Memories in exile

Last Updated : 30 June 2012, 21:03 IST

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‘Seeking Palestine’ shines light on the emotional landscape of second and third generation Palestinians in search of new beginnings, writes Revathi Siva Kumar

To the average Indian, Palestine is not more than a bombed city in a grey newspaper. Hence, listening to modern voices from that ancient land is an insightful experience.

Seeking Palestine turns the beam upon the emotional landscape of mostly second and third generation Palestinians. This remarkable anthology of works by 15 essayists, writers, poets, critics and memoirists, who weave us through years and miles from ‘home’, is a touching, intense work throbbing of love, loss and longing.

Brought together by Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh, the collection is a fine testimony to the different states of being that the typical Palestinian has morphed into today. In spite of being a family person and a professional, s/he most often may also be an exile, emigrant, recluse, politician, hunted, aggressor, victim.

The writers wear their avatars and roles with a serious sense of legacy as well as awareness of its historical burden. The lyrical prose and poetry makes the book a special treat.

The editors explain, in their preface, that the book tries to “imagine”, rather than represent new Palestinian writing. Yet, the writers do seem very representative. Beshara Doumani captures the compelling inclination to write in A Song from Haifa: “Writing as conquest.

Writing as crucifixion of the past. Writing as liberation….and yet, living, writing and reading only deepens the sense of exile and isolation.” Similarly, all the essays capture the remarkable paradox and intensity of passion that has not dimmed in spite of wandering for six decades in other countries. As Raja Shehadeh says, “In fact, I both stayed and left; I became an internal exile.”

However, you do not find a chronological progression. The selection seems random, without showing an evolution that is linear or even circular. Although the editors seem to have loosely classified the essays into three main sections, you do not get the feeling that the essays are remarkably different in theme, understanding, or lessons learnt, even if they take us through diverse adventures, memories and stories.
Hence, the themes seem similar: the agony of homesickness even though many have never been ‘home’; the feeing of rootlessness and lack of fusion into an adopted country; a strong sense of inheritance and an Odyssean feeling of a journey back towards a point from which it did not begin. When you finish the book, therefore, you get the overwhelming impression that you have not heard different stories, but just different episodes of a serialised saga.

The book opens with novelist Susan Abulhawa’s recollection of her childhood in a Jerusalem orphanage, journeying through Palestine, Kuwait, Jordan and the US. Her first sentence is startling but apt: “I was a thief” — an accurate summation of the irony of belonging to a dispossessed people who are robbed and then charged of robbery. She slips past borders without papers or arms, and is easily shuffled among innumerable parents and foster homes. She personifies the homeless migrant Palestinian.

Many stories give a glimpse into the historical processes. Rema Hammami takes us through the Occupation, two Intifadas and an endless peace process. There is a wonderful account of the day when Israel invades Palestinian towns in the West Bank in 2002, and the driver carries his passengers from Ramallah towards a bridge to Jordan.

Beshara Doumani notes the peculiar identity of the Palestinian, as Britain sends ‘expats’ to other lands, India sends ‘immigrants’, and Palestine ‘exiles’. Yet the exile never fuses into the host country, even though he is married into an American family, with several relatives spread out all over the US. Doumani aptly sums up his plight: “It is a political oxymoron, even if a privilege, to be from a tiny, colonised country struggling to rid itself of Israeli domination and, at the same time, to be a citizen of an empire that is the principal keeper of Israel.”

In all the essays, memory is necessarily a strong leitmotif, as it is the single telescope through which the exile continues to view his passion. Suad Amiry, in a powerful poem, addresses her homeland thus:
“O how I desire one ordinary day when you do not haunt me
How I long for a pleasant evening when you are not invited
Yearn for amnesia from you…”Apart from memories, many authors revisit their nation too, in an attempt to fuse broken images and make sense of the whole.

Raja Shehadeh, on a visit to a bombed city of Muqata, understands that his vision had sustained him through the darker stages of his struggle. The partially destroyed structures “shimmering behind a veil of fog” attest to the power of the usurpers of our freedom to destroy…..depositories of our dreams.”

And yet, he recognises that there is no going back, that the Israeli and the Palestinian are locked in an eternal struggle. The exile, he recognises, will end only when the enemies renounce the “nonsense” and “lies of divine rights and narrow nationalist narratives” over the small strip of land. The supreme irony is that both sides will reach ‘home’ only if they willingly forego it.

Seeking Palestine, then, is not merely a search for an end, but an attempt to find new beginnings.

Published 30 June 2012, 12:31 IST

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