Interview with Amal Amireh–a Palestinian immigrant to America–by Michael Benisek

Are you Palestinian or Palestinian-American?

It depends on what you mean. Technically, I’m Palestinian since both of my parents are Palestinians and I was born and grew up in Palestine.

But I can also “become” Palestinian American.

Our identities are not written in stone and in certain situations it is not up to me to define myself.

Can you tell me a little about your family history?

Both my parents were Palestinians. My father immigrated to the US sometime in the 1950s and became an American citizen. But like many men in my hometown at the time, he did not bring the whole family with him to the US. He would come home to Palestine for visits. So my brother and I were born and grew up in a town in the West Bank. Both my father and my mother are buried in that town. My brother lives with his family in Ramallah.

When did you come to the United States and for what reason?

I came to the US three times. First, in 1980 as a tourist to visit my father during summer vacation. Second, in 1986 as a student on a Fullbright scholarship to do an MA in literature. Third, in 2001, as an immigrant with my American husband and American son.

What are your own experiences with Palestine?

Palestine is home since I grew up there. It’s where I went to school and made my first friendships and fell in love for the first time. I have a house there, and now that it is almost spring, I really long for the garden that my grandmother tended. We had rosemary bushes, roses, and a jasmine outside my window. It sounds like I’m romanticizing, but I’m not. My school was very ugly. I don’t remember one tree there.  Palestine is also where I got my political awareness in school and at university. Palestine is also my prison. As long as I remember my town has been under occupation. I grew up feeling that my life is not “normal” like other people’s lives.

Then do you currently have a house in Palestine?  Do you visit it regularly?

I do have a house in Palestine. It’s the house I grew up in. My brother and his family live in it at this point. I don’t visit regularly because I don’t feel it’s safe to visit and border crossing to the West Bank is a nightmare, especially with my son involved. The last time I’ve been there is 2001. I’d visit more regularly if I felt things were more stable and crossing borders is not such a worry.

What does it mean to you to be Palestinian?

Being Palestinian is an accident. It’s an accident of history. It’s who I am. I don’t have much choice in the matter. It means I was born in a certain place and grew up aware of the fact that I belong to a group of people who identify themselves as Palestinians. I share a history with them, mostly a sad one. I speak Arabic with a Palestinian accent, an accent that also inflect other aspects of my personality. Add to that that others identity me as a Palestinian by negating that identity. It’s paradoxical. When people tell you “you do not exist,” you yell louder to make them hear you and to prove them wrong.

Yet, I do believe that we have multiple identities and locations. I don’t consider myself a nationalist: I don’t cultivate a sense of uniqueness and essential belonging to one group of people.  I believe I probably will become less Palestinian once there is a just solution to the Palestinian question. The accent, however, will stay.

Have you read any Palestinian literature/poetry?  If so, by whom?  Why is it important to you?

Yes, I have read Palestinian literature, including poetry. I love Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry. Some Palestinian poetry, like that by Darwish, Samih el Qasem, and Tawfiq Zayyad, was very important in solidifying a sense of identity through solidarity with other Palestinians. It was important for my political education. I also read Sahar Khalifeh’s novels and was impressed by her ability to portray the conflicts that I was living with daily. Her novels were about me. This is how I felt when I read her novel Wild Thorns. It was the first book ever I read that was about me in terms it its setting and characters.

How do you see the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis?  How has it affected you?

It’s an overwhelming presence in my life. I grew up under Israeli occupation. I know it first hand. The Israeli occupation and my lack of national rights as a Palestinian were the most important fact in my life growing up.

I see it in two ways: it’s a national conflict between two groups of people. It’s not a religious conflict that has existed for thousands of years. It’s not a conflict between Muslims and Jews or Arabs and Jews. One of these groups, the Israelis, got their national aspirations fulfilled by establishing a sovereign state. The other group, the Palestinians, did not have their national aspirations fulfilled because no sovereign state exists for them. The Israeli state existed at the expense of many Palestinians who were displaced from their land and are still awaiting a just solution to their problem. The Israeli state uses its power to grab more land that is making the chances of ever establishing a Palestinian state very slim. So I experience it as a colonial situation where one group has the power to impose its will on another group, which I happened to belong to, and deny it basic rights.

Do you think peace will one day occur?  Why or why not?

It depends on what you mean by peace. The Palestinians could be completely “pacified” by being vanquished. That could happen because Israel has superior power. Is that peace? Egypt has a peace agreement with Israel, an agreement most Egyptians do not like. Is that peace?

If you mean peace in the sense of reconciliation between the two peoples, then it’s a different matter.  I’m for that. And, yes, it is possible. It’s the only rational and ethical solution. It should come as a result of a just political solution and not as a result of tricks or imposition of terms because one party is vastly superior militarily to the other.

Do you use storytelling to remember the past?  When together with friends are these stories shared?  Why or why not?

Who doesn’t? Yes. That seems the only way we can talk about the past. Through stories. “Remember how we used to…” seems to begin many of our sentences.

How do you view the “other”?  Do you agree with the “us verses them” mentality?

I don’t believe the Israelis are my “other.” I consciously work on subverting the “us vs. them” mentality. I’m a humanist. The conflict with Israel is not a clash of civilization. I don’t look at the Israelis as an undifferentiated blob or enemies. They are not. The similarities between human beings no matter how much they insist on their difference are more pronounced and more meaningful.

However, I do have an aversion to bullies of all nationalities and creeds. But even these bullies I see them in the contexts that produce them and not as an absolute ‘other’.

Do you have a specific story or other thoughts you would like to share?

Here’s a story about a haircut I had a couple of weeks ago.

Yardena and Me

Yesterday, I went to a new hairdresser because the last one I had never listens to me and always puts color in my hair that she likes. Her latest efforts made me feel Irish, which is the closest to an identity crisis that I ever came.

I didn’t know anything about the new person. After the usual pleasantries and as soon as I sit down, my new stylist hits me with–no, not the blow-dryer–but the usual friendly question:

Amal? Is that Persian?”

“Close,” I say. It’s sometimes risky to answer this question, and sometimes I’m tempted to lie to avoid a long discussion especially when I’m paying money to relax. “Arabic. I’m Palestinian,” I say. In response, I hear an “Oh!” interrupted with something between a giggle and a chuckle, followed by: “I’m Israeli. Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to hurt you.” I shrug: “I come in peace too.”

Her name is Yardena, which, she tells me, means “Jordan.” Her parents named her that because she was born soon after the 1967 war. She says that lots of girls born at the time were given that name. “Why?” I ask. She doesn’t know. “Your parents should have named you “Falasteena” if they were seeking to name you after the conquered,” I say. To myself.

I ask her many questions, feeling this is a rare chance to reverse roles and play interrogator. I learn that she’s from a place between Beer al Sabe3 and Tel Aviv. She has 10 siblings. Her father Moroccan. Her mother half Tunisian, half Italian. “You’re three quarter Arab, then,” I say enthusiastically as if I’ve just discovered a new natural color. She shrugs. She knows a bit of Arabic, whatever she learned from her grandparents who only know Arabic. But she cooks Moroccan food, using lots of cumin. “I love cumin,” I say.

When finally she has a chance to ask me questions, I seem to confuse the heck out of her. She has no idea where I am from. “West Bank” and “Ramallah” make no impression on her. “Territories?” I optimistically try a term she may be familiar with, leaving “occupied” out in order not to start a fight. To her puzzled look, I snap, “No way I’m going to say Judea and Samaria, lady. ‘Territories’ is my compromise for the day. Take it or leave it.” Well, considering that my head is in her hands, and her hands are holding a sharp object, I say that using my “inside” voice. Finally, I desperately throw at her the only Hebrew word I know: “where there is Makhsoum. Lots of makhsoums.” She nods, and I convince myself that I see a glimmer of recognition in her eyes.

At some point in our conversation, if you can call it that, she gets so irritated by my pathetic attempts to explain to her the documents I use to travel that she impatiently blurts out, “Why don’t you get an Israeli passport?”

Damn, why didn’t I think of that!

At this point, I feel like shaving my hair off. Yardena is really clueless. And on this particular day it happens that I have no maps on me to explain to her who I am and who she is. I knew, though I never could understand, that for many Israelis the “territories” might as well be on the moon and “occupation” is a term that you use to impress on your date that you do not work at the local falafel stand. But to be confronted with this denial face to face was a new experience.

To cover up my agitation, I tell her that she’s cutting too much hair and that I really love cumin.

Another story I wrote about my experience with the 1967 war:

Remembering June

“I remember the sounds of planes going over our heads. My brother and I crawl under the bed but the sounds are still loud.

At night we are sent to sleep in the neighbor’s basement. We don’t understand why, but we think it is great fun. It was the only sleep over I ever had as a kid.

The next day, our neighbor packs his kids in his car and leaves to his village in Deir Debwan. He does not offer to take us or come back for us. My mother cries when she sees our mattress lying over the fence between our house and his. I remember her standing there, looking.

The next night we sleep with my cousins in a garage few blocks away. I remember candles and loud noises. Planes? Explosions? Someone says: they must have hit the radio station. Another adult says it was dumb to come here, so close to the radio station. No body cries. Just cowering.

Then we march. The adults decide that it is safer if we leave our house in El Bireh. It is two blocks from the Jordanian base (which used to be a British camp, then after Oslo became Al Muqata’a: Arafat’s Headquarters). It is a likely target.

We march on foot. We don’t have a car. My aunt, her husband, their young children, my 12 year-old-brother and me. We are heading to the village of my aunt’s husband. Burka. There are other people on the road. We can see the planes flying over our heads. The adults yell at us not to look, as if by looking up we become targets. Every now and then they will call on us to lie down flat on the ground. I don’t remember how I felt.

I remember my brother weeping and refusing to move. He wants our mother. She has decided to stay home to take care of the house in case anything happened to it. She has built it only 4 years earlier with tears and sweat and it was her pride and joy. She can’t part with it.

My brother digs in his heels. I will always feel grateful to him for that.

My aunt’s husband walks back to El Bireh. He is a policeman in the Jordanian force. He comes back with my mother.

He tells us how he heard the cries of the prisoner’s in the Jordanian jail nearby. Their guards had evacuated and left them behind. He fired shots at the prison doors and released them. He tells the story crying. The first man I ever see cry. I will see more later.

We March. I lose one of my plastic slippers. Green. Why the hell am I wearing slippers?
My foot bleeds a bit. My mother carries me part of the way. She later told me that at some point I asked her to put me down and said “Allah byustor.”(God will protect us). I don’t remember saying that.

I remember sitting under olive trees.

In the village, there are lots of kids in the house where we lived. I remember spending idyllic long days playing in the fields, building camp fires, and eating roasted wheat. The smell of it is unforgettable.

I learned to jump rope.

I remember seeing my uncle, the family’s patriarch, weeping. This is a man who spent eight long years in Al Jafer, the desert Jordanian jail. I don’t know if he ever wept in jail or under torture. But I remember him weeping in Burka. That’s when I got scared. He and all the men were glued to the radio. I remember them standing on the open veranda looking towards Jerusalem. Pointing. To fires. Planes on the horizon. And weeping.

Someone tells my mother that our house received a direct hit. She collapses. Two of my teenage cousins are so upset on her behalf that they decide to go back to El Bireh to see for themselves. They come back with the news: the house is still standing. My mother lives.

I remember hearing talk of Amman. Of us going there with my aunt and her family. My aunt’s husband, the policeman, declares that he will never work with the Israelis and that he will never hand them his gun. This I learn later.

They leave.

My aunt and her family become refugees. She and her husband are both buried in New Jersey, USA.

We stay.

My mother balks at the last minute. She decides that whatever happens, it is better than leaving.

We return to live under Israeli occupation.

The first Israeli I ever saw I encountered on our walk back. About to cross Nabuls Street in El Bireh, a man on a motorcycle whizzes by us. My mother says matter-of-factly: “Yahudi.” His face was invisible. But I remember a helmet. To me, he was a creature from outer space. It will take years before I could gaze at the soldiers’ faces, still hidden under helmets.

When we arrive home, my brother and I collect some shrapnel from the roof of our house. My mother sweeps the broken glass. We spend the next few days going around the neighborhood comparing damages. The Rafidi family down the street had their stone wall destroyed. But the houses are standing. Later on, news of family members begin to filter through: a cousin in the national guard got lost in the desert for days. Some of his companions died. My mother’s aunt was killed on her way to Jericho. And my cousins made it to Amman and were living in a refugee camp.

But on the day of our return, I remember, or my mother told me, that she finds that the dough she had left behind and was planning on baking six days ago has risen and spelled out of the tajen. She kneads a new batch.

I remember the smell of the fresh baked bread. The first thing we eat under occupation.”

What do you think of America’s media representation of the conflict?

Oh, don’t get me started. At best, it’s ignorant. At worst, which is often, it’s unfair and biased. It makes no effort to humanize the Palestinians or to question the official story. Media representations are in some serious way part of the problem. Palestinians are demonized and their story is never told in a fair way. The reasons are complex; this is not to say that some individuals in the media are not doing a decent job. But it’s an institutional thing. I honestly believe that the American people would be horrified to learn what their “official” media doesn’t bother telling them.


Literary and Personal Narratives:Analysis of an Interview with Amal Amireh

Over this past semester, I have thrown myself into the study of Israeli and Palestinian Literature having little knowledge of the subject while allowing myself to be open to authors’ stories and poems.  These authors tried to encapsulate the essence of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and to put their complex thoughts into simple words.  Although the literature was based upon the conflict, most of the stories read were fictional.  A cognitive dissonance occurred as I questioned the literature since it seemed to lack any personal foundation, albeit the accounts did describe real life occurrences.  My interview with Amal Amireh, a Palestinian woman who now lives within the United States, provided a unique experience that demonstrated how realistic the course literature portrayed both Israelis and Palestinians and the conflict.  Amireh’s words overwhelmingly coincided with the literature discussed in class.  This analysis will demonstrate the similarities and differences found between the literature as well as Amireh’s personal experience through her unique narrative.

One similarity found between Amal Amireh’s responses and the novel The Smile of the Lamb was the use of storytelling.  In this respect, Amireh answered that she and her friends commonly talk about the past through stories and they begin many sentences with the phrase “Remember how we used to…” This phrase correlates with the reiterated words in The Smile of the Lamb “kan-ya-ma-kan, there was or there was not, as all your tales begin, or as we say, once upon a time” (3-4).  Along with the use of a repetitive phrase, Amireh’s reply included storytelling to talk about the past just as Khilmi used for the same purpose.  Her two shared stories are examples of the storytelling nature as they captured her past life and the struggles she still faces today.

Another similarity during the interview occurred with Amireh’s response to the Palestinian and Israeli literature that she has read.  She has read a great deal of literature and her favorite poets included Mahmoud Darwish and Tawfiq Zayyad, both of which the class has covered.  Amireh’s favorite author is Sahar Kahlifeh who wrote Wild Thorns because of “her ability to portray the conflicts that I [Amireh] was living with daily.”  Amireh’s comment that the novel described her life gave me confirmation that the literature read did reflect the real life situations accurately and provided a glimpse into the conflict.

Amireh’s answer to hew own experiences with Palestine reflected the view of the land as found within the required course literature.  She calls Palestine both her home and her prison.  Amireh considers Palestine her prison because her town has been under occupation most of her life.  She explained that the occupation and “lack of national rights were the most important fact in my life growing up.”  Being trapped under occupation was the overriding theme in the stories Wild Thorns and The Smile of the Lamb.

Another theme common between the literature and interview occurred when Amireh told a story about getting a haircut.  This story echoed the interrogation scene found in Wild Thorns.  Amireh asked Yardena, her new hairdresser, questions and felt as though for once she had a unique chance to role reverse and be an interrogator.  After her questions, Yardena then asked some questions.  Amireh’s answers confused the hairdresser with the use of such words as “West Bank” and “Ramallah.”  Amireh said that these words made no impression on her hairdresser.  Amireh then tried “territories” rather then “occupied” so an argument would not arise.  The difference in naming ended with Amireh snapping, “No way I’m going to say Judea and Samaria, land.  ‘Territories’ is my compromise for the day.  Take it or leave it.”

The final major theme that Amal Amireh touched upon dealt with her Palestinian identity.  She sees the negating of her identity by others while still being labeled as a Palestinian by those same people as paradoxical.  Amireh made one powerful statement when I asked her what it meant to be Palestinian.  She said, “When people tell you ‘you don’t exist,’ you yell louder to make them hear you and to prove them wrong.”  This response connects to the Men in the Sun novel where this idea was proposed at the end of the story.  It was also displayed in Wild Thorns when Zuhdi said, “You didn’t hear what I was saying… We’re used to speaking while people nod their heads without listening” (80).  Amireh’s answer embodied the Palestinian fight and determination to be recognized by having a homeland once again.

Although Amireh provided many thoughts and stories that coincided with themes found within Israeli and Palestinian literature, she brought to my attention one difference that did not correspond.  When I asked about her family history, Amireh mentioned her father, who immigrated to the United States and became a citizen in the 1950s.  She continued with, “But like many men in my hometown at the time, he [Amireh’s father] did not bring the whole family with him to the US.”  I was surprised to learn that immigrating to America was a common occurrence to undertake by many men.  The course literature often commented that a child would move to an oil country and send home money earned from work.  However, none of the stories mentioned immigration to the United States.  Amireh then shared that both her mother and father were buried in their hometown, which showed how they both loved and were still apart of Palestine.

Other questions I asked Amal Amireh pertained to possibilities of peace and then the media’s representation of the conflict.  Due to her open-mind towards “the other,” Amireh believed peace is only possible through reconciliation.  She suggests that the only “rational and ethical solution… comes as a result of a just political solution and not as a result of tricks or imposition.”  Besides stating the desire for a just solution, Amireh had no other words to describe how this will occur in the future.  I found her response understandable, as there is yet to be a solution in such a complex situation.  Amireh does show that through hope many people believe a just, peaceful solution will occur in this lifetime.  With respect to the media, Amireh believes the news is often “unfair and biased” and that it “makes no effort to humanize the Palestinians to question the official story.”  She continued by stating that the media is part of the overall problem.

Themes such as love of homeland, occupation, interrogation, and hope were discussed in both the interview and the course literature.  Her responses gave a personal witness to what was read which showed the significance of the literature’s ability to inform about the conflict.  Through all of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Amal Amireh commented on the hope that she has for peace in the future.  The statement that impacted me the most was when Amireh responded, “The similarities between people no matter how much they insist on their differences are more pronounced and more meaningful.”