There is a whiff of indifference, or so I interpret it, that I never failed to notice since I came to live here, in London. Unlike in Gaza, where I used to get annoyed at people’s endless interest in who is doing what and who is in love and getting married to who, here nobody seems to take notice of anybody. But every time I call my grandmother, she lists the names of my friends who have recently gotten engaged or married then, once she has noticed my disinterest in the subject, she, to my great irritation, asks me when “my turn” will come, to which I reply: “forget about me.”
My grandmother aside, Gaza’s hold on me remains so tight that, sometimes, I wish I could disentangle myself from it and pretend to be something else so as to avoid a series of inquiries and remarks that oftentimes impose themselves the minute I identify myself as “from Gaza,” an identification I am not particularly fond of anyway. One remark, which I have heard time and again, is that I, for a reason I still cannot fathom, “don’t look like someone from Gaza.” Perhaps I should have put on tattered clothes to satisfy their charitable kind souls, or a face veil to fulfill an Orientalist fantasy.
Another remark, however, manifests itself in a gasp, then a shocked, even melancholic, facial expression which almost prompts me to punch the person right in the face, but then I would perhaps “verify” another stereotype: violent. Gaza, it seems, has metamorphosed into a tight-knit set of representations which, when I hear people talk through them, wonder if their Gaza is the same coastal enclave as the one in which I was born and have lived for more than two decades. I try to avoid these remarks by attaching myself to the entirety of Palestine, but then the inquirer follows up with: “whereabout in Palestine?”
As such, Gaza is not only represented in the normative sense of the word, it is, so to speak, re-presented, or staged, through action and speech; linguistically, the terms employed by certain — not all — student activist groups is often embroiled in a discourse of humanitarianism which, if anything, deprives us of the dignity of our struggle as a people living under a foreign colonial rule in an allegedly post-colonial world. This language, I was told once, appeals to a larger number of people who do not necessarily “like” politics. Gaza, therefore, is staged through speech, and this speech envelops many of the campaigns which call for de-contextualized rights of a de-contextualized, “ahistorical” people, ourselves.
Ourselves, I say, but in class, when the discussions happened to be on Palestine, I constantly lost control over pronouns; we in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and 1948-occupied Palestine (modern-day Israel) or they? I was often trapped in this dichotomy, unable to negotiate my way between a people to whom I belong, hence the we, and experiences I hardly know anything about, thus the they, for I always find myself in no position to either represent or re-present those experiences.
This inner fragmentation, the state of simultaneously being inside and outside, neither one thing nor the other, which I had to confront — and failed to as I teetered between we and they in the same breath — each time I spoke about Palestine, struck me as a linguistic manifestation of Israel’s colonial policy of structural geopolitical and social separation between and among the same people, us.
Paradoxically, however, these experiences imbue me with an opportunity to tuck myself into the folds of similar experiences written about by former, and current, Palestinian writers and academics such as Ghada Karmi who, in her fascinating memoir In Search of Fatima, recounts how when she first came to London people would mishear Palestine as Pakistan, a “mishearing” to which I was twice exposed since I came here.
Or perhaps I should recount what happened when I tried to open a bank account at a “student-friendly” bank here; a woman, in a formal outfit, perplexed, held my passport in her hand, then flipped through it before she flipped back to the first page and pressed some buttons on the keyboard. “I have never seen such passport before,” she finally remarked. “This,” I said, “is a Palestinian passport, for people who live in Palestine.” The woman looked into the passport again, raised her eyes, looked at me, back into the passport, and, in disbelief, mumbled: “Where is Palestine? I have never heard…” Here, of course, I had to unsettle the balance of the conversation.
I was, after all, not only sick of my passport, for this goes without saying, but utterly fed up with people in formal suits brandishing my passport or passing it to a colleague of theirs to “double check” as if all I ever was, am, is my passport. “Have you ever heard of Israel?” I inquired, quite demandingly. “Yes!” she replied, her face finally opening up at the prospect of having solved the puzzle. “Palestine,” I quipped, “is the country that is occupied by Israel.” “Ah!” she announced, “one second!” The woman disappeared into a colleague or manager’s office for about find minutes and, when she came back, still looking into the passport, there was another problem: “We don’t know whether this is a passport or a travel document, so we need to call the consulate which stamped your visa.”
That day, it took her three hours to open a bank account for me. When I walked out, escorted by a clerk with a special permission for me to leave (the woman worked overtime, well after the bank officially closed), I couldn’t help but think, once again, about Ghada Karmi who, expelled from Jerusalem in 1948, had to be registered at the “Aliens’ Registration Office” every year before she was naturalized in Britain. These parallels, distant in time and space as they may sound, are where I, at least, can connect, find a solace, though not accept.