By Fida Jiryis
Throughout contemporary history, movement of people outside their own countries for long or short intervals has occurred for various reasons: education, work, marriage, family ties, fleeing hardships, and so on. Foreigners exist in every country in the world, forming their own sub-societies and clinging with varying degrees to their own cultures as they integrate into the new ones. Sometimes, the second or third generations that arise after this movement experience the drive to return to their home countries, find their roots and re-integrate into their societies of origin.
Normally, this process is a long and difficult one. It is affected, of course, by a myriad of varying factors such as the degree of comfort and cohesion of the recipient culture, the individual’s characteristics of inner strength, adaptability and persistence, the economic and social situation, and the degree of welcome extended to returning expatriates. The success or failure of the process depends on a complex interplay between all these factors, and, to a large extent, upon the individual and his or her reasons for making the move.
Even if the person is completely convinced of those reasons, moving ‘back’ is usually a challenging, overwhelming process. One leaves behind all that is familiar in their lives: their home, friends, social network, work, culture, physical surroundings, amenities such as transport, health and entertainment, and comes to a new terrain where they will have to relearn everything: from how to find their way around, to where the supermarket is, how to deal with the currency, through to the more complex business of speaking another language, picking up new cultural nuances (even if some knowledge of them is there), and forging a fit – or not – with this new/original culture.
This is difficult enough in a normal country with a relatively calm environment, stable political system and established societies and modes of living.
Divided Palestine: 64 Years of Division and Occupation
In the case of Palestine, integration of returnees is fraught with even greater difficulty. The initial hit that the country took in 1948, as a result of the establishment of Israel, resulted in a mass exodus of Palestinians and destroyed much of Palestine’s social fabric almost overnight. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes and scattered in refugee camps either internally in Palestine or externally in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Over time, some of them moved to the Gulf countries, while others moved to Europe or the Americas. Successive attacks by Israel and more occupation and annexation of Palestinian land created more and more refugees at each turn. They also created another, serious problem: the divide, as a result of the 1967 war, between ‘Israel proper’ and the Palestinian occupied territories, and the effective severing, as a result of the 1993 Oslo process, of the ties between these two areas as the Palestinian Authority was established in the latter territories.
The result? Today, sixty-four years after the loss of Palestine and establishment of Israel, we have a shredded and fragmented Palestinian population, with ‘flavors’ depending on the place each segment ended up in: the West Bank, Gaza, Galilee, Jaffa, Jerusalem. Each one of these represents an ecosystem entirely different from that of the others. Within them, we have subsystems. In the West Bank, Ramallah, dubbed ‘the bubble’ due to its proliferation of modern amenities, foreigners and Western lifestyles, has an entirely different society from Hebron and Nablus, and is another world even from its surrounding, traditional villages. Gaza, after years of brutal Israeli targeting, bloodshed and continued closure, is a closed, agonized society that has been left to fend for its own survival. Jerusalem is a surreal, tense, depressed city – and when we say ‘Jerusalem’ in the Palestinian context, we mean only the East of it, which lies amidst the sprawling, vicious Jewish settlements illegally gobbling up land everywhere and forcing Palestinian residents into suffocation or expulsion. Jaffa is another depressed enclave, lying wretchedly next to Tel Aviv like a beggar left standing outside the gate of a palace.
The Galilee is another basket altogether. Being inside Israel, and with its Palestinian population being Israeli citizens, the Galilee is home to what are termed the ‘1948 Arabs,’ ‘Arabs of inside,’ ‘Arabs inside the Green Line,’ and various other demarcations meant to indicate their Israeli citizenship versus Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, who hold the Palestinian ID. ‘Israeli Arabs,’ as they are often referred to in a great oxymoron of a term, are in a confused, difficult situation of living and working in the state of Israel but being second, or tenth, class citizens. They have lost their links to the Arab world due to decades of prohibition and being cut off by Israel, yet they can never fully integrate into Israel, which simply doesn’t want them because they are not Jewish.
Scattered across the World
This is only part of the story. When we look outside historical Palestine, we have Palestinian refugees in each of the neighboring Arab countries as well as in the Gulf. None of these segments identify with any of the others, for a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon has a different context, ecosystem and surrounding culture from one living in Syria or Jordan. The Gulf countries, with their work opportunities and wealth, have spawned yet another segment, one which was instrumental in supporting its families in other countries and which accumulated, in some cases, large fortunes and led a life of bourgeoisie highly different from the experience of refugees in the poverty-stricken camps. Palestinians in the US and Europe also did well, for to survive in these societies, they had to acquire good education and employment, and today there is a significant, successful, expatriate Palestinian population in the West.
This mind-boggling array of destinations happened not by natural evolution but by a large-scale, forced exodus, making its impact on society drastic and long lasting. As a result, today, when you talk to a Palestinian, you will have a vastly different experience depending on the stations that s/he inhabited in their life. My efforts to piece together, in my mind, some kind of cohesive standard for my people in terms of their culture, norms, ways of thinking, aspirations, and outlook, have been impossible. There is, sadly, very little in common between a Palestinian young woman in Ramallah and her compatriot in Haifa, for example, save for the commonalities of gender. They have completely different realities. Although there are many exceptions, most Palestinians living in Israel struggle with defining their identity, and only few feel a connection or relevance to the larger Palestinian collective. Recent years have seen an awakening among the younger generations, but the majority continue to exist in a warped vacuum; most will not say ‘Palestinian’ if you ask them their nationality, but some other, vague answer, due to years of Israeli isolation.
Similarly, there is no cultural cohesion between Palestinians who grew up in neighboring Arab countries and those who remained in Palestine. A friend of mine, after growing up in Cyprus, then in Syria, relocated to Ramallah as a young woman after the Oslo process. She describes the very difficult integration of such ‘returnees,’ as her and her family were dubbed by the locals, and the constant struggle of these returnees to set up a life in Palestine. This comes as no surprise, as the locals saw the newcomers as coming to take over the country, while the newcomers struggled with feeling unwelcome in their own homeland.
The Struggle to Reconnect and Unify
Amidst this, one must pause to ask the question of how such a society can really hope to create a national homeland. There needs to be an awareness of our fragmentation and a labor of concerted efforts to bridge the gaps between us. We cannot continue to exist in separate enclaves and reduce the struggle of the entire Palestinian people to an aspiration for a ‘state’ in a fifth of our historical land – and a state divided into ghettos and riddled with illegal Jewish settlements, at that. When such ideas are discussed, my heart aches, for I automatically begin to think: ‘What about the other Palestinians everywhere else? What happens to them?’
Faten Khoury, another friend of mine and an actress and drama trainer from Nazareth, is working on a drama training project with groups of children from Ramallah and Haifa, with the specific focus of bridging the gap between them and bringing them together. The group from Ramallah cannot visit the one in Haifa, for they need permits from Israel to be able to enter. The group from Haifa cannot come to Ramallah, for the Israeli Ministry of Education, under whose jurisdiction their school falls, prohibits students from entering the Palestinian territories.
If we can’t get twenty schoolchildren together, isn’t it time we slow down on all the talk of ‘establishing the state’ and look around us first? Which Palestine? Where? And who will it represent and entitle to live in it? Can we simply exclude the hundred segments of Palestinians out there in the world, tell them ‘tough luck,’ and accept this tiny shred of a ‘solution’?
Or do we need to look at a much bigger picture, of who we are as a people, how we represent ourselves, and how to begin talking to each other despite all the divides imposed on us?
– Fida Jiryis is a Palestinian writer, editor, and author of Hayatuna Elsagheera (Our Small Life), 2011, a collection of Arabic short stories depicting village life in the Galilee. Contact her at: [email protected] (This article was published in The Palestine Monitor – www.palestinemonitor.org.)