Podcast Ep 44: Musicians make noise for Palestinian rights

On episode 44, Nora and Asa speak with the lead organizers of a new initiative calling on musicians to refuse to book shows in Israel and stand in solidarity with Palestinians.

We also feature a conversation with author and educator Mona Hajjar Halaby about her new memoir.

Stefan Christoff and Jessie Lauren Stein of Musicians for Palestine explain why major artists signed their pledge to “speak together and demand justice, dignity and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people and all who are fighting colonial dispossession and violence across the planet.”

Rage Against the Machine, Patti Smith, Noname, Vic Mensa, Thurston Moore and Run the Jewels are amongst the initial signatories.

Artists commit to being loud about their solidarity with Palestinians, which Stein says is “a little play on the act of being a musician – we’re noisemakers.”

“So that commitment to speaking out is a really important part of the letter, because it demands that each of us make noise in our own networks,” she adds.

The initiative, Christoff explains, “is about saying yes, okay, we don’t want to see artists being booked in concerts that are about creating cultural capital that covers Israeli war crimes.”

“But I think it’s also important to think about our power. And that’s really what this letter is about,” he added.

An updated list of signatories will be published this fall.

The Musicians for Palestine initiative has also launched a podcast featuring discussions with international artists who have taken a stand for justice in Palestine.

Tracing history in Jerusalem

Palestinian American author and educator Mona Hajjar Halaby joins us to talk about her new book In My Mother’s Foosteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home.

Halaby was born in exile in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Syrian father and Palestinian mother from Jerusalem.

Growing up, she tells The Electronic Intifada Podcast, her mother, Zakia, told countless stories about her childhood in West Jerusalem and the violent loss of her home when Zionist militias forced Palestinians out in the late 1940s.

“Her home was taken away and she could never return to it after she had gone for what she thought was a couple of weeks until the bombing subsided … So in many ways, her story was a story of loss,” Halaby says.

Halaby returned to Palestine to teach at a school in Ramallah, and was eventually joined by her elderly mother. Together they retraced Zakia’s footsteps.

“She amazed me,” Halaby tells us.

“I thought [she] might become angry because you think about someone who returns to someplace that was taken away from her,” she says.

“But instead, she came with such an open heart that for her, it was like meeting again an old friend she hadn’t seen for years. She was touching the stones, rubbing her hands on the stones on the outside of the house.”

Halaby maintains a Facebook page focused on photographs of Jerusalem during the first half of the 20th century called British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library. She also collaborated on the interactive documentary Jerusalem We Are Here.

Further resources

Full transcript

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. During the Israeli assault on Gaza this past May, hundreds of musicians from around the world pledged to refuse to book shows in Israel. Major artists, including Rage Against the Machine, Patti Smith, noname, Vic Mensa, Thurston Moore and Run the Jewels, signed the pledge to “speak together and demand justice, dignity and the right to self determination for the Palestinian people, and all who are fighting colonial dispossession and violence across the planet.” Today, we’ll be speaking with two musicians, activists and leading organizers of the Musicians for Palestine initiative, Stefan Christoff and Jessie Stein, to talk about the second wave of signatories and a new list of names that will be out very soon. Stefan and Jessie, thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast. So, Stefan, let’s start with you. Talk about the initiative, what Musicians for Palestine is and why it’s significant that there are so many new names being added to this list. Usually we see this very often when Israel attacks Gaza, there’s a wave of activism. And then, you know, the voices kind of die down as soon as there’s a ceasefire. But this is different – talk about this campaign.

Stefan Christoff: Well, I mean, beyond simply responding to say, for example, and artists that chose to break the boycott, picket line, and play concert in Israel, that type of initiative is very important. Appealing to artists to support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli state – that is super important. This initiative is, is building on a lot of those efforts. But it’s also very rooted in community and try to sustain and to facilitate and to nurture a global network of artists, musicians, specifically around the world that can speak together in support of Palestinian human rights within the context of, you know, very horrendous war crimes which we saw in May, against the Palestinian people in Gaza, particularly, but also beyond that, to think about the more systemic, long term violence of Israeli state policies of apartheid and occupation. So this is trying to, yes, respond to particular situations, but also to think, in a constructive way. What as to what we can do together as musicians to speak to this reality in the long term, and also, outside of the news cycle headline.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Can you talk about the letter itself? We’ll show it here on the screen for our viewers. Talk about what the pledge says in the process of getting these hundreds of artists, some backed by large record companies and many independent artists to sign on. Jessie, can you talk about that?

Jessie Lauren Stein: Certainly. So the letter has this reiterated phrase, where we say that we commit to not being silent, which is, you know, a little play on the act of being a musician – we’re noisemakers. But in signing the Musicians for Palestine letter, musicians have committed to speaking out about what we know to have long been the case in which is like the major oppression of Palestinian people, the occupation of their lands, and all of the nefarious forms of this takes, as well as committing to the material action of not playing, as you mentioned earlier, in institutions that are backed by Israeli state or that are in Israel. So that commitment to speaking out, is a really important part of the letter, because it demands that each of us make noise in our own networks. And one of the really interesting and exciting things about this letter is that it attracted signatories from all over the world who really had quite a diverse body of musicians, not only in terms of genre, but especially in terms of their geographic locale. So people coming from all sorts of different places, sign this letter, and each of them are tapped into different communities of people. And I think that that kind of gets to something that Stefan said earlier, which is, you know, doing what we can, as musicians, it’s not always, there’s not always a direct line from the art we make and the artistic communities in which we live. And our politics, especially when we’re speaking to an issue that may be far away from us personally. So what’s interesting is that as a kind of diffuse network of musicians, if we use each of our spaces, both like media spaces and our actual physical spaces in which we gather and play music, to have conversations about what’s going on in Palestine, and to take a stand on these issues, that is like one of the things that we can do we can, we can make a conversation that should long have been very much at the forefront of what people are thinking about and has been certainly for many people, but for those around the world who maybe have not been thinking about Palestine, so much, this is an opportunity to be introducing us to what’s going on there and to our perspective on it.

Asa Winstanley: Jessie, do you think since May, since Israel’s last major attack on Gaza, do you think there’s been a shift in artists’ attitudes more towards supporting BDS, do you think? Do you think you’ve seen that more recently? And if so, what do you attribute to that?

Jessie Lauren Stein: Yeah, certainly I do you think that there has been an increase in support for BDS, just to be very clear, like our, although, personally, I support BDS, and many of the signatories do, the letter doesn’t explicitly engage with BDS as a framework, although we do share many very similar values. And like I said, I personally support BDS, I have noticed that in the communities in which I have direct access, that there is an increase in visibility in BDS. And people seem more comfortable with the idea. I think that that definitely has to do with Black Lives Matter taking a stand and people becoming more politicized with the uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I think that it also has to do with the obviously the very long-standing work that people in BDS have done to raise awareness of what’s going on and the people on the ground in Palestine who have been showing up in Jerusalem showing up every day to these protests and becoming a little bit more a forefront story and international media. I think also very important has have been certain Jewish solidarity groups that have contested the notion that supporting Palestinian human rights is anti-Semitic, which is a very crucial, crucial work. Yeah, so that’s how I would place it. It’s been nice to see people engaging with it a little bit more, more comfortably. These are important.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: And, Stefan, did you want to add to that?

Stefan Christoff: Well, yeah, I mean, I think it’s important to always underline that whatever initiative takes place, Musicians for Palestine in this context builds on a history of organizing, and I think locating actions that are happening now, within a trajectory allows us to see that I mean, whether we’re talking about the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement that, you know, only launched in 2005, with the call of Palestinian civil society, but I mean, that’s obviously rooted going back to the 1960s and 70s, and the core organizing of the, you know, the Lebanese Communist Party, for example, or like, left organizations within the global south who pushed for many years to try to raise awareness globally, around the importance of collective economic action against … African National Congress, the ANC solidarity in the 1980s and Central America. So there’s this context in history. And I think that that is really important in locating also our choice to really try through this letter to make sure that the geographical location of the artists is global. So I’ll just highlight the fact that quite a few of the artists who signed were from Chile for example, and the last case is collaborative, for example, helped us in gathering is really important to underline. That’s the collective of course, that in Chile was central to raising the feminist critique of system, patriarchy, and state violence in Chile. But what’s at the global nature of the signatories reflects also the global nature of solidarity efforts that have happened over generations. And so it’s really exciting in that sense that I, I do see also our capacity to speak with artists around the world. And their interest in Palestine directly.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Can both of you talk a little bit about the so-called silent boycott, where artists just don’t book gigs in Israel to begin with, what the impact of that you think has been on Israeli cultural institutions, as well as the impact of the very visible boycott campaigns where artists dump their gigs in Tel Aviv, for example, after global pressure, or sign a pledge, like the musicians for Palestine letter and say, initially, we will never perform in Israel.

Stefan Christoff: Yeah, so I think, like, I just want to be really clear, like in terms of like, also, like, in Montreal locally, where I’m, where I live, I worked on this concert series called artists against apartheid. And we had 23 concerts over about five years, six years. And it was really about like, a creative response to the situation to be taking action, but also to create a space for musicians to express themselves to create work for musicians from different bands to collaborate. And so I think that it’s, it’s about building power on our terms. So musicians for Palestine is more a global initiative. But it’s about saying, Yes, okay, we don’t want to see artists being booked in concerts that are about creating cultural capital that covers Israeli war crimes. And that’s really what the role is of, you know, in the context of Israel, listeners of this podcast know that. But I think it’s also important to think about our power. And that’s really what this letter is about, right? Like, it’s about responding to the BDS call, we made sure to communicate clearly, and to review the letter and the process with the Palestinian campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, PACBI, and the BNC, boycott National Council, but it’s also autonomous. And in the sense that it’s, it’s as happening as part of that global network. But it’s also an initiative that, I hope, can say that, well, we’re doing things on our terms. And we’re saying, you know, for example, we’re gonna release a podcast soon, which is about conversations with different artists that that sign the letter, and a lot of musicians have written us, like many hundreds since this letter came out, saying they want to join, and many people are sharing ideas, right. So I think that what’s interesting is that, yes, it’s grounded in taking that action. But it’s also saying, we can grow something, building on all the amazing initiatives around the world. This one, we were lucky to get a lot of support from high-profile musicians. And that also didn’t happen in a vacuum some of those high profile musicians that supported there were conversations for a number of years with people to encourage them to consider speaking out about Palestinian human rights, but it took time right so it’s also these things don’t happen overnight, but it’s about our power and to say together as musicians “we refuse silence.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman: If you could let our listeners and viewers know where they can find the letter and what kind of process it is to sign the pledge, if they’re a musician and want to add their name to the list. And and and also talk a little bit about your own music, both of you, and where we can find your music online.

Jessie Lauren Stein: Well, people who are interested in reading the letter and who discover that they would like to sign it upon reading the letter can do so at the website, www.MusiciansForPalestine.com, a snappy little name. And the process for signing the letter is it begins with sending us a message through the website and then we take it from there because we have to verify people’s identity in order to add them to the official next round of the letter, which will happen in the coming months. Yeah. And as for music, I’ve long played in a project called the Luyas, which is a weirdo little rock band based in Montreal. And it’s very fun. And if you Google us, you will discover many flattering and unflattering photographs and videos.

Stefan Christoff: Yeah, what Jessie said. We’re trying to prepare for a launch in the fall of the second wave of signatories. It’s about community building too, right. So I think that in the end, we’ll probably have about 1,000 additional musicians signing it seems. But as was mentioned, we want to verify and also create communication. So it’s not like just you sign online and then that’s it, right? So we’re actually trying to correspond with each person as a way of like, building that network. So we can say in the future, like, Oh, well, there’s a Palestinian hunger strike going on within the prisons, right. So we can then share the information with all the musicians. And it’s not this sort of like, hole of the internet where there’s no actual human connection with the people who signed this letter. Like I can say that all of the initial signatories on MusiciansForPalestine.com there’s a there’s a personal connection, and there’s some sort of human connection that meet. That’s why the signatories are there, right, so we’re going through a similar process for the second letter. I play music, too. I play like instrumental music. It’s quite experimental. And I just played a show in Sofia, Bulgaria last week, at the National Radio and yeah, that was a super special experience. So I play piano. And I play a lot with different musicians. It’s under my name Stefan Christoff.

Jessie Lauren Stein: Stefan has a beautiful project with Sam Shalabi, which I encourage you to listen to you

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I love it, and we’ll link to you know, of course MusiciansForPalestine.com. And we’ll also add links to your music both of you, as well on The Electronic Intifada Podcast blog post that accompanies this episode. Jessie Stein and Stefan Christoff of Musicians for Palestine, thank you both so much for coming on The Electronic Intifada Podcast and keep us posted on this campaign.

I’m delighted to be joined by Mona Hajjar Halaby, a writer, educator and the author of In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home, which was published in early August. Mona, it’s so good to see you and to have you on the podcast. So let’s dig into your book by first talking about your own family’s history. Your memoir is about a series of displacements faced by multiple generations in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and how you found yourself back in Jerusalem as an adult tracing your mother’s childhood and living there for a year so yourself. Can you give us a snapshot of your family’s Palestinian story? And what brought you back to Palestine?

Mona Hajjar Halaby: Yes, of course. You know, I grew up in exile, basically, as a daughter of a refugee and then later on the refugee myself from Egypt as a child. And the story that was prevailing in our household was my mother’s Palestinian story. My father did not feel Egyptian or Syrian, his family’s from Syria. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt. And so he did not speak very much about any sense of attachment to his homeland. But my mother spoke about Palestine told stories about Palestine. Some of them were sad and understandably, you know, nostalgic about the time she had there that was ripped away from her life. Her home was, you know, taken away and she could never return to it after she had gone for what she thought was a couple of weeks until the bombing subsided, and then she couldn’t return. So in many ways, her story was a story of loss. But she was such a good storyteller that she also told me all the things she loved about Palestine and our I became, you know, more and more, you know, feverish Lee wanting to get the whole story before, she’s not with us anymore, which is, you know, the race against time with that generation. She was born in 1923. So I interviewed her in 2003. And it was for what I, at the time thought it was, was what I wanted to create was a self-published book about her life history. But in the meantime, as I was interviewing her and collecting all those stories from her, I have seven hours of audio tapes, which is wonderful. So I had a lot to go by. I was invited to teach conflict resolution and nonviolent communication at the Ramallah Friends School. And so I embarked on that and started to write the journal while I was there, the journal, you know, encompass my experiences firsthand of what I saw happening to the Palestinians under the brutality of the occupation. Or now, I don’t like to call it occupation anymore. I like to call it colonial colonialism, because it’s not the occupation, occupation is, is usually temporary. But this is the colonization of Palestine. And so I was, I was very, I was in the midst of living that experience of what was happening, the harsh realities on the ground. But also I was falling in love with the people the food, the generosity, the hospitality. And that’s when I decided after I did, I had my year teaching at the Ramallah friend school, that I was going to be writing a book into voices, my mother’s story. And I was lucky that she wrote to me nine letters, which are in the book. So you could hear her voice basically. And by experience at the Ramallah Friends School and my search for not my identity, because I was already feeling very Palestinian. But, you know, it routed me and I found an internal peace that I never had before, after living there for a year. So that’s how it came about. And that’s how I ended up there.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Talk a little bit about your mother, Zakia. And the neighborhood in Jerusalem that she grew up in and was expelled from.

Mona Hajjar Halaby: She lived in lower Bakaa, which is a neighborhood in West Jerusalem, one of several neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, that that were invaded, and, you know, confiscated by the State of Israel, they were not going to be – the Partition Plan from the United Nations in 1947 did not include West Jerusalem in the State of Israel, so they weren’t conquered. Or, you know, or, you know, can use the verb that you want to use to say that they were taken illegally from the Palestinians. So the Bakaa was one of them. There was lower Bakaa, where my mother lived, and there’s upper Bakaa. Qatamon, Talbiyye, the German colony and the Greek colony, so they were clustered together. There were neighborhoods that were created at the end of the 19th century, by Palestinians, Jerusalemites who lived in the overcrowded and, and cold and, you know, humid parts of the old city because the Old City is all stone. And there’s very little greenery, there’s really no land – it’s gorgeous, and you can see it in the photo in my background. You know, I love I fell in love with the Old City. But for families, it was better for them to move outside of the walls of the Old City. And so those neighborhoods were created by predominantly Christian Palestinians, but Muslim Palestinians as well. And there were some Jewish Palestinian families as well that lived in those neighborhoods. My mother had a middle-class, you know, upbringing, I would say they were they – They never had enough money, it was not a family that was driven by financial success. But they were driven by intellectual success and stimulation and she had a lovely education at the Templar German Colony School, which was a progressive school that was beyond belief for the 1920s and 30s. It reminded me of course of Park Day School where I taught for many years and the Mills College lab school where I taught before Park Day, where children are learning from doing and from thinking critically, you know, rather than being dispensed knowledge and regurgitation, so she had that kind of open education. Her father had studied at the University of Geneva in 1911, which is also something different. He was also from Jaffa, and he was a Muslim, a secular Muslim, who married a Catholic. And both families were totally happy with it, which you know, when I think about in 1918, they got married. My grandmother was eight years older than him. And they had the happiest marriage ever. Their parents got along super well, their respective parents. So they, my mother lived in an unconventional, modern, forward-thinking family, very tolerant family. And sometimes people think that I’ve become that way as a person because I live in Berkeley, but it comes from way back generations in my family, it’s in my DNA. And so that neighborhood was lively. People went to the YMCA, which had concerts and sports activities and lectures in the library. My mother had the library card, she and her brothers went there, and borrowed books, and she sang in a band, her brother played in that band. So it was a very rich and modern life. This was the urban Palestinian, and it’s the minority when you think about it, because most of Palestine, 70% of Palestine, before 1948 was agrarian, you know. And so, my mother was in that group of people that had access to education, and to extracurricular activities. And sadly, you know, bombings started to happen already in 1946, with the bombing of the King David hotel, the South Wing, which housed the Secretariat’s office, the British government’s office, and almost 100 people perished in this bombing. So that started to destabilize, you know, the life in Jerusalem. After that, 1947 was the Partition Plan announcement from the UN and that also brought about more strife between the Jews and the Arabs in Jerusalem and in other parts of Palestine. So they could see my family, my mother’s family could see the writing on the wall, things were not going well. They did not know of course, the outcome – they had no idea that they would ever be expelled or driven out forcibly from their homes and never to return. So there were then bombings in their neighborhoods, there was the hotel Samir Amis bombing, in Qatamon that affected a great deal the loss of this neighborhood that people just left in droves because they were just so so worried about the safety of their children.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: And this was by the Haganah militia.

Mona Hajjar Halaby: Yeah. The Haganah primarily, and the Irgun also a little bit, but the Haganah paramilitary organization. So it was a very, very turbulent time. You know, young men like my older uncle, Dahoud, used to with his friends, you know, walk around the neighborhood in shifts at night just to make sure that there were no bombs placed around their houses. My mother wrote a letter thatI have in my book, and she describes how tense and hard that was. My mother’s other brother, the younger one was very stressed out, it was like PTSD every time he heard any noise, he thought it was an attack and he was, you know, struggling with that. It’s, it’s obviously a stressor. Very big one. And so my grandfather said to my mother, take your brother, Afif, the one who was suffering from PTSD, and go to Egypt to stay for a couple of weeks, something, until things calm down. And of course we know the story – things did not calm down, or did not allow Palestinian families, 750,000 plus, Palestinian families lost homes, property. My mother and her family did not own their home, but they lost their home and they lost all their belongings, the beautiful books, my grandfather was a scholar, and he had a lovely collection. And that collection is now at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, labeled “abandoned property.” But it wasn’t abandoned. You know, in my family’s case, in particular, the tragedy is that my uncle who was in the house, after the creation of the State of Israel, here remained there, my uncle died. And he was attacked basically by Israeli soldiers on the 22nd of May. So a week after the creation of the State of Israel, handcuffed, blindfolded and thrown into the back of a truck. His dog was killed in front of him. And he was taken to a labor camp in I believe, which is south of Haifa, for about a year, so he was missing for a year, which was very hard on my mother, and on my uncle, the other uncle and, and my grandfather. So sometimes people, you know, will say to me, Well, you left – as though it was something by choice. You know, we did not – the Palestinians did not leave by choice, either. They were terrified by the bombings and wanted to make sure their families were safe, or they were abducted like my uncle to vacate the neighborhood, all the other young men in the neighborhood had the same fate, they were also handcuffed and blindfolded and, and, you know, dragged out of their homes. So the story was very, very tragic for my mother’s family, and for so many Palestinians, so we’re not the only ones. The one thing I feel guilty about that – and I write about that in the book – is that my family was able to recover with, they did not have money, but they recovered because they had family and they knew people and had connections and my mother ended up meeting my father in Alexandria, marrying him. That’s, that’s why I was born there. So it, it makes me feel guilty that we have these advantages, which so many Palestinians did not have, and, and so many of them are spending not only their lives, but their children’s lives, their grandchildren’s lives, generation after generation now, 73 years of camps, refugee camps, which are overcrowded, poor, poor living conditions, the UN has schools in those camps and distributes humanitarian supplies, but it’s, it’s not life, you know, it’s, it’s almost like you’re living in limbo, and you’re constantly reminded of what was lost. And the younger generations want to return home because their parents, their grandparents, are telling them those stories, and I’m glad about that. And I feel guilty that I’m not there, you know, I have that guilt as well, that I’m – that I’m outside, but I realized that being outside means I have a responsibility to tell the story, and to educate people, and to help as much as I can, you know, through philanthropic organizations. So I have a responsibility, even if I’m not there in person.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Let’s talk about teaching in Palestine. And for full disclosure. I remember when you took your academic leave from Park Day School, because my own daughter was your student in third grade, just like a year or two after you came back. In your memoir, you have these extraordinary stories about some of your students who are navigating growing up under the thumb of colonialism and occupation. As a teacher, with everything you know about child development, talk about what your students experienced every day in Palestine and how that had shaped your work when you came back to Oakland.

Mona Hajjar Halaby: You know, I was expecting that the children at the Ramallah Friends School or in any part of the occupied, colonized parts of Palestine would be suffering from stressors. I did not know enough about the children in Darfur or in Kosovo or in you know, Africa and Congo, places where I know children suffered in militarized zones and in areas that are war-torn, so I did a lot of research. I read a lot of UNESCO reports on the well-being of children. Doctors Without Borders had also done a lot of work for counseling families in Gaza, especially, of course. And so I was preparing myself a little bit on how to handle that I knew from the director that she was concerned because her students were so impulsive, they were hyperactive, impulsive, they, they talked incessantly, they had a lot of fears. They were unable to focus in class. And so I saw all those symptoms, they were very, very, you know, flagrant to me, as a teacher who had been used to teaching in a more privileged part of the world, in a relatively safe part of the world In comparison, where children could go out the door and go to school, not fearing a bullet whizzing by them or, or an Israeli tank passing by. So, so when I went there, I saw that the children were suffering, and I saw how, you know, the city is, is under this false sense of safety, you know, you walk in Ramallah, you go to a cafe, you feel you have a chat with a friend, I, you, you have that, but then you have, you know, the jeeps with the soldiers passing by, sometimes they shoot people. And while I was there, a 16-year-old was shot in the street and killed. And there was a memorial on the sidewalk there, which reminded me every day of this innocent life that was taken just because he was standing on the sidewalk, so that must bring about for all children – when this boy died, we talked a lot about that, in those class meetings that I was having with the children, this sense of, you know, I can’t be safe, if I’m outside, I can’t be safe anywhere, you know, that the parents also are very, very attached to their children in a, in a healthy way, but also at sometimes in an unhealthy way. Because they’re, they’re not permitting their children to move on to the next stage of development to become more autonomous, because there is no way of controlling the environment and making sure that they’re safe. So it was clear to me that there was work to be done. And my work was limited, because I’m not a qualified psychotherapist, I, I know a lot about child development, and I understood, understand young children, but I, I knew that sometimes the issues were larger than what I could offer, that children and their families need, you know, some counseling and some support in ways that I could not provide. But we had a counselor at the Ramallah Friends School, which is a wonderful thing that this school has a full-time counselor, Adele, and she worked a great deal with me, we conducted class meetings together and she also provided children with what they call life skills, which are very good skills for critical thinking, making good choices, so on and so forth, which added to the conflict resolution, because the children would resort to fist fighting, and shoving and pushing when they could not communicate to the other, you know, their grievance. And I feel that a lot of it, of course, comes from frustration. They are very frustrated, but also from what they see on the news, what they see in the streets. So it was a challenging job, and I did the best I could, and they continue doing class meetings. So that makes me very happy that the seeds I planted are continuing to grow there. But there’s a limit to what we can do, you know, which, which was a hard lesson, you know, I also want to say that I was worried going there with my theories and my ideas because I wanted to be respectful of what was there I did not want to come, you know, like a colonial power, you know, trying to, to bring about change and meddling. So it’s a very, it’s a very risky thing when you go to help people in, in troubled areas, economically or politically. I went with the sense that I’m going to learn and grow a great deal from that experience. But I was also going to be respectful and, and not meddle in their ways but to offer possibilities and options and solutions that could help.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I want to talk a little bit about your mother and have you read a little bit from the book as well. But first, you took your mother back to Palestine at the very end of her life along with your husband, David, your father and other family members. It’s such a moving part of your book – so much had changed since she was a child in Jerusalem. And now you were able to be her guide, you talked about that, and bring her back to some of her roots there. Can you talk about that experience a little bit?

Mona Hajjar Halaby:Yes, it was a very, very moving experience for me, poignant too. Because I had so much wanted her to show me Jerusalem with her own eyes, you know, to take me to her home. And of course, the Old City had to remain the same. So she could take me to her grandmother’s house, my great-grandmother. And that was lovely. But West Jerusalem had changed a great deal now. And I was the one who was able to guide her. But she had given me very good instructions a few years prior on how to find her mother’s house, which had helped me and I write about that in the book. So I took her to her house. And she, you know, she amazed me, Nora, I thought you might become angry because you think about someone who returns to someplace that was taken away from her. But instead, she came with such an open heart that for her it was like meeting again an old friend she hadn’t seen for years. She was touching the stones, rubbing her hands on the stones on the outside of the house. You know, sliding her fingers down the wrought ironwork front of the windows, she stood there in front of the house and I asked to take her photograph. And to me that photograph which is in the book, and on my mantelpiece, she looks you know so much younger, you know than her age, she was 84. But the way she looks 20 years, 30 years younger, because she has this broad smile on her face. And her eyes are, you know glittering. So that was very, very moving. And so she was an amazing woman and I hope I’m half as half my mother’s you know, I have half of her humanity. I would be happy if I have half of that.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: And I would be happy if you had that house back.

Mona Hajjar Halaby: Yes, of course.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I would love for you to read some of your book. You know, just once again, just, you know the importance of oral and written history at the time of the deliberate destruction of Palestinian life, you know, around historic Palestine at that time and you know how you were able to weave your mother’s intricate, detailed stories of her childhood into what you were experiencing you know, just, what, 5, 6 decades later.

Mona Hajjar Halaby: Yes, I chose I thought a lot about what I wanted to read. And I think I wanted I wanted to read a piece that had to do with my arriving there and some of the shocks and the pleasures I had in being an ordinary Palestinian. It’s in the section called “An Ordinary Palestinian.” I quickly learned how to live the life of an ordinary Palestinian, buying my hot loaves of pita bread at the bakery down the street, a bar of olive oil soap at the corner market, or half a kilo of cucumbers from farmers in their traditional embroidered dresses, sitting with their woven baskets on the steps inside Damascus Gate. Living in Jerusalem meant being awakened at five in the morning by the loudspeakers atop the mosques, that emitted the languid, melodious call to prayers, and on Sunday mornings, like the joyful laughter of children, the medley of church bells. But the reality of living in Jerusalem also meant facing life under Israeli occupation. Crossing checkpoints, navigating the separation wall. Witnessing my people brutalized and dehumanized. My American passport was a source of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, it buffered me and gained me access to places not permitted to local Palestinians. But on the other hand, it separated me from the native population, hampering me from living as a true Palestinian. At times, I felt guilty for holding in my hands this little slim blue book, with its golden eagle embossed on the front, that allowed me many advantages. One day returning on the bus to Jerusalem from the village of Beit Jala, we were stopped at the checkpoint and asked to descend from the bus with our bags and belongings. We stood in a long line and watch the young blonde Israeli soldier, dark glasses shielding her face, her hair pulled back on their khaki military cap. She condescendingly snapped at the Palestinians in front of me while fingering the edges of their IDs with visible disgust, as though she feared some sort of contamination. When my turn came, she glanced at the cover of my blue American passport and didn’t even open it. With the same hard face, she asked me something in Hebrew. I grimaced and asked, What did you say? Where do you come from? she asked with a strong Eastern European accent. I’m from California. She waved me back and onto the bus, blindly honoring the US passport. How could it be easier for a US passport holder to travel around this land than someone whose whole family has lived here for generations? But the Palestinian spirit is resolute. Against all odds, the Palestinians have survived the occupation, and over 70 years of displacement and dispossession. They are not thriving. For who could thrive when a 20-foot concrete wall is erected outside your window, separating you from your crops and your family, let alone blocking your share of sunlight? And who could thrive when turned back from the checkpoint to enter Jerusalem for medical treatment. And who could thrive when your home is demolished in the middle of the night, and you are given only a half an hour’s notice to carry your sleeping children out of bed. The things we take for granted in America are things Palestinians have to fight for every day of their lives. Yet they continue to battle the injustices inflicted upon them in nonviolent ways. By getting up every morning to tend to their office jobs, their sheep, their olive trees, their students their patients. they line up for hours at Qalandiya checkpoint in Ramallah or Huwwara checkpoint in Nablus to be given permission to go about the daily business of living. They stand quietly and obediently at checkpoints that divide up their country into parcels while humiliated by young Israeli soldiers half their age. But Palestinians are strong and tough, like sabr, the cactus plant growing in their indigenous land and which mean also means, in Arabic, patience and endurance. Not only have they survived the ferocity of the occupation, but they have also done it with dignity and pride. They will not surrender their struggle for liberation.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Mona Hajjar Halaby is the author of In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home.

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).