I am a Palestinean from Chile. As a young adult, I was a theater maker and an activist against the military juntas in Chile and Argentina. Growing up, I found my place in the Palestinean community in Buenos Aires. I am also a woman, a mother, and a feminist.
In 1936, my grandfather moved from Beit Jala to Chile. Just like so many other Palestineans from his home town, he ended up in Recoleta, a neighborhood in Santiago de Chile with a booming textile business. As a child and teenager, this was the center of my life.
Back then, Recoleta was in continuous change. The textile business made sure that everybody was in constant contact with Chileans from all over the country. We spoke Spanish and made Chilean friends at school. At the same time, there was a strong sense of tradition. There was a Palestinian Club where people gathered during the weekends. Santiago has a Palestinian soccer team that competed in the Chilean first division (it still does). And of course, there was Church on Sunday. I remember how important that was to my grandmother. After the service, she would insist on greeting everybody from the community while thinking about the family dinner already.
That leads me to our family dinners on Sunday. These were the most important event of the week.
We would all gather in the house of my grandfather. Just imagine two days in the kitchen to prepare all the traditional Palestinian food. Imagine a long table with guests. After lunch, I would play for hours with my nieces and nephews. I remember the grenadine and the yogurt. It was also a place of listening to endless stories about Palestine.
That is how I grew up. It was too good to last. In 1974, there was a military coup in Chile. By that time, I had finished my studies in theater and was part of a theater company called Subterráneo. Our last play, Las Troyanas de Sartre, was a statement against militarization and war and got us into trouble with the military government. We decided to continue to play it in Argentina, where there was a large community of Chileans who had escaped the regime.
Unfortunately, the situation got worse in Argentina as well. There was a right-wing fascist group, Triple-A, that targeted artists and even started a fire in some theater houses. Ultimately, in 1976, Argentina ended up with a similar coup.
In these days, we were more worried about democracy than about Palestine. But it was impossible to forget about being Palestinean for different reasons.
Being a refugee in Argentina myself confronted me with the issues of migration, more than ever before in my life. One day, a public official asked me for my nationality and replied: “But Palestineans do not exist?”. I replied with a question: “So what am I then?”. I was a Chilean on the run, but these days, I realized more than ever before that I was also a Palestinean in the diaspora.
In 1983, I became involved with the making of a movie about Arabs in Argentina. It triggered even more discussions about my Palestinean roots. The film never came through, but I did get introduced in new circles and invited to a meeting of COPLAC (Confederation of Palestineans in Latin America and the Caraibes). That meeting was essential to the Palestinean that I have become: I met Palestinians from so many countries, Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, Brasil… it made the diaspora feel like a community.
A few months later, I met Rafael Araya in Buenos Aires during the bookfair. He was a poet and musician, and a Chilean with Palestinean roots, just like myself. We had the same questions and passions and had the luck to meet the right people at the right time. In no time, we found ourselves surrounded by other Palestineans, and we discovered an audience for our poetry, music, and theater productions. We adapted a story by Ghassan Kanafani (Retorno a Haifa) to a play called Palestina, Canto de Amor y Libertad.
Our theater company does not exist anymore, but Rafael and I have been mobilizing people in Argentina ever since. Whether it was a fight for democracy or a battle for justice in Palestine: we were part of it.
There are only a limited number of Palestineans in Argentina, but many people valued our fight for democracy (smiles).
We did fight the junta together, and in exchange, there have been a couple of occasions where we got massive support to fight injustice in Palestine. I am thinking about the protests against the bombings in Gaza, the criminal practices of Mekorot (Israeli water company), and the political exploitation of a soccer game between Israel and Argentina (Messi no te vayas). On all these occasions, we did get massive support from a majority of people in Argentina. That makes us very happy and proud.
While there is no Palestinean Club as in Santiago de Chile, there is an organization called FEARAB that brings Arabs in Buenos Aires together. And of course, there is the Embassy. The Palestinean Embassy in Argentina creates a place where we can be Palestinean and Argentinan at the same time. Compared to 10 years ago, we organize a lot more cultural activities like dabke classes, poetry evenings, and traveling exhibitions. We have an editorial and a weekly radio program as well.
But of course, life is more than that. I have a family with a husband and daughter. That made me a feminist as well (smiles).
My husband is Italian-French. He has no Palestinean roots, but he was very much aware of the injustice in Palestine. As a child, he was asthmatic and learned about the world through books and maps. One day, he found Israel on a map and started reading up about it. When I met him, I was surprised by how much he knew about the injustice in Palestine.
My daughter has known activism since her childhood; I took her with us during many of our protests. But as she grew up, she built her own life. She is not an activist as I am, married now, and she has a daughter as well. It was great that she named her after my grandmother (smiles). She and her husband run a cultural center. Her angle into this is more literature and poetry. We never raised her to speak Arabic, and she told me that she regrets that. But most of all, she is a feminist. Throughout the ages, women have played a significant role that has nothing to do with how they dress. It is about freedom of thinking, resisting pressure, and occupation. Ahed Tamimi is a feminist, and there are many women like her. Feminism is resistance; it is about fighting oppression, whatever form it takes.
As for my memories of Palestine, I already mentioned our family dinners in Recoleta. Those will always be part of my Palestine. But I did travel to Palestine twice.
You should know that my first visit (’84) ended in Ben Gurion, the airport in Tel Aviv because I was not allowed to enter the country. There is not a lot to say about that besides that it was a terrible, humiliating and enraging experience. As a Palestinean, you land in a Zionist symbol; they open all your family presents and send you back.
In 2010 I was able to visit as part of a delegation of the ‘Red Palestina.’ I had to attend the congress, but there were opportunities to meet my family and to visit some places. We managed to squeeze in a nightly visit to Beit Jala, the village of my grandfather. They showed me a house that used to belong to the family, but I could not visit it. I did visit Aida, the refugee camp. At the gate, there was a checkpoint. Of the six Israeli soldiers, four were Latin American; three were Argentinan. Once we were through, a young child called me ‘Mama.’ I looked like his mother, who died at that very same checkpoint. That is a memory that sticks.
I felt so Palestinean, even without speaking the language. I cannot explain this, but I did connect with this place. They made jokes with my Arabic (I only speak a few words), but it made me feel welcome and at home. At a given moment, I felt so stupid. I walked through the streets of the camp, smiling at everybody and happy to be there. Just walking where my grandparents walked made me feel good. This hard to explain to people who do not have a migration background, but it is essential to visit the place where you have your roots. There is an emptiness if you have not.
Would I choose to live in Palestine? I don’t know, probably not. But I want it to be free of occupation.
My most vivid memory is the spirit of the youngsters in Aida camp, teaming up for the weekly protest on Friday evening. There was such energy at that moment. But also: I still smell the apricot tree in the house of my grandmother, through her stories. That is what it means to live in the diaspora: we build our memories and pass them on.
Frank Ostyn: www.frankostyn.com