“I have learned of the serenity in the communication of the Canadians and I still have the edge of being Palestinian. Coming out of Palestine, I was ready to go to battle over the smallest issue. I can say that I found a better balance in Canada.”
My name is Ashraf Zaghal, I am from Jerusalem and went to school in Ramallah where I graduated in Civil Engineering. At 27, I went to the US to obtain a Master in Environmental Engineering. After that I worked for the Red Cross in Palestine. When an opportunity to pursue a PhD in Toronto presented itself, I moved to Canada. That was nine years ago.
I write poetry and articles on Arab literature and publish an online magazine that focuses on progressive literature in the Arab World. The main theme is challenging taboos: this includes positions on religion and on the role of women. An editorial board helps me with translations and input. Their participation gives the magazine a Pan-Arab perspective. Writing is not what I do for a living though: I work for an international environmental engineering company that has the headquarter office in Canada.
What motivated you to leave the Red Cross in Palestine and move to Canada?
First of all, the PhD was a great opportunity and it was very much in line with the work I did for the Red Cross. And for sure I was tempted by the idea to live in a more peaceful environment. The fact that I could do this in Canada was an extra argument: it was like moving to the Switzerland of the Americas; to a strong but neutral country. In my mind, it was a less political place to live, a place with an open mind, without a strong and dominating cultural hegemony. Today, I can say that I made the right choice.
Let me share an experience with respect to this: during a tourist visit in France, two French people suggested me to leave the country. This happened on the subway first and within the hour, a second time at a bus stop. It is hard to forget that day and it makes me extra grateful for the way Canada has welcomed me. I feel it as I watch a hockey game, as I walk in the street: there are no strange gazes in my direction. When I talk to people, I do not feel that I have to fight stereotypes. In conversations, nobody gives me comments on my English. Of course, you have to put things into context. I like and admire the French history and culture; Canada is missing some of that. But if the price for having a long and impressive cultural tradition is to become condescending to foreigners, I am happy to live in Canada. Here I get a smile when I buy my coffee in the morning.
At this stage, do you feel more Canadian or more Palestinian?
That is a difficult question. I think I have reached a balance with respect to this. I have learned of the serenity in the communication of the Canadians and I still have the edge of being Palestinian. As Mahmoud Darwish once said, we have salt in our blood, it keeps causing spasms of pride and social identity. I used to be on the edge and angry. In Palestine, you always imagine a stick that will hit you. When I studied in the States, I was always on my toes, ready to yell if there was an issue with my papers or with something else. In most cases, there was no issue. I remember my student advisor telling me: “Hold your horses…”. Which was great advise, I took it with me for the rest of my life. Coming out of Palestine, I was ready to go to battle over the smallest issue. I can say that I found a better balance in Canada.
Does this anger translate into your memories of Palestine?
It does. I was a child during the first Intifada. There was always a risk to be stopped by Israeli soldiers for questioning or worse. I remember going to a soccer game and being ridiculed by some soldiers, I can still hear the army jeep stopping next to me… Anger and violence stay with us for a long time… The second Intifada came when I just graduated from my studies in Ramallah. It was a lot more violent than the first. I tried to be in denial for a few years, I would go drink while the F16’s would fly over our heads. During the second Intifada, most people were in denial. That was the big difference with the first Intifada, where most were committed. After the first Intifada (and the Oslo agreements installing the Palestinian Authority– note) the situation in Palestine became surreal. The reality is the occupation and the military power of Israel. That reality scares me. The surreal – the fake Palestinian state on the West Bank – makes me sad.
Do you have Palestinian friends in Toronto who have kids? How does it feel to see Palestinian children grow up in the Diaspora?
My best friend has a daughter. His wife is Palestinian as well; both of them are of my generation. Their daughter grows up in a safe environment, she learns music, Arab and one day she will study philosophy. She is destined to be as Palestinian as they come. When I see her in the traditional dress, I can only say that I am very proud of her. I do not have children myself, and of course she will have to find her own way. But I have an insight view in this project of my friends: how they raise their daughter. There is so much warmth in this adventure: love for their child and love for Palestine. It has a special meaning when you have a kid in the Diaspora. It is not easy to inform them about their culture and protect them from the extreme emotions that come with the ongoing violence and injustice.
My sister lives in Canada as well. She is a single mother and has two children. Also for her, it is a challenge to raise them in Canada and to pass on the Palestinian culture. Last Christmas, the children, 5 and 8, came home and asked how they were supposed to celebrate Christmas. It was an opportunity to explain them on the special meaning of Christmas for Palestinians. I am secular but these religious festivities are still important to me. Religious rituals and festivities come with shared memories for all of us.
My father is religious; I am not. But when I go back to Jerusalem, I go to pray with him. It creates a smile on his face and that means the world to me. For me, this is also part of Palestine.
Is your art and writing a way to deal with your memories?
In a way it is. My audience is mostly in Palestine. My art could be seen as a way to reach out to Palestine; that is an interesting angle to look at it.
I am from the generation of post-Oslo poets; we did not talk about politics in an explicit way. Instead we wanted to use a new vocabulary: about love, about what happens on the street, about existential themes… but not about politics. Only recently, the political situation is invading my rhetoric, even if it is in a symbolic way. But that evolution is there. I was recently invited to speak about my poetry in Paris and that is because the organizers noticed that I speak about Palestine in a different way.
Your magazine has a pan Arab focus. Why is that?
Besides the occupation, many Palestinians face other forces of repression. During the first Intifada, religion became repressive. My mother did not use to wear the hijab but that changed during the first Intifada. Not wearing it was seen as disloyal. If you played loud music, you were not loyal to the Intifada either. Weddings changed; any joyful feeling became suspicious. The challenges of Palestinians are not only related to land, they are also social and cultural and some relate to a new perspective on religion. This situation is common to the Arab World. That is why the magazine and my writing is not only about politics, it is about challenging a wider set of taboos.
Being a kid in Jerusalem is a good experience. Walking through the old city, making fun of tourists… we always made fun of tourists: imitating their languages, trying to make funny pictures. Just going to school through the old streets was a nice experience. Later, when I worked for the Red Cross, I found myself walking these streets again. It triggered flashbacks every single day. Those were joyful moments. And during the first Intifada, during curfews, there was a feeling of solidarity within the family and within the neighborhood. That feeling is part of the good memories as well. For sure there were joyful moments. There were many.
For those who want to know more about Ashraf Zaghal’s online magazine on Arab literature, please follow this link: http://www.laghoo.com/