In the early 1980s my father was illegally crossing the borders as he stamped his passport with forged seals of the countries he wished to visit, from Libya to Syria, from Syria to Amman, from Amman to Yemen, and from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, and there he settled for 16 years, though he did not remain in one place for long and carried on his habit, moving from Al-Riyadh to Jidda, and from Jidda to Tabook— where I was born, and lastly coming back home. His brother, meanwhile, had already settled himself in a land far more handsome and graceful, mild and sunny, all along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea than the baking wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula. He had already gained a wide reputation that recommended him the best T.V. technician in the Galilee. By then, he had his own shop, and diligently worked so as to preserve his place in that heaven; he feared nothing as the prospect of going back to a flaming Gaza. I care not how low, inconsiderate, and void of principles this man might be regarded, nor do I care how discreet and realistic his attitude toward life was. He married an Arab-Israeli girl of fifteen from Kofor Kana, who as she crossed our doorstep in Beit Lahya thirteen years ago had already brought him three sons and two daughters, who added up to the overall lot of the loosely connected extended family to which I belong.
That was the sole time I met my uncle’s family, and I hadn’t a clue I ever had an uncle from Israel! I was nine years in those days. “Israel” was something completely unlike the “Israel” I know, hear, meet and think of at the present. All I knew about Israelis— or “Jews” for I used the two words synonymously back then, and they are still thus used amongst the Palestinians, especially little children like me at that time who knew nothing of the huge disparity between the two terms, grannies, and illiterate people; all I knew about “Israel” is that they were the most hated enemy to me, the worst enemy I could ever think of. The first time I was taught about antitheses and contrasts, the teacher asked us to come up with a few examples of contrasts, so my mate sitting next to me wrote him a few words among which there were two in particular that, upon seeing, the teacher smiled: they were “Israel” and “Palestine”. “Israel and Palestine? yea why not?” the teacher said before he went to check the other mates’ answers. When I wanted to curse some mate and made him feel really bad, all I needed to do was call him a “Jew”, referring to one of those near Jews who settled in the land we perceived as ours. I still remember how whenever I heard the word “Israel”, I just thought of death. I believed I was to be killed by a helmeted soldier, pointing his gun toward me. In short, I really hated Israel. It was enough of a shock to me when my uncle and his family from Israeli came along paying us a visit at home.
“Get ready, Mohammed! Now you’re gonna meet your ninth uncle,” My mother said to me, and observing my and my brother’s cold and passive reaction, she attempted to put on some sentiment of gratified excitement and continued, “from Israel; it’s gonna be something amazing…I mean you all will finally meet your uncle from Israel!”
And It worked. I got all excited. To meet somebody from there. From Israel. And that somebody is none but my uncle, my ninth uncle who I hadn’t met yet. That would be really exciting. Nothing could have made me more excited than that. My heart swelled, and I felt I finally got something to boast about: something to steal my mates’ attention. I fancied that scene where, encircled by a whole lot of my classmates, all gaping with esteem in their eyes and listening attentively, I would tell my exceptional story with my Israeli uncle and his family. I could not have been this overwhelmed had my mother didn’t strike at once me with the angst and beauty of the word ”Israel”. This time all the dread, the horror, the agitation, and the disgust “Israel” would spark in my chest whenever I heard the word, all turned to a curious feeling that kept me hopeful this uncle of mine would be unlike the rest, and the fact that he was coming from Israel was that which granted him such a commendable attribute of unlikeness. But then, there was that thought which struck me with its vitriolic harshness and acridity. I couldn’t make it out how it did not cross my mind just then, right when I received the news?—how can I have un uncle from Israel?
Here began my journey of realization to the actual nature of a conflict I was bound to its accounts since my early childhood. Israel which until that moment was only an abstract, something remote and unreachable; it was in the middle of nowhere. I heard people talk of Israel; some talked of its breathtaking charm, its adorable environment, luxurious livelihood, splendid beaches, seductive and pretty women. The other image, however, was largely the fruit of what I heard on the news; occupation, brutality, killing children, demolishing homes, uprooting trees and olives and the like…Neither was real.
“How can I have an uncle from Israel?” Failing to make out the answer my self, I asked my mother.
“You already have one. His name is Kamal,” My mother told me. This answer could have never satisfied my curiosity, and it only added to my augmenting puzzlement. “How can he be named Kamal, and he is from Israel at the same time?” I thought to myself. My mother, however, as if my thoughts were shaping out before her, resumed, “He is an Arab, just like us, but he lives in Israel. They call them Israeli Arabs. There are a great many of them living in Israel.”
The certainty of my mother’s statement left me no chance to doubt or bargain. And I still could never understand. As I reflect on it now, I believe that was the climax where all the paradoxes of the conflict, brought together, culminated in my mother’s utterance of such a brief oxymoron of you’re-uncle-is-an-Israeli Arab. My astonished confusion knew no boundaries, and even though I wanted to know more, to argue, to understand, and to tell my mother she was wrong, to tell her Israel and Palestine— referred to by Arabs —can never meet, it seemed the more I knew, the less satisfied and more confused I became. I thus decided to leave it at that point.
My uncle and his family at last arrived. I could now search for answers to the too many questions that roamed across my head by myself, and it was not too long before I had my first observation, which was not really naïve for a child at my age, living in a very closed environment and conservative society. Up to that moment all the women I had seen in my life were all wearing a scarf. To me a scarf was part of a woman’s body, of her face. My Israeli aunt was hence the first woman who I saw not wearing a scarf; and, as if I had been disbelieving my mother thus far, I finally ensured myself my uncle and his wife had come from Israel. I got alarmed and felt as though I wanted to quit this company at once. However, no sooner did I have my first observation on my aunt than she mercilessly struck me with another, keeping me from quitting their fairly unpleasant company, and denying me the pleasure of having such a release as she, probably noticing our diffidence, very jovially and friendly bid me, my brother and sisters to come closer, in fluent Arabic! My mother was right. Those are Israeli Arabs (or Arab Israelis.) This was the first and only time I had a direct contact with people said to be Israelis.
Immense is the disparity between how I looked upon these people at that time and my present observation of them.
As I grew up and started to swallow the facts that led up to the formation of such a people, and synchronously leading a life coupled with the a first-hand experience of similar inhumane, subjugating, factual procedures, I felt my affection and devotion to the “Israeli Arabs” grow day by day, and understood that their suffering is by no means less than the Palestinians’…
I now understand they are part of neither “Israel”. A direct object of Israel’s discriminatory policies; looked down on as inferior enemies; regarded with contempt as Arabs; living in a racist Jewish state and obliged to swear allegiance, jailed and punished for sleeping together with Jewish women; neglected as an unwanted minority; treated with wicked brutality by the police; that we are of the same Palestinian identity, originally compatriots; every bit of that I now very well understand.
Mohammed Rabah Suliman