We Have Stories: Voices of Palestine

We Have Stories:
Voices of Palestine
by Hadeel Salameh

Storytelling offers a platform of connecting to others. When stories are told, a community is formed. As a Palestinian-American, I’ve especially felt the need to belong to a community. I’ve struggled to belong anywhere. Growing up, I’d spend summers visiting family members in the Middle East and would be considered American. I’d spend months between those summers living in Pennsylvania always being thought of as Middle Eastern. In a sense, I’ve lived in displacement my entire life. I eventually realized this was true in many ways for the Palestinian people in general—generation upon generation of feeling inferior to the forces occupying the land their homes were built on, whether the Ottoman Empire, British Mandate, or Israel. When I share my stories, I belong to a larger story—the story of my ancestors. 

While our ancestors are legends, they existed, and we exist—our stories are not fictional. They consist of difficult and continuous trials of patience and pain. Our history has been rewritten and used for political gain, telling the world that we are not a people and that Palestine was never the land of our ancestors. Palestine exists—if not on modern maps, it exists in the narratives of our generational experiences. Sharing stories has dignified my struggles, and, through that, I believe redemption from the pain of conflict has become possible. When my stories are heard, I am not only Palestinian, but I also quickly become a part of any and every community that connects with the Palestinian struggle.

Loved ones who came before us help us understand generations of struggle by recounting their own experiences. 

The stories we have inherited have been left for us in letters and diary entries passed down from generations, often written with the quivering hands of ancestors that, like Anne Frank, hid in corners from the oppression of army men. They are written with tired hands of Palestinian mothers who aged into wrinkled women who to this day hold onto hope in a single key to the homes once owned. Their skin shrivels with age but their hope does not. Their husbands once plowed the fertile lands of Palestine and were left only with dry mouths and a thirst to return to the fresh well water of their farms. These stories are told through peoples’ journeys from depopulated villages to salvation—from Palestine to Jordan to Lebanon to heaven. 

Our stories have also been silenced by bullets like the ones that pierced through Ahed, Mohammad, Zakaria, and Mohammad Bakr in 2014 and put them into a permanent sleep of shattered dreams. We have been quieted by our own emotions every time Gaza is bombed—2008, 2012, 2014, 2015. We have been stopped still in knowing our families struggle for basic food supplies because the tunnels are more terrifying than the fear of death due to starvation or bombings to Palestinians in Gaza. We have been stunned by worry that our families in Gaza will be driven into the sea, forced to swim for survival because the land is no longer safe.    

As a Palestinian-American, I have an ability, and hence a responsibility, to speak up and share our stories. I am blessed with the freedom to write and the encouragement of our democratic government to fight for our rights. We all need to share our stories because, when we don’t, world leaders everywhere will write our stories for us. They will continue to paint us in CNN and BBC headlines not as people with struggles who endure despite injustice upon injustice but instead as death-toll statistics or terrorists. 

The world needs to know that we are not willing to watch our familiesbe labeled collateral damage. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, once stated that when the old generations of Palestinians die off, the new will forget. I will not allow our ancestors to be forgotten. I will fight for their existence. I will speak out and write until our stories are covered in mainstream media and shelved in corner bookstores in New York City. 

* * *

I took a college course on Jewish history that led me to a sense of reconciliation. I learned much about the Jewish struggle to belong. I learned about the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the genocide of World War II, Jewish immigration to the United States, and a global, communal fight to start over. I felt a deep understanding of the hardships I studied in that class, and I even understood the Zionist movement through a Jewish perspective. In turn, I felt my struggles as a Palestinian were also heard. Many of my peers in the class—the same ones that were initially confused by my enrollment as a Palestinian in a Jewish perspective course—began to understand the Palestinian struggle as a similar one to that which their ancestors endured. In our reflections, we would share and connect through our ancestral struggles. 

I was touched to learn about my peers’ grandparents’ struggles to survive the Holocaust and immigrate elsewhere, and they were heartfelt in their understanding of my grandfather’s journey from Europe to Palestine in the late 1920s. 

My grandfather grew up during the time Palestine was under the control of the British. At that time, the country was divided into Trans-Jordan and Palestine. He witnessed the expansion of kibbutzim being built around the Mediterranean shores, including in Haifa and neighboring cities. Over the years, there were overwhelmingly high numbers of illegal Jewish settlers coming for the land. He remembers neighbors selling their land to Jewish settlers, and he remembers fights breaking out in front of his house due to his neighbors refusing to sell more land and a settler demanding more despite the refusal. When the Arabs started refusing to sell out of fear of becoming minority, much of the land was taken by force. He says that’s how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict started—it was a disrespect of property trade during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s that fueled the energy of both sides to defend the reasons they deserved the land more than the other. 

My grandfather didn’t realize what was happening to his country back then. He wondered why people argued over land; he didn’t understand why new people coming meant the people already settled had to leave. He told me about the many massacres that occurred in these villages during that time and about how some Palestinians would attempt to protect their land against incoming settlers and British forces only to lose everything they had. My Jewish peers and I connected over the common losses our ancestors had faced. It was a bittersweet understanding gained from common losses of home.

Connecting with my classmates was easier than connecting with my family. I often felt that engaging in any sort of discussion about Palestine was a struggle for my mother. She rarely shared her experiences about growing up. I often wondered if her reticence was because she feared that sharing her stories aloud for others would make them lose their reality to her. She remembers little of her upbringing but recalls life-threatening events that occurred daily in the village of Sarta in August of 1982. A shot was fired early that August, and the Israeli Defense Forces used the gunshot they heard as an excuse to take men ages fifteen and up out of their homes and tie them up in the middle of the village for about 2-4 hours every day while they searched their houses. Women and children would be at home as soldiers searched for weaponry. This act was in complete disregard of the fact that it was, and still is, religiously unacceptable for strange men to be alone with Muslim women. “I didn’t hear of any rape cases in my village, but their [IDF soldiers] presence altogether was a dishonor in that they [IDF soldiers] didn’t respect the Muslim women’s values,” my mother told me.

Photo from the village of Sarta

Photo from the village of Sarta

The siege on Sarta lasted for ten days. During the curfews that had been set, my mother remembers how she and her siblings would expect soldiers to barge in, armed and in groups. They would search the entire house every day, dumping everything in the drawers and from the cabinets. My mother and her sisters would oftentimes try to hide from the soldiers out of fear, and my grandmother thought of ways to reach these soldiers on a level of human connection. My grandmother would go through my grandfather’s closet every day and take out his police uniform, placing it on the bed for the soldiers to see. When they saw that my grandfather was in the military, they would apologize and stop searching out of respect. She tried to help them understand that she and her family were not a threat.    

When my mother finally shared this story with me, I was touched to know my grandmother had such strength. Hearing about her resilience inspired me to further my understanding of perspectives that differed from my own. My mother’s once-silence had resonated within me as I felt her suffering. I never asked why she hadn’t shared the story sooner because when I heard it I understood—I myself wasn’t entirely sure of the story’s effect on me. I felt a pain at the pit of my stomach,  and that was all I needed to connect to the pain of the experience.

Like my mother, my father has had a hard time sharing his stories with me. In his silence, I felt his guilt for having left when those he cared about remained living with such political strife. In 1983, my father was offered a position as the Arab board’s chief resident in the internal medicine department of Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem. He remembers one night at the hospital during the First Intifada when Israeli forces closed in on a refugee camp about ten miles from Jerusalem. As my father was examining the injuries of a patient, the patient recounted to him how the soldiers had taken all the males above the age of sixteen to a secluded area in front of an old school, tied their hands, and started beating them with sticks and metallic rods. Many men in the hospital had two or three bone fractures due to the traumas inflicted and some were in need of urgent surgical procedures and transfers to more advanced kinds of care. Rubber-coated bullets and other types of bullets that fragmented into smaller pieces once shot had torn through flesh of my father’s neighbors. What my father witnessed as a clinician that night placed him in a position where he no longer felt able to stay in Palestine. So, he left, holding with him the images of each of the sixty patients he had cared for that night at Makkassed alongside the memories of his youth and family.

The danger of not sharing our stories is that in silencing our negative experiences we risk repeating them. The Palestinian people have struggled for decades. When will we be free? When will justice be served? These are common questions asked within Palestinian discourse of the conflicts. As a Palestinian-American, I cannot wait for mainstream media to cover our stories. Palestinians back home will continue to suffer at the hands of Israelis if I wait for the coverage to come. I hear the stories of pain from my family. The brother-in-law of my first cousin has been detained in an Israeli detention center without charge since the Second Intifada in 2000. Ayman Taha, my cousin on my mother’s side, told me about weekly life at the campus of Al-Quds University in Palestine. Every few days at random times, he says, IDF soldiers throw tear gas grenades all over the campus. At first I didn’t believe these things; I didn’t want to believe them. But I can’t turn away from them.

I tell myself I’ll never stop writing. By telling our stories, we can bridge gaps and provide healing. We heal by facing reality and understanding our traumas. Sharing our experiences and listening to the experiences of others can help us learn that we are not alone in the process of moving forward. For me, it is a step towards ending an occupation and its resulting wars—it is a way of reflecting on history and shaping the future going forward.

I started writing our stories when I visited my grandparents during my childhood. I started writing when I first learned of my family’s expulsion from Haifa in 1948 and of my ancestors’ massacre in Kafr Qasim during 1956. I am part of a generation who has been cultivating the stories of our people as we have lived and written our own stories. We did so as we visited our families in the Arab slums each summer and when we played soccer with our cousins in village streets, dirtied with trash littered by Jewish-only settlers from the hilltops where Ariel and Kiryat Arba overlooked us. We did so as we stared into the lights of Tel-Aviv’s distant landscape that lay only twenty minutes away from our boxed-in balconies. We did so as we crossed Rafah border and stood waiting at the six-hour checkpoint on our way from Jordan to our grandparents’ houses in Palestine. We have been writing our narratives all our lives, and we will share them. §




Hadeel Salameh is a freelance writer and artist who earned her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has been published in SLAB Literary Art, Sound Book, and Muftah and will also be published in the forthcoming issue of Apogee Journal. She can be reached on Twitter at @hadeel_salameh_