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What Does it Mean to be Palestinian? Two Perspectives on the Palestinian Experience

by Zane Badawi and Farah Sabbah


Sunset over the Mediterranean, as seen from Gaza (courtesy of Zane Badawi)

The West Bank, as seen across the Dead Sea from Jordan (courtesy of Zane Badawi)

[originally published March 25, 2022]


Part I:

Being a Palestinain means that you leave your home every day not knowing if you will be able to come back at night. You have to remember the names of the martyrs that gave up their lives fighting for every Palestinian dignity and freedom. You have to be strong and not give up. You have to expect that any day you might be kicked out of your home so that settlers can live in it instead of you. It means that your biggest dream is to live in a free country and to be able to visit every part of your homeland without restrictions. I lived 17 years of my life in Gaza, a compact city that is populated by 2 million people and is known as the largest open air prison in the world. I have never been to any other city in my own country because I and everyone else in Gaza are not allowed. I memorize the name of every Palestinian city without ever being able to see them with my own eyes.

In 2021 I was lucky enough to be accepted into a college in the US meaning I would be able to leave Gaza. I was so excited to get a permit from the occupation which allowed me to visit Jerusalem for my visa interview, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to walk in Jerusalem or go to Al-Aqsa mosque due to the restrictions. The instructions on not stopping the bus until we arrive at the embassy and to wait for us there to be done with our interviews to be taken back to Gaza. The idea of being physically in Jerusalem was enough for me and meant a lot. During the drive to the embassy, I took a million photos for my family and friends who have never been able to leave Gaza to show them how beautiful our country is. It was a day that I will never be able to forget. I had mixed feelings of happiness and anger at how these great places were stolen from us and we can’t even visit them. At the same time I felt very low about getting this opportunity while many other Palestinians–almost all of them, really–would never be able to experience it. But I keep reminding myself to use this opportunity wisely and amplify the voices of Palestinians.

Living in Palestine my whole life meant experiencing four wars and a stolen childhood. That is all I can remember from my life whenever anyone asks me how it feels to live in Palestine. I forget about all the beautiful things that Palestine allows me to experience as well as my rich and unique culture. Palestine, despite the pain it goes through and all of the people that gave up on it from the beginning of the occupation, is still resistant and steadfast. Coming to the US made me realize that the suffering of my own people is not the only thing I want to talk about with my fellow friends and classmates. I also want to share my culture and traditions. The people of Palestine are strong and they never give up.” if you live, live free or die like the trees, standing up.” Palestinians never complain about anything despite all that they have been through. Still they hold firmly on their lives, family, culture, and traditions. Coming to the US is a great opportunity as here I’m able to share the voice of thousands of palestinians.

Farah Sabbah

Part II: The Home I Never Knew

My father always told me I have my grandfather’s eyes. I have my great uncle’s name. I have Baba’s curly hair. I have the gift of wisdom, given to me graciously by my Tata who spent only her youth in the place she still calls home, fifty years down the road. Living alone, divorced for decades, and stripped of her right to the Palestine she loves, wisdom is all my grandmother has left to give me, and I cherish it. She often talks to me about the value of family, about the newest technique she’s learned to keep fruits and vegetables fresh, about how proud she is of her children, and her grandchildren, about how happy she is that I remembered to call her. And I respond with inshallah, mashallah, alhamdulillah, little snippets of the language I wanted to learn but never did, just to show her that I still care. I still care about the land she reminisces on over afternoon phone calls, about her native tongue, about the values she holds so near and dear to her heart–respect, family, kindness, charity–and about her.

I care about her because she is my grandmother, the woman who helped raise me and gave me all of her love as often as she could; but I care about her, also, because she is the last link to my history–a history that would be remiss of me to forget. My grandfather, a native of Tulkarm, passed away in 2017. My father and his siblings were raised all over, except, it seems, in Palestine; they were never able to realize physically the internal connection they felt to the land their parents grew up in. I have no memories of sunrises over the Mediterranean, no memories of olive branches and fertile earth, no memories of the home I never knew, or the songs I never heard. I have only memories of recitations, grand tales of an intangible past that seems far removed even from the people who lived it. And so, my grandmother is all I have left.

I often feel more American than Palestinian; I grew up in the mountains of Tennessee, where industry is the chemical factory that spits plumes of smoke high into the air, and my parents’ divorce meant I was removed from the Palestinian side of my family for months, years at a time. But I am forever alienated from America because of my status as a Palestinian. The United States funnels billions of dollars to the oppressors of my people every year; many of those I grew up around refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian existence; and I could never escape jokes about my ethnicity, which I displayed proudly as a child but quickly learned to hide through cruel experience.

When I do tell people that I’m half Palestinian, I always make sure to include, “My grandmother is from Bayt Lahm,” because I am proud to be the descendant of a woman from one of the Holy Land’s most famous cities. I feel blessed to be able to converse with someone who knew firsthand a place that is almost mythical to me. And yet, I feel guilty laying claim to a land that I only ever knew from a distance. Why should I feel proud to be a Palestinian if I haven’t suffered the indignities of those still living there? I ask myself. Who am I to so arrogantly attempt to represent a country in which I’ve never stepped foot, a people from whom I am estranged? I ask myself these questions, and when I do I am reminded that I am one of three Palestinians on my campus of 3,000 students, and to most of the people I know outside my family, I am the only example of a Palestinian–so I need to make myself a good example. I have to put forth my best effort to show those around me that Palestinians are not a dangerous people. We are not a belligerent group of antisemitic radicals, but a nation with a rich, beautiful culture and all the complexities of human beings. We are not hungry for war, but desperate for dignity and for recognition of our basic human rights.

Despite the hardships, being Palestinian is a beautiful thing. I am a part of a wonderful, charitable, loving heritage that I will hold close to my heart forever. Sitting down for breakfast with my family and having sage tea, pita with labneh, and a selection of vegetables from cucumbers to tomatoes is a memory that warms my heart. Hearing the joy in my grandmother’s voice when I speak to her in Arabic will always bring a tear to my eye. And the hospitality of Arabs of every nation is something that continues to astonish me. I am forever proud to call myself a Palestinian, and the keffiyeh my grandfather passed down to me will serve as a reminder that, though Palestinian liberation may be far off, Palestine will live on. She will live on, because the call of freedom is louder than the silence of oppression. She will live on, because her people are stubborn and proud and bear a love for their country and culture that is unrivaled throughout the world. She will live on, because, for the sake of justice and peace and pride, she must.


قبل ميلاد الزمان رست

وقبل تفتح الحقب

وقبل السرو والزيتون

وقبل ترعرع العشب

My roots

Were deeply entrenched before the birth of time

And prior to the ushering of eras

Before cypresses and olive trees

And even before the grasses grew

- Mahmoud Darwish, “Write Down, I am an Arab”

Zane Badawi

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