The Fleeting Right to Define Yourself

It is tough to talk about Palestine and the Palestinians without being political. We hear about it from our politicians, in the media, in the news and there are fiercely passionate opinions and arguments from all sides. However, so often what is lost in all this chatter is the humanity and the common and some not so common struggles of daily life.
Having spent so many years, trying to define my own identity, I cannot imagine not having that luxury. Yesterday, I attended a talk given by Suad Amiry at UCLA. Who is she you may ask? Well, she is first an architect with PhD from the University of Edinburgh, a conservator, a writer, a minister, a wife, a daughter, a friend... and she is also Palestinian. However, for just one day she said, she would love to not have to deal with psychological toll of what it means to be Palestinian. Or at least what it means to be Palestinian as labeled by the outside world.

As an architect, she is the director of RiWaQ. They conserve the architectural heritage of Palestine. Her goal is to protect the multiple layers of history that is Palestine - the Greek, the Roman, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Arab, the Christian, the Islamic, the Jewish. The act of restoration becomes a tool for development as it employs the local villagers. Once preserved these buildings are converted into community centers.

Building conserved by RiWaQ
As a writer, she tries to remind us of the rich complexity, heritage and experiences of the Palestinian people, steering clear of the narrow labels that have often been assigned to them. She also tries to voice the daily struggle of life under the world's longest occupation. At the talk she recounted her experiences from her internationally renowned book "Sharon and My Mother-in-Law" which started as her own personal diary to cope with the curfew imposed by the Israeli army during the first Intifada while trapped with her mother-in-law in her own house in Ramallah. Her descriptions had me simultaneously laughing out loud and sighing with sadness for the absurdity of the entire situation.

For 31 days, unable to leave the house, or use the phone, two very opinionated women tolerated each other as days started to blur. She talked about the adept skill required to make a cappuccino in a kitchen with a barrel of a tank pointed at the window. She also described the chaos that ensues when for a few hours the curfew is lifted and 70,000 residents of Ramallah descend on the five grocery shops to stock up on supplies. She also mentioned how wedding invitations in Ramallah go out with multiple back up dates just in case there is still a curfew imposed. The joyous occasion is set for this day...however if the curfew continues then it will be on this day...and if that day is also under curfew, then the following day...and so on. (Having planned a wedding, I was barely able to coordinate one day, let alone one with five alternative dates)!
Her more recent book "No Sex and the City" is set after the Hamas victory, wherein she mourns the loss of the Palestine she knew and loved. The secularism and pluralism she fought for and valued is now she claimed replaced with fundamentalism and localism. Politicians in Palestine and globally, she argued, have reduced their individual identities to narrow categories of Sunni, Shia, martyr, terrorist, victim and their political groups. She fears that the election of Hamas will only perpetuate these stereotypes of Palestinians.

Many governments (including the U.S. and the Palestinian), now use fear as a tool to govern, she explained. Citizens have become hostages to their own governments. And because of fear, the ability to judge a situation accurately is lost. There is a lack of logic in this world, she sighs. What distresses her the most, is that in her opinion, some Arabs have unfortunately lived up to the western stereotype of them.

* The murals I have shown here were done by English graffiti writer Banksy on the wall the Israelis are building around the West Bank.

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