- Memory Work in the Palestinian Diaspora
The first time I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it was the fall of 2004. Six months pregnant at the time, I had decided to travel on the Israeli airline El Al. I figured if I weren't to be allowed to enter Israel, I'd rather be held up in New York and not after a long flight. I had been told I would face difficulties trying to enter Israel because my American passport reveals that I was born in Iraq.
Sure enough, I was detained with El Al Airline security for nearly five hours while my American friends passed through without incident. I was questioned over and over about my motivations for entering Israel. Was I visiting relatives or friends in the West Bank or Gaza? What about my relationship with Saddam Hussein? My political affiliations? My history? My parents' history? Was I a Muslim, and did I know any terrorists? What was I doing, where was I going, where had I been? Each question was asked as an innocent accusation: "Going to work with Arab groups in the West Bank, yes?" They scanned my body seven times, lifted my shirt to "make sure" I was pregnant, searched my bag three times, and confiscated my lotion and shampoo. I politely answered each question, but offered very little. I told them nothing of my hope to find my mother's childhood home in Jaffa, Palestine, now a part of Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel. "I'm just an artist," I said. Just an artist looking to take pictures of a home stolen from my mother's family in 1948.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, known to Palestinians as "Al Nakba" ("The Catastrophe" or "The Disaster"), was built on a systematic destruction and depopulation of more than four hundred villages, massacres, looting, and the displacement from the region of 800,000 of the 900,000 Palestinians who lived there.1 Currently, there are more than four million registered Palestinians and descendants living in the diaspora, as a consequence of typical birthrates, subsequent wars, two intifadas, and a brutal occupation.2 Millions more are displaced from their own families' land and continue to live in internal exile throughout Occupied Palestine and Israel, prompting Palestine's poet laureate, Mahmoud Darwish, to ask, "Where do the birds fly after the last sky?" [End Page 30]
My work is based on narratives of my mother's family's forced migration from Palestine to Iraq and then on to America, and culminates with my own return to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a trip that has only become possible since I became an American citizen a few years back. The work forms a discourse that complicates accepted and official history. The memories of my mother and grandmother act as personal testimony or verbal memorials to events that have shaped history, geography, and modern-day politics. As witnesses to history, our stories of diaspora are reflected in my artwork, a kind of memorial that has never been allowed to exist on the sites from which Palestinians were expelled.
To understand my story of exile, or the stories of the millions of Palestinians living internally or externally displaced from historical Palestine, one must navigate through complicated, conflicting, and contentious histories that reflect the narratives of two peoples who have been able to resolve neither their past nor their present differences. At one point or another, populations both of contemporary Israel and Occupied Palestine have been victims of global forces or at each others' hands. Both are guilty of creating a revisionist history at one point or another. However, contemporary Israel is a dominant first-world power, and her narrative ultimately triumphs hand-over-fist in the public perception and understanding of that history and modern-day realities. Its propaganda asserts that it is Israelis who have suffered greater casualties and that they are held captive by the surrounding hostile Palestinian and Arab countries; preemptive terror tactics are simply national military "defensive" measures; the Palestinian exile was created by Arab leaders encouraging Palestinian civilians to flee, and, consequently, "abandoned" homes were inhabited by...