issue 199 - September 1989
Illustration: Brendan McGrath
A soul in exile
Memory and imagination have watered the dreams of
generations of Palestinian refugees, giving birth to
something more formidable, more exquisite
than even first love. Fawaz Turki explains.
I was not there when the frenzied pack besieged the refugee camp of Borj el Barajni in Beirut in February 1987, and reduced its inhabitants to eating cats and dogs in order to avert starvation. I was not there when the massacres of Sabra and Shatila took place in September 1982, and the bodies of thousands of Palestinians were stacked in grotesque piles, fly-covered, rotting in the sun. And I was not there in August 1976 when hundreds of men, women and children in the refugee camp of Tel Zaatar, under siege for three months by Syrian soldiers and Phalangist gangs, died of dehydration, unattended wounds and beneath the debris of collapsed buildings. Nor was I there when Israeli pilots, sitting in their air-conditioned cockpits, dropped concussion bombs on our homes in the dumb belief that after the napalm canisters had rolled on the roofs and blood leapt on the walls, they would burn to a cinder the name we carried and the few cogent images we held of our national ownhood.
I was not there because by a trick of fate, or foresight, I had already left the refugee camps in my early teens and set out, armed with my stateless travel document, to meet the world that lay beyond. My travels took me all the way from Beirut to Sydney, from Bombay to Paris, and from London to Washington.
But it was 'there', in the refugee camps, that I grew up and made my original leap to a maturing consciousness. The unspeakable pain that has characterized the camps' 40-year existence remains mine, an indivisible part of my inner history.
I can no more get outside it than I can get outside my own skin. This is so not only because I'm a Palestinian activist and poet who predictably, inevitably, must draw for his material on the tragic background of his people's struggle, but also because, very simply, growing up Palestinian - growing up, in other words, afflicted with a sense of 'otherness' - is something that constantly addresses every impulse in our lives.
The oppressive kinship that Israeli Jews have created with Palestinian Arabs is so drastic that it pervades even our dreams. It would be hard to find a single Palestinian today who could express human feelings, or define the intimate centre of their identity, without reference to Zionism and the impact it left on their existence. It has touched them in such a grotesque and sustained way that the very heart of crisis in their souls, the very way they map their landscape of awareness, the very tensions of every moment, have come to be rooted in that devastating historical encounter, when they were disenfranchised five decades ago.
For when Palestinians were dealt their cruel fate by Zionism, Zionists never asked if we were Moslem or Christian, rich or poor, radical or conservative - they asked if we were Palestinian. It was the name, and all the historical cargo the name brought with it, that was made cause. Shared equally by every member of the community, the notion of 'Palestinianness' thus derives its validity for us, from a communal sense of reference.
To be sure, the experience of some Palestinians does differ from that of others. Diaspora Palestinians, for example, were born or grew up in exile. They have never known what it is to walk the streets of a Palestinian city (though some will tell you that a refugee camp is a transplanted Palestinian city complete with its own Palestinian idiom, metaphor and ambience). To walk the streets of a Palestinian city that is to live no longer in the metropolis of a host state where you are placed close to the door for easy eviction - is an image that has always tormented and fascinated diaspora Palestinians. It is an exquisite thought, like first love. And the experience of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza varies with this, of course, in the sense that they do live in their cities, in their homeland. But their experience locks on ours in another way - they do not live free. Living under occupation, whether Jordanian or Israeli, they were never a determining force in their destiny as all free men and women are. And finally the experience of our fellow Palestinians who stayed behind in 1948 in what later became Israel, aligns itself with ours in that it too exhibits the same alienation, destitution and anguish that characterizes the mass sentiment of the whole of Palestinian society.
Today everybody is talking about a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, preoccupying themselves exclusively with the fate of the inhabitants of these territories, as if this were the terminus of the issue. It is as if Palestinians living in exile no longer exist. It is as if their suffering, and their aspiration for freedom, are not as much a part of the broad design of the Palestinians' problem as that of their fellow Palestinians inside Palestine.
But we remember. I will indulge a recollection from the late 1950s when I was growing up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Borj el Barajni, on the outskirts of Beirut. I was witness at the time to an incident where a Palestinian peddler called Abu Hassan one afternoon had all his merchandise, along with a cart he displayed it on, confiscated by the Lebanese police. He was told that as a Palestinian he was an alien, and as an alien he had no right to engage in employment 'whether paid or unpaid'. The incident was devastating to me as an impressionable teenager. It had this impact, not only because I was a politicized youngster - we all were - but also because Abu Hassan happened to be my father. My father's response to the incident was to explain it away, even to justify it, by drawing on the inner resources of the typical exile. He observed: 'Well, this is not our country after all. We have to wait until we return to our own'.
Within less than a decade - which saw my father's transition from a self-sufficient, proud Palestinian living in his own homeland, to a desperate, helpless nonentity peddling surreptitiously around the streets of Beirut or lining up abjectly at UNRWA food depots for our food rations - his hair had turned snow white, his voice lost its edge and he was often heard to mumble incoherently about how he wished he were dead. His wish was soon granted. I suppose he wanted to die because he could not explain, armed with his simple peasant logic, why all this had happened to him, to his family, to his people and to his nation. But in dying as he did, through strangulation of the spirit by 'refugeeism', my father and his generation left us important legacies that animated in us complex energies about who we were and where we came from. Americans and Israelis, along with the rest of the world, refuse to believe this. For example in 1954, a principal architect of the Cold War called John Foster Dulles, actually said: 'The Palestinian problem will be solved in time, only when a new generation of Palestinians grow up with no attachment to the land'. And Israelis have never ceased to harp on how Palestinians should be settled or resettle in under-populated regions of the Arab world.
These people are pitifully naive, unendurably slow to catch up with 'the reality principle'. Three generations of Palestinians - my parents', my own, and that of the intifada - have interacted, and transmitted to each other the legacy that living free in our homeland is the one tangible pivot of our identity.
It is an appalling contradiction because to my generation of Palestinians, exiled for 40 years, the concept of homeland has become nearly incomprehensible. Our destiny has forced us to come to terms with the idea that homelessness is the homeland. Like an existential thirst we keep our shared moral and cultural notion of 'Palestinianness', even as we have wandered the globe all these years wearing our sense of 'otherness'. Being stateless is the only state we belong to, and we have long since developed an aboriginal sense about how to live in this peculiar condition.
Of course it is tragically ironic that the Jews, in achieving their own promised land, had to uproot another people from theirs. But in doing that they have exchanged the transnational, transpolitical and transhistorical homeland they traditionally inhabited, with the people they uprooted. After four decades of encounters with diverse societies around the world, diaspora Palestinians have come to feel that they belong to a nation much larger than territorial Palestine, a nation that is diversely rich, cogent and genuine, even if the political configurations seem to make it otherwise. And it is interesting to consider how Israel, established as a centre for the rejuvenation of the Judaic heritage, has become the heart of crisis within it.
But as Palestinians we are constantly afflicted by our people's dreams for normal statehood, our unendurably pitiful search for a place to escape the terrors of our history. Dreams of this kind are more intense than material fact. They become a focus for the emotions, more real than reality itself.
Palestinians have suffered the institutionalized humiliation of military occupation, the helplessness of statelessness, the ravages of concussion bombs, the horror of massacres. We have suffered merciless sieges by frenzied packs outside our camps in Lebanon, and degradation from the code of bullying which is embraced by settlers on the West Bank.
Yet in the very excesses of our suffering ties our continual claim to dignity and rebirth. We have become ennobled by the vengeful spite of our enemies. Even if others do not see us so, it is our own self-image that the future calls.
Though this suffering has not nearly come to an end, there is hope. For when it finishes, as it must, in the inevitable establishment of a Palestinian state, we will be there.
We will be there not only to rejoice in the resurrection of our national existence, but because at last, at long last, we will have realized a desperate need - to live in a country where we will have our own government to assail; our own politicians, bureaucrats and elected bodies to ridicule; our own futures to debate.
No-one realizes how formidably exquisite a thought it is to a Palestinian writer like myself, raised in a refugee camp, stateless all his life, to be able to dream thus.
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian poet and essayist living in the US. His most recent book Soul in Exile, was published by Monthly Review Press, in New York, 1988.