Guest contribution by Alia Al Ghussain
I fell in love with my homeland after its soil reclaimed my grandmother, who had lived there all her life. I realized that I could no longer shut myself off to a heritage that I wore like an uncomfortable shawl over my shoulders. I fell in love with Palestine when I picked up Absent Presence by Mahmoud Darwish and had my complicated feelings fall into place, like puzzle pieces creating an image of Palestine in my mind’s eye.
Discovering Palestine allowed me to find myself, regardless of borders, passports, and language. Digging underneath the rubble of grief for my grandmother, and regret that I did not invest more time with her, I found a sense of purpose. I found an explanation to the discomfort I felt when I saw Israeli produce in the supermarket, when friends mentioned that they were thinking of spending the summer lying on a beach in Tel Aviv, when I tried to speak Arabic and my tongue treacherously tied itself up in my mouth and silenced me.
And so I went back. Not to Gaza, where my family is from, but to the West Bank – as close as I could get. I was taken aback at the legendary strength of Palestine, described to me by my father and in the countless books and articles I had read in an attempt to understand my history and ancestry. It was in the way in which checkpoints are negotiated with dignity, day in and day out. It was in the insistence of including Akka, Haifa, and Jaffa in Palestine. Most of all, it was in the sheer fact of existence. The strength to continue an existence in such adverse conditions, and to continue it with one’s head held high, living with a sense of pride and grace so firm that I still cannot quite understand it. I am still not entirely sure if I found, or left, a piece of myself in the streets of Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron as I walked around, trying to soak up every sight, smell, sound.
Loving anything from afar is plagued with difficulty, and a homeland is no exception to this unfortunate rule. There is not a day that goes by that the arid hills of Palestine do not cross my mind and I often struggle with pangs of longing to put my feet back on the same soil that my grandmother raised eight children on. At the same time I had occasional feelings of resentment, a desire not to feel obligated to commit myself to the politics of being a Palestinian.
This is what people do not understand about the nature of Palestinian identity. Palestine is a person with a deep, ugly scar across their face that you cannot turn away from. I know what Palestine was before the scars of the Nakba and the occupation were drawn over its body –– the beautiful beaches, the abundant olive groves, the rich culture . There is beauty there, but it is dominated by the intense ugliness of dispossession, injustice, and occupation. And while other people may stare at the face with the scar and voyeuristically revel in the horror it instils in them, they may sympathize with the face with the scar, they can still turn away from it. I do not have this luxury. I cannot turn away from Palestine just because it is hard to look at. Ignoring the scar will not make it go away. Palestine’s wounds are my wounds.
And this is what makes me Palestinian. I have been caught in the torturous web of sadness that all Palestinians –– whether in historical Palestine, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or the diaspora — feel. It is an anguish similar to that which bonds a family after the loss of a relative. Together we have been caught up in the cruel hands of time in this particular moment of history, and sentenced to this heartache.
However, it is not my intention to present my Palestinian identity as one based on melancholy. My Palestinian heritage is the best gift my father has ever given me. While it has bestowed me with a history of tragedy and a difficult inside/outside status, it has also awarded me the privilege of belonging to a group of steadfast, resistant people who couch their struggle in the most exquisite music, poetry, and literature. I would not give up my connection with Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, kanafeh, or the oud for an easier life.
This is why I actively try to retain and build upon my ‘Palestinian-ness’. I try to speak Arabic as much as I can (apart from having episodes of shyness that completely paralyze me), cook the food my father produces with such skill, and absorb every cultural remnant that I can, devouring the poetry of Khalil al-Sakakini, the politics of George Habash, the music of Le Trio Joubran, and the films of Elia Suleiman at lightning speed.
I have come to realize that as a diaspora Palestinian, my particular resistance is in the maintenance of my identity, in embracing the difficulty of this task because I know that, in comparison to my counterparts in the West Bank, Gaza, and 1948 Palestine, this is an endeavor carried out in comfort. The fight for existence must be carried out by the diaspora as a fight to remember: ourselves, our history, and our forgotten homeland.
From the diaspora to Jerusalem: our pain is one, our struggle is one, my brothers and sisters.
Alia Al Ghussain
Alia Al Ghussain recently graduated from the University of Sussex with an M.A. in Human Rights. She has been published in NovaraMedia and Electronic Intifada.