Arguments Toward a Universal Palestinian Identity

11 May, 2022


This essay is excerpt­ed from Being There, Being Here: Pales­tin­ian Writ­ings in the World (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022) and is pub­lished here by spe­cial arrange­ment. “Ded­i­cat­ed to the mem­o­ry of Shireen Abu Akleh, one of the most rel­e­vant and impor­tant Pales­tin­ian voic­es of late. Killed on 11 May 2022 — shot in the head, prob­a­bly by some kid in a uni­form who’s been taught his entire life that this is his calling.”


Maurice Ebileeni


In 1868, the unknown “nine years old or there­abouts” Kon­rad Korzeniows­ki, “while look­ing at a map of Africa of the time,” put his fin­ger on “the blank space then rep­re­sent­ing the unre­solved mys­tery of the con­ti­nent” and promised him­self, “When I grow up, I shall go there!” It seems now to be com­mon knowl­edge in lit­er­ary cir­cles that many years lat­er, Korzeniowski’s adult alter ego, Joseph Con­rad, would immor­tal­ize this call in Heart of Dark­ness through the fic­tion­al Char­lie Mar­low before he engages on his jour­ney to the Con­go and con­fronts the “dan­gers” of the con­ti­nent. I am begin­ning with this ref­er­ence to Con­rad because while writ­ing Being There, Being Here, Marlow’s words res­onat­ed to me in Erez Kreisler’s (for­mer head of the Mis­gav Region­al Coun­cil in the north) descrip­tions of the Galilee in a recent Haaretz arti­cle about the mon­i­tor­ing of Israeli hous­ing reg­u­la­tions to main­tain a divid­ing line between the area’s Jew­ish and Arab inhab­i­tants. Kreisler, who claims to be “in favor of life togeth­er, but on the basis of some sort of struc­ture and frame­work,” explains that he arrived in the Galilee in 1989 when “the image of the Galilee was that of an enfee­bled, wretched, even dan­ger­ous region.”

I moved to Israel in the mid-‘90s as a young adult and strange as it may sound now, I sim­ply did not think about the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of what it would be like to live in Israel as an Arab.

Being There, Being Here is pub­lished by Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

With these few words, Kreisler trans­formed the birth­place of my par­ents, my wife, and my three chil­dren into — to put it in Con­ra­di­an terms — “one of those dark places on earth” and severe­ly inflamed my aware­ness of my sta­tus as a “per­son of col­or.” It is not to claim that I had not stood face to face with “oth­er­ness” before. Still, for many years, the reper­cus­sions of those encoun­ters were remark­ably faint. Born and raised in Copen­hagen by Arab immi­grants, my so-called “col­or” was a con­stant mark of dis­tinc­tion, but it was the ‘80s and my pres­ence among my Dan­ish peers was then viewed as “exot­ic” rather than “threat­en­ing.” I grew up as a native speak­er of Dan­ish, a devout lover of lev­er­postej and remoulade, and a loy­al fan of Den­nis Jürgensen’s youth nov­els. Sure­ly, I was occa­sion­al­ly remind­ed of “where I orig­i­nal­ly came from” inso­far as my Dan­ish edu­ca­tion could, of course, nev­er be ful­ly real­ized due to my “exot­ic” roots. I can, how­ev­er, not recall a sin­gle instance of such evo­ca­tions that stuck or caused any rec­og­niz­able long-term dam­age (if such a thing is pos­si­ble). It was a rel­a­tive­ly hap­py child­hood and, although I was rarely tar­get­ed, it is only in ret­ro­spect that I under­stand the sever­i­ty of deroga­to­ry col­lo­qui­alisms such as “fremmedar­be­jder,” “ind­van­dr­er,” and “perk­er.” Dur­ing those years, I pos­sessed an innate abil­i­ty to brush off the impact of such phras­es — that same abil­i­ty that I, in adult­hood, have fur­ther honed to ward off the tremors of terms and expres­sions employed in the main­stream Israeli dis­course regard­ing the country’s Arab cit­i­zens (the com­mu­ni­ty with which I am affil­i­at­ed today).

I moved to Israel in the mid-‘90s as a young adult and strange as it may sound now, I sim­ply did not think about the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions of what it would be like to live in Israel as an Arab. My deci­sion was prob­a­bly based on won­der­ful mem­o­ries of sum­mer vaca­tions spent in Tarshi­ha as a child — of my moth­er wak­ing me up when we’d arrive at the entrance to the town after a three-hour long ride from the air­port — and of when we would ascend the curvy main street past the mosque, the Roman Catholic church and then the Greek Ortho­dox one, before we reached our des­ti­na­tion — the upper quar­ter of the vil­lage where both my pater­nal and mater­nal fam­i­lies resided and where we would stay for the next four weeks.

The glam­or of the sign­ing of the Oslo Agree­ment was still at large in the ‘90s and polit­i­cal activ­i­ty on the mixed cam­pus in Haifa appeared more or less civ­i­lized. The con­tro­ver­sial (and today exiled) Arab intel­lec­tu­al and politi­cian Azmi Bishara was being court­ed by the Israeli media as the next big thing, and this first actu­al encounter with Israel out­side Tarshi­ha con­vinced me that the place seemed by and large hab­it­able. In Den­mark among my peers in the ‘80s, my “exot­ic” ori­gins were per­haps root­ed in the worlds of Ara­bi­an Nights; in Tarshi­ha among rel­a­tives and friends, I had always been “al-dan­i­mar­ki” (the Dane); and now in Israel, a polit­i­cal cli­mate was about to edu­cate me into becom­ing the Arab. This iden­ti­ty has been a far cry from the one I was allot­ted in Copen­hagen and, I have to admit, it took me some time to under­stand the trou­ble I had got myself into by mov­ing here, and worse, the trou­ble I am now pass­ing on to my sons in rais­ing them here.

I became a stu­dent of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Haifa where I com­plet­ed both my BA and MA. I then moved to the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty to pur­sue my doc­tor­ate where I lat­er also became a post­doc­tor­al fel­low and stayed for anoth­er three years, before return­ing to Haifa, this time, as a lec­tur­er. It’s been quite a jour­ney and I have been for­tu­nate to have met many won­der­ful peo­ple along the way but some­times when I find out that I still, to till this day, need to answer ques­tions by “well-mean­ing” indi­vid­u­als about if I am the first per­son in my fam­i­ly or vil­lage to receive a Ph.D. and so forth, I can­not but pause and won­der. Such ques­tions, as you might under­stand, posi­tion me in an Israeli Ori­en­tal­ist dis­course of the so-called “pio­neer­ing” Arab cit­i­zens — the first Arab beau­ty queen in Israel, the first Arab win­ner of the Israeli ver­sion of Mas­terchef, the first Arab min­is­ter in an Israeli gov­ern­ment, the first Arab lec­tur­er of lit­er­a­ture in an Israeli Eng­lish depart­ment, and per­haps soon­er rather than  lat­er, the first Arab head of the Israeli Mossad. See­ing myself through the eyes of these “well-mean­ing” indi­vid­u­als and the eyes of the estab­lish­ment in gen­er­al, I have start­ed to under­stand, or per­haps imag­ine, that despite of every­thing I might appear as noth­ing more than — to return to Con­rad — “an improved specimen.”



At this point, I will take a chance by mak­ing a sharp turn toward the genre of sci­ence fic­tion. Some time ago I read the short sto­ry “Rachel” by Laris­sa Lai. Rachel (the Chi­nese-Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nist) is unknow­ing­ly — for those famil­iar with Rid­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner from 1982 — a repli­cant (that is, a bio-engi­neered being which is iden­ti­cal to humans except for its supe­ri­or phys­i­cal strength and its inabil­i­ty to under­stand emo­tion). Lai’s sto­ry focal­izes events through Rachel’s per­spec­tive and begins with the scene from the movie when she is being inter­ro­gat­ed by a retired blade run­ner (the Har­ri­son Ford char­ac­ter) in her father Eldon Tyrrell’s pres­ence. Deckard is con­duct­ing the Voight-Kampff Test to find out if Rachel is a repli­cant and fol­low­ing a long and thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tion, Rachel is asked to step out­side. As she leaves the room, Rachel acci­den­tal­ly over­hears Deckard ask her father: “How can it not know what it is?” She bare­ly hears the words, but she hears them well enough to dis­cov­er that she is indeed a repli­cant and well enough to con­tem­plate for the rest of the sto­ry what it means to be an arti­fi­cial being — and I should add, an arti­fi­cial being with a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty. The rea­son for going here is because I was struck by the policeman’s ques­tion, per­haps in the same way Rachel was: “How can it not know what it is?” Being the con­stant oth­er as a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grant in Copen­hagen, or as the for­eign cousin among rel­a­tives, or as an Arab in Israel, I can­not hon­est­ly say what “it” (this oth­er­ness) exact­ly is or that I have ever con­scious­ly thought about it as oth­er until only a few years ago. How­ev­er, I can say that Erez Kreisler’s words cut through loud and clear and “while I still do not exact­ly know ‘what’ I am,” I am slow­ly learn­ing what dis­cours­es of pow­er (and also resis­tance) seem to “know” about me.

My mod­est library in Tarshi­ha some­what rep­re­sents this posi­tion. It would per­haps be a relief for some (or not) to know that it does not only hold titles in Ara­bic. In this “enfee­bled, wretched, even dan­ger­ous region,” there exists a pri­vate book col­lec­tion com­prised of titles in lan­guages such as Hebrew, Ara­bic, Dan­ish (and oth­er Nordic lan­guages). The major­i­ty of the books are in Eng­lish — my lan­guage of pro­fes­sion. The col­lec­tion is a far cry from Jorge Luis Borges’s uni­ver­sal library, but kind of rem­i­nis­cent of Mustafa Saeed’s — from Tayeb Salih’s haunt­ing nov­el: Mawsim ‘al-Hijrah ‘ila ‘al-Shamal (Sea­son of Migra­tion to the North, 1966) — library that remained con­cealed in the vil­lage of Wad Hamid next to the Nile in north­ern Sudan before it was burned down.

Three images of Tarshi­ha (pho­tos cour­tesy Eli Ibelinni/About Tarshi­ha Archive).

Hid­den away, far from the Israeli real­i­ty com­prised of the kib­butzes, the moshavs, and the devel­op­men­tal cities in the Galilee, in a lone­ly house on the south side of the Muja­hed hill in Tarshi­ha, among olive groves and sheep, my col­lec­tion of books not only rep­re­sents a per­son­al sto­ry, but also those by Pales­tini­ans and their descen­dants today liv­ing in dif­fer­ent loca­tions around the globe. It holds names such as, among so many oth­ers, Anton Sham­mas, Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye, Diana Abu Jaber, Nathalie Han­dal, Susan Muad­di Dar­raj, Ran­da Jar­rar, Ibrahim Faw­al, Sel­ma Dab­bagh, Lina Meru­ane, Mis­cha Hiller, and Yahya Has­san – writ­ers who have authored texts that more-or-less express my predica­ments regard­ing iden­ti­ty in ways which Ara­bic texts could not suf­fi­cient­ly do.

The point of describ­ing this jour­ney is not to present a com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tive and to make some ulti­mate dec­la­ra­tion about hav­ing final­ly arrived. The pur­pose is rather to make room in the Pales­tin­ian sto­ry for peo­ple like myself – and also to mark a crit­i­cal posi­tion that will allow a com­pre­hen­sive study of the flu­id con­di­tion of Pales­tin­ian lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion in both Israel-Pales­tine and the world at large.

Since Being There, Being Here is to a great extent a study of Pales­tin­ian lit­er­a­ture in lan­guages oth­er than Ara­bic, a per­son­al note on lan­guage is war­rant­ed here. Ara­bic is uncon­di­tion­al­ly the Pales­tin­ian nation­al lan­guage. How­ev­er, for many, it is no longer their moth­er tongue. My own rela­tion­ship with Ara­bic remains vexed. Today, I enjoy an advanced lev­el of profi­cien­cy, but I still find it emo­tion­al­ly chal­leng­ing to either write or read in Ara­bic. I rarely pick up an Ara­bic nov­el (despite my pro­fes­sion as a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture) and fever­ish­ly avoid writ­ing in Ara­bic. Any such direct engage­ment imme­di­ate­ly brings back mem­o­ries of my uphill bat­tle learn­ing to read and write Ara­bic dur­ing those ear­ly years grow­ing up in Copen­hagen. It was a bat­tle I did not choose. It was forced upon me by my par­ents every evening when I had com­plet­ed my Dan­ish school home­work and they would wait for me with the Ara­bic text­books to teach me the basics. It was forced upon me with every lash of the cul­tur­al whip at my pref­er­ence for speak­ing Dan­ish at home rather than Ara­bic — at every trans­gres­sion of the con­ven­tions of our Arab ways.

I do not believe that my rela­tion­ship with the Ara­bic lan­guage is unique. It is telling, I think, of how sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion immi­grants relate to their par­ents’ her­itage in gen­er­al. We spend a life­time nego­ti­at­ing, occa­sion­al­ly accept­ing, and most­ly reject­ing what our par­ents rep­re­sent. I have yet to meet some­one who has not stood next to their par­ents at some super­mar­ket, embar­rassed while lis­ten­ing to them speak in the local for­eign lan­guage that is native to their chil­dren. In addi­tion to lan­guage, my rebel­lion against my par­ents’ her­itage became most vocal dur­ing epic argu­ments over food. While I have always adored my mother’s mujadar­rah, mloukhieh, and maqloobeh, I con­stant­ly made sure to express my pref­er­ence for the Dan­ish cui­sine in reply to her lec­tures of how much bet­ter and health­i­er the Ara­bic one was in com­par­i­son to any­thing else in the world. My bias­es against every­thing Arab became increas­ing­ly rad­i­cal. I want­ed to assim­i­late. As far as I was con­cerned, I was already Dan­ish — although with the “exot­ic” twist — while my par­ents offered what seemed to me the option to be an immi­grant. At the time, I was com­plete­ly igno­rant of the ongo­ing pub­lic dis­cus­sions about defin­ing “Dan­ish­ness” and the gen­er­al notion that “brown skin” could nev­er become gen­uine­ly Dan­ish. In my uncom­pro­mis­ing ado­les­cent bat­tles against my par­ents, it was “me” against “them.” Although I today live in Tarshi­ha with my fam­i­ly and my par­ents have by now retired and moved back here as well, I can­not hon­est­ly claim that these bat­tles have end­ed. They may be dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter, but the sub­stance of our con­stant argu­ments remains more or less the same, and I, today a mid­dle-aged man, adamant­ly con­tin­ue to express my pref­er­ence for every­thing Dan­ish and dis­like for every­thing Arab in their presence.

My fam­i­ly and I fre­quent­ly go to vis­it my for­mer home­land. My sons and my wife do not speak a word of Dan­ish — except for some­times inten­tion­al­ly mis­pro­nounc­ing things they hear me say for the pur­pose of mak­ing fun of me — yet they have devel­oped a bond with the place and gen­er­al­ly look for­ward to our trips. I selfish­ly enjoy adding this dimen­sion to my sons’ upbring­ing, in the hope that they will grow up to become less local­ized indi­vid­u­als and bet­ter pre­pared for our increas­ing­ly glob­al­ized world (with a twist of some Nordic cul­ture). How­ev­er, I also rec­og­nize as we walk through the streets of Copen­hagen that the place no longer hous­es the notion of home for who I have become in Israel. I am still inti­mate­ly famil­iar with every minute detail and nos­tal­gi­cal­ly savor the smells emit­ted from the butch­ers and bistros. I make it a rit­u­al to walk to the local bak­ery in the morn­ing to pick up Poli­tiken, a span­dauer, and a cof­fee. I enjoy shop­ping for Dan­ish gro­ceries in the local Net­to, but I am also aware that my head is else­where at this point in my life. At the end of our trip, we return to Israel, to Tarshi­ha, to the awful “Nation-State Law,” back to claim our posi­tion in the Arab minor­i­ty among those indi­vid­u­als who mirac­u­lous­ly man­aged to sur­vive and stay on their land despite impos­si­ble odds in 1948.



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