Nov 18th, 2015 – Samah Sabawi – Melbourne

Our journey is exemplary for Palestinians exiled out of Gaza following the war of 1967. Born in the same year, I have spent the first two years of my child’s life in a refugee camp in Jordan, only to continue the journey to Saudi Arabia. The desert landscape has set the scene of my childhood.

For Palestinians who were lucky enough to get out of the refugee camps, the Gulf introduced the next chapter in the Palestinian refugee story

During the late sixties, early seventies Saudi Arabia was a blank canvas. Drawn by the opportunity, high-skilled Arabs in general set out to build up the country. The drawback for us Palestinians, however, was the cultural shock and the insecurity.

Nobody dressed like us, nobody liked us and there was no protection offered to us. By not being in possession of proper documents, my father and mother were in fact stateless. Instead of state protection, I got overprotected parents.

As Palestinian children in Saudi Arabia, we took refuge in theatre to escape from a world we were not part of. 

Making theatre was the only outlet of my childhood. Our house’s roof was the stage of our theatre. My older sister would write scripts and turned us into actors. We could not play with the neighbours, facing the risk of getting into troubles without the necessary protection. On the roof we imagined a wonderful world in our plays and shared that with family and Palestinian neighbours.

We used to have cassette tapes of recorded theatre pieces. It were the musicals, sung by the admired Lebanese singer Fairuz, that would stay with me. Even today, her sound resounds in my car.

Love for theatre has always been there. The first play I produced was a script written by my father. He was a poet and it was that talent that brought us to Saudi Arabia. He quickly became a writer for the Saudi newspaper Jaridat l-youm (Newspaper of the day).

He later became a successful businessman in the meat industry and that is how we ended up in Australia. 

The door of the airplane opened and with wide open eyes, not covered by a black veil, I was amazed by the greenery of Australia. Saudi Arabia doesn’t do green.

Right there, at the top of the stairs, I had the most profound moment of my youth. I had not hit my teens yet, but I was already wearing the veil. Standing there, not gazing through a veil, I felt my eyes were widening. Seeing the green fields followed with a physical sense of my eyes feeling bigger. I still hold on to this thought. When everything goes down, I remember myself of where I come from and where I am now, with a view on this endless horizon.

In Saudi Arabia, I felt fear and unsafe. The system in Saudi Arabia is set up against you if you’re not from there. Every time I went out on the streets, I felt like a prey of sexual predators. If you’re begging to wear the veil when you are six years old, there must have been something wrong with the world. I did not belong there. This is not to say anything about the people. I always enjoyed the Bedouin generosity. The system and the people aren’t one and the same. Once in Australia, I felt I could breathe more freely.

Part of the Palestinian resilience, I believe, stems from not boxing ourselves in.

The minute we cut off our horizons and shut the windows and close ourselves in, is the minute we cut down on our imagination.   

The strength lies in being able to think outside the box, by exploring the unknown. My father made sure we wouldn’t grow up in isolation. Instead of building walls around a Palestinian community, he opened us up for people of all walks of life.

However, when we lived for twenty years in North-America – my husband is a Palestinian Canadian, the community feeling felt stronger again. 

After 911 we were boxed in by the media and politicians. In Canada, Palestinians challenged these labels altogether.   

The first challenge as a mom was to explain my children what was happening. I switched of the radio in the car, switched of the television and cancelled my subscription for the newspaper. Othering at the expense of the Palestinians was the order of the day.

I raised my children to be proud of their Muslim identity, but suddenly this identity was taken as a violent threat. Only yesterday, I was cheering for my kids’ team, unnoticed in the crowd. Today the crowd is watching me instead. They were waiting for an explanation about something I had no control over.

As a Palestinian refugee, I was privileged to travel to different countries and to carry different citizenships and nationalities, gaining the quality to understand my identity as not that hitched. My children alternate easily. They tell you that they are Egyptians, Canadians, Australian, Palestinian depending on time and place. Identity is not something that confines us, but is something that opens us up. In this way, I reject and refuse each label.

Being Palestinian does not go against anything else I am. But it does not constitute my whole identity either. It does not overpower my human identity.

Just like the Palestinian cause is not only championed by Palestinians, are lots of Palestinians active in defending human rights in general. Out of our painful experience of oppression, we are able to empathise with others. Pain is a human feeling and I’m human in the first place. 

Last year, during the Gaza war, I was standing on stage, reliving this moment when I was thirteen, sitting in the crowd, looking up to my father at the stage, talking about the atrocities happening in Sabra and Shatila during the Lebanon war of 1982. Now, I was holding the microphone instead, protesting the same kind of atrocities done to the Palestinians thirty years later. I stood there hoping that my children would not be standing in the same spot, telling the same story to their children. The history is part of us and we are part of the story.     

My husband is at the moment of speaking waiting for Egypt to open the gate to Gaza. From time to time we visit Palestine, but Gaza is not easy to enter. I love all of Palestine, but to be so close and yet still apart from your family is heart-breaking.

A lot of attempts were in vain, but in 2013 my children had this magical experience, when we finally got into Gaza. They immediately felt a strong sense of belonging. Raised between Canada and Australia and to feel at home in Gaza, that was really something.   

After being uprooted, we’ve floated all over the planet, making each place our home. But there is something spiritual about going back to your roots. If it is the physical place or the relatives there who love you because you are, not because of what you do or say, I don’t know but in the end we felt we belong there and that is magical. 

As a child, at the age of six, I remember of Gaza the Jasmine trees in bloom. The smell of Jasmine filled the streets. The streets were coloured green and the small houses had each their fruit tree. You could find pomegranate, lemon, guava, prickly pears,… In one of these houses with an open courtyard lived my grandfather and grandmother.

The house is still there, but each time we visit the green colour has become less. Now, there is hardly some green to find. Houses are built on top of houses. Piles of rubble are everywhere. Bullet holes are marking the landscape.

The sea in Gaza is the only landscape that does not change. Not even a thousand of bombs can change the sea. It is the endless horizon of Gaza.

The endless horizon of the sea reflects the story line in the play I am currently working on. Going to the sea, looking into the horizon, they could imagine to be anywhere in the world. The look of the sea would always stay the same. In Gaza, the sea is the only outlet Palestinians have. 

Credits: Frank Ostyn and Marlies Van Coillie

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