When Palestine Becomes Personal

In the kitchen of a home outside of Ramallah, I learned how to make qatayef. My young aunt Duha scooped the cheese into the sweet bread and neatly pressed the edges to fold it. I tried to follow her steps, and my step-grandmother, Umm Tayseer, showed me how to press it with her hands, smiling between a few Arabic words. Soon we fell into a peaceful rhythm, completing the tasty Ramadan sweets.

I had only known Duha and Umm Tayseer for a week, but I felt in my bones that I belonged. Granted, I didn’t have any culinary skills to share at this table; everyone knows I burn everything I touch. But here I was welcomed, enfolded into the love and care of a family I had never met before. My grandfather, Grandpapi, moved back to Palestine from the U.S. before I was born, and because of that I never really got to know him. But here I was in Grandpapi’s homeland, making Arabic sweets with his widow and their daughter.

In the past week, I had gotten to know Duha and other family members. It was my first visit to Palestine. While Duha is my aunt, she’s a few years younger than me, like another sister I was meeting at long last. I celebrated joyous evenings of iftar, or breaking fast, followed by late-night adventures hanging out at the beautifully illuminated Ramallah City Center. I played with my two-year-old cousin and watched her smile up at Elmo who was handing out balloons, or sob when something didn’t go her way (because sometimes your balloon flies away). I showed my great-uncle photographs of family members he hadn’t seen in forever. And yet, amid the peals of laughter and at-last restored connections, I also heard heavy stories that weighed down my heart.

I set foot in Palestine for the first time just ten days after the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem and the Israeli military shot more than 1,000 people along the Gaza border, killing more than sixty Palestinian people who were demanding their right to return to the homeland they were expelled from. These events happened on May 14, 2018, the day before Nakba Day. Nakba is Arabic for catastrophe. It refers to the day in 1948 when the state of Israel was created—and as a result, 750,000 indigenous Palestinian people were driven from their homes, suddenly refugees.

If there’s anything I learned on this trip, it’s that the Nakba never ends, and every Palestinian person is affected. Even I who am only partly Palestinian (also white and Colombian) have connections to this disaster and the ongoing trauma. But I didn’t always know it.

Grandpapi never shared our family’s Nakba story with his children or grandchildren. As my mom put it, “Sometimes you don’t tell stories that don’t have happy endings.” It wasn’t until I was about to travel halfway across the world to meet my Palestinian family that my cousin heard the story from his father, Grandpapi’s brother.

It was April 1948, and Grandpapi had just received news that his mother’s village of Saris near Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Haganah, a Zionist paramilitary organization. The Haganah was determined to drive out the indigenous people in order to secure a supply route from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before Israel declared independence, as part of Operation Nachshon. On April 16, about 500 Haganah soldiers invaded Saris and drove out the approximately 650 Palestinian people who lived there. As historian Walid Khalidi recorded in his book All That Remains, the Haganah blew up and burned down homes, destroying between twenty-five and thirty-five houses, as well as a mosque and a school. Seven people were killed in the attack.

Grandpapi was twenty years old and living in the Ramallah area, where he worked on the family farm. His mother had grown up in Saris, and her relatives from Saris were now on the run, fearing for their lives, especially since the Haganah had killed about ninety-three people in the nearby Deir Yassin massacre just a week earlier.

So Grandpapi and his uncle Ahmad gathered some hunting rifles from neighbors, and they got a mule to carry them. Together they walked all the way from the Ramallah area to the Jerusalem area (near Saris) to deliver the weapons so their family could protect themselves. We don’t know the exact route that they took, but they most likely walked through mountains instead of taking the main roads through villages under Zionist control, a distance that easily could have amounted to a marathon (twenty-six miles). Ahmad decided to stay, so Grandpapi returned to his home in Ramallah alone. But Grandpapi never saw his uncle again. On May 10, 1948, Ahmad was killed in the attack on neighboring Bayt Mahsir.

As I spent time with my family in Palestine, I heard many more Nakba stories. The thing about the Nakba is that it is not only a finite event, a catastrophe that happened in 1948—it’s an ongoing trauma. The Nakba continues for Palestinian people in Gaza who live under blockade with only a few hours of electricity a day, for Palestinian people in Israel who lack rights despite having citizenship, for Palestinian people in the West Bank who live under military occupation with restricted water access.

I heard Duha describe what it was like when at nine years old, she watched Israeli soldiers tear her home apart looking for a fugitive in the area. They threw things around the house and out the window in the midnight darkness. Another family member pointed from his house to the vineyard that he owns up a hill, telling me that he does not dare approach his own land for fear of being attacked by violent settlers.

I learned that when Grandpapi died in 2004 it was because a curfew had been imposed by Israeli soldiers, and no one was permitted to take him to the hospital when he experienced a diabetic complication. He was seventy-seven. This is life in the occupied West Bank. As Duha put it, “Everything in life, from marriage to death, is affected by the occupation.”

Every Palestinian person has stories like these, of being expelled, oppressed, or denied basic needs and medical care. Yet many people in the U.S. aren’t even aware of these catastrophic conditions. “It’s a human story,” said my relative Khadija, who studied the Deir Yassin Nakba massacre for her graduate research. “You don’t need to be Muslim or Palestinian to feel with us. You only need to be human.”

Yet many Palestinian people can’t help but feel that the rest of the world has abandoned them. Today there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees. In the Great Return March starting on March 30, 2018, Palestinian people facing dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza demonstrated and demanded to return to their homeland, and in the following three months, the Israeli military killed 135 protestors and injured 15,000. It is in this context, on the seventieth anniversary of the Nakba, that the United States decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is supposed to be a shared holy city for all three Abrahamic religions, and East Jerusalem is supposed to be the future capital of a Palestinian state. In moving its embassy, the U.S. symbolically gave Jerusalem over to Israel, ignoring the existence of all the Palestinian people who call Jerusalem home, and enabling further annexation and colonization. The move has threatened the peace process and deeply pained Palestinian people, as they’re cut off from their holy city and their homeland.

For too long, I’ve been hesitant to speak up for myself as a Palestinian person, ultra-anxious about the words I choose when I do. Yet now I’ve been to Palestine, heard my family’s story, and seen how the Nakba continues to affect people who are my flesh and blood. I know how high the stakes are, how urgent the crisis is. Every day can bring more news of the conflict escalating, continued annexation, unarmed Palestinian people murdered, children detained, or homes demolished.

More than ever before, I will speak. Palestine is forever my struggle for justice and my prayer for peace.

Originally written in 2018. Updated and reposted July 5, 2020.