“This brings me to one of the main characteristics of the Palestinian Diaspora in Chile: our sense of community. Within the family and by extension, within the Diaspora: we treat each other with a special kind of generosity.”
I am Mohammed Iqtifan, 29 years old and live in Merelbeke, near Ghent in Belgium. But I come from Gaza; my parents moved there from Egypt after the Oslo agreements in 1994. It was my home till two years ago.
In October 2012, I came to Europe to complete my studies in electronic engineering. At the University of Ghent, I specialize now in photonics engineering.
“As you left Palestine since two years, what memories are most important for you?”
In fact, all memories are important but I think most about the people that I left behind: family and friends. As life in Gaza is difficult, with all the war and the attacks, it creates a special bond between the people who live there. In fact, it often surprises me how much details I can remember. I have very specific memories of our family home, on top of a large building. We had a spectacular view of Gaza city and sitting there at night, with my friends… these memories do not go away, they do not even fade. This is really what I miss.
Gaza is a small city, in fact I think I had connections to most people of my age. We played cards and smoked shisha, sometimes in a simple coffee house, sometimes in a fancy hotel lobby. I remember all these places.
If it comes to music or literature, I do not think in terms of Palestinian art. In fact, we feel related to Lebanese, Egyptian or other Arab art. And some of that is very traditional. Um Kulthum for example is an Egyptian singer from the days of Nasser, but her music is a very important part of my culture and memories. Um Kulthum’s music is very slow and repetitive, you need to be very relaxed. Of course there is young and modern music as well, let there be no misunderstanding. But keeping the traditions and the memories alive is important in Palestine.
There is a newspaper in Gaza that I sometimes follow, called Donia Al-Watan but that is very focused on the political front, not so much on daily life. Even on social media, most of the news is about politics these days. Following this never ending stream of bad news is difficult for me.
“How did you leave Gaza? How did you end up in Ghent?”
After leaving Gaza, I stayed in Egypt for a month. Then I could go to Sweden where I lived for two months. That period was very hard. It was cold and dark and reaching out to the people there was difficult for me. The fact that I arrived during the winter and lived close to Uppsala, high up North may have had something to do with it. For somebody from the Mediterranean, that was a big shock. As I had visited Belgium before, for a conference, I was tempted to apply for a visa here. This allows me to continue my studies, I found work and I have friends all over this country. I have a one year residence and I have to renew it each year. If I travel now, I think of Belgium as my home country.
Of course I learned and changed in Belgium. But I keep my core identity intact. I am still Mohamed but of course I have evolved. One of the ways I try to protect my core has to do with cooking. During the weekend, I try to cook some Palestinian food from time to time, that is important to me. There is a Lebanese restaurant in Ghent, at the corner of the Sleepstraat, and there are many in Brussels. Humus, falafel, kebab, some meat… when well prepared, Palestinian food is wonderful.
My memories are shaded by the wars that I experienced. During the first war, I could not sleep for 2 weeks, I lost friends, there was blood all over me. There is no way to forget that but staying focused on it would not allow me to continue my life. I choose to focus on the good memories; that is my character.
“How important for you was the beach in Gaza?”
During Summer, we were there all the time. Because of the pollution, we did not swim there but it was a gathering place. During Ramadan, the nights at the beach were magic: eating and talking on the beach, all night long. After sunrise, we went home to sleep. And we smoked shisha of course. When I lived in Gaza, I smoked shisha everyday, now only a 3-4 times a month, with friends.
What is curious is that when I lived in Gaza, I was thinking a lot about living in Europe. Before leaving Gaza, I was able to make two short trips to Europe, one to Belgium and one to Paris. So I ended up thinking about living in Belgium or France all the time. It is strange how we always seem to think about places beyond the horizon. That is natural for humans. But now I feel at home in Belgium. I am happy here. Belgium is giving me a lot, I hope that one day I can give that value back. Belgium is not a hotel for me.