responded angrily every time, reminding them that my ancestors stretching back for thousands of years made this place my home no matter what.
In fourteen days, I visited eight cities and spoke to hundreds of people, taking with me what little bits and pieces of their lives I can gather. Their incredible lives, lives that most people wouldn’t experience in three life times. When I was with my family, I took my time to understand how they lived normally. We sat on their roof under the stars with our water pipes and talk about simpler times.
I packed my bag and left Palestine with a heavy heart. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I called my mom before I left and asked her (half-serious) if I could just stay here.
She responded, “No habibi, how about you come home now.”
But I was home. And I never felt more at home than I did during those fourteen days.
Mohammad Horreya is a recent graduate who has never known with certainty what he wants to be, but has almost always known where he wants to be.