Lina Meruane’s “Becoming Palestine” narrates the exploration of her Palestinian heritage. It also discusses her first trip to the motherland.
While the book is less than 100 pages, she manages to dissect each step of her path carefully and beautifully. She reflects on the losses her family has faced due to the imposition of assimilation into Chilean society throughout the 20th century while also actively returning to re-learn that history and preserve the knowledge that remains.
The title itself dives into this theme of return and loss. Andrea Rosenberg — the English translator — mentions the difficult process of choosing “Becoming Palestine” as the title due to the many connotations and meanings each word contains. In Spanish, the word volver has two distinct meanings depending on the context; it can refer to the process of becoming, but it can also refer to the act of returning — of re-tracing one’s steps, presumably to the place where one began.
In this context, Palestina can be used to refer directly to the country, as well as the feminine demonym for Palestinians. This multiplicity of meaning is present throughout Meruane’s journey, as she not only physically returns to a place she’s never been to, but she also returns to understanding herself in racialized terms that she had not experienced in Chile the way her ancestors had.
In this sense, it’s necessary to contextualize Palestinian migration toward Latin America and Lina Meruane’s own family history within this larger movement.
Lina Meruane is a Chilean writer of Italian and Palestinian heritage, born in Santiago in 1970. Her paternal family migrated to Chile when her grandparents were just children — part of the waves of mostly Christian Arabs that migrated to Latin America during the late-19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Many Christian families migrated after a conscription law in 1908 was enforced upon all Ottoman subjects in order to protect their sons from having to serve in the army. Meruane’s family isn’t certain of her grandfather’s date of birth due to the likelihood that his birth certificate was falsified to avoid being drafted.
Palestinians that arrived during this era mostly became itinerant salesmen, thus accruing important capital that allowed them to expand into other business ventures that flourished throughout the 20th century. However, all migrants from the Levant simultaneously faced racialization in the new regions they began to inhabit, including Chile. In fact, in 1927, the Chilean government sent a confidential letter to all its ambassadors, in which they were urged to reject “undesirable immigration” — particularly Chinese, Syrians, and Africans — “due to their race.”
Lina Meruane speaks to this institutional racism by narrating the process through which her grandparents assimilated into Chilean society, describing the difficult choices made by her ancestors to “hold their tongues before passing down the stigma of second-class citizenship because there was a shadow stuck to the accent that was as evident as the worn clothes of their poverty. They had to rid themselves of both.”
This highlights another valuable contribution made by Meruane’s experience. Despite Arab Latin Americans being associated with prosperity, there are also many valuable stories that have not been told as frequently about the less affluent members of the Palestinian diaspora. Those like Meruane’s family couldn’t afford the membership fees of their local Palestinian country club. These histories not only contribute to questioning the hegemonic narratives regarding immigrants from the Levant, but allow us to understand the two contexts of violence Palestinians and their descendants face in Latin America. On the one hand, they are pushed to migrate to Latin American countries due to multiple socioeconomic factors and conflicts — including the aforementioned forced conscription to the Ottoman army, the Six-Day War, and the Nakba, to mention just a few. Upon arrival, they had to learn a completely new language and culture, and make a living while simultaneously being subjected to the racist policies of the Latin American countries where they resided.
While each has their own particularities, they are all inscribed into a logic of “whitening” that included (but was certainly not limited to) the erasure of non-white languages and cultures. There was a demand that these populations be assimilated into mestizo society to avoid being the targets of racist violence. In this sense, while Lina Meruane mentions largely avoiding any sort of allusion to her heritage in Chile — except to clarify that she’s Palestinian and not turca (“Turk” being the catch-all term for migrants from the Levant) — once she begins the journey back to Palestine, she is suddenly thrust back into what she feels so distanced from: Palestinianness.
At the beginning of her narration, she seems to distance herself from “true Palestinians” that are still connected to or inhabit the territory. However, as she inches her way towards the ancestral home, she is reminded by those around her about who they take her to be, in a positive and negative light. For Jaser, the taxi driver that takes her to the airport in the US, she is a comrade. When she mentions being a run-of-the-mill Chilean, he abruptly corrects her: “you are Palestinian, you are an exile.”
Once she arrives at the designated area in Heathrow airport, she is subjected to a series of interrogations, searches and treatment that show her exactly what being a Palestinian in the present means. The author realizes that her Palestinianness “acquired density” once she went through this process: she suddenly finds affinity with others who are being questioned by envoys of the apartheid regime — those who share her features; her curly hair and olive skin. She boards the flight that will take her to her origins, proud of what she now recognizes is a “thick scar that she wants to show off.”
The beauty of Lina Meruane’s Becoming Palestinian is the re-tracing of the author through the pain of Latin American racism and whitening towards the “otherness” her migrant grandparents experienced. She re-opens the scar she possesses — an heirloom whose pain has dulled with each passing generation, discovering the wounds that her body has inhabited. She is finally able to discover and understand the universes within her, veiled by Latin America’s own forms of violence.