"A new Palestinian consciousness": history of the diaspora in Latin America

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Palestine refugees marked 65 years of expulsion and exile this year.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

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Dr. Cecilia Baeza on Palestinians in Latin America

Thank you to the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center and the Institute for Palestine Studies for this audio.

Dr. Cecilia Baeza: Let’s start with the end of the 19th century until 1948. This period is crucial, because it constitutes a key testimony of the modes of identification of the inhabitants of Palestine before 1948. How did they self-define these immigrants from Palestine? If we cannot interview the oldest immigrants who arrived at the end of the 19th century, we still have several evidences of their self-identification.

Some notes on the immigration registers, the names of the associations and the ethnic press which began to develop in the decade of the 1910s. Until 1920, immigrants from Palestine used to mention alternatively four focuses of identity: their hometown, in this case, Beit Lahem [Bethlehem], Beit Jala and Beit Sahour; Syria, in the sense of Bilad al-Sham [Greater Syria]; their religion, here mainly Orthodox Christianity and the consciousness of coming from the Holy Land; and finally their Arab-ness. References to Palestine were rare, but they did exist. By contrast, the identification with the Ottoman empire was almost non-existent.

This started to change from the ’20s. In 1920, the Club Deportivo Palestino, a professional football club, was founded in Santiago de Chile. The name of the club, Palestino, and the colors of the football jersey — those of the Palestinian flag — were clearly a nationalist reference.

This new identification gained momentum from 1924. Between 1924 and 1939, dozens of organizations with direct and unique references to Palestine were founded all across Latin America. How to explain the emergence of this new Palestinian consciousness?

The establishment of the British mandate over Palestine terribly complicated the life of immigrants, and these new difficulties certainly made them more aware of the political precariousness of the homeland. The main obstacle faced by the immigrants was the issue of return: temporary or definitive. Indeed, until the ’30s, immigrants used to move back and forth between the host countries and Palestine. Immigrants came back, lived a few years in Palestine, and left again their homeland to Latin America.

This pattern was quite common. During the Ottoman era, immigrants who kept the Ottoman nationality could legally return to Palestine. However, and this is a paradox, the issuing of Palestinian nationality by British authorities in 1925 changed the situation. Immigrants had to ask for a visa, in case they had acquired the nationality of the host country, or as Palestinian-born, ask for the Palestinian nationality itself. Therein lies the crux of the problem: the condition for obtaining the Palestinian nationality as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne, was extremely hard to meet for the immigrants. The application of the Treaty created hardships for thousands of Palestine natives who were residents abroad.

Let’s take the case of Issa Nasser, for example. Born in Bethlehem, he emigrated in 1913 as a merchant to Chile with an Ottoman passport which expired in the Treaty of Lausanne. As he did not have the Palestinian nationality, he needed an emergency certificate issued by the British consulate in Valparaiso, to be able to travel to Palestine. The temporary document clearly specified that it did not guarantee that the holder would be authorized to land or remain in Palestine.

But going to Palestine was not the only problem. In some cases, such as Chile and Mexico, the inability to provide a valid nationality prevented from renewing a resident’s permit. Or worse, the access to naturalization. This situation led thousands of immigrants to become stateless. In some countries, like in El Salvador, the absence of nationality prohibited the exercise of trade, jeopardizing the main source of income for Palestinian immigrants.

Facing these difficulties, immigrants decided to organize themselves to make themselves heard. Dozens of complaints were made by immigrants from the British consulates of Latin America, and remain deposited in the archives of the League of Nations.

Immigrants argue that they still had land in Palestine, and despite the fact that they were currently involved in trade activities in their host countries, they still planned to return home in the near future. In Palestine, immigrants received the support of young nationalists, including Aysel Bandaq from Bethlehem, who launched in 1927 the Committee for the Defense of Immigrants’ Rights to Palestinian Citizenship.

The committee collected the grievances of immigrants, and presented them to the British high commissioner for Palestine. The British authority lightly relaxed the condition for obtaining the nationality but it did not make a big difference.

Following the outbreak of the great Arab Revolt, Aysel Bandaq renewed the petition in 1936 to the Peel Commission without any significant result. As a consequence, only a very limited number of immigrants were able to get Palestinian nationality.

In 1946, it was documented that only 465 persons of those who were born in Palestine and were residing abroad could acquire Palestinian nationality. It did not mean that it was impossible for immigrants to come back, but it certainly dissuaded more than one.

The temporary situation of statelessness of some immigrants made Mutaz Qafisheh, professor of international law at Hebron University, speak about the first generation of Palestinian refugees. I understand the interest of such a provocative stance that allowed pointing out a situation that was completely neglected, but I’m not sure that it can really be used because as we have seen, the logics of immigration cannot be reduced to the result of an expulsion.

This Palestinian nationality eventually disappeared with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. But for immigrants, it was clearly the first political experience of their Palestinian-ness, independently from the fact that they succeeded to have it or not, the struggle for nationality was itself meaningful. In fact, the decade of the ’30s witnessed the development of a very dynamic, nationalist, ethnic press in Latin America.

The best examples are al-Islah, the Reform, in Chile, published from 1930-1942 and also distributed in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and Rumbos, published in Honduras from 1939.

The press diffused political information from Palestine. And this clearly had an impact: for example, in 1939, Palestinians in Chile and Honduras collected funds for the families of martyrs of the great Arab Revolt. The result of all of this is that at the end of the ’30s, we had a population who increasingly claimed its belonging to the Palestinian nation, while they were more than ever intending to settle in their host countries.

A clear sign of this paradox is the fact that a good part of this nationalist ethnic press was written in Spanish, as [was] Rumbos. The second generation born in Palestine was already losing its capacity in its ability to read and write in Arabic. The cultural distance with the homeland was widening, and in Latin America the immigrants were about to seize new economic opportunities.

The last significant political battle of this period was the mobilization against the partition of Palestine, voted in the General Assembly of the UN in 1947. The mobilization against this resolution in Latin America was, in reality, a last-minute campaign launched by Akram Zuaiter who came from Palestine to convince Latin American leaders not to vote for the partition. And in fact it had some results. Thanks to the strong mobilization of Palestinian communities, Chile and Honduras decided, at the very last moment, to abstain [during the vote on] the UN resolution. But this was in vain, since as we know the resolution was adopted.

And the following decades were marked by deep cultural assimilation. In 1970, exogamous marriages — that is marriages between Arabs and non-Arabs — had become the norm. According to a recent investigation, today in Chile, only around 30 percent of [persons of] Palestinian descent have both parents of Palestinian origin.

The new generations whose fathers were immigrants became Chileans, Hondurans, Peruvians — in a nutshell, Latin Americans of Palestinian descent. [There are] not even Palestinian Chileans, like one can be Arab-American — hyphenated identities don’t exist in Latin America. In multiracial and multi-ethnic Latin American societies, national identification comes first. However, it does not mean that identification with Palestine was lost.

Palestinian identity survived through networks of friends, families and business partners; through social clubs like the Club Palestino in Santiago … And also through cultural practices like food. In fact it may be less powerful than language or religion, but that produced, embodied and affected feelings of connection with Palestine. Every Latin American of Palestinian descent will always start speaking about their Palestinian identities with [memories] of lunches at their grandparents’ place, eating maqloobeh [a traditional Palestinian dish], stuffed marrows and eggplants.

These elements of cultural identity were not necessarily visible in the public space, but they were very present in the private sphere.

During the ’50s and ’60s, the political dimension of Palestinian identity became clearly less relevant. But this changed again from the second half of the ’70s and even more during the ’80s. Unlike in other regions, it was not directly the Six-Day War of 1967 that really made the difference, but the recognition of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] in 1974 by the United Nations as the sole, legitimate representation of the Palestinian people.

Why? Because it allowed the PLO to open Palestine informational offices all across the continent, and to develop a network of representatives. The re-politicization of the diaspora was part of their mission. However, working or not with the PLO created tensions among the community. The tensions were such that some individuals even denounced their fellows from the Palestinian club to the Chilean political police, for example.

Jael Al Arja, a member of the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] who regularly came to Latin America since the beginning of the 1970s, was killed in 1976 during the Operation Entebbe against the hijacking of an Air France flight by PFLP members. You can imagine how terrified the Palestinian in Chile were who had known him.

The PLO was seen as subversive. Aware of this obstacle, not only in Chile but in other Latin American countries, the PLO decided to send Father Ibrahim Ayyad, a Catholic priest born in Beit Sahour and close to Yasser Arafat, to change the PLO’s image among the predominantly Christian diaspora.

The turning point was 1982 and the massacre of the Palestinian refugees of the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. The killing of women, children and the elderly provoked an emotion that went beyond political divisions. In Chile, it fostered the first demonstration of unity among Palestinians.

In 1984, the Palestinian Club of Chile and the Federation of Brazilian Palestinian Organizations called for the first congress of Palestinian entities from Latin America and the Caribbean. The congress took place in Sao Paolo, and resulted in the creation of the COPLAC, the Latin American confederation of Palestinian institutions. Eleven representatives from Latin America were designated to be members of the Palestinian National Congress of the PLO.

This new institutionalized connection with the PLO proved a big momentum, especially among the youth. Tens of groups of dabke [traditional Palestinian dance] were formed in Brazil, in Chile and in other Latin American countries. Many belonged to Sana’oud, a Palestinian transnational cultural movement created by the PLO for young people of Palestinian descent to reconnect with Palestinian culture.

In Chile, university students went even beyond, and founded the local branch of the General Union of Palestinian Students. Chile currently is the country where a core group of individuals of Palestinian origin is the best organized to defend the Palestinian cause.

We are actually witnessing a process of professionalization of the pro-Palestinian movement since the beginning of the 2000s. Palestinian Chilean politicians can be found now across the full political spectrum, from the right to the Communist party, but they cooperate when it comes to Palestine. A Palestinian Chilean inter-parliamentary group was constituted, and is today the most numerous amongst the bi-national groups in the Chilean congress.

In 2001, wealthy Chilean Palestinian businessmen created the Palestinian Bethlehem 2000 Foundation, a charity organization for Palestinian children that also does political lobbying and cultural work for the community. The foundation publishes a monthly magazine called Al Damir, which aims to [report on] success stories of Palestinian Chileans as well as briefing about the activities of the community and of the humanitarian situation in Palestine.

There is also a Palestinian Chilean news agency, as well as two other websites that provide daily updates and op-eds regarding the situation in Palestine. These are the main sources of information for Palestinian Chileans as well as others who are interested in the situation in the Middle East.

For concluding, again, political divisions and debates still exist within this diaspora organization. But it doesn’t hamper their work and their impact. There is clearly today a growing interest among the youth about their Palestinian origin. The Internet, social networks and also the possibility to travel to Palestine have facilitated this reconnection. Even very few still have close relatives there.

The biggest problem today is probably the difficulties in entering Palestine, as Israeli authorities tend to discriminate against visitors according to their ancestry. Over the last five years, four young Chilean women were deported from Tel Aviv or the Allenby Bridge because of their Palestinian surname.

End transcript.

“Communions and Conversions”: Memoir by Nour Joudah

From Joudah’s blog: isdoud.wordpress.com

Bismilah.

When I was nine, I took my first communion. By accident. Sort of. We skipped breakfast to make it to church on time for Christmas Mass. His mom told me if I just closed my hand in a fist as our pew walked up to the altar, the priest wouldn’t give me a cracker. I was hungry though and grateful for the two-second snack before me. And so I opened my hand, held out my open palm, lifted it to my mouth, and bit into the body of Christ.

Looking back, perhaps I should have been in the blood line. The Eastern Orthodox don’t mess with that grape juice nonsense like the Baptists. Only the good stuff, especially on Christmas. But I digress. Probably to blasphemy.

My first communion story was … well, entertaining for most of my classmates in college. It was the Bible belt and even the atheists quoted scripture. So the occasional line of “I accidentally took communion once …” from the Muslim at the party was always a crowd-pleaser.

At my second communion, I didn’t go to the altar. I was fifteen, at a funeral, and this priest was not messing around. He told us not to come up if we weren’t Catholic. No crackers that day. But I was fifteen, so the Catholics in the pew got clever with that blood of Christ in the back pantry afterwards. So the rest of us wouldn’t feel left out of course. Sharing the love of the Lord is important. It seemed like an appropriate thing to drown our grief in.

My communions were anecdotes and funny stories for an agnostic/unknown like myself. An interesting pageantry. Symbolism steeped in man-made tradition. The highest form of embodied dogma. And then, there was my third communion. No churches, no trinity, no bread and wine.

My third communion was in a living room full of Muslims. Refugees. Palestinians. Believers in the homeland. Closed eyes, savoring every morsel of the zaatar on their tongue, with a prayer for God to take them home whispered under their breath.

Jihad, my friend’s younger brother, played altar boy, carefully scooped it out of the bag, piling it neatly on a small plate, walking ever so carefully as not to spill a single sesame seed.

With two pinched fingers, family members lifted the crushed thyme and spices and laid them on their tongues, inhaled so deeply I thought their lungs would burst from their chests. An uncle visiting broke the silence. “Get the olive oil! … You brought olive oil, right?”

“Of course. Olives, too.” I replied.

The grandfather patted my knee.

“The scent of home is enough, ya binti. Katter khairik.”

Communion resumed, now with olives and oil.

Plates were wiped clean with bread and the small fingers of children, convinced Palestine itself would jump off the plate if they dipped with enough force.

The grandfather passed on the second round. I half-jokingly/half-very-seriously asked, “Seedi, do you want me to hide your presents before half of Shatila shows up?”

“I ate from Palestine’s earth until I was 20. These are the generations that have never tasted her, known her scent, had her fill their stomachs and put them to sleep. Let them eat until they are full,” he replied.

I smiled and was quickly pounced on by a young Spiderman that stole me away periodically throughout the evening.

A little while later, I felt a tug at my shoulder.

“Yes, Seedi?”

“Can you put some of the oil in a small bottle so they don’t cook with it or serve it with anything?” he asked.

“Of course. Changed your mind? You want to save it?” I asked.

“Not all, just enough. I want the scent of home every night until I die. I want to smell Majdal Kroom in Shatila.”

I poured him some olive oil into a small bottle and tucked it near his makeshift bed in the living room.

I realized in the gift-giving, I hadn’t taken my own communion. Before I returned to the living room, I dipped my pinched fingers into the bag of zaatar, and said my prayer under my breath.

I took my third communion in private, standing over a sink, trying not to spill a crumb.

A communion of faith.

I breathed in the scent of the quickly emptying bottle of oil.

A conversion to exile.

End transcript.