Can you tell me a little bit about your background/family history, in particular relating to your identity as a Palestinian American?
I come from a Muslim family. Both of my parents grew up in a tiny village called Balou in the Bireh area of Palestine. My mother immigrated to America twenty-two years ago and my father came three years after her. My mother still remembers the 1967 War. She says she remembers packing up all her things in a hurry to flee. She said it was the first time she saw dead people strewn all over the streets. She said that the people fleeing had to hold white garments in the air as they left to show they surrendered. She remembers her father holding up his white keffiyeh.
Can you tell me any story you find interesting that your family has passed down about life in Palestine?
Yes, there’s actually a really fascinating story about my two uncles. My mother’s two brothers were arrested and thrown into jail for no reason during the second Intifadah (uprising). Interestingly, both of them had beards and this fits the Muslim stereotype of a religious leader. It seemed that the Israeli soldiers especially targeted those who were devout, male religious leaders. They were kept imprisoned only for a couple of weeks but it was nerve-wracking for my family because they didn’t know what was happening or if the two brothers were even alive. During this time my grandmother wrapped her head in a towel because it was believed that this would relieve the horrible headache she had. They were kept outside for many cold nights in tents. My favorite part of this story is that even though the two of them were separated, they knew that the other was alive because they both heard one another praying at night. They claimed that hearing the other’s voice late at night praying reassured and comforted them, so even though they couldn’t see each other or converse, they could hear each other and that was enough.
What are your own experiences of Palestine?
I’ve been to Palestine twice, but I stayed for an entire summer both times, once when I was five and another time when I was thirteen. The most recent time I was there I remember walking through the streets, thinking that things looked like they were getting better. But just from talking with my family there, I could tell that the conflict is something that’s passed down from generation to generation.
I think I would have been a different person had I grown up in Palestine. I love diversity and I love being around people who are different from me. I’m always willing to help anyone. Just the other day, I helped an old man on the RTA who was carrying bags. After he sat down, I realized he was wearing a yamekah and I doubt that that would have ever happened had I been living in Palestine where the divisions are so clear-cut.
How do you see the conflict?
It’s hard not to point fingers whenever the conflict comes up but because I’m an American and haven’t grown up right in the conflict I have the advantage of saying that I’m unbiased about it. But I do know the Palestinian view well and that is that they don’t even really have a country–Palestine isn’t even an official name.
It’s obvious that the Israeli neighborhoods are cleaner and better funded. If you go to a Palestinian neighborhood and then into an Israeli one, it’s like the difference between night and day. I think that imperialism is responsible because it caused segregation and created borders that didn’t originally exist.
Another thing worsening the divide between the two peoples is the wall between Israel and Palestine. It’s a definite, visible division that isn’t benefiting either side. As a matter of fact, the creation of the wall is running away from the problem and I think it’s going to cause something because it isolates the two peoples and gives them one more reason to hate each other. Right now, it seems like Israel and Palestine are stuck in the 1960’s civil rights movement where segregation and second-class citizenship divide the people. My family there sees no change and although they want to live peacefully, they don’t know what’s going to happen next and always have to be on guard. Helicopters and planes hover over their neighborhoods, and since 2000, it’s only gotten worse there.
Unfortunately, many people view the conflict as an age-old conflict and think that it’s been going on for so long that it’s just a natural part of reality. People on both sides of the conflict rationalize it, saying “this is the way it’s always been and always will be”. This pessimistic attitude is only worsened by the broken promises of leaders on both sides. No one seems to believe in optimism for the future and I think that that’s the key to the peace process that needs to happen.
What’s your idea of a plausible peace process for Palestine and Israel?
I think that if people’s mentality changes about the conflict and that if each side is willing to see the humanity in the other, then the vicious cycle of violent retaliation will end. Disarmament, in my opinion, is only half the battle for peacefully resolving the real problem there. Arabic satellite television uses rhetoric of retaliation, abiding by the “eye for an eye” type of law. Not to do so is seen as a weakness and unless this mentality changes the violence won’t ever stop.
I also think that if Palestine is better funded, the people will be less resentful towards their Israeli neighbors. A lot of the funding that Palestine does receive ends up in the wrong hands and therefore, very little of it goes into education and the country doesn’t progress as well.
What is your view about the American media’s portrayal of the conflict?
The media seems to portray Palestinians as barbaric people who don’t value life. The reality is that Palestinians long for and love life. They want to excel and they are very smart, articulate people. What’s missing is the opportunity and money necessary for education. The image that the American media portrays of Middle Eastern people in general even makes me feel a bit uncertain when I first meet people. I feel as though I have to work for their approval, to show that I am don’t fit the stereotype.
I’m planning on becoming a journalist and I want to go into television broadcasting because I love reporting. I think that by going into journalism I can show people a good representation of the Middle East, to show them that I can be an Arab-American and a passionate person. I want to show that Arabs not only make the news but that we are capable of delivering it. I think that the American media only gets a quick snapshot of the culture and language of the Arabic people.
I speak Arabic fluently and I used this advantage in a previous job at the Cleveland Clinic during the summer of 2000 where I helped translate documents for Arabic documents. I hope to use this fluency in Arabic in my job as a journalist. I want to travel to Arabic countries and maybe even make a documentary in which I show the real news. I want to get ordinary people’s stories out there.
What do you think about story-telling and language as a way to create peace/ show the humanity in the “other”?
I think that story-telling is the foundation of life. People pass can pass on good or bad stories. What Palestine needs is to pass on the good things, to change the mentality there. I’m convinced that hatred is learned and it’s something that can be planted in people’s minds. I’m very optimistic that if people dialogue and pass down good stories rather than hatred the situation in Palestine and Israel can improve.
Addressing many of the same themes that appeared in the literature we read this semester, Hamed Hamad offered his own perspective as a Palestinian American student. In just minutes, the interview format changed from a question/answer session to a conversation. As a senior communications major here at John Carroll, Hamed was both personable and articulate as he described his view of the Palestinian conflict in light of the possibility for peace. He said that only through dialogue could the drastic, yet necessary, change in the two people’s perceptions of one another come about. This kind of encounter with one another’s humanity has been the focal point of much of the prose and poetry we studied. Furthermore, Hamed addressed the problem of the American media’s portrayal of the situation as well as Middle Eastern people in general. Voicing his desire to become a journalist, Hamed identified the double-edged nature of language as a detrimental and healing resource. Furthermore, he elaborated on his own experiences of Orientalism, the stereotyping of Middle Eastern people, that has emerged time and again in the literature.
Echoing a crucial point that shaped Sahar Khalifeh’s novel Wild Thorns, Hamed emphasized that one’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is greatly determined by his situation. He said that he would have been a “different person” had he grown up in his parents’ homeland, Palestine. Because he is an American, he is free to value and embrace diversity. Nevertheless, his identity is still connected to Palestine and its precarious circumstances because some of his family members live there today and both of his parents are Palestinian.
He said that his own family members still living in Palestine see no change or improvement in their lives and although they want to live peacefully, the burden of past conflicts with the Israelis and the helicopters hovering over the villages create a pessimistic, doubtful mentality. Perhaps the most powerful statement Hamed made was that even complete disarmament of both sides would not necessarily mean peace. What needs to be changed is the mentality of the peoples about one another and the only way to break down this barrier is for each side to encounter one another in everyday life. Hamed said that it’s rare and unexpected for Israeli and Palestinian people to be neighbors, let alone visit or talk with one another. He believes that if they were neighbors and could talk and dialogue, this would break down the vicious cycle of retaliation. Interestingly, Hamed recognizes his advantage of objectively viewing the situation from the outside. He described his American identity as a determining factor in his love of diversity. His realization that he would have had an entirely different attitude had he grown up in the confines of Palestinian society exemplifies his identity as an American whose language and stories have not shaped his views about Israelis in a negative light.
This idea of the dual nature of language and story-telling as a detrimental, deceptive tool and a healing, enlightening way of peace resonates throughout much of the literature we read. Perhaps the best example of language as a peaceful tool the way Hamed envisions it is the relationship between the old Palestinian story-teller, Khilmi, and the young, Israeli soldier, Uri, in David Grossman’s Smile of the Lamb.
Another crucial aspect to Hamed’s claim that simple dialogue between everyday Israeli and Palestinian people would pave the road to peace echoes the idea of encountering “the other”, a theme that reoccurs throughout most of the prose and poetry. Nevertheless, Hamed recognizes the dangers and difficulties of these necessary encounters between “the others”, given his own family’s experiences in Palestine. He identified one major obstacle blocking the way of these encounters as the mentality of both peoples that “this is the way it’s always been, and this is the way it’s always going to be.” In other words, because this conflict has been going on for so long it seems like a fact of history and of life that cannot be changed. Rabbi Michael Lerner addressed the limits of this approach in his claim that there are realists, or people who see the world as it is, and others who see the world as it ought to be. According to Lerner, seeing the world as it ought to be is the only way to change reality. He cited the power of the women’s movement and the civil rights’ movement in twentieth century America as two exemplars of this effectively idealistic mindset. Hamed would agree with Lerner on this point.
Similar to Anna Baltzer’s presentation of Palestine, Hamed wants to bridge the divide between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples rather than merely to “point fingers” and blame people for the conflict. In a sense, Hamed and Anna share a common desire to connect with “the other”. Even though both are American, they feel connected to the conflict and want to help change it. For Anna, this conviction appears in her peaceful work in Palestine and for Hamed, it appears in his ambition to become a journalist.
In many ways, Hamed’s life aspiration to become a journalist embodies his optimism and open-mindedness which extends into his understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the end of the interview, which was more like a conversation than a question and answer session, Hamed explained his desire to go into journalism and in particular to become a television reporter. With a smile, he said, “I want to be an Arab face giving the news rather than making the news”. In fact, he explained that he had worked at the Cleveland clinic during the summer of 2000, using his fluency in Arabic to translate documents etc… for Arabic-speaking patients. He said that likewise, he wanted to use his fluency in the Arabic language to go to Middle Eastern countries and help the people by getting the real news, which he defined as the stories of ordinary people’s lives. One of his dreams is to make a documentary about Arabic countries. Hamed explained that he wanted to show more than the darkness and violence that always appears on the news. Furthermore, he claimed that the hatred that has grown between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is the result of generations passing down prejudices and grudges.
For the most part, the Palestinian and Israeli literature that we have read has been tragic and disturbing. Furthermore, both presentations given by Dr. Nahida Gordon and Anna Baltzer were unsettling. The stories Hamed told about his family’s pain as Palestinians and his own difficulties as an Arab-American were also difficult to hear. However, Hamed seems to have found the common thread of hope that resonates in these stories and is willing to act on it. Talking with Hamed, therefore, was a tremendously uplifting experience because he was both aware of the extent of suffering reflected in these literatures and willing to believe in change.