“You have such a beautiful, unique name – where does it come from?” asks a woman enthusiastically, with a bright and engaging smile.
“My name is etymologically Greek, but its usage spread to Arab countries. I am half-Palestinian – my father is Palestinian,” I answer candidly, inviting my companion to continue our exchange.
The woman’s face turns pale, her eyes immediately look away. After half a minute, the woman pretends to regain her composure, and manages to mutter an unconvincing: “oh, how interesting!”.
Although I vividly remember the details of this encounter – where it happened, the woman’s face, the clothes she wore, even the dim lighting in the room we were in – there was nothing out of the ordinary, out of my ordinary, in this exchange. This specific interlocutor was unique – her words were not.
At first glance, these occurrences might seem as though they are inoffensive. Yet I receive them, in all my sensitivity and pride in being Palestinian, as aggressions. These aggressions are all the more forceful that I understand the images they carry with them: the images of brown, war-mongering, wrapped-in-kuffiyeh terrorists throwing rocks and launching rockets intended to harm, or even destroy, innocent, peaceful, white civilians. And therefore, I instantaneously understand that my own image, the one that I project of myself, that of a warm, elegant, and intelligent person, immediately shifts in the mind of the person in front of me. That I am no longer an innocent individual, but part of a guilty collective ensemble, derived from what the political scientist Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community” of members whose collective identity is formed by stereotypical figures put forth by the media. That the signifier of my perceived identity is no longer life, but death.
Crucially, my subjective identity is politicised. The moment I utter the words “I am half-Palestinian”, I cease to be considered as a full-fledged person, with her present and her past, her education and her aspirations, her qualities and her flaws, her hobbies and her pet peeves – it often feels as though I am robbed of the humanity that is inherently part of the essence of a human being; that I should even apologise for merely existing. I am reduced to a political entity, and a dangerous one that is, a self that was defined from the outside and ascribed to me without my consent.
Having Palestinian blood in my veins, and living outside of Palestine, often means having to escape a narrowly-defined identity and instilling in it, with sustained determination, a life and shape to restore its multifaceted, joyful, and humane aspects.
A politicised identity
It is a feeling widely shared by mixed-background people, and especially, in a western context, in cases of dual white and non-white backgrounds: the deafening intuition that we, in all our complex identities, should apologise for our mere existence. Blame it on western integration policies for immigrants, whether they be multiculturalist or assimilationist, and the rigid mental categories that these reproduce at the level of national consciousness. These rigid categories often include hierarchies of worth, the non-white identity being considered less worthy of consideration than the white one. Surprisingly, in our increasingly interconnected world, the reality of hyphenated identities is not always intuitive.
There is a political dimension that is immediately endowed with the Palestinian selfhood. Needless to say, this politicised identity is defined by the negative. Indeed, if we consider the features that are constitutive of identity, these conjure up an endless list of items that tend towards political violence: Arabic, the language of terrorists whose only raison d’être is to destroy “democracy and freedom”; religion, mostly Muslim, stone-throwing and bomb-planting terrorists; culture, “primitive” at best, propitious to raising “little snakes” in the words of Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked ; socioeconomic status, poverty; education level, illiterate camel-riding peasants.
Through this process of othering, it is hardly surprising that these assumptions and other seemingly innocuous reactions trigger a slow yet ineluctable corrosive effect on the way I present myself: for example, I might put a full stop after saying that “my name is Greek” rather than continue and delve into the unavoidable justification of my half-Palestinian identity. Or I might feel the need to provide greater details about who my father is, that he is a highly-educated surgeon, that he speaks three languages, and that he has befriended Jews in whichever countries he has – peacefully – lived in. That, in short, he is, for all intents and purposes, ‘civilised’. Or I might intentionally avoid mentioning my family’s place of origin, Gaza, for fear that it might conjure up images of demonic figures dancing around hellish fires.
The pendent to this, upon realising that there is an obvious disconnect between this forged representation and the reality of the person, made of flesh, bone and soul, that is presented to them, is a form of right-minded yet misguided reaction. “Oh, you’re half-Palestinian! – It’s true, we tend to forget that there are many Palestinian Christians,” I was once told. As if, to still be able to fit this narrow representation, there should necessarily be a solution to the riddle I unintendedly ask. Again, navigating Palestinian identity against politicised and sectarian currents is an acrobatic exercise. Full disclosure: this side of my family is not Christian.
In other words, living in a culture that is both mine and foreign, I am obliged to be mindful of mastering the subtleties of language so that they cannot be used as weapons against me. This is directly conducive to self-censorship whereby the identity I vocalise is not the identity I internalised. It transforms into a game of hide and seek, so as not to be reduced in my individual identity, as well as not to paint a more erroneous picture of an entire people.
Reclaiming my identity through politics
Because, as a person reduced to a fringed identity whose people’s history includes a 70-years-long conflict, I both see myself and I am seen by my fellow diasporic Palestinians as a standard-bearer for justice and equality. Identity formation first and foremost stems from who and what an individual identifies with. Although I do identify with my French peers, this relatability is necessarily limited since I consider my Palestinianness to be inherently constitutive of my identity, which implications are difficult to grasp for a non-connoisseur.
Out of some 100,000 Palestinians living in Europe, only a few thousands have settled in France. I have yet to meet a handful of them. Who do I identify with then? Diasporic Palestinian communities elsewhere in Europe and the United States? Since living in a French setting has effectively impacted my sense of self, I recognise that Palestinian identity in different communities is necessarily a hyphenated one and that every lived reality and experience is unique to these communities and every individual within these. How do these communities connect amongst themselves? In a context of fragmentation and disconnect, what is the link that binds us all? And how does one claim her or his membership to a fragmented community? The obvious answer is none other than politics.
By a fortuitous turn of events, politics has enabled me to reclaim my Palestinian identity. Here, politicisation comes from within and, in so doing, is not reminiscent of gratuitous political violence but productive and even optimistic activism. In my case, I would define my activism as intellectual and mental resistance: a struggle firmly grounded in the ideals of justice, fairness, and historical rights. Through reading historical and political accounts, I am part of the community of Palestinians who share my principles, my determination, and my intellectual references.
The likes of Edward Said, Nur Masalha, Ghada Karmi, Ilan Pappé and so forth but also painters such as Nabil Anani and Suleiman Mansour have not only contributed to righting representational wrongs but also created materials through which like-minded individuals, in search of a community, have been able to come together. To me, this cultural and intellectual vigour has rendered possible collective identification among diasporic Palestinians, politics becoming a bonding language that transcends geographical fragmentation. By transforming an external politicised definition of my Palestinian identity and re-instilling a meaning and a life into it, I can reclaim my sense of selfhood and define it on my own terms.
Of course, I am wary of falling into the trap of overpoliticisation and coming to paint a picture of Palestinians through the sole lens of political struggle. It would not do justice to our history. Palestinian identity was not formed as a reaction to Zionism, it pre-existed it. In the same manner, presenting to the world the political cause as forming the basis of my entire identity, even though it is an integral part of it, would be simplistic. It would equate to be my own oppressor: robbing myself of a full-fledged identity, rich of its cultural aspects, its gastronomy that nourishes both the body and the soul, full of its spontaneous laughter and its human sadness, its thriving artistic and literary scene, its luxurious landscapes, its immensely precious heritage – and the list goes on.
Finding my own ‘tribe’ with whom I can fully show myself, in all its puzzling and delightful complexity, is not devoid of complications, especially when the bond that we all share is so political – hence full of passionate debates. As in any political community, there is a need to conform to a unified line of thought and behaviour. More often than once have I been asked why “I did not wear the kuffiyeh” like so many of my companions did. In this case, I was not asked to dispose of my Palestinian identity in all its problematic aspects; I am constantly invited to downplay other aspects of myself and fully be Palestinian: appear Palestinian, wear Palestinian, think Palestinian, breathe Palestinian, eat Palestinian, dance Palestinian… maybe even burp Palestinian.
I cannot help but hear mental echoes of how Mahmoud Darwish felt trapped in his ascribed identity of the “Palestinian activist poet”: there is no doubt that he felt his identity was intertwined with that of the Palestinian cause, but he wanted his works to be understood in its truly poetic, hence universal, form . I relate to this entrapment feeling. Being surrounded by Palestinians who, just as I am, need to keep their identities alive is a contributing factor. I do experience feelings of guilt at times when Palestine drifts off my mind. However, I am immediately reminded that relishing in little joys offhandedly is precisely what instils renewed life in an ever-elusive identity.
The trap of romanticisation
The link between being kept away from one’s homeland and imposing intellectual orthodoxy is clear. It is both a matter of survival, proving people who deny your existence wrong, and a mechanism of defence, proving your own people who have never left that you share the same genetic and political DNA. Evidently, as a Palestinian in the diaspora, we cannot help but have a feeling of malaise that we are not enough Palestinian – especially when, as in my case, your Arabic and your baladi cooking skills are so ridiculously bad – and/or that you do not have the right to complain because, unlike Palestinians in the territories or in the interior, we are not subjected to a violent oppression system that can strike at any time.
Taking this into account, I and my fellow diasporic Palestinians often feel that asserting our Palestinianness is like clinging to an identity space that barely exists: reinforced by distance and political barriers, the country of Palestine often resembles an idea only of a mythical space, of an un-Holy Land as some might call it. And to enable us to claim and reassert our identity, we therefore romanticise the emblems associated with it: Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, Jaffa oranges, the luxurious olive trees. It is as though we re-created Palestine and conjured up a mental space of a parallel, not any less truthful, reality.
Courage is another leitmotiv associated with the Palestinian identity. These beautiful and soul-crushing verses by Palestinian spoken word poet Rafeef Ziadah rise in my mind: “We teach life, sir / We Palestinians teach life after they have occupied the last sky / We teach life after they have built their settlements and apartheid walls, after the last skies / We teach life, sir.” In this poem, Rafeef Ziadah recounts her encounter with a journalist who asks her for a “human story”, not a political one, showing despondency to the sufferings of Palestinians. What he does not understand is that it is the world, not Palestinians, who has robbed us of this universal truth: our basic humanity.
Abroad, identifying as Palestinian sometimes becomes a perceived defiance. I remember being once told, with a tone tainted with the most genuine admiration, that “I was brave to admit that I am Palestinian”. Outraged, I thought to myself that I did not admit to anything, especially when the underlying assumption was that of an admittance of guilt, but that I simply stated… a fact.
As courageous as Palestinians are, including diasporic Palestinians who manage to be fully functioning human beings in the face of blatant ignorance (no, Palestine is not in Israel!), courage does seem to be yet another aspect of this process of romanticisation. Little does the outside world know that we are not superhuman, we do not have a death wish to be martyred, we do not resist for pleasure; but to be given what we are owed: a humanity that is not constantly questioned but inherently accounted for.
The most accurate expression to describe Palestinianhood outside the territories is that of a game of hide and seek. Stating my Palestinianness at times equates to asserting it against bias and against those who attempt to reduce or silence it. It is also a process of seeking and reaching into its richness, going even beyond its politicisation. However, it is a matter of hiding as well so as not to be fully consumed by it and keeping a full sense of self alive, because an identity is always, and can only be, multifaceted and complex. And it is indeed a game, a somersault exercise, hopping between a reality and its many opposites, that is only possible in lightness and derision.