Where were you born?
I was born in Jordan which is east of Palestine, and I lived there for four years. After that I moved to a town called Beit Hanina, which is near Jerusalem and Ramallah.
How long did you live there? When did you come to the United States?
Until I was 22. I lived there until after I got married. We moved here about 25 years ago (1981)—my daughters were born here in Cleveland and we have stayed here, except for one year about 20 years ago when I went back home for a year with the girls.
Where you aware of Palestinian/Israeli conflicts as a young child?
Since the 1967 war started—I was about 9. I remember it lasted for six days and was horrible. It was a scary experience because I was unsure of what would happen. I was also just old enough to begin understanding why wars happen, although I think I never really understood it nor did I except the reasons as valid.
How did this affect you?
I was of course afraid and troubled by what I heard and saw. I was confused about why these conflicts existed. My life always seemed peaceful in my home and I did not know why things had to change. For the first time I became aware of people’s views of enemies and how it affected them and also the importance of “patriotism” to some and what it caused them to do. These concepts were alien to me and I still struggle to understand why a few people would fight.
Were you wounded in any way (physically, emotionally, spiritually) as a result of your experience in the conflict? Has there been a process of healing?
Spiritually I asked myself, “If God was one, why are people divided over him and killing in his name? If Jerusalem is holy, why is there so much bloodshed over it?” I was very afraid of dying, I heard stories of children and women being killed and raped (propaganda is prevalent in many conflicts and as a child I truly believed it).
While I lived there, there was no real process of healing, we just moved on. However as an adult I began to understand more and have more answers. I understood more of the struggle. Also when I came here I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses which helped me to understand more about the struggles, and also to heal spiritually. I always felt a sense of neutrality and peace that is a major part of being a Witness.
Did your experience resemble portrayals on American mass media?
Sometimes, I think our lives were normal as we knew it to be normal. When you grow up in that environment it is all you know—the fear in the back of your mind and the conflict you see is normal to you and so you live your life as normal as possible. Because of this, I think it is difficult to understand how the media portrays our life in comparison to how it is lived. (Sahar: As an example when we visited [Palestine] seven years ago I was terrified of the army vehicles that drove by with armed soldiers watching us. The media shows this and it is scary to us but to my mom and her sisters it is normal and so they were not afraid. So although the media shows accurately what happens, the way my mom experienced it is different). The problems were always in the back of our minds but I think there is an exaggeration of how often conflict happened, or if it does happen constantly, my family was not always affected in our town. We were always waiting for peace to be announced, we were hopeful and thought it would happen soon.
Do you read Palestinian literature? What is the most important work to you? Why?
I used to read books of poems and other novels as a child. However I rarely read any now, and it has been a long time since I have read any actual Palestinian work. In fact I can only remember one poet, Nider Quabani.
Most of the literature that we have read expresses an overwhelming desire for a
homeland. Is this something that you personally experienced, or is it something of which you were aware?
I used to desire a homeland and I was aware of the conflict. I never felt that it should be owned by one group or another. I always felt that it was all of our land and I felt as though it was pointless to fight over, it cannot be enjoyed when there is war and bloodshed over it. I thought that Jerusalem and all of Israel/Palestine should be a shared land, and no matter who owns the land it will always be my home with my memories. Ownership is not important to me. I was aware that ownership was very important to many people, I was always aware that this was at the heart of the conflicts. I even knew that these conflicts existed for other religions: Christians, Muslims and Jews have always wanted the holy land.
Do you think about Palestine often?
Yes, not a day goes by that I do not think of Palestine.
What different memories come back to you?
Mainly memories of the conflict and the war and the people of Palestine.
What are some of your most prominent memories during childhood?
I remember the war and being fearful. Mostly I remember the people, though—those who were in jail and those who had died. I have many memories of times with my family, but the thought of war was always tucked in the back of our minds.*
What does it mean to you to be Palestinian?
I am human just like anyone else, but being Palestinian has a special meaning for me. I have a very deep connection with my homeland and with other Palestinians. It is a connection that is almost hard to describe. It is like when one individual has cancer and gets together with others who also have cancer. They meet to share their experiences because they can truly understand one another. That is how it is for Palestinians. We share a deep connection because we understand one another. We understand what each of us has had to suffer and deal with throughout the conflict. We all know what it means to lose a family member to the war or to have a friend who is in prison. This connection is especially true in the United States because we are so far removed from our land. We know what is means to have such a love for our land, and we share the same Palestinian roots.*
What would you want other people to know about Palestine and the conflict?
With all of the media coverage, I think that most people today have a good idea of the conflict—they have a far better understanding than they did in the past. Especially with the internet and T.V. because information is passed along so quickly. But I think that people need to know what the Palestinians have suffered through. There is not a person in Palestine who has not had a family member put in jail or killed as a result of the war. This is something that has been unavoidable for us and each of us has had to suffer through it.*
When you get together with other Palestinians, what do you talk about?
We do not talk about the conflict and the war that often. We used to talk about it all the time. Anytime there was something about the conflict on TV, I would call my sister, and we would talk about who was killed, who was injured, and who was thrown in jail. This was all that we used to talk about. But now it has gotten old and tedious. We no longer wish to talk about the conflict as much. So we mainly talk about everyday events and issues, as any two people would. This is not to say that we never talk about the conflict. We still do, especially if it is with a family member or someone whom we have not seen twenty years. But for the most part, the conflict is not a main topic of our conversations.*
What do you think about the prospects for peace?
I do not think that the conflict will ever end. Neither side truly wants peace. They want the land. Both sides feel that the land belongs to them—that it is their right. The Jews feel that they have a religious right to the land, and the Palestinians feel the same way. Neither group wants to share or work towards peace. Both sides simply want the land back and to get rid of the other.*
*These parts of the interview were conducted over the phone. While I typed as quickly as I could, I was not able to get every word down. So some of these answers are not direct quotations and may be paraphrased.
War, persecution, death, imprisonment, fear, destruction, patriotism, resistance—these are all words that could be used to describe the Palestinian experience during the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Reading Israeli and Palestinian literature provides a unique insight into the lives of these two groups of people and the conflict between them. Yet this literature does not provide perfect insight. In many ways there is an emotional distance between the conflict and the words that appear in a book. Through interviewing Mrs. Rahad Shouman I was able to eliminate this emotional distance and gain a first-hand account of what it meant to be a young Palestinian growing up during the conflict. At times Mrs. Shouman’s words reflected the themes and ideas represented in Palestinian literature, but at other times, her stories took a path which differed from the literature. This analysis will explore these similarities and differences, and it will also retell some of Mrs. Shouman’s most significant stories.
The fear, violence, and despair that Rahad spoke of were all themes expressed in the literature that we have read. The 1967 war began when Rahad was only 9, and she remembers this time vividly. She came from a peaceful home, and so the violence stunned her. For the first time she realized that not all people were viewed the same: there were the “good” people, and then there were the enemies. In the eyes of the Israelis, Rahad and the Palestinians in general were seen as the “other.” This is a clear reflection of one of the major themes in both Israeli and Palestinian literature. The idea of the “other” can be seen in “Facing the Forests” and “The Nomad and the Viper.” In both cases, the Palestinians were seen as different and not belonging. This is something that Rahad herself experienced. It was also during this time that Rahad recognized the strong patriotism among the Palestinians. She came to realize how important this patriotism was to some individuals and was amazed at what it caused them to do. This same patriotism is certainly present within Palestinian resistance literature. Poems such as “Here we Shall Stay” and “Commando” express these same ideas of patriotism. Further, Usama in Wild Thorns showed the extent to which patriotism could drive an individual, and this precisely what Rahad was stating. She was astonished at the violence and great lengths that Palestinians—perhaps some just like Usama—would go to simply due to the seeds of patriotism which had been planted within them. As Usama had stated, “The individual was of no importance when the fate of the community was at stake” (Khalifeh 86).
It is fascinating how well human beings can adapt to their surroundings. Rahad herself spoke of how she and her family were forced to adjust to the occupation. Over a period of time, the army vehicles and armed soldiers no longer frightened Rahad. While soldiers and weapons were not previously a part of daily life, the Palestinians were forced to change their definition of “normal.” At one time the soldiers had been terrifying and unacceptable. After a while, it became a part of the everyday experience. This parallels the donkey carcass in The Smile of the Lamb. Just as the Palestinians grew used to the soldiers, “they also grew used to the donkey” (Grossman 277). Adaptation was a necessary part of survival for the Palestinians.
While many of Rahad’s experiences reflect themes in Palestinian literature, some of her experiences also prove to be in great contrast with the literature. While Rahad witnessed the Palestinian patriotism all around her, she could never completely understand why the war had to take place. She did not see the reasons as being valid. In her view, she did not feel that one should “own” the land. For her it was pointless to fight over the land. It was her home, but there was no reason why the land could not be shared with the Israelis. This contrasts some of the ideas expressed in Wild Thorns. Usama was prepared to die for his land. To Rahad, this was foolish. The land was important, but it was not worth dying over when it could simply be shared instead.
One can only talk about the conflict for so long. This opinion was clearly expressed by Rahad. When in the company of fellow Palestinians, they rarely spoke of the conflict anymore. It had become “old” and “boring.” This does not in any way imply that Rahad became insensitive to the ongoing conflict; rather, she felt that constantly dwelling upon it served no purpose. Her opinion differs from much of the literature that we have read. The poem “Try to Remember Some Details” by Yehuda Amichai expressed the necessity of remembering all that had taken place. While Rahad was not necessarily trying to forget, she was also not attempting to form new memories of the conflict. Furthermore, much of the literature that we have read has focused upon the importance of words. In particular, Wild Thorns places emphasis upon words and their significance within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abu Adil spent most of his time speaking to journalists and reporters because he felt that words could put an end to the conflict. Furthermore, resistance literature in general is a means of replacing weapons with words in order to fight the conflict. This is expressed by the poet Rashid Husain who asked “How can my poems not turn into guns?” (175). Rahad did not seem to hold the same opinion. To her, words could only do so much.
Every individual has a story to tell. Some individuals, such as Rahad, have many stories. The most emotional portion of the interview was Rahad’s description of the loss that all Palestinians have had to endure. She spoke of how every Palestinian family has lost some member of the family to the war—whether the loss has been due to death or to prison. Rahad also told about the fear that she had to live with each day and the terror from thoughts of being raped or killed. These experiences are something that most Americans have never undergone. Furthermore, the American media has often tilted the coverage of the conflict in favor of the Israelis. For this reason, it is important for Americans to know just how much the Palestinians have suffered and that they are not the “bad guys.”
Through the course of the entire interview, the words that seem to echo with the most meaning were Rahad’s views on the prospects of peace. She bluntly expressed that if the Israelis and Palestinians continue on in the same mindset, peace will never be established. In her opinion the land was meant to be shared and not to be fought over. She loved the land as much as any of the other Palestinians, but unlike others, she did not feel that others should die just so that the land could be “owned.” To her, “ownership” was arbitrary. Further, how could the land be loved, cared for, and tended to if it was simply being used for bloodshed? Rahad felt that before any peace could be achieved, there must be a radical change of mindset for both the Israelis and Palestinians.
Every individual experiences the world through his or her own reality. A group of people may share certain experiences, but these same events can be viewed in numerous different ways. The Israeli and Palestinian literature has provided great insight into the lives of these people, but like all literature, it can only provide a snapshot of what has taken place. The interview with Mrs. Rahad Shouman offered a deeper, more personal, and more emotional view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of her experiences paralleled those within Palestinian literature, and yet some of her opinions directly contrasted with those from the poems and short stories. Every person has a story to tell, and simply by listening, one can learn a vast amount not only about that individual, but also about himself or herself. It is through listening that one can realize we are not all so different from one another. Perhaps peace can be found by starting with the simple act of listening. If everyone took time to truly listen—rather than just hear the words—we might actually start to understand one another.