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In a parallel universe where I am a Syrian refugee

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The picture of Aylan el-Kurdi’s body on the shores of Bodrum, in a red t-shirt and blue shorts, face down, hands along the side while the waves lap against his head, overwhelmed the communication networks and penetrated the walls of our safe realities. On the bus, at the office, in our living rooms, it was hard to look away, even escape the shock and bitter sense of helplessness that took hold of us at this sad sight. Of course, Aylan’s death is not unprecedented. Children have fallen victims to wars since the earliest of times and recently media have extensively covered such atrocities while propagandists have cynically taken advantage of such images. Nonetheless, this picture succeeded in unsettling the space that we have so efficiently cultivated to protect the sense of normalcy of our daily orders of meaning while human lives are still effortlessly wasted in more, and closer, places in the world than we would like to imagine. The picture of Aylan’s body has marked a threshold that we find difficult to cross. We cannot look away — we cannot unsee Aylan’s short life washed ashore.

I write this because I see myself as fortunate. I was born and grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark. I spent most of my life there until a series of events brought me to my parents’ “homeland.” Today, I am on a prestigious fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I own a big house in the Western Galilee and am the father to three children, one of them a young boy around the same age as Aylan. I am writing this because this morning he wore blue shorts and a red t-shirt when he fell on his face outside in our big garden. It took me less than a a moment to pick him up and hold him while he cried for his life. Seeing my son on the ground did not only shockingly remind me of Aylan, but it also opened other venues of thought.

I am what history defines as an Israeli Arab. In 1948, my father was five and during a chilly late October night, he and his mother, carrying her newborn, and one of his older brothers attempted to cross the Lebanese borders on foot. They, like the entire population of Tarshiha and other Arab villages as well, escaped the war that lead to Israel’s independence and the consequent Palestinian Nakba. Only twenty-four men, one of them my paternal grandfather — the village’s Greek Orthodox priest — took to arms and remained to confront the Zionist enemy. They all survived to see the creation of Israel. However, having interviewed several elders of my grandfather’s generation while they were still alive, none of them ever talked about what happened during those days before surrendering on November 1st. Aylan’s death brings me back to these stories because, like my father, he along with his mother and siblings escaped a war. Less than a kilometer into the south of Lebanon, a unit of Zionist fighters met my grandmother and her sons. My uncle took of his shirt (another source describes that he went behind a tree and took of his drawers) and raised a white flag to surrender.

The story ends here. I have never been able to retrieve details of what happened afterwards and my father’s account is based more on an adult’s revisions of an early childhood memory than fact. Nonetheless, at this crucial point in the story, a decision was made — a decision that determined my family’s future. Instead of becoming Palestinian refugees, we became part of the Arab minority in Israel. My grandmother decided to return to Tarshiha, or perhaps, the Jewish fighters may have chased them away? These details have somehow got lost in history, but the fact remains that they did not proceed and my father and his brothers did not grow up in one of the many refugee camps in either Lebanon or Syria.

Aylan’s death complicates things even further. In a recent wave of virtual “returns” to Palestine/Israel, during the months of April and May 2015, descendants of Palestinian refugees from my village Tarshiha respectively visited their place of origins. For a few days, it seemed as if they had realized a basic Palestinian goal; they “returned.” Their arrivals were heavily charged with symbolic references of the Palestinian “awda.” Ironically, it was the first time they had set foot in Tarshiha; it was the first time they entered their parents’ or grandparents’ homes that were now occupied by remaining Arab residents or refugees from destroyed neighboring villages; it was also the first time some of them met close and distant relatives who had become citizens of Israel like myself. The Facebook page entitled “Tarchiha Flstan,” operated by a Palestinian refugee and activist (also a descendant of former residents of Tarshiha) in Lebanon, posted pictures of these events and encounters to the enthusiastic online responses of hundreds of “Tarshihean” followers scattered around the globe. Current residents of Tarshiha, some indigenous while others “naturalized” refugees, welcomed and warmly hosted their long-lost compatriots, allowing for the fulfilment of these personal journeys, and simultaneously making sure that their guests visited local and national attractions. These journeys were made possible 67 years after the Nakba of 1948 because these “returnees” had become naturalized citizens of their respective locations of residence in western countries. They belong to diasporic communities around the world and were able to enter Israel on their acquired passports as tourists.

My wife and I were fortunate to meet Sanaa (false name), a visitor from Denmark, over coffee and cookies. We talked about doughnuts, weather, and her having inherited her parents desire to “return.” She told us the story of her family’s Palestinian experience and how they eventually made it to Denmark. On a late October night in 1948, her family (perhaps only a few hundred meters away from my grandmother and her sons) succeeded in entering Lebanon and staying. They did not live in a refugee camp while waiting to return, but moved to a southern suburb of Beirut. A few years later, they moved to one of the Gulf states, and from there to Odense, Denmark in 1989. Twenty-six years later, we sat in my house in the village of Tarshiha pondering these lost but crucial moments in our families’ histories that made my wife and I part of the Arab minority in Israel and Sanaa a descendant of Palestinian refugees.

The picture of Aylan’s body had me thinking that in a parallel universe my grandmother may have succeeded in bringing her sons into Lebanon; she may have made it to one of the UNRWA refugee camps; she may even have made it all the way to the Neirab camp in Syria. I don’t now if my father would grow up to meet my mother. I don’t know if I would have been born in Syria. But what if…

ISIS is at the gates, and I would perhaps be looking for a smuggler to bring my family and myself to Greece. I watch the Syrian refugees on the news and think that if not for a peculiar moment on a late September night in 1948, I would have been another person whose priority would be survival.

My son has stopped crying, and thinking of Aylan, I hold him a little tighter. I still need to prepare my things to go to my office at the university tomorrow, and I wish that if, in another universe, my grandmother made it to Syria in the past, that my family will make it safely to Germany today. I wish that I will still be able to pick up my son if he falls on his face in that other world.

Maurice Ebileeni

Maurice Ebileeni is the author of "Conrad, Faulkner, and the Problem of Nonsense" with Bloomsbury Academic. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow of Palestinian world literature in the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches at Tel Aviv University.

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15 Responses

  1. Alice Calch on September 17, 2015, 6:33 am

    It is hard to explain that feeling when you’re a refugee

  2. gamal on September 17, 2015, 8:08 pm

    Bouthaina Shabaan, states the obvious, several times

  3. miriam6 on September 18, 2015, 10:56 am

    The author is seeking to make himself a ‘victim’ twice over with his article

    Once as someone who lost Palestine to Zionism and a second time as an imaginary ‘victim’ of displacement due to Syria’s ‘civil war’ ( a war caused by the West and its proxies Saudi Arabia and Turkeys meddling and bloody ( for the Syrian people that is ) attempts to overthrow Assad thus reducing Syria to a state of utter chaos just like Iraq/ Libya, Afghanistan ) as a Palestinian refugee in Syria

    Victimhood politics at its worst and most pointless.

    • Elisabeth on September 19, 2015, 9:39 am

      I don’t agree.
      The different paths his family history could have taken are connected with the present plight of the refugees. The way in which he describes how this realization affects him (when he sees his little son for instance) is beautiful.
      I loved the article and found it very moving.

    • Mooser on September 19, 2015, 5:23 pm

      “Victimhood politics at its worst and most pointless.”

      And Zionism, of course, is ‘victorhood politics’?

  4. lproyect on September 19, 2015, 8:44 am

    Don’t worry, mariam6. The West has mended its ways as should be indicated by the statement of Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN:

    “This is something we share now with the U.S. Government: They don’t want the Assad Government to fail. They want to fight ISIL in a way that won’t harm the Syrian government”

    So inspiring. Russia and the USA are moving closer to a people’s front against Daesh just like when FDR and Stalin united against Hitler. Do you think there will be a new popular culture emerging out of this with 50 Cent writing and performing hip-hop tunes denouncing Pussy Riot as “hos” and “bitches” while Quentin Tarantino will make a movie about two friends, one from Russia and one from the USA, dying in a heroic struggle to preserve a pagan temple from the filthy Islamofascists?

  5. mcohen. on September 20, 2015, 4:30 am


    Interesting story.which got me thinking about parallel my parallel universe peace came to Syria, and Jews returned to aleppo to pray in the central synagogue.imagine that ….on the sabbath there would be a reading of the scrolls.the return of Jews to Arab countries would be a sign that in another parallel universe coexistence was possible in israel and in it, s neighbouring countries.sephardi jews have lived in iran for a long time even up till today so relegious coexistence is possible.

    i wonder what would happen, what would the possibilities be.

    on this day of atonement i will pray for peace not only in Israel but Syria as well.hopefully next year 10 Jews can gather in the central synagogue in aleppo

    hoshiyah gam yachad

    • echinococcus on September 20, 2015, 11:45 am


      Congratulations on your peaceful vision.
      It can be done in a New York minute by abolishing the Zionist entity.
      All area states (many now defunct by Zionist-instigated war) had declared that citizenships will be given back as soon as the Zionist menace disappears.

  6. mcohen. on September 21, 2015, 3:40 am

    Thank you for your kind words….coincidentally I read this article today in the link above.i had not realised the Jews had suffered under assad…..what is your opinion of the article

    • talknic on September 21, 2015, 7:13 am

      It’s typical Hasbara. It’s normal practice to either expel or imtern and freeze the assets of possible allies of one’s enemies in times of war. The US, Australia interned or deported their own German and Japanese citizens in WW2. It’s alsonormal to allow their return and unfreeze their assets once hostilities are over if they have not acquired citizenship in another country.

      Israel encouraged Jewish refugees to become Israeli citizens, thereby forgoing refugee status. They are no longer refugees. Israel also forbade the entry of Israeli citizens and residents into the territory of hostile states under the 1948 emergency law (still in effect 67 yrs later, except of course if one is an illegal settler in the occupied territories).

      BTW Assad was in fact funding the restoration of some ten or so Synagogues in Syria before the sudden outbreak of violence by suddenly armed minorities in Syria.

      She gave a belt. Well, that’ll keep someone warm

      • just on September 21, 2015, 7:42 am

        Here’s some more hasbara…

        “Israel’s Education of Hospitalized Kids Incomparable in Mideast, Exhibit at UN Aims to Show

        Photo exhibition hosted by World Jewish Congress and Israel’s UN mission opens on September 21 in Geneva, coinciding with the 30th session of the Human Rights Council.

        The World Jewish Congress and Israel’s foreign ministry have brought to the United Nations seat in Geneva a photo exhibition about children’s education in Israeli hospitals.

        The exhibition, titled “Education Without Borders,” opens Monday at the Palais des Nations in the Swiss city, the World Jewish Congress announced in a statement.

        The exhibit “shows how Israel is alone among Mideast nations in providing continuing education for all hospitalized Israeli children, including Arabs and minorities, and Syrian refugees,” the statement read. 

        The exhibition showcases the SASA Setton Kav Or Initiative, a nonprofit providing formal educational programs in 35 medical centers across Israel, in partnership with the Education Ministry and World ORT – Kadima Mada. It features images of the children participants, photographed by Shahar Azran. 

        According to the Education Ministry’s directives, every child hospitalized in Israel for over three days is entitled to free education. The exhibition in Geneva aims to highlight Israel’s uniqueness with regard to human rights, particularly concerning the support and protection of children. …”

        read more:

        Uh- huh.

        Tell it to these kids and parents:

        “Palestinian students and teachers protest Israeli govt discrimination against church-run schools” – See more at:

        or these children:

        “Dozens of Palestinians, including several children, injured in clashes in occupied Jerusalem neighborhood” – See more at:

        or these suffering children/survivors:

        ” VIDEO: Living Under Israel’s Missiles”

        Little, sweet Ali Dawabshe and his brother, mother and father all know about the goodness and charity of Israel…

        “How Israel legitimizes vigilante terror”

        Israel surely is “incomparable”. I could go on and on and on…

  7. mcohen. on September 21, 2015, 6:35 pm

    talknic….and what do make of this article….some Canadian with big bucks helped out a few jews ……………..
    hasbara aside someone should make a movie about this……..can you believe this stuff…..

    “Jews had special identity cards stamped, in large red letters, “Mossawi,” an Arabic expression for Jew (derived from the name Moses), and were prohibited from walking more than three kilometers from their homes.”

    in this link above more references to the identity book and the stamp “mossawi” although i am not familiar with this turtle guy …….

    but more important read the comments section….something interesting stuff

  8. mcohen. on September 21, 2015, 11:03 pm

    At 10/26/2005 02:38:00 AM, Blogger BP said…

    Syria, Iran and the Power Plays over Iraq
    By George Friedman, STRETEGIC FORCASTING

    in fact go down the comments and read this guy,s comment

    remember this was 10 years ago….how time flies maurice

  9. mcohen. on September 21, 2015, 11:41 pm
  10. mcohen. on September 21, 2015, 11:46 pm

    my all time favourite….against each name I write a little note …..just to keep track

    At 10/24/2005 11:01:00 PM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said…

    asterisked = ostracized
    grayish = gayyish

    I am compiling a list of the great leaders and exceptional rulers that the CIA brought to power or supported in every way in the past 5 decades. Also, compiling a list of the good noble deeds and excellent leadership skills of these individuals that are deemed worthy of CIA and American support. Please feel free to add your favorites, this is what I got so far:

    Saddam Hussain
    Reza Pahlevi
    Idee Amin
    Jamal Abd Al Nasser
    Hafez Assad
    Bashar Assad
    Pol Pot
    Augusto Pinoche
    Osama Bin Ladin
    Sultan Kabus
    Sultan of Brunai
    Manuel Noriega
    Muammar Khaddafi
    Carlos Castillo Armas
    Rafael Leónidas Trujillo
    Sani Abacha
    Hugo Banzer
    Fulgencio Batista
    Hassanal Bokhia
    P.W. Botha
    Humberto Branco
    Raoul Cedras
    Vinicio Cerezo
    Chiang Kai Shek ( I admit that he was worthy of support)
    Roberto Suazo Cordova
    Alfredo Christiani
    Ngo Dihn Diem
    Samuel Doe
    Francois Duvalier
    Jean Claude Duvalier
    Fahd bin Abdul Aziz
    Francisco Franco
    Adolf Hitler
    Hassan II
    Ferdinand Marcos
    Maximiliano Martinez
    Sese Seko Mobuto
    Efrain Rios Montt
    Turgut Ozal
    George Papadopoulos
    Chung Hee Park ( another worthy Nationalist)
    Sitiveni Rabuka
    Halie Salassie
    Antonio D.E. Salazar
    Anastasio Somosa
    Ian Smith
    Alfredo Stroessner
    Rafael Trujillo
    Jorge Rafael Videla
    Mohammad Zia Al Haqq

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