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Waiting for Palestine

June 12, 2011 – 7:37 pm15 Comments

Galus Australis’ correspondent, Malki Rose, is currently in Jerusalem attending the ROI Summit. This article is the first of a series that Malki is writing on identity and homelessness.

It is two days before Pesach…and I meet up with Amira.

Amira was born in Israel. Amira calls herself Palestinian…but does not say she was born in ‘Palestine’. She calls it Israel. She does not call it Israel for my benefit.  She does not know what I call it, nor does she care. She says she was born in Israel as a Palestinian and devout Muslim, to a family longing for a sense of home. ‘This home…”, she tells me, “…is a place which does not yet exist”.

Amira explains that her family have lived in this land for many, many generations and whatever she or anyone calls it, it is her home. Their home.

“Who are ‘we’…”, she explains, “… ‘we’ are a people on the brink of existence.

We have always lived in this land, my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents – we have always been Palestinian”.

She stops and looks up, scanning her memory with the pleasant smile of nostalgia and relates to me a story her 104 year old great-grandmother , Nabala, had related to her, of her own childhood in 19th century Israel.  Great grandmother Nabala recalls stories when she was a child and she lived side by side with Jewish people, who also called themselves ‘Palestinians’.

“My great grandmother Nabala was part of a large and proud family who worked hard on their beautiful green farm with many olive trees, and some milk goats. Her father would spend spring afternoons sitting in the back of the field sipping tea under the shade of the largest olive tree. She remembered the neighbours, a Jewish Sephardi family who had also been living in Israel for several generations. The two fathers would often share a laugh and a smoke and the children would play together in the afternoons.

At the end of the week the two families would go their separate ways, as the Jewish neighbours would retreat into their home to celebrate the Sabbath.  A distinct singing in Arabic could be heard from their home, the tunes long and melodious.  These told of a joy in ritual and a delight in a day spent in celebration and reflection amongst another proud, but different, large family.”

But one spring evening stood bold and clear in my great grandmothers memory all her days. Although a girl of only 8 years old, she remembered that she had not seen her Jewish neighbours for some days. She had heard them next door, coming and going and busying themselves with something that seemed terribly urgent and important.

As the sun set that evening, a sense of foreboding filled the orange sky and for several hours all seemed quiet from the neighbours next door. Until suddenly came the sound of an unfamiliar song from our neighbour’s father. It was not in Arabic. For a moment she felt that she no longer knew the family living on the next property and wondered why the father was speaking in another language.

She heard the children call out loudly in Arabic, “You there with your pack, where are you coming from?”

They then heard the father answer, “I am coming from Egypt!!!”

To which the children exclaimed, “And to where are you going?”

“I am going home to Yerushalayim”, came the father’s proud response.

At which a beautiful song poured from their neighbour’s home.”

Even as a young girl, Nabala had found this incident strange but warming.  Amira explained, “Towards the end of her life, my great- grandmother would refer to this story over and over, struggling to process it. When she passed away it seemed unresolved. She was a special woman who wore a sad, incompleteness about where she belonged”.

Amira sees both Israelis and Palestinians as ‘wanderers’.

“But”, says the young Political Science student, “as goes the phrase…not all who wander are lost, the Jews are a people with a strong ritualised memory of where they have come from and where they are going to.  My people are lost, and my great grandmother felt this on that night. The night which I came to realise, only after my great grandmother’s death, was your people’s night of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt.”

I stop and reflect on a moment shared between a Jew and Muslim; a sobering reminder of the homelessness and sense of identity which every soul yearns to cure. I ask her how she came to be in Australia, so far from the farm her family called home.

“Were you refugees?” I ask her, “or did you already have family here?”

“No, we are alone; we were not refugees, but we had no choice, because we were forgotten people; invisible to our brothers.”

I pause and for a moment am overcome with a sense of irregular Jewish guilt. Of needing to take ownership of the actions of wayward Israeli Soldiers overwhelmed with a sense of their own power, and of shame at some of the military actions which may have caused her family to feel abandoned and invisible. A feeling I know all too well.

“We tried to go to Egypt. But they blocked the crossing and would not let us in. We tried to go to Lebanon but they did not want us. My father applied to Jordan and Syria and we were rejected there too. Not a single Muslim country would take us.  Australia was difficult but accepted us”.

I am confused, “But why did you want to leave? Wasn’t it your home? Your family’s land? Could you not fight to stay?”

“Malki, you are an idealist. My parents worked very hard to keep us there, on our family’s land, selling olives from the same trees as my great, great grandparents. My sisters and I did well in our studies, my father waited at Israeli checkpoints every morning from 4am till 8am. It took him nearly 6 hours to get to work every day – his whole truck needed to be inspected.”

Again I feel bad.

“What’s wrong?” she asks me sensing my self- blame. “This is what happens when idiots sneak weapons into Israeli towns under crates of medicine or in the backs of Ambulances; it ruins it for the rest of us who just want to work and live” – she pauses – “and travel!!! You have the same thing here in Australia at customs. You wait in a queue to be processed, the sniffer dogs come and check for drugs and illegal substances, most people are just wanting to come and go, but the idiots ruin it for everyone. People have to protect their borders, Israel is no different.”

This 25 year old girl speaks with the wisdom of an 80 year old. Like a woman who sees the world not with the bitter cynicism of blame but through the tip-of-her-nose-poised spectacles of a grandmother who has watched, listened and learned for a long, long time.

“So what happened to your farm?” I ask her.

“They took it from us. First they blackmailed my father. He had to pay them everything he had. Then they told us that they would be back in the morning because they ‘needed the house for storage’.  She pauses.

“The IDF?” I ask.

“No, the Hamas. They were bringing in materials from a tunnel in the south of Israel near the Rafah Crossing and after they had my father’s money they told us they would be using our farm as a base.  We are expendable to them; they care about the fight, not the people they claim to be fighting for, these are the people in power, and these are the morons the UN wants to lead our people, the Hamas? Where are our Muslim brothers? Why have they not spoken up?”. Amira pauses in frustration, and shakes her head.  “These people claim to be our brothers? The Israeli government at least protects its own people. We do not have such a thing. There was nothing left for us; so we left in the middle of the night…”

She trails off. Amira drops her head, clutches at her chest and begins to sob. But not like a child. Her tears bear the pain of a deep, long held memory.

“…Exodus”, I hear her beneath the sobbing.

“I understand”, I try and comfort her, “this was your family’s exodus.”

“No, you don’t understand… It was Pesach”, she surprises me with her knowledge of its Hebrew name. She sits up and affirms, “It was YOUR people’s Exodus, it was your night of commemoration that we left; and it was US being oppressed and cast out by our own people. We were in ‘no man’s land’, a land we thought was ours. It had always been our family’s home and the farm our family’s pride and joy and livelihood, for almost 200 years. How can we have an ‘Exodus’? we may know where we have come from, but we do not leave with purpose because we don’t know where we are going. We wander BECAUSE we are lost. Even if tomorrow you once again did not have the state of Israel, your people would always have an identity and a clear sense of why you wander and to where, at least to the idea of Israel.”

I think for a moment of our commonality; that my ancestors were also not welcome in so many lands; of their being expelled from Spain, Magyarized in Hungary, pogrommed in Poland, libelled in Slovakia, then burned in ovens in Auschwitz and labelled ‘stateless’ in Germany only 30 years after my great grandfather had served proudly in its army in world war one.

Amira’s strong words interrupt my thoughts.

“Malki, your family were strangers in a strange land.  But we were strangers in our own land… my great- grandmother could feel this on that Pesach night, and I felt it on the Pesach night we left”.

We are both silent for a few moments.

“Be proud of your people, they have built their dream. Your identity is strong as are your people.”

She wipes back her tears and laughs. “It’s funny that both our families have ended up here in Australia. Like so many other wandering people; immigrants, refugees, again on someone else’s land. On the back of another people’s ‘Dreamtime’.

I ask her if she ever dreams of home.

“Not yet, Malki.  It is not yet built to dream of. But when my people finally unite and instead of taking your people’s dream, take responsibility for building one of our own, I will dream of it and yearn for it always… as you dream of yours every Pesach when you say “ L’shanah Habah B’Yerushalayim”.


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