I'm Longing For Palestine While Living The American Dream

After living under occupation their whole lives, and with no prospect of political resolution on the horizon, Palestinian youth have taken to the streets this month in protest. As I sit and watch the polarizing coverage—now considered to be at near-"catastrophic" levels—from afar, disparate emotions dart around inside me like pinballs, striking chords and hitting nerves. There's the sadness, of course–the sadness that I always feel when I think about Palestine—that is now pulled to the surface and sharper than usual. Sadness that so many of today's young people are lost to a struggle that is decades old. Sadness that it feels like it may continue for decades more.

Next come the waves of frustration. As a Palestinian-American, it frustrates me how irreconcilable my two halves often seem. America is more home to me than any place I've ever known: I was born here, my mother was born here, and most of my family and friends live here. In our glory days, my high school girlfriends and I blasted the Dixie Chicks as we swerved into the Cleveland Park McDonald's parking lot for Big Macs and McFlurries.

The light skin and eyes I inherited from my maternal French-English genes, and from my Sittu Mariam (grandmother) on my father's side, have made that part easy for me. I can seamlessly blend into a culturally white world, never being subjected to that split-second suspicion and judgment that so many Arab-Americans deal with daily. My complexion has afforded me a very privileged life here.

"My complexion has afforded me a very privileged life here."

And yet, this is the country where my Palestinian cousins with darker skin are given dirty looks on planes, and where presidential candidates casually suggest that Muslims shouldn't be president. This is the country that gives $3.1 billion to Israel in military aid each year. This is the country that looked the other way when Israel sentenced my Palestinian cousin to nine years in prison for his role in a protest after the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir. They came to his house in the middle of the night and took him away based on an anonymous tip. At age 22, he will spend the rest of his youth in a cell.

The author and her father
My father, as you may have gathered, was not born here. He was born in 1947, six miles from what is now the Israeli city of Jaffa, in what was then the small Palestinian village of Abbasiya. For generations, my family lived simply on that land and cared for it deeply; they were farmers, growing citrus and olives in the Mediterranean sun.

In 1948, he and 750,000 other Palestinians were forcefully expelled from their homes in what Israel sees as its independence, and Palestinians call the "Nakba," or catastrophe. My father spent his formative years in a refugee camp in the Jordan Valley. His feet are still rough and calloused from running around outside without shoes. He spent evenings listening to his elders wax poetic about home, still thinking they might one day return–not knowing they would all one day die in foreign cities, never again having laid eyes on Palestine.

"We embraced our Palestinian-ness—and our ethnic names—and never looked back."

Throughout my life, I've felt a constant longing emanating from my father, a sort of melancholy incompleteness. At some point his displacement became an essential part of my and my younger brother Layth's identities. Perhaps we felt the tension of being Palestinian-American more acutely as time went on, and it presented us with a choice: hide that part of ourselves or wear it like a badge. So we embraced our Palestinian-ness—and our ethnic names—and never looked back. By now, we know what's coming: unrest. And we brace ourselves for the status quo: American politicians will dismiss dead Palestinians as "terrorists," while respectfully mourning each lost Israeli life. We live with the guilt that we are here, not there. The guilt that we can come and go as we please, while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are barricaded into their homes, neighborhoods, or cities. Israel is flanked by water, but many Palestinians will never see the sea.

The author and her brother in Washington, D.C.
I've grappled, almost desperately, to understand why my fellow Americans can't apply our beloved "put yourself in their shoes" mantra to the Palestinian experience. Instead our elected representatives are quick to condemn Palestinian violence, to ask how we would react if we were threatened by rockets "coming over the border from Mexico"? So, I'll ask some similar questions: How would you feel if you were born and raised in Chicago and then barred from ever visiting again? What if you were in labor and the military blocked your way to the hospital so you had to give birth on the side of the road? What if your brother was shot and killed by a soldier, and the case was never brought to trial?

The card-carrying optimist in me hopes the answers to those questions are clear, but it also allows me to approach our struggle from a place of hope. I find hope in the eyes of my lifelong Jewish-American friends as they nod in understanding (or ask us to write essays like this). I feel hopeful when people ask me what it means to be Palestinian. I feel hopeful when I'm given the opportunity to explain that Palestinians live with a deep anguish spawned by a lifetime spent under occupation. I want people in my American home to look at people in my Palestinian home and know that all they want are the same basic things Americans demand for themselves—like equal protection under the law. Like the ability to not only survive, but to really live.

In light of the reactions this piece has elicited, the editors of ELLE.com and ELLE magazine would like to underscore that this piece reflects one woman's personal perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The piece does not reflect the opinions of the editors or ELLE magazine.

OCT 30, 2015