My March of Return – By Rana Askoul – (MONDOWEISS)

Part I — The Arrival

I just returned from Palestine. Writing down these very words is surreal. For my entire life, I have identified as a Palestinian, yet I was never allowed to return. As a descendant of 1948 Palestinian refugees who were expelled to Lebanon, I was never allowed to visit, let alone return. I would find myself staring at length at my refugee travel document in embassies and at airports. Sometimes, that small bundle of paper would feel like a prison cell and I would almost feel the metallic cool of its bars and the dampness of its sun-deprived air. At other times, that same small bundle of paper would feel like a humiliating unforgiving whip, limiting the boundaries of my inner and outer journeys to exhaustingly small spaces.

But all of that changed a little over a year ago when I acquired a foreign passport. The small spaces of yesterday expanded overnight. The prison cell crumbled, and my feet were now free to run wild over its ruins. But for the long imprisoned, sudden freedom can be disorienting. For those like me who could never touch, feel or see home, returning can be overwhelming.

A mere 15 days after I acquired my new passport, I was in Amman with a group of Palestinian women that had come from Nablus to work with me on a project. Upon finishing our work, the Palestinian women were getting ready to ride back to Nablus, Palestine. As I told them about my newfound freedom, they asked me to ride back with them. “We will be in Nablus in less than 3 hours,” they said. “Come with us, and by tomorrow morning you can go up north and see your village” they said. And I froze.

For the last 35 years of my life, my home had been out of reach, denied, held hostage and destroyed. For 35 years, I watched closely all the videos of all those who returned to visit the ruins of our northern Palestinian village. For 35 years, I tried to memorize the geography of the place, to figure out the scent of its red dirt and to imagine what it would have been like if it all didn’t happen. And I could reach it now. In less than 3 hours. But my heart raced, and my hands clenched into fists. I couldn’t do it.

Was I perhaps scared, rather terrified, of going back and not finding home, for what use would it be to visit but not belong? And how will I be able to rejoice when my mother, through her tears, told me that she wishes she was a tiny hair on my body, so I may carry her with me on my surely forthcoming visit? And how deep would my heartache be as I walk amongst the trees of my northern village not knowing which one my grandmother sat under, as she cuddled my father as a baby?

Despite all this, on Monday March 26 of 2018, it was my turn to return. I was another pilgrim in the long line of Palestinian pilgrims making their journey back home, albeit temporarily. As we rode on the bus from the Jordanian side towards the Israeli checkpoint, my husband held up his phone and opened Google Maps, and its blue dot announced our arrival on Palestinian soil. I asked him to take a screen shot, a documentation of my return. I had arrived.

Part II — The Israeli Checkpoint

At the Israeli border crossing, I watched the blue and white flags fluttering with the wind. An older couple seated next to us leaned over to ask our Jordanian bus driver about how they can get to Jerusalem once they had crossed the checkpoint. “Don’t tell them you are going to visit Jerusalem,” he responded. “Tell them you are going to visit Israel, they like that better, otherwise they will send you back”, he said while chuckling. I gazed out at the flags and convinced myself that even if they denied my entry, I would have still made it to Palestine. And I have a screen shot with a blue dot to prove it.

Upon our arrival at the checkpoint, we lined up to present our passports to a young woman in an official outfit. She greeted two blonde blue-eyed American women ahead of us with a smile and a “Welcome”. But her smile disappeared as her eyes met the darker skin tone of my husband’s and as she glanced over his very Palestinian name in his British passport. Still, she politely pointed us to the next counter where the officer there asked me three questions: “What’s your mother’s name? What’s your father’s name? And what’s the purpose of your visit?”.

I wanted to tell him that far more important than my mother’s name was her request of me to bring her back some dirt from the land surrounding our village. And that when I asked her what she would do with it, she told me that she would like for it to be scattered over her grave when the time comes.  I wanted to tell him that far more important than my father’s name was that he passed away carrying the weight of his refugee status just like Jesus carried his cross right to the very end, with an almost similar burden and an almost similar pain. I wanted to tell him that my purpose was to return, to find home, to embrace the only place that can’t turn its back on me and to lie within a womb that can’t refuse me, for from it I come.

And so, I answered him back: “Alia Kaddoura, Abdul Karim Askoul, and I am here to visit my husband’s family in the West Bank”. And just then, I understood.  Occupation doesn’t only extend to hold in its mighty grip the land, but its hand reaches out to censor the very words that leave your mouth, the small shift in your pupils as you evade the penetrating gaze seeking to unearth your very inner thoughts and the slightly dampened breath leaving your nostrils as your heart races to rebel, whilst your brain recommends that you comply. Occupation is that sticky film of fear embedded between one layer of your cells and the next one. Occupation is the tragic triumph of strangling and engulfing dimness over our raw, explosive state of light.

We went on to spend the next four hours waiting. During the wait, my husband was called in three times to answer questions about his family in Nablus. They asked him about his grandmother and how old she is. They asked him about his uncles and how old they were. They asked him why he was coming back. And then, they would send him back outside to sit and wait.

As we waited we met a Bangladeshi family coming on a trip to visit the holy sites in Palestine, an older Palestinian-Italian man coming back to introduce his son to family in Jerusalem, and a Palestinian- American couple with two toddlers and a baby on their way to also see family in Palestine. During our collective wait, we shared stories and snacks, and wondered if any of us would be riding the bus back to Jordan.

But we all made it through. We bid each other farewell as we boarded our different buses carrying us to our different destinations. Me and my husband were headed to Nablus.

Part III — Nablus

Nablus is tucked away in a narrow valley running between two mountains. Our taxi driver navigated its narrow hilly streets as we passed a desolate neighborhood. “This is the Balata Refugee Camp,” he told us. I immediately narrowed my eyes and studied the details of the scene: three boys dressed in worn out pajamas and torn shoes kicking around a ball that was once yellow in color; an old man with a grey stubble looking as tired as the thin jacket hanging on his back, sitting idly on a plastic stool at the corner of the grey street; and many painfully narrow staircases leading to dark alleys with some going up, and some going down. Balata: home to more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees living in a quarter-square kilometer.

As we drove off, and I looked back at the three boys and old man, I wondered: Is it better to be a refugee within your own country, or a refugee outside? Does the magnitude of heartache, the depth of inadequacy and the periphery of despair change as the number of kilometers separating one from one’s home increases? Or does banishment taste just the same for all, whether close or far? I didn’t know then that I would find the answer to my questions a couple of days later as I descended upon Ramallah.

A bit later on, we arrived at my husband’s grandmother’s house. Ameena, the small and spirited 95-year-old “teta”, stood upon her still resilient feet and waived and twisted her arms in the air in a welcome dance upon seeing us. She had not seen my husband, her grandson, in 12 years. When I called her before our trip to let her know that I would be visiting them in Palestine for the first time since I married my husband 12 years ago, she told me that she would roll out the silk carpet. She herself hails from a village on the outskirts of Acre, just like me, and this kinship of a common soil and the collective memories of a common place had roped in our hearts together.

Within minutes from our arrival, family started pouring into “Teta’s” house: aunts, uncles and cousins, almost all of whom I was meeting for the first time. With the arrival of each and every one of them, my heart expanded, and I felt like a petal riding the spring breeze, slowly returning to its stem.

In the early evening we headed down to the old market in Nablus. The buzzing narrow alleys with shops lining both sides were a celebration of the senses. Shop No. 20 was that of An-Nabulsi Soap Factory. That was where we spent the next 20 minutes listening to the impassioned narration of the owner about Nabulsi soap making.

Towards the end of our tour, he held out a soap bar and said: “To continue making Palestinian soap from Palestinian Olive Oil in this very same 800-year-old factory is our form of humble resistance. With every bar that crosses our borders into international markets, we are spreading a piece of our culture and our heritage, we are confirming that we still exist now and that we existed 800 years ago”.

She laughed as she told us that and said that may be my visit had triggered her fears of expulsion.

And in these ways, resistance to prove existence comes in the form of soap bars and dreams. In these ways, resistance to prove existence is part of the thick ‘baladi’bread consumed at breakfast tables here. Resistance to prove existence is the red in the sipped tea and the green in the local Zaatar.

And it is such because expansive and modern Israeli settlements protected by wire fences, military watchtowers and armed soldiers are perched up some of the hills in the West Bank, peering down on crammed and deteriorating Palestinian cities.

It is such because my husband’s aunt warned me to not make any sudden moves as we plan to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint in two days’ time on our way to Jerusalem. “They look for any excuse to shoot, and sometimes they just shoot” she said, waving her hand in a motion that tells of the utter insignificance of those shot to those who shoot. It is that way because my husband’s other aunt tells us she is still terrified when the Israeli soldiers raid neighborhoods at 3 am in the morning, detonating bombs and banging down doors as they snatch young men from their beds and their mothers’ arms. “They used to come during the day,” she said. “But the kids would start throwing rocks at them, so now they just come at night, with a big bang that terrifies sleep away,” she said.

It is such because her husband delicately held his father’s “nargileh” as he showed it to us. “He took it with him when we were expelled from Yafa,” he said. “He kept it until he died, because he had promised himself he would take it back to our home,” he said.“Sometimes, I go to Yafa for work, and I pass by our house, it is still there, with its big balcony overlooking the ice factory we used to own” he said. And he stopped there as he looked around his small modest flat where him and his wife raised four children. “Yes, your family was well off”, his wife replied as she let out a short, tired laugh.

And so, for the two short days I spent in Nablus sipping countless glasses of tea, and indulging in more than my fair share of “Knafe”, the tapestry of the Palestinian story was being slowly weaved right before my eyes: my refugee travel document contours its sides, 7 million pilgrims roam its surface in all directions seeking a closing to long open wounds, the biblical proportions of my father’s all-pervading pain, the grey shades of Balata, the twisting palms of Ameena’s dancing hands,  the defiance of towering soap bars, the night raid mothers, the swimming pools of those perched above and the mud holes of those held below and delicate “nargileh’s”waiting. Waiting. All on my Palestinian tapestry.

Part IV — Ramallah

We stopped at Ramallah on our way to Jerusalem and headed quickly to the Yasser Arafat Museum. The winding corridors of the museum takes visitors on an interactive glimpse of a century of Palestinian history, including the Nakba and far beyond. It was there that I cried uncontrollably for the first time since I arrived in Palestine.

An unassuming white and beige florally designed piece of cloth wrapped around protruding wooden poles broke me. The sign in front of it read: “Piece of a tent used by Palestine’s refugees in 1948. Given to the Museum by the UNRWA”. I wept. Could it have been the one tent that sheltered my dad and his family for months on end after their expulsion in 1948? I looked across to my right and saw a picture with rows of little girls and boys sitting in a tent. The sign in front of it read: “One of the first kindergartens established by UNRWA, Dikwaneh Refugee Camp, Lebanon. UNRWA Archives”. I wept.

I remembered my mum’s stories about growing up in the UNRWA camps in Lebanon: the food cards they had to present and get stamped every time food rations and meals were given to them; the time she had to go around the camp to find the missing pair of donated shoes, so she can go to school and the dolls she made by wrapping torn pieces of old cloth around wooden sticks. I wept. I remembered the time I had to renew my travel document and was asked to present my “ration” card as a registered UNRWA refugee. I wept. I remembered my grandmother’s story about her aunt who owned an olive press back in Palestine, only to die soon after receiving rations of powdered milk, a confirmation of her new impoverished refugee status which she could not bear.  I wept.

I looked across to my left and read these lines from Samih Al-Qasem:

Tell the world..tell it
About a house
with the lantern
they shattered
About an axe
that killed a tulip
And a fire
that incinerated a braid
Tell about
a ewe that was never milked
About dough prepared by a
mother yet never baked
About a thatched mud roof
Tell the world…tell it

I looked around me to find tourists snapping pictures. My wound, and that of all my family and relatives was on public display and it was still open, widening by the day. I remembered Mahmoud Darwish’s lines:

And to them my wound was an exhibit
For a tourist Who loves to collect photographs
They did not recognize me,
Ah… Don’t leave
The palm of my hand without the sun
Because the trees recognize me
Don’t leave me pale like the moon!

And as I moved my now heavy knees a few steps down the corridor, I found the answers to the questions I had asked myself a couple of days back as I passed the Balata refugee camp in Nablus: Is it better to be a refugee within your own country, or a refugee outside? Does the magnitude of heartache, the depth of inadequacy and the periphery of despair change as the number of kilometers separating one from one’s home increases? Or does banishment taste just the same for all, whether close or far?

My answers came in the form of a picture I was staring at, and the thirteen explanatory words accompanying it. The picture was of a woman sitting on the ground with her back to the camera. She holds a baby in her arms, and a little boy with a worn-out striped shirt sits next to her.  Through the barbed and razor wires she is looking upon her house which was less than 100 meters away. The thirteen words read as follows: “Refugee and her children separated from their home by the 1949 Armistice line.”

At the point, my tears stopped. I was like a stream that got hit by sudden drought. I was defeated by the cruelty of the occupier. My answers to the questions were that there were no answers. Is it easier for the parched to never see the water, or to see it within a hand’s reach, but not be able to reach it?

Part V — Al-Quds

Wednesday March 28
1:15 pm

Moutaz picked us up in his taxi car and drove us from Ramallah to Jerusalem. With a Jerusalem ID, he is able to drive a car with an Israeli plate number, avoiding stops and searches at checkpoints that Palestinians are subject to. As we drove seamlessly on the road connecting Ramallah to Jerusalem, I remembered my husband’s aunt’s word: “Don’t make any sudden moves when you cross the Qalandiya checkpoint. They look for any excuse to shoot, and sometimes they just shoot”. I took out my foreign passport from my handbag and stared at it: my shield against random bullets; a bundle of papers placing me in a more significant category than those shot to those who shoot.

Moutaz quickly came to know that it was my first visit back, and our conversation revolved around the measures that Israel subjects Palestinian Jerusalemites to in an attempt to diminish the numbers of Palestinians living in Jerusalem. As we chatted, my heart was racing. Seeing Jerusalem was a dream I had ever since I can remember. I was nervous. Will I love it? Will it be all that I imagined it to be? Will it gently embrace me as I step upon its soil and wade through its allies?

Moutaz could see me nervously watching out the car window. He smiled and told me that he will let me know as soon as we arrive. A short while later, he said: “Look out the window to your right now, you will see Jerusalem in a bit”.

As our car climbed up the street, there it appeared. In an instant, tears rolled down my cheeks. Moutaz pulled the car to the side and I stepped out. He gently approached me and tapped my shoulder asking me not to cry but to be happy that I finally made it. But Moutaz didn’t know that I was elated. I was in love. I was from here. I was home. The wind recognized me. The trees stretched their roots to firm up the land I was stepping upon, lest I may fall. And the birds, oh the birds, danced in unison like Ammena’s hands.

The day I loved you
the origin of love had been forgotten
and the universe would spin
and those in high positions would spin
and their stacked vaults would spin
and their silk gowns would spin
and their death factories would spin
and their empty mouths would spin
and their stagnant hearts would spin
and their lifeless eyes would spin
and their lips tainted with cruelty would spin
and I was the only one
in love with you
and refusing to spin

2:00 pm

As we rode back in the car towards our hotel in East Jerusalem, Motaz pointed to a multiple story house with a huge Israeli flag. “Israel wants to get rid of Palestinians in East Jerusalem,” he said pointing to the house. “They usually target a house they wish to acquire and start first by offering big sums of money to the Palestinian owners to entice them to sell,” he continued. “If they refuse, they start harassing them. They taunt the children while they are playing outside, or they harass the women as they enter and leave the house.” He said. “This one caved into the pressure and sold”.

We soon reached our hotel which was perched up on the Mount of Olives overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. As I stood in its courtyard under the olive trees gazing out towards the Golden Dome of the Rock and the old city walls, I closed my eyes and shunned the mercilessness of the occupation and expulsion for a while. I placed my feet close to the roots of the olive tree next to me, and for a second felt like an extension of it. I wanted to kneel down, dig a hole and bury my pain. My husband hurried me and told me that we only have a few hours to see Jerusalem as we were heading to Acre the next day. I asked him to give me a moment, for I was free of pain for the first time, and I wanted my heart to expand and hold the place in a sweet long-awaited embrace.

Your lips,
sealed upon the secret of existence,
whispered to me:
Spread the strands of your brunette hair
right here on my chest
for on this shoulder of mine leaned:
the poor
the prophets
the saints
the minarets
the church bells
the shofars
the morning birds
and the “Eid Kahk”
sweetened by the taste
of lovers’ kisses

3:00 PM

We entered the old city of Jerusalem through Bab Al Asbat and made our way down to one of the entrances of Al – Haram Al -Shareef. Upon seeing us approach, an Israeli soldier guarding the entrance stood up and motioned us with his hand to return. “We want to enter,” I said. “It’s closed, no entry now, go back.” he responded.  My husband tried another time, but the soldier would not have it. I panicked. We were only in Jerusalem for that afternoon, and I wanted to pray at The Dome of The Rock. My husband suggested we use another entrance. We headed further down and as the soldiers there stood up to ask us to leave, my husband insisted that we were there to pray. After a few questions, they let us in. I thought back to my moment of solitude at the hotel’s courtyard. See, you can shun the occupation all you want, but it never shuns you.

The day I loved you
I was overtaken by a state of longing:
To when we marry
in spite of the enemy
To a Galilean house
in which I lay across from its fireplace
recounting the phases of my infatuation
with you
To a summery hammock
hung between the Olives
and the Pomegranates
where in it
I lay my siege
over the curvatures of your name
and the flow of your essence
from its knitted gaps

7:25 PM

We spent the evening having dinner in a restaurant owned by Christian Palestinian Jerusalemites. Jameel, our waiter, told us that he was an ophthalmologist but worked one evening a week at the restaurant to support his brother who owns it. “They want us out, but we will stay, this is our home.” Jameel told us defiantly.

At night, and back at our hotel room with the view over the old city of Jerusalem, I laid down in bed. As I jotted down words that had to be released, I leaned over to my right every now and then to look at the old city from our small bedroom window. As he watched me, my husband smiled and said: “It’s not going anywhere, don’t worry”. I replied: “Places never do.  But people do”. “Do they?”, he said. “You have always been here, and you will always be.”

The day I loved you
I remembered that
the age of love has passed
that my paths to you
have narrowed
just like the narrowing of the last breaths
in my father’s chest
as his body stretched over
his exiled bed
But on the day I loved you
I realized
how the paths narrow
and the breaths narrow
and the chests narrow
and the beds narrow
and death narrows
and exile narrows
they all narrow
but then
we are resurrected.

Part VI — Suhmata, Acre & Haifa

33°00′19″N35°18′14″E

These are the coordinates of my Northern Palestinian Village, Suhmata. I plugged them into my phone and we headed off North of Jerusalem, towards the outskirts of Acre. After a three- hour drive our taxi driver, Riad, pulled up to the side of a curved road. I stepped out of the car and stood near a gate blocking entry to the vast land ahead of us. I recognized my village from a partial curved archway still clinging to its existence, fighting its potential demise at the hands of overgrown grass and shrubs.

Here I was, at the side of a curved road, standing in-front of a brown gate, looking at the place where my dad was born. This place, that my maternal grandmother long spoke fondly of and long awaited her return to, was raided by the Golani Brigade in 1948, led by Brigadier General Nahum Golan. On October 30, 1948 and after the aerial bombardment of the village, infantry marched into the village killing six of its 1,130 inhabitants and expelling the rest, threatening anyone who returns with death.

The village was later destroyed, belongings of its original inhabitants stolen, and two settlements spread today on the land surrounding the village. “Look”, Riad said to me. He was pointing at satellite imagery on his phone mapping application. “These are ruins, they are still there, we should go check them out” he said. We jumped back in the car and entered into one of the settlements, following the path leading us towards the ruins spotted on Riad’s phone.

We arrived to where the path was leading us, and I stood facing a large pine forest. “They planted pine forests over the ruins of destroyed villages, to conceal their existence,” Riad said. I nodded.

As we ventured into the forest, I found them. The ruins were of gravestones belonging to the Muslim cemetery of the village. I recognized them from the videos I had watched over the years of those who returned and visited. I could not help but feel envious of those lying below the ground. They, at least, never had to endure being ripped away: from land that tended to them as much as they tended to it, from homes so modest yet so undisturbed, from the serenity of night swims at the village lake, from the warmth of the sun during the olive harvest season, from the assuring crowing of the roosters, every morning, announcing that light has come to end the darkness of the night.

As I stood there over their graves, I read them a prayer, and some lines of Fadwa Touqan’s “I will not cry”:

On the gates of Yafa, my loved ones,
and amongst the chaos of the ruins of the houses
amongst the debris and thorns
I stood and told my eyes:
let us cry
on the ruins of those who left
and the house calls for those who built it
and the house mourns those who built it
and the heart is wrenched
and the heart said to the house:
What did the years bring you?
and where are your natives?
and did you hear, after they left,
did you hear of their news?
They were here!
They had dreams here!
They drew here
the bright plans for the future
So where is the dream?
Where is the future?
and where are they?
The ruins did not answer
Nothing spoke there, except their absence
and the silence of silence, and abandonment
and there was a congregation of owls and spirits
and a stranger of the face, hand and tongue
who roamed in its gut
and spread his roots within it
and he was master and commander
and he was…and he was..
and the heart filled with sadness.

Bidding the graves and their dwellers farewell, we drove away from Suhmata towards Acre. We spent our afternoon roaming around the old city and looking out towards its sea. That afternoon, the sea was as rough as my soul, lashing out its waves with thunderous pain against the old city’s walls.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Haifa later that evening, I spread my tired body over the bed as my husband settled our luggage in. “Rest for a bit before we go out to explore Haifa at night”, he said. “I don’t want to see Haifa”, I replied. “Why?” he asked me with much surprise.

And then, the wall that was pounded by my lashing pain crumbled. I had come to find home, and all I found in Suhmata were the ruins of those long gone. I had come to shed the constant feeling of being a stranger, an outsider, only to have felt it even more in Suhmata, as I watched the construction of the new villa being built right opposite the deceiving pine forest concealing the dead. I watched European looking women pushing the strollers of their babies across familiar streets, and familiar neighborhoods, and my heart wept for the temporary state of familiarity that perpetuates itself along the timeline of my past, current and future life.

As my choked words relayed my pain to my husband, he held me and said: “You are like a parent who had their child kidnapped. After a lifetime of searching, you found your child, all grown up and beautiful, but with someone else. I don’t think there is a way to ease the pain of all that was lost, of years of estrangement and heartache. But the child, my darling, will always be yours.”

Part VII — Leaving

I left Palestine on the morning of my 36th birthday, March 31st of 2018. The day before, the Great March of Return mass demonstrations had started on the Gaza border. As I sat taking in the last images of my beloved before our yet another separation, I drifted in thought: our villages and homes from 1948 are the children taken away from us. Our villages and homes from 1948 are the children we want to hold, embrace and burry our tear-drenched faces in. Our villages and homes from 1948 are the children propping our aging limbs. Our villages and homes from 1948 are the children caressing our wrinkled foreheads and weary eyelids.  And they are taken away from us.

I left Palestine and I realized that she is my firstborn. And that no matter what happens, she will always be. And just like a mother, I will always hold hope for the day we meet and never be forced to separate. And just like a mother, I will stand with all those who lost, like me, their first, and all those who are still holding on dearly, desperately, just like Jameel, Ameena, Riad and Moutaz. For the paths narrow. And the breaths narrow. And the chests narrow. And the beds narrow. And death narrows. And exile narrows. They all narrow. But then, we are resurrected.

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.

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