He came home and threw his heavy school bag by the entrance in a gesture rendering all the books and knowledge it carried worthless. He grabbed my hand and dragged me behind him like a criminal to his room. He closed the door without saying a word and made me sit on his bed next to him.
We sat in silence, but I could hear his thoughts ricocheting like bullets around the walls of his mind, until finally, his whole being was about to be ripped apart in his restless search for a shelter from the simple, three-word question; What am I?
What am I? My son asked: what am I? Am I Canadian because I have Canadian citizenship, even though no one asked me if I wanted it? Am I Emirati, because I was born in the United Arab Emirates, even though I don’t have UAE citizenship? Am I Palestinian because you say I am Palestinian?
I took a painful breath, hoping to gain some time to collect my splintered thoughts, but he was relentless, launching one attack after another.
How can I be Canadian? I lived there for only three years and I don’t remember any of it. How come I am not Emirati? I was born in the UAE and all my memories live there. How can I be Palestinian? I have never even seen it!!
Silence once more. He looked to me as someone whose ancient age ensures knowledge of all the mysteries of the world. He looked to me as his mother and his only hope in solving this insistent, haunting dilemma.
I, too, searched in the silence. I, too, looked for that place which will shelter me from the feelings of loss and anxiety I have carried heavily on my back, along with my equally heavy school bag, since I was just as young.
What are we? Are we refugees? A nameless people forced by Zionism into becoming refugees? Are we returnees? A people scattered like dust around the world, settling a while on sands that cannot bear our prints, only to be dusted off once more by the hands of time and scattered yet again.
What exactly are we, when all this displacement has fragmented our unique traditions and culture? We no longer have the opportunity to eat grandma’s cooking, our spices are lost within the spices from North Africa, Latin America and India, and everyone now prefers to eat hamburgers anyway! Even our dialect struggles to maintain its own identity. We no longer hear the distinctive accent of the Jerusalemites, nor the Hebronites’ elasticized drawl, or the accent that is spoken by the people of Nablus, which I should know, but which I never hear. We have lost it, or most of us have lost it, as it dissipates into the Jordanian, the Libyan, the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Syrian, the Lebanese, even the British and American!!
How can I explain to my son what it means to be Palestinian, while I, too, suffer the heart wrenching consequences of this Diaspora? Would he understand that being Palestinian means he won’t be able to run around his neighborhood playing with his friends, as his dad used to do? Or that he won’t have friendships that begin with the beginning of his memories and won’t fade away with the color of his hair?
Would he understand that being Palestinian means he will always be subject to loss, mistreatment and distrust? And that despite the international decrees which assert every child’s right to hold a citizenship, and despite the sense of belonging he may feel, if he were lucky enough to obtain one, he will always, always remain an outsider, a suspect, even a criminal? And that he will not find refuge in any of the citizenships he may hold when crossing state borders where even his blood type is suspect? How do I explain to him that for a Palestinian, citizenship will neither create a new person, nor will it allow him to remain the same?
Which words should I use to tell him all of this as I watch his rights, especially his right to return, continually being raped? How should I tell him that if ever he could enter his homeland, it would only be as a tourist? How can I explain that I, too, was deprived of knowing my own country, and that I only know the Palestine inherited from my father, my mother’s memories and my grandma’s stories?
Perhaps I need not explain, for as he turned his attention to the TV screen, I could see in his eyes the answers to his own questions. Fayrouz was singing her famous song – which when translated means, “Now and not tomorrow, the bell tolls for our return!” – As children hurled the stones stored in the womb of this Holy Land to defend themselves against Israeli tanks. This is the same womb that now cradles countless martyrs’ bodies. He sat there, just as I had, many years ago, his heart full of emotion, beating in fear and anger. He had unknowingly wrapped himself in his “Palestinianism”, just as I had before him. As his whole being absorbed it thread by thread, he was certain that he was not Canadian, even though this country recognizes his full rights, he was definitely not Emarati …
But, as I continued to watch him, I knew better. I knew to expect more questions. Perhaps tomorrow he will ask me; what will we be after tomorrow? Will the questions that bombard his soul now transform into actions I know not of?
How will I explain to him after tomorrow, that because of the world’s indifference and the Arab world’s shameful feebleness today, his children may listen to Fayrouz yet again on some holographic TV of the future and watch 3D images of Israeli’s continued genocide against everything Palestinian?