I don’t feel a sense of belonging in the place where I was born. I want to live in a place where my right to vote is not seen as a threat to the regime, where my ethnicity doesn’t hold me back and where my language is not a barrier. One day I will leave, but it won’t be by choice.
By Somow Younis
Another weekend approaches and I’m packing my suitcase to go north from Jerusalem to visit my parents. It’s become my tradition, every week since I moved out of the house, only this time the process of folding clothes and packing my suitcases is accompanied by a strange fear, brought on by thoughts that still linger, which I’m not sure will ever stop.
I’ve written a few articles based on personal experiences. One article discussed the racism prevailing in Israeli sports, another discussed patterns in Palestinian society in Israel regarding educated youth and my own uncertainties on the matter, and another article discussed the under-representation of women in recent elections. And now, as I write these very words, my soul is in distress. Racism, uncertainty and dreams, the oppression of women — those are the main ingredients of my existence.
I go back to packing my bags. There have been more suitcases in past visits. There is more in my bags this time than just the clothes for my mother to wash. There is more than just the empty containers, to be filled with
tasty food over the weekend, like everything that leaves behind an emptiness in its absence, filled in due course by somebody else.
I hit the road at the dizzying pace that things happen in this country I live in, in every sense of the word. Nevertheless, I need a break, to disconnect for a week, at least. For the next week I won’t have to deal with politics or the occupation or ethnic-based oppression.
I sit down on the bed, my eyes find a photo on the wall, a photo of bicycles in Amsterdam, a photo that induces a sense of serenity. As the calm fades I sigh and wonder: could you take a photograph in Israel — even by the best photographer in the world, with the most advanced equipment — that gives one such a good feeling? Thoughts like these race through my head, quietly. But the answer comes out loud and I find myself saying “no” — unequivocally.
I drive toward my village. I don’t get caught in any traffic despite the fact that it is the middle of the Passover holiday, and I get home. I arrive to a warm reception — the voice of the Muezzin calling people to Friday prayers, and the neighbor is making a celebratory holiday lunch. Suddenly, I can articulate my feeling: I don’t feel at home, not even in my natural environment.
Two weeks have now passed and the thoughts of emigrating haven’t gone away. What’s keeping me here? And what is home for me? There are some things that sound trivial at first, but they are far from trivial.
For a homeless person — home is a place to live. For an animal home is a place in which to feel safe, and for a chauvinistic man home is defined as the place in which his rules implemented without challenge. In the movies home is always portrayed as a place where one’s childhood experience takes place. And for me?
So far in my adult life I’ve searched for a sense of belonging by attempting to rule places out: in my childhood village of Arara, in Haifa, in Tel Aviv, and most recently, in Jerusalem. One feeling has followed me to all of those places — being foreign. The sense of foreignness penetrates and permeates inside of me and I fight it in my daily battle for survival. What does it mean to feel like you belong? Is belonging the diametric opposite of foreignness or is it relative? Am I not supposed to feel a sense of belonging in my most familiar and natural environment? And what is there to guarantee that if I do emigrate that I won’t feel foreign wherever I end up?
In all of the commotion inside my head came the idea of immigrating to a place where the content of the education system represents me, a place where realizing my democratic right to vote is not defined as a threat to the regime, where my economic situation is not dependent on the generosity of my parents, where no social pattern dictates my life path, where my ethnicity doesn’t hold me back and my language is not a barrier. I thought about all of that, but the consciousness of our Palestinian narrative hit me.
For Palestinians in Israel the context of emigration is tied to the experience of the Nakba and the occupation, that in 1948 Palestinians were expelled, fled, and were persecuted until they “emigrated.” Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are refugees in Arab countries, tens of thousands more internally displaced inside the State of Israel, and there are those who to this day still live in refugee camps. A state was established on their land, which will mark 67 years of independence this week.
Emigration by young Palestinians is often seen as conceding the land and giving in to the difficulties that living in this country entails. It is seen as a repeat of that which took place 67 years ago and the emigrants are labeled as ungrateful. They are not staying on their grandfathers’ land, the same land that refugees dream of just stepping foot on, and they are doing so “willingly.”
I sigh and I ponder. One can’t speak about the Nakba in the past tense. It is ongoing and continues. There it is, I’m done. Lightyears separate reality and my dreams of being recognized as an ethnic majority in a state that defines itself first and foremost as a nation-state, dreams of being granted full cultural autonomy, of realizing even the simplest dreams, without obstacles and limitations.
The choice in emigration is not one of free will. It is a compelled decision, borne of feelings of societal alienation and not belonging, of physically being in the present while you think of the past and dream of the future. It is longing for a different reality when deep down inside ourselves we know our world will never change, and yet we continue struggling, each in his/her own way with the tools available to us.
And me, at the intersection of the individual and the national, of free will and collective experience, of being stuck and being liberated, daydream of a plane ticket and think to myself — the day will come when I hold a one-way ticket in my hand.
Somow Younis is a lawyer and social activist. This article was first published in Hebrew on our Hebrew site, Local Call. Read the original version here.