To Be a Palestinian
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For us it did not begin in 1948. For that generation of Palestinians that was born or grew up in exile, it never began with that galaxy of events that culminated in the creation for our people of a new, frightening world of non-being. Rather the metamorphosis in our national psyche and the controlling images of our active mythology occurred when we had already acquired a past of our own. It occurred when the Palestinian, from the isolation of his world, asked another world that stood with its back to him: who am I and what am I in the scheme of things that seemed to govern other people's lives but not mine? When a Palestinian became aware, along the evolutionary continuum of his consciousness, of that delicate correlation between his political reality and existential concerns, of that pitch in reality that bound his own present to his forefathers' past, the question ceased to bristle with self-pity and acquired historical acumen. For the Palestinian proceeded to ask not who am I, but who are we? Not what is my, but what is our place in history? Existence, hitherto governed by private reservoirs of energy and alienation, was now governed by a feeling that history was every man's milieu. 

I am a Palestinian and I am 33 years old. As such I become the product of this process that for twenty-five years characterized the existence of a whole generation of Palestinians in search of its status in this world, in search of human and political resolutions to its dilemma, in search of that link that tied it to all the intangible realities of Palestine.

Though I am the product of a specific Palestinian experience - not shared by every man and woman of my generation - of growing up in a refugee camp in Beirut, living in the slums of the city, acquiring a street education and then crisscrossing the Arab and Western worlds in a rootless and frenzied hope of escaping the intolerable pressure simply of being – the experience itself is none the less cogently Palestinian. Every Palestinian, whether he suffered the terrors of third-class citizenship in Israel, the persecution of Hashemite rule in Jordan or the exclusion from the mainstream of spontaneous activities in most of the Arab world, was driven by the same force, motivated by the same tension, devastated by the same anguish. It was a strikingly cogent and communal experience that cut across class lines and the differing concerns of a fragmented society and a nation in exile.

For us it began with a question. For my father's generation it began with a cataclysm when a whole people was detached from its homeland and inexplicably, incomprehensibly, relegated en masse to a world of nothingness alien to its idiom and metaphor.

The villager whose entrenched, mystical ties to the land were manifested in his miniature, stone houses blending with their surroundings as if to make an eloquent statement about the nexus that binds man to his nature, suddenly was housing his passions in the confines of a tent in a refugee camp. The city dweller whose delicate life style, unhurried activities and urban ways had evolved over the centuries from contact with other cultures around the world, suddenly was lining up at an Aliens Section of a Ministry of Interior in a host country to apply for a work permit. The intellectual, the poet, the nationalist, the agitator who had drawn on his optimal resources to struggle for his people's self-determination, watched his country become mauled, dissected and fought over by forces bigger than his. Everywhere a Palestinian's place in history was decided over his head. Everywhere his destiny was decided over his pleas. Everywhere his voice was silenced when he raised it and his head hit when he lifted it. Everywhere his world had gone mad, as if a machine, adding and subtracting figures, dividing and multiplying totals, was relentlessly deciding the nature of reality that henceforth was to be his lot.

The year 1 in the ghourba, the temporary stay away from one's roots till the Return. [1] How can a whole people accept the notion that the place they had set out from was no longer there and that a new present tense to the grammar of their being would be created?

To avert madness, Palestinians reassembled their past and its ethos, and by emotional fiat petrified the image and the mythology of Palestine in their very consciousness in order to confront a reality that they were determined was to be temporary. Given the order of things and the fierce exigences pressing on the collective spirit of a nation driven into exile, a Palestinian's grip on Palestine was to become tighter no matter how long the ghourba endured. The vehemence of the Palestinian consciousness and the collages it carried with it were to be enhanced no matter how blackened the walls of reality were to become. And Palestine would be passed on to us, modified, redefined, embellished, to imprint itself on our sensibilities.

We live at a camp on the outskirts of Beirut and the first five years there come to a slow, agonizing end. In the summer it is fiercely hot and big bow flies buzz in the air. Everything is slow-moving, quiet, dormant and torpid. The dogs, like the children, have bones showing under their skin and lie in the shade of the tents. In the hours after noon, people are nowhere to be seen, except occasionally a woman walks up the dirt track to the water pump with her pan. The stench from the piles of garbage is intense. A frightening sense of ennui governs the camp. A frightening sense of resignation rules over our lives. No one knows we are there. Whether we are ignored or forgotten, no one can say. After a while it ceases to matter.

In the evening the old men sit at the camp street cafe with its kerosene lamps. They throw furtive glances at one another, their voices, like their faces, thick with calm despair. They use words that are at times impassioned, at times angry. They talk about Palestine. They talk about the Return. They talk, trustingly, hopefully, about UN debates. No one asks if their stay in the ghourba is anything but temporary. That is no time for complicated riddles. Does one ask if one is older than one's father? One asks about the difficulties of making a living, getting a work permit, a residence permit, an UNRWA permit, a police permit, a peddler's permit, and a permit to cross borders. Palestine will always be there as they had left it, although they are already five years away from it. Palestine is also here this evening, around the kerosene lamps, in the voices, in the idiom, in the recollections. Transmuted to them in its senses. Transmuted to us in its images. It is such an encapsulated world that we live in, with its own electric consciousness as if it were a centre of energy with a radius engulfing only the confines of the camp. Strange energy.

I sit in the cafe next to my father and watch him and his old friends drink their tea and suck on their water pipes. I am eleven years old. There are gaps in the conversation as if the men are exhausted from asking questions, from asking what this place is; as if having raised their own flag of surrender, they are leaving it to us to raise our own flag of rebellion.

My father is talking to Abu Saleem who, along with his family, is a new- comer to the camp. My father asks him where he comes from in Palestine.

"I come from Hawassa," Abu Saleem replies.

My father recognizes the village near Haifa. "Hawassa, hey?" he asks quietly, elongating the name and dwelling on it as if it had some mystical, healing effect. "Hawassa is a pretty village. 

Such exquisite words. Such an exquisite verb, bristling with the stuff that sustains people to defy history, to defy heavens and to defy the powers that be.

To both father and Abu Saleem, Hawassa and the intangible realities of Hawassa were petrified in the mind. To them Hawassa is and not was a pretty place. They are saying that the ghourba would, and should remain intolerable, strange, and temporary, an interruption, albeit tragic, of a way of life that stretched backwards to the cloudless summers before 1948. To them that reality, in its physical construct, would remain as they had known it, without change, embedded in their minds. With all its images and all its active consciousness. Palestine is and not was and so will it be for the next twenty-five years, for the next fifty and for generations to come, till the Return.

To them the present was insanity, not a natural continuum of what was. To relate to it, they would transform it into an arrested past. A past governed by Palestinian images, Palestinian rites, that would be transformed into the construct of their daily life. A daily life which, because it terrorized them, they had to impose harmony on. They would look at themselves in the mirror of their past, for had they looked at the present, the mirror would have been cracked. The image of their reality blurred.

A whole mosaic of active mythology emerged to recapture, and to freeze in the mind, the portrait of Palestine as our fathers' generation had left it. The vernacular gave a spontaneous explosion to the feelings and sensibilities of those who came from Haifa, from Jaffa, from Acre and from the smaller towns and isolated villages of Palestine. Haifa, O beloved city, we left thee with the fish that our fishermen had caught still thrashing about on the sands.

Jafa, its denizens would counter, we fled thee, O sad city of the north, with our dabki song not yet finished. Acre, we built thee unafraid of the roar of the sea.

Rich and controlling myths such as these, summoned up from the past, tested a Palestinian's identity and released currents of hope, frustration, pride, and longing, and defined this identity's spatial and temporal reality in the ghourba.

We listen to this. Those of us who were born in the camp, those of us who were too young to remember Palestine, those of us whose memories, like mine, were of gunfire stuttering in the night, of bodies lying supine and the long march along the coast road, along dirt tracks, to seek refuge in the neighbouring countries.

Wait till we Return. The ghourba is temporary. Wait till we Return. Songs and poetry about the Return echo around the camp. They echo around the space within us. I say Haifa, O beloved city, we left thee with the fish that our fishermen had caught still thrashing about on the sands, because I am from Haifa. My cousin was born in the year 2 of the ghourba in a tent near the water pump. He is now six years old but he says he is from Jaffa, because his parents were born there and he knows how Jaffa looks and how it feels. To him, how it was is how it is. But there is a fitful transition of generations in our society. There is both a continuity, a flow, a transmission of our history and there is a schism in, and a severance with it. Though armed with our indispensable dossier of Palestinian myths, there is a metamorphosis in our value structure and psyche. Jaffa remained the city which my cousin identified with as he grew up; but Jaffa, as one poet from the Palestinian diaspora described it, became an opium den, dulling the senses. [2] Palestine and the Palestinian people each becoming an extension of the other, transiting together across the three stages of their modern history. The Arabs of Palestine. The refugees of Palestine. The Palestinians of Palestine. Mythically, al-Mojahedeen, al-Moattereen, al-Fedayeen. Literally, the fighters of the faith, the oppressed wanderers and the sacrificers for the people. The Mojahedeen of 1938 who defied the mandate authorities in Palestine and, emerging from the villages, the towns, the cities and the isolated rural communities, roamed the country with their arms in revolt against the British from whom they declared their intention to wrest independence and self-determination. The Mojahedeen bequeath a mythology to us, as we grow up, of men and women instituting general strikes, occupying whole cities at will, of the British evacuating their troops at news of their arrival, of martyrs falling and patriots hanged after summary trials. The Moattereen of 1948 who wander around the refugee camps, the Arab capitals and around the world, disinherited of homeland and an ability to share their humanity with others. And the Fedayeen of 1968 who drew on resources inherent in the human spirit and the continuum in their history in order to assert their right for human justice and freedom.

My sensibilities locate me, and this generation of Palestinians, as having lived out the tragedy of the second stage and as now living the intensity of the third.

Beirut in the fifties and we begin to venture outside the encapsulated world of the camp. It is a terrifying world to grow up in, a world governed by the metaphor of the Moattereen reality, governed by violence, alienation and a child's nightmare of being constantly reminded of his separateness from those around him. 

A Palestinian's consciousness is stuffed and devastated by images of violence. Violence that a Palestinian grows up with like he grows up with his skin. Violence that was inflicted upon him every day of his street life, camp life, and his life as a refugee, and that reduced him - like his history - to a fragment. Violence more shattering in its effects on the soul than physical violence.

Hunger and the cold are a form of violence. So are alienation and exclusion, UNRWA and identity cards with an X next to nationality. Palestine. Palestine is no longer a name, a mere geographical entity. It is an intangible consciousness, a macrocosm that enveloped the world. We see it every day, we hear its sounds at dawn, we live it when we interact with our world of nothingness. We are, more crucially, reminded of it wherever we go, reinforcing our images, our need to cling to it as it was transmitted to us, as we transformed it in the present.

I go to high school in Beirut in the fifties. There are three other Palestinian students in the class. Like them, I think it is an exotic experience to be at school after three years of street life. I had peddled chewing gum in the streets of Beirut and acquired a lot of street education. Now I am excited about a formal education, about school activities, about sports, about the concept of boy scouts. I join the boy scouts. I am entranced by the idea of going on a camping trip to Cyprus that the group is organizing. For three months I make preparations. I save money. I take to peddling chewing gum in the evenings again. The enchantment of the trip grips my senses. I tell the people at the camp. I tell the whole world. I am a fourteen-year-old child, a boy scout, going on a camping trip to Cyprus. I am no different from other children. The tension of what this means transforms me, rules my life for three months.

Three days before we are to go on this trip the four of us are called into the principal's office. Because we are Palestinians and refugees, he says, we are stateless. We have no travel documents. We cannot go on this trip. We should have informed him of our status before, he says reprovingly. The principal talks to us, like the rest of the world does, as if it were our fault that we are stateless.

So the four of us stay behind, The other kids go. We return to Palestine. I am from Haifa. Haifa, O beloved city, we left thee with the fish that our fishermen had caught still thrashing about on the sands. Haifa now means more to me than it did to my father. It is more graphic in my mind than in his. Its image more enriching, more engulfing to me as I grow up to acquire a past of my own.

I indulge in my first act of violence when I feel all this is in danger of being undermined. The UNRWA begin to plant trees along the dirt track. They begin to rebuild some of the mud houses. They begin to remove the tents. They begin to beautify the camp. That's what they say they are doing, making the place more habitable. 

In the evening the men sit in the street cafe at the camp. They drink their tea and suck on their waterpipes. We don't want the sons of dogs to make this place more habitable, they say to each other. We want to Return. What they are doing is to make our stay here more permanent.

The following day, the children in the camp are playing in the mud by the water pump. One of us starts shouting: We don't want the sons of dogs to make this place more habitable. We don't want the sons of dogs to make our stay here permanent. We run down the hill, all together, and attack the trees the UNRWA had just planted. We uproot them. We break the branches. We dance around. We sing a ditty that was popular around the camp:

Who am I?

Who are ye?

I am the Returnee!

I am the Returnee !

The world of the Moattereen is our world. The poetry of rebellion is our vernacular. The tension of revolution and the metaphor of change are not to us an abstraction in a textbook. They forever stare us in the face in the kind of world that we inhabit. I did not at that time identify by name the class struggle and imperialism; the bourgeoisie and the "colonized" mentality; social inequities and oppression by indigenous overlords. But as a twelve-year- old hired hand in a matchbox factory and then a street peddler of chewing gum, these concepts were what I bumped into every day. The arrogant faces of American "technicians" and "advisers," with looks of contempt for our culture and traditions. Men with button-down shirts and crew-cuts coming out of their first class hotels to tell our masses how their economy and their way of life should be planned. Men with orders to a ruling elite on how to create conditions to protect another government's political and imperial interests in our world.

In the streets I hustle all day to earn two liras, and the nature of class, as if it were part of the elements, rages around me. Rich sheikhs from Saudi Arabia, moneyed families from Jordan, unhurried tourists from Morocco drive around in their Cadillacs, travel to Europe to buy their coveted Western gadgets and spend enormous amounts of the people's money. And everywhere the Westernized bourgeoisie speak French, emulating the culture of others and rejecting their sense of worth. To them Arabic and the Arab world were trés sauvages.

The pressure of being a Palestinian, of being a child growing up in an absurd world, becomes intolerable. We move out of the camp and live in a slum. It is unbearable to be different from others. I come home one day affecting a Lebanese accent. I do that, driven by an inner force, to tell the world, to tell the heavens, that my world was too painful. I want in on theirs. But I am jolted into the realization that I am Palestinian. I am still living in Palestine. The Palestinian diaspora is Palestine, intact, transplanted to the ghourba. My mother immediately confronts me with it.

"Ya Ain, a Lebanese accent," she says, and maybe there is contempt in her voice. "You're too good for your own people now, hey, is that how you're growing up?"

Where have I heard these words before? Words crowd in on me. Words are derived from our experience. They create myths. The myths create rites.

Rites rule our lives. It is a sad world, in its aloneness and isolation. In the West Bank and Gaza, in Occupied Palestine, in the ghourba, they play the flute and the kamanja, the oud and the tablas. They dance the dabki and wear their embroidered dresses. But it is an anguished people, in its Moattereen phase, waiting for Godot or waiting for another generation to begin with the question. It always begins with a question. The Palestinian artist who began to paint his first canvas, dwelt on a hymn to his people's anguish. His painting was of a figure on a cross, with children staring into the distance. When you look closer, the white robed figure on the cross is an approximation of the map of Palestine. [3] 

It is "written," my father says. It is written that we should suffer; but God will find the way for us. His words crowd in on me. There is no elbow room to move around in the confines of the space that others had relegated for me. I curse my father's gods and his "written" destiny. My father has hair the colour of snow. He will die in exile bequeathing to me the legacy of a collection of images, of phrases and of a cogent set of tangibles from Palestine that will govern the tempo of my existential reality.

"Son of a dog," he shouts at me. "Disobedient son of a dog."

He pauses and adds impassionedly, as an afterthought: "No solution and no power except from Him, the Exalted, the Almighty."

Where have I heard these words before? His quality of hope is arrested. His generation is arrested in its march, like one who climbs on a mountain in order to reach its peak, only to find himself stuck in the middle, unable to take the next step up, nor to take a step down, to Return. Stuck in the middle of the mountain for eternity.

We begin to accept the image that the outside world has acquired of us. There are words that enter our language and become naturalized. They enter our consciousness. They are written with capital letters. They narrate a whole story of a crushed people in exile. They tell of the tension inherent in the condition of the ghourba. Refugee is no longer a word that means someone who sought refuge in a neighbouring country to wait for the guns to be silent, for the war to end, to return to his homeland. Refugee became a loaded word that carried images you wanted to block out of your mind. The hawiya was not a word that meant merely an identity card issued by your host country, it was a document that had a large X on it and that negated your very existence as a man, as a woman, as an individual, as a human being. UNRWA is a word you pronounced in different ways, depending on where you grew up; but UNRWA meant rations and powdered milk and sponsored schools and blankets and freckle-nosed officials with cameras who pinched children's cheeks in between taking pictures of our misery to frame in the foyer of the UN in New York. Zionism. Colonialism. The gendarmes. The Aliens Department. Work permits. Words that become, in a sense, exclusively Palestinian. Refugee. Son of the Camp. And when I stand at a street corner I look like a refugee who lost his ration card. I sold my homeland to the Jews. These words, like an artist's bold strokes, paint the starkness of a whole world. These words crowd in on me. What were the words in Hebrew that crowded in on the consciousness of a Palestinian who stayed behind after 1948? What in reality is behind the soubriquet "Israeli Arab"?

Words interlaced with the perception of current history and the vehemence of existence. The Gulf. Employment in the Gulf. Everybody's brother, every- body's father is in the Gulf working for oil companies. Fathers and brothers go away for years on end to the only place in the Arab world that allows Palestinians to work. Your brother works his guts out in the desert to send you to school, a mother says. Desert becomes more than a word, and acquires the added mystical significance of images of fathers and elder brothers separated from their families, of a whole world of ennui, intense heat, aloneness that children knew awaited them when they grew up to earn a living.

Desert, like gendarmes, like the Aliens Department, like work permits, were entities that had an element of terror to them that was to become your lot because you had nowhere else to go.

There was no end to it. The machine that, at the beginning, alone was adding and multiplying figures to determine our life style in the forties was still ticking away dispassionately in the early sixties.

Wait till we Return, my father says. Only when we Return will we and the cosmos be restored to our preordained course. He goes to the UNRWA depot to pick up the rations and he pulls on his head-dress and shirwal [trousers] as he waits in line. We are Refugees, he keeps saying, wait till we Return. When did these words acquire their capital letters? I ask my father what kind of reality will we build when we Return, what kind of world will we go back to? This is to be found only in the heart of the poet, he tells me. Such exquisite metaphors that I learn from him. And he spends the rest of his days tending the ashes of his devastated, burnt-out system of logic, hoping for a spark to leap through. My father's world, in the year 15 of the ghourba has gone bad at the teeth, its fierce images keep pressing intolerably on my spirit. But we have grown up and we begin to reject. A crisis of disconnectedness, a crisis of identity, grips the very being of a whole generation. Its men and women wander around the Arab world and beyond. Even those who do not take off beyond the physical confines of the camps, the West Bank, Gaza and occupied Palestine wander away somehow. As we wander, we think we are rejecting our Palestinianness, our Arabism, whereas in fact we are rejecting the degradation - that now became intolerable - of what Refugee meant. Not the Return, but the journey backward that the concept implied.

As we began to "wander" away, there was however a rejection, a self- hating phase of alienation from our reality as a people without a homeland, of alienation from the Arab world, alienation from our fathers' generation, alienation from the code of ethics and ideology that governed our affairs and the affairs of other people around us, alienation from our Palestinianness and refugeeism.

To remain a Palestinian, to remain a refugee, had become unbearable- till we came back from the exile within the exile. Many of us had gone to the Gulf States, to Western Europe, to America, to Australia. The more devastated souls were found in less bland places around the globe doing their own weird and impossible things. Others talked around, window shopping together for an ideology, a revolutionary vision. All of us were looking for Palestine. In my own retreat in England, in Australia, in India and then in Europe there was no inner comfort to be derived from the fact that I had totally absorbed the culture of others and thus escaped, as I wanted to convince myself, the aching pressures of my identity. Indeed in later years I would come to look upon this acquisition as grime to be scoured off my body and soul. But so shattering were the private terrors of the inner journey we took.

I am driven by an incredible urge to go away from the Arab world. So I travel to the West where I am an alien. I remember that in Lebanon, where I grew up, I am also an alien. I become used to this notion because I have never known any other status; but I do not accept it. Even here in this faraway country, in Australia, where I work in the iron ore mines, they remind me every day that I am a Palestinian. They have never heard of the word, but they remind me of my Palestinianness when I realize they want to know what country I come from. When I realize that Palestine does not mean anything to anyone - yet - except me. Then right there, in the Australian outback, in Mount Isa, after three years of carrying on a long, useless soliloquy with myself, I meet an Iraqi Arab. We are so different from each other. Yet when he utters his words of greeting, they remind me that he is speaking in our language, that we share a bond whose depth is embodied in one letter, daad, and one word, al-' Urouba. A letter that no alphabet but that of the Arabs possesses and a word [Arabism] charged with emotions going back to antiquity and that no one can truly define. He tells me he is saving money to go back to his country. I save no money because I have no country to go back to. I just have a mother who writes me the same letter every fortnight to tell me that I should keep warm because the cold is the source of all physical ailments. She does not understand that I live in the tropics and that I do not worry about the cold as the source of physical ailments. I just worry about Palestine as the source of psychosomatic ailments.

When I return to the city, and live in Sydney, I look up a Palestinian family I know. The couple were married in Palestine. Their son was born here. Our home no longer exists, I say. Our ethos is dying and we are scattered around the world. I must leave this country. I must Return. To myself. To Palestine. There are many places as distant as this. We talk in our language. It is the only tool I have in this country to assert myself. To assert the totality of my intellect. My emotions. I hear my name mentioned and it is pronounced in that same manner, in that same intonation, that identified me as the being I was. The being I wanted to remain.

Everything is familiar here in this room, with these people, and I explain to them that I cannot impose harmony on the confusion in my life. I cannot come to terms with my present reality and my existential discontent. In the evening we sit together in a room overlooking a front yard. They ruffle my hair playfully as they remind me of some incident in my youth. 

We make fun of Jordan, we laugh about the happenings there. Everything we reminisce about is funny. The sayings, the myths, the events, the people. The Bedouin in the Royal Army, he recalls, are so stupid, so incredibly stupid. When I was a student at Nablus, on the West Bank, he says, we used to organize a lot of demonstrations against the king. Then His Majesty, he continues -- almost gagging on the title - despatches his troops to the West Bank, to arrest, beat up and harass the students. The Bedouin go on the rampage in the streets of Nablus stopping youngsters in the streets and asking them if they are students. If you replied that you were, you would be picked up and beaten on the spot. If you said that you were not a student but a pupil, they would let you go - because they did not know that there was no difference.

The three of us listen to this and slap our knees with laughter till the tears fall down our cheeks - only I don't know if the tears were those of laughter.

Where will I go from here, they want to know. An Arab, when asked this question, will say: "I want to return to my country." A Palestinian says: "I want to return to the countries."

So I say to them: "I want to return to the countries." They remind me that other Arabs say that too. Well, they are disinherited then, like us. 

My friends will stay behind. Like many Palestinians they have opted for this life here, comfortable, easy, painless. I go to England.

In London I am always sitting in city pubs. Middle-aged men line the bar drinking beer and arguing with their bookies. I am also like them - but at age 23 - half-drunk, unemployed and unsure. "Where you from, fellow? Where you from?" I share with them my sweaty body, my T-shirt and my anger but this is not enough. I do not share with them that pattern of unconscious behaviour. That turn of phrase. That nuance of response. I am trying so hard but the harder I try the more alien I feel. The more they want to swing their big egos around. And I am so eager to please. So anxious to carve out a life modelled on theirs, in their own image. To them, however, I continue to be an object from another world. And I am not threatening them. Nobody is afraid of us in this world. We are so harmless. Nobody knows us. Nobody knows who a Palestinian is. What a Palestinian is. Nobody knows that we are at the very tail end of a quiescent phase in our life. I want to throw my name, Palestinian, down this fellow's throat. I want to breathe it down his neck till it burns him to a cinder. I want to turn every one of the letters in the name into steel pellets and smash them on the skull of this universe.

- How d'you be, mate?

- Where you from, fellow.?

-Thump him, Riley.

Riley is the small man with the bloodshot eyes drinking at the bar. A current, that only in recent years has become familiar to me, runs through my spine.

- Thump him, Riley.

- Yeah, Riley, thump the dago.

We built thee, Acre, unafraid of the roar of the sea. You sold land to the Jews. Who am I, who are ye ? I am the Returnee. You look like the refugee who had lost his ration card.

- Thump him, Riley.

There is a nerve in me that stiffens. It is urgent. And I thump Riley. I thump the man to the ground. It is as if I am watching myself do it. It is as if I am suspended aloft, resting, alone. Outside the pub, in the sun, in this distant city that had acted as overlord over the destinies of millions of souls in the Third World, a mother pushes a pram along the street and peers in. Her baby is protected against the elements. Against the cold and against hunger and disease. And I am full of alcohol, aglow with demonic, hitherto untapped vehemence, thumping Riley to the ground. I think of when the men, around the kerosene lamps, had talked about the woman from a village, that the Stern Gang was attacking, who ran out of the house - her body on fire - carrying a pillow because she thought it was her baby.

When I meet an Israeli for the first time, in a side-street cafe in Paris, I am hostile to him. I have developed a defensive, aggressive veneer to my encounter with the world. Before I talk to people, I keep wanting them initially to prove their decency to me. As the injured, abused party, the onus is not on me to do that. Like me, this Israeli is born in Haifa and is my age. Like me he has a beard and like me he is fluent in French. We talk. We agree on nothing. Except that the stereotype image we have developed of each other is false. We meet again and again. There is a morbid fascination in these encounters as if we were two wrestlers moving around in a circle, sizing each other up.

"I understand," he says to me in our last meeting.

"What do you understand?"

"I understand, now that we have talked. I understand a lot more. About your people. About mine."

Maybe he did.

As he walked away I wanted to run after him, down the street, tap him on the shoulder, and say: "It's not enough. It is not enough that you just understand."

Maybe he understood that too. No one can say. 

In Holland I meet a Palestinian who was born in Israel and grew up there. He describes to me what he identifies as the most exciting event in his life. It was beautiful, he says, relishing the enriching memory of it, so stunningly beautiful. Beautiful, yet so strange, to visit an Arab city for the first time, where everybody spoke Arabic, where I felt no longer menaced.

"What are you doing in this country? " I ask.

We were everywhere around the globe. We were all looking for Palestine. Till we Returned. For Palestine became the world and we took the world with us. Palestine ceased to be the strip of land from which our forefathers had come. We filled it with the frenzied passion of years of statelessness till it ceased to be a state and became a state of mind. We endowed it with the incessant magnetism of a vision till the Return became the dialectic of liberation. To talk about Palestine, was to talk about a private inner world that had its own ethos and spiritual exigences; it was also to talk about the outer world of the wretched of the earth. To be a Palestinian was to be a denizen of both. And a Palestinian's world ceased to be inhabited only by Palestinians. Its population were men and women driven by the same tension, their sense of oppression derived from the same source. When George Jackson, the Afro-American revolutionary, poet and writer was killed in jail by his guards on August 21, 1971, they searched his cell and found among his belongings a collection of poems which the militant paper, Right On, later printed in its middle spread. The commentary accompanying the poems explained how they truly reflected the black experience in America, and how the poems were interlaced with the perception and sensibility of the oppressed. It was only later discovered that the poems were not George Jackson's, that they were taken from Enemy of the Sun, an anthology by Palestinian poets. Perhaps it did not matter who composed the verses, for they bespoke of the same world, the same anguish and the same terrors. To the Palestinian poet, Palestine had transcended politics and polemics, geography and race and had become an existential statement about human beings and their capacity to suffer, to endure, to survive and to fight.

A people's aching in life - or microcosmically, an individual's - will be endured so long as the possibility of removing it does not cross their mind. Once that happens, a period of quiescence, during which men and women have reacted stoically to their existential condition, is said to come to an end.

From then on their passion for change, the passion of the human spirit, will not be stilled. A people needs only one event, one galvanizing encounter that brings together the vision of their inner world and the possibilities of the outer world, for this process to become irreversible. For this generation of Palestinians, the battle of Karameh - or more correctly, the spirit of Karameh was such an encounter. Karameh became a myth, a watershed, that entered our consciousness and acquired its own capital letter, just like Refugee had done before it. Only Karameb. was the antithesis of Refugee. The end of one road. The beginning of another. It brought to an end the Moattereen phase for the Palestinians and opened up the possibility where existential and political realities came together in an exquisitely aligned bond. Whereas before the Palestinians' tragedy divided their past and their present, divided their range of human experience and that of their fathers' generation, Karameh best defined these in relation to each other. More than that, Karameh established a link, a dialogue between the past that now became inexhaustibly fascinating and a present that was inexhaustibly possible. The Mojahedeen of 1938 filled Palestine with their cries of rebellion. The Moattereen of 1948 filled the Middle East with their cries of discontent. The Fedayeen of 1968 filled the world with their cries of revolution. In a society made inert by defeat, the feda'i became a hero. His sacrifice was the true link with the past. His vision the quintessential future.

In the distant village in Iraq, close to the Jordanian border, a group of Fedayeen stop their trucks and get off to buy food supplies. The villagers come out to greet them and chant patriotic songs. The children come closer to look at them, with awe, and whisper the word Fedayeen.

When we were children, in our refugee camps, in our homes, our parents would recount tales of the Mojahedeen in their 1936-1939 Revolt against the British authorities in Palestine and how they would turn up in villages, attired in their checkered headdress, and the villagers would come out to greet them, and the children to look up at them and whisper welcome to the Mojahedeen, welcome to the heroes. The link was truly found. The flow in our history was uninterrupted.

The myth of the feda'i is the myth of the Refugee transformed. It is men and women who supped their fill and wanted no more. It is the ethos of Palestine Returned. 

We Returned. To Palestine. Its liberation became in a sense the liberation of men and women. Regaining it became, in another, the regaining by its people of their sense of worth.

Before we Returned, a whole generation of Palestinians had been born, had lived, grown up and acquired a consciousness without a homeland. The ghourba, with all its pain, its fantasies and sense of disconnectivedness became in a sense the homeland. The alienation, the exclusion, the crisis of identity, the rejection of the self, shattered the very soul of Palestinians in exile; but with the trip from Karameh, with its continuing and predictable trials and tribulations, its ebb and flow, there was a return of the native to his native self, like the return of two lovers long separated from one another.

After fifty years of struggle inside Palestine and after a quarter-century struggle outside it, Palestine is no longer an exclusively Palestinian concern. Palestine as a homeland, as mythology, as ethos, as consciousness is Everyman in the Middle East.

The folksinger in our world sings words from a now famous ballad: To Palestine take me with you. Take me so that I may find my homeland, take me so that I may find my identity, take me so that I may find my dignity. To Palestine take me with you. Take me so that I may look for my nationhood, so that I may look for my house, so that I may look for my childhood. To Palestine take me with you. Take me so that I will see the friends in my neighbourhood, so that I will see the books in my library. To Palestine take me with you. Take me so that only there may I live, only there may I die.

She is not addressing only Palestinians. Her lyrics are a revolutionary outcry, a reaching out, for all peoples, for all generations, and for all Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis who struggle for liberation and the dignity of the human soul.



1 For an understanding of how Palestinians, in the early years after their expulsion from Palestine, viewed their stay in host countries and the concept of the Return, see A.L. Tibawi, "Visions of the Return: The Palestine Refugees in Arab Poetry and Art," Middle East Journal, XVII, 4 (Autumn 1963), pp. 507-26. 

2 See Rashid Hussein's poem Jafa, in A Lover From Palestine and Other Poems, edited by A.W. Al Messiri (Washington, D.C: Free Palestine Press, 1970). 

3 See Palestine - A Land Crucified, a painting by the artist Ismail Shammout.