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submitted by This Week In Palestine

By Nadia Barhoum
TWIP June 2010

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” Edward Said

“I’m just following orders,” the soldier said as he asked my father to strip his clothes. Instantly after checking our passports and spotting our Arabic family name, the soldiers separated my family for a routine strip-search at the Allenby border between Jordan and Palestine. These were words I would hear time and time again during my summer visits to Palestine. I was five years old at the time and did not completely understand what was happening; why did we have to listen to these people tell us what to do?

Almost every summer, my family - father, mother, sister, brother - and I would journey to Jordan and Palestine. Our family, originally from Al Malha, was forever removed from our village in 1948 and had to seek refuge in Bethlehem on the West Bank. In 1967, my father and some of his family fled again, this time to Jordan, thus leaving behind their home and any chance of permanent return to the West Bank. Later, my father continued his studies in the States, where he eventually settled. Dispersed across the globe, with uncles in Frankfurt, Ramallah, Dubai, and Amman, an aunt in Beitunia, and my father in California, our family is truly Palestinian.

My father resisted through facts - always telling me, “Arm yourself with knowledge, Nadia.” It was one of the only ways we could fight back. The knowledge he would give me during our summer visits to Palestine had no price tag or textbook attached to it. It was an education that transcended the borders of the classroom and nation. These experiences of visiting the West Bank and Gaza Strip throughout my childhood generated in me a sense of home, identity, pride, and cause; in these moments and memories my roots grew and grew and grew.

Summers in Palestine bring back many memories, though I’m still only realising the profound influence they had on me. Smelling the fresh bread that Amti Khadijah used to bake made me feel instantly at home. I used to sit on the cold, stone steps, a few feet from Amti, and watch her flip and spin the dough in the fire oven with an expertise that one only learns through years of practice. She would hand me her freshest piece and I would sit, hot bread in one hand, a plate of zeit wa za’atar in the other, and the most satisfied smiles across both our faces; we both knew how delicious those first bites tasted. Everyone would flock from the far corners of the house to share in the excitement of fresh bread.

Days were spent with my uncle on the hillsides, playing a game of who could find and capture the most scorpions. My sister and I would run around, furiously overturning rocks to see what lay beneath. The heavier rocks lodged into the earth were always the most promising hiding spots for our eight-legged friends. As the years passed, the number of scorpions we found began to dwindle, and I doubted this was for lack of effort on our part. My uncle would teach us about the rich nature subtly surrounding us, pointing to olive trees and showing us the delicate bird’s nest perched deep within the folds of its branches. He would pick wild asparagus, miramiyya, za’atar, and fennel for us. In due time, I was able to pick all these myself and bring home to my Amto a mother lode that we would lay out to dry on large blankets on the kitchen patio. Over the years, on the tops of the hillsides, more and more Israeli settlements began to stare back at us, encroaching upon the land we used to wander.

On summer nights we sat outside, lazily eating watermelon and white cheese, drinking glass after glass of Nescafe, mint tea, and Arabic coffee, while I desperately battled the mosquitoes buzzing all around me. The men would talk politics and the women would talk weddings. Every year amati (my aunts) would ask me when I was going to get married. I always easily replied, “After my studies, Amto, after my studies.” Now I might have to enrol myself in a PhD programme to maintain my bachelorhood. Neighbours and other family members from Bethlehem, Anata, Hizma, and Lid would come by to see us, to see their uncle from Amreeka. My father’s face told all - the way he laughed with everyone and told jokes in his native tongue made you see that he was at home. The fog of the situation around us temporarily began to clear - there was nothing in the world that could steal these moments from us.

Sometimes I would take a fancy to one of the wild kittens running around the neighbourhood, and my cousins would watch on in wonder, trying to figure out why I would want to befriend a mangy cat. That animal is dirty, they would say, but I could not help but think that those tiny, scrappy cats were cute. Some of my favourite times were spent on the rooftop of my aunt’s house, eating bizr, watching the sky, and falling asleep to a warm breeze.
Some mornings we would wake up to shots from the IDF firing range, just a few hundred feet from my aunt’s home. We could see the soldiers, filing one behind the other, aiming at actual cut-outs of bodies with bull’s-eyes drawn across their chests. The sound of the shots was jarring at first, and then slowly became ‘adi, just background noise. I would strangely begin to feel this way about many other aspects of life there; I began to notice the normalization of occupation: waiting hours to get anywhere, identity cards being demanded at every crossing, and the look of worry on Amti’s face when she knew that anyone was going to travel beyond the village. We could not live as we wanted there.

Back in the States, there is always a part of life that feels sterile and less warm without the bustle of newborns and young kids running around the house and the clink and clang of dishes and pots in the kitchen. Life returns to normal habits and schedules. I look at my photos from the West Bank, thinking about whether the almond tree in Amti’s front yard is now bearing fruit and whether my cousin Lina is still giggling like the kids in the cartoons. I carry those experiences, however minor in detail, with me everywhere. Without them, our story could not be retold to the many who need to hear about the reality of life in Palestine; without them, our resistance fades into the stifling status quo, no voice to be heard from the other side. There will always be a part of me there, a piece of my puzzle in Palestine.

In remembrance of Amti Khadijah who always left a trail of light in her path.

Nadia Barhoum is a graduate of UC Berkeley and lives in New York. She grew up in California and spent almost every summer with her family in Jordan and Palestine.

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