Mar 23, 2006

To be a Palestinian

I was born in the suburbs of Akka, in a house built by my grandfather right before his wedding in 1940. Outside the house lies our orange farm, and further down is grand-uncle's. While working as a child in collecting oranges from our own farm, I loved playing at my uncle's. His farm sat at the feet of a moderate hill in the shape of a crescent. At the edge of the land stood my grand-uncle’s house, right on the road that led to the downtown. Behind the house was a small olive garden. The trees there are very old. My grandfather told me once that the first of the Arrabis, Sa'eed, who moved from Arrabah village to Akka around 1700, is the one who planted them. Sa'eed worked with Al-Ardah family, the ruling family in Arrabah, the capital of the Ottoman area of Jineen and the towns around it. He came to Akka to start a new life as a farmer. But it's said that towards the end of his life, he became a sea-trader. He loved to sail in the Mediterranean.

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.

Muhammad Arrabi

Special thanks to Hala Khalaf and Jennifer Hamdi for great feedback and suggestions to refine the piece (4-23-2006).


  1. Arrabi, that is absolutely beautiful. Kudos.

  2. Good job arrabi.

  3. Wonderfully written Arrabi.But its our quest to insure that not to continue, not to take it as our fate but as a situation:)

    The smallest actions form the largest with time...

    فلسطين ليست بعيدة,بل هي بمسافة الثورة

  4. I loved it...amazing...especially this sentenc..."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 inhibit it"
    you explained exactly how I feel...cheers!

  5. Thanks Roba & Hamede for your nice words. Lulwa, glad you liked that sentence. It's inspired in part by Hasan Fathy (the famous egyptian architect). Maybe I should write about him one time.

    Thanks Ohoud. I wrote this a while ago and have been fixing it at times. I've been thinking about the next question "where from now?" - a lot on the lines of what you're saying. It's not easy - how can one rebuild a missing culture. And the tstate of even other Arab countries is not that much better in this regard. Every now and then you meet people who are truly creative and trying to rebuild out missing civilization. Very inspiring but is this the solution? or is there more to do?

  6. Ya Salaam Ya Abu 7maid. this a wonderful playing of the Palestinian blues.

    I personally I call this the Palestinian Phoenix. No matter how old time grows, how far we travel, how busy we get in this life, we reserect time and time again to proclaim in our Palestinian voice that we are Palestinians.

    I pitty our enemy for we never forget. We will teach it to our kids just like our parents taught it to us. And remember that the fight is not so that we return, it is so that Palestine returns.

  7. Beautiful essay Muhammad. A few thoughts:

    For most of the last, say, three thousand years, for many of the humans living in Europe, Asia, and the middle east, I'm sure there was a comforting normalcy -- a daily and yearly rhythm of being surrounded by the ongoing expression of an ancient culture. A feeling of place and family that comes from knowing that your ancestors trod upon the same streets as your descendants will.

    That rhythm is surely still a part of the lives of many people, but it's far from the norm in many parts of the world. The immense diasporas of the last few hundred years have made new norms. There are now more people of Irish descent in the United States than there are in Ireland! Almost no one I know here in Seattle was born here.

    To be disconnected from your past and mixed in amongst a vast crowd of similarly disconnected people is a pretty odd situation, compared to how most of civilized humanity has lived.

    And I agree that indeed, something is lost, something important and precious, and it is worth striving to achieve that sense of place and community and culture and belonging.

    However, it's also worth remembering that the counterfactual past which you're justifiably nostalgic about isn't all sunshine on roses either. Yes, having a shared sense of culture and community and history is deeply important to humans. But you don't need me to tell you what horrors have been wrought by all sides when various groups each firmly believe they have exclusive claim on the streets trod by their ancestors.

    My ancestors who came to Canada seven generations ago gave up their traditions and their ancestral homeland and their sense of place in exchange for something else of value: the freedom to choose to live how they wanted, where they wanted, without any of the old class structure that ensured that a cobbler's son would always be a cobbler himself. I am personally very thankful to have been given the opportunity to leave my home and come here and form a new urban family, a new tribe of my own, new traditions, new culture. It's exciting and fresh and difficult, but worth it.

    So I don't see myself as a lone flower in a vase, cut off from being rooted in the wild soil in which my ancestor flowers grew and died. If I'm going to apply this metaphor to my life, it's more like being in a pot containing growing flowers from all over the world, each contributing their own colour and shape to the whole. And that's maybe not "normal", but it's the way of this modern world.

  8. Beautifully put Eric. You can see right through me. This is a concern I had while writing the post - that for most people in the US & Canada, this "diaspora" is really the norm. And good point - if I've lived in that world I would have certainly had thing that I wish were different.

    But, at the same time, all of civilized humanity lives on the legacy of past generations. I wouldn't be typing on a computer if Franklin didn't theoritize about electricity 250 years ago. Humanity is connected through time.

    What might be different for palestinians, is that they lost the cultural connection forcefully and abruptly. It was not their choice to move to a new place to have a fresh hopefuly beginning. They were forced to leave and start from close-to-zero in the refugee camps.

    Even as an Arab (or a third world citizen), it's different. The cultural change we see is more of a leftover of the first world rather than a conscious decision that we've made.

    That requires another post... maybe sometime soon.

    By the way, I thought you would use the second image: "we are really like hobits living in a world where elfs, humans, dwarfs, and many other races share and intermarry" :-)

  9. to Anonymous (Mr. M B)
    I appreciate your encouraging words. And yes indeed, it's about Palestine to return.

  10. I can't describe how you touched me, splendid! I almost smelled Jerusalem from the words...

    when ever I hear such words, I just know how soon the day is.
    O Palestine, we'll march back...

  11. OmAr,
    thanks for the nice words. inshallah...

  12. Arrabi, I know I'm commenting on a post that's almost a month old now, but I just came across it, and you have no idea how it touched me. It's like you put words to a feeling that is lying dormant within me - within us - and I didn't even know about it.

    I copied and pasted your words and saved them onto my computer - such a beautiful story, and I'm going to share it as much as I can, whenever the opportunity will arise. No one could have put it any better. Thank you.