I am an American Phd student in International Relations and work at Florida International University (Miami). My mother is Palestinian, my father is Lebanese. At home, our Palestinian roots and traditions are very much kept alive (smiles). But there was a time when I would introduce myself as Lebanese instead of Palestinian: I was a teenager when 9/11 happened.
“In a post nine eleven era it was almost frightening to tell people here you were Palestinian.“
Like all American Arabs, I struggle with the representation of Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians by the media. It is not in line with the believes, background and culture of the people around me. As a teenager, I was not sure how to deal with this. But when I got into college I realised I needed to speak out against this misrepresentation.
“What the media MAKE OF US is not who we are. I realised that we have to speak for ourselves.“
As an Arab American PhD student in International Relations with a focus on Middle Eastern studies, I am in a unique position to do so: I can relate both to the American heritage as to the Palestinian perspective.
By making myself part of the debate, I can trigger a different conversation and help to look at things from a different angle. That is how my Jewish American friend Sholom Neistein began to open up his eyes, that is how we became friends in the first place and it has been the basis for our joint work as peace activists ever since.
Sholom and myself met during college. I was one of the first Palestinians he actually met. He grew up with the rhetoric that all the Palestinians wanted to kill Jews. But both of us were curious and open minded and once we began to talk we mutually realised: “Hey, we are probably more alike, than we think.” Now we are just friends.
“Why are we so tied to the idea that we are different and better of separated?“
Why is it always “us” versus “them”? I really want to show that even though we have our differences, peace is possible. If the United States can become close allies with Japan , even after dropping a nuclear weapon, if Europe can make peace with Germany after the horror of WWII, if the people in South Africa can find a common ground despite of the past: what it is to say that Palestinians and Israeli’s cannot do the same?
Both my studies as several trips to Palestine have made me think like this. Travelling in Palestine confronts me with Christians, Jews and Muslims who live and work together. At first sight, one is not able to tell the difference between them. Reading, researching and learning about the history of the Middle East has only strengthened the perspective: we have so much more in common than the World cares to admit.
With Sholom, I run an initiative called “Humans Refusing To Be Enemies”. We have spoken at many events, we give interviews all the time and our Facebook page has more than 20.000 followers. We have to be touching somebody with our message!
When I trace back where my passion for Palestine comes from, I end up with my grandfather. He left Palestine in the Sixties to start a business in the United States. It was not until the 1967 war broke out that his wife and kids came over from el-Beira Ramallah. My mother must have been twelve at the time. As my parents divorced when I was still young, I grew up living with my mother and her Palestinian family. That is how I learned to speak Arabic and developed my Palestinian identity.
“Not a summer goes by that my grandparents don’t go back to their home in Palestine.“
They always came home with intriguing gifts and amazing stories. Their stories are a big part of how Palestine grew on me. When I finally travelled to Palestine myself, I felt at home the moment I got there. It was amazing to feel part of a place that you only know via the stories of your grandparents.
Part of my memories go back a long time, back to their stories. There is some nostalgia in there. But part of these memories are my own, from my own travels and I do not feel nostalgic about these at all. When I visit cities like Haifa, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, I realise over and over again how the Jewish and Palestinian identity are intertwined. In fact, the memories from my own travels to Palestine strengthen and support my activism.
Credits: Frank Ostyn and Marlies Van Coillie.