Have you ever heard a song, liked it, listened to it constantly, but never really understood it? That was every Fairouz, Ahmed Kaabour, and Marcel Khalife song of my childhood. All I ever retained was that the streets of Jerusalem were unhappy, and that real Palestinians marched with olive branches in one hand, and their coffins upon their shoulders. Every car ride with my father since I was a toddler until now, the anthems of Palestine were played loudly from cassettes that he had bought on the side of lank refugee camp streets. Growing up in America, music and Palestine meant a lot to me. Arabic music and poetry were all I knew about our homeland besides the stories my grandparents told me when I still lived close enough to visit them everyday. In all honesty, I have always felt like a stranger. Even as a young kid, I knew I was different. It wasn’t just that my fellow American peers rejected me and looked down upon me, I also distanced myself from them. For the most part, my only friends were those faded out cassettes and books. For a long time I was alone, and I had convinced myself that this was meant to be, because my place in this world was ocean’s away in the Palestine of my grandmother’s stories. Except I realized that there was no place anywhere when I one day finally understood the meaning of Fairouz’s angelic lyrics, and I think my world fell apart while I stood on the stone steps of the Mount of Olives with the golden Dome of the Rock glittering in the horizon. Fairouz sang through my tears, her voice an eternal echo within my consciousness “When Jerusalem was stolen, all the love of this world ceased to exist and within the hearts of all people began a war”. I should have been happy. I was. And I wasn’t. I felt guilt and bitterness that I was here and my grandparents were wasting away in a refugee camp watching the Jerusalem channel on a tiny television screen in a cramped tiny room, with nothing but mats on the ground. And I was sad, unbelievably sad. Because I didn’t fit. Not even here. If I was to be even a stranger in Palestine, then there was no hope. The reason I didn’t fit, not even in Palestine was simply because the Palestine of my grandmother’s childhood was gone. It was erased, it no longer exists. Palestinians in the diaspora returning to Palestine will balk at the beauty of the country we lost, but we will never truly fit or be at home. You are a stranger in a country you heard so much about, a country you were raised to love more than life itself, but it doesn’t matter. For the rest of our lives, we will be strangers and we can only dream about Palestine 1947, the country my grandparents were expelled from when they were children. When I came back to America, my social withdrawal heightened. I was so frustrated. Nothing I did, no matter how many Palestinian maps I memorized or no matter how hard I pretended to not have any connections to the Middle East, nothing would change the fact that I was an outcast here and an outcast there. Most people my age I have the pettiest troubles to worry about, and sometimes I wish I was like them. I feel like Atlas, all this burden on my shoulders all the time.But I still retain my identity because I do with all my heart believe that Palestine will return as it was and I will not be a stranger when it does. All I can hear is Marcel Khalife and the notes of his rich oud; “All the birds, all the olive groves, all the songs of the rain were not included in my passport….the hearts of all people are my nationality” So for now, I’m just a wanderer. My mouth is clamped shut.
I don’t want to speak to people who see me as a stranger, who view me with suspicion. I only unclamp to make promises to my faltering grandparents on the phone, although I know that their fate is sealed, that they will die as strangers and their bones will be laid in wretched exile. And I’ll continue listening to Fairouz and all the other great singers of our time, because I am hoping to un hear the meaning of their lyrics so I can find comfort in my solitude once again.