On a rare afternoon off at home, my dad asked me, “Did you know that Google Earth now has street view of East Jerusalem?” He then showed me his school, just beside the old city wall, and spoke of how he found his house on the Mount of Olives a few days ago.
This conversation spurred my tongue into my routine begging. “Please come to Palestine with me!” It has always been a dream of mine to walk my family’s home with them, and to visit the scenes of their history. As always, my mother and father glanced at each other and waited until I had finished my ranted fantasy. Their reply: a sad smile, declining the one thing I want most in the world.
My parents have never denied me anything; as a child I was blessed with new Barbie dolls, as a teenager they would buy all the CDs I wanted, and as an adult they support me in every way possible in my academic career. But this one simple request, a family holiday to visit our roots, they cannot grant me.
My mother left the room to make some Turkish coffee. Dad said quietly to me that she got very emotional when she saw her grandmother’s house through the computer screen. Despite this, I continued to ramble about how important it is that we go back together, as my mum served the coffee. She sighed wearily, “Amira when your dad had first discovered this street view, my friend was round and noticed how upset he got.” Often, the passionate dreamer in me gets a little carried away with her ideas, but deep down I have always known that returning to present Palestine would affect my parents more than I would ever know.
My father continued my mother’s thought, “We have happy memories of our home - we don’t want those memories to be tarnished further.”
But don’t I have a right to go to Palestine to see my home with my family? To see where they grew up? Every time I go, they give me distinct directions to different places like the hospital my mum was born in, and the school my grandfather was head teacher of, which my dad attended. I have pieces of paper with my mother’s scrawled writing and emails from my father, directing me to the scenes of their lives. Instead of having them walk through the streets with me, I go with their directions and my camera, hoping I can somehow capture what they miss.
When I was younger, I used to ask my dad to tell me stories at bed time – stories of his past were my favourite. He’d tell me about the golden sun, the green rolling hills, and the luscious olive trees waving. These images have stayed with me all of my life, figments of my imagination until I first went to Palestine and saw for myself the real beauty of our country. It was everything he’d described it would be, despite the ugly monster of occupation.
Our conversation moved on to the subject of my mother’s passport renewal. Dad got out a bag of documents to fish for her documents. Finding her passport, I felt my heart pang: “Birthplace: Jerusalem”. I’ve always known she was born in the Holy City but seeing it in documentation seemed to affect me differently.
Among the papers, my father found his first ever passport. A gawky, 16 year old kid pictured, the date 18th July 1966, the place of issue: Jerusalem. My eyes began filling with tears. Everything in these documents shows what I’ve been told all my life: our nationality, our homeland, our identity – yet, my parents can’t go back.
The room was silent as I traced the pages. Eventually my father’s soft tone broke everyone’s thoughts, “This here is the family silver.” Everything in this bag is more precious than any other possession we have – all the money in the world cannot compare to these documents before us.
Today, on the 14th May, Israel celebrates its 65th birthday. To the Palestinians, we remember Al Nakba – the Catastrophe. Israel was born out of corruption, terrorism and greed – and still lives on with corruption, terrorism and greed. 65 years ago, hundreds of thousands left their homes, being told that they will return once the Irgun and other Zionist terrorist groups stop attacking. They took only their keys and little possessions, and took their families to neighbouring villages, towns and countries. My mother’s family, the Al-Shantis, fled from their home Jaffa to Jerusalem. My father’s family, the Odehs who were known for their wealth, lost their farmlands in Qalqilya. Later, the Al-Shantis would leave for Egypt, and the Odehs would leave for Jerusalem, after they both lost their new homes again to the Zionists.
Today, my family are displaced all over the world, with only distant relatives remaining in Jerusalem. My relatives stay all over the world, mostly in America and Jordan. I have relatives who have never met before; cousins who will never meet, and a grandmother who will never see her grandchildren or great-grandchild. It has always been a dream of mine for us all to meet, but deep down I know there is a very small chance. “This is what happens when you have no homeland, Amira,” my mum gently tells me every time I talk about this subject.
My family are not alone in this. To date, there are around 7.5 million refugees out of 11 million Palestinians seeking refuge in other towns and villages in Palestine and across the world. This figure includes me, so you already know at least one Palestinian refugee (6 if you’ve met my immediate family too). These 7.5 million refugees did not decide to one day leave their homes and go on an adventure, or decide to leave as a propaganda stunt against Israel. Those in 1948 were only the first of thousands to leave, many others have left since and those still there are suffocating against the same corruption, terrorism and greed that Israel imposes.
Today I awoke wondering if my family ever knew that 65 years on, we would be scattered across the world with no right to return? As British citizens, technically my family and I can visit our land. But as Palestinians, we are not allowed to go home. Our houses are still standing, according to Google Earth, and I have even seen my mother’s family’s house in Jerusalem which has been turned into a Jewish prayer place (we were chased off by those praying when they saw we were there). This refusal for us, and all other Palestinian refugees to return, is a violation of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. Section 11 of the Resolution states, “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or inequity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.” But, Israel being Israel, of course ignores this resolution completely. Even just visiting my land, I have faced hours in border security, strip searched and interrogated, like any other returning Palestinian.
Today I contacted my dear friend from Scotland, who I consider my sister, who is out in Palestine just now. She has been hit by a tear gas canister but has been extremely lucky, with just bruising and a red face from all of the gas. She said to me, “It should be you here instead of me.” Somehow, I find the notion of the race Palestinian quite malleable. Those who have Palestinian blood are Palestinian. But those, like my friend, who are for humanity and justice, who are for equality, who are for the right of return, who are for the fall of Israeli apartheid, who are for the destruction of Zionism and all fascist regimes, are also Palestinian.
This is not an issue of politics any more. There are no politics when there is the occupation and the occupied, when there is apartheid, when there are two groups of people (grouping based on race alone) living in one country but one group is denied the same rights and freedom the other group has. There are no politics when there is an evil power suppressing other people, on account of their race and ancestry.
But they will never break us. Today, I smile at the name I inherited from my family: Odeh عودة, translated as ‘Return’. We will continue to fight, to exist to resist, until we are allowed home and can practice Haq al Awda حق العودة, the right to return. It is in my name, and in my blood. I will continue to fight for the rights of my people, for my parents’ right to walk in the streets of Jerusalem once more, for the right to live freely. I will continue to fight until the occupation falls and we are given our freedom. It has been 65 years since the curse of Zionist Israel began, but we will continue to fight until our souls are released into the soil of our land, and we can grow as the roots of our olive trees, with the mother sun of Palestine smiling down upon us once again.