We Will Return

Samia Costandi, an ex-Birzeit resident now living in Canada, sent the following piece to Birzeit University. It was previously printed in the Gazette of Montreal.

It is difficult for me to capture the complexity of the issues facing the Palestinian diaspora as the world marks the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. The triumphant language of victory used by others to portray this event is the language of exclusion and denial to Palestinians. What for Israelis is the birth of a nation is for Palestinians a death.

The Palestinian nation that inhabited the land of Canaan since about five thousand BC was wiped off the map in 1948. Our land was usurped, our people dispossessed, our history, our culture, our long rich heritage created through the mixture of civilizations and religions came under siege. We became refugees and were left to deal with the physical, social, and emotional trauma of the loss of our homeland and identity. When, decades later, we took up arms and started fighting for our rights, we were stigmatized as terrorists.

Only recently did Palestinian concerns begin to appear legitimate in the eyes of the international community, mainly through the courage and determination of our people. The path of reconciliation is very arduous and challenging, particularly because our full rights have not yet been recognized.

Dispossession is the usurpation of my soul, the wrenching of my heart, the attempt to quell my proud spirit and subjugate my will by the stroke of a pen...As a child, my secure world crumbled when I saw both my mother and father break out sobbing every time they heard a song by Fairouz on the radio entitled: '`Raji'oun" which means "We will return".

Stories I heard from my parents about my cousin witnessing her grandparents' and father's murder when Zionist terrorist gangs stormed their village and shot her family members, among many others, were my first introduction into the vocabulary of fear and intimidation

Decades later, my children and I became eyewitnesses to the twelve hour bombardment of Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. As we fled amidst crumbling buildings on streets strewn with human flesh, the stories I heard from my parents became a living nightmare

Images of thousands of homeless Palestinians came to mind, described by my mother, of those refugees who came from what is today known as Israel into the West Bank...thousands walking in the scorching sun for days, mothers carrying their suckling babies in their arms while siblings held on to their dresses as radio communique prodded them to drink their urine if they got thirsty lest they are dehydrated. An ocean of dispossessed humanity with bare feet, dry mouths and bleeding hearts beating thunderously with rage at the betrayal, dazed as they walked towards an unknown horizon.

These are the unknown stories that politicians conveniently turn a blind eye to grandparents keeping the keys to their homes from which they have been banished and every once in a while stealing a peek at what has become the symbol of their turmoil in exile. I ponder the fate of the 350,000 voiceless refugees (in Lebanon alone), pawns in greedy power struggles.

I reflect upon the lack of compassion and authenticity in a milieu of political negotiations that do not take into account the fate of three quarters of the five million dispossessed Palestinians all over the world.

I miss Birzeit, my maternal hometown in the West Bank, which I visited every summer until the occupation of 1967; as for Jaffa, my paternal city, I never knew it. I miss the walks and talks in Birzeit, climbing our favorite trees with my cousins, picking figs and grapes sparkling with dew drops at five in the morning to decorate the rich assortment of appetizing national breakfast dishes. The family reunions at my maternal grandfather's house were the highlight of my life as a child. I want to recapture the excitement and joie de vivre I breathed there. The picnics to small lakes used to thrill me - our laughter and chatter still echo in my ears. I miss the smell of the earth in Birzeit that has filled my nostrils with an aroma that has not been matched in exile. I long for the weddings and celebrations that extended for days on end spiced by the flirtatious innuendoes and shy looks from enamored young men to young women and vice versa, and our national Dabke dancing.

I yearn for the mystical sunsets when I wrote my first poems and the beautiful sunrises where my first silent encounters with nature laid the foundations for what sacredness and spirituality mean to me. I am tired of gathering fragments of myself and my culture in my apartment in the diaspora and attempting to re-create a small Palestine here with certain images, symbols, and metaphors knitted on beautiful pillows that have known the salty taste of my tears.

The greatest irony of all is that the creation of the State of Israel was meant to shelter Jews from the very dispossession that is being visited now upon the Palestinians. The inescapable paradox is that what was perceived to be a haven for the Jews of the world, a place where they could feel safe and never be discriminated against, has become a place where the Israelis are perpetuating the same crimes they fought against.

The most poignant issue is discrimination. To most Palestinians who are today not allowed to go back to Palestine because they are not Jewish, this is religious apartheid, this is discrimination on the basis of religion. Any Jew from Europe or Russia has a right to a home on my land, and I do not. This is what the Law of Return states. However, one day we will hold our own truth commissions and we will force those who wronged us to admit their crimes and their disregard for ethical and humanitarian precepts.

What we want is not revenge: we want recognition, we want a relationship with the world that is not based on objectification, as the Israeli philosopher Martin Buber preached for years. Unless you treat Palestinians as subjects and not objects, he used to say, there is no way there could be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the 'other' and '1' must be equals, as in a relationship of I and thou and not I and it.

Today, the 'other' still overpowers us, dictates to us, holds a machine gun, drives a military vehicle, shoots us like birds and razes our houses to the ground in order to build settlements in the heart of Jerusalem.

In moments of anger and desperation, we have committed crimes against the 'other' too.

But, there is a gleam of hope: Palestinians have exhibited moral maturity in accepting to dialogue at a point in their lives when they actually were powerless; they did it for the sake of peace.

On the other hand, in the mind of a minority of Israelis, I have started to see glimpses of belated recognition, among Israelis who are committed to creating bridges of understanding; it is a promising start.

In the eyes of the majority of Israelis, though, I have yet to see respect, compassion and a real willingness to share.

As long as Israel celebrates its anniversary without remorse, we are yet many thresholds away from reconciliation and from creating a future where Jerusalem will truly become a metaphor for peace in the world.