Salamat! It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve been to my parents’ homeland and I’d expected much to have changed. My father’s birth town Al Bireh, already densely populated still managed to squeeze in more white-brick homes with orange-tile roofs, and a few sprawling apartment buildings had sprung up. The small villa we lived in during the 1980’s seemed completely transformed: a new level had been added and the palm trees in the front yard had doubled in size, their enormous leaves swaying in the breeze.
But, sadly, some things haven't changed at all. Like the demoralizing experience of navigating through Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. As racist protocol, individuals with discernibly Arabic names are ushered to a detaining area where they could spend up to 8 hours before being released--or worse, denied entry into Israel. My sister Linda and I were detained for almost 2 hours, interrogated about our father’s family tree and the name of our mother’s grandfather. And the same questions were asked by two immigration officers in two separate offices we ping-ponged between. It was undeniable proof of systematized harassment. The objective: to whittle down our Palestinian spirits, dishearten us, and rob us of our joy to return to our native country. It’s the only country where I’m made to feel like a criminal, like I don’t belong in spite of the houses that are still standing where my parents were born and in spite of the land deeds my family has in our possession. The reality: Israel simply does not want us here.
The first immigration officer handed back our passports and we were finally permitted to move through security and retrieve our bags. In the detention area, we left behind two Palestinian men who hadn’t budged from their chairs. I had no idea how long they’d been waiting but could surmise it was more than a few hours.
On the road to Al Bireh, I turned to my 10-year-old niece Naimah and instructed her, “There will be soldiers with machine guns who will stop our cab and check our passports. Don’t be scared, okay?” She’d been to Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin and the only thing she'd ever needed to prepare for was sunburn and the endless barrage of kisses and hugs from loving relatives she visited. This “vacation” had a different protocol that required her seeing soldiers with automatic weapons, who poked their heads our cab's windows. It’s far from the joyous note that starts off a long awaited journey.
Luckily, we were able to snatch back some happiness as soon as we entered our villa which sits atop a sprawling mountain across from another called Jabal Al Taweel, or Tall Mountain. After settling in, I enjoyed a voluptuous breeze on the barranda (verandah) and gazed down the valley, dotted with purple thistles and thornbushes, at the town of Al Bireh.
Here, when I’m asked by a garrulous cab driver who my parents are, it’s to determine how closely related we are by clan or friendship. I tell him “Ana Bint Ismail Museitif”--Daughter of Ismail Museitif--and his cheerful reaction is a warm homecoming for me every time.