On the Road: First Alley

Thursday in Haifa, a city I have always found too big, too scattered, too clumsy and rural. But everything’s fine – they have the Holiday of the Holidays! Palestinians just love Jews, Jews just love Palestinians, the municipality promotes co-existence (Hebrew: Dukiyum, or sardonically, “duki”). And the sea in its turn makes it all possible and impossible at one and the same time.

A., a participant in the bi-national discourse group we created in Haifa, says to a Palestinian member of the group: “If I am shit and everything I do is power-mongering, humiliating and oppressive, why do you talk to me? Why do you need me here?” He continues, determined: “Be a side, dammit! Take responsibility for reality!” E., a Palestinian participant, says: ‘I’m not a side.  Your state does not regard me as one, it does not recognize me as a side. I’m neither partner nor collaborator”. N. says to a participating Palestinian woman: “Enough of your one-sidedness that sees nothing besides your own pain”. Silence fills the room – heavy, oppressive, hard. Eyes stare in a space that has no window for escape or hope.

In another group, L. says to a Palestinian woman-participant: “Move on, get up from your Nakba story! When are you going to stop repeating your dirty story about the checkpoint with the solder, security guards at the university and the shopping mall!” B., a Palestinian woman, answers her:  “What do you want? This is my daily shit. It happened yesterday, it happens now, and it will happen tomorrow too. So what story do you want me to tell?!” That same week, at a projection of a film about the Bereaved Families Forum, the mother of Raz, a soldier killed in the First Intifada, says: “You Palestinians tell it all to the very last detail. I have not told the group the details of my own via dolorosa, have not shared with you the torment, the hell I went through during the trial of the very terrorists who killed my son. I just say my son was killed – period!” Another bereaved father says: “I feel they try to be miserable”.

Words, more words, phrases and more phrases, and I feel I’m walking inside a storm, trying to cover my face against strong lightning that flashes at everything I and the Palestinian generation – older and younger alike – has known and believed. Move on! Be a side! Be a partner! Take responsibility…  I don’t understand what you want. And when I do, I wonder whether you yourselves, as Jews, have risen from your own nightmare – “someone is always about to destroy us”. I wonder whether you wish to wake from the dream of the Jewish State that negates my existence. Strangled, trapped and confused inside the question and thoughts that race in my mind, questions open inside me like a chasm that no word, no embrace can bridge. Suddenly my steps are heavy and my voice lost, and my mouth produces nonsense - nonsense to dispel the stress, to sense my body, be normal, be human, silence the damned questions that don’t let up.
In the past such talk would make me resentful, drive me mad, angry – with that primal, impulsive anger that only a victim knows how to scream out of devastation, which is all a victim knows. I would easily lash out the words spoken by Palestinians A or B. That could easily have been me, reminding the other side how crass, humiliating and oppressive it is. I would easily fill my duty to my national narrative and remind the Jew what he needs to remember – not for the sake of conversation but to keep reminding him day and night of what he has done and stolen, and shouldn’t dare forget!

I say easily, because it is too easy to be a victim, too easy to cling to him in a fatal tango hold. His face, his whispering voice and hard body are so familiar, so deeply etched in the depths of our soul as Palestinians, who know by heart the contours of his body and are used to his heavy breathing inside ourselves – the victim. Because it is easy to be the victim.

My heart goes out to the Palestinian students who take part in Sadaka-Reut’s discourse project at the university now, for one main reason: it is a long, painful and agitating journey and one has to decide whether to take it or not. And as soon as the decision is made, one needs courage to cope with the pain of sobriety. I needed years and a long and painful female-personal social-political journey to listen to the language of responsibility, partnership and claim. It took years for me to allow this language to reach me, and more years to act by it. I remember myself asking: what exactly am I giving up when I move on, when I remember but do not get stuck? What am I silencing inside me, what exactly do I forget or make myself forget? And to what do I agree, exactly, when I become a partner with a Jew? What is it to be a side when you live with the awareness of victimhood? And what about you, dammit – what will you be giving up?  Are you ready to be equal partners, give up privilege? And are you ready – this is no moot point, after all the privileges, the power relations are still in force? Are you willing then to move on beyond lip service, to build places, houses, contexts where no privilege exists?

When I was a student, the language of responsibility and making present the Palestinian voice in an egalitarian political partnership was as foreign as Chinese to me, and I can imagine that for many Palestinian university students it still is. The words “move on” sounded to me at the time – and I assume it still sounds to Palestinian students in different campuses in the country – like a declared forfeit of memory, of the right to remember, of the voice that has been silenced by the aggressive naturalization process of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and for what? For nothing! It meant giving up what I am – because the Palestinian historic narrative is a part of me. How can we be separated? How can one possibly think we could be separated, and what would I be without it? What would I be outside it? The excruciating, catastrophic, bloodied memory is still the only way in which we perceive you, communicate and dialogue with you, the only way we perceive not only you but ourselves in order not to get lost amongst you. It is the only way to buffer ourselves from you. And we need this buffer in order to remind ourselves that we are we and you are you, that this we will never be you. Identity is the pre-condition for true dialogue – and develops from within it.
Only through it do you get a shape, a voice and representation. Neither you nor we have any real existence, real shape outside of it, it is the only thing we have with you, against you and inside of you. You know so very well who you are – you have a Jewish state, an army, a flag and an anthem, you don’t need our approval to exist and continue being what you are. In our mind, you exist without us, outside of us – this is the only way for us to tell you: “Move on, take responsibility for the injustices of the past and the present!” This memory which we cling to in despair is the only evidence of our existence, of the fact that at some time we did exist in this place. We do not know how to be outside of it, for we have never dared nor tried, we do not know to be inside it without it’s becoming everything there is, everything there will ever be.

We do not know how “to be a side”, for we have been aside all the time. At the fringes of society we have been spoken about, not to. Others spoke in our name, not in our own voice. For years the government has chosen unique channels, power-hungry and oppressive, to communicate with us, and in fact to harness and silence us. This is, of course, not the whole picture. In a very victim-like act, we Palestinians kept silent, agreed, collaborated and, hanging our heads, gave the impression business was as usual.

We are confounded by the very thought of ‘moving on’/away from our memory, arising from our passive victim’s voice, because then we shall not only have to think: who and what are we after and beyond it? We shall have to re-invent ourselves in the presence of that memory, without erasing it, and sometimes even outside of it, without forgetting, without canceling ourselves in and because of it. Rationally, abandoning the position of “getting stuck” in memory necessitates a political-conscious leap. As a Palestinian collective we are sunk inside that memory to such an extent that the mere thought of alternatives for our condition, or raising questions about it might be perceived as betrayal of our narrative, our identity, self-determination. We face your demand to “get up”, totally exposed, with no alternative, thought, idea of a direction, a path. I am not sure you even have one!

Do you have an idea what you demand of us? Do you have a clear notion what we need to do in order to “move on”? What questions we shall have to confront in order to consider this challenge? We shall need something else, different from what we’ve known, to hold on to and believe in, reminiscent but similar, touching there, but responding here.
A space where we shall be able to refuse having the memory of the past be the only eyes through which we see, interpret and conceive of ourselves, a space where memory is not the exclusive representation of our tomorrow as Palestinians. We shall have to face tough questions, forcing us to deal with the kind of responsibility, leadership and political change we shall want to be a part of. We will have to believe that we could be a side, that we must choose a side – our share for perhaps the first time in our lives. We shall need a political agenda in which we will not feel that we have betrayed ourselves, our memory and our national aspirations as an indigenous people. We shall need a different Palestinian consciousness, that understands that the memory of the Palestinian past is part of our identity landscape as a collective, but courageously we will be ready to think of the place and the conscious role that memory fills: What does it preserve? What does it silence?

Yes, we shall also need you in order to believe we can be different with you, that there is a way, and that this way could contain us both. You will have to drop your supremacy, persecution and survival mind, because it is both a victim’s and a perpetrator’s mind. We need clear answers, because time has come for clear answers for the most complex issues – occupation, being refugees, the nature of the State… the list is long.

Some claim that in order to rise out of victimhood, one must acknolwedge that we as Palestinians are victims. To them I answer that I have no problem acknowledging this. But I do have a problem with getting stuck as a collective exclusively in this voice; I have a problem with this voice being dominant; I have a problem with making it the sole component in my Palestinian identity and voice. I have a problem with the line of thinking that claims that “there is no other possibility” and “there is nowhere to go”, hinting to Palestinian youngsters, whispering to them: “This is what you are, and this is all you are capable of being!” We have long admitted we are victims. It is time to admit that victimhood can be a station in Palestinian identity – and identity is a path, a process, not a closed box – it cannot be the entire journey.


  • Photograph:  A child on his bicycle, Jaffa 2009. The site is where the old market on Etrog Street used to be, before it was demolished in 2005.  “Temporary trees” were planted there in the interim, as the erection of a Jews-only residence complex is planned there by the settler association “Be’emuna”. Thanks to the photographer Keren Manor of Activestills.


Translation: Tal Haran