A personal identity journey of a Palestinian woman

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I am the daughter of a Palestinian man. My father was born in Jaffa, Palestine on June 1st, 1947 to a German-Palestinian mother, and a Palestinian father. When my father was less than a year old, my grandfather was out of town on business and my grandmother was alone with my infant father at home, having breakfast. My father got fussy, as babies do, and just as my grandmother lifted him out of his high chair, a bullet came through the window and landed right where he had been sitting just a mere second before. That's how my grandmother knew the "war" had come to their door.


As she told it for years and years after, a microbus made its way around the neighborhood and collected families to take them to safety. They did not have enough time to take anything with them. My grandmother grabbed the wad of money she had hidden under the mattress and stuffed it in her bra, scooped up her infant son, and hopped on the bus, leaving breakfast on the table.


Eventually, my grandfather reunited with his young family and they settled, first in Syria where my uncle was born, and then in Saudi Arabia, where my grandmother, refusing to conform to ridiculous sexism, drove a car - even though it was forbidden for women - dressed as a man by taping her breasts down. At some point before settling in Cairo for over 25 years, the family lived in Rome where my grandfather worked for the newly established UN's FAO. My grandparents eventually moved and settled down in Amman, Jordan, where they lived until they died in 1997 (him) and 2016 (her). They remained refugees for the rest of their lives since 1948, and they never ever lost the pang of heart-wrenching homesickness for the home they left behind, with breakfast still on the table.


Throughout my childhood, and until she died in 2016, I would ask my grandmother to tell me the story of their escape from Palestine, and their lifelong dreams of returning to their homeland. It always felt so removed from any reality, I could fathom and I always envisioned Palestine as a surreal place - not something I could touch or smell, but an idea I could hold onto only in my imagination.


My father rarely ever spoke about his feelings of being a refugee, mostly because he had found a home and a life in Egypt, and he felt more Egyptian than anything else, but glimpses of his ingrained trauma would show up in unexpected ways.


I remember once when I was in grade school, our choir teacher at my American school taught us Hava Nagila (which I can still sing by heart in Hebrew). I knew the song was Hebrew, I knew Israelis sang it, but there wasn't much distinction between Jewish, Israeli, Zionist, etc. at that time. I was just the child of a Palestinian and I wasn't sure I was supposed to be singing that song in that language. But I wanted to know: What were the limits? What did my father *really* think? So I sang it in the car while my father was driving and when he heard what I was singing, he swerved the car, banged on the steering wheel, and yelled "DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE FUCK YOU ARE SINGING?? WHO TAUGHT YOU THIS?" And it scared me. But I knew then that, yeah, Dad had feelings about this, and they were strong.


When I grew older and could have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the issue, my Dad and I would discuss it at length and I began to understand the differences in ideology and political leanings versus religion, etc. I studied history much more deeply as a young adult and asked more questions, so I was able to form a much more holistic, multi-dimensional view of this issue than I was capable of doing as a child.


When I moved to New York in my 20s, I met and made friends with more Jews than I had met in my lifetime (not many Jews living in Egypt - and fewer Israelis - when I lived there). I grew to love and cherish my Jewish friends and discussed issues of Zionism and my Palestinian-ness, but my positions were muted if I'm being honest. I was intimidated and there was a sense of shame at being Palestinian - a shame I can't explain.


During my time in NY, I worked at Sesame Workshop for over 13 years. Throughout my career, I worked on and produced the Palestinian adaptation of Sesame Street (among 16 other adaptations) with colleagues in Palestine. To say my experience was smooth would be an egregious lie. It was not smooth. It was littered with anti-Arabness, and definite racism, and several incidents where I was told, to my face, that I could not name the country of "Palestine" explicitly, but that I also could not call it "Occupied," but was allowed to say "Palestinians" to identify a people, but I could not identify their country, MY country.


Talk about a fucking cognitive dissonance! One day, I will write at length about this experience because it deserves a longer, more in-depth interrogation of the dynamic of being the only Arab (for the first few years) on the NY side of the production, working on an exclusively Arab program, being managed by a group of avowed Zionists - whom I respected and reported to so, AWKWARD - and being silenced because my livelihood depended on not being difficult. On not speaking out. On not rocking the boat. That contributed to the shame. When I DO eventually write it all down, I will explain how, even amidst the shame and intimidation, I still managed moments of subtle resistance - like how, when I was told I couldn't say "Palestine" in the voice-over for a highlight reel on the history of Sesame Street's work in the Arab region, but I could say "Palestinian," I ended up saying "Palestinian" more times than necessary just to make the point. My American colleagues didn't notice, but you bet your ass my Arab colleagues caught this subtle act of subterfuge.


In 2006, I finally had the opportunity to visit Palestine to work with my Palestinian Sesame Street colleagues. Thanks to my American passport, by virtue of having been born in the US, I was able to travel to Palestine. I remember being paralyzed with anticipation and, frankly, scared of the experience. I didn’t know what to expect and, remember, for me the image of Palestine was ethereal and disconnected from reality. I did not understand it tangibly. I saw it only as a fragmented place of mystery, suffering, beauty, pain, olive trees, ghettos, homes without their owners, owners with keys to homes they no longer lived in, oranges, the Al-Aqsa compound, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall - but all of these things were incongruous in my mind’s eye. How they fit together, their geographic proximity to each other, eluded my comprehension.


I vowed to stay silent on my first trip. I vowed to absorb and observe and to take in the experience without reacting because I wanted it to bleed into me if that makes any sense? I have since been to Palestine a few more times between 2006 and 2016 and, while I love being there - in Ramallah, in Haifa, in Al Quds - I HATE the humiliation and degradation of the experience of the journey. I could take a flight into Ben Gurion if I wanted to - there are flights from Cairo daily. But I have always chosen to make the crossing via the Allenby Bridge out of Jordan because I don’t want the easier way. If my colleagues and comrades have to endure this humiliation, then I will, too, in solidarity because AT LEAST I have the luxury of being able to go to my father’s homeland and touch the land he was denied from ever seeing since he was 6 months old.


When I was first offered the opportunity to visit Palestine, I was unsure whether I should make the trip or boycott it. My father, who had never been back since the expulsion of 1948, said “Of course you should go. This is your country. You have every right to it, and we should ALL go, as often as possible, all the time, whenever we can, because they [the Zionists] are counting on our exhaustion and on us giving up. You have the means to go, go for all of us. And go as many times as you can stand it.” And so I went. And I stayed silent. And I observed. And I absorbed. And I was floored by the discovery that all these places that had become mythical in my mind were within reach, and they were close together.


 Jerusalem [Al Quds] is a mere 25-30 minutes by car from Ramallah if you’re allowed on the roads that don’t circumnavigate the country. If you don’t have the right permissions - which are impossible to get - it can take you up to 4 hours to get from Ramallah to Al Quds, depending on the mood of the 18-year old border guard if he/she lets you pass at all. Humiliation. Jaffa is a mere hour away from Ramallah - again if you’re even allowed out of Ramallah. Haifa is a 2-hour trip from Ramallah - AGAIN, only if you’re allowed. And so on.


Well, I visited all these places and my beloved colleague, Daoud Kuttab took me to see my family home in Al Quds and took me to lunch at my OTHER family home - the American Colony hotel which was, once upon a time, owned by my grandmother’s family, the Al Husseinis - and it was surreal and it was magical and it was painful. And every time I crossed the border since that the first time, I fucking hated every minute of it. The disdain, the filthy stares, the purposeful delays - once up to 11 hours in the cold without access to a bathroom or my luggage for a jacket - and this is NOTHING compared to what my peers have to suffer from any time and every time they attempt to venture beyond the inhuman barricades that prevent them from living freely in their own country. On their own land.


In July/August 2014, when Gaza was under siege, I was back living in Cairo working for an Arab organization, with many links across the Arab region. The situation and massacre of Gaza hit very close to home, both literally and figuratively, and I was bereft. I ended up penning a poem in the middle of the night, during Ramadan, a poem that flowed out of me from a place of anguish and pain. The poem was about hate - an emotion I believe has its place - but it was also about the boundaries of that hate. I HATED what Israel was doing to Palestine and Palestinians. I HATED the blind disregard for human life the Israeli government and its army had for the Palestinians. But I could not - and will not - ever bring myself to wish death and torture on Israelis, nor could I revel in their death or destruction. But some of the shame I'd felt in earlier years had begun to dissipate a little.


This poem that flowed from my anger and despair was eventually picked up by a former boss of mine from my Sesame Street days and she asked me if she could publish it. The poem, incidentally, is called “I Will Not” and it was my attempt at declaring my steadfast commitment to NOT stooping to the lowest denominator of hatred and NOT calling for the death and destruction of anyone, even if they were calling for mine. NOT AN EASY THING TO DO, my friends. We eventually published the poem in 3 languages - Arabic, English, and Hebrew. The poem was illustrated by an Israeli artist whose work I was mesmerized by. And it was eventually also turned into an e-book that was narrated in the 3 languages by children. It was dedicated to the memory of my late father, Zimo, because I think he would have appreciated this journey of mine.


Today, I find that I am rid of any of the shame and intimidation of my past. And I feel like a fucking coward that, for so many years, I was scared to openly and proudly declare my Palestinian roots. Afraid of the consequences on my career, afraid of the stereotypes and being made to feel, somehow, that I would be called on to “prove” my worthiness, to earn my existence, afraid to hold my head up high for the pride of my ethnicity and, most importantly, afraid to stand strong and defend my right to say this:


“What we are seeing - and have seen since 1948 - is Apartheid. It is state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the ethnic cleansing and, in some cases, the state-sponsored massacre of my people. It is the wrong fucking side of history, and if you support it, you are against me and my existence. If you ‘both sides’ this shit, you are “All Lives Matter”-ing an issue that does not warrant this. There are children who are being murdered in Palestine because the force of the army that oppresses them is an ARMY - armed to the hilt, financed to the heavens, and capable of leveling entire villages in one fell swoop. If you ‘two sides to every conflict’ this bullshit, you are essentially telling me that my life and the lives of CHILDREN and the lives of my families and friends DO NOT MATTER because you are siding with the stronger, more powerful, and more capable aggressor, oppressor, and criminal. And that’s your prerogative, I can’t do anything about that. But I can tell you this: I will not be ashamed one moment longer. I will never stay quiet lest you deny me a job, or a visa, or a friendship. I will never again pretend I am not outraged and fucking HURT by your support of an Apartheid regime. Because that is a red line for me. And if you know anything about history, it should be a fucking red line for you too.”


Never again, folks.


Remember that?

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