I met Zeina Soudi last month in Lisbon, thanks to Laurinda Alves. They´re the managers of Dialogue Café in Ramallah and Lisbon, respectively. In two hours we managed to talk about a number of issues, but what particularly caught my attention was Zeina´s quest for her identity. Born in Lebanon of Palestinian parents, she first visited Palestine as a Jordanian national. It took her another 10 years to obtain a Palestinian ID. The question "Where are you from?” was always difficult to answer. Although the Palestinian context has, naturally, its own specificities, various parts in her narration will strike a chord with many of us and raise our awareness regarding issues of culture, identity, roots, ‘us’ and the ‘other’. mv
|In Zeina Soudi´s passport.|
“Where are you from?” was a question that I was asked a lot when I was younger. It was a question that confused me for years and I couldn’t answer without having to think about it. Usually the answer was a muddle. You see, I am the product of third-culture kids. I was born in Lebanon and lived in Malta and Cyprus till my late teenage years before moving to Jordan. I am a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian origin. But at that time I had never lived in Jordan or been to Palestine. Palestine was just a fantasy land that my parents talked of and I saw on the news. So being a foreigner in these countries, the question “Where are you from?” was a question I always dreaded being asked, although it should be one of the simplest questions anyone would have to answer.
My journey to affirm and reaffirm my identity took a lot of twists and turns, confusion and restrictions; starting with the question “Where are you from?”.
I spent my last two years of school in Amman, and even though I did get a sense of belonging, there was still something missing. There was a little part of me that I still needed to find to feel complete. So after I finished school, I decided to go to Palestine alone and enroll in university there. This decision was going to be the start of a very difficult journey. This was in 1997.
As you know Palestine is still occupied. And going there means I had to have a permit from Israel which proved to be more difficult than I ever imagined. When I finally got the permit the first time, I made it half way through the borders, but was denied entry at the Israeli borders. When I questioned why, they replied “For security reasons”.
Security reasons? How much of a security threat can I be by going to university to major in English Language and Literature? That didn’t matter to them. They stamped “Entry DENIED” on my passport and sent me back to Amman. These 2 words on my passport changed the course of my life. I was only 18 years old at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I would find out why I was such a ‘security threat’.
I came so close yet still far away. It reminded me of A Letter to His son by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani:
“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, 'Mama, am I a Palestinian?'. When she answered 'Yes', a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then - silence. Afterwards...I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you...I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child... Do you believe that man grows? No, he is born suddenly - a word, a moment, penetrates his heart to a new throb. One scene can hurl him down from the ceiling of childhood onto the ruggedness of the road.”
But I didn’t give up so easily. And I tried again and again until I got a permit and finally went to Palestine.
|Architectural draft of the, under construction, Palestinian Museum, which will be dedicated to the exploration and understanding of the culture, history and society of Palestine and the Palestinian people. Read an interview with the museum director here.|
I was slowly learning how many different identity cards us Palestinians are forced to have. And these different identities determine which road to take or city you can go to. For example, I wasn’t allowed to go to Jerusalem, where I am originally from. We Palestinians are forced to be separated and categorized according to where we are from and the color of our identity cards.
After the second Intifada broke out, I decided to stay in Palestine to finish my degree; that’s when I became an “illegal-alien” in my homeland and spent 8 years in an open air prison, unable to travel for fear of being permanently denied entry to my homeland. I was persistent on planting my roots here, just as my parents, grandparents and great grandparents did. Even though it felt claustrophobic at times, and I felt like giving up, I finally got what I wanted. I affirmed my identity on paper. I took my right to a Palestinian identity card, and I became “legal”. This was my way for resisting this injustice. This was my way to affirm my identity. This is probably why to the Israeli occupation I was a security threat.
And here I am still today, sitting at home in my living room, with all my friends, all different colored ID cards, different passports, those who were born in Palestine and those like me raised in different countries. We all walked a different path in life. But we all have one thing in common, we are all persistent. We all refuse this injustice. We all refuse to be categorized. We all wake up every day and say NO to the occupation.
And at the end of the day, when somebody asks me “Where are you from?” I can easily say: “I Come From Here”.
Zeina Soudi is currently managing the Dialogue Cafe in Ramallah. The Dialogue Cafe is an open video-conferencing network that brings people from all walks of life, around the world, together to exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences, dealing with different cultures, societies and traditions. Zeina previously worked in NGOs dealing with human rights and social development, as well as projects dealing with Palestinian Art and Culture. She started out her career as an English teacher.