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A journey back to myself, amidst Gaza’s pain

3 FEBRUARY 2024

It strikes me every time I see images of the Gaza’s besieged people: They look like me! I have their eyes, their brows, their nose, their look – even though I live halfway across the world from Palestine.

I am half-Palestinian; my father is Palestinian. It hits me every time I look at the mirror. I have curly black hair, full eyebrows. “I see,” someone remarked just the other day, “I had always thought there was something different, and somehow thought of the Middle East but I didn’t really know.”

But I don’t fully know the Palestinian part of me – though I often chat or talk to my father, who is based in the Middle East. At the same time, Gaza and Palestine are far from distant headlines in the avalanche of bad news today, and hold tangled threads around a part of myself that remains a mystery to me.

Since the start of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in October 2023, I find myself returning to, seeking, content related this catastrophe. When I do this, a tug-o-war inside me comes up.

“I have nothing to do with this as I live far away here in Southeast Asia, and never saw or lived with my Palestinian father when I was growing up,” I say to myself. “But you do have something to do with this,” is the whisper I also hear.

Since late October, when I began consuming news from Al Jazeera, I’ve been asking myself whether this tragedy presents an opportunity to understand better my family history, as a way to back to myself. 

“It’s complicated,” Papa has said a couple of times in recent weeks, when I ask about what’s happening in Gaza. Sometimes, though, he doesn’t reply much to my questions. Is he is avoiding having to talk about painful things?

Talking with Papa these days makes me want to know more too, but his silence speaks volumes. The more I press, the more I sense that he is going behind the walls he has built to shield himself from memories that haunt him.

More than a decade ago, Papa had told me about the atrocities he and his family went through during the First Gulf War (1990-1991), which erupted after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Although of Palestinian descent, he was born and raised in Kuwait. He witnessed family members being beheaded at home, he said. He was held captive for a few years, enduring unimaginable hardship before finally getting a chance at a new life. 

These days, we have been messaging each other often, every other day or so.

“It’s complicated,” he has said a couple of times in recent weeks, when I ask about what’s happening in Gaza. More recently, though, he has encouraged me to read about particular events in Palestinian history and the Israel-Palestine conflict. A history buff, I am indeed doing this.

Sometimes, though, Papa doesn’t reply much to my questions. Is he is avoiding having to talk about painful things? Most of the time, we stick to safer topics like work and family life. 

How else can I satisfy my curiosity? As everyone does, I go online.

The more I look at the pictures, especially of the kids in Gaza, I imagine that they could well be part of my family too. They are growing up in the same places where my father’s ancestors – and therefore mine – grew up. Memories come back of how Mama, who died 17 years ago, used to say “you look like your cousins” since she had seen pictures of my father’s family. 

Their kids’ faces tell a story that is somehow also mine.  Papa once told me that he could, in fact, count about “13 grandfathers” – starting from his grandfather and going back 12 more generations – who lived in the Palestinian homeland.

I first heard the word “Palestine” from my mother, who would share stories she had heard from my father about his family and history. I was nine years old then, when we first talked seriously about Papa. She told me some information – most of which I have since forgotten – about the Israel-Palestine conflict. She shared how my father’s ‘political’ family background may have been a major part in her decision to pack her bags one day, without telling him. She left Papa after learning that she was pregnant with me. But I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying her story.

The other, main, factor in Mama’s decision to leave was her worries about the huge cultural gap between her and my father, even if they loved each other. “Why did you separate?” I remember asking her.  Her response remains vivid to me today: “Because I did not want you to grow up in a culture I did not grow up in.” 

My father had come to my country in his early twenties, to study in university. Mama and Papa became friends, developed feelings for each other and got married in their late twenties. They were married for two years, together for about six. Getting pregnant was what made mother see the complications that the future held. My mother was pretty much a free spirit, my father was bound by his culture and religion. My mother’s family preferred a Catholic in-law, while my father’s preferred a Muslim one.

Papa then returned to the Middle East and my mother went back to her hometown, where I was raised. Years later, he confirmed that “your mother was my only choice,” as his family typically had arranged marriages.

Being a single parent did not stop Mama from sharing things about my father. She wanted me to know him a bit despite the distance, literally and figuratively, between us. Her accounts weaved my early connections to my roots, explaining too why I looked somewhat different from my peers.

My mother’s stories ended with her death at the age of 44. Soon after that – I was 18 – I got the courage to get in touch with my father. The stories then resumed, and they were a continuation of where Mama had left off.

But over the years, thinking about my parents brought sad and difficult things to me, the suffering they had to endure, things I never got to know or experience with them. So I don’t go to these places inside me too often.

Like generations of Palestinians, Papa bears trauma around his troubled homeland. I think of him having been a captive. On top of associating my father with his painful history, I remain conflicted about whether, and how far, to cultivate a relationship with him – someone whom I have never met and whom I feel more comfortable interacting with through chats or calls on the phone. Thoughts around my father then lead to my mother, and remembering her these days makes me yearn for her, more than I usually do.

I’m skilled at keeping all these at a safe distance, but the stories now filling my social media about Gaza and the suffering of Palestinians pulls me straight back there. Stress comes subconsciously, as I feel my body’s reaction to the images and stories.

But this time around, I find myself more able and perhaps a bit more open, to staying in this zone of discomfort. This time, the horrors in Gaza have intensified my desire to understand my Palestinian roots, to work on untangling these knots around my identity, to get to know a people defined by pain and resilience. Palestine is now clearly personal, and the virtual is becoming visceral. 

Will I want to meet Papa face-to-face one day? Will I get to visit parts of Palestine and the larger historical Palestine, or even step on Middle East soil? I don’t know. 

For now, I grapple with the dichotomy of being both observer and participant. But this is okay, I tell myself. Perhaps the war on Gaza can be the start of a journey to making my own peace not only with the Palestinian part of me, but with the complexities of my relationship with Papa.

*Yujin (a pseudonym) is a 35-year-old professional. 

(END/Reporting ASEAN/Edited by JSon)

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