He smelled of alcohol, his eyes drifting over me with a glassy, half-drunk gaze. From a distance, we might have appeared as friends. His arm was draped over my shoulder in a posture of familiarity, but when I tried to shift my body away from his vodka-scented breath, I found myself constrained by his steely grip. I blinked, my confusion shifting to alarm. Around us, other members of my senior class were mingling and sipping cool drinks beneath dappled shade, oblivious to my silent panic.
“This girl. This girl,” the stranger presented me to his cohort of half a dozen Caucasian males and a few flushed, smirking young women. I had been headed across the lawn to talk to a friend when the tall stranger had lassoed me with his arm. Speechless, I waited for him to finish his thought. “I heard this funny joke, wanna know what’s hilarious?” he slurred. I was puzzled, but couldn’t shake the feeling that the rest of the group already knew the punchline. His arm still rested heavy around me. I supposed this was just a typical case of drunk-fratboy, and I braced myself for some misogynistic joke or more nonsensical rambling. What he said next was neither.
“This girl thinks that Palestinians should have human rights.” His companions laughed conspicuously as he turned to me, leaning in with drooping eyelids, his ruddy lips hovering close to my face. Too stunned to flinch, I felt a million needles sinking into my chest as he continued, “Sometimes, she holds meetings to talk about Palestinian rights. Isn’t that cute? Isn’t that awesome? Did you know there are people who think Jews and Arabs are equals?” Barely processing his words, I tried vaguely to pull away. He let his arm slide off my shoulders, moving his hand to grasp my forearm instead. He waved his flask at me. “Have a drink baby. What’s the matter?”
I tried to ignore the snickering of the group, lifting my head as high as I could. “Stop it.” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. “What’s your problem? Have a drink, baby.” His hand gripped my arm tighter. “She’s pretty sexy, isn’t she—for an Arab, I mean?”
“What’s your problem?” He repeated, his expression turning from mockery to something akin to hatred. My head swam. The touch of his fingers seemed to sap me of strength—as if by laying his hands on me, against my will, this man had brought the force of my people’s dispossession to bear. His sneer seemed to echo the denial I’d faced countless times during four years of campus activism and a lifetime of being Palestinian. You don’t count. Your people are less than people. Your tragedy is a myth. Shut up, and disappear.
I groped for some defiant retort, but the imposing cluster of tall, broad-shouldered men left me drained of my words. Mustering what dignity I could, I retrieved my arm and forced my way out of the circle. Stumbling half-blindly away from the cheerful crowd, I discovered I had begun to tremble. The familiar mixture of hot anger and leaden shame sank into my limbs. I hated myself for not being more courageous. I hated my nameless antagonist for touching me, and for the way his cavalier cruelty had pierced into me. I guess it’s fitting. I thought. This is the last week before graduation. My first semester at Penn, I’d dealt with chronic harassment from a Zionist classmate. Why should the ending be any better than the start?
* * *
My time as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania was defined by my involvement in the Palestinian cause. This commitment brought me into partnerships with incredible individuals from across my campus, and far beyond. Our choice to organize around this cause also exposed me and my peers to a level of hostility from our peers and administrators we never anticipated. While we organized vigils, arranged teach-ins and speaker events, and participated direct action, we also faced screaming IDF veterans, blatant faculty opposition, relentless accusations, and social isolation.
There are few things more exhausting than being told you don’t exist, that your heritage is both a lie and a disgrace, that your identity is untrue and also criminal. Students said this. Administrators said this. Every year, people on national and international platforms say this. My liberal friends smile knowingly and tell me I have a right to “my own narrative.”
I abide in the paradox of being both erased and punished for simply being born to my own mother and father. For carrying the pictures of refugee children in my wallet and in my heart, and for trying to say simply: look at these faces. If you forget they are Palestinian, could you agree that they are human faces? Only see them, only look at these faces. Then let us talk.
The greatest heartache, for me, has always stemmed from the refusal of Zionists to speak of Palestinians in human terms. If we ever speak of Palestine, we must only speak of security, of territories and weapons and UN resolutions, it seems. To me, that is in itself violence—the obliteration of a people through the mechanism of language, an erasure of their right to exist by insidious omission. We are an absence, or a crime, or a joke. Never people.
I am not unique. I know so many have known the universe inhabited by rage, hope, frustration, and pride that comes with a marginalized identity. This week, re-reading Maya Angelou’s books, for example, reminds me of the way others in this country have had to fight abuse, discrimination, and blind hatred on a more massive scale than I. To this day, many are considered in some way “less-than” by the simple virtue of their status as immigrant, impoverished, disabled, non-cis, non-white, non-male, or otherwise. And though the name of Nelson Mandela has, especially in past months, fallen frequently and lovingly from so many lips, he chose to describe his own life not as a total triumph but a long walk to freedom that, in the end, never ends.
* * *
I never learned the name of that inebriated man who robbed me of a sunny, care-free afternoon with friends. I spoke of the incident to only a few friends; at this point, a little cynicism is inevitable. I thought it better to put it behind me as quickly as possible and to attempt to celebrate my Senior Week and commencement with as little political interference as possible. I’d walk across the stage and receive a diploma, hard-earned in so many senses, and make my exit quietly.
This was not to be. Not exactly.
On Graduation Day, I sat in the front row beneath a sunny May sky, thinking very little of the ceremony except to anticipate its end. Beneath my cap and gown, I quivered with the stereotypical medley of nostalgia and hope. The morning slid forward, every moment laden and fleeting, as deans and professors took turns giving words of wisdom and farewell.
Our commencement speaker was John Legend, an American R&B singer and founder of the Show Me Campaign. I’d been curious, but had not expect to be so arrested by his words. They were soul-felt and refreshingly self-effacing, and drew me in as he spoke of the value of art, creativity and passion. As an aspiring writer, I appreciated that.
These words, however, were only Legend’s preamble. Suddenly, we heard him switching gears, growing more solemn, and turning his speech toward the universal.
“I also want to talk about how love changes the world. There are seven billion people out there….What does it mean to love those we don’t know? ….Love means we let go of fear and we see each others’ humanity.”
I leaned forward.
“…We see Trayvon Martin…as a boy who deserves to grow into a man.”
I clapped, along with many others in the audience. I recalled the way hundreds of my classmates and I had marched in honor of that fallen boy..
“It means American lives don’t count more than Iraqi lives.”
Wow, he went there. I clapped harder, thrilled that our commencement speaker had made mention of such a contentious but important topic.
“It means we see a young Palestinian kid not as a future security threat or demographic challenge but as a future father, mother, and lover.”
A tremor swept through me. Legend had said the one word I’d never have dared to hope for. He said “Palestinian.”
Despite my conspicuous seat in the first row, I leapt to my feet. For a fleeting moment I stood, buoyed by the unexpected acknowledgement, and cheered with all the strength of my startled joy. In my final hour at Penn, my University community, including, I knew, that vodka-scented stranger, had borne witness to my people’s plight presented as it should always be: as one facet of the greater, unfurling human experience.
Yes. I am here. I stood proudly, my cap askew. I am Palestinian, and I am human, and I am here. Irrevocable, despite all the ways others have tried to erase us, my people remain.