“There are some stories that my father told us so many times already (smiles). How he played in the fields with his friends. How he was almost arrested. How they smuggled my grandmother to jerusalem in the trunk of their car because she did not have the permit to travel…”
My name is Siham El Masou, I study law in Santiago de Chile and I am the president of the General Union of Palestinian students in Chile.
My father is Palestinian, he came to Chile in 1967 when he was 19 years old. He came on his own and settling in Chile proved difficult for him. After three years he returned to Palestine. But that was complicated as well. A few years later, he finally moved to Chile for good, this time with some other family members. He now has a lingerie shop in Patronato, the neighbourhood in Santiago de Chile that is the heart of the Palestinian community. He is one of the many Palestinians who built a career in the textile industry (smiles).
My mother was born in Chile, she is from a Palestinian family that moved to Chile a long time ago. As my mother was born in Chile, we never spoke Arabic at home.
Our family is a very active member of the Club Palestino. As a child, I spent all my summers (winters) there. The Club is a key place in Santiago for all families who value their Palestinian identity.
What means the Club Palestino for youngsters?
Sports are important of course. There is a lot of tennis and soccer. But is also the place where we have parties. It is everything that youngsters value mixed with some Palestinian traditions. There is a lot of dabke: a popular traditional dance. There are Arabic lessons but also the Noces Arabes (the Arab Nights). These are parties with both modern electronic- as traditional music. And of course with Arab food. Food is important at all Palestinian gatherings, all over the World.
The Union of Palestinian Students on the other hand is a political organisation. It is connected to the Palestinian Embassy and has branches all over the World. It dates from the PLO era and the days of Yasser Arafat. We typically focus on activities that inform people about the injustice in Palestine. There is so much disinformation if it comes to what happens in our homeland. We run all kinds of campaigns. At the moment, the one that is most visible is BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). We are working very hard to make the Universities sign the BDS charter.
I do not see myself as a future politician though. For me, my work at the union is a way to take up responsibility. The situation in Palestine is a huge violation of human rights and that matters to all of us. We all have to do our share but it is not a matter of traditional politics: left or right. The political parties in Chile that put the Palestinian issue on the agenda are more on the left side. But on the other hand, most of the members of the Club Palestino are on the right side of the spectrum.
Did you visit Palestine already?
Yes, several times. I travelled there for the first time when I was only four. The last time was one year ago, I went with my father. I remember very little from my first trip but I do see images of the room where I slept. I still carry the first impression of my nephews with me. I was surprised how easy it was to communicate with them, even if I did not speak Arabic. I can still remember some places, there was a small path in the fields that I will never forget.
“Deep inside I am Palestinian. But I am also Chilean. It is not a matter of one or the other. I am both. This is a difficult question because it assumes that I can choose. I cannot.”
It is hard to think of Palestine in terms of memories; at home we talk about it every day. We talk about it’s culture and history, about specific events. There are some stories that my father has told us so many times already (smiles). How he played in the fields with his friends. How he was almost arrested. How they smuggled my 92-year-old grandmother in the trunk of their car to Jerusalem because she did not have the right permit to travel.
Can you tell me a bit more about your family in Palestine?
The family house is still there: there are still members of the family who live in it. We stay there when we visit Palestine. Some people in my family are teachers, others are TV actors, some work at the embassy and some of them are in sales. There were some family members who came to Santiago but of course that is not possible for everybody. Over the years, I did get to know some other people from Beit Jala better, especially those who spent some time in Chile.
What does the occupation mean for you?
For me, the occupation means injustice. It is what my anger and commitment is all about. The images that come to mind are the separation wall, the 8hour long questioning by the border police when I enter the country, the feeling of despair and powerlessness that reigns in my other homeland. Israel exercises its power without any recognition for the basic human rights of the Palestinians. Most people only see the violence in Palestine and have no idea how people suffer from the occupation on a daily basis. Palestinians face so many restrictions: it is impossible for them to lead a normal life. It is an injustice that has an ethical aspect of course, but also a cultural and a personal one. It is impossible to talk about this without becoming emotional. It is beyond reason.
Do you feel more Palestinian or more Chilean?
Deep inside I am Palestinian. But I am also Chilean. It is not a matter of one or the other. I am both. This is a difficult question because it assumes that I can choose. I cannot. When the national soccer team of Chile plays, I will wear a Chilean shirt and join the crowd. If they would ever play against the Palestinian national team (which is not possible today), I would wear the Palestinian shirt and watch the game at home (smiles).
Do you have other memories that you want to share?
Yes, and they have to do with architecture. I love the souk. I would like to tell you about a place where the village you come from is really important. In that place the people attach an incredible value to their family house. They will do whatever they can to ensure that it stays in the family forever. The house is part of their history. It sounds as if that place is from another era but it is my other homeland.