Part 2 – Return to Balata Refugee Camp

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Part 1

My second visit home was an exceptionally emotional one as I had for the first time travelled alone. While I had went to Palestine just one year earlier (during Israel’s offense on Gaza), it was as though I was making the trip for the first time. I deeply wished that it would feel as though I’ve been there hundreds of times – God knows I have in my head. I punctually and impatiently reached the King Hussein Bridge on Sept 20th, at 6:50AM. I was told that I would have to wait until 8AM for the terminal to open and until 9AM for the bus to depart.

In the terminal I met a British couple, an Australian couple, and an Italian man who had regrettably deemed me their professional tour guide/translator. Truthfully I was fully occupied with trying to get in on my own and I now found myself with a responsibility I wish I could have turned down. I did my best to lead but in reality I was more or less pretending that I could help them in some way to prove my Palestinian-ness to them and perhaps really myself. I really wanted to, and it was my responsibility, right? As a Palestinian entering my home, I should ordinarily easily lead the way. I was overcome with a sense of guilt and humiliation later when I found I wasn’t able to do it as I wished – of course the journey into Palestine is anything but ordinary. Interrogation from one soldier to another, line up from one area to another, ID yourself from one armed Israeli to another; and in the end your fate is at the will of the occupier. When I reached the area where we hand off our bags to security, I worked my way to the front of the line and instructed my fellow travelers to stay next to me. After about ten minutes of observing, I discovered that in reality there was no line, people were jumping over me to throw their bags in front. So I, like the rest, aggressively fought my way to the front and threw my bag onto the belt, handed my passport to the first officer and grabbed my baggage ticket. I helped my guests do the same and we all made our way to the next line where they would mark your baggage sticker with some hebrew characters that would decide your next fortune (or misfortune… probably misfortune) – whether you will be sent for baggage check or not. The Israeli officer at the window looked at me briefly and then asked me if I was alone, I told him that I was. With my passport in his hand he asked me for my name, as if though to quiz me. After giving him my name he scribbled on my sticker and asked me to proceed. I waved goodbye to my guests as I knew we would likely be taking different paths. At the next line after passing through the metal detector, the officer told me to step aside, “tafteesh”, (I was one of the lucky ones who would have to wait until they checked my baggage). After almost an hour, an Israeli woman younger than me called my name and asked me to follow her to a small room with a podium; she asked me to stand on the other side and drew the curtain shut. She was kind and quick, asked me a series of questions and dealt with me politely. I despised that she was kind because I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t. I moved to the next line in another room which I remembered well from my last visit where I had spent seven hours. I handed my passport again to another Israeli soldier and she gave me a paper to fill out, identifying who my parents were, where they were born, and what relatives I had in the country. I completed the sheet and waited almost three hours to be called again. First one man came out to ask me questions I’d answered at least three times already he disappeared. Another twenty minutes past another officer came out to ask me where my father was born, I answered “here”, she questioned back, “where here? Like in this terminal?” I told her “in Nablus”. She asked about my mother I answered “Tulkarem”. Another officer quickly came out and asked me to follow him into a room where he asked me about my job in Canada, purpose of my visit, where I wanted to go, and of course their obsession with my parents and grandparents wouldn’t desist. I walked out of the room with my passport and permit confident that they knew about the last three generations of my family as much as I did if not more. It was now just a bit past 2PM and I was successfully in Palestine. I took a bus to my uncles’ home and wasted no time. As soon as I entered my uncles’ house, his wife exclaimed, “do you choose the worst possible times to come?!” I told her that I’d booked my ticket months in advance and if anything I was the bad luck charm. Palestine was on the verge of another popular rising prompted by increased incarceration of Palestinians, further restrictions on entrance to Aqsa mosque, and of course amongst many other things settlement expansion and racist settler violence on Palestinian land, crops, and people.

I could cover almost every minute of my trip as I tried to leave no stone unturned, I visited Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jaffa, Haifa, Nahriya, and Akka in nine days. Along the way I met extraordinary people who treated me like a brother; perhaps a feature I wouldn’t have had the privilege to experience had I not been alone. It would likely been an endless post if I were to write about each of these and so I want to exclusively write about my visit to Mokhayam Balata in Nablus where my father was born.

N. 84

The sailor gets off his boat
And the sun sets
And the wind speaks to the moon
And the stars watch
The waves continue to knock against the boat
The fish that escaped the sailors cries comes to greet the arch
Almost to tease the man who is no longer there
The fish waits patiently
Mornings and nights pass dozens of times
For if this fish wasn’t bound by its’ place it would have long ago chased the sailor
But it waits, confidently knowing that the sailor is meant to sail

N. 83

When the sun falls from the sky we rise as warriors
So yield your swords and claim your destiny 
Do not fear the night and its uncertainty
Everything in time will become more clear
The words your toung struggled to speak will flow from your mouth like a river, like a refugee returning to his home, like a mother greeting her child
Hold your head high and look onwards
Nobody but you will stop you from getting there

Discovery

I look back at the past five years of my life and find it remarkable how much I’ve changed, how different I am now.. And what I struggle most with is figuring out if it was a change for the better or worse. There’s an innocence to our youth that we never have after a certain moment; and its a different moment for everyone. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could be anything really that takes away from our sincerity and our genuine nature. We are the most honest versions of our self when we are young. We aren’t shaped by the supposed cruel “certainties” of life, we aren’t yet jaded by how small our hands are and how big the world’s problems we want to fix are, and we don’t easily box things and people. As we get older, life happens and our experiences shape us more and more and more until we’re almost an entirely different person. Now of course this is expected to happen, but sometimes we let situations change us in a negative way and I often wonder how and why I let this happen to me.

Five years ago I was more certain about many things, a common theme in my life now is confusion. I believe that this confusion stems first and foremost from my faith or there lack of. I was stronger back then. I didn’t let peoples perception of me impact the way I wanted to live my life. I now find myself trying to seek approval from others, disguising who I truely am. And it’s exhausting, mentally and emotionally. I crossed lines I wouldn’t have normally crossed for the sake of approvals. Now I only have experiences to look back, to remind me how weak I am.

In many ways, the last five years have changed me for the better. In large part to a certain group of people that fell into my life. They showed me how to really believe in myself and gave me the encouragement to do everything I wanted to do. For that I am in debt.

The reason I wanted to write this is solely for me. Let this be a dent in the book, a fold in the corner of the page… I’ll reclaim the certainty I once had and I will take the mask off

N. 81

Hey you, flying over there
Answer me? How did you get your wings?
Did you do anything to earn them? To fly so freely?
I’ve forgotten how to dream and so my life is a prison that I can’t escape
The bread is stale and the air thick
When I turn the pages, I’ll often find chapters missing
When I stand up I quickly fall
And midway I pray that it’s her lap that I’ll fall into
But it never is, it’s the cold hard ground of the earth
So I’m asking you, fly back here, please, and tell me what you did to earn your wings
Do you deserve them?
Don’t answer me please, I can see it in you 
I want you to enjoy them as I once did
When I could fall carelessly
I have no more teeth to break
Enjoy them as I once did when I could dream

N. 62

“Would it be selfish of me to declare my love to you? Would it be selfish to let you continue to fall in love with me?” In my moment of desperation I think to myself is it something either of us can control at this point?

“You know I never did believe in love anyways. We give excuses and names for momentary whims of excitement and emotions. Who has greater feelings for the other?” Before giving him the chance to answer she continued, “if you can’t answer me that… and you certainly can’t! How can you possibly quantify your emotions, and then mine? I’m not in the business of making lies, I don’t know why you insist on these ideas..”

He was incredulous, unable to believe what he was hearing. “But you are in the business of making lies! You sit there comfortably coffee in hand professing how certain emotions are a fabrication simply because you are unable to quantify them, yet, as a race we’re entirely unable to quantify a myriad of things of things only bound by infinity. How absurd, cruel, and jaded you must be. We spend days and nights in each others arms, and time elapses having bound us together by moments of laughs and tears. We spend days and nights a part, and we never really are a part, at least I’ve never felt it. What exceptional qualities you must possess to be able to release these feelings in me. You tell yourself you don’t believe in love because it’s easier than dealing with reality. And that’s the difference between you and I. I willingly surrender to the affection and so I am at peace. And I insist on this idea for you, and for what could be.