Editor’s note: The following excerpt from Nora Lester Murad’s deeply personal collection of essays from spouses, parents, aid workers, expats, and activists who all found themselves in Palestine, is published here with permission.
ajnabi |Arabic, Palestinian dialect aj•na•bee|noun
1. a person not belonging to a particular place or group; 2. an alien;
3. a stranger or outsider. Feminine. aj•na•bee•ya; Plural a•ja•nib
My first awareness of the complexities of being an ajnabiya—or foreigner—was in 1989 during the First Intifada. As an organizer for the Cambridge-Ramallah/El-Bireh Sister City Campaign, I was leading a delegation of North Americans to observe firsthand the Israeli military occupation. I recall being alone, scoping out a pathway through the center of Ramallah during a closure of the city center so that my group could reach a scheduled meeting with an activist.
“Excuse me,” I ventured to a man huddled near a closed shop. There were armed Israeli soldiers on the rooftops, and it wasn’t particularly safe wandering around. “How can I get to the other side of the manara?” I asked, pointing to the main square in the city center. The man made a face in response to my poorly pronounced Arabic, clearly unsure of how to react.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
Maybe he thought I was an Israeli. There were many of them around at the time, but they didn’t usually wander alone in public in Ramallah asking Palestinians for directions.
“I’m from the United States,” I said. “I’m leading a group and we have a meeting on that side of town.”
I’m pretty sure I threw in the name of the highly reputable person we were going to meet. If I didn’t, I should have. There was a pause before the man blurted out:
“If you’re American, it’s your own fault that the manara is closed!”
I laughed out loud. I knew the man was right. As a U.S. taxpayer, I was funding the Israeli occupation. As an organizer, it was my job to tell my compatriots that we must clean up the mess we made.
Not long afterward, I married a Palestinian, and my status as an ajnabiya was entrenched in a new way: I became part of a family. More than thirty years later, I have a collection of memories about how deeply my in-laws love me and an equal number of stories about how I never fully fit in.
I remember my husband’s youngest brother’s wedding. It was a traditional village wedding that went on for days. I washed thousands of rented plastic dishes, first when they were delivered by the rental company and then again after every meal. Sometimes there were so many that the cousins brought in big washing tubs. They crouched on the kitchen floor passing dishes with lightning speed from the sudsy tub to the rinsing tub and then with some abandon to the drying pile. But I stayed glued to the small sink.
I had my own system, and using it, I felt at least minimally competent. At one point, Fatima, my favorite among the wives of my husband’s uncles, said that I had done my share and suggested that I rotate with someone outside to enjoy the festivities. But at highly ritualized events like weddings, there are many, many, many things that must be done “right,” with no tolerance for variation. What if I don’t pour the right amount of soda? What if I offer fruit when I’m supposed to offer nuts, or I offer nuts when I’m supposed to offer fruit? In these situations, I feel I am more of a burden than an asset. “Ma ili dor hone,” I told Fatima, “I don’t have a role here.” Her mouth dropped open, horrified. She loves me as much as I love her, but she knew what I meant and couldn’t respond. I think she agreed with me but wished it wasn’t so. There’s no cure—traditional or pharmaceutical—for being an ajnabiya.
Yet I lived “there”—in Jerusalem and Ramallah—for thirteen years. I raised our girls there. I endured, and in many ways I thrived. Now, writing from Boston, it feels as though my years in Palestine whizzed by like the everyday stream of motorcycles racing through the narrow alleyways of Qalandia refugee camp. Old women weighed down with grape leaves piled on wooden boards, young boys buying cigarettes for their fathers, and girls with faces pressed to upstairs windowpanes—they were my whole context. I lived fully in Palestine. I lived under military occupation. I was part of the Palestinian community. And yet I wasn’t.
I am, in the Palestinian vernacular, an ajnabiya, a female foreigner. Thirty-five years after I met my first “real live Palestinian” (as a university student in Cairo, Egypt), this book is my opportunity to reflect aloud with others who share my experience of “kind of” having a place in the Palestinian community.
It was over a cup of coffee at Donn Hutchison’s museum/house in Ramallah that the idea for this book took shape. It was not a scientific or rigorous process. I reached out to people from various parts of the world who are married to Palestinians, who have lived in Palestine a long time, or who have had long and deep experience relating to Palestine.
I found myself seeking out a certain type of foreigner—the type who is aware that, for many Palestinians, “foreigner” has come to mean internationals who profit from their suffering. I refer to those international aid professionals and diplomats motivated more by career interests than by solidarity. They incite anger in Palestinians, as can be seen in Mariam Barghouti’s piece that follows. In contrast, I wanted to highlight the stories of foreigners who have worked hard, with humility and sincerity, to show Palestinians a different kind of foreigner—one who could become part of the Palestinian community and be changed by it.
I invited them to share their stories. Some said no. They didn’t think it was appropriate for foreigners, whose voices are already so privileged in the discourse, to get even more airtime. “Palestinians should speak for themselves,” they said. Those naysayers helped shaped the vision and direction of the project. “I Found Myself in Palestine” is intentionally not a book about Palestine. It’s not about the Israeli occupation or politics—at least not primarily. It’s not even about Palestinians. Rather, it is a collection of reflections by non-Palestinians whose stories are also a gift of this place.
We write in a world of post-“Orientalist” awareness. Edward Said’s groundbreaking work about Westerners’ tendency to “otherize” Arabs by exaggerating differences and relying on stereotypes has, hopefully, changed writing and reading about Arabs and the Arab world. This book attempts to reflect a heightened awareness of the violence inherent in representing people with less power, and our intent is to stand in opposition to that kind of colonial writing, even though we are inevitably tied to it.
As mothers and fathers of Palestinians, leaders and followers in Palestinian politics, students of Palestinian crafts and cooking, we are boundary breakers, both in Palestine and in our “home” communities, which note our identity transgressions. Some of us have experienced discrimination for the first time
as members of the Palestinian community, either indirectly for our politics,
or directly as the wives/husbands/mothers/fathers/lovers of Palestinians. We
could not just “go home” again, once we had these experiences.
Palestinians are an exiled community, but the writers featured in this col-
lection are not. Each of us has a place we can be with a legal status, most often
the place of our birth, and we need not suffer the indignities of statelessness. In fact, many of the contributors went to great lengths to articulate their privilege and downplay their own challenges, which they feel are minor in comparison with the generations of dispossession, dispersal, and colonial violence suffered by Palestinians. That said, there is some notable convergence in the feelings of alienation and longing expressed in many of the chapters in this book and what Edward Said calls “the loss of something left behind forever.”
The fact is, our love for Palestine not only changes us in ways that cleave a divide between us and our former selves but often is the cause of being pushed away, even suspected, by people to whom we once belonged. We are not exiles, but we are displaced in a way. No matter where we are, we are thought of as not being in the “right” place.
The politics of race, class, language, religion, and markers of opportunity and disadvantage still have currency in today’s postcolonial/neocolonial world, and this can’t help but influence our experiences as ajanib. Northern, white-dominated countries (especially the United States) treat “foreigners” quite differently than the way countries in the global south treat foreigners originating from the global north. I remember when my husband’s cousin came to the United States to serve as best man in our wedding. An American guest was impressed that he was a registered nurse. “You can apply for work permission,” she told him, although he hadn’t asked. “Nurses are among the professions that are needed. You’re lucky. It won’t be hard for you to work here and maybe even get residency so that you can stay.” My husband’s cousin was confused but tried to be polite. “Why would I want to stay here?” he asked. The question left the woman speechless. She assumed that everybody in the world wanted to live in America.
Our experiences unfold in a historical/political context that is complex and pervasive. While the different perspectives represented in this book reflect the opinions of the authors, and the authors only, they are certainly influenced by more than their individual worldviews and assumptions. I hope that readers will keep an open mind. Clearly, becoming an ajnabi/ya in Palestine was something that happened unexpectedly, not something most of us set out to do. Together, this collection is expressive and informative, tragic and triumphant, surprising and universal, but it could never paint a complete picture. The experience of ajanib is constantly changing. I can’t imagine a Palestinian today saying that a closure or curfew is my fault because I’m American, though it’s certainly truer today than it ever was. Palestinians have experienced decades of targeting at the hands of foreigners, but they have also experienced decades of solidarity.
Our work to stay connected to our previous and disparate parts is prevalent in many of the stories and links this exploration of ajanib to the experiences and stories of so many others around the world who have been transformed by contact with difference, as we strive to grow into bigger, and hopefully better, selves. In this way, we contribute our modest insights to the universal quest for identity, belonging, and love in our increasingly interlaced world.