Guest contribution by Rana Nazzal
I have been told since I was a child that death from sadness runs in my blood. It is the phenomenon of a grief so unbearable that its victim stops communicating, stops eating, loses control of their senses, and then one night, s/he simply stops breathing altogether. This plagued my father’s side of the family but he wouldn’t speak of it, so it was from my mother that I gathered the stories.
My father is a refugee. The rest of our family, my mother, my brothers, and I, reclaimed Palestinian citizenship from exile about eight years ago. We have traveled back and forth from the homeland while he has remained in Canada. He has not seen Palestine since he was refugeed as a young boy in 1948 –– but for a day in the sixties when he explored Nablus for a few hours before being promptly deported.
In my mind’s eye, I do not see my father in Canada. He has never assimilated into Canada, and Canada has never welcomed him. Still as ever an immigrant, quiet, humble, speaking broken English. Although he has never complained, I imagine a great weight building inside him. When I was young, I bought him a gift from Palestine. It was a key and a plaque on which I had engraved in Arabic, “this is the key of our house in Tabaria”. My mother warned him, “your daughter bought you heart break”. As a child I wondered when my father would inevitably pass away in his sleep from unspoken grief. I learned that there are things that should not be mentioned around him.
My paternal grandmother lost her eyesight, they say, from grief. From her beach-side home in Tabaria, her first loss was her daughter, who was killed by the Zionist forces that would found Israel. Her body was left in the street. The persistent gunfire outside their home meant that the family could not even collect her body. I cannot imagine what this means to a mother. For years, they were forced from place to place. She supported her family by selling the gold bracelets from her marriage, one by one, until her wrists became bare. She walked bare footed, with my father and his sister on horseback, from Palestine to Jordan. My father often remembered the sight of her bloodied feet which became a source of ceaseless physical pain until her death. From a refugee camp in Jordan, they moved to another in Syria, where poverty and sickness would consume them. She remained strong in her spirit, but her body betrayed her, and she eventually became blind. Her health worsened every day that she spent away from her home, and she died without ever returning.
Even as visitors, few from my grandmother’s family were ever able to return to Palestine, including my father. My father’s uncle procured an Israeli visa many years later, and he returned for a visit. What he found was the barren home exactly as they had left it. The handmade tiles, the couches, the dishes, everything, exactly as they had left it. The city, too, shocked him. Tabaria was ethnically cleansed of its entire Arab population and re-inhabited by European Jews. His visa expired and he returned to Syria, only to fall into a deep sense of grief and to die a few weeks later. Not long after, another great uncle was compelled to make the same voyage. He too found the empty home and the colonized city, and he too died in his sleep a few weeks later.
I do not think it is death from sadness that runs in my blood. I think it is an incredible Love for my home that runs through my veins. The body cannot always sustain such a great loss of what was once integral to its functioning. This is when we die. For the survivors, this blood connection ties us far beyond our own will, into the fight for the right to one day return.
This is what home means to us still.
Rana Nazzal is a Palestinian-Canadian student, activist, and blogger who organizes with Students Against Israeli Apartheid Carleton and with grassroots movements in Palestine. She tweets at @zaytouni_rana.