I am from Chile, from Palestine, and from Buenos Aires.
Rafael Araya is the president of COBLAC, the Palestinian Federation in Latin America / Caribbeans. He was born in Chile, lives in Buenos Aires and shares his Memories of Palestine in an interview with Frank Ostyn.
Jifna is a small town near Ramallah with some of the oldest Orthodox churches. My grandfather left it in 1914 to escape the Turkish occupation. Like so many Palestinians at the time, he traveled to Chile where he met my grandmother. She immigrated from the Azores.
I could tell you about their adventures. In 1960, they survived the biggest earthquake ever. I could tell you about my grandfather’s family as my mother had ten brothers and sisters. Or I could tell you about his relentless efforts to build a new life.
Let me start by telling you about our family dinners in Chile. At home, we were 11. My parents would always invite five or six couples for lunch on Sunday. To make this happen, my mother would start cooking on Friday. Of course, everybody had to help. The result was a massive table on Sunday, with 20-25 guests. Some of the guests were Palestinian, but many were not. For them, it was a discovery (smiles). That table is at the origin of my earliest memories of Palestine.
My young adulthood was all about the military coup of Pinochet.
In 1973, I was a student and became involved in the protests against Pinochet. That got me expelled from school but gave me plenty of time to develop my two passions instead: music and politics.
A couple of years later, in 1983, I traveled to Buenos Aires for a concert by Joan Manuel Serrat, a Catalan protest singer. He was not allowed to perform in Chile, so I went to see his show in Argentina instead. When I traveled back to Chile, I was denied entry myself (smiles). I went back to Buenos Aires, settled there and fell in love with it. It is home for me now.
Between 1983 and 1989, I toured in Argentina with my band. At that time, there were more than a million Chileans in Argentina. They were our prime audience. I would sing, we would talk about politics and about the situation in Chile. I was a partisan bard, a teller of stories.
Fighting for democracy in Chile never felt like abandoning on Palestine. If you fight one injustice, you fight them all.
I know precisely when my commitment to Palestine started. In 1984, Buenos Aires hosted its annual bookfair. It is one of the biggest of its kind. If you live in Buenos Aires and have an interest in literature and arts, you don’t want to miss it. There I found a booth labeled “El Instituto de Estudios Palestinos.” It triggered my attention, and that is how I met Tilda Rabi. She was the first Palestinian I met in Argentina. Over the years, we have developed a true partnership. She is almost a sister to me.
Nobody in Argentina dedicated his/her life to Palestine with as much passion as Tilda Rabi.
The Palestinian community in Argentina is much smaller than in Chile. Because of that, if we wanted to have an impact, we needed to put Palestine on the radar of the average Argentinan. In our discussions, we talked about breaking out of the logic of the Arab ghetto. Sometimes we called it: “Llevar Palestina a la Calle.”
That was not an easy task in a country fighting for its democracy. But we did manage to do this. We fought against injustice in Argentina and Chile, side by side with the existing social and political structures in the country. After a while, they helped us raise awareness of the crimes in Palestine.
It took many years, but we made a difference. At the end of 2008, the Israeli army executed a relentless bombing campaign in Gaza: Operation Cast Lead. They killed more than 1400 people and it was a massacre.
On January 6th, we managed to gather 40.000 people to protest against the bombings in GAZA.
That day, we marched with all major political, cultural, and social organizations in the capital. Politicians who were each other’s enemies were walking side by side.
In 2018, there was a similar moment.
The Argentinan National Soccer team, including Lionel Messi, was to play a friendly game against Israel in Haifa.
When the Israeli government wanted to change the location of that game to Jerusalem, it became a political move to position Jerusalem as the only and undividable capital of Israel. Of course, that would have been a violation of International Law.
Therefore, it triggered a broad campaign: “Argentina no vayas.” In the end, the Argentinan Football Association decided to suspend the soccer game against Israel, stating that this suspension was a choice for peace. This moment was a significant victory for BDS in South America.
I want to mention that many Jewish citizens in Argentina support our activities for Palestine. There is an active and sizable Jewish community here, much larger than the Palestinian population. But we do not recruit based on religion. We fight for social justice and do so with Christians, Muslims, Jews, regardless of religion.
In December 2017, I traveled to Palestine for the first time.
I am the president of COBLAC, the Palestinian Federation in Latin America / Caribbeans. This allowed me to visit Palestine. During our trip, we met with the Palestinian president Abbas in Ramala. It was a working visit; it only took a couple of days, and it was a full and busy program. But I will never forget it. I wish that I could have spent more time there, visiting public markets, talking to people on the street. If it were not so complicated and expensive to travel to Palestine on my own, I would do so immediately. The memories of Palestine that I took home with me after that trip are precious to me.
“Did that trip reveal another side of Palestine, one that you did not imagine before going there?”.
I had a very detailed image in my head. The flood of pictures and stories that reach us via social media leaves little room for imagination. But these are all narratives that are built by a third person. When you go there in person, you develop your own story. What surprised me was how open-minded the people in Palestine are when it comes to the outside world. They suffer from occupation and repression and there is no normal daily life as we know it. But the people seem to look at the outside world with hope and expectation nevertheless. They remain interested in culture, poetry, music, and arts. To me, that was very special and I will never forget it.
Many of my memories of Palestine are rooted in the Diaspora.
My grandfather told us the same story about Jifna over and over again. Jifna is famous for its apricots and organizes a yearly Apricot Festival. They call it the Michmich Festival. My grandfather left us when I was twelve, but we still share his stories and these have become part of our memories of Palestine.
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Frank Ostyn: www.frankostyn.com