In the summer after I have graduated from elementary school, my father took me in a special visit to the city. As we drove downtown, we passed by several Arrabi farms on the way. About half of the Arrabis lived in the suburbs, but then the other half preferred city life. In the downtown, we made a stop at the Jazzar mosque, and then we entered an old office next to it to pay our respects to Shiekh Khalil Arrabi, the eldest and the guardian of the Arrabis in Akka. I remember meeting some of my distant cousins there; couple of them worked as lawyers; one had just come back from France at the time where he had gotten his diploma. And over there, my father introduced me to his brother-in-law, the principal of the secondary school of Akka, where I would be spending the next 4 years of my life.
Later that summer, I went with my mother to visit her family in Jerusalem. My mother's family, Khalidi, is well established in that great, ancient city. My great uncle, Rohi Khalidi, was one of the few Palestinian delegates in Istanbul, and later the Ottoman ambassador to France. Right next to Al-Aqsa, we visited the Khalidi public library. On a wall in the library, the big Khalidi family tree is carved. The tree extends all the way back to Khaled bin Al-Waleed. Apparently one of his grandsons fell in love with Palestine and stayed here.
In that visit, I met one of my uncles, Natheef, a political activist and the current principal of the Arab Teachers College in Jerusalem, which is the first higher-education institute in Palestine. He suggested that I should go to college in France. He assured me that my uncle Ibrahim over there would help me out. I've never met my uncle Ibrahim, but I know one of his sons. He has immigrated to France a long time ago. I understand he helps many Khalidis go to France to study there. He also said that I may come to Jerusalem to work with him in future summers - maybe learn the Khalidi secrets of trade in politics.
This my life that I have never lived; my great grandfather's olive trees that I've never seen; the oranges I've never collected; the uncles I've never met; the family houses I've never lived in; the ancestors' manuscripts I've never read; the family tree I've never extended; the family entity I've never been part of; the real Palestinian I've never been.
Instead, I am the first Arrabi to be born in the Arab Gulf. The Arrabi dwelling around me was that temporary, British-style, copy-and-paste, house loaned to my grandfather for working at the Kuwait Oil Company. The Arrabi extended family is my grandfather and his sons and grandsons. The oranges are a bedtime story my grandmother would tell before sleep. The family tree wall is a vague myth. Walking down the street to my elementary school, attending my classes, accepting academic awards, fighting during break-time and defending my little brother: I was creating the history of the Arrabis in Abu-Hulaifah. I was striding down new territory no Arrabi had walked before. There were no 'secrets of trade' to be learned, but I was creating them as I went along, for future generations, possibly my to-be nephews. Nothing seemed familiar in that part of land; it was familiar to me as a person, but not to me as a continuation of the legacy of brave men, the long chain of fathers and sons who lived and roamed in our lands.
Nonetheless, I did feel home neighboring the waters of the gulf. The view of the blue sea and the mixed nature of its sand, the smell of seaweed and taste of salty water, that big encompassing body provided me with a connection back to my family. It showed me the common bond between Sa'eed, the first of the Arrabis in Akka, and me, the first of the Arrabis in Kuwait.
Being a Palestinian is like being a budding flower in a jar on the dinner table. You think that it's normal to live as you are living. You think all flowers, just like you, must be growing up on a table surrounded by other creatures going about their daily lives. But one day, while the wooden table is being cleaned and polished, you are put by the window. You look outside, and low and behold, you see fields of flowers. You discover that what you have taken as granted all your life is, in fact, a state of abnormality. You see the flowers in their real life cycle of summer and winter, water and sun, insects and animals, and of course other flowers. You see the old tall sun flowers. You see the new young seeds flying around. But then you look down, and you see the jar you are in, and you realize you will never be able to jump out the window.
To be a Palestinian is to be a Hobbit living on Earth. You have read of the Shire in The Three Books, but you know you will never be able to go there. At times, when multitudes of your Hobbit relatives gather in one place, you sense an emerging unique dynamic of relationships and behavior. You feel that a micro-universe has been created in that exact place, at that exact moment. But soon, reality sets in as soon as the group disbands, leaving you with a glimpse of the Shire and an unfulfilled longing for a place you're not even sure of; a place that might no longer even exist.
To be normal is to be born into the legacy of your people.
To be normal is to be part of history, the bridge between what has come and what will come.
To be normal is to realize the bigger picture, the pattern of humanity, and to carry on your role in that picture.
To be normal is to have relatives, to walk down the street to factories built by your grandfathers, to see art by your ancestors, to live in a house that has evolved from the Earth it stands on and the souls that inhabit it – not mere, mass-produced cubicles of cement, steel and glass.
To be a Palestinian…
To be a Palestinian is to live thinking you are normal, when in reality you are not.
Special thanks to Hala Khalaf and Jennifer Hamdi for great feedback and suggestions to refine the piece (4-23-2006).