“One of my ambitions is to visit Arab countries with my Belgian passport. I want to confront them with the fact that they never let me in as a Palestinian. You have no idea about the humiliation that Palestinians face when we want to enter an Arab country.”
My name is Fatena Al Ghorra, I am a Palestinian poet and journalist. My parents moved to Gaza after the Israeli occupation of their village in 1948. I was born and lived in Gaza for most of my life. I consider myself both a woman from Gaza and a refugee. Till now; I have never felt a ‘citizen’. When I obtain the Belgian nationality, I may experience that feeling for the first time in my life.
I have written 4 books, the third one was published in Spain (2010), the 4th in Beirut and translated into Dutch in 2014. In the past years I took part in several poetry festivals all over the World. In 2009, when I arrived in Belgium as a refugee, I started working for Arab publishers, translating Dutch poetry into Arab. I consider this as a way to pay back what Belgium is doing for me. But most of all, I am a poet. It is a fever, sometimes I cry when I write. You can compare it to a kind of orgasm. It is not as if I can decide to start writing, I wish I could. A part of my soul goes into my poems. I was used to hearing the sound of rockets launches or bomb impacts around me. Now my life is calm and I would like to start writing again.
“In the calm of your current situation, do you find yourself living more in your memory?”
Absolutely. Actually, these days, I live in my memory most of the time. I have no television and like to hear Arab at home. On YouTube, I can look at old movies or series from when I was a child or teenager. That is my memory. An opening song of a series can make me cry because it reminds me of these beautiful days. Everyday, I walk in Palestine, in Gaza. Sometimes, when I am sitting by myself, images come to my mind, one after the other. Sometimes I think that I know a place, not by memory but by the power of my imagination. I can walk through Gaza, from corner to corner. During the recent war, it felt as if my mind was not here at all. My body was here, but my soul was in Gaza. Part of my pain was that my memories, a huge part of it, are now gone. They will never come back. That is partly the reason why I sometimes think that I do not want to return to Gaza ever again. I want to leave my memories intact…
You can rebuild the houses but you cannot rebuild memories that you forgot. We continue to live because of memories. In love, sometimes the passion is gone but we continue because of the power of memories. I fear to see Gaza right now.
But of course, most of my friends are photographers and journalists. Via Facebook I get a constant flow of stories and images on what happens in Gaza. These stories will become my new memories from Gaza, even if that is not the same.
“Besides stories and visual memories, there must be sounds, scents or other experiences that you remember…?”
Actually, my memory is split in two periods. The period of my childhood is full with street noise, laughter and singing. I had a really nice childhood in Gaza. After that, when I grew up and became a teenager, the first Intifada started. During the nineties, I was in college and since then, the memories changed. Since then, the sound of Gaza is the sound of war, gunfire and rockets. I still hear the boots of the soldiers or the knocking on the doors of the houses at night. I have nine brothers and all of them were arrested by the Israeli army and put in jail. At a given time, four of them were in prison at the same time. We used to live in the Sabra neighborhood and moved later to Telel Hawa, now a very famous area but at time (1987), it was almost a desert and close to the sea. From the roof of the house, we could see Israeli military ships. At a given moment, we spotted a group of military coming in small boats from the ship. Everybody knew they were coming for my brothers. My father said: “OK guys, who is next?”. We were always prepared for the next arrest. My brother had three suits with masks to go out and paint graffiti against the occupation. If these were found during a search, he would be arrested. I remember how he told me that his clothes were on the third floor and how I quickly ran to his room to put on his three suits, one over the other and hid them under my long dress. They would not search under my clothes. They always came at night. I can also still hear my nephews and nieces scream. It is really frightening when that happens, the guns, the lights… It feels like: “what is going on?”. Another sound is the sound of the bullets when you are running away. Part of my memories is about when I went out with the other kids to throw stones at the military (smiles)… It was a matter of showing your courage. I have a very rich memory.
“Are there specific places that you think more of than others?”
Actually, I think a lot about my primary school, the Zaitun primary school for girls. It was a school for girls but we had 5 boys in our class. That was probably a punishment for them (smiles). Most of my memories come from this period, all of us eating and sitting under the Kenya tree. Maybe this was the happiest period of my life. But I have memories of every place in Gaza, there are so many. In Gaza, I was working as a journalist and before that as a volunteer to help people, it took me everywhere. I know it like the palm of my hand. It is almost impossible to explain this.
“And what about the people? Who do you miss most of all?”
I am supposed to be a strong woman but my mother is my weakness. She is 86 and has a strong and a weak side as well. She is strong in the way she has handled life, what happened to us. Her sons were in jail too many times. During my childhood, my father was more preoccupied with enjoying his life than with raising his children. My mother took care of us. We came from a ’bourgeois’ family. My grandfather was rich man, with a lot of a land and animals. But of course I also miss my father… Via Skype or Viber, we speak a lot. My parents came to visit me in Antwerp, two years ago. They stayed for three months, in this studio. They came in October and faced the same cold as we are facing today. 2012 was a very bad winter (laughing). It was great. They came after the war. There was a war then as well, but not as big as the one we just had. The last one was crazy.
I remember a lot of people, I miss the family times, around the fire in winter, with toasted bread, olives and tea. We used to sing and dance. During summer we would sit outside, or on the roof, with the family.
Now my brother is in Antwerp as well, he still lives in the refugee center.
(Laughing… she just saw the snow) We don’t have snow in Gaza. I remember one time, I was maybe 7 years old, everybody was out after a hailstorm and I made snowballs from the hail. Of course there is snow in Ramalah or in the mountains but not in Gaza.
“You were mentioning toasted bread, olives and tea. Do you link memories to food?”
Of course. I love to cook Palestinian food but it is hard to find it in restaurants here. I would love to open my own restaurant in Antwerp. Sometimes I cook for friends and everybody enjoys our traditional Palestinian food. I am a good cook. But I miss some typical ingredients. Right now I am looking for somebody who travels to Egypt or Jordan and can bring me some. Believe me, the falafel you find here has nothing to do with the real falafel. It looks like it but the taste is something else. I can recommend some good places, even here in Antwerp but they are rare.
When I invite people to eat, I love to bake bread for them, in our way. But even when I lived in Egypt, the taste of the local tomatoes was not the taste of our tomatoes, everything tastes different. We eat with our memory. In Gaza, there is a different atmosphere. Sometimes, I would love to go to Gaza to eat all the things that I cannot eat here and then go back to Belgium. Shoarma is another example. The shoarma from here is beyond comparison. I did not eat ‘our’ Shoarma for 6 years now. Kneffel Nablousia is a cake made in Nablus, very famous and tasty, I wished somebody could bring me some. But of course, this is part of memory, things will never taste the same, even if somebody would bring them. It is about the whole atmosphere around it. One of the things Israel stole from us is our culture and food. They pretend that humus or falafel is Israeli food. For me, claiming our food back is a way to fight. Our food was stolen, as our land was stolen.
“How did you start with poetry?”
In the beginning, I started with school assignments. I was good at it, I described daily activities in poems and my teachers liked it. I also read a lot. At fourteen, I started to express my feelings via poetry and the people around me were very receptive. My mother was my first reader and stimulated me to continue. In secondary school, my Arabic teacher told me that I would like Fadwa Touqan, a famous female poet. That was very important to me at that time. In our society, where the path for girls is fixed it felt like impossible at that time. This teacher almost predicted how my life would play out. A few years later, I was married and ended up in a difficult situation. The words of that teacher have been a great push to realize my dream. And here I am. I never imaged that I would leave Gaza at that time. Nothing in my society did give me any support to choose my own path, I had to fight for it. When I look back, I am still surprised. I changed things. My family is very conservative. Most of them are Hamas, they are quite close-minded. In a way, I have become an example for girls: if I could do it, so can they.
“How did you end up in Belgium?”
My first plan was to look for asylum in France. The language, the romantic image… it all seemed more attractive to me. When I started my asylum procedure there a friend told me that as a woman, the asylum process there would be a problem. It would take longer, they would be no insurance… So I came to Belgium and I am very happy with that choice. I applied for citizenship two years ago and I hope that I will get it next month. Do you know why? One of my ambitions is to visit Arab countries with my Belgian passport. I want to confront them with the fact that they did not let me in as a Palestinian. You have no idea about the humiliation that Palestinians face when we want to enter an Arab country, even Egypt, especially Egypt. I have now travel documents that allow me to travel in Europe, even to the US. But I cannot enter Lebanon or Egypt to attend a poetry festival. That is killing me. Why am I not allowed to attend these festivals in Arab countries as Palestinian, even if I was invited?
“Do you expect to write poetry in Belgium?”
Yes, I did write some poems here. I am writing a book about Gaza, about the people who I have left behind. I want to describe them as human beings, not as numbers. They have lives and stories. I am using pictures from the war, like the four children who were killed on the beach and write poems inspired by these images. Two of these have been translated to Dutch. I did translate them and my friends corrected my Dutch in a poetic way. My Dutch is not good enough to write poems, it is more easy for me to translate Dutch into Arabic. The book is a collection of poems with photographs. Some of them are tough, not because they are bloody but in another way. There is a picture of a girl who is kissing a boy but looking in another direction, the way she looks does something to me. Most of the pictures are found on the internet, or made by friends or by my brother. Many of them are journalists. This is what I am working on now. It is a slow process; I am still not recovered from this crazy war. I cannot forget the eyes of the people, the scenes that I saw. Looking at what happens in Gaza from here is worse. It is difficult to write about it. This year (2014) I wrote two poems, I want to find the new Fatenah. The old Fatenah wrote Godsbedrog, the new one wrote these two poems and wants to write more. I am calmer now, less angry. The wisdom of an old man who is sitting on a hill and who writes on what he sees below. Maybe these poems are the gate to my new book, I do not know. I wrote Godsbedrog in a few months, after 3 years of not writing. It is like a fever, you have it all in your mind and you want to write, write, write. I am waiting now. I cannot force myself. As I am a very direct person, waiting for my poetry is difficult. I cannot decide to have a relationship; I have to follow my feelings.
“Are there other memories that you would like to share?”
The Islamic University is an important part of my memory. I studied there Islam and literature. After 6 years I was a kind of a leader. Extreme religious at first, wearing hijab, not talking to man… I was 18 at that time. I was not born like this, my family was not either. My fathers friends were musicians, they used to sing at my birth day party. Parties in my neighborhood were the exception. We used to sing a lot at home. My father used to help me with the singing Enta Omri from Umm Kulthum. He sang as well. When he was here in Antwerp, we did sing a lot together. I did spend a beautiful time at home. It feels like I had to pay for that afterwards.
In a way my father was very liberal. When my brother started to smoke, he did not want to see it. On my brother’s birthday party, my father did discover my brother smoking on a family video and he refused to see even that. During the 80’ies, men used to drink and smoke a lot. So did my father. I remember a party where my father broke all the glasses but continued to drink afterward. My grandfather did give all his daughters a piece of his land. Most of them build houses on it. I remember how all of our neighbors came to look at our television, with tea and snacks, the man lying on theirs wives lap… this was beautiful and will never come back. Weddings did happen outside, in the street and all man and woman came to enjoy the parties. We did all help our neighbors to organize them. It was a show, I remember the smell, the drums and the singing. Every woman had her own song, it was like a competition. That is all part of the past now.
“And then you went to a religious school?”
Yes, it was part of growing up. I was trying to find out who I was. But I have an analytical mind, I could not follow the logic at the school. You should know that I consider myself more religious now than in these days. Now it comes from inside, then the focus was on the outside. There is a saying: God looks at the inside. Now, they make everything look Islamic but there are few Islamic acts. It is all about appearances.
There are so many memories, too many to tell.
Thank you for beautiful insights from Fatenah. It is powerful that she is no longer angry or hateful after such heinous treatment of her family. What a world!