Growing up, the subject of my heritage seemed taboo and shameful. Not because being Palestinian is any of these things, but because the prevalent sense in the schoolyard was to belong, not to be different. People did not understand Palestine; where is that, why have I never heard of it? A Jewish friend of mine, whose blonde hair and blue eyes I wanted to badly to emulate, would correct me- “Israel,” she’d say. “Oh, okay” I’d respond.
When asked where I was from, my coy response would be “Toronto.” That was, technically, the city in which I’d been born and moved from when I was a young child. Only when pressed, I’d mumble I was an Arab, but rarely admitting the P-word. It seems funny and strange to me now, but I never wanted to be part of a cause. A plight on the other side of the world could only serve to make me different and hold me down.
I was different enough because of my family. My mother, a Palestinian scholar specializing in women in the Middle East, who is also a staunch feminist, would give me grief when I wanted to paint my nails or my lips. My father, an artist, would splash our house with bright Mediterranean colours and images of Fatima Hands and Jerusalem doors. You could tell my house was different upon entering it, but if that weren’t enough, the smells of thyme, olive oil and garlic seemed nauseatingly strong and my friends would giggle and laugh in shock when served traditional Arabic dishes. They’d laugh at the names, and I would laugh too, my young and high-pitched voice struggling to understand what I had done to deserve being so… different.
All the other children, coming back to school in September, would make me bright green with envy as they told me about their summer vacations. Disneyland seemed like the real Holy Land; telling people you visited the Gaza strip when you are ten just does not pack a strong enough punch. As well, the one time my family actually managed to go somewhere ‘resort-y’- Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt- it was ruined on the bus ride home. My mother picked a fight with the Israeli border guards on our way back to our family’s hometown of Nazareth. They were apparently insulting her and she would not stand for it. Instead my entire family was detained at the border for hours and we had to wait for the next tour bus to take us home. It figured.
Acceptance of myself, and my heritage, was not easily realized. It took a trip to Israel at 19, unaccompanied by my parents, and the first I’d taken at an age where I could properly understand and take in what I was seeing. Before, traveling to the Middle East was odious, a form of punishment. However, this would be my awakening and the beginnings of my comprehension of the conflict and ultimately of who I am too. I still have trouble talking to people about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this trip helped me see it- and how lucky I am to be Canadian- in a new light.
My direct flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv was fairly uneventful. The plane was full of young Jewish kids, chattering excitedly en route to their first trip to the place they’d heard so much of. I sat beside one of their chaperones, a teacher from a Hebrew school in Toronto and we had a light-hearted conversation fit in sporadically between food, movies and sleep. It seemed as though we were both dancing over the subject of the conflict- I guess we already figured we knew what the other had to say. In retrospect that was a shame.
When I arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I was filled with trepidation at seeing my family. My parents and brother are the only family members that I have in Canada, and except for a few wayward cousins, my entire lineage is spread throughout Israel and parts of the West Bank. It’s no wonder that I felt so different and removed- I never had the experience of sharing my culture with anyone who could understand it. Only having gone to upper middle class schools with predominantly white classmates, the concept of ethnicity was very foreign to me. I often jokingly recount the story from grade school when my friends and I dressed up as the Spice Girls, I was Scary Spice; I was the closest thing we’d seen to a black person.
Living with my family was a beautiful experience. In Nazareth, I’d be shuttled around from aunt’s house to aunt’s house, being fed until I was stuffed at every location. It was a personal offence to them if I did not finish all the food in front of me, and I was very reluctant to offend. I must have gained more weight in my five weeks there than I did in my entire freshman year.
It felt great being surrounded by my family. I finally realized what had been missing all my life. Looking at family members and seeing your eyes in one, your nose in another… it may sound strange but it was the closest I’d ever felt to belonging. It just felt right.
After Nazareth I headed to Haifa and fell in love all over again. All the dust and sand and dark cobbled streets that filled Nazareth were replaced with bright white stones, terra cotta roofs and a glistening blue Mediterranean sea. The cafes and fresh fish, and beautiful Bahai’i temple were inspirational and grounding at once. Walking down the smaller streets I would look at the brightly painted doors of small villas, fantasizing about which one I would buy and decorate with delicate Oriental rugs and old urns from Souks. I was more at home than I was at home.
I was hesitant to leave Haifa, but my next stop was Ramallah to visit my maternal aunt and uncle. I knew that it was important for me to see the Palestinian “reality” and that as tough as it may seem in some parts of Israel, that nothing would inform me about real Palestine other than seeing it for myself. With my cousins, I walked through the Calendia checkpoint into Ramallah, in a throng of women and children. The men were in a separate, slower-moving line. It wasn’t until I got to the front that I realized their line was moving so slowly because each man was getting searched from head to toe. We entered the West Bank with relative ease and made our way to the taxi stands to get to my uncle’s house.
That ride was the first I’d really seen of the Separation wall. So tall and ugly, made of the sickliest cement possible in some places and rotting wood and wire in others, it made me shiver to look at it. I could never imagine something like that in Canada- it looked like a jagged scar cut into something pure and clean.
Ramallah’s downtown centre was full of people, running around completing errands. In my time there I saw Arafat’s newly set grave, stone buildings with their faces crumbled and in mases of rubble in front of them, and passing UN cars which I took pictures of as if they were the mystical Mickey and Minnie mice that evaded me in my childhood.
One part of my Western upbringing that was difficult to shake was my stubbornness. When I was younger, I used to be a strict vegetarian and ball-buster in training, and visiting Israel one of my cousins asked my father seriously, “How will we ever marry her off?” I am fiercely independent, and I dislike being told what to say or wear. This, I must confess, got me into some trouble there. The weather was very hot, so it seemed only natural I wear shorts. And needing my personal space, I would often insist on taking long walks by myself. On one of these walks, after an especially harrowing day in Ramallah where a child begging on the street made me break into tears and then suffer friendly teasing from my family (the little girl had a face that looked like mine) people came up to me and told me that I was in the wrong place. I felt very intimidated and small on those streets and was scared for my safety.
It was at that moment that I felt lost. Not perfectly Western and not fully Arab either- I was a strange mutant hybrid of both and did not know what that meant for me. It was depressing because I sincerely wondered if I would ever fully belong anywhere. Everything I had seen on my trip pooled around me and I felt torn: going from once feeling like I could live there and adapt to the way of life to even wondering if I wanted to.
I returned to my uncle’s house and readied for the rest of my trip. I would be leaving Ramallah soon in order to do a spin through Jerusalem and the northern Galilee before returning to Tel Aviv to go home.
The Old City in Jerusalem only served to deepen the divide I felt between my homeland and myself. I would consider myself spiritual and nature but have often had difficulty in understanding religion. You see, my parents had to leave Israel to get married. My mother comes from a Christian Orthodox family and my father from a devout Muslim family. Their love could not happen there and were both practically disowned by their families before moving to Toronto. It would be years until they went back and were welcomed by everyone, and some of my father’s brothers still disapprove of my mother.
Seeing religious monument after monument and seeing the devout worship of these places and the overt way in which they affected those who visited them made me feel more alienated. Who it united, in my mind, were the Christians, Muslims and Jews that shared such a deep and abiding love for their Gods. I left Jerusalem a little more appreciative of the nature of faith, however alienating it felt to secular me.
Back at Ben Gurion airport, I waited in line at the check in counter to board my return Air Canada flight, along with other Canadian backpackers and older couples. In the check-in area, I showed my passport, which was promptly adorned with a large bright red sticker and I was sent to the right, not straight through the door as I thought I’d be. “But..” I stammered but no good. I waited in line in front of big metal scanners and trays, waiting for my luggage to be checked. I started to get nervous; traveling alone for the first time, I was paranoid that I would miss my flight. Finally when I got to the front of the line, I watched in silent mortification as two male Israeli customs officials opened my bags and brushed ever single piece of clothing I had, through my underwear and dirty laundry, the penis-shaped novelty soaps I bought for my friends, through the bag of Zaatar- thyme- that I was sure they would think was marijuana. Finally, all my clothing and presents in a huge pile on top of my luggage, I was lead to a back room by a female customs official and asked to take of my shirt and shoes. I started to cry as she frisked me and looked very closely at my sandals. “They’re from the Gap!” I wanted to scream. “I’m a nineteen year old girl! I’m an English Student! How do I fit any profile you could possible have?!?” Instead I bit my lip as the tears feel down my face, afraid to speak and be detained longer than I already had. It was at that moment that I, for the first time, envied my mother’s strength and attitude, and wished one day that I could have the same.
When they were done I was escorted to the departures area and, sniffling still, I went to the duty free to buy something to make me feel better. I felt tired and violated and the only thing I could think of, the only weapon I had in my arsenal of Western training, was retail therapy. I boarded the plane and slept for most of the twelve-hour ride back home. I was relieved when I landed back on Canadian soil. I had never felt so grateful to be Canadian. Because even though the cachet of difference appeals to me now, I know and value my freedoms and rights here much more now.
Even now, I encounter some personal hesitation when divulging my heritage. Not because shame lingers- because it doesn’t. I am proud to be Palestinian-Canadian and what used to be a marker for shame is now one of pride. However, I do not like how when I answer a simple question with the fact that I’m Palestinian, the amount of questions that result from it. “What do you think about that whole conflict thing?” It gets more frustrating when I say that the majority of my family lives in Nazareth and Haifa. The amount of times I’ve been corrected and told that I’m not Palestinian and, in fact, an Israeli-Arab is astounding. There is no way to respond to that, in that I don’t want to argue and don’t feel the need to correct other people’s ignorance. Living in Montreal, I understand the offence a Quebecois would feel if I corrected them and said, “No, you’re really only a French-speaking Canadian.”
Being back here and able to participate in debate and discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict is both rewarding and difficult at the same time. While I like hearing other people’s opinions and articulating mine, in the back of my head my experience of going “back home” remains. The fact is that when I was there observing, I was doing just that- observing as an outsider. I always knew that no matter what I saw and how it made me feel that I had a return ticket waiting for me to go back to Canada. My family and other people there do not have that luxury, so in that sense, sometimes I feel like a traitor for defending their cause. As much as I understand the historical facts of the conflict, there are elements that I will never understand- the desperation, the tension and the everyday reminders all around me. That is why I do not like to argue with people about the conflict. Not that I don’t have opinions, I just understand that they are only opinions and blood alone does not make someone understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only empathy, tolerance and experience can do that.