I’ve been traveling to the Holy Land for about ten years now, and early on in my journeys I came across something deeper, quieter, and more melancholy than the noise and blood and rage of endlessly recurring headlines. I could see it in the faces of aging women in exile, transfixed before the television screen on Christmas Day, gazing at the Church of the Nativity, just at the end of Star Street, where they were born. I could hear it in the voices of grandfathers remembering a family lemon tree, or the silk and indigo of the Wednesday market, or the truckloads of zetuns bound for the olive press at harvest time.
This was longing: an attachment to land and village going back to 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes in the new state of Israel.
In my trips to the West Bank, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, I would come to understand that this sense of longing could not be disconnected from the current violence, or from the “peace process” that never leads to peace.
Indeed, the longing for 1948 seems the one main thing unexamined in the countless words of copy and miles of videotape spilled over the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For the elderly refugee living in a camp in southern Lebanon, who can gaze upon the lights of his native land, or for the middle-aged exile in Nebraska whose mother still holds the key to a stone house that no longer exists, the longing forges into political and human aspiration, embodied in a phrase that is never far from Palestinian lips: the right of return. Yet the longing also creates a physical and psychic disembodiment. For many refugees, the memories, even passed onto the third generation removed from the village, seem more vivid and real than the camps where their families have lived for more than 50 years.
“My home,” a young man in a camp near Beirut told me, “is the homeland I have never seen.”
Despite several UN resolutions, and after years of ambiguous language, the United States has now endorsed Israel’s long-standing position: that a Palestinian return to the 1948 homeland is no longer an option. And indeed, that homeland is, in some ways, imaginary. Yet the aspiration is real, and as deep and abiding as it has ever been.
– Sandy Tolan
Thanks to Jay Allison and our friends at Transom.org. Original music composed and performed by Mohsen Subhi Abdelhamid.