Dear Ms. May,
I was in London for a summer visit a few years back. After a long day, I headed to Pret for a cup of coffee and a falafel wrap. A few minutes in, and as I was about to tuck into my wrap, a man seated next to me started a conversation with me about the weather. As we got to the part of the conversation where I told him that I’m in London just for a visit, he asked me where I was from. “Palestinian” I said.
“I like Palestinians,” he responded. “But do you know what’s wrong with the Palestinians?” he followed up.
“What?”, I answered, curious as to what he is about to share.
“The problem is that the Palestinians can’t move on. What happened has happened, but what are you going to do next, and when will you start looking towards the future, instead of continuing to be stuck in the past.” I didn’t respond to him then, but promised him that I would give what he said a thought.
I never thought back to that exchange until recently. Actually, specifically until four days ago. See, Ms. May, this past October 30 marked the 69th anniversary of the fall of my small village in Palestine – Suhmata– at the hands of the Golani brigade. With a little over 1300 inhabitants at the time, a mosque, a church and two schools, the village was aerially bombarded at first. Shortly after, Suhmata was captured by the Golani infantry brigade. They killed some of the villagers – maternal relatives of mine – and gave a choice to the remaining people to either stay and get killed or leave.
My father at the time was a two-month-old baby. My paternal grandmother – who at the time was a young 22 year-old woman – held him close to her chest as she took her first steps on her fateful journey of life-long displacement. Over the next two days, she walked from the outskirts of Acre in Palestine to Tyre, Lebanon. At one point during the journey, her baby – my father – started crying incessantly. Fearful that his loud shrills might lead the invading militias to their hiding location -potentially jeopardizing the lives of everyone- the group, to my grandmothers despair, considered lowering the baby – my father – into a nearby well and leaving him behind. Perhaps sensing the gravity of the impending decision, my father stopped crying and made it into southern Lebanon with the rest of the group.
My grandmother – like the several hundred thousand of Palestinian’s displaced then – lived in a tent over the next 2 years, and then in various refugee camps in Lebanon for the rest of her life, up until she passed away. Overnight a landowner turned into a nameless refugee living in harsh poverty. She endured through years of hunger, humiliation, fear and persecution. When she died, and because of her refugee status, her children had to obtain a special permit for her small burial ground. She lived her life ordained by special permits, and even in death she needed one.
I inherited my grandmother’s dark complexion and her easy-going demeanor. I inherited her refugee status. I inherited aspects of her fear, memories and trauma, all of which at times feel as if they have been embedded into the very structure of my cells, and the very imprints of my DNA. This isn’t just another untraceable story in some history book. This is part of my personal story, my personal history and my personal present.
And this is not just my personal story, my personal history and my personal present. This is a collective story, a collective history and a collective present, all amplified every time I run into a Palestinian. For when I do, there is this instant connection in pain, mirrored memories and cells recognizing an identical structure, sculpted by the hands of fear and trauma.
So in your opinion Ms. May, how can we Palestinians move on? On an individual level, the recovery process is deeply rooted in us attempting to become whole again. As you probably wouldn’t have the faintest idea, I will explain further. This means patching up big holes in our very being battling with confusion over identity. It means inviting these memories, fears and traumas so they may be heard, respected and eventually, hopefully, desperately, released. It means facing the consequences of statelessness, poverty, discrimination and insecurity at every level and deciding every time, at every turn and every corner to keep going.
But it also means the need to mend the systematic rupture that remains, till today, unresolved. It means bringing an end to an occupation that seizes the hearts and souls as well as the lands. It means granting fundamental human rights of citizenship and of living in dignity, equality and freedom. It means opening up pathways to connection and reconciliation.
Ms. May, my 2 year-old son has this habit of pulling his sister’s hair if she upsets him. I’m currently experimenting with ways to help him understand the need to apologize. Saying sorry when you have hurt someone seems to not only teach children the valuable social skill of making amends, it also helps in setting them on the path of undoing their mistakes, taking responsibility for their actions and practicing humility and empathy.
The Balfour declaration of your British government in 1917 set in motion the creation of the state of Israel at the expense of the indigenous people of Palestine. It allowed for the ethnic cleansing and eviction of Palestinians from their cities, villages and homes. It allowed for the loss of their lives, livelihoods, properties and rights. It allowed for hundreds of thousands of them at the time to live in inhumane conditions, and for millions of them today to continue living in similar conditions. It allowed for a shameful history to morph into a shameful present. It allowed for terror and fear to became an integral part of Palestinian life and Palestinian identity.
I hear you will be celebrating the centenary of the Balfour declaration with “pride”. I hear you also said that you will be conscious of the sensitivities that some people have about the Balfour declaration and that there is more work to be done. Pride, sensitivities, some people, more work. In my mind, I picture you standing in front of my paternal grandmother, as she walked on her journey out of Palestine to Lebanon in 1948, clutching my father as a baby to her chest. I see you uttering these words to her. Pride, sensitivities, some people, more work. It seems Ms. May, you also have not the slightest clue as to how we Palestinians can move on. It seems Ms. May that you too, like your predecessors have chosen the easier wrong, over the harder right. It seems Ms. May, that you too need a lesson as to why we need to apologize when we have done wrong.
About Rana Askoul
Rana Askoul is a Middle East based writer focusing on women’s issues, Palestinian identity, human rights and social change advocacy in the region. She is also the founder of a women empowerment initiative advocating for women empowerment and women rights in the region. You can follow her on Twitter at @ranaaskoul.