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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 89-101
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Where Is Home?
Fragmented Lives, Border Crossings, and the Politics of Exile
For the politically exiled, going home means more than taking a journey to the place where one was born. The ability to go, the decision to embark on such a trip, and the experience of crossing borders to one's "native" land involves an "interrogation" 1 of the makeup of the individual and the collective self; a definition and a redefinition of the meaning and the location of home; and a reexamination of one's current and former political commitments. In the Palestinian case, going home assumes further complications, especially in view of the Israeli Law of Return, which bestows automatic citizenship on Jews arriving in Israel while denying the indigenous Palestinian population the right to return to the homes from which they were uprooted in 1948. For the Palestinian exiled, going home brings back memories of one's worst nightmares at international borders: interrogation and harassment, suspicion of malintent, and rejection of one's chosen self-identification. For exiled Palestinian women the case is further complicated by gender relations at home and abroad—two concepts that shift depending on where one is situated at any particular moment. Add to the pot the problematic meaning of such notions, going home ceases to be just about traveling to the place of one's birth to collect accessible data—if that ever were the case. Instead, going home is transformed into a politically charged project in which the struggle for self-identification, self-determination, freedom, and dignity becomes as salient as the physical and mental safety of one's "informants," and the power differential in the production and reproduction of knowledge. "Where is home?" is a question that lies at the center of Palestinian precarious experience. [End Page 89]
Do We Belong?
Home Is a Safe Space
When life under Israeli occupation became worse in Palestine, my siblings and I began a campaign to convince our parents to leave. We felt that they should relocate either to the United States, where I lived, or to England, where my sister, Reem, lives. My parents refused again and again. Whenever pressed, they would invariably say, "illi waqe' 'ala nass waqe' aleina," [our fate is not different from others], or "who ihna ahsan min ennas?" [Do you think we are better than others?]. When we persisted, they would respond by invoking Palestinian dispossession, "ma hada be-'eid illi sar fil 48" [no one will ever think of repeating what happened in 1948].
My brother and sister-in-law shared my parents' sentiments. They were, nonetheless, contemplating a relocation to give their daughters a better education, a safe environment, and an innocent childhood. Nasser and Lana 2 felt that they had to make the sacrifice and risk their residence in Jerusalem. The "situation on the ground," as Palestinians refer to their reality, was becoming unbearable: Israeli tanks were holding Palestinian towns under siege; violence was on the rise; and Palestinians were criminalized for being Palestinians or just for being.
Nasser, Lana, and the girls never left Israeli-annexed Jerusalem. With the closure of U.S. borders to immigrants of Middle Eastern origins, it did not look like they would make it to New York any time soon. But I did. On August 27, 2001, I came back from a year in Egypt where I had taught at the American University in Cairo. I returned "home" to this anonymous city to take in its cultures; to thrive in its rhythms; to disappear and reappear in a sea of accents, tongues, and lifestyles. Two weeks later, my life came to a standstill, and so did the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Central and South Asians.
Besides the fear for our loved ones whom we could not locate for several hours on that infamous day, we no longer felt safe: No longer could we draw on New York City's rich, vibrant, and diverse cultural scene, and no longer...