My name is Carlos Abusleme, I am a Palestinian from Beit Jala (near Bethlehem). My parents moved to Chile when I was eight, in the aftermath of the war in 1948. We built up a new life in a town called Teno, about 200km south of Santiago.
As many other Palestinians in Chile, my father did start a textile company. There was a time when 80% of the textile industry in Chile was in the hands of Palestinian families. Till today, it is an important source of income for our community.
“As a refugee, you are alone. You have to take care of everything yourself. As many of us have experienced this, there is a lot of solidarity with new immigrants. As a matter of fact, we are welcoming a group of Syrian refugees later today.”
In 1968, most of our family moved to Patronato, an area in Recoleta. Recoleta is a suburb of Santiago, it is a district with many Palestinians. I chair an association of business leaders and merchants. Most of us are Christian and come from the Bethlehem area.
I have visited Palestine four times: the first time was in 1972. Twice I traveled with my father; twice I went on my own. Going back is a privilege, I am very aware that most Palestinians in the Diaspora are not able to do so. But every time I am there, it feels as if I come home. When I am in Palestine, I meet family, eat the food that I grew up with and listen to the same music that we dance on during our weddings in Chile. Being Palestinian is part of my identity: I am both Chilean and Palestinian. Just to be clear, I am Chilean first. But I am also Palestinian.
In fact, I never felt more Palestinian than during my first confrontation with the border control in Israel. As all people from the Diaspora who visit Palestine, I was interrogated intensively. Even if I presented my Chilean passport, the border police refused to recognize that side of me: once a Palestinian, always a Palestinian. It was a very confronting experience. This may sound strange but I never felt more Palestinian than during these moments. Their interrogation reduced me to only a part of myself.
As we arrived in Chile, my parents insisted on learning Spanish. They considered this essential to integrate in our new country. During the past decades most of the Palestinians in Chile have adopted Spanish as their mother tongue. In fact, we are at a point where there is a revival of Arabic in Chile. My son does not speak it: he chose to study German as second language. But my daughter does, she chose for Arabic and speaks and writes it well.
I represent the merchants from Patronato; therefore my role in the Palestinian community in Santiago is more economical than cultural. But Palestinian music and dance is never far away. Dabke (a Palestinian traditional dance) is very popular here, also with our youth. Traditional music and dance are an important part of the Palestinian marriages in Santiago.
“In the early days of the immigration, there was little knowledge in Chile about Palestine: we were called “Los Turcos”.
I am married to a Chilean myself and that is very common these days. In Chile, the immigration of Palestinians started at the end of the 19th century and got a boost after the war with Israel in 1948. It took a few generations but since 1970/1980 mixed marriages have become common practice. That represented a big change. In the early days of the immigration, there was little knowledge in Chile about Palestine: we were even called “Los Turcos”. Knowledge about Palestinian culture is now a lot more widespread. I think that the wave of mixed marriages in the past decades has contributed a lot.
Within the Palestinian community, it is well remembered how difficult the first decades of the immigration were. As a refugee, you are fundamentally alone. You have to take care of everything yourself. As most of us have experienced this, there is a lot of solidarity with new immigrants. As a matter of fact, we are welcoming a group of Syrian refugees later today.
In 1982, I went to Palestine for the second time. I never experienced a more humiliating security check. I had to undress completely and thought about never coming back. Later, I discussed this treatment with the Chilean ambassador in Israel and received an unexpected answer. He told me that he could not file a complaint about this: he was Jewish himself. He would always be more Jewish than Chilean. I will never forgot that answer. Not only did I feel misrepresented by the ambassador of my country, I was also surprised because I feel so different about this matter. I am Chilean and Palestinian: there is no conflict between both.
During the same trip, as I was walking in Jerusalem, I was stopped by a group of policeman. They identified me as a Palestinian and wanted to arrest me for no obvious reason. It was a incredibly fortunate coincidence that the event was witnessed by a business partner from Chile. He was Jewish and stood up for me. Afterwards, he apologized for the ignorance and fanaticism of what he called “traumatized security staff members”.
Some Jewish people seem to adopt a logic that has always escaped me: “If you are not Jewish, you are potentially dangerous”. Even in Chile, where Jews and Palestinians live together without any problem, one can observe traces of this logic. There has never been a terrorist attack against the Jewish community in Santiago but recently I noticed security cameras outside of a Jewish school. Why is that?
“Most people ARE convinced that the occupation will not last forever, even if they may not see the end of it.”
Over the years, life in Palestine has changed. Religion has become less important for the majority of the people. On the other hand, religious fanaticism is growing. Palestine used to be prosperous, now there is poverty everywhere. The dominating emotions of the people seem like a kind of “tristeza” combined with a strong desire for independence and recognition. Most people are convinced that the occupation will not last forever, even if they may not see the end of it. In Santiago, Palestinians and Jews live peacefully together. If this is possible in Chile and in so many parts of the World, then why is it not in Palestine?
If the situation allows it, I would love to retire in Palestine. Life is too short to fight forever: I wished we could live it day by day and make the best of it. A simple house in Beit Jala, with a place to play backgammon in the shade: that would feel like coming home.