Guest contribution by Norah Al Bireh
Is it paradoxical or perhaps self-defeating to define the Palestinian diaspora, to divide it according to region, to study its integration or isolation as the compass sways us away from home? After living on both sides of it, with Palestine in the middle, the Americas to the West, and the Arab refugee population to the East, I feel that I am, as Edward Said may have once felt, the social pariah who will merely dwell, becoming so reclusive in the self that relating to any side now is impossible. Unique, lost, alone, I hide in my corner.
Being the Palestinian-American whose family had some element of home hanging on the wall, be it a framed picture of Jerusalem or a photo of our grandfather, return was on our mind. Even rocks from back home were in a vase, pieces of broken clay we suspected were something antique in nature, spewed across the land of my grandfather. These elements of home were thrown against the backdrop of drywall suburbia, paved walkways and driveways, with at least one almond tree, one fig tree, and of course the olive tree planted somewhere in the backyard of our fears. There was an excitement I felt as a girl when, driving along the industrial roads of California’s warehouse capital, I saw olive trees weighed down by its gifts. Yet they were ornamental, I suppose, and even when we did try to pick them, security guards were not too happy.
It is difficult to articulate how out of place I will always be. And perhaps it is human nature to constantly strive to be different, to hold onto whatever makes us unique and proclaim it as I had done in the United States, with too many flags, authentic propaganda posters, and Handala with his back always to me. He too was in the same corner.
I made a stir, even as a little girl in grade school, explaining to my perplexed teachers who Arafat was, why Israel’s foundation was wrong. I even explained, at the tender age of 8, that Arab Jews had always been so essential to Arab culture just like Muslims or Christians, and that the Europeans had set out to destroy our cultural fabric. Now that I am a teacher, I understand why my teachers then called a meeting with me (without my parents) and bombarded me with questions as the rest of the second grade watched Barney.
Education happened. Basketball teams, speech and debate, the 4.0 GPA. It all happened for the supposed career I wanted. But my dream was to go back to Palestine. I gave up on law school and saw it as a mere institution of wasted breath. We needed education and reform. I became a teacher. It was an outlet for me and a chance to work with the new generation. The recession had crippled America anyways, and most of my friends were jobless or struggling to get into a graduate school. It was the perfect time to realize just how much Palestine as an image or memory is different when you live it. Being involved in the various movements — a self-proclaimed activist — I grew very disturbed by the activist tourism that was going on and that Palestinians actively engaged in this. The NGOs that stirred our economy took over our language for liberation. Palestine is not something to be experienced in two weeks. It is not a project. It is not a place to come scream about rights or have a conference and then go back to suburbia and continue to tweet about. It is not capacity building when you are under occupation. Palestine is life and breath, it is blood, it is hope. Like the disgruntled romantics with industrialization, I grew extremely disgruntled with the dissecting of whatever remained of our fabric.
I found myself to be the medium between the Palestinian who had assimilated to a life of occupation and P.A. normalization, and the activist from abroad who wanted an Intifada to happen as soon as they landed. Stuck in the middle, my thoughts drowned. There is a gap in language surfacing, a gap in relevancy and in custom, and we are pretending it is not there.
By the time you reach Jordan you will notice that the gap has stretched so wide that our generation has fallen into it. One recurring problem for me in Jordan is the way I speak with Jordanians and Palestinians perplexed as to why I speak Arabic the way I do. I have had Jordanians applaud me for remaining original. Even they have felt some pressure in Amman, at least, to change the way they speak from their Bedouin tongue. With at least five generations of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the dialect has changed. The Palestinian from the other side of the river is now easily identifiable. And despite the degrees I have hanging on the wall, my prestigious American passport, my home and ancestry, many tell me that I speak Arabic incorrectly or that I am a peasant-farmer. Since I cannot speak in my original Palestinian dialect without ridicule, in a country where the queen is Palestinian, with its capitol built by Palestinians, I have found myself reverting to English, which sadly is misconstrued for a cue for higher class origins.
I grew up in the Inland Empire in California — nothing grandiose but absolutely average. Nothing was making sense to me.
And it only got worse in Kuwait where I became a spectacle to Palestinians there, who even asked for me to speak “falahee” so they can listen like I am something from the past, some theatrical being who obviously was influenced in American attire but had the tongue of their deceased grandmother.
When language itself is so essential to nationalism, or at the very least, preservation, I am extremely confused as to why Palestinian girls in the diaspora would rather imitate the Lebanese dialect than to speak the way their mothers do at home. In what is customary of Palestinians of Ramallah to wear in their weadings, the traditional thawb dress, and even the candle dance we do in our weddings, many came to watch me on my wedding day in Jordan because they treated it as a cultural spectacle, not something customary or normal. It was treated as foreign. It even became the “talk” of the village, whereas this was normal back in Al Bireh.
While the Palestinian in the West was running back to homeland, the Palestinian in the East was afraid of going back. While the Palestinian in the West was exercising the individuality their host country delved in, the Palestinian of the East was delving into everything else to clutter a horrible history of oppression, refugee camps, and destitution. When social media hit Palestine and the rest of the Arab world, the issue only became even more magnified with serious academic consideration needed of the social and linguistic implications of our diaspora in this age.
Some attribute the discomfort or inability to continue our traditions in Arab countries because Palestinians have felt backlash for flooding particular Arab countries. Others simply call such things old fashioned. To me I always saw it as a part of survival. Who was right, and who was wrong?
Where do I belong? If the space of homeland itself is becoming a shadow, am I also to become a mere shadow of myself?
What we share, no matter where God has placed us on this wretched earth, is the same corner we cry in when we are forced to look into ourselves. Suddenly the name brands drop off, the refugee IDs fade. When we are shoved into it, made to look at ourselves and at our past; when our future is at our back and our past is made into an angle so acute that every family has the same points leading to the same doom; when we hold onto that corner because we do not know how to build ourselves anymore, sustain our dialect, live our traditions, and be free, it is clear: we are running out of space.
Am I to shove my daughter into the same dilemma? There is not enough room in this corner anymore to have a new generation drown in its darkness where I and many others have become lost. The conundrum of its limited space but continuous being is perhaps why Palestinians have not yet formed a solid, continuous movement without marginalizing a segment of that corner. Angles are used to build, not to build within. Stateless, misrepresented, manipulated, we are the corner of politics, of economics, and of security of religion, of culture, of hope with which others build their own platforms. Our narrative must be reclaimed no matter the deviations or distortions that diaspora has caused us. The moon would not be the moon if it was not distorted with craters and scars. It rises from the dark, buoyant among flecks of stars. If we were able to dig water wells into valleys and terraces into mountains, we can build a future in the sky where there is no west or east. Infinity yields no placement when hope can ascend into tangible and intangible manifestations of our beings. The earth would not be earth if it had not come in collision and explosion. This is the nature of life, and it must be claimed as a stake, not as a knife.
Norah Al Bireh
Norah Al Bireh is a mother, wife, and an educator and curriculum designer currently residing in Amman.