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Sculpture by Adrián Yañez Piumarta; photograph by María Emilia Lleras; rights obtained by Maria Elena Renderos
The Brink

Who Are We, the Palestinians?

This essay is a backward journey to beginnings, belongings and theological political anxieties.

Until I started university, I felt a natural sense of belonging to the city of my birth, Jaffa – يافا  (Yafa in Arabic), and to the history of the land to which I felt I belonged, Palestine  فلسطين (Falastin). This sense of belonging was inextricable from experiencing my life under the eye of God. City, land, and God occupied the same space and time: I lived a theological life. Gathering for the evening prayer with my mother, ʿAysheh Abu Dayyeh, my brothers Islam and Muḥammad, and my sisters Huda and Duʿāʾ – all of us in a straight line behind the praying voice of my father, Ḥassan Kundos – was the daily ritual that brought us all together.

Mine is the third generation of the Nakba in Jaffa, the natural heir of the tree that was severed from its roots, leaving behind it a gaping hole in the ground. The families. The traders. The workers. The intellectuals. The noise disappeared and left a void. The void was filled with wounds, and the wounds became tradition. They pass through the living body; a scab that won’t heal, so that we don’t forget.

We must remain close to the land. We must remain. But remaining is not easy. And memory is not a romantic task. The living wounds are ugly and become uglier with time, from generation to generation, filled with puss and emanating the stench of death. The dead need to be buried, but these dead cannot be buried. And inside the gaping hole, which was revealed after the trees were severed from their roots, our parents were born. The breasts to which they clung did not produce milk. They opened their eyes to dust.

At the outbreak of the Second Intifada, in October 2000, I began my undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Palestinian students were absent from lecture halls and seminar rooms. Instead, we stood in front of the main gate to the campus, protesting the use of live ammunition against Palestinian demonstrators that had killed thirteen, all of them Israeli citizens. The pale white face of one of the female students, holding a picture of her dead teenage brother, is burned into the consciousness of my generation.

On campus one could identify three different types of nationalist groups, and I was compelled to join one of them.

Call the first group religious nationalists. The male and female religious nationalists hurried along the corridors of the campus. Their voices were not heard in the cafeteria, on the lawns, or in the student residences. When they organized cultural events, they circulated the information only among themselves. They established invisible but solid walls around themselves, making it impossible to peek into what was happening inside.

To my mind, it was unclear whether these walls were consciously chosen or involuntary reactions. Sometimes it seemed that the lack of visibility was a result of weakness, intellectual or emotional, a product of the difficulty presenting their perspective clearly and confidently among both the Palestinian student community and the Israeli-Jewish majority on campus. At other times, it seemed that their withdrawal from everything different from them was a defense mechanism against the social distance and the criticism they experienced from other groups. And indeed, the criticism that the religious nationalist group members felt was not a result of a paranoid illusion or their innermost thoughts. National religiosity was perceived by quite a few people on campus as a kind of mutation that religious people invented when they hitched a ride on the Arab national project.

A second group, call them conservative nationalists, was much larger than the religious nationalist group. Its members participated in demonstrations, moved freely along the corridors of the various faculties, and organized musical events in the dormitories. But they were passive, seeing reality as a natural and static given that neither enables nor requires change.

Far from the family supervision into which they were born and from the gaze of the society in which they were educated, many conservative nationalist students, especially the young women, saw potential for exercising personal freedoms. For most, this potential remained unfulfilled. The women tended to live quietly and avoid unaccustomed adventures – drugs, alcohol, and sex. Actually exercising potential freedoms would have unavoidably drawn attention and started rumors that would have jeopardized the narrow window of independence that was opened to them when they attended university, and which would close on completion of their degree, finding a partner, and returning home.

A third group, call them secular nationalists, adopted Western appearances. These young men and women appeared elegant, confidently taking up communal spaces, not looking for permission from the Jewish overlords. To me, the secular nationalists seemed conspicuously more intellectual than the other groups. I was enchanted by the sparkle in their eyes that projected independence and realized personal freedom, accompanied by a firm commitment and determination to change the social, economic, and political structures in which they lived. They led the activities of the political cells in the various campuses, participated regularly in demonstrations at the Qalandia checkpoint at the entrance to Ramallah and in radical intellectual circles in the city, and spent their evenings at bars. They did not agree among themselves on any single political direction and were mainly divided between socialists and liberals. Despite the variance in political agenda, they all shared a secular perspective detached from tradition and from religious norms.

When it seemed to me that I would have to align myself with one of the three groups, the decision was intuitive and immediate. Between the ghosts that closed themselves off from the world (the religious), those who adhered to ready-made rules and had no will to pursue change (the conservatives), and those who I thought were daring and revolutionary (the secular), I chose the third.

This spontaneous decision quickly shaped my sense of self. During the years in which I became a secular nationalist activist, the transient crises of faith I had experienced previously became more frequent, protracted, and also different in nature. Earlier, in my childhood, I experienced this world and God’s world as closely entangled. Now that relationship between worlds became tense; I had to separate them when one became intolerable in the company of the other. Burns suddenly appeared in my theological selfhood. This disruption of my cosmic movements – of the prayer of my childhood – caused pain in my arms, and I felt as if I was subjected to a force I couldn’t identify and thus couldn’t name in order to oppose or react to it.

The gatekeepers of the secular nationalist project often reject Islam– not only in the sense of a faith but also as a civilization – in one fell swoop. They did not see the Islamic civilization as an essential part of cultural history, as a valuable component of belonging, of selfhood and language, as a method for theory and critique.

I was ashamed of my faith in God. I had severed the connection between my world and His world, and I hid my prayer mat in the deepest part of my closet in the student residence. I separated from God, and I disconnected my body from my soul. Light turned into darkness and darkness turned into light. I would appear and then disappear. I adopted a secular cloak, and acquaintances in my hometown accused me of becoming Ashkenazi, imitating the most privileged class of European Jews. Among the conservative group on campus, I was seen as one who had apostatized; among secular circles I was seen as one suffering from emotional and behavioral instability. My conservative and secular peers agreed: this girl is going through something bad.

As a child in Yafa, in family gatherings dedicated to our relationship with God, each of us had our own personal space during the last moments of prayer in which to bow down and utter our private pleas through whispers of the heart. In the background the Egyptian television station was muted; it aired classical or contemporary music, the news, or an Egyptian film to which we returned after our prayer, watching it closely and sharing our opinions and critique.

In our small apartment on the third floor of 5 Midrash Pinchas Street, a young couple would arrive secretly, a woman and a man, each from a different class background, to ask my father to convince their parents of their love; a widow who came to ask for help to buy books for her children for the new schoolyear; a husband who had fought with his wife and needed a way to mollify her; daily pleas of women and men looking for an alternative sheikh to those sheikhs in the mosques. My father would share with his visitors his religious point of view which corresponded with what they came to hear: God’s ways are sometimes mysterious and unclear to their mundane eyes, but He sees into the heart of each and every person. His love for His creatures supersedes that of their mothers for them.

More visitors: a sex worker, to whom my father gave our family’s last twenty shekels; a troubled philosophy student who came to find a way of reconciling what he was learning at university with the religious feelings on which he was raised; an imam friend who came to prepare his Friday mosque sermons; friends in their fifties who wanted to learn to read and write so that they could consult the Qurʾān on their own; and a long line of acquaintances who simply dropped in for a cup of coffee and talked with him about politics and religion in the Arab world and the fate of Islam.

As the sound of their footsteps vanished in the twists of the stairwell, my father would come into the kids’ bedroom, his face soft and radiant, and declare that the area was clear, and that we should gather in the living room again. After midnight, when we had all gone to bed and the knocks on our apartment door became less frequent, he looked the happiest. He would sink into his old armchair with a sigh, the Qurʾān on one side, a jug of coffee and two packs of Rothmans Filter on his other side.

Today, despite its geographical distance from the rest of the Palestinian population living under the Israeli regime, you will find in Yafa rifts that characterize all Palestinian society and much beyond it, rifts as deep as the silence about them, between those who subscribe to a religious nationalist worldview and those who subscribe to a secular nationalist one.

Consider memorial protests. They provide a stage for accumulated resentment against the hostility of the Israeli regime toward the Palestinian population of the city in the wake of constant attempts to dispossess it of more and more chunks of what is left to be ours. At the same time, these collective events serve to prove patriotism and enlightenment.

At such political events the religious group, which is always, without exception, led by a man, chants “Allahu Akbar” and “May religion restore its lost aura.” The subtext of the slogans is that the Israeli occupation is proof of Palestinian society’s deviation from religion and that a return to religion will bring about liberation (and God’s forgiveness). These messages of internal criticism are directed against the secular parts of society, making them culpable for the calamitous situation.

Secular protests, which are often led by a woman, begin or conclude with the Palestinian anthem, and the frequent calls for حرية (ḥuriyya, freedom) are interspersed between slogans for emancipating the land and emancipating women. The secular protesters make unmistakable allusions to traditional men and their historical responsibility for subjugating women and the implications that this has for the conquest of the land.

When the two groups of protesters cross paths, the secular woman will have contempt in her eyes when she looks at the religious, “backward” man who, in return, will silently convey that she is wanton. Perhaps one of those secular women would think to herself that the sexual assaults she often suffers don’t usually come from those religious men, but from those secular revolutionaries who stand behind her at demonstrations and call for freedom day and night.  

By and large, however, the protests will be organized on different days, and if they happen to be at the same day and time, both groups will maintain physical distance from each other. One group will march behind the other so that neither the words nor their speakers will intermingle. Paradoxically the mutual concern not to disturb each other makes it far easier for the Israeli police to disperse the crowd for “disorderly conduct.”

This drama illustrates in the clearest, most painful way that the age-old question – who are we, the Palestinians? – is one that hasn’t been seriously confronted.

It is impossible to consider who the Palestinians are if the people in charge of religion do not allow for religious texts to be read from the perspective of our current place and time, if they do not realize the deep meaning of the Qurʾānic verse “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” A serious consideration of who the Palestinians are cannot happen if secular nationalist leaders believe that history can be buried, that the longstanding existence of the religious and the theological in the social belongingness of the Palestinian people plays no significant role in planning our future.  

Just as the theological we is not exclusive to any group but is a space open to movement and interpretation, so too the modern we changes forms and shades among the religious. A young girl wearing shorts and unkempt hair can fast during the month of Ramadan with great sincerity, just as an independent girl in a veil can swim in the ocean and discover its treasures. The best in people, including sincere faith in God, is visible to God only, whereas the world is open to us all.

While secular and religious camps hold each other by the throat, failing to recognize the politics that divides them into separated groups, not acknowledging the many things that hold them together, the blood of our young women and men will continue to spill into the gaping ruptures created by the Nakba – until the tragedy becomes a meaningless comedy, with no order or logic.

A longer version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming special issue of the journal Political Theology on “Settler Colonialism and Political Theology.” An earlier version was published in Hebrew, in February 2020, by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute’s magazine Hazman Hazeh.

The author would like to thank colleagues and friends who have read and commented on the English text: Karma Ben-Johanan, Theodor Dunkelgrun, Amal Eqeiq, Rivka Feldhay, Israel Gershoni, Galen Guengerich, Zeina G. Halabi, Gal Hertz, Georges Khalil, Dana Lloyd, Vincent Lloyd, Lamia Moghnie, Maria Elena Ronderos, Galili Shahar, Sana Tannoury-Karam, Antonio Ungar, and Zohar Weiman-Kelman. Ultimate gratitude goes to the Kundos family.

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