An American-born Gazan recounts the first time she and her father set eyes on their ancestral homeland — and their failed attempt at entering their native city.
I have never seen my father more ecstatic than the moment he set foot on Palestinian soil. He didn’t even look back to see if I was keeping up with him as he walked towards customs at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.
He had always wanted to visit, but life got in the way. Palestine is the place his parents called home half a century ago.
He was the only child among several siblings who was sent to the US for university.
He’s also the only family member of his generation to have married a non-Arab. He met my mother, a Mexican-Catholic woman, while studying computer science in Los Angeles during the 1980s.
Naturally, the news made the rounds far and wide among even the most distant of relatives living in Gaza.
“Can you believe that Zuhair, son of Yaseen Shawwa, married a Mexican 'masihia' [woman of Christian faith]?”
The sunny Californian city is where he chose to stay, raise his three children and foster a thriving business.
My father’s family name, in and of itself, speaks volumes about his identity as he comes from one of the five original families of Gaza.
His grandfather was a leading community leader who helped Palestinians settle as refugees in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s. His great cousin was elected mayor of Gaza by Israel in 1971.
It was only natural, then, that his parents, who had already relocated as refugees to Saudi Arabia at the time, worried that their son would forget his roots at a time in which the Palestinian population was fighting to survive.
As a child, I would beg my father to take us to Palestine and show us where our grandparents grew up. “Inshallah” - God willing - was always his response, but the opportunity never presented itself.
As time passed and I travelled the world and other parts of the Middle East, my curiosity grew for this obscure place that was so deeply imprinted in my father’s consciousness.
He would tell us stories of how his grandfather was transported in government planes across the Middle East to get medical treatment when he got sick in his old age, given the strong connections he had fostered over the years helping Palestinians set up camp.
My grandmother would tell us about how beautiful Gaza’s beaches were and how nothing compared to the falafel or kanafeh (a Middle Eastern sweet made with cheese) that came from her hometown.
This is why when I told my father last year that I had decided to travel to Israel and Palestine at the beginning of 2019, he knew I was serious. I told him I wanted to go discover the positives of this conflict zone: the art, culture and the growing number of youth peace activists.
He went from trying to reason me out of it to offering to go with me.
My goal was to get into Gaza, arguably one of the most difficult places to enter in the world. The issue was that no one could give us a straight answer about what kind of permit and paperwork was needed.
Even official agencies, like the US Embassy or Israeli government websites, offered conflicting information on the matter.
It didn’t help that every uncle, cousin or friend who had been there had completely different experiences. So we decided to go with an open mind and see for ourselves how it would play out.
As we approached customs at Ben Gurion airport, my father pointed excitedly to the sign welcoming visitors in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
We were asked why we were visiting, where we would spend our time and if we knew anyone in the country.
The official then paused for a moment before asking my father if he had any family in Palestine. My father answered “yes” but said that he didn’t know most of them.
After questioning us about our links to Gaza for about 10 minutes, he pointed to a room with only his eyes and told us we would have to wait there. I asked how long for and he said it may take up to 72 hours as part of “standard procedure”.
Twenty other people were there. It was almost midnight by then. Most looked like they were of Arab descent, but then I heard someone speaking in Spanish.
“I think they think I’m Arab because my name is Said,” said the man, who was holding a Mexican passport in his hand.
After three hours, our names were finally called to go inside. The woman who sat across the desk looked like she was in her late 20s, just like myself. She was apologetic for the wait and told us that visitors coming through Tel Aviv had doubled since last year.
She then began to ask about who we knew in Gaza and their phone numbers. My father gave her the only phone number he had. With a simple number, she knew the man’s name, the names of his children, where they lived and even when his wife had died.
“They really do know everything,” my dad said, referencing the fact that Israeli intelligence is renowned to be the best in the world.
The next day was a blur. The sun was shining bright in Tel Aviv. Much of the beach area even reminded us of Santa Monica. It was comforting to see groups exercising on the sand, mothers strolling their babies or watching their children play in the parks.
Reality hit when we heard a man yelling at a restaurant manager in Arabic for not letting him inside to use the restroom. He was from a small town in the West Bank and worked in construction in Tel Aviv.
We were very much tourists in Tel Aviv, with the exception of the odd bit of Arab cultural familiarity.
Our next stop was Jerusalem. On our first day there, we strolled through the Old City in East Jerusalem. Dozens of carts containing traditional sweets dotted the walls of the narrow market streets.
My father stopped at a local vendor’s leather shop. We ended up staying there for hours, waiting for custom-made wallets to finish being hand-made as my father conversed with the shop owner, who was in his 60s. He offered us sheesha (hookah) and told us how difficult it had become to find quality tobacco, coal and other material in general.
“You know, the Israeli government offered me more than $15 million to sell this building,” he said.
I look around at the cracked walls that look like they hadn’t been touched up in decades and the broken old TV that was placed on top of a dirty mattress on the floor. Did he really say $15 million?
“They’ve been trying to kick us out of here for a while, but a true Palestinian doesn’t sell his land, not like this.”
The closer we got to my grandparents’ hometown, the more familiar it felt to my father, whose Palestinian accent was impeccable.
On the other side of the separation barrier, we heard countless more stories from people we met. These stories gave faces to the news we’ve heard on television, but have become desensitised to.
From the boy in Ramallah who can’t leave the West Bank because he’s related to a cousin in jail, to the peace activist whose house has been bombed three different times and whose brother was killed in the last Gaza war, it was a lot more difficult to hear these stories in person. While some were harder than others, every Palestinian had a story to share about their life under occupation.
For some, it’s as simple as not being able to build a house for their family, not due to a lack of resources, but because they were born Palestinian.
Since the war in 1967, the population of Palestinians living in Jerusalem has increased by almost 40 percent, and yet not one neighbourhood construction project has been approved by Israel.
The day we got to the Gaza border was rather stormy. As the rain poured, we walked with all our belongings through the gates, which our driver wasn’t allowed to enter (Palestinians cannot move between towns by virtue of their different-coloured identity cards).
We asked him to wait in case we were refused entry, and with good reason.
The officers on the Israeli side of the Erez border were shocked when we told them we didn’t have an entry permit.
One officer tried to help us get approval, and yet, after submitting all the documents we were asked for, we were denied entry by her supervisor.
“Because the requirements change so often, it’s hard to know exactly what you need before you come,” the officer explained.
There was a sense of defeat as we walked back to the car.
“So I guess we can just go back to Amman,” my father said.
As we entered through the checkpoint before Ben Gurion Airport, our car was pulled to the side. We were asked to get out. They took our passports, but this time, they also took our phones. I waited outside as they took my father into a room on the side of the road first, with all of his luggage.
Then, as he passed into another waiting room, I was allowed to go in with my luggage. Once everything was checked, we waited together in the small room with cameras looking down at us from the ceiling, wondering if we were going to miss our flight. I looked out of the window to see how many other cars were being pulled to the side from the long checkpoint queues. Not one was pulled over in the 30 minutes we were there.
The officer gave us back our passports and phones with a big smile and told us to have a safe flight. She looked younger than my 21-year-old brother. As we closed the car door, she waved goodbye with one hand as she rested the other on her rifle.
The silence was palpable as we drove off. After passing the last checkpoint now inside airport, my father said: “At least we have a home we’re not afraid to go back to.”
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