Jerusalem | Provided photo
By Quinne Salameh
During the most recent flurry of violence against Gaza, I was reminded that to many in my life, I am the only Palestinian they know. The concerned texts started rolling in: “thinking of you and your family,” they all more or less said. Not knowing how scattered my family is or how close or far we are from the violence. Not knowing how the orchestrated scattering of Palestinian families like mine remains strategic and relentless.
I am perpetually aware of the privileges we now enjoy in this country; I grew up in Santa Cruz with family up and down the coast. The clean water, the ready access to medical care, the tight bond between my child and my Tetah (grandmother)—these wouldn’t be possible if she hadn’t left Palestine when she did. But these “privileges” can never outweigh the harms our people continue to endure.
My family, as far back as I know, is from Ramallah in the West Bank of Palestine. My father, who still lives in Santa Cruz, tells me that my grandparents met and married in 1949, after Israel was established. They were quickly encouraged to lean on family ties to the United States and start their family there, “to get away from the situation,” my father says.
After a few years on the East Coast and then in Detroit, they eventually settled in the San Diego area when my dad was 8. Most of them had no idea that they would soon lose all rights to return to the homeland, or even take extended visits as the Israeli tactic of attrition continued.
In the past few weeks, I’ve felt helpless as my well-meaning friends from my predominantly white American community expressed sudden shock and heartbreak at the most recent outbursts of violence that have been impacting my family for generations. I quickly compiled a list of Palestinian organizations to support, ones that need aid right now, and sent it back to each one of them.
I am deeply grateful for all the check-ins because it’s so much less painful than the collective silence that inevitably comes afterwards. But what else can I do? This question burns in my stomach in the middle of many nights.
"You pick and choose which world catastrophes to expose your kids to, assuming they will each have an arc and a relief at some point. But Palestine has never seen this catastrophe subside."
I take solace in one of my culture’s biggest practices: storytelling. It is so important that those of us here, in the states, share the stories and realities and experiences of Palestinians. As for so many colonized people, one of the few things that has not been stripped from us are our verbal accounts and oral history. This is our venue for peaceful resistance, existence. And these are our stories to tell.
It is tempting to only share the vibrant culture that brings joy and spice and hilarious family dynamics to our lives because that is easier to read than the whole story, but there is a complacency that comes with highlighting only those pieces.
The truth is, many of us in exile have had to learn our history for ourselves. Whether speaking to my father, Henry, a first-generation Palestinian American living in the Monterey Bay area, or my Palestinian American friends Jenna and Mohammed in Portland where I live now, the themes are consistent: Palestinian parents carried much of the vibrancy of their culture forward through food and family values, but shielded younger generations from much of the political strife and violence.
My father shared with me the pressures he felt to assimilate and speak English growing up. He recounts being immersed in white American culture at school but sometimes sheltered in Palestinian culture and family otherwise. “They wanted to integrate us into society for the education and opportunity, but you know, their preference was to marry an Arab girl, no dating around, and hang out with our Arab cousins.”
He felt pulled in two directions growing up, by two different cultures and found it hard to balance. Like so many first-generation kids in the United States, he found himself rebelling against the more conservative Palestinian values of his parents’ generation, which was well supported amongst the counterculture era of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Like countless other Palestinians in the diaspora, my father has dived deep into history to better understand the political nuances that have forced Palestine into its current imprisonment. “You know, my parents didn’t do a great job of sharing the Palestinian experience with me [meaning the history] but they were certainly angry about it,” he said.
"I take solace in one of my culture’s biggest practices: storytelling."
For many of us, being Palestinian American doesn’t show up every day. We live a much easier existence than our family and community in Palestine, with so many opportunities, and we are able to lean into the joyous food and family culture that Palestine has given to us without feeling the pressure of a military regime breathing down our necks.
But my friend Jenna reminded me that the practice of keeping our culture alive, and taking pride in traditions that are actively being erased, is important activism as well. Jenna has been practicing Palestinian embroidery, an art that has deep meaning for each Palestinian family and region. Each color combination and pattern signify a specific community or family name. Most of us have embroidery passed down to us from grandmothers and aunties, and Jenna has been studying and practicing this craft for years now.
The thob, a long and greatly detailed embroidered dress, is the masterpiece of any Palestinian embroidery collection, and much of the smaller pieces and gifts resemble portions of the patterns in a thob. Jenna says that when she is feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by the news from Gaza she turns to her art and embroidery, “I always turn to handcrafts … this helps me transfer worry and stress to another object … making gifts, practicing embroidery, and making designs are constantly in my life.” This, she said, is how she keeps Palestine present daily and keeps her culture alive.
Asking my father about our Palestinian identity, I feel the pain of our loss of culture. We often have these conversations surrounded by his collection of imported tapestries, pottery and other artful reminders of Palestine. There is something healing and safe about sharing stories of cultural loss surrounded by the cool ocean air of the west side of Santa Cruz with fresh homemade hummus on the table. Due to COVID this interview was conducted online, somehow bringing a new formality to our conversation.
I watch my own young child reflecting our palpable emotions as we talk, and I do my best to give him age-appropriate context and transparency; I want my child’s cultural journey to be integrated and collaborative, to avoid the pain of finding out later as my dad describes.
“They lived through a lot … the 1948 war, … lived under the British rule when their parents were growing up … it’s interesting when you look back,” my dad told me. “We have relatives who lost property and businesses in Jerusalem. A family movie theater, several family homes.”
My grandmother has one of our family keys — a form of resistance to keep and pass down — referred to as miftah or “key of return.” The Israeli government won’t recognize family ties to land or homes or even deeds and so they don’t like us to keep the keys. These keys, often six inches long and a half-inch thick, are pure iron.
I asked my dad why he thought his parents hadn’t shared more about what had led them to leave: “I could guess that part of it was to continue our integration into American culture, but of course they could have never foreseen how bad the occupation was going to become.”
Even within our own families, all too many Palestinians feel disempowered and defeated around disclosing — let alone highlighting — the ongoing traumas we endure. And it is impossible to ignore the force behind this phenomena: American culture demands a strong affiliation with Israel on all fronts. It is overwhelming to perpetually counteract the dominant narrative that ignores their consistent infringements on human rights.
The cognitive dissonance of life as a Palestinian American is draining. Most days, as my friend Mohammed says, “You feel helpless and complicit. I know for a fact that my tax money that I pay every month contributes to the Israeli military” and the ongoing destruction of his family’s homes and livelihoods.
"This is something I remind people of when they try to say that they 'have enough problems to solve in our own backyard.' Human rights violations against Palestinians are our problem and our violence to solve."
He’s right: the U.S government paid 3.8 billion dollars in 2019 to the Israeli government and armed forces, supplying much of its tanks, bullets, gasses, and other weapons. This is not a new or recent development; Congressional Research Service reports that “According to USAID Data Services, as of March 2020, in constant 2018 U.S. dollars (inflation-adjusted), total U.S. aid to Israel obligated from 1946-2018 is $236 billion.”
It’s common knowledge among Palestinians that U.S.-funded weaponry and tactics are contracted specifically to be battle-tested by the Israeli army against Palestinians, only to then be used in the United States, often against Black and other communities of color by state and federal police — often in retaliation for protesting these exact forms of violence. During last summer’s uprisings, Palestinians even shared tips with American protesters on how to protect themselves against US-made CS gas, a chemical weapon banned in war by the Geneva Convention but perfectly legal for a government to use against its own residents. It’s a pipeline that citizens on both sides pay for with our livelihoods and our lives. This is something I remind people of when they try to say that they “have enough problems to solve in our own backyard.” Human rights violations against Palestinians are our problem and our violence to solve.
I don’t know anyone more affected by the violence in Gaza than Mohammed. He grew up in Gaza, in Khan Yunis specifically, and lived most of his life there. Mohammed remembers always knowing that he was a refugee living in Gaza; his mothers’ family is from Ramla, an area that is part of the Israeli occupation. His father is from Jaffa, now an adjacent city to Tel Aviv, although Tel Aviv used to be a town within a larger Palestinian Jaffa.
The persistent changes in borders and size are important for Mohammed to mention; he says that it is “mind-boggling” how much each part of the territories have changed in his lifetime. Jaffa used to be designated as an Arab Israeli city, and then it was made smaller, as is the story for many of the dispersed remaining Arab neighborhoods and communities within the Israeli-occupied territories that used to be an integrated part of Palestine. Mohammad came to the United States as a student, through a program supporting Palestinian scholars. That’s when he met his wife Jenna through organizing with the Portland Oregon chapter of a student activism group called Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights, or “SUPER”.
One of Mohammed’s first memories was in 1994 when the Palestinian Authority was established after the Oslo Accords. As a small child he didn’t understand exactly what was happening, but he remembers the hopefulness and excitement in that moment.
Yet Mohammed felt the divide even within Gaza, between refugee families and Gazan-born families, the layers of displacement ever present. “Gaza has never been a quiet place,” he said; it’s always been a target of violence and unrest, not only from Israel, but also within, between regimes.
Growing up in Gaza, Mohammed weathered the toll of witnessing constant violence on an intimate level. Often, heading into mornings at school or passing through the neighborhood, folks would recount the violence that had occurred the night before. It became so normal that they referred to the bullets lying around as “red dates.”
“If Palestinians fight back we are terrorists; if we practice nonviolence and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) we are anti-Semitic. There is nothing we can do to create change that is allowed.”
Mohammed said he always heard from his parents and school that “we are different.” That we are displaced from our homeland, but we resist because we have a right to live our lives and to exist. He said that their community always sought continued support from Arab and Muslim communities and allies, and always called for the “human world” to help — but never saw an end to the constant destruction.
It’s confusing for Palestinians like Mohammed why the United States doesn’t “step in to stop the ongoing human rights violations.” How can the U.S. government work toward peace agreements while investing billions of dollars in Israeli government and armed forces every year? “There’s no sign that the [new] administration is going to change.”
Following the recent surges in violence, “It feels good that people are aware and evaluating beyond the headlines … [but] it’s dwarfed by the support for Israel,” my father lamented. Basic human rights like access to hospitals, education, clean water, and employment were already extremely strained or nonexistent, and each wave of violence and “reconstruction” drives Gaza and Palestine deeper into a humanitarian crisis.
As Mohammad told me: “If Palestinians fight back we are terrorists; if we practice nonviolence and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) we are anti-Semitic. There is nothing we can do to create change that is allowed.”
Telling the truths of our lives — whether in the form of stories passed down for generations, or things we have had to relearn and reclaim for ourselves — is our resistance.
I watch my child and wonder how my grandparents weighed these decisions when my father and his siblings were young; how do you decide which stories to keep alive? The loss of homeland had only just begun then. The possibility of returning, the idea of rebuilding was still imaginable then.
You pick and choose which world catastrophes to expose your kids to, assuming they will each have an arc and a relief at some point. But Palestine has never seen this catastrophe subside. “One of the messages we really need the U.S. to hear,” said Mohammed, “is that we need to stop focusing on funding reconstruction and then washing our hands of it. We need to instead focus on defunding destruction.”
Even as Palestinians struggle to share and uplift our own stories, the very language we need to tell them is undermined at every turn. When my aunt went to renew her U.S. passport several years ago she was told: “Sorry, Palestine isn’t recognized as a place of birth anymore.” A colleague confronted my grandmother: “Why are you wearing a pin of Palestine, Palestine doesn’t exist, it is Israel!” An editor told my friend she could use the word Palestinian, but not the word Palestine. School counselors advised against mentioning my ethnicity on college applications because universities tend to be very “sensitive” to seeming unsupportive of Israel.
These are the ways the erasers work and how ongoing colonization is fed — and how we collectively still stand by while maps and homes and livelihoods are snuffed out.
So many of us long to return, to visit, to support, to learn and share with our children. And yet these aren’t options for most. My cousin, a UCLA student, recently got upset when some of her peers attended “BirthRight” trips to Israel — specifically to land that used to include our family’s homes in Palestine. She wanted to create her own trip to Palestine to see our remaining family and immerse herself in the history and culture during the olive harvests in October. She saved and borrowed and planned a month-long trip.
At the time the only way to get into Palestine was through Tel Aviv in Israel. Once she landed, the Israeli airport soldiers interrogated her for hours. They humiliated her, asking her why her mother had left. She told them that her mother immigrated for cancer treatment she couldn’t get in Ramallah; they told her that her mother had abandoned her homeland and that she had no right to be there either. In tears, they denied her itinerary and gave her a two-day visa instead of the requested three weeks and changed her flight back to make sure she would leave— knowing she couldn’t afford another ticket.
These are the forces that keep us from visiting, from knowing what’s happening, from fully feeling the pain in-person of life in Gaza and Palestine, under occupation. This is what keeps us from fully sharing, or even knowing our own stories.
It’s been just a few weeks since the most recent eruptions of violence between Gaza Palestine and Israel, and a familiar anxiety creeps back as the media focus turns away from the voices of Gazan civilians still calling for help.
I picture them scurrying to gather supplies and wait in line for aid. I picture them the way I know and don’t know them, because I am a Palestinian American born and raised in the States. I sit in privilege and savor every glass of clean water, knowing that loved ones there cannot do the same. My heart weighs heavy as the demonstrations, calls for donations, and texts from concerned community members fade — as they always do — after every flareup in the ongoing genocide against Palestinians. This is when the fear and isolation sets in.
“We feel forgotten, like the rest of the world has forgotten us.” The most common phrase I hear from friends and family in Palestine.
The genocide, the displacement, the violence remain ongoing. But our voices and our stories are growing stronger. And for Palestinians living in the United States, for the first time perhaps, our stories will be heard.
I asked each person — Jenna, Mohammed and Henry (my Father) — what Americans can do now to support Palestine.
They all shared first that getting involved in politically is most important–either by prioritizing a candidate’s stance on Palestine when you vote or writing letters and making calls to local and federal politicians.
Asking politicians and influential groups to put pressure on Israel to end human rights violations and putting pressure on U.S. politicians to hold Israel accountable – especially during quieter times is key.
Additionally, participating in the BDS movement-a peaceful way to protest products made by companies who partake in exploitative practices either by producing their products on illegally stolen land or (often and) exploiting Palestinian laborer’s who are given no protections or rights and required to make hours-long border crossings every morning through checkpoints to work on land that used to be their home.
There are comprehensive lists of products to stop supporting like Soda Stream and Sabra hummus, certain politicians to refrain from funding and other entities that we can send messages to with our dollars and votes. Also educating your friends and family, and lastly donating to organizations that directly support Palestinian human rights. Attached is a list of details on these options to help you get started.
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