Identity, Belonging, and Home (Land): Diaspora People Engaging with Palestinians on the Question of Identity
My contribution to the conversation on the topic of Palestinian identity is through the lens of diasporized communities. I seek to bring global diaspora literature into conversation with Palestinian diaspora literature on the issue of identity and homeland for the purpose of helping to sharpen intra-Palestinian conversation on the issue and of forging alliance between Palestinians and other members of the global community, particularly diaspora.
“If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them,
Their oil would become Tears.”
– Mahm┼½d Darw─½sh
My contribution to the conversation on the topic of Palestinian identity is through the lens of diasporized communities. I seek to bring global diaspora literature into conversation with Palestinian diaspora literature on the issue of identity and homeland for the purpose of helping to sharpen intra-Palestinian conversation on the issue and of forging alliance between Palestinians and other members of the global community, particularly diaspora. Diaspora literature will be explored, particularly as it touches on the issue of identity and homeland, and attempts will be made to relate them to the Palestinian articulation of identity. What are the experiences of other diaspora people that may help sharpen Palestinians’ naming and articulation of identity? What are some of the perspectives from diaspora studies that bring something to bear on the Palestinian issue of identity and homeland?
Identity, Belonging, and Home
Diaspora triggers an intense articulation of identity, belonging, and home. These three dimensions are intertwined and inseparable. In diaspora the once considered stable identity experiences tremors as individuals or communities undergo the travail of uprootment, dispossession, displacement, and marginalization. Diaspora pushes one to the edge or to the border of life in which the once considered stable and constant center no longer holds. As the diasporized people encounter others who make a claim on the shared and fluid space, the issue of identity comes to the forefront and becomes a contested issue. Diaspora brings instability and fluidity to the notion of self and leads to such questions as: “Who am I” or “Who are we?” (Conversely, who are they?)
The matter of identity cannot be separated from the matter of belonging. If diaspora leads to the question of “Who am I?” or “Who are we?,” it also leads to the question, “Where do I belong?” or “Where do we belong?” The question of belonging intensifies as a group, particularly the dominant one, feels threatened and the issue of security and loyalty is raised. One is forced to take account of one’s primary allegiance and equivocation is not acceptable: “Are you with us?”
Moreover, the issue of identity and belonging leads to the question of home. What is home? Where is home? What constitutes home? How shall we relate the experience of diaspora and home? How does the experience of diaspora contribute to the notion of home as well as homeland?
The issue of home (and homeland) becomes intense as the diaspora is forced to take account of home by those who also stake a claim on the same shared space, especially by those considered long-time inhabitants of the place. But it could be the reverse: the long-time inhabitants may be forced to take account of home as newcomers themselves, particularly when the newly arrived newcomers assume the form of occupiers/colonizers, displacing, uprooting, and disempowering the long-time inhabitants. The long-time inhabitants may experience diaspora/exile even in their homeland; they may even experience being prisoners in their homeland.
This is how many Palestinians see their situation. As noted by Saddik Gohar, by the end of the catastrophic year (1948), the concept of land took two forms in the eyes of the Palestinian people: exile and prison. Exile includes all lands where Palestinian refugees live whether inside Palestine or outside it; prison involves the Palestinian lands that are under the Israeli flag.[i]
Diaspora Identity: Constructed, Fluid, Shifting, and Multiple
Michael Lapsley, a priest from New Zealand who went to South Africa during the apartheid era, shares some thoughts that help us understand the fluid, shifting, and multiple characters of identity, belonging, and home. He said: “Before I went to South Africa, I thought of myself as a human being. On arrival in South Africa, my humanness was removed and I became a white man.”[ii] Lapsley experienced a fluid and shifting identity as he moved from one socio-geographical location to another, an experience that is revelatory of the character of our lives.
My awareness of the politics of identity was all the more heightened during an Israel-Palestine immersion trip in 2012, which I co-led with Peter Makari, area executive for the Middle East and Europe of the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ USA as well as that of the Christian Church—Disciples of Christ. One day our immersion group went to the Golan Heights (a territory which belongs to Syria, and has been occupied by Israel since 1967 which belongs to Syria). Its terrain and resources (e.g., water source, green vegetation, etc.) would make one understand that it is strategic in a comprehensive sense, not only militarily. Our group stopped by a cherry farm and I had the chance to ask a few questions to a farmer by the name of Jamil. I asked him if he was in the area during the war with Israel and if he was Syrian. He confirmed that he is Syrian by birth and nationality and also carries an Israeli ID. Afterwards he spoke about his love for his land, which explains why he did not leave the place even during the war that led to the occupation. As a person living in a land (his own land) now under Israeli occupation, he said that he is loyal to whoever is the ruling power (now the State of Israel). He abides by the rules of the occupier in order to survive. But, at the end of the conversation, he expressed his longing for the return of the territory to Syria.
Israel-Palestine is one of the best places in the world to study about the politics of identity. Identity is a construct and it shifts. One does not have to move physically in order to experience shifting identity and location. In some instances, it is the boundary of the nation-state that moves. One’s identity is subject to political vicissitudes, and it can be terribly oppressive. This has been the plight of Palestinians and Syrians in the Golan Heights.
This discourse of shifting identity is not always welcome, particularly by those who are invested in “nativistic” politics. As much as possible, they want to hold to any semblance of solid, pure, and stable identity. Nativistic claims are played out by various groups in varying degrees for different purposes. Indigenous communities are not exempt from this tendency, perhaps a reaction to the threats they have experienced from the settler-colonialists. The irony, however, is that the more solid and stable identity is asserted, the more it reveals its constructed and fluid nature. At the core of its claim, if we may speak of core, is the construct of a power-knowledge nexus.[iii] Power-knowledge constructs identity for various reasons. Counter-hegemonic hermeneutics does not escape becoming a new hegemony by claiming that it is devoid of a power-knowledge nexus. What counter-hegemonic hermeneutics must do is expose the power-knowledge nexus of all forms of discourse.
Identity is not only fluid and shifting, it is also multiple. We assume multiple identities across time as our geographical and social locations change. One expression of our multiple identities may gain prominence depending on our geographical and social context. If we have multiple identities and they shift across time and place, then we assume multiple and shifting positions in the power relations. Our position in the power relations is not constant. This is important as we think of the plight of Israeli Jews in relation to the Palestinians. Furthermore, to pursue the point of shifting and multiple identities, we also must recognize multiple and shifting narratives or stories.
Diaspora places people at the borders (geographical, political, and cultural) which enables the diaspora to hear multiple and, sometimes, conflicting and overlapping stories of various communities. Being at the borders, the diaspora is exposed to the narratives that various groups share about their understanding of who they are and their perception of others. This has important implications as we explore ways of dwelling together in a shared place. We will pursue and articulate the implications of this in the last section of this essay.
Identity and Relations: The Evolving and Shifting Palestinian Identity
Identity is a relational concept. Identity exists and develops in relationship with others. It is a constant dance with others. Identity develops always in relation to its surroundings, particularly in relationship with people and social events. There is no space outside of this relationship in which we become who we are. Social relations constitute the main ingredients for identity formation. Our relationship defines who we are. Identity evolves through the process of differentiation. Several factors contribute to the process of differentiation. The development of national consciousness, for example, may be triggered and hastened by outside political forces, such as conquest and colonization by foreign powers. The once loosely defined and scattered multi-ethnic groups may feel the need to bond together in response to the invaders. As time evolves, a national consciousness or a nation-state may be given birth.
Human communities see and construct difference in the process of identity formation. The constructions of “we” and “they” and “us” and “them” are all part of identity formation. There may be difference/es, but difference is not the problem. The main problem is our attitude toward difference and how we deal with difference. Audre Lorde puts it succinctly: the main problem “is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.”[iv] To be different from another is not the same as being against. The good news is that we can be different but not necessarily against each other.
Sadly, the dominant identity formation in our society is that of being “over against the other.” It seems easy to fall into this destructive pattern; it is basically finding an identity that is set in opposition to the other. Even more, it elevates one’s primary identity marker over another. In the context of unequal power relations, it can be individually and corporately imposed on others. When one’s identity is equated with the cultural norm, then we have the worst of systemic violence. Various forms of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, can be interpreted as an expression of an identity posed “over against the other.”
Unfortunately, the evolution of contemporary Palestinian and Jewish identities has been such that, in many ways, they are yoked and defined against each other. The “Day of Independence” for Israel is al-Nakba (the great Catastrophe) for Palestinians. What is “settlement” for the Jews is “occupation” and “displacement” of Palestinians. What is “security” for Israel is “imprisonment” for Palestine. The partitioning of the land called Palestine into two states to accommodate two peoples is also the beginning of contemporary articulation of antagonistic and polarizing identities. This polarization of two identities, however, is more disadvantageous to Palestinians. Rashid Khalidi contends that “it often means that permission cannot be granted for a Palestinian voice to be heard—even on matters having absolutely nothing to do with Israel—without the reassuring presence of its Israeli echo. The opposite, of course, is not exactly true: a Palestinian voice is not necessarily required when exclusively Israeli or Jewish concerns are aired.”[v]
Beyond the antagonistic definition of each other’s identities, larger forces are at work shaping the articulation of identities. The interaction between the Arab world and the wider global context has influenced the way Palestinians articulate their identity. I hear an echo of Mahm┼½d Darw─½sh, Palestinian poet: “Israeli repression transformed me into an Arab, and that disappointment with the Arabs transformed me into a Palestinian.”[vi]
True, indeed, Zionist repression turned Palestinians into Arabs. They identified with the Arabs and had high hopes that the Arab world would stand steadfast by their side. They were disappointed, to say the least. Even in the Arab countries where Palestinians live in exile “a knight stabs his brother in the chest” and there “my dream leaves me only to make me laugh/or make people laugh at someone leading a dream like a camel in a market of whores,” says Darw─½sh. In their exiles in the neighboring Arab countries, Palestinian refugees were slaughtered by Arabs (such as the Lebanese, the Syrians, and the Jordanians), just as they were massacred by Zionists in Palestine. The refugee camps of Palestinians living in Lebanon were brutally attacked by the Israeli army and its Lebanese allies, the right wing Christian militias with the support of Israel.[vii]
Disappointment with the Arabs, following Darw─½sh, turned them into Palestinians. Even as they have continued to identify themselves with the Arab world, the Palestinian experience is distinctively theirs. Palestinians must articulate their own distinctive identity, for no other people, much as they seek to be in solidarity with them, can live their lives, mourn their losses, and die their deaths. It is only as the Palestinians can articulate their own distinctive experience and identity that they will survive and thrive as a people. The power to articulate this distinctive Palestinian identity is critical, especially as the more dominant forces surrounding them have the means and power to impose their definition of Palestinian identity. The Zionist propaganda machine, with the help of the U.S. and other Western countries, has been aggressive in defining Palestinian identity.
In many ways, the Jewish Zionists and their Western allies have been effective in shifting the world’s opinion of Palestinians from that of refugees to that of desperate and primitive insurgents to that of terrorists. When they are cast as terrorists, the massacre of civilians is less likely to generate much sympathy and support, because people find it difficult to understand the notion of the “massacre of terrorists.” There is no such thing as terrorists being massacred. When one is portrayed as a terrorist, the humanity of the person is taken away. Michelle Saracino makes the point that “[a]s long as Palestinians, or any other for that matter, are unilaterally typed as terrorists they cannot be acknowledged as flesh-and-blood human beings with particular stories, memories, and feelings that must be heeded.”[viii] We can find something similar in the plight of the prisoners in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. If the humanity of the prisoners were removed, it would be difficult for people to hear their cries or hear them as victims of torture.
Hence, there is a need to intensify efforts to articulate a different portrayal of Palestinians; there is a need for concerted action to articulate and project a different identity. There seems to be a shift in the way Palestinians have been perceived by the global community in recent years. Today, many have moved to recast the Palestinians not as perpetrators of terror but as the underdogs and the victims of Israeli politics. These shifts in the public image of Palestinians demonstrate how the portrayals of Palestinians are dependent upon their interaction with Israel and other communities throughout the world. We need to articulate and lift up the cries and stories of Palestinians. We need to let the public know of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people, especially in a world in which they are prevented even from expressing their laments in public.
Al-Nakba: Reclaiming the Right to Mourn
The creation of the State of Israel is al-Nakba (the great Catastrophe) for the Palestinians. Palestinians were forced to leave their country twice, in 1948 and in 1967, after the occupation of all Palestinian territories. In their third exodus in 1982, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were subjected to more suffering. Darw─½sh cries: “The sea cannot take another immigration/oh, the sea has no room for us.” Some Palestinian refugees who survived the genocide of the camps, whom Darw─½sh calls “the generation of the massacre,” are doomed to move from exile to another exile just to be killed: “Every land I long for as a bed/dangles as a gallows.”[ix]
The al-Nakba and its consequences must be mourned. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that there is no hope without mourning. We cannot jump into hope without the freedom to weep. Jeremiah tells his people that only as they lament their pain will they be able to imagine new beginnings or new possibilities. He summons his people to grieve or mourn. This permission to weep and mourn freely may startle the people, but Jeremiah longs for an even fuller expression of grief to be possible, that his head would be a spring of water and his eyes a fountain of tears so that he could weep day and night for his suffering and fallen people (Jeremiah 9:1)
Adding cruelty to their suffering, the Palestinians have been prevented from lamenting in public, for the Jews have exercised monopoly on suffering (Holocaust). “Is there anything more cruel than this absence: that you should not be the one to…lament your [own] defeat?”[x] The State of Israel has censored the rights of Palestinian refugees to express their feelings about their plight. Their poetry of lamentations and elegies has been considered forms of political protest.[xi] The attempts of the colonizers (the Zionists) to erase the history and culture of colonized peoples (Palestinians) by dismissing their poetry of exile as propagandist is, in the words of Edward Said, part of “the moral epistemology of imperialism.”[xii]
The lamenting or mourning that I am speaking about needs to be distinguished from melancholy. Melancholy causes one to get stuck in a state of narcissism; thus, one may speak of narcissistic mourning. Narcissistic mourning festers like an “open wound.” Narcissistic mourning is the inability to mourn with and for others because the only suffering that counts is one’s own suffering. On the other hand, the mourning of lament pushes the people to move on; it is a prelude to hope or it is an integral part of hope. Without the courage to mourn, Palestinians would not be able to articulate their soaring hopes.
Land, Memory, and Nostalgia: Living in the “Future Imperfect”
Land remains central for the identity of the diasporized. Perhaps the intensity of attachment to the land or the desire to return to the land becomes stronger because of one’s separation, especially when forced out by invasion and occupation. Forced separation from one’s homeland is a traumatic experience. Palestinian poets speak of the loss of homeland as tormenting the soul and splitting the body “’into two halves,” which may be described as “existing between a loved but dead past and a living but agonized present. At the same time, these words point out that the past and the present cannot be simply separated from one another.”[xiii] In the lines of Safiq Kabha, “We became an intoxicated people who go to sleep and wake up in the love of their homeland. Oh […] you, my body that is torn into two halves, a living one and another that lived, and the living half is left for pain and suffering.”[xiv] This resonates with Said’s account of exile: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift [emphasis supplied] forced between human being and a native place, between a self and its true home.”[xv] “Unhealable,” indeed, because “nothing,” says Darw─½sh, “will bring [him] back from my free distance to [his] palm tree: not peace, nor war…. Nothing takes [him] away from the butterfly of [his] dreams back into [his] present: not earth, nor fire.”[xvi]
Darw─½sh speaks of exile as an experience of a profound “insubstantial existence.” Its effects are far-reaching so much so that Darw─½sh articulates this transient experience as a form of weightlessness: [The exiles] “have become weightless,/as light as our dwellings in distant winds.” He describes it: “We have both been freed from the gravity of the land of identity.” Western postmodern sensibility must not be too quick to pick up the positive connotation here because, for Darw─½sh, to be “freed” from the land is like unmooring a ship, or perhaps, more appropriately, cutting off a tree at the roots. In Darw─½sh’s lines: “Nothing is left of me except you./Nothing is left of you except me.”[xvii]
In “The Desert Exile,” Jabra Ibrahim expresses a sense of nostalgia for his homeland in Palestine: “Our land is an emerald/but in the desert of exile/spring after spring/only the dust hisses in our face.” Ibrahim refers to the suffering of the Palestinian refugees who live in exile appealing to a homeland they feel they have lost forever: “remember us/with our eyes full of dust/that never clears in our careless wandering.”[xviii] Palestinians are attached to their homeland because Palestine, to Ibrahim, “is a reality that exists; it is a land that has been usurped by a ruthless enemy, a mother, a sister, a wife raped by the colonizer…”[xix]
Palestinian exiles and diaspora seek and dream of the return to the land. However, as circumstances make it more and more difficult to speak of immediate return, their discourse assumes the tone of a remote and distant future. Fawaz Turki speaks of “‘’living in the future imperfect.’ Living in future imperfect—when next year, next time, next speech, the wrong will have been righted, when grievances removed, and our cause justified….Godot for whom we waited never arrived.”[xx] What is it like to live waiting for something that you believe may never come or you have already believed will not arrive?
Diaspora/Exile as a Permanent Habitat: Living in the Thresholdas a Permanent Home
As the possibility of physical return to the once upon a time Palestine becomes more and more remote, the literal return shifts to a more symbolic articulation of land, identity, and home. This is not to discount place (geography), but the sense of place expands to embrace something beyond geography, and the meaning of being a Palestinian also expands. Maybe, as Helena Lindholm Schulz puts it in her account of diaspora identities, “we don’t live in places after all,” but “maybe learn to live in lives.”[xxi] Palestine is a practice or a way of living wherever one is located, which is not a negation of the importance of place, but an adaptation in the context of forced displacement.
“After twenty-five years of living in the ghourba, of growing up permanently reminded of my status as an exile, the diaspora for me, for a whole generation of Palestinians, becomes the homeland. Palestine is no longer a mere geographical entity but a state of the mind,”[xxii] says Fawaz Turki. In exile Turki has learned to live in the “threshold” as a “permanent habitat.” Obsession of return means the reconstitution of a Palestinian integrity and the regaining of his place in history.[xxiii]
Exile/diaspora has become a state of mind for many diaspora Palestinians. Even in the event of the possibility of peace and return, something cannot be undone because exile has become, for Darw─½sh, a state of mind that he carries wherever he happens to be. In fact, it has become who he is; diaspora/exile has become his identity. “What will I do? What will I do without exile, and a long night that stares at the water?”[xxiv]
Palestine, for those in the diaspora, is much larger than the land of Palestine even as it is always connected to the land. It stretches far beyond the geographic confines of the land of Palestine. Palestine reaches to every corner of the world were Palestinian diaspora are present and have found a home, that is, where they are thriving and finding their voices, singing their own songs, and dancing their own dances. This home is where they are re-enacting the life of Palestine away from the homeland and engaging in political and religious practices that support the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Here the possibility of a transnational identity is emerging. Members of diaspora form new lives in new settings and the idea of homeland becomes important, but it is not the only source of identity.
Extending Palestine beyond geography to a category of practices wherever one is located (whether in the Occupied Territory or in diaspora) cannot be underestimated if the diaspora are to speak of their survival as a people in the context of a vanishing homeland. As the struggle for homeland continues, so must the struggle to articulate a narrative of the Palestinian people continue if they are to survive and thrive in the face of al-Nakba and its continuing consequences.
Moving Beyond Trauma: A New Identity
“A pain that is not transformed is transferred,” Richard Rohr so aptly says.[xxv] The wounded may develop what Marc Gopin calls “negative identity,” which is an identity that has developed out of a negative or traumatic experience. As he puts it, “If the rule of deep identity of the stranger is ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18), then the rule of superficial identity or negative identity is ‘do unto others what they have done unto you, or before they do it unto you again.’”[xxvi] Sadly, the formation of the dominant Jewish identity has taken this direction. Palestinians need to avoid falling into a similar trap.
We have witnessed ugly expressions of this negative identity formation in the monopolization and elevation of suffering (the Holocaust) by the Jews at the expense of others, particularly the Palestinians. As Rosemary and Herman Ruether have so well articulated, “The effort to elevate Jewish suffering to unique status, incomparable with any other suffering, is self-defeating. It signals to other people a lack of generosity and solidarity with their suffering. It evokes a response of like ungenerosity.”[xxvii]
The wounded/pained must experience healing before she or he becomes a “wounded-healer.” More appropriately, we must move beyond “wounded-healer” to “mending-healer.” Only those who are “mending” can be “healers.” One cannot lead out of a damaged self. Indeed, as Gillian Rose reminds us, “[p]olitics does not happen when you act on behalf of your own damaged goods but when you act, without guarantees, for the good of all—that is to take the risk of the universal interest.”[xxviii]
The formation of negative identity is a common outcome of a negative or traumatic experience. When we should expect the opposite, what we often encounter is ungenerosity and inhospitality. However, although the formation of negative identity seems a common outcome, it is not the necessary outcome of a painful and traumatic experience. When woundedness undergoes healing, one develops greater ability to understand the wounds of others and become mending healers. When pain undergoes healing, one develops the ability to listen to the pains and voices of others. Similarly, out of one’s experience of displacement and being pushed to the borders one may develop greater ability to listen and understand the stories of others.
Being at the borders gives us the privilege of hearing the stories of others and, perhaps to our surprise, we may discover the overlapping of our stories. In the borders we may come to the awareness that there is no pure and single story, but a cacophony of stories vying to be heard. In the borders we may come to see the binaristic stories of good and evil we have created of each other, which have prevented us from seeing the complexity of our identity. In the borders we may discover that a part of our story is implicated in the other. The best antidote to stories becoming pathological is to put our selves within the hearing range of the stories of others. Perhaps, at the borders, we may learn to let go of a single story identity and begin to embrace the complexities of our identity and the overlapping of our stories. I hope that at the borders we will hear our calling, which is to be open to the call of another’s story.[xxix] I hope that in the hearing of another’s story our hearts begin to embrace the life and stories of others. When this happens to us, we may discover that we are already living in the present, no matter how fragile and limited, the future that we are longing for.
[i] Saddik M. Gohar, “Narratives of Diaspora and Exile in Arabic and Palestinian Poetry,” in Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities (3.2), edited by Tirtha Prasad Mukhopadhyay (Kolkata, India), 240.
[xxvii] Rosemary Radford Ruether and Herman J. Ruether, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 215.