Friday, 22 July 2011

Chapter 69 Tan3eesh

The recent flotilla and 'flytilla' missions to Gaza and the West Bank were a reminder of Israel's ability to deny entrance to anyone it deems a threat or a troublemaker.

It also underscored the fact that the Palestinian Authority has no power whatsoever over who comes in or out of its territories.

As much talk as there is about a two state solution or UN backing for an independent Palestinian state - there is no roadmap for the Palestinians to have control over their own borders in the foreseeable future.

Apart from affecting tourism this, of course, has certain implications for the Palestinian diaspora. To say nothing of what it means for those living inside the West Bank and Gaza. 

As a traveler, you have no idea until you've actually crossed the border whether or not you're going to be allowed in.

Last year I was nauseous for weeks before my journey in. I had given up my job, a relationship and my life in London for an absolute maybe and I was terrified that if I was turned away, I would have nothing to go back to.

I know a couple people who have been turned away and heard of others who have been given one to 10 years bans from coming back. None of them had been particularly politically active nor a part of movements that like to stir things up.
There's an Arabic saying my dad's quite fond of: 'Tanyieesh' (or 'Tan3eesh' if you're using Arabic textspeak) which essentially means 'if we live that long, we'll deal with it then.'

I suppose the closest thing in English would be 'we'll cross that bridge when we get to it' - but with some added drama (we're Arabs, what can I tell you).

A colleague of mine recently wondered if increased stringency at the borders after the fly and flotillas meant it would be even harder for us to get back to the West Bank.

What can you say really apart from... tan3eesh.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Chapter 68 What's in a name? Lots...

"My dad is from Lebanon and my mom is from Palestinia." Says my friend's daughter as she taps away on her father's iPad.

At 5 and a half she is already exponentially more sophisticated than I was at her age with very serious opinions on marriage and 'kissing on the mouth'.

"My cousins live in Canada and that's far away. Look..." she points at the atlas and reads the name carefully, sounding out the letters.

"Why do you live in Palestinia?"

"Because that's where my job is."

"Ok... Where is Palestinia?"

"It's next to Lebanon." I reply unthinkingly. 

She begins looking around the area for a 'P'.

"Sasa I can't find it."

It wasn't until that moment that I realized the conversation I had inadvertently found myself in the middle of.

As she stared at me unblinkingly and I floundered with fillers, I began to wish I had been given the 'where do babies come from?' question instead.

I go for simplicity and point vaguely at the map: "It's over here habibti (darling)."

"But I can't see it."

"I know, but this is where it is."

"But it's not written anywhere."

"My goodness but you're a persistent little thing aren't you? Well... it's right over here you see. There's no name on this map but some maps have it written."


"Because... because sometimes... you see... errmm... who wants ICE CREEAAMM???"


The first time someone asked me if I had been to "forty eight" I hadn't the faintest idea what they were talking about. I thought perhaps a new restaurant and asked if it was any good.

Only later did I realize they meant the areas seized by Israel in 1948 and then understood the strange look I got in response to my question.

At the borders it's referred to as Israel, Middle Eastern newspapers speak of the Occupied Territories and to the diaspora it's Palestine. Each name representing an idea laden with a hundred years of baggage.

These are of course only the more recent ones.

Each West Bank city has its Arab name and its Hebrew name based on the biblical references.

In his giant of a novel 'The Great War for Civilization', Robert Fisk speaks of meetings at Camp David where the entire proceedings were stalled as both sides flew into rages when the other side would only refer to the territories in question using their Hebrew or Arabic names.

So much energy is expended on the big things - the demarcation of borders, security measures and various economic elements; however often times the most intense obstacles are found in the little things.


Monday, 4 July 2011

Chapter 67 The feeling of diaspora

The look in some of their eyes is difficult to describe:

"Did you really go to Haifa? We're from there... what's it like?"

"How do you feel when you're there? Is it emotional?"

"My mom went last year for the first time. She said she'd never go back. It's too difficult."

"I haven't been back in 20 years. I don't know even know if I still have family there."

"I've never been."

"We really want to visit."

"Tell us about Palestine..."

So I tell them.

I tell them how beautiful it is - how much there is to love.

I tell them about the landscape - how it differs from Lebanon or Jordan. The wide open spaces, the rolling hills, the miles of nature and undeveloped land between the cities.

Just a random road - but so beautiful.

I tell them the tabbouleh is not good but the maqloubeh* is great. I tell them the best musakhan I've ever had was with one of our poorest students in her crumbling home amidst the dirt and rubble of a refugee camp.

Tabbouleh is one of my favourite dishes. Widely accepted as being 'Lebanese' this salad has a tangy lemon dressing and is made from parsley, tomatoes, onion and burghul.

We talk about what it's like to live there. That on a normal day I feel safer walking down the street there than anywhere else in the world.

We talk about the difficulties. The immense challenges that the Palestinians face both internally and externally. The checkpoints and the hardships of not being able to travel and the lack of exposure of the outside world.

People are more interested than I realized to know about the little things. What the shopping's like, what the food's like ... what people do there on the weekend.

What do they think? How do they feel?

There is a feeling that comes with dispora - a vacuum... a gap.

The absence of a 'home'; of a place to belong to. Many people have a genuine desire to connect to Palestine and to the countrymen they have never seen nor spoken to. Despite their wildly different experiences of life there's still a bond - a feeling of solidarity.

More and more expatriated young Palestinians are coming back to visit, some even to live. Many of them are well educated and widely traveled. They come to experience their heritage and ancestry but also because of a fairly fundamental tenet:

If a country's own people don't give back to it, care about it or stand up for it - who will?

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

* Maqloubeh is a traditional Palestinian dish made of spiced rice, fried cauliflower and aubergine with either chicken or meat. It is often cooked with chick peas as well. It is cooked 'upside down' (hence the name) then capsized onto a large serving plate. Delicious.

Musakkhan is melt-off-the-bone chicken served on special Palestinian bread with onions and summac. Also wonderful.