So what if we didn’t liberate Palestine on our rain-soaked March of Return? Each and every one of us got a little taste of what life was like for our forefathers in 1948.
There is no doubt that this year’s “March of Return” was the most difficult, physically and mentally, of these past years. The inclement weather forecasts did not deter thousands from coming to Hadatha, a small village located on the road between Kfar Tavor and Tiberias.
We decided to leave early, after last year’s march in Lubya, when we were stuck in traffic for three hours right outside the entrance. This time the bus that drove 55 women and children (and one man) made it two hours before the march began. Some of us came equipped with warm clothes, others not so much. Sometimes there was rain, sometimes there wasn’t. A strong wind wind blew through everything that moved in the wheat fields at the top of the hill.
When we arrived, the women asked to pick almonds on the way from the almond grove that “belongs” to the Jewish moshav of Sarona. But we decided to restrain our authentic, natural Arab urges to pick.
One girl, who became excited after seeing a manmade irrigation pool and was sure of her geographical knowledge, told the bus that we had arrived at the Sea of Galilee, causing the children to rejoice. I calmed them down and told them that the Sea of Galilee is actually on the lefthand side and quite far away, and that the irrigation pools are probably full of rainwater. And just like that, the children’s wet dream of a trip to the Sea of Galilee disappeared.
We continued to climb toward the meeting point. We spent the journey singing “Mawtini” (“My Homeland”) and other patriotic Palestinian songs. At a certain point the children got tired of singing depressing songs and answering pop quiz questions on destroyed villages, and decided to lead the entertainment program. My son Adam embarrassed me by telling a dirty joke into the microphone — everyone, of course, laughed at me. One of the women called out from the back: “With all of your protests and work, look at what your son is learning at the bi-lingual bi-national school of yours. And yet you still pay them.” Of course, the kids from Lyd (Lod in Hebrew) came back full force with their own dirty jokes. Thank God everybody is receiving the same screwed up education here.
When we reached the top, we ate all the food in our bags and began buying all the food that was offered at the different stands. Some of the children stood in line for face-painting: a Palestinian flag on one side, and a key of return on the other. A young girl asked for a butterfly — her mother said no, “Only a Palestinian flag.” As per usual I intervened in others’ affairs and suggested I draw a butterfly in the colors of the flag.
The wind picked up as the march began, the sky darkened and holding the flags in place became a challenging mission. The enormous Palestinian flag, which we received from the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee in Bil’in, was barely held by dozens of people. We began to walk toward the starting point of the march when it began to pour.
With chants of encouragement, we continued to march despite the rain. Children his under the giant flag and the mud made our shoes heavy. Our chants were mixed with jokes about how the rain ruined our hair, or how we would look on Facebook. I decided to go the route of emotional manipulation and told the complainers: “Think about what our grandparents went through when they were uprooted from their villages, they marched entire days without food or water and with children on their arms. This is our opportunity to feel what it was like in 1948, and we are complaining about our hair and some rain. How can we return without feeling what the refugees went through?”
My emotional blackmail worked for a short while, until another heavy downpour forced us to pack up our things and run for shelter. Some went back to the buses, while others ran to the tents of the bazaar, where books and photographs were being sold. Most people, myself included, were stuck outside until the rain ended. Frazzled, freezing and wet, we made it to the main stage.
The big topic of discussion between members of the crowd was around whether “to go home and give in to nature, since it chases us Palestinians even on the one day of the year when we feel we have an identity, a flag and a struggle, or should we remain and never give up our right to return and our right to the land.” A teenage girl wrapped in a flag begged her father to go home: “We aren’t giving up on the land. It is just very cold here, and there is no shopping or crafts bazaar this year.” “We aren’t going until it’s over,” her father responded, “go buy yourself some mankusha (pita bread with za’atar) near the oven. It is warmer there.”
The weather calmed down a bit. Hundreds of dry people made their way to the stage, and the festival began with a minute-long silence honoring the victims of the 1948 war, as well those who are dying in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. And then our un-official national anthem:
“My homeland, my homeland
Glory and beauty, sublimity and splendor
Are in your hills, are in your hills”
This year, the festival included an induction ceremony in which we swore never to give up on either the right of return, or justice for the Palestinian people. The idea was probably intended for all those who are thinking about conceding on the issue of the refugees. The ceremony was especially poignant for me during these days when a real solution for the Palestinian refugees in Syria is more necessary than ever.
The cultural programming of singing, dabka and speeches continued as I searched for the women who were supposed to go back with us on the bus. The mission was completed after an hour, apart from one woman with whom we lost touch. Like many others I had no phone reception or internet connection as I searched for her. The only man on the bus also joined my mission, and we called her name on the microphone. Still, we couldn’t find her. The searches lasted for two hours, and the bus driver became angry, as did I. Everything was being packed up as I kept searching for the lost woman.
I was reminded of my grandmother who lost her two daughters after they went with their grandfather and disappeared for four months during the Nakba. The story of the lost aunts is well-known in my family. Ever since the Nakba, they don’t eat figs or prickly pears, since that is all their grandfather fed them during those months in the mountains. The aunts were found in serious condition, but still alive. The woman from Lyd was also found: I retuned to the bus only to find out that she took a trip through the peach orchard with a group of people who took a shortcut to the buses.
But the march couldn’t end without a big drama at the gas station close to Hadatha. We stopped in Kafr Kama, when all of a sudden my women’s coordinator fainted. We were lucky that there were two young men in line who identified as “life savers” and another woman who called her father, who is a doctor (“He’s a diabetes expert,” she declared proudly) who guided her over the phone on how to treat the diabetic woman who fainted. I failed in my life-saving mission and began panicking. The bit where I began searching and yelling that I can’t find a sugar-detector in my bag (there is no such thing) turned into a running joke on the bus ride home.
I sat in the front seat next to the driver, with my energy levels nearing zero and my optimism below the red line, and listened to the women try to summarize the difficult experience. The more optimistic ones said that we went through a lot today, which only teaches us how difficult it was in 1948, which will teach our children a lot. There were other women who said that after today, they will never take part in marches and protests.
That’s when a 12-year-old daughter of one of the women came up to me and said: “Isn’t it true that you said this trip was in order to liberate Palestine?” “Yes,” I responded with a weary smile. “Nothing happened! We didn’t liberate Palestine, nothing changed!” she shouted. Her painful honesty nearly brought me to tears, but I remained silent. And then the driver, who hadn’t spoken for 10 hours, surprised me and told the girl: “Does adding a drop of water to the sea do anything?”
“No!” she responded.
“But you know that it’s there, right? That’s what it’s like. A drop and then another drop. Every year we learn and do more. The drops accumulate and then you’ll see the difference.”
I’m not sure the girl understood the metaphor, but I appreciated the driver’s awareness. I decided to take advantage of the moment, in which he felt that he belonged to his people, and ask for a large discount on the cost of the buses. It was my only success the entire day.
Samah Salaime is a social worker, a director of AWC (Arab Women in the Center) in Lod/Lyd and a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. She is a blogger for our Hebrew-language sister-site, Local Call, where this article was first published. Read it in Hebrew here.