“I learned about Palestine via the stories of my friends in the refugee camp. We rebuilt our hometowns in our imagination. I even knew about the inhabitants: who was rich, who was a good fighter and who was fair and honest. I drew maps in the sand and explained my friends where to find the best bakery, where to hide and where to play.”
I am Issam Al Yamani, a Palestinian born in Lebanon, in 1956. My parents were deported in 1948, when the Zionist militia’s attacked their hometown Suhmata, close to the Lebanese border. In Lebanon, my father was a teacher in a UNRWA school. Prior to his deportation, he was a full time employee of the Palestinian Labor Union and founded several worker- and student unions in the refugee camps. Because of this, we were not allowed to live in the camp, but of course I found my way there all the time.
As for most of the Palestinians who lived in the refugee camps, our Palestinian identity was not defined by geography but by the fact that we were different from our Lebanese neighbors. If we talk about memories of Palestine, we talk about things that are related to the geography. There was plenty of that. But that is not what made us Palestinian. We were Palestinians because we did live in a camp. That is what differentiated us from our neighbors, the Lebanese. We had different haircuts. There was not enough water in the camps to clean our hair on a daily basis, for that reason, our hair was cut very short. Our school costumes were different. Many jobs were for Lebanese people only. We stood out and were isolated. We had no civil rights in Lebanon. On top of that, there was the injustice caused by the creation of Israel and the resistance against it. Every morning at school, we did salute the Palestinian flag. It was the isolation that made us Palestinian, more than the memories of the geography. At that time, the Palestinian struggle was more a struggle to belong than a fight for the right of return. If you want to talk about memories of Palestine, this is an important dimension.
But of course we did talk about memories and geography a lot. We heard stories from our parents and grandparents all the time. Even amongst the children, most of them were born in the camp; the most popular fantasy game was to tell stories about our hometowns. Even if none of us had seen them. I learned about all the villages surrounding Suhmata via the stories of my friends. We rebuilt these towns in our imagination. I even knew about the inhabitants: who was rich, who was a good fighter and who was fair and honest. I drew maps in the sand and explained my friends where to find the best bakery, where to hide and where to play. Within the refugee camps, people did live per village and kept on talking about where they came from. You could learn about the whole geography of Galilee just by moving through the camp and listen to the stories.
In 1967, Israel occupied all of Palestine, also the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West-Bank. From that moment the PLO became the sole representation of all Palestinians and being Palestinian meant to resist the occupation. Everybody identified with the idea of the return to the land of our memories. With the PLO leadership being based in Lebanon, we were at the heart of it.
I left school when I was 15 to join the movement. I never missed it for a moment, I was reading a lot anyway and there were other priorities at that time. After I moved to Canada in 1986, I finished my education. My ex-wife and my son emigrated a few years earlier, in 1982. But I did not emigrate with them, I was still too much committed to the cause. It was only after the so called “Camp Wars” in Lebanon that I felt that my presence there became irrelevant and I moved to Canada myself. I applied for citizenship in 1988 and quickly became active in the Palestinian movement in Canada. Unfortunately, these activities triggered a concern for the Canadian Security Services. Their concerns, mainly because I was a member of PLFP, resulted in a deportation order. I defended myself via the Canadian legal system and did win a couple of rounds. But despite that, the deportation order still stands. If I would leave Canada, I would most likely not be allowed to enter again. I have no regrets though; I am still behind all my activities of the past. As all my actions have been political; I know that I never committed any crimes. I did what I had to do, if not I would not have been myself. My family respects me for this, my son is proud of me.
In general, the public opinion is a lot more sensitive to the Palestinian situation now, so we all remain hopeful. There is more support now, especially after the last Gaza war. And it is a lot more organized: some of the big unions, churches and universities are openly behind it now.
There are so many Palestinian events all around the World: in a way all these deal with memories of Palestine, with the geography. But they also point to another reality: there is now a Palestine that is independent of the geography: it is a concept, a culture, a virtual community. Social media are very important in this. Palestinians live all over the World now, and they interact. Movies that are shown on the Palestinian Film festival in Toronto (I was one of the co-founders) are being shown all over the World. It is not only about the land, not only about the right to move back to your village. We are beyond that. It is about liberating a worldwide community: nobody has the right to reduce us to second-class citizens with a reduced set of options. Not in Palestine, but also not in the Diaspora. Do we want to go back? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least we want the right to do so, on our own terms. People in the Diaspora on more than Palestinian refugees now. They are Canadian and Palestinian, Australian and Palestinian etc…
The concept of second class citizens is under pressure, not only in Israel but all over the World. The transition causes a lot of friction and violence but we move to a society where everybody is connected and needs to move freely. There was a TV debate in 2003, where I discussed with the leader of the Canadian Jewish community. I asked him whether he was happy in our new country; happy with the way both of us were living here, as citizens with equal rights. Why wouldn’t this be possible in Israel? That is the model of the future and that is why the diaspora is important: in so many places around the World, Jewish and Palestinians already manage to live next to each other, as equal citizens.
The right wing Israeli approach is a dead end. As they continue to expand their territorial claims, more and more people will realize that it leads to a system of apartheid. It may take 10 or 20 years, but even the Israeli people will realize that a land with closed borders has no future.