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Hayat, from Akka

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 20.02.2009:

A Palestinian Biography

By Rania Filfil

If you call yourself a Frenchman or a French woman, you know where you belong: to the hexagon whose capital is the famous and beautiful Paris. You speak French and enjoy sumptuous wines, baguettes, and cheese. People all around the world will recognise your identity, and some may like or dislike it.

But if you say you are a Palestinian, do you know who you are? Do other people know who you are? Let’s see.

Her name is Hayat; this means “life” in Arabic. She was born in Akka – Palestine/Israel (?) in 1936. At that time it was Akka, Palestine. So, by definition, she is Palestinian – born. With the 1948 creation of a new state imposed upon this same land by colonial powers trying to relieve their consciences of the horrific crimes committed against the Jews in Europe, the land became Israel, and Hayat ended up as a refugee. She is to wander the world seeking a new place to call home and dreaming of her real home near the seashore.

At first, she landed in Egypt, with her family, where they were sheltered with other Palestinians in temporary camps with the hope and false dreams of soon returning home. The temporary shelter lasted longer than expected and then she was taken to Gaza, another Palestinian city. There she lived – unlike many refugees – in the city itself, in an urban house with the rest of her family. She even went to a school that was provided by United Nations’ charity via an organisation called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), also intended to be temporary. She was expecting an interim stay, and so it was. She got married to her cousin who left to work in Libya and took her with him. There she lived for more than thirty years, during which time her husband joined an organisation called the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was designated ambassador of Palestine in Libya, effectively the PLO representative. She was actually representing a revolutionary movement but was officially “labelled” the representative of “historical Palestine” or “biblical Palestine/Israel.” Quite a big dilemma: what was she representing? She never doubted that she was representing the Palestine she recalled: her hometown Akka, her interim city Gaza and the land in between. But from her place in Benghazi, Libya, she witnessed her home being devoured by another state; her people being substituted by people with a variety of citizenships who – as Jews – were granted the right to “return.” Some of these returnees had never set foot on this piece of land before they “returned.” They were given homes and citizenship in this new state that was no longer hers. In Libya she gave birth to her four children: Palestinians awaiting the right to return, but where? To an imposed “foreign” state?

Her husband was then moved to Malta, where they lived for some time; she does not remember how long. She lived on this beautiful Mediterranean island that had a language that was foreign to her and yet possessed some cultural aspects that were similar to those of her hometown. Then, in a big shift, they were moved to the new PLO headquarters in Tunisia. She was now building a new home where she had grandchildren. She was learning to eat different food and trying to enjoy a new life. Destiny then deprived her of her husband. She stayed with her children in Tunisia until another interim reality appeared: a peace accord. The first question that popped into her head: “How can peace by accord be interim?” Was this peace or another ceasefire or truce? Yet this interim peace allowed her to return; where? She and her children returned to Gaza. She was partly returning home. She saw again many of her relatives, including two sisters and some of her late husband’s family. Some of the people she had known had already departed – to heaven or to another place on Earth. And she stayed in Gaza. She started to build a new life and to become accustomed to a different landscape that was somewhat familiar but rapidly changing. She even had the ID of an “interim” citizenship – something that finally stated that she was a Palestinian and not a person with undefined citizenship. And then, the “interim” peace kept to its promise of being ephemeral. It faded away with the eruption of an Intifada in which the Palestinian people – now of all origins – demanded the right to be free from occupation. Where would the occupation withdraw to? They used to call for a Palestine from water to water: the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. Now they were asking for withdrawal of Israeli forces to the pre-Six-Day-War borders. A Palestinian administration had by then been established with some civil authority over the people but not over the land. And elections were held that brought to power a new regime: an Islamic one named Hamas. A ferocious coup d’état captured Gaza, placing it under international siege. Gaza was no longer a safe home. Hayat lost a son and was moved to Ramallah in the West Bank where she is now staying.

Is she home yet? We don’t know. The only thing we know is that she is a Palestinian – a Palestinian whose Palestine has ceased to exist on the geographic map. She is like the baby who was born at an Israeli checkpoint because his parents are from Abu Dis and do not have Jerusalem ID cards. His mother is not allowed to cross the checkpoint to give birth in the hospital in Jerusalem. She is like the diaspora Palestinian in Latin America who fantasises about a Palestine with recognised borders. She is like the Palestinian in a refugee camp in Lebanon who still has the key to his house in Safad. She is like the Palestinian, son or daughter, of another refugee, but with totally foreign citizenship on a foreign land. And she took her bible to read the story of Jesus, the Palestinian prophet, and she laughed. He was born to a mother from Nazareth and would thus be entitled to an Israeli ID. But since he was born in Bethlehem, under Palestinian administration, he would be granted a West Bank ID. The centre of his prophecy was shifted to Rome and to Christian Europe. He has foreign citizenship. If he were on Earth today, what citizenship would you give him? Would he be counted among those with the right to return to Israel? Or to a “try-to-be” Palestine?

Rania Filfil holds a degree in translation and international relations; she works as a professional translator, which has given her the opportunity to read on many subjects and develop an interest in numerous fields. Her main area of interest is Palestinian life and history. She can be contacted at

This Week in Palestine

February 2009

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