04 February 2010

Experience in Exile

People ask me all the time what it's like to be Palestinian. Its as if we are an experience all our own, outside humanity itself and I suppose we are outsiders to a certain extent. The question itself doesn't offend me because it's intended as a bridge to understanding usually.

I can't explain what its like to be Palestinian in Occupied Palestine. I hardly remember that, but I can tell what its like to be Palestinian in Exile. Yet, something in me won't allow this to be the bigger picture. There are others who suffer so much more than me outside Palestine.

The other day, I was at an Arabic grocery store with an American friend. I needed lamb and she wanted to explore what she considers exotic fare. I asked the clerk for the best lamb, all the while noticing how knowledgeable he was about the cuts of meat and how skilled a butcher he actually was. I was aware that he was very shy and further, not very old, perhaps 16.

I struck up a conversation and found out that he too was Palestinian, as I had suspected. He had just arrived a few months before with his younger brother who stood quietly to the side and blushing every time I spoke to him. They had left their parents and siblings behind and were wards of their uncle now.

Since they hailed from my home town we spent time trying to determine if we were related or knew anybody in common. Failing that connection, we tried local ones and found that my great uncle is a freind of the family. Palestinians in the states generally have to know something about you and if we connect with family, that is the ideal but if we don't, then we continue on until we find a sense of belonging to each other somehow, some way. And when we do find that connection we hold each other closely and forever. Diaspora.

My friend, when finding out that the boys were recently arrived congratulated them! She said, "That is good, you are better off here.", meaning well. The boy smiled and nodded politely. I told her, "It's good yes, they are safer here, but its bad because they can never go back to live and they left their entire identities behind." The boy nodded again in agreement but this time, he had sorrow in his beautiful eyes. "Do you not miss it?" he asked.

The sadness overwhelmed me because I understood that it was more than being homesick, it was more than missing the people he loved so much. It was the fact that he and his brother, as young as they are, had taken a step in which there was no turning back and they took that step as if they were adults, but prematurely. They are 15 and 17 respectively. Once in diaspora, always in diaspora as long as there is no Right to Return. Even these children understand this much. But I still had to answer his question.

Its rather hard to say after 40 years that I too can miss my country, but I do. Yet, because I don't live in fear, I don't see the atrocities first hand and if I were to be victimized, I can fight back without fear of retribution. I can achieve justice, its my inalienable right, one that I am free to execute. Further, I came with my parents and because of that, I didn't have to prematurely learn a skill to support myself. I was able to concentrate on studying, not survival. I was very young and had time to adjust at home before being thrown into a school (the boys begged me to find them friends their age who understood what they were going through). While I struggle with survivor guilt, I don't dare claim to be suffering in comparison.

I therefore told the boy, "I have no right to miss it in the same way you do but I do miss it and no matter where I am in the world, no matter what passport I carry, I am always first and foremost, Palestinian. You will never stop missing your family and you will always want to touch the land of your childhood memories with your bare hands, but that also means you will never forget who you are and if you don't forget, you won't abandon our people."

For a fleeting moment, his smile partnered with the sorrow in his eyes.