Halfway through teaching a course on Palestinian cinema at the University of Washington, I grew terribly nostalgic. Historic Palestine is very beautiful on the big screen, despite the frequent close-ups of the ugly reality of dispossession and occupation. I mask my homesickness for the land with pedagogical exercises. I map out my students’ critical essays on visual fragments, narrative interruptions, and the impossibility of long road trip movies. I ask them to write short papers on the cinematic representation of space and landscape. I demand that they follow the standard citation rules. I encourage them to avoid repeating metaphors about shadows, hills, and ruins, unless they aspire to plagiarize Palestinian poets. At the end, I give them extra credit for identifying beautiful scenes from Palestine.
Studying indigenous literature in the Americas, I have become more aware of the sacredness of storytelling, its spiritual connection to land, ancestral memory and local indigenous knowledge. Tonight, as my own elders sat in a circle, they shared stories from the past. No special ceremonies were involved, only early summer boredom, daily political despair and a general lack of interest in the World Cup. Tonight, I learned two historical facts. First, one branch of my extended family are shepherds. They make homemade goat cheese and sell it for a living. “How come we don’t get a special family discount when we buy their cheese?” I protest.
“Because we traded the white goat cheese for processed yellow cheese from Tnuva,” one female elder explains in a reproaching tone. Everyone in the circle laughs. A male elder enters the circle with the second fact. One of my ancestors was killed in the 1940s after a fight with a man from a displaced Palestinian family who later moved into our village. Like the man who smacked his head with a heavy wooden stick, my ancestor was a farmer. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, but they all remember that it took place by the sea. Like the displaced man who killed him, my ancestor owned a few acres by the Mediterranean coast. Zionists confiscated the few acres of the murderer and the murdered’s land in 1948.
“How come the family never avenged the murder of the ancestor, or the stolen land?”
“We are peaceful people. We didn’t want trouble with the other family,” a male elder responds.
“And the land?” I inquire.
“The blood spilled on the few acres that were stolen tarnished the sea view. Who wants to live on a bloody land with a tarnished sea view?” the elder concludes. Until today, everyone in the circle is debating with the elder the difference between pacifists and losers.
11 am. Tel-Aviv. Nahlat Benyamin. I’m waiting for a friend who is attending a meeting with an international aid organization. I find a half-shaded bench to rest on from a short stroll on Allenby Street. Walking in a city engulfed in heavy humidity because the city is sweating so hard to become New York can make a pedestrian easily tired. As midday approaches, things appear in halves. Mizrahi Jewish owners of fabric shops awaiting customers outside their shops exchange jokes among themselves, half in Arabic, half in Hebrew, two bewildered blond tourists sharing opposite halves of a map, a group of American college students exchanging half sentences in Hebrew and English, just like the leader of their Birth Right tour who omits partition from his description of the history of the street that they are walking on. The sun devours the other half of the shade. I escape its wrath for an aimless stroll. I pass by a bookstore named after Robinson Crusoe. “They must have adventures and good colonialist stories inside,” I repeat to myself as I step in. I’m small among the tall stacks of used and new books. There is an impressive collection of vintage posters and artifacts. In the next aisle, I hear two men debating a critical issue in Hebrew literature. I don’t pay attention to the details. I only recognize the name of the poet being debated. “He is a terrible writer and a liberal Zionist,” I intervene silently from the other side of the aisle and continue to the single shelf of translated Palestinian literature. I repeat the name of a Palestinian author three times for the bookseller. He cannot locate the book.
I mention the title, and he jumps up in excitement, as if he discovered a new treasure on the island: “Of course, I have this book! But an Israeli author wrote it.” He shows me the cover. The book is co-authored. The first author is Palestinian, but the bookseller does not pronounce his name. “But we have other Palestinian things here too!” the bookseller boasts, ignoring my pointing finger at the first half of the authors to correct his erasure. “Check out this Palestinian vintage poster of shoes. It is from 1967. It is a rare find and on discount!” he adds without mentioning where and how he found it. I thank him for the offer and exit the store in heavy steps and perplexed thoughts about the missing half of the story about the shoes in the poster, and the daily practices of appropriation and archival theft.
2 pm. Bethlehem. The breeze at Bethlehem University campus is divine. It transcends the sieging Separation Wall, as if it were a holy spirit. The architecture of Jerusalem stone is so arousing that I run out of fantasies and clichés. I walk around feeling light, unburdened by sacred narratives and ethnographic lenses. I walk around numb, unshaken by the ordinary ugliness of the occupation. I walk around amused, undisturbed by my friend’s pleas to stop taking pictures, because “we are not foreign tourists and there is a checkpoint that we have to cross!”
There is no clock for checkpoint time, only restless waiting spent in finger popping, muscle irritation, cussing, meaningless contemplations and small talk with street boys selling chewing gum. Because we lowered the driver’s window, we got a discount on two packs of “Made in Turkey” chewing gum and a tip for a shortcut. “To avoid the long queue, turn around to the back street and then come in front of that house with the flag of Italy hanging at the balcony. You will be at the front of the line.” But Italy lost the World Cup and went home. Who will guide us tomorrow?
7 pm. Jerusalem. The way out from Jerusalem is closed due to large raging fires in the outskirts of the city, especially in the vicinity of ‘Ayn Karim, a Palestinian village that was already destroyed by the flames of ethnic cleansing in 1948. My friend and I turn the Hebrew radio on to get live updates. “Highway is closed. Traffic is redirected to Route 443.” My friend and I repeat what the news anchor said. We zigzag our way to Route 443, the infamous apartheid road, leaving behind a burning Jerusalem and the screaming ghosts of ‘Ayn Karim pleading: “Not again!”
My first teacher in improvisation and creative living was sitti Amna. Due to an unsuccessful traditional healing treatment for her stressed spine, she lost a fibular nerve. As a result, she had to walk with a foot drop for the rest of her life. But, sitti Amna never dragged her self. She just stitched a rubber band to the back of her flatbed sandals, to lift her foot. And chin up she went on about her life. She walked uphill and downhill, ran after grandchildren, dug wells with her hands, planted parsley and cilantro in her backyard, danced at relatives’ weddings and cooked for a family of 50 people in Ramadan, the olive harvest festival in autumn and the tomato canning season in the summer. When the rubber band got loose, she recycled it to fasten something else at home. Then, she stitched a new one for a better grip. When it rained, she would either put socks on, or stitch another rubber band on covered flat shoes. In between, she would stand in front of the mirror in the small hallway to braid her thin black hair and wash her hands with a half lemon from the tree in her backyard. From a nearby corner, I would secretly stare at her reflection in the mirror. There she stood: petite, upright, fresh, and radiant like a brilliant sun in January.
Tonight l learned a new strategy for mapping Palestinian geography. One can cross from the north to the center on the highway in 13 minutes, which equals the prelude of Om Kalthoum’s “Ya Msaharny.” And if one hums the lyrics, one can keep driving to Cairo by hitting replay four to five times. #ElSitt for navigation apps!
It is a freezing 31 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the silence in the street across from my window is deadly white. I am cleaning my big girl room in preparation to cook a small dinner for 15 people, and the only thing that I can think of is my step-grandmother, Fehmeyyeh, and the fresh green basil tucked in her cloth handkerchief. Two years ago, khalti Fehmeyyeh was uprooted from the view of her colorful backyard garden that she inherited from sitti Amna and tended so lovingly to the display of cheap plastic flowers in a nursing home, where she continues to fight against early Alzheimer’s and staff orders that prevent her from trespassing into the rooms of other residents. “But, I am only looking for my fresh green basil,” I imagine her protesting with frail hands that still remember the fragrance of her fallahi aesthetics. If only she knew that I also remember the freshness of her touch and that her fragrant memory just warmed up an entire freezing continent.
It is 20 degrees on a mid-March weekend and I feel totally out of sync with the seasonal order of New England. I decide to take a break from the absence of spring that intensifies my ongoing battle with writing about the double erasure of colonialist and nationalist histories. I call my aunty Samira from the dead.
“Your stories are not there, auntie,” I lament in frustration.
“Then go ahead and write them. Remember the slave’s cock?!” she shouts back wickedly all the way from her unidentified grave in Medina. “Write about the hills and their timely blossoms. Remember how I taught you to distinguish between the herbs that kill and the herbs that prolong sex life?”
“Yes, I do. And I also remember your big belly laugh when you insisted on calling the plant the cock of the female slave, while all the men said that it was ‘Abed’s cock.’ Sadly, you are gone, and the hills are no longer there. They occupied them with ugly suburban settlements that have high speed internet and electric fences. Can you believe that they even have reduced prices for balconies that have an Arab view?!”
“But the slave’s cock is still there! I bet you they won’t even know how to find it between the rocks. They have no idea what grows in their stolen backyards. They don’t even have the racial and sexual memories to water it, but don’t worry! The slave’s cock always finds its way to spring and folktales. It nourishes from the well-kept secrets that the hills have witnessed.”
Last night, I found a mermaid vintage postcard in a local food store in Seattle. I bought it and placed it behind my computer screen for inspiration. “We have the same view of the city,” I told the mermaid.
From the writing altar, she whispered: “Tell me a happy mermaid tale!”
Of course, I could not resist her winking golden tail and responded: “Sure!”
Once upon a time, more precisely, yesterday afternoon, I was having a conversation with a friend about the politics of female nudity and notions of body acceptance. In the middle of our passionate debate, I was reminded of a day that I spent with a hijabi Palestinian friend at a Caribe beach in Puerto Rico two years ago. My friend was in a fully covered black burkini and I was in a one-piece green swimsuit that blended well with the tall palm trees but didn’t hide my brown scars. “Watch out! A Hamas human frog is coming your way,” she joked from the waves and I laughed from the bottom of my layered tummy as I sat at the warm sand, soaking in the sun and admiring our abnormality amid the sea of fit bodies, tight abs, and colorful bikinis. Later, we sat under a hut in the shallow water, ate nuts from Palestine, smoked chocolate flavored cigars, sang love songs, discussed Guadalupe Nettle’s novel, El cuerpo en que naci (The body in which I was born), and shared stories from other shores. Until today, I reminisce about that day at the Caribe beach where I first learned that happy mermaids are real people.
Notes: Illustrations by Sarah Guthu
This piece is published on Palestine Land Day, but is also the first in a series of stories from Arab diasporas around the world. If you would like to submit stories, videos, images for publishing in this series, please email: [email protected]