Words That Have Haunted Me

I was a college sophomore when I signed up for a course in Middle East history at Rutgers University. The professor was a nice enough man, but one who was not willing to talk much outside of his lectures, or who stared blankly at you when you tried to extend a conversation started in class. He taught us the basics: the rise of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, the emergence of the Ottoman empire, the impact of World War II.

And then we got to Palestine.

This was most exciting to me – I was in this class to learn about my own history, beyond the stories my parents told me, beyond the West Bank village where we vacationed in the summer, beyond the yellowed photographs my mother kept in an album.

But the professor, standing behind his lectern, said, clearly, reading right from his notes, “There was no Palestine, and there were no Palestinians.”

I raised my hand to disagree. And my nineteen-year-old self said, “But I’m Palestinian – my parents came from Palestine.”

“No, no,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling, as if he were about to tell a little kid that Santa Claus didn’t really exist. “Your parents are actually Jordanian – the Palestinians didn’t have an identity until the Israel question arose.”

I protested further, but he needed to move on. The lecture had to be delivered. And of course, he wasn’t really willing to talk much after class. Attempting to engage him in future classes was useless – I realized quickly that I annoyed him.

But his words haunted me for a long time. I felt erased, not just by him, but by the whole of academia – he spoke in such an assured and confident tone: “There were no Palestinians.” As a first generation college student, who already felt out of place on a college campus in many ways, his words added to my feelings of inadequacy.

It was most devastating because it had always been difficult, as a Palestinian-American, growing up in the United States, to talk about my ethnicity. Most people didn’t really know what Palestine was, and it’s not like I could show it to them on a map. The people who did have a glimmer of what “Palestinian” meant usually also had some negative associations with the term: terrorism, bombs, oppressed women. Those were the people who typically looked twice at me and said, “I would have never guessed you were Palestinian,” as if I were somehow the exception.

There have been other troubling words.

During a conversation about our parents, a good friend of mine once casually asked, “Aren’t Arab fathers very controlling of their daughters, and just… you know… dominating?”

Once, someone asked me “Did you convert?” when learning that my family is Christian, and then shrugged and said, “Oh right,” when I reminded them Jesus Christ was born in Palestine.

There have been comments expressing shock that my mother worked. That my father was a really nice guy. The earnest advice to “please be careful” when learning I was about to travel to the Middle East. The references to “over there.”

These words, small as they are, haunt me.

They are the outgrowth of the deeply entrenched myth in the Western mindset that Palestine was a desert, uninhabited, uncultivated, just waiting for someone to come along and make it bloom. That the Arabs who were there were a backwards people, who didn’t value life, who adhered to old, barbaric codes of living.

There have been other words, from historic figures, that have haunted me. Golda Meir’s famous comments that “There were no Palestinians…. They simply didn’t exist,” confirmed the fable that Palestinian was a made-up identity, conjured up for political purposes. Then there is her often quoted “There will be peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us,” which is horrifyingly racist.

Last week, my book, A Curious Land, was finally published. When I initially set out to write it, eight years ago, I tried to simply tell some good stories. As I created the characters and wrote the individual stories, as I wove them together, I realized that I was speaking back to the words that had haunted me for so long.

I was testifying to the existence of the Palestinian people, in Palestine, over the course of a century.

In contrast to what Golda Meir said decades ago, there will be peace only when we all learn to listen to one another’s stories and to acknowledge one another’s victories, defeats, and struggles. Words can haunt you, or they can put you in a place where you can willingly understand.