For more reasons than I care to list, it has been many months since I’ve written. It has been easier and yet somehow simultaneously more exhausting to let others write than add my own voice, aside from a sprinkling of quotes or an interview for the news cycle.
I did write a personal reflection that many friends called a piercing mini-memoir on the past months since Israel denied me entry to the West Bank, where I had been living and teaching. However, upon my return to the US, it has become increasingly clear to me that even the honesty of that piece barely scratches the surface of the impact my entry denial and potential ban has had and will continue to have on me, and the effect said denials and bans have on us as a larger community already in exile.
It is a bizarre thing to have such difficulty conveying an emotion that so many know so well and that your entire community understands or has experienced in some form and in varying degrees. One would think that our immense shared trauma of countless exiles, generation after generation, would have given us a mastered lexicon with which to describe our losses. And yet, here I am, like a kid with a K’Nex challenge, overwhelmed by options and scrambling for a masterful combination of pieces – I find myself lost in an abundant lexicon of familiar stories and struggling to find a way to tell my own.
We Palestinians have a tendency to neglect owning our stories when we tell them. Perhaps it is because we are raised to believe our stories belong to each other, not just ourselves.
When we’re young, we mostly listen, but it’s not long before we learn how to share. We become storytellers first for our elders, sharing their stories with our siblings, cousins and peers. And here the vastness of our mental library grows. The stories we tell become community property.
Inheritance and distance
But because a part of us always sees them as not directly our stories, because they are lived through inheritance and not immediate experience (or so we think), we tell them with distance. The stories become filled with dates, historical references, international agreements, side stories of political contextualization, and so on. For as much as we might see every story as our own, we ultimately completely remove ourselves and the impact of these stories on our own lives when we share them with others.
For some of us, this never changes. For others, there is a moment when we become storytellers, no longer only for our elders, but also for ourselves. This moment is not about some traumatic rupture, though it surely can be for some. Instead, it is a moment when we realize we are a vibrant part of a living history.
A friend recently wrote beautifully on the importance of oral history, an essential lesson to be sure. Though I think in addition to an insistence of the “unofficial” as sufficient, more and more, we must actively encourage ourselves and our children to insert our own voices as an equally important part of the story.
Before I ever stepped into a classroom to teach, I worked on an oral history curriculum project, brainstorming techniques for Palestinian teachers to present the Nakba as a lived and living event for Palestinian students, as opposed to a series of UN resolutions and merged stories of refugee-dom.
When I became a teacher, I tried my best to encourage my students to find their voices in every story and every news headline. I hope that in time they find a way to incorporate “Miss Nour’s story” as a part of their own worthy addition to our community property, not as a reference to a teacher they once knew – but as an experience they too lived.
Shared stories, shared struggles
In many ways, our stories will always belong to each other. We, like our stories, find strength in our shared struggles. Though our struggles are diverse and at times overwhelming in difference or degree of heartbreak, we should not shy away from adding our own voices to the stories we tell.
My exile is made up now of more than my father’s march from Isdoud to Gaza, or my mother’s birth in Rafah. It will forever be those things first, but it is also my time at the border, my denial stamps in my passport, my mug shot, my detention, my irrational guilt for letting myself travel, my shame at letting them see me cry at the very end, and my return to a home in the US that will now always feel a little more out of place than it already did.
Owning our stories, inserting our voices into the larger narrative, is not simply about strengthening the vastness of the library of stories we built as children.
In the process of finding the words we want to contribute, we are also empowered to speak. Yes, we speak out against the injustices we endure and witness, but much more importantly, we speak to each other. And when we do that, we feed an immense potential for empowering one another’s actions, as well as voices.