It is rare that we come across writings of how people identify with Palestine. Zionist colonisation has created both a displaced population and a contradiction in terms of affinity and belonging. I Found Myself in Palestine (Olive Branch Press, 2020) is a collection of narratives that explores the concept of being a foreigner in relation to Palestine, juxtaposed against the creation of the Palestinian people depicted as foreigners in their own land, as far as Israel’s colonial narrative is concerned.
For Palestinians, the concept of foreignness has different meanings. As Mariam Barghouti tells us, settler colonists are the foreigners who participate in the theft of Palestine and, in turn, create foreigners out of Palestinians through displacement. There are also the foreigners who engage with the Palestinian people, as well as the “professional internationals who come here and build careers at the cost of our struggle.”
The book brings together a collection of stories from people whose lives are intertwined with those of the Palestinian people in various ways. In her introduction to the book, its editor Nora Lester Murad explains, “Palestinians are an exiled community but the writers featured in this collection are not.” With this concept in mind, Murad, herself an American married to a Palestinian, elaborates on how the collection of first-hand narratives exposed foreigners to Palestinians, “to become part of the Palestinian community and be changed by it.”
Different experiences are narrated in this book. The social traditions and obligations of becoming part of a Palestinian family are cherished by some. For other foreigners marrying into Palestinian families, the traditions are perceived as stifling and contradict with the culture of another’s homeland. “Tradition and culture are connected to social pressure,” says Corina Mamani, from Bolivia, who has lived in Palestine for 25 years.
For Samira Safadi, a German woman of Palestinian descent, identifying with Palestine and being Palestinian happened over a long period of time. “I just can’t say I’m Palestinian when I don’t feel I am,” she explains during a narrated conversation with a Palestinian who perceives her as “denying all Palestinians in exile” through her statement. For Safadi, it was not the inherited culture that promoted identification, but rather her experience of living in Palestine and ruminating about this period away from Palestine, in Bulgaria. “Living in Palestine has meaning now. It means sumud – resistance.”
A totally opposite experience of experiencing Palestine from exile is given by Chilean Palestinian Nadia Hasan, whose quest to return to her homeland following an experience at university gives meaning to the concept of “return”. After many tribulations, including refusal of entry by Israel and the breakdown of her marriage to a Palestinian man who preferred to stay in Chile, Hasan managed to make her home in Palestine. Particularly telling is her recollection of her former husband’s statement, “You only loved Palestine, and I was Palestine for you.”
At other times, the Palestinian societal traditions and expectations emphasise foreignness, as in the case of Zeena, a Sudanese woman married to a widower from the US whose late wife was a Palestinian woman. Yet in her professional role at a cancer clinic, she says, “They see a caregiver, a woman, a fellow mother who feels their pain.”
Other foreigners’ perspectives and experiences of Palestine emanate from roles in diplomacy, activism and humanitarian endeavours. Andrew Karney, who worked as a UN teacher in Palestine, ruminates, “I have been welcomed to feel ‘at home’ by those who are not allowed to feel at home in their own homes.”
For people who have never set foot in Palestine, and whose knowledge rests mainly on news and analysis, it is easy to construct a limited concept of who Palestinians are and what Palestine is. It is through narratives such as these that the humanity of a colonised population is made tangible, and Palestinians are no longer perceived solely as an item on the news or diplomatic agenda.
Pam Bailey’s recollections are particularly poignant. “It is easy to love Gaza from the outside, or when the ability to leave is guaranteed,” she admonishes. Truthfully, activism has created narratives and slogans out of Gaza: a heroic people under siege, for example, which they are. Yet, Gaza’s predicament is brought to light in a single question posed to Bailey from someone in the occupied West Bank. “You won’t forget us here, will you?” Is Gaza truthfully remembered beyond its resistance?
Living among Palestinians targeted by Israelis does not automatically offer any elevated status when it comes to Israeli violence, as Carolyn Agner Quffa, from the US, writes. Living in Ramallah, she has experienced Israeli violence in the aftermath of the Intifadas, in which no distinction was made by Israeli soldiers between her and the Palestinian people. This raises other questions regarding her foreign status in Palestine, and how perceptions influence the concept of identity. As a foreigner aligned with the Palestinian cause and integrated within Palestinian society, the boundaries are at times blurred. Trees Zbidat Kosterman, a Dutch woman married to a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, highlights this predicament thus: “The challenge is not only how to explain to others who I am, but also who to be who I am in such a complicated and polarised setting.”
While most of the stories in this book focus upon personal experiences, the political aspect is sometimes part of them, as Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living in Palestine, attests. Having reported from first-hand experience, he explains how the detached editing of some colleagues became “not only irrelevant to me now but constituted evidence that there was something deeply flawed in the mainstream coverage.”
This flaw which Cook speaks about is mainly the refusal to allow Palestinians to articulate their own struggle, as well as stifling voices that are able to carry such testimony due to their presence in Palestine. It is the colonial narrative which Barghouti speaks about with such eloquence and assertion that erases Palestine. Consequently, such narratives that help bridge the gap between Palestinians and the world are necessary and of utmost importance. Understanding Palestine from Palestinians should constitute the first step. Yet it is equally important to share Palestine from a non-Palestinian perspective that respects the need to allow Palestinian voices to flourish, and which asserts identification as opposed to the theft of narratives. This collection of testimonies has accomplished its aim.