Land: Between Definition and Connotation

Guest contribution by Hasheemah H. Afaneh

When I woke up from ten hours of sleep on a twelve-hour flight from Chicago to Jordan, I looked at the screen in front of me and saw that we were only an hour away from our destination. The passengers around me sat quietly except for a man speaking loudly a few rows ahead. Taking off his seat belt, the tall man wearing a leather jacket with jet black hair and a carefully trimmed mustache stood and looked out through one of the oval plane windows.

“We’re over Palestine,” he informed the man next to him in Arabic.

Although the seat belt sign was still on and the flight attendant was sitting across from the man’s seat, the man remained standing and looked out of the window with dark, nostalgic eyes.

I nudged out of my seat a little to look out of the window to see what exactly the man was looking at. I saw nothing but clouds, and looking away from the window, I saw the man was still standing.

“When will we get to the bilad?” my brother asked, pulling my wonders out from the clouds and the look in the man’s eyes.

Al-bilad my brother was referring to was the same one the man was looking at: Palestine. The Arabic dictionary I bought almost six years ago and thought it to be too complicated to ever open defines al-bilad as “any place on Earth occupied or deserted.”

For years, the word bilad for my siblings and I specifically meant Palestine, and using this Arabic word to refer to any other place in the world just didn’t fit for any of us. However, the connotations attached to this use of the word have changed throughout my childhood and into adulthood.

As a child living in the United States south, whenever my mother and father mentioned the bilad, this meant vacation time. It meant flying halfway across the world to meet family members and get wet kisses from my great-grandmother. It meant seeing the olive trees that were shaped like the charm my grandmother once gave me. It meant wondering if I knew enough Arabic to play with my neighbors. I remembered my uncle was an artist and I imagined that during the two-month trip, I would be one myself.

The bilad was occupied then just as it is now, but as a child who lived so many miles away, this is not what I took in from my surroundings. Years later, though, the bilad was no longer a vacation site. It was no longer just the city of Ramallah and the circle with the lions around it. It held the villages that my friends came from. It presented to me 1948 territories that I have been lucky to visit whereas the people who once had homes and lives there do not have the privilege. It encompassed all those time-consuming and draining checkpoints. It showed stretches of illegal settlements like the one across my grandparents’ home. It familiarized me with a wall that divided lands and aimed to conquer a people. It was composed of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem and in times of distress, one’s heart ached for all these parts in my version of the bilad.

The bilad, for myself and many Palestinians living in the diaspora or coming back from it, begins to be a constant struggle between its Google translations: country, land, home, and my childhood definition: vacation. To many people I know, it is still the latter. But to others, it is a country that is seen without all the ’48 and ’67 boundaries. It is a land worth the struggle of existence and identity. It is a home, physically and, to the indigenous population, in the heart. It is the feeling of confusion when one reaches the United States after years of being away and is greeted with “Welcome home.”

“Well, you sure can’t wait to come back to the bilad, can’t you?” The flight attendant asked the standing gentleman.

The gentleman still looking through the window replied, “I’d come back crawling if I have to.”

Perhaps, that is what the bilad is in the midst of the struggle and the confusion of connotations and definitions. It is the place one would crawl back to if they had to.

Hasheemah H. Afaneh is a student at Birzeit University (BZU) studying nutrition and dietetics. Between time spent on her studies and that spent with family and friends, she makes time to write about her observations. You can find snippets of writing on her blog, No Restrictions on Words.

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