Uprising captivates Palestinians in US. The Palestinian American community in San Francisco is close knit and proud of its heritage. Already active socially, it is becoming increasingly nationalistic and active politically. Third in a weekly series.
San Francisco — Asad Salameh's store is a treasure trove of Palestinian lore: books in English and Arabic, embroidered Palestinian dresses, Arabic tapes, shirts with ``Palestine'' emblazoned in English or Arabic. The store has always carried the black and white checked Palestinian headscarves that have become the trademark of the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza - even before they became a fashion statement throughout the United States and Europe. Mr. Salameh says there has been a run on the headscarves known as kaffiyeh this year.
The Arabic Book Center serves a Palestinian community of about 20,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as approximately 20,000 other Arab Americans.
San Francisco's Palestinian community is one of the largest in the US. Others include those in Detroit - the largest - Los Angeles, Houston, New York, and Chicago. The San Francisco community, however, like the city itself, has a unique personality. It is close knit and quite active politically and socially.
Palestinian communities elsewhere in the US seem not quite to have this community's indefinable verve and esprit. Houston is also close knit but seems to be less outspoken. Detroit is less political and tends to lie low in reaction to chronic anti-Arab prejudice.
The Los Angeles community seems wary and cautious - no doubt because of the 1985 assassination of Alex Odeh, the Palestinian head of the local American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). And Los Angeles is where seven Palestinian resident aliens and the Kenyan wife of one of them were arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1987 on charges of belonging to a subversive organization.
San Francisco Palestinians, on the other hand, are proud of their heritage and openly defiant. They are almost exultant over the uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories and have staged protests to draw attention to the Palestinian cause.
In cooperation with other Arab-Americans and several Jewish groups, Palestinians have helped put on the November city ballot a proposition recognizing the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to independent statehood.
The majority of Palestinians in San Francisco, as elsewhere in the country, are professionals or small businessmen. Large numbers are grocery or liquor store owners; 95 percent of the area's 600 small groceries are said to be Palestinian owned.
Their educational level is high, as it is among Palestinians dispersed throughout the world. In San Francisco, an interviewer looking for the proverbial taxi driver is introduced to a man with a master's degree in political science.
Osama Doumani, former northwest regional director of the ADC, says he believes the majority of San Francisco-area Palestinians are not political. Indeed, large numbers of young second-generation Palestinians are uninterested in their roots. But being ``political'' is a matter of perspective; Palestinians here are very social, and it is often impossible to distinguish where a social event leaves off and a political event begins.
There are social clubs for the natives of various West Bank towns. Social-club gatherings and church and mosque socials have a distinctly political flavor. A recent meeting of the local Palestinian Women's Association begins with a moment of silence for Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza. A Palestinian flag hangs from the speaker's podium. A local Palestinian woman describes a recent fact-finding mission to the occupied territories she took part in. Her descriptions of beatings, killings, arrests evoke gasps and tears from the audience .
Cheers and applause greet a showing of a videotaped news clips of the uprising. If Vietnam was the first TV war, the uprising is the first VCR war, as Palestinians in the US preserve the memory of Palestinian heroism. The loudest cheers are for children throwing stones at advancing Israeli soldiers.
Even the program's lighter moments have political overtones. A group of women in embroidered dresses sing Palestinian songs, and a group of teen-agers perform a Palestinian folk dance. The event is a symbol of both national and cultural identity.
A gathering to hear speeches by Israeli lawyer Lea Tzemel and a local judge who has just been to the West Bank is unabashedly political. Ms. Tzemel specializes in defending Palestinians arrested by Israeli occupation authorities; the judge is an American Jew concerned about Israel's judicial practices in the territories.
Both hold the rapt attention of a large Palestinian audience as they describe prisoners blindfolded for ``security'' reasons, confessions signed by Palestinians in Hebrew, detentions without trial or even charges.
Knowing laughter greets Tzemel's sardonic comment, in answer to a question, that ``Israel can maintain the occupation as long as America will pay for it.'' The judge is applauded when he says he has been laying out his concerns in speeches to American Jewish groups.
If some San Francisco Palestinians were not very political before, the last several months seem to have changed that. The uprising has had the effect of reviving flagging Palestinian nationalism.
``Before the uprising, I didn't think much about what was happening there, because it was an issue that was almost dying,'' says Fuad Mogannam who has been in this country for 40 years. Now, he says, he has become much more active and will ``never stop.''
Next Friday: Dealing with Israel.