“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.”
My name is Nicolás Majluf. My grandparents were Palestinians from Beit Jala in 1906. My grandfather was named Nicolás as well, he died six months before I was born, in 1945. According to my grandmother, she lost a Nicolás and was blessed with another.
Professionally, I have always been linked to the Catholic University of Chile. I started studied engineering and never left. After graduating, I started teaching and was able to continue my studies at Stanford and later at MIT. Before becoming a full time professor I worked part time at the university and part time as an engineer. After finishing my PhD at MIT, I continued doing that as consultant and later as a board member of different companies in Chile.
Can you share your memories of Palestine?
My grandmother was my closest link to Palestine. As she is very present in my oldest memories, these are also my first memories of Palestine. I remember the weekly ritual of going to church. The Palestinian Community in Chile is predominantly Christian. Historically, Christian and Muslim Palestinians did live peacefully together but during the Ottoman occupation that coexistence became problematic. Moving to a country with an exclusive Christian tradition was one of the factors that explain the exodus of Christian Palestinians to Chile. Chile was also a land of opportunities and attracted adventurers from all over the World. Imagine sailing to the other side of the World, land in Argentina and then crossing the Andes with all your belongings on a mule. The third reason for the immigration was the fact that the Palestinians were very reluctant to serve in the Ottoman army. But I sound like a professor now, let’s go back to my memories (smiles).
Another memory from childhood has to do with the sense of community that reigned in our house. All our weekends were spent with the family and the setup of our living room was typical Palestinian: a large room with seats against the four walls. The whole family would sit there and face each other. We even went on vacation with our uncles, aunts and cousins. Sometimes, it felt like a tribe.
“My grandmother was my closest link to Palestine. As she is very present in my oldest memories, these are also my first memories of Palestine.”
This brings me to one of the main characteristics of the Palestinian Diaspora in Chile: our sense of community and sense of family. Within the family and by extension, within the Diaspora: we treat each other with a special kind of generosity. I was an adolescent in the sixties: that is when I started to discover the World. But Chile was very isolated at that time. It was hard to travel to or travel from. Every time we did get visitors, they were treated like kings. I remember how a distant relative from Egypt visited us: he was a bit of a gypsy, very mysterious and traveled with a beautiful girlfriend/dancer. They were at the center of our community for a while. I also remember another visitor, a highly educated man who talked about the most interesting subjects. He was a composer; some of the tunes that he improvised in our family gatherings are still repeated when we meet. By the way: music is another memory. There was always Palestinian music when we met.
Even if I consider this sense of family life as invaluable, it was not always easy. When I chose to marry a Chilean wife; that was not to the liking of my parents. That was the flip side of belonging to such a warm and caring community. There was a pressure to find a partner within the group. It was deemed more secure and respectful to the community if you married another Palestinian. Nevertheless, I married the lovely Chilean lady that is still my wife (smiles).
We are still very close, even if we meet less regularyly. We are a big group now. My father came from a family of six. They had 27 children all together. We have 6 children and 10 grandchildren. Occasionally, we bring everybody together. I call these moments the “Majlufada”. Then we are more than 200 people. Meeting each other brings joy: that is what this sense of community is all about. And it is not restricted to only family. Many of the “Majlufada” travel, especially the younger generation. They meet and bond with other Palestinians in other countries.
My grandparents came as peasants from Beit Jala. All they ever did was work hard and serve their family. They landed in Chile with an overwhelming energy and generosity. We have lost contact with my family in Beit Jala and I wonder whether such generosity still is a part of the tradition in Palestine.
The second generation of Palestinians in Chile focused very heavily on education. My mother was 16 when she married; I was born when she was 17. She always insisted on our education. It was her way to create opportunities for us. Ending up at Stanford and MIT, I lived her dream. I cannot thank my parents enough for their focus and support with respect to this. My parents were not alone in this: I see it everywhere in the Palestinian community in Chile. The focus on education is another characteristic of our Diaspora.
“My mother was 16 when she married; I was born when she was 17. She always insisted on our education. It was her way to create opportunities for us.”
Do you see cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian organisations in Chile?
That is not easy. In general, I think that both communities act very respectful towards each other in Chile. But once the Israeli government is involved, everything becomes difficult. From a distance, I see a big disconnect between the Israeli government and the Jewish people. The Jewish heritage is one of a great humanity that is not reflected in the current actions of the Israeli government. Sooner or later, this will come to surface.
As I choose not to travel to Palestine, I only have the images that I get from the media. They show Palestinians who are suffering, confronted with injustice and an overwhelming lack of opportunities. I am convinced that this perception is incomplete and supports the political nonsense that reigns today in Israel. In a normal situation, sensible people should be able to reach an agreement. But today, the perceptions reigns that all Palestinians are terrorists. The simplistic reaction is to isolate them even more.
Maybe we can approach this from a more positive and optimistic angle. A few years ago, a young Palestinian from Gaza did win the Arab Idol contest. He triggered a message of hope that carried from Palestine all over the Diaspora. There will always be young people who are unspoiled by the past and ready to build things up again.
Do you see a role for the Diaspora in this conflict?
I do. The Diaspora plays a role today by providing support in terms of education and relief work. But there is more. There are so many successful Palestinian businessmen all over the World. All of them would love to help and invest in Palestine. I think this will be a major boost for Palestine, when the time is right. In Chile, there has been a similar revival after the military regime. I have witnessed this from the first ranks. I think we will see the same in Cuba, now that the relationship with the US is normalising. And ultimately, that is how the Diaspora can be a huge opportunity for Palestine as well.
“As I choose not to travel to Palestine, I only have the images that I get from the media. They show Palestinians who are suffering, confronted with injustice and an overwhelming lack of opportunities. I am convinced that this perception is incomplete and supports the political nonsense that reigns today in Israel. In a normal situation, sensible people should be able to reach an agreement. But today, the perceptions reigns that all Palestinians are terrorists. The simplistic reaction is to isolate them even more.”