Trouble usually begins when the plane lands in Tel Aviv. For many Palestinians in the diaspora, a visit with family or friends back in Palestine almost certainly means a marathon of racial profiling and interrogation. It is not uncommon for Palestinians to spend multiple hours in the stale holding rooms of Ben Gurion Airport before they are allowed to leave.
But Andrew Kadi’s ordeal, as he told it at last week’s Washington D.C. storytelling event, began hours before all of this. It began as soon as he reached his gate at JFK Airport in New York.
On its second night, the 7th annual D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival provided a unique space for Palestinian storytelling. Organizers began the festival with the goal of creating an intentional environment for Palestinian artists in the diaspora to express themselves outside the political frame that has become synonymous with Palestine. This year’s festival featured film, music, dance and live storytelling with Palestinians, Live!, including performances by Kadi and five more Palestinian-Americans.
With Kadi’s plane delayed, he sat at the gate and waited. A group of teenagers visibly excited for their trip to Israel tittered loudly about Alan Dershowitz’s latest book, within earshot of Kadi.
It was at this point he realized he would be “traveling with a delegation of Jewish Americans on their second Israeli government-sponsored trip to Israel.”
“We’ll call them Birthright Bros” Kadi tells the audience and the room fills with laughter.
To his horror — and slight amusement — he is seated next to the “Birthright Bros” as he has dubbed them, and one “Brosefina” who works at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee” or AIPAC.
Kadi continued his story with the truth and timing of any good comedian. The audience, many of whom but not all were Palestinian, could be heard alternately relating intensely and laughing hysterically.
“They look at me and they’re like, ‘why would you be going to Tel Aviv?’” Kadi continued, referring to his seatmates. “But I look at them and I’m like, ‘why would you be going to Tel Aviv?’”
Palestinians, Live!, the name of the festival’s live storytelling event at Studio Theatre, materialized thanks to Palestinians Podcast and its founder Nadia Abuelezam. In addition to managing the storytelling project, Abuelezam is an epidemiologist, assistant professor at Boston College’s School of Nursing and a health researcher.
Palestinians Podcast, which just released its twenty-first episode, has brought its live incarnation to Boston, Dearborn and D.C., though the hope is to one day perform in cities across the country and the world.
Abuelezam sees the podcast and live shows as much-needed outlets in the Palestinian diaspora, with the potential to achieve many things.
“[One] goal is to get people to relate to Palestinians and to realize there are lots of Palestinians living in the diaspora living lives very similar to the average American,” Abuelezam told Mondoweiss.
However, the podcast is not simply about educating others through the experiences of Palestinians, “but it’s for us to own our stories — to be able to tell them from our own perspectives and with our own voice.”
Zuhdiah “Zuzu” Sarhan’s story titled “Strength in Silence” dealt with the theme of opening up what is kept inside families, especially immigrant families, and confronting these issues.
“Whenever I hear feedback of somebody laughing [or reacting] in the crowd” Zuzu told Mondoweiss, “it’s comforting because I know they felt the same way I felt when I thought I was alone.”
Lena Ghannam’s story about her first kiss and the way her family received the news dealt with a similar theme. Ghannam is a professional graphic designer, creator of the festival’s promotional material and since 2015, the Creative Director of the D.C. Palestinian Film and Arts Festival.
When her family found out about the kiss they were not pleased, she told the audience, and eventually found herself with her long braided hair cut off.
Although it was a difficult story to recall, let alone write and tell in front of strangers, but the social norms that are not often confronted or talked about within a community are usually topics that warrant the most discussion she said.
Ghannam felt the need to relate her experience of growing up Arab and American. A certain conservatism informed her upbringing and she feels it important to tell an unfamiliar audience about the realities of “how immigrant parents [raise] their kids,” even “the things that happen that don’t really sound great.”
“Like being punished or traumatized simply for having a formative experience” Ghannam explained to Mondoweiss. “It’s time to start talking about these things because I know I can’t be the only one who’s had this type of experience.”
Nadia Abuelezam, who coached or worked with each performer to draw out and craft their stories, says she is often asked what similarities exist between Palestinian communities in the diaspora, a notion that proves the need for a medium where Palestinians tell their own stories.
“The Palestinian diasporic population in the United States is actually quite diverse” she told Mondoweiss. “Not only is there a variety of religious practice but also even ethnic identification.”
And across the diaspora, Palestinians experience their “Palestinian-ness” in vastly different ways. Some are second and third generation while others are the children of refugees.
According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s federal guidelines on race and ethnicity, those who trace their ancestry to the Middle East or North Africa are automatically categorized as white. Lacking any official recognition of being Arab in the U.S., Abuelezam said, creates a tension in the lives of many Arab-Americans, as their lived experience doesn’t match the race they are required to identify as. The Arab experience in America is generally most similar to that of people of color Abuelezam adds.
Samar A. Najla’s story entitled “She Did It Her Way” encompassed some of this tension. Najla’s story centered on her Palestinian mother, who became a refugee in 1948 and never recovered her sense of place. As the daughter of a refugee, Samar didn’t find it as difficult fitting into the flow of a place and this prevented her from connecting with her mother in fundamental ways.
Through an intentional ordering of storytellers beginning in the diaspora and eventually returning to Palestine, Abuelezam intricately crafted Palestinians Live!
Nadia Abuelezam shared a piece about her own formative experience in Palestine entitled “Have You Seen my Land?”
One day during a summer visit, Nadia and her cousins piled into their Uncle Sami’s van and drove to Jericho, in what quickly escalated into a search for Uncle Sami’s land. Unsuccessful, they ended the search, went home and eventually Nadia returned to the U.S.
But the experience stayed with her. Looking back, Abuelezam told the audience, she realized that her uncle imparted to her something immeasurably more important than land ownership.
“In that van, we weren’t looking for Sami’s land — we were looking for Palestine” Abuelezam continued. “Sami was teaching us that the struggle for Palestine was a collective one.”
One would never find Palestine by “standing” and “stomping” and claiming the land for oneself.
“That is not Palestinian” Abuelezam said, as the audience billowed along. “But rather, searching for that land and spending time looking for it was a part of being Palestinian.”
With the Middle Eastern podcast scene growing, Palestinians Podcast wants to someday produce a bilingual podcast, translated into Arabic, Spanish and every language that belongs to a place where Palestinians in the diaspora live.
And because the diaspora is so incredibly diverse and spread out across the world, the task of relaying honest stories from one community to another is exceptionally important.
“Palestinians in Palestine may not know what it’s like to be Palestinian in the diaspora and vice versa” Abuelezam told Mondoweiss.
Yasmeen El-Hasan, the night’s final performer, left the audience visibly moved with her story “Where our Ice Cream Melted”.
El-Hasan portrayed a simultaneous love for and loss of innocence in Palestine as a child. In the earlier memories El-Hasan shared, the world was an idyllic place and the imagined safety inside of her favorite tree in Palestine was the pinnacle of that world.
But as she got older, as the political situation worsened such that she wasn’t allowed back for years, everything changed.
“As I came to realize [after] all of my time under the tree” El-Hasan said, remorse noticeable in her voice, is that “the world outside of [the tree] wasn’t fair. And it all mattered.”