In 1967 my grandparents left Palestine to Kuwait with their seven children. My father was twelve years old at the time; despite the fact that he has never returned since, he remembers the neighborhood in great detail. As I force memories out of him, I’ll often ask him the same question, why don’t you return for a visit? He always responds with the same answer, “How can you go and ask someone, a foreigner, for permission to enter your own homeland?” I’ve only ever been to Palestine twice but have talked about going a handful of times and he never easily accepts the idea. In his defense, as I’m one of the youngest in a family of four other siblings, he hadn’t experienced this with any of my other brothers or sister. Other than my twin brother, none of them had ever visited Palestine, neither has my mom since her family left in 1965. He seldom speaks of his life there or in the Middle East for that matter; I learned about both of my families from my mother. Before I left in mid-august, we got into a heated debate where he exclaimed that I’m not any more Palestinian than he is for visiting or feeling the need to. That day I saw my dad in his most vulnerable state. I reassured him that on the contrary, my stubbornness and passion obviously comes from him.
After coming to terms with the reality of my leaving, for the first time ever, he told me about where he was born – Balata refugee camp in Nablus. He continued about how much of our family is still there and how it would be nice if I could go there and meet the woman that raised him (a distant relative). He hadn’t given me an address, just the name of the woman and instructions that she had lived beside the UN sponsored girl’s school. I was determined to find her.
Upon returning from Jerusalem one day I knew that we would drive back through Nablus, and this realization struck me far into the trip, so I quickly asked the driver where the refugee camp Balata was, he responded, “we’re currently in it right now!” I smiled and asked him to stop the car so I could get out. As I grabbed my bags and walked out of the car, I was struck with another late realization – it perhaps may have been smarter to have someone with me (an idea I would have resisted had someone suggested it to me sooner… after all, why would I need anyone to guide me in my own country). But alas, the fear kicked in and the reflection of my stark difference appeared to me as I walked by the windows of stores and cars. A group of 3-4 mechanics in the distance working on one car together pointed to me, and at this moment I had no direction only a name so I decided to approach them. “Excuse me, do you know anyone by the family name —?” One of them shook his head no, but looked at me more inquisitively, “who is it that you’re looking for?” I was reluctant to give him the name of a woman whose relation to me I’d unfortunately forgotten, but my father instructed me that this would definitely happen, and they wouldn’t just give the address of someone to a random stranger. So I told him her name, and he told me he was still unsure, but he pointed me in the direction of stairs leading downwards into a narrow street with more shops and homes. I thanked him and continued walking downwards.
I wish I had the courage to take photographs as I walked through the streets that evening, but it was something that did get me in trouble in the past and so I opted to keep it in my pocket. I can’t begin to describe how familiar this place was to me, to this day I think about it often and I’m still not sure why it was so familiar. Despite the many strange looks I was receiving, I wasn’t afraid – in fact I was very happy. Life in that neighborhood is not a very pleasant one; everyone living there will tell you that. You can see it from the condition of the homes and the lack of infrastructure, but you will never see it from the faces of the people living there. Despite seemingly grueling living conditions (by my standards), mostly everyone you walk by is engaged with their friends, smiling, joking, and laughing. So fascinated by the nature of people and my surroundings, I’d forgotten to ask around for the person I was visiting so I immediately stopped and asked someone in a car. He was aggressive (and I don’t blame him), I decided not to further engage and walked away. He continued to follow me and asked me who she was. I told him that I didn’t know exactly but she was a relative and that my father had been born here. His attitude towards me slightly changed and so I asked him if he knew where the girls school was, he pointed me in that direction and so I continued walking (breathing a sigh of relief).
I reached the front of the school and suddenly gained the confidence to take a picture or two. By the main entrance of the school, I noticed an older woman sitting on a lawn chair beside a man who had lost his left leg. I approached the two and with a deep breath asked them if they knew the person I was looking for, the woman smiled to me and said, “her house is right behind you, but who are you?”. So I told her my full name, she paused and stared blankly, “You’re the son of Walid!?” she exclaimed, so I smiled back oblivious to my father’s life here and praying that he had a good reputation. She welled up and started to tear, “your dad would play right in front of this school, he was the second eldest of his siblings so he would look after all of them and in fact the rest of the children in the neighbourhood”. The man sitting next to her, also smiling was frantically yelling at nearby kids to ask them to take me to the woman who I was looking for. Too caught up in that moment I asked him if he knew my father (he looked to be of similar age), the man exclaimed “Do I ever! But his family left here one day and we never heard from him. How is he?” I began to tell them about my father’s life (at least starting from where I know) and mid-story she interrupts me to ask me why my Arabic is so poor. Evidently bothered I told her that I’d lived outside the arab world for most of my life and that it’s not easy to maintain if you don’t speak it often. She shot back, “your mother is an arab, yes?” I responded yes, she continued, “you have absolutely no excuse, this is shameful”. With my head down I agreed with her. At that moment my personal guide arrived to save me from my shame and take me to the woman’s home.
We reached the building and walked up the first flight of stairs to reach her door, the little boy told me, “this is it”. I began to knock on the door and quickly heard the steps of someone approaching, a woman desperately scrambling to get her headscarf on had opened the door. I thought to myself that this definitely was not the woman that I am looking for, my father said that she had raised him and my dad looked years older than this woman. She started shouting for her husband, “it’s for you!”. Her husband approached me and greeted my very kindly, without hesitation I introduced myself. They both paused and stared at each other, almost in disbelief. I told them that the woman I was looking for is Asmahan. The woman said “yes, that’s me”. Her husband started to laugh uncontrollably, “we haven’t heard from your father in fifty years! I’m a bit shocked and unable to believe that you’re his son”. I told him that it was the truth and gave him a bit more information about my father and my siblings. At that moment, Asmahan began to tear up and came to me with a hug. They invited me to sit down and we chatted for nearly an hour before I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but my father said you had helped his parents raise him and his siblings, yet my father looks older if not the same age as you”. Her husband looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “I was married to Asmahan when your father was a boy!” I showed them both a picture of my father, unable to let go of my phone, Asmahan said “God damn the west! Is this what it does to you?”
We continued talking until the sun began to set, I picked up my bag and told them that I was going to excuse myself as I had to make it back to Tulkarem. They fought relentlessly with me demanding that I had to spend the night, an offer I can’t understand why I refused. Before I left I told them that I would have to take a picture to remember this day and they gladly sat next to me.
From all the days I’ve spent in Palestine, that one remains my favourite. For anyone else that day likely would have been too hot, tiresome, insignificant… but for me, it encompassed more emotion than I could have ever imagined I was capable of experiencing. For us living in diaspora our entire lives, we have absolutely no doubt where we come from. Zero. I can say it without skipping a heartbeat: my father is from Beit Dajjan and my mother is from Tulkarem. My father was displaced and lived in a refugee camp in Balata. This is programmed into me as much as much the breaths I have to take, as much as the blinks my eyelids make… yet to imagine that time of life my parents lived was something I always struggled with. When I walked through those narrow alleys, by the wall art, and heard from those people who truly lived, it was no longer something I had to imagine. I saw it in front of me and it was as clear as the air around me. It was everything I fight for and everything I hope one day will return.