Thursday, October 29, 2015

How to shit on a refugee's dream of return

A phony sliver of Israel's Haifa [Alsaafin/November 2012]

I met a man the other day, a friend of a friend who was sitting at the next table. He’s from a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, and came to London a few years ago to finish his postgraduate degree. He sought asylum after he completed his degree and then later began working. In two years time he will get UK citizenship, and he plans on going to Haifa, where he’s originally from.

He said all of this in a semi-eager, semi-bashful way. 

I couldn’t stop myself. I snorted.

He looked at me, politely puzzled by my reaction. I closed my eyes, mortified since I thought my expression of derisiveness was safe inside my own head. I breathed deeply, and opened my eyes again. I apologized.

“It’s just…I didn’t like Haifa,” I said somewhat lamely. “I’m sorry I’m probably ruining your lifelong dream to return, but I just can’t bear to see how refugees romanticize their hometowns, villages and cities that their grandparents were kicked out from.”

I felt like a dick as soon as the words tumbled from my mouth. The grimace on my face was actually self-disgust. How could I say that? From generation to generation, refugees confidently answer the question of where they are from with the names of places they have never seen before, and only know about them by word of mouth, and here I was, telling this man his city is not worth it.

Here's a research topic for those students, one that's been milked enough to shriveldom. Oral history and the importance of memory. Memory and remembrance. Identity and oral history. Refugees, remembrance, oral history, identity and-oh please, enough. Less words, more action. And here was a guy I met ten minutes ago, who was planning on doing just that, fulfilling a dream, a quest, a point to drive home-he's returning goddammit-and I was shitting all over his face.

His expression remained neutral, friendly even. 

“Actually, I’m interested in what you have to say,” he replied in an even tone. “I’m aware of carrying that romanticized dream with me so you do have a point. I don’t want to be crushed and disappointed. What’s Haifa like?”

I was startled by his frankness. 

"Don't ask me," I said a bit roughly. "Ask someone who loves the city. Or someone who at the very least doesn't hate it."

"Please," he said. "What was your experience there like?"

It was so innocent. I wanted to bawl. I wanted to go to the roof of the tallest building in this city and scream at God at the unfairness of it all.

Why should I, with no ties to Haifa, and not even the remotest inclination to search for some false connection that neatly weaves in the narrative of my grandparents’ former lives before 1948 (like my grandfather going to the city for business- which never happened) be the one to tell this refugee about the place where he’s supposed to be from? Why am I the one who had the privilege to see the city numerous times while he is more entitled to it than me but has faced the impossibility of doing so? Perhaps privilege isn’t the right word, since I went there "illegally" without permission from Israel…it’s more of a luxury. An illusion of a luxury which turns out to be nothing more than- like the rest of the ’48 territories-a heartbreaker.

I swallowed. “Well…it’s very Israelified,” I said. “It's a bubble, similar to Ramallah but with more Israelis. It’s a city that is stripped of its Arab Palestinian identity, with the Palestinian minority propped up on the bars and restaurants in one area. And the whole bars and drinking excessively isn’t my issue with it, it’s the impression that it’s the only thing the people there do. Which sounds unfair because I haven’t met the entire population obviously, and just because that's what I experienced there doesn't mean that's all there is to it, but that’s just my opinion. It’s such a shame, because it is a beautiful city, the parts that date back to pre-1948 and aren’t gentrified or ghettoized or abandoned like ghost towns.”

He nodded thoughtfully.

"Some houses on the Carmel are still empty," I rambled on. "Abandoned. Probably weren't in a good condition for the Israelis to settle in. Their windows are broken, and vegetation has crept in between the stones. It's creepy, sad, a bit voyeuristic. The fact that they're still there I mean."

“People are so pretentious there,” I added, feeling lightheaded now. "So nauseatingly...liberal."
Shut your trap woman. Shut it now.
“They’re not that friendly. You have to be like them, act like them, dress like them to fit in. It’s weird. Their Arabic is peppered with Hebrew words. To me it felt like a slap in the face every time I heard beseder. In Akka it’s a different feeling, you actually feel some semblance of belonging to it. It still feels Palestinian.” And then I muttered, “Sorry.”

“No, it’s ok,” he said. “I have a friend who was like me…came from Lebanon to here, and as soon as he got the British passport he went straight to Yafa, where he’s originally from.”

I stared at him acutely aware of not painting a more positive picture of his hometown before blurting out, “Yafa is so depressing. When I went I was literally crying in the middle of the street.”

“Yeah…he had this rosy image of what he would find there and his expectations were so positive and high. But they all collapsed once he went. He said he felt so out of place, so alienated…to the extent that he actually told me he wish he’d never gone in the first place so he can still have this illusion of return.”

We lapsed into silence.

Some people settle. Others decide to do something and become embroiled in a mental battle of wills, the seesawing of “it’s worth it” to the “there is no point.” Others run away to a different part of the world and drink to forget and to stop dwelling on bygones and current realities so that they could delude themselves into thinking they are finally living, even if it's just for a bit. They turn into cliches, running away from who they are. It's all so tiresome.

"Well I hope you get your chance to go, and I hope you like it," I said apologetically, cringing inwardly. You are a dick, a dick, a massive dickhead I told myself.

"Thank you."

As I glared at the tabletop, shame coursing through me,  he carried on smoking his argeelah, his expression still friendly, maybe even a bit relieved.

Just maybe.