Jul 6th, 2016 – Iyas Ashkar – Brescia

As a Palestinian, you are born with many responsibilities.

We are not born free in the same way as other people. We are not free to dream or do what we want. Everything we think or do is linked to what happens in Palestine.

As a teenager, I was present at the signing of the Oslo Accords.

In 1993, I was selected for this camp and together with three other Palestinians, sixteen Jewish Israeli’s and youngsters coming from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and America. We ate, slept, played sports, and discussed politics for a few weeks. Not only did we learn from each other, I also  learned about myself. Afterwards, I was more aware of my Palestinian identity. 

On the last day of the camp, we visited the White house and were introduced to Hillary Clinton.  She was interested in our story and later that evening we received an official invitation for the signing of the Oslo peace accords. Instead of flying home, we attended the signing ceremony. How strange is that? Back then, I was convinced it was the end of an era. The Palestinian state would become reality and a brighter future was within reach…

In our family, many did study abroad.  While all of them came back, I did not.

I was born in a predominantly Palestinian city, Baqa al-Gharbiyye, near the Green Line in the Haifa District. That is part of Israel. My grandparents grew up a bit further in the West Bank, in the village of Ateel, north of Tulkarem. For the people in my family who carry an Israeli passport, travelling and studying abroad is easy. For those who live in the West Bank it is almost impossible.

I left Haifa to study Medicine in Italy. My father’s brother finished med school in Italy in 1982-1983 and my brother studied Dentistry in Romania. After graduating both came back home to work.

In my case things turned out different. I built up a life in Italy. To get accepted at the university was one thing, to study here was something else. Without knowing Italian, it was very hard. You could always find me going over my books with a dictionary lying next to me. At the time, we didn’t have something like Google Translate. In addition, the mostly oral exams didn’t make it any easier. But at the same time, life in Italy was very exciting and I discovered new talents and passions.

My love for the Italian Kitchen made me look differently to palestinian food.

Could I develop the same kind of passion for our traditional dishes? To find that answer for myself, I openend a Palestinian restaurant in Brescia.  I called my best friends and told them: “Guys, it is the right place, the right time and I have the experience, let’s do this project together. I will take care of everything.” It has been two years since that day and “I Nazareni” is now well known in the city.

We serve traditional Palestinian dishes for an Italian public. The way I take it to the costumer is slightly different, as I play with the presentation, but the taste has to be the original one.

The city fell in love with the restaurant. It was not my purpose to focus on tourists or the Palestinian community. Instead my goal was that Palestine would become a common word around here, among the local citizens.

We give the people from Brescia the chance to get to know Palestine in a fast, nice, elegant and different way.

I had to do this. Palestine is always in my heart, but I can’t express my love for Palestine without being in love with this place. I am at home in both places, for me this is completely natural. It is me.

The restaurant is not the only way for me to express myself as a Palestinian. I am also involved with the Italian Palestinian Friendship Association: our biggest event is a Palestinian Festival but we also support things like a football match between youth teams from Brescia and Bethlehem.

During the three days of the festival, we give Palestinian music groups a venue to perform, let Italian and Palestinian journalists and politicians interact with one another and offer other activities related to Palestine. The festival evolves and grows over time. Maybe one day we can use the museums, the theatres, the cinema and the university of the city for artistic, cultural and political activities.

The city of Brescia also invites the young soccer team of Bethlehem to play a match here. My restaurant together with some other Italian restaurants, contributed with sponsorship for the travel costs and T-shirts. The players were so happy about it. They didn’t expect such a hospitality and enthusiasm.

I think it is safe to say that over the years, a twinning relationship between Brescia and Bethlehem has developed.

Palestine is still waiting for the brighter future that I hoped for.

Today, I can only say that the Oslo agreements did not solve anything for the Palestinians. A good solution would give all of us the possibility to travel, work and live everywhere in Palestine.

Why can people in Jenin not spend their vacation in Haifa? Why Palestinian Israeli’s like myself cannot go to Ramallah? And what about the Palestinians refugees spread around the world? Maybe it is not possible to build a Palestinian state on this fragmented landscape, but at the very least there must be a way of coexistence.

It will take efforts from both sides. The Jewish Israeli’s will need to give up the Zionist project and the exclusive ethnic state some of them have in mind. We as Palestinians may have to accept that our future state will not be called Palestine.

What’s in a name, if only we could move freely, work, live, travel and have fun like once our grandparents did in our homeland. As to our interview: I carry many memories of Palestine but my main responsibility is to look forward.

Credits: Frank Ostyn and Marlies Van Coillie.

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