"Displacement and misplacement are this century's commonplace." -- Joseph Brodsky
When the British mandate over Palestine ended, the United Nations partitioned the Arab land to include a new Jewish state. With Israel's birth in 1948, however, came the inevitable displacement of some 750,000 of Palestine's Arabs, an event that Palestinians call their nakba, or catastrophe.
So without equal was the plight of the Palestinian refugees that the United Nations created an entire agency--the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA--to stem the tide of suffering. Today, UNRWA struggles to administer the once-temporary "camps" that have been home to three generations of Palestine's refugees.
This Saturday (Sept. 16, 2000), supporters of those refugees' right to return to their homes and villages in historic Palestine will gather in Washington, D.C., to demand U.S. and international recognition of their cause. The "right of return" has become a rallying cry in recent months, receiving a groundswell of support from Palestinians who feel shut out of the ongoing top-level efforts to resolve, in one fell swoop, the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Seemingly thousands of Palestinians, most born well after 1948, have joined in a plethora of listservs, traversing cyberspace to marshal international law and advocate "an end to exile."
To be sure, this is a tall order. A recent U.S. Committee on Refugees report affirmed that one in four of the world's refugees is Palestinian, making the Palestinian refugee crisis the most extensive and most intractable of the modern era. In their quest for a solution, Palestinian activists rightly insist upon the legitimacy of international law, insofar as it details refugee rights of restitution and compensation.
But lost in the hypertext is a probing discussion of home and its meaning to Palestine's refugees and exiles (the difference between these categories is less important in the face of foreign occupation). The legal and political precepts of restitution and compensation define both simply as victims, whose only redemption is to return home.
As the child of Palestinian refugees, I fully support the right of return for the 3.7 million Palestinians who remain, stateless and confined, in ramshackle camps a half-century old. But as a Muslim, I find the experience of exile itself to be redeeming. In the Muslim tradition, the Hijra, Muhammad's flight from Mecca in the face of persecution, was in fact the defining moment of Muslim history, the genesis of the Muslim calendar.
Centuries before then, another prophet, Ishmael, faced exile in the empty quarters of the Arabian peninsula. The son of Abraham, Ishmael was cast into the desert with his mother, Hagar, whose concubine status made her the object of much scorn from Abraham's barren and jealous wife, Sarah.
Left to die in the desert, Ishmael and his mother found sustenance from the spring of Zamzam. It appeared only after Hagar, stricken by thirst and maddened by despair, ran a nightmarish sprint between the hills of Safa and Marwa. There, the Mecca of metaphor took root, and Hagar never returned to Canaan.
Like the millions of Muslims who make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, I celebrate Hagar's exile. For without it, there would be no Mecca, no Muhammad, no Islam. As a Muslim, all of my history is a consequence of Muhammad's Hijra and Hagar's exile.
But I still imagine the banished concubine whispering memories of Canaan to her son, and I still keep Palestine alive in the language of my mother's dreams. In them, Solomon's pools--where her father drowned--are surrounded by Bethlehem's pear trees and dozing shepherds.
So much depends upon those pear trees, enchanted as they are by the refracted light of memory. They are the essence of home. But absent their shade, absent Palestine, I run the distances between my own Safa and Marwa. I face East supplicant and West defiant.
In America, I pretend that my temptations--to love, to learn, to remain--are tertiary to God and home. But my tongue now blurs consonants that it used to roll like dough off a rolling pin. The one time I returned to Palestine, a cousin noted my speech going lax. "An Arab," he said, quoting the prophet, "is of Arabic tongue."
Before Muhammad made his triumphant return to Mecca, he spent 13 years teaching his followers the foundations of Abraham's monotheism. In that tradition, the rigors of exile lead home, and home is kept alive in the imagination and devout longing of the faithful. Perhaps Palestinians are the keepers of that tradition.
Here, in Alexandria, Va., on the corner of East Del Ray and Mount Vernon avenues, where even the heat perspires, I embrace exile as Hagar and Muhammad did. In this, my Mecca, I take in the lessons of Shenandoah farmers, who, each Saturday morning, sell roughhewn pickling cucumbers twisted like balloon animals.
"The less perfect," the farmers tell me, "the sweeter." I eat the cucumbers raw, whole and brineless, preserving their imperfection.
For me, Palestine remains horizon--the place where earth and sky meet. It is where Muhammad ascended to heaven on a magical horse. It is sacred space, uninhabitable. Ambivalent about my "right of return," I return instead to exile, not yet ready to abandon my search for Zamzam.