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.