'However and Whomever We Choose’: Love in Occupied Palestine
February 14 2022

In his essay, A Moment in Ramallah, John Berger writes:

Long ago, newly married couples planted roses in Ramallah gardens as an augury for their future life together. The alluvial soil suited the roses. [... ] Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when they were alive, and now reprinted as small posters.

Palestinian loss is articulated through contrast between the utopian past and the horrors of the post-Nakba present. When we think about these happy newlyweds of ages past, we also think about the future: will there come a time when Palestinians regain what we have lost? When roses bloom yet again in the gardens of Ramallah?

Berger's historical anecdote may be apocryphal — I can find no supporting sources — but it does hint at how romantic love is not purely sentimental. Our desires, our sense of yearning, our hopes, sexualities, and relationships all contribute to, and are defined by, our identity as Palestinians.

Romantic love encounters the occupation, in a tangible and immediate sense, as seen in the apartheid policies that impose geographical segregation on  Palestinian lovers. The lapsed Citizenship Law, which prevents Palestinian citizens of Israel from obtainining residency permits for their non-citizen spouses, continues to be applied extrajudicially by Israel’s interior minister Ayelet Shaked — who has referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes” — while plans to renew the law are underway. This is just one of the many de facto and de jure policies that seek to keep Palestinians geographically splintered, and therefore limited in who they can love, marry, and live with.

This leads to cruel absurdities: if a Palestinian couple does not posess the same residency permit or identification category under Israeli law, then they cannot live together unless they move abroad. Noura Mansour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, recently wrote about her surreal experience of attending her own wedding party in occupied Akka without her husband because the Israeli government would not issue him a visa. In this she is not alone: the 'Love Under Apartheid' project, founded and curated by Tanya Keilani, has documented similar instances of spousal separation. Mohammed, a Palestinian-American engaged to Marjan, a Palestinian with a West Bank ID card, was forced to marry in Chicago because the Israeli government denied him entry to the West Bank. Amer, from Gaza, fell in love with and was engaged to a Palestinian woman from the West Bank for two years. Due to the Israeli blockade on Gaz a— now in its 15th year — he was unable to leave the Strip. Despite many unsuccessful attempts at uniting, the couple was forced to call off the engagement.

As an exiled Palestinian who has never set foot in Palestine, my own sense of loss is mediated via family, oral history, art, and narrative. I ask myself: what would it be like to return and to walk through the avenues of my ancestral town of Arraba? If I have children, would they ever be able to play on the same soil and among the trees of my grandparents’ childhood? I have only seen my homeland in photographs, films, satellite images, and Instagram reels. I imagine what it would be like to break out of this pixelated prison and step into the real Palestine.

For me, these questions are necessarily tied to love. My yearning for home is not just about place, but also about people. I want to be able to live in Palestine among friends, family, and lovers. These impulses connect us to the future, as Keilani explains:

 "When we find a partner, we think about our futures: where will we live; what kind of home we will create; would we like children; if so, how many—but planning a future together isn’t the same for Palestinians.”

This is especialy true  for queer Palestinians. As a gay man, I often wonder what my place will be in a liberated Palestine. Though Palestinian communities both in Palestine and the diaspora are not religiously, politically, or ideologically homogenous — and certainly not essentially homophobic as the Zionist regime would have people believe — we do need to confront homophobia where it does exist.

Stéphanie Latte Abdallah wrote a study on matrimony in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, published in the Journal of Palestine Studies. Abdullah traced attitudes towards marriage in four generations of women in the camps, beginning from the pre-Nakba generation of women born before 1938. In contrast to their elders, women of the third generation, who came of age during the 1970s and 80s, were increasingly able to marry for love, and on their own terms. This was a significant departure from “traditional” sexual and relational politics, in which women married young, often through family arrangements. Although this social revolution was incomplete, the political mobilization of women in this period, supported by the optimism and energy of the emergent Palestinian liberation movement, allowed them some freedom from patriarchal norms and expectations.

Though I take care not to overgeneralize these findings, I do draw a parallel: queer mobilization and visibility in Palestine is, to some extent, enabled by the present-day Palestinian liberation movement, at the same time as it is challenged by it. Queer love and women’s liberation are inherently transgressive, and represent a dual threat to both the Israeli regime and heteropatriarchal power in Palestinian society.

Mainstream depictions of queer love in Palestine are largely confined to Israeli cinema. The two most egregious examples, The Bubble (2006) and Out in the Dark (2012), ostensibly seek to critique the Israeli regime, but in doing so reproduce orientalizing, white savior narratives about gay Palestinians. This colonial contortion of queer Palestinian identity works to defuse the revolutionary potential of queer politics and preserve the underlying power relations that maintain the occupation.

We need to articulate and express our identities on our own terms. The closing scene of Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven (2019) takes place in a gay bar in Haifa, and serves as both a culmination of the film and commentary on the future of the Palestinian cause. This five-minute sequence was more authentic and powerful than full-length Israeli films that attempt to showcase the exotic gay Palestinian Other.

To some extent, the pre-Nakba period is mythologized in Palestinian popular imagination—despite Berger’s rose bushes, women were married young, generally with no choice in the matter, and most were illiterate, as shown by Abdullah’s research. At the same time, though the concept of romantic love did not figure into social relations, it would be wrong to say that it was entirely absent. Indeed, Palestinian folk culture is rich in depictions of romantic love, and folk love songs such as Wein 'a Ramallah (وين ع رام الله) and Tarweedeh Shmaali (ترويدة شمالي) have been repurposed post-Nakba as anthems of resistance and our inevitable return.

The trauma of the Nakba threatens to arrest us in time. But it is clear that the future cannot merely replicate the past—it must surpass it. Our Palestinian future must be one where we can all love however and whomever we choose, free from the repression of the Israeli regime and patriarchal dominance within our own communities.

That is the future that I want to build—a future where Palestinians are no longer separated by borders, walls, or identity cards; a future where my beloved and I can plant roses in soil that has tended and been tended by generations of free Palestinians.

About The Author: 

Fahad Ali is a molecular biologist, science educator, and writer. He lives and works on unceded Dharug and Gadigal lands.

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