Tunes from a Palestinian Symphony

I am walking the streets of Ras Beirut where I grew up, where my parents’ home still exists in Diaspora; as I promenade while doing some errands within a four square kilometer area, I feast my eyes on the sign posts that survive the years: A huge rubber tree that intertwines with the fencing around the walls of a building we lived in prior to our current residence.  In the same vicinity, several flower shops extend into the pavement with stems of small trees and flowers that seem to hug passers-by.  I scan the age-old shop from which indigenous farm goat cheese and milk can be obtained and it is still there, as it was thirty years ago!  Further on, the small music store where I used to record my preferred songs has been changed into a photocopying and printing outlet, but another smaller shop has sprung up not far from the Lebanese American University (formerly known as Beirut University College) where I did my undergraduate studies in philosophy; I went there yesterday and purchased magical recordings of French oldies by Aznavour and Joe Dessin, singers I was not particularly in love with when I was young, but whom I now cherish because they tease out important memories. The seventy-year-old man who owns the little shack- turned- into- a- music- store has made a living out of recording ‘the Best of ‘ famous local and foreign singers: how resourceful. 

It is interesting how haunting these French tunes were for me when I was in elementary and secondary school, they symbolized dislocation, dispossession, a certain melancholy because of the Lebanese culture’s amorous infatuation with them, particularly the Lebanese Maronite community who loved to speak French –  because of their ties with French colonialism – and who hated the Palestinians.   I always wondered why this fanatic Christian religious community considered our existence to be such a burden on them while other Lebanese Muslim and Christian communities empathized with our predicament: my classmates loved me and had compassion for the plight of Palestinians; there were no issues there, at least no apparent ones.[1] 

I began to gradually understand the confessional nature of Lebanese politics and the web of intrigues that used to be woven constantly around the issue of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.  I watched as the generous support of the larger majority of the Lebanese people grew for our Palestinian cause and the heavy price incurred on Lebanon by Israel for that support since it fortified the Palestinian Resistance Movement; the alliance between the Lebanese left and the Palestinian Resistance was used as a rationale for Israel’s expansionary plans towards Lebanon – plans which had always been there since Israel needed Lebanese water and it needed to build more settlements in its northern regions.  After an occupation of the South of Lebanon that lasted more than eighteen years, the smallest country in the Arab world taught its occupiers a hard lesson in dignity and integrity in the year 2000 when Israeli troops were driven out of Lebanon in what was a huge defeat for Israel.  It began to dawn on me that all confessional and sectarian divisions in Lebanon and the Arab world were a consequence of colonialism and Orientalism.[2]  When I became more politically astute, I also realized how many of the leading Arab thinkers had been and continue to be Christian Arab intellectuals[3] and how important it is to highlight this fact since the American media attempts to paint nationalistic movements in the Arab world along sectarian and confessional lines creating the formula: Islamic=terrorist=needs to be eradicated!

Prior to my departure to Montreal, Canada in 1988 to do my Master’s at McGill Faculty of Education, I had lived through twenty years of civil war in Lebanon; this experience had really molded me as a resilient mother and educator.  On the other hand, my experience of living, teaching, doing research and raising my sons in Canada for seventeen years, one of the best countries in the world, led me (one year into my residence) to choose to become Canadian for I came to appreciate immensely the great Canadian multicultural mosaic and the unique values inherent in our country’s constitution; it also molded me as a female thinker.  My personal journey has been, therefore, rich and complex, but also fraught with difficulty and many challenges.  The ultimate challenge was completing the writing of my doctoral dissertation at McGill while taking chemotherapy for breast cancer.  In a way, that also saved my life because it took my mind off my physical agony and the trauma of dealing with such a disease.  In 2005 I received an offer to go to the Kingdom of Bahrain to help in the establishment of a new university; after completing my mission, I joined Ahlia University in 2009, the best private university in Bahrain, and I continue to teach and do research here.  

My parents were both born and grew up in Palestine while it was under British mandate, Violet in Birzeit and Kamel in Jaffa; they still have their Palestinian passports issued during British colonial times as well as Palestinian money, kept safely tucked away somewhere as glaring empirical evidence countering lies perpetrated by Zionists about Palestinian existence: “A land without a people for a people without a land” were the words deceitfully declared in front of God and the human race in 1948 by Zionist leaders in their attempts to defraud our history!  It used to baffle me as a child how the world accepted those Zionist lies.  Were not the Jewish people the heroes of the Old Testament who, we were taught in our British missionary school – the Lebanese Evangelical School for Girls – had known the One God, and had been instructed by the Lord to abide by the Ten Commandments? 

It was also seriously injurious to my dignity that I and all my community, thousands of us, hundreds of thousands, millions of us were considered invisible!  I carried that gamut of emotions ranging from grief over our great predicament to passion for our cause with me until adulthood and it led me to investigate as a researcher the power of destructive mythology. I had observed how the Zionist movement had insidiously aligned itself to the Christian West and was using the concept of the ‘Promised Land’ to perpetuate its ideology and justify occupation.  It led me to agree with Joseph Campbell that myth, like art, should be interpreted metaphorically, and not literally, in terms of connotation and not denotation;[4] in other words to conclude that the implications of not considering the universal archetypes and the common human identity that culturally bred mythologies point to can be disastrous for world peace.[5]  Joseph Campbell spent his life writing about those issues and attempting to warn readers of the grave consequences of a literal interpretation of mythology by certain ethnic groups while pointing to examples of those fanatic interpretations in global conflicts.[6]  Norman Finkelstein’s latest book, Beyond Chutzpah[7] is by the attestation of renowned scholars, including Israeli ones, a brilliant and highly illuminating, comprehensive, and systematic study on the re-writing of history that the blind defenders of Israel engaged in to defend their illegal actions.

I have seen Palestinians over the span of more than sixty years invest huge efforts in demonstrating and proving that they do exist, that they have a legitimate, long, continuous history in Palestine that spans over five thousand years, that they were indeed around seven hundred thousand Palestinians living in Palestine prior to its occupation in 1948;[8] indeed, Palestinian civilization was constituted by two great civilizations over the centuries, namely: The Canaanite civilization and the Arab Islamic civilization.[9]

I have seen how our people struggled, whether through research,  political efforts,  literary and poetic writings, art and painting, music and exquisite embroidery, as well as commemoration festivals of a national nature to demonstrate that they deserve, like all other peoples, their basic human, civil and legal rights, that they are a people with a national identity and a rich and dynamic heritage.  As if the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian martyrs inside occupied Palestine and outside of it are not enough of a testimony.  As if the thorough, detailed and diligent research and field study completed by Dr Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout over the period of twelve years concluding that there were three thousand five hundred victims in the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla in 1982 [10](between corpses identified and those abducted and missing, full with names, locations and professions) – was not enough.  As if the hundreds of nameless Palestinians who get robbed of their lives and livelihoods daily – and most of whom are under eighteen – in the most clandestine manner at the hands of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza, under the pretext of “security reasons” are not enough; as if the suffering of children who attempt to go to their schools while barred by racist walls of steel and separation are not enough.  As if the assassination of most of our leaders living in Diaspora by the Israelis, beginning with the great writer Ghassan Kanafani in 1972, and continuing with the three Palestinian leaders residing in Verdun Beirut in 1973, one of whom was my mother’s first cousin, Kamal Nasir – also a great poet and writer, nicknamed “The Conscience” of the Resistance Movement – was not enough.  As if the latest growing attestations of a minority of Israelis who served in the army in the West Bank and Gaza and the publications by revisionist Israeli historians like Benny Morris[11] and Ilan Pape[12], as well as the recent publication by Shlomo Bin-Ami[13], Israel’s foreign minister, are not enough!  As if the incarceration of TEN THOUSAND Palestinians in Israeli jails who are tortured and denied basic human rights is not enough!  As if the luminous white phosphorus that lit up Gaza at night and burnt the flesh of mothers and children at the end of 2008 and the outset of 2009 has not been enough! 

Flashback: As a teen-ager living in Lebanon, I was constantly questioning my identity amidst the plethora of political narratives surrounding me; I was constantly attempting to place myself on the intersection of ethnicity, culture, nationality, history, language, race, socio-economic class, and education.  I always seemed to slip and end up on the periphery; there was nothing typical about our family except that we were Palestinian middle class, fortunately, we did not live in the camps; on so many levels, the multifarious aspects of our lives in the mosaic that was ‘the Palestinian Lebanese landscape’ and later became ‘the Palestinian Lebanese Canadian landscape’ is comprised of very rich, complex, and highly interesting and colorful tensions.  I grew up listening to classical music, namely Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bach; I also listened and enjoyed old English songs, as well as the modern contemporary rock of the Beatles, the Bee Gees, and Abba; I learnt from my parents to enjoy the best of Arabic tunes by the great Lebanese singers Fairouz and Wadeeh Al Safi, as well as the great Egyptian singer Um Kulthoum (whom my father worshipped).  I read avidly, to start with abridged translations of classical fiction during the summers of grade five and six, and later, in high-school, Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, and so many of the English romantic poets whom I loved like Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats.  My father also introduced me to great Arabic writers like the great fiction author Taha Hussain (the Egyptian blind genius) and to Ahmed Shawqi, the Egyptian Prince of Poets.

I often think of Rachel Corrie, the American peace activist, and wonder about the irresponsibility of the American government regarding investigating the cold-blooded murder of this young American woman, only twenty three years of age on March 16, 2003 in Rafah in Gaza, by two Israeli soldiers identified only as Y.F. and E.V.  as they manned a bulldozer bought from the company Caterpillar in the United States which was ready to demolish the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family. Rachel chose to stand clad in her perfectly visible orange vest with reflective strips and holding a bullhorn in front of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family, a home which was about to be demolished by the military engine of what Hanan Ashrawi calls “the longest occupation in modern history.”[14]  The soldiers ran Rachel over twice pretending not to see her, to the horror of her fellow activists who were watching and screaming at the soldiers at the tip of their voices and waving.  Rachel stood firm, unwavering in her determination through peaceful means to stop the demolition and stand tall for justice and human rights.  Her martyrdom is a testimony to the justice of our cause and to the impunity with which the United States regards issues of injustice when they are related to Israeli perpetrators – since the American government never truly forced Israel to investigate her murder. 

My Teita Aziza, mother’s mother, who lived most of her life in Birzeit near Ramallah in the West Bank but ended up spending her later years at the homes of her sons and daughters in Diaspora, in Kuwait, in Germany, in Beirut, in Jordan, and in Dubai, wanted to be buried in Birzeit, on her land, in her village; however, the Israeli occupation army prevented her coffin from crossing over to the West Bank on the bridge separating Jordan from occupied Palestine!  Not only are we not allowed to visit or live in Palestine, but we are not even allowed to be buried in our homeland!

Recently, one of my first cousins visited the land that our paternal family still owns in Taibeh; he sent us pictures of the land and the olive trees there.  My one surviving paternal uncle has maintained its legal ownership and assigned and paid an overseer to manage it until the day we can all have a reunion or perhaps build a family home there after Israeli troops completely withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.  I hear a strange voice whisper in my ear: “Wild dreams, this will never happen!” My heart leapt as I looked at the pictures of our Taibeh land; it immediately brought to mind the yearly reunions we had in Birzeit, my mother’s village, prior to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967.  Those summers were spent with my maternal aunts and uncles and our cousins.  Beautiful images flood my mind when I remember those exciting summers, the reunions, the love, fun, and fellowship, as well as the laughter, great laughter!  The roaring laughter of my father and my maternal uncles and aunts and their spouses, as well as the joyful exchanges and ruminations of my mother and her sisters who interspersed our games as children by calls to come have something to eat.   We ran and climbed trees and build castles from earth in the beautiful and fertile garden of my great maternal aunt’s mansion where we all stayed.  I remember that sometimes when I used to hear the laughter echo in the gazebo, I would run up the stairs and go inside to catch the end tail of a joke or a story.  It was sublime!  And how could I ever forget the story of my great maternal grandmother, my grandmother’s mother, Teita Selma, who was betrothed to her cousin, but whom my great grandfather fell in love with: on her wedding day, Jiddou (Grandpa) Nasir climbed the church ceiling and came down on a rope to the alter (!) after having positioned his men around and inside the church in order to not allow anyone to intervene.  He wrapped the braid of her un-usually long fair hair around his arm and carried her out of church telling everyone that he was taking her to the convent until he can make their wedding arrangements!

The smell of the earth in Birzeit still romances my senses; the taste of the vegetable salad picked from the land was exquisite; I loved picking fruits, like ‘safarjal,’ plums, and mulberries and felt that I was indeed in Paradise!  The syrupy taste of the freshly picked figs in the morning from my grandfather’s land, ‘Al Marj,’ especially the dark purple ones, was for me unmatched in the world, as was the taste of the grapes that were tipsy with Palestinian sunshine and fortified by the minerals of Palestinian earth.

As I walk my shoulders become heavier; I carry one hundred thousand refugees on my shoulders, so do my brothers and sisters the Palestinians activists, writers, researchers, poets, medical doctors, engineers, pharmacists, construction workers, tailors, accountants, millionaires, philosophers, musicians, actors and performers, technologists, graphic designers, singers, computer specialists, business men and women, NGO workers, CEOs and government employees: all in Diaspora.  ‘Atlas shrugged’ but none of us can shrug.  Our existence is weighted by a flood of loss, by the magnitude of the denial of our legitimate legal, civil, and human rights and by the degrading conditions in which our brothers and sisters continue to in live inside refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab countries.  When will the world communities decide that it is time to grant them their rights including the right of return

I have taken you on a small virtual walk inside the Diaspora of my existence; there are thousands of stories like mine and millions that are much more touching.  Let us hope that we continue this conversation.

[1] As Golden Gals we still crown our half a century friendship from elementary school with yearly reunions the latest of which was in the mountains of Lebanon this summer.

[2] Said, E.  (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

[3]For example, Edward Said, Albert Hourani, Issa Bullata, Amin Maalouf, and others.

[4]  Flowers, B.S. (Ed.).  (1988).  Joseph Campbell: The power of myth with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday.

[5]  Costandi, S.  (1994). The spiritual aspects of Joseph Campbell’s hermeneutics in mythology: An examination leading to implications for religious education.  Unpublished maters thesis, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.

[6] Campbell, J.  (1986).  The inner reaches of outer space. New York: Harper & Row.

[7] Finkelstein, N.  (2005).  Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history. London & New York: Verso.

[8] Khalidi, W.  (Ed.).  (1971).  From haven to conquest. Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies.

[9] Nuwayhed al-Hout, B.  (1991).  Filisteen al-Kadiyyah, al-Shaa’b, al-Haradra: al-Tareekh al-Siyasi min a’hd al-Canaaniyeen hatta al Qarn al-Ishreen(1917). Beirut, Lebanon: Darul-Istiklal. [Translation: Palestine, the cause, the people, the political history from the Canaanite times and until the twentieth century (1917).]

[10] Nuwayhed al-Hout, B. (2004).  Sabra & Shatilla: September 1982. London: Pluto Press.

[11] Morris, B. (2008).  1948: A history of the first Arab-Israeli war. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

    Morris, B. (1987).  1947-1949: The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem. Cambridge University Press.

[12] Pape, I.  (2006).  The ethnic cleansing of Palestine.  UK & USA: Oneworld Publications.

[13] Ben-Ami, S.  (2006).  Scars of war, wounds of peace.  Oxford University Press.

[14] Ashrawi, Hanan: Article in on March 17, 2004.

Dr Samia Costandi is a Palestinian Lebanese Canadian academic living and working in the Kingdom of Bahrain. She holds the FCAR (Quebec Government Doctoral Award 1997-1998), the Helen Prize for Women (1999), and the Margaret Gillett Award from the McGill Centre for Research & Teaching on Women (2000).