“Where was your father born?” he suspiciously asks. “Iraq” I reply.
Born lost, I have found myself in the home of the landless where I am acutely aware of my identity built on a destroyed foundation. The rolling hills covered by aged olive trees, the scent of fresh lemons on my hand, and the immensity of the walls are exactly what I pictured. In fact, I’m struck by the accuracy of the painting in my head.
It’s an odd feeling to be defined by a place you’ve never been. I’ve grown up listening to stories set in a place far away from where I was raised and in a time that I have never lived. I have been shaped by my grandfather’s elaborate stories of Baghdadi nights, of my uncle’s version of Abdul-Karim Kassem’s rise to power, and my mother’s tears as she recalls the sight of soldiers’ deceased bodies on the roof of trucks making their way home from the battlefield in 1967. These images have collectively formed an image of Iraq in my mind, particularly of Baghdad, with which I constantly struggle when the reality is that the Iraq of my parents no longer exists and will never return.
My parents also raised me with an acute consciousness of the plight of the Palestinian people, using the struggle to teach my brothers and I the extent to which prejudice can cripple a community and education can bolster it. For them, Palestine symbolized their utmost pride and their greatest disappointment; the untapped potential of the Palestinian people and their unyielding tenacity demonstrated the power of conviction, but the inability of the international community to neither acknowledge nor respond to human suffering represented pure disappointment. Palestine became their way of teaching my brothers and I the importance of social justice. Thus, being in Palestine for the first time has spawned the feelings I think I would have upon on my first trip to the Iraq of my parents. I’m overwhelmed.
This land isn’t necessarily my own, no one in my family was born here, and my thick Iraqi accent is surely distinguished over the local dialect, yet this is the closest I’ve come to feeling ‘at home’. Maybe it’s because, as Iraqis, we have looked to the Palestinians as teachers of survival, especially in the post 9/11 era. They have taught us how to rebuild our lives when our surroundings have been destroyed and they have been the ultimate example of resilience despite displacement, daily incursions, and infringement of rights. Now, at a time when Syria is crippled by violence, the survival skills taught to Iraqi refugees by their Palestinian counterparts are being passed on to Syrian refugees. This is particularly the case in Jordan where nearly 600,00 Syrians are registered as refugees with UNHCR and have spread themselves across the country.
Sitting in my friend’s house in Bethlehem, I can’t help but be filled with a sense of gratitude and pride. I’m proud of the strength of Palestinian individuals whose every move is scrutinized by the same authority that interrogated me upon entering a land not theirs. I’m grateful for the Palestinian hospitality that has embraced me on this trip and in my time living in Jordan in the form of patient taxi drivers and kind store owners. Most of all, I am deeply moved by the connections Palestinians, Iraqis, and now Syrians have made to guide each other when injustice threatens livelihoods.