‘The Arab Homeland’: Why Does the Phrase Embarrass?
Here in Switzerland, the train chugs along nicely between Geneva and Lausanne. The Alpine mountain range desperately fights to make its presence known despite the irritating persistence of low- hanging clouds. A friend had just introduced me to the music of J.J. Cale, but my thoughts were moving faster than the speed of the train. Time is too short to sleep, but never long enough to think.
It has been nearly a week since I embarked on a speaking tour in French-speaking countries of Europe. The trip was more difficult than I thought it would be, but also successful. I am here to talk about Gaza, to explain Arab revolutions and to remind many of their moral responsibility towards Palestine and Arab nations. For six months prior to that date, I lived and worked in the Middle East. Soon after I had arrived, Egypt entered into a most disheartening new phase of violence and chaos. Despite the suffering and bloodletting, the fresh turmoil seemed to correspond more accurately to the greatness of the fight at hand. The Jan 25 revolution was declared victorious too soon.
For me, the turmoil in Egypt was more than a political topic to be analyzed or a human rights issue to be considered. It was very personal. Now, my access to Gaza is no longer guaranteed. Gaza, despite its impossible reality and overwhelming hardship, was the last space in Palestine in which I was allowed to visit after 18 years of being denied such access. It was the closest place to what I would call home.
My travel companion informs me that we have ten minutes to Lausanne. I wish it was much longer. There is so much to consider. My sorrow for Gaza and its suffocating siege, for Palestine and its denied freedom is now part of a much larger blend of heartbreaks over Arab peoples as they struggle for self-definition, equality, rights and freedom. No, hope will never be lost, for the battle for freedom is eternal. But the images in my head of the numerous victims in this war – especially children who barely knew what war is even about in the first place – are haunting.
I went back in the Middle East hoping to achieve some clarity. But at numerous occasions I felt more confused. I don’t know why I get bewildered feelings every time I am back in the Middle East. I only refer to the Middle East when I write in English. In Arabic, it is ‘al-watan al-Arabi’, the Arab homeland. We were taught this as children, and knew of no other reference but that. Among Arab friends, I sound juvenile when I say the ‘Arab homeland’. No one there makes that reference anymore.
My generation was taught by a generation that experienced the rise of Arab nationalism. They were exposed to a unique discourse of terminology that was meant as an Arab retort to imperialism. Some of my Gaza neighbors fought alongside the Egyptian army. My father fell wounded alongside his Egyptian comrades. In 1967, he crossed Sinai, defeated, in the back of a haggard army truck carrying dead and wounded Egyptians and Palestinians. Back then there was little distinction between them and there was no need to emphasize that they were brothers in arms, or anything of that sort. They were Arabs, who fought Zionism and imperialism until the last breath.
But then things changed.
I always dreaded crossing through the Egyptian border when I was young, but I had no other option. Gaza was entrapped, as it is today, and Egypt has historically been a lifeline that was often severed for one reason or another. My last visit following the Egyptian revolution was meant to be different. I thought the revolution would correct the aberration that has afflicted inner Arab relations. I thought that it would once again remold a distraught Arab discourse, and that it would bring Egypt back to the Arabs after decades of political loss and cultural dissolution. Nearly three years have passed since the revolutions started, and the discourse is as fragmented as ever, if not even more muddled.
The Alps grow giant as we almost enter Lausanne, but they are still not fully visible. In my travels in Europe, I am treated with respect at every border crossing. At times there have been a couple of inquiring questions; at others, none. But Arab border police are hardly obliging. Those of us ‘lucky’ enough to have western passports can tell many stories of how respect in Arab countries, in our own homelands, often hinges on the color of that small document.
My ‘Arab homeland’ unfortunately seemed to have sunk even deeper into political despair, unprecedented disunity, and an unmatched sense of cultural loss after a few years of revolutions and civil wars. What worries me about Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and all the rest, is that their revolutionaries don’t seem to be at odds with the very entities that have contributed to Arab defeat. They appeal to the very America that destroyed Iraq, and seek French guidance and British handouts, although neither of these parties has shown any signs of departure from their old colonial legacies. The cultural invasion that I witnessed there is all but complete. Western globalization is wreaking havoc on fragile cultures that are not putting up much of a fight.
Is there a rationale that could explain what happened in the last few decades? How did we go from relative clarity by having a defined, collective sense of purpose, identity, and common aspirations – despite the many failures and defeats – to this overwhelming sense of loss?
‘Where are you from?” asked an Egyptian taxi driver on my recent visit to Saudi Arabia. “I am a Palestinian.” “But your accent?” he inquired. “I live in Washington. “Do you have an American passport?” he asked. “Yes.” “Alhamdulilah“(Thank God), he commented with a sense of relief and a smile. He genuinely felt happy for me.
But I keep going back. Many of us do. It is an unresolvable conflict, the same identity schizophrenia that many Arabs have. My father, who died under siege in Gaza in 2008, tried to figure things out despite his cynicism. He explained the world to me in lucid and plain terms. He read Iraqi poetry, listened to Egyptian music and related to the many aspects of Arab life. He ‘hated’ the Arabs, yet prided himself on being one. I inherited his skepticism and confusion. This is why I keep coming back.
We arrive in Lausanne. Most of the clouds have vanished. The fog has dispersed. The Alps appear again, commanding and eternal. J.J. Cale’s melodies are ahead of their time. They are meant for the future, not the past. I insist on staying hopeful.