A House is a Home

I am not a home owner given that I am still a student in my early 20s, but I do know what having a home of one’s own means.  A few years ago, my family built a small apartment in Shufat, a neighborhood within the city of Jerusalem.  We did this to protect our Jerusalemite, ID cards and to maintain our right to live and move around in our own hometown.  Owning propertyin Jerusalem is a necessity for any Palestinian Jerusalemite who wishes to stay where he or she lives. Our family home lies in Dahiat-Al-Barid, several miles from Shufat.  Dahiat-Al-Barid is located immediately within the Israeli mandated northern border of Jerusalem, an endangered place should Israel arbitrarily decide to expand.  They could, without provocation, crush our home.

About the time that we purchased the apartment, the Israeli government stepped-up a quota system designed to eliminate Palestinian Jerusalemites who were outside the Jerusalem border as this border is construed by the Israelis.  If a Palestinian native of Jerusalem found that his or her dwelling was suddenly beyond the border, Jerusalem citizenship was just as suddenly gone. Without Jerusalem citizenship, Palestinians who had been born in the city could not attend Friday prayer at the Al-Asqa Mosque, go on shopping trips within the Old City or legally attend schools or programs which had previously been a part of their everyday comings and goings.

An Israeli Jerusalemite, however, could decide to leave Jerusalem and move to Tel-Aviv, America or wherever for as long as he or she wished without any alteration to his or her citizenship.  Any person of Jewish faith can arrive in Jerusalem, settle and become an official resident of the Holy City. This is not true for many of us who were born here.

So, it was with great sacrifice that my family scrimped and saved to own an apartment in Shufat, Jerusalem.  I’m the only person who is lives there. The Shufat apartment is an extra home for me.  I stay there when I have friends visit, when I need to study and catch up with work or when I just need to be on my own.  Modest and small, the apartment is a luxury in a town where very few 25-year-olds can possibly afford even a studio-apartment of their own and must seemingly remain forever tightly meshed within a family compound that is peopled beyond any comfortable norm.

If Sufat is my sanctuary, Dahiat Al-Barid is my home.  When I think of my mother, I can see her bustling around moving furniture that everyone else thinks is just fine where it is.  I can hear my father and brother groaning about having to lift that sofa “again,” but moving it just the same, winking at each other as they do.

Eleven years have passed since we had the good fortune to move into the  Dahiat Al-Barid house.  I was in my early teens, but, even now, when I want a happy memory, I think of that beginning. The whole family worked like bees surrounding our mother queen.  “Samah, are you cleaning that brush before you dip it in another color?” Mom would call out. We’d all laugh. Of course, I was cleaning the brush. As a family, we painted all the walls, all the doors, window sills and shutters. We placed our old furniture in its new environment, drilled holes in the wall for our pictures, hung new curtains and, then, we attacked the garden, digging, planting, watering.

For many people, moving is a stressful activity, but for us the move was relaxation and sheer joy. I remember the days of working on our house as the least stressful time I’ve experienced in my life.  I didn’t even think about the reason we had built this new dwelling.  This was home and we were a happy family enjoying every minute of having a new house that embellished the home our love and affection for each other had already built.  There was no time to think or worry about the Israeli settlement, Neve Yaqoub, that lies a hundred meter from our house and spreads in closer every year.  We had our own lives to attend to, our own place. We were simply happy.

Since those moving-in days, my older siblings have married and gone their own ways, yet they all come back at least once a year to Dahiat-Al-Barid. Each year, we spend a couple of weeks working together to renew the beauty of our family house.  Even our beloved grandma comes to boss us like Mom did when we were kids. Our entire family acts out the homeyness we feel in the changes we make on the house.  All of our energy and all of our enjoyment of each other manifests itself in that house and in the so called “renovations” we loving take on.

In occupied Palestine, building a new house is no small matter.  It is an undertaking that requires more than years of saving and planning. Once money to buy land or a property is in the bank, then, repeated trips to secure various licenses from our own government and from the Israeli government, insistent on the need to interfere in Palestinian’s private affairs, becomes a daily rite.

Like many young families, even in America, saving to achieve our goal was a part of our lives for a very long time. It took my parents, a professor and a university administrator, five years with all of us old enough to work contributing to the family “house fund” to raise the money to actually build the house, deal with the governments surrounding us and make the house a reality.  The smaller of us gave up clothes and treats we would have liked to “help” make that house happen. The house provided a goal for us. Neither Dahiat Al-Barid nor Sufat are considered “ritzy” neighborhoods in any sense of the word.  Nothing in East Jerusalem is the Beverly Hills of Palestine.  Still, they are places where families can lead lives approximating normalcy.  They are places where one can focus on careers, family entertainment, and the care and keeping of a home without worrying about what Israelis are doing. When people have even the modest homes that we have, representative of life’s accomplishments, thoughts are not tied up in anything that the Israelis have to worry about in their paranoid fears expressed as “security.”

Pleasant as Dahiat Al-Barid and Sufat are for us, lifestyle satisfaction is not a reality for Palestinians living at the bottom of our hill.  There, a Palestinian refugee camp with the squalor that the word “camp” implies lies rumbled and crowded with poorly built housing compounds, many only shells of houses, merged one upon the other, troubled by marring graffiti seen in the more urban areas of East Jerusalem.  There is little water, certainly, not a drop to nurture even one decorative vine such as that which decorates our doorway.  Privacy, which I so fortunately have in my tiny apartment, is not even imagined.

Basheer’s graduating class is the 26th group to pass beyond the portals of Birzeit University, the first and most prestigious of the 12 major institutions of higher education established in the Israeli named Occupied Territories, our Palestine. Graduations have been held at Birzeit since 1976 in spite of Israel’s continual harassment including closing the institution as much as 60 percent of the time in the 80s and 90s.

During my years as a medical student, I worked with the people living in refugee camps around Ramallah and Jerusalem. While the atmosphere in the camps reflected a constant frustration with life-affecting interferences of two governments: Palestinian and Israeli,  I learned that the love I feel for my family home is not unique.  Photos nailed to a wall, a calendar with a colorful picture of an ocean, a special corner made clean and neat for prayer, a special rug or a small token of another home, now abandoned, adorn these homes with as much pride as any piece of furniture or any trinket in our home.  If they are not tucked in drawers for safekeeping, keys of lost homes are hung on walls like original paintings, valued for what they represent and what they say to those who look upon them.

Last month, 17 Palestinian houses were demolished without notice in the Shufat Refugee Camp. “The camp is growing towards our Visgat Zeiev Settlement,” said the Israelis who came with their bulldozers.  The next day, the Israelis raised 27 more homes in nearby Rafah. “Security reasons,” officials told the receptive press.  Now, many Palestinians are told, “Be ready, your house could be gone in the time it takes to wink.”

Over the long black years of occupation, Israel has destroyed or taken over an uncountable number of Palestinian houses including those of such well-know intellectuals as expatriates Edward Said and Hisham Sharabi.  Imagine how I feel when I interact with Israelis and hear them brag about the “romantic Arabic style” their expropriated houses provide them.  It’s the same feeling that Palestinian students traveling abroad feel when they come upon falafel stands managed by former Israelis and see this very Arab specialty advertised as “Israel’s national dish.”

I am Palestinian and I love my home.  It is the shelter that allows us to enjoy being who we are without giving us time or energy to even think about harassing our Israeli neighbors.  Food, shelter, family love: those are human rights everywhere, even here in this dusty, desert corner of the world. Beginning in 1948, with the approval of a bullied United Nations, powerless to say “no”, Zionist colonizers invaded Palestine, denied our presence, killed us hoping the world wouldn’t notice, took our homes and told everyone who would listen that we Palestinians didn’t want our property anyway. They boasted that they would turn our land into a lush green land, never mind that now some prominent Israelis decry the state of Israeli agriculture, giving a nod instead to manufacture of computer chips and admitting that water availability is a problem even for Israeli farmers with all their modern irrigation, gifted to them from distant financiers.

If I sound bitter, who is surprised?   We Palestinians are human beings with needs for home and hearth like anyone anywhere.  We’ve conceded much of our property, bending again and again to the demands of our oppressors.  Concessions, however, mean nothing if there is never reparation, never a reasonable solution for us, never concessions on the other side.

Israelis constantly worry about their own security and parrot the old propaganda line that all we Arabs want is to push them into the sea.  Home demolitions indicate the reality that is just the opposite: cull down and out the Arabs and push them into tents if they will not go away.

Imagine the potential for peace were we Palestinians permitted to focus on family and happiness safely celebrated in our private homes.  Here, if one member of a family is even suspected of criminal activity, a family home can be demolished without question. Where in the world do the parents and brothers and sisters lose their homes because one member of the family is suspected of committing a crime?  Did the Americans destroy the family home of Timothy McVeigh?

If the Israelis want peace, as they claim, why don’t they give us our space, go back to “Israel” (not into the sea) and leave the West Bank and Gaza to us Palestinians?  That would make a great deal more common sense than leaving us a collection of poverty-stricken bantustans, so close together and, yet, so far apart that covert violence is an angry given. Why don’t they allow Palestinians to live, not just exist, by their side, united through economic development, stewardship of water resources, mutual respect?  This will only happen if a real Palestinian sovereign government is established, not Israeli military check points, tanks, and Israeli settlers unwilling to live under Palestinian law, but quite willing to take our homes and our lives. That a home really does need the foundation of a house is a concept that Israeli leaders, Palestinian leaders and those who would broker peace ought to understand.  There is leadership on both sides and throughout the world who could make this happen. The question is, “Will they?”

(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)

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