Palestinian Americans lament life in exile. Many Palestinian Americans, regardless of how long they have lived in the US, feel an acute sense of exile. Second in a weekly series.
San Francisco — ``The feeling I have about Palestine is one of deprivation,'' says Stanford University linguistics professor Khalil Barhoum, explaining the pain of exile that many Palestinian Americans acutely feel. ``I don't think I'll ever feel normal about it. I'll never be the same - I don't even know what `the same' means to me.''
Prof. Barhoum was born in Bethlehem a few years after his family fled their village outside Jerusalem in 1948. Israel incorporated what remains of the village into Jerusalem, and the Barhoum home, which Khalil visited in 1967, is now occupied by Moroccan Jews. His views express the sentiments of large numbers of Palestinian Americans who speak of an indefinable sense of longing and exclusion.
Some Palestinian Americans do not experience the emotions of exile in a deep way, even though they may be active in the Palestinian struggle. But for those who do, exile is something that keeps them apart from the American mainstream. They feel that their loss is unique and that no complacent American can ever truly understand what it is like to be displaced from a homeland.
``For you, as an American, to be kicked out of this country and welcomed nowhere, acknowledged by nobody, and told you will never be able to see America, how would you feel?'' asks Karim Dajani, a student at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M. Mr. Dajani's father fled Jaffa, his mother Jerusalem in 1948; and Karim was born in Beirut. He has never seen his parents' homeland.
The feeling of exclusion that accompanies exile is heightened for Palestinians here by the fact that Israel is so prominent in the news media - and by the mind-set in the United States that seems, to Palestinians, to accord legitimacy to everything Israeli but to nothing Palestinian.
This extends even to the level of foods and customs. Palestinians bristle when falafel, an Arab sandwich consisting of fried spiced chickpea balls served in pita bread, is described as Israeli, or when at international folk festivals Palestinian dances and songs are called Israeli.
``It's so frustrating,'' says a San Francisco English teacher, who asked that her name not be used because it might endanger her family in the West Bank.
``If you see someone eating falafel and he thinks it's Israeli, you have to go into books and books of history to explain why falafel isn't Israeli. You go away frustrated, and he doesn't get the point. He thinks you're an agitator and gets nervous. `Oh, gee' - she draws back in mock fear - `a terrorist!'''
The peculiar pain of enforced exile is often quite sharp. An engineer from Nablus, who also asked that his name not be used to protect his family, rues the wastefulness. He says he feels he ``would be in a position to contribute some way'' if he could go back.
``An engineer is trained to build things. But what's happened is that all these Palestinians who studied engineering went and built buildings and roads and bridges in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq - but not in their own homeland.''
Not only those who fled Palestine in 1948 experience this sense of exile. Many Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza either were outside the area in 1967 when Israel took over and could not return, or left after the occupation to study or work and lost their right to residence.
An aspect of Israeli control of the territories that is unfamiliar to most Americans is that, to live there, a Palestinian must have an identity card issued by the Israelis. This serves as a residency permit. But anyone who was not there when ID cards were issued in the wake of the occupation finds it almost impossible to obtain one. Students who leave temporarily to study often find that the Israelis have allowed their permits to expire.
Examples are legion. The Nablus engineer's mother was on a brief assignment with her husband in the Gulf when Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. She tried for 20 years to obtain a residency permit and only succeeded in 1987.
Others are less fortunate. Samir Ashrawi, a Houston chemist, came to the US to study in 1973. The Israelis twice renewed his ID card but refused the third time. He is now able to return to his home only on a visitor's permit.
The San Francisco English teacher's husband is in a similar situation except that Israel refuses to allow him even a visitor's permit. When he visits his family, they meet in Cairo.
A sense of helplessness and profound frustration accompany exile. Mohammed Rajab, a Houston merchant, returned to Gaza last year after he had been shot by an armed robber in the US. Mr. Rajab had to leave Gaza regularly to renew his visitor's permit and this became too troublesome, so he is back in the US.
``Why the Jews from South Africa, from Ethiopia, from Russia, they come and stay and they are welcome. And they don't have any background there?'' he wonders aloud.
It is a common plaint among Palestinians - why everyone but them has somewhere to go.
Next Friday: profile of the San Francisco Palestinian community.