Far from Palestine’s sea

The Mediterranean Sea at sunset in Jaffa, March 2008. (Diana Buttu)


In September 2000, I decided to do my part to bring peace to the Middle East. As a Canadian attorney of Palestinian origin, I believed I could use my legal skills to help broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Naive? Perhaps.

I left my comfortable life in California and moved to the West Bank. Moving there was not easy: I did not know what life is like under military rule. My Western upbringing left me unprepared for life without freedom. Seven years later, I am still not used to it.

As a lawyer for the Palestinian peace negotiating team, I met presidents, prime ministers, Nobel laureates, secretaries of state and other important figures. But none of these individuals hit me with the same emotional wallop as a young woman named Majda.

Like me, Majda is in her thirties. Like me, she enjoys classical music, theater and books. But unlike me, Majda has never lived a day as a free human being, for she was born Palestinian in the Israeli-dominated West Bank.

One day, Majda approached me saying: “Ms. Buttu, my son does not believe that Palestine is on the sea. He has never seen it and no matter how many times I tell him, he doesn’t believe me. You are allowed to travel. Please, take some pictures of the sea. I need my son to know that Palestine is bigger than just our town and a few checkpoints.” I took the camera in disbelief: Majda lived less than 10 miles from the sea.

“Have you been to the sea, Majda?” I asked.

“No. I have made requests to the Israeli authorities, but they have always been denied.”

I traveled that weekend to the sea with Majda’s camera. As I looked around, I tried to make sense of her life. How is it possible that a young woman has never been to the sea? How is it possible that I, a Canadian, can see Palestine and yet a Palestinian cannot?

As I took the photos, I faced a dilemma: Should the pictures include children? If they include children, will her son feel deprived? In the end, I took 30 photos. Most of them were out of focus as the tears streamed down my face. The next week I handed a smiling Majda her camera.

“Thanks, Ms. Buttu. My son will be so happy!”

My once-naivete has since been replaced by realism: Peace will never come to this region until the Palestinians are granted their freedom. It has been just more than 40 years since the start of Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians. Every day I wonder whether Majda and her son will ever enjoy a day of freedom — or even visit the sea.

I believe, deeply believe, that Palestinians and Jews ought to be equals in this holy land. I believe more Americans would act on behalf of Palestinians if they were aware of discriminatory Israeli policies. I believe the inability of Majda’s son to travel to the sea in his homeland smacks of Jim Crow and apartheid and that it is in everybody’s interest to right this wrong without further delay. This, I believe.

Diana Buttu is a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer residing in Ramallah, Palestine. From 2000 to 2005 she served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team. This piece originally appeared on National Public Radio’s This I Believe website and is republished with the author’s permission.