My Mother’s Heels
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, University of Oxford and Refugee Hosts
‘I live in Baddawi Camp.’
This is what I used to tell foreigners every single time they came to my primary school. At times I used to run after them and repeat these words without waiting for their questions. I have always thought that questions are inherent within answers and that answers very often comprise their questions, questions which no answers can address.
It was in the early morning that the elderly woman would approach taxi drivers and workmen on the edges of my home-camp, begging them to take her to Haifa. I was nearly ten when I had the courage to mention this to my father. I knew that he would know the woman personally, since they shared the same origins.
I wanted to interrogate the ‘senility’ which, for many Palestinians, has become a conscious and legitimate outcome of the validities as well as the enormities of memory. I wanted to know how and in what form the ability ‘to not forget’ can transform itself into a constant movement towards the missing origin: Palestine.
My father was unexpectedly patient when he proceeded to tell me about the pain we all carry from the moment of our birth, the same pain that has forged a strong bond with memories whose owners had not been given the time to (re)collect. Our time, he continued, was stuck between there and here. We have not yet had the right moment to process the vastness of losing memories so, in a sense, the refugee camps have acted as transitional places, and at times as a meeting point, which are tinged with an amalgam of benign details: those which were carried from Palestine and those which have grown in the whereabouts of these camps.
The woman’s back, her small stature and her striking blue eyes, for me, founded the basic signs of the Palestine that I have never seen – the image that demonstrates the moral and symbolic value of having the right to dream seriously, and with strength, amidst all this immense destruction – but I continue to imagine through the eyes of my parents and grandparents. For me, Palestine has always been delivered through that which my parents have seen. Even more so, I would say, through my mother’s cracked heels, as she swept the concrete surfaces in our house in Baddawi Camp, through her regular trips to see my grandparents, uncles and aunts in Nahr Al-Bared Camp, and her visits to the cemetery to bid farewell to the deceased, and to restate what it is like to be buried in a place which marks both your death and your fixedness as a dead/living person in your camp.
As somebody who was born and brought up in a refugee camp, I have always felt that my Palestinianness is the pretext for understanding the ‘Other’; for thinking of those people whose rights have been diminished; for ‘dream[ing] while remembering’ and ‘remember[ing] while dreaming’, to paraphrase Bachelard. As I recall, the rare trips outside the camp, mainly to Tripoli, with my mother to have my photo taken for my new ‘Identity Card for Palestinian Refugees’ always prompted me to think of the photos, badly framed, of family members smiling, or looking stern, somewhere in Palestine.
There is no surer way of retracing the footsteps of my parents than to borrow their eyes to see what they were able to see. Being Palestinian is the only healthy sign in very unhealthy settings. It is embodied in recycled UNRWA books; dried vegetables marking the continuous nature of our presence; donated asbestos roofs; reservoirs; my maternal grandparents; the grandfather who spent over two decades in bed hallucinating about his land in Saffourieh in Palestine; UNRWA distribution centres and schools; bomb shelters; small plants, mainly mint and basil, in empty ghee and dried milk tins, reminding us of the value of beauty in ugly circumstances; shared walls and windows with good and bad neighbours; ever-expanding thresholds; factions; AK47s; political and military marches; demonstrations; high-blood pressure, diabetes, depression and hope; regular Israeli air raids; explosions; visiting relatives in other camps; place(s) of reference; my parents and siblings and their respective families; definition of that life; definition of this life; identity cards; colours and smells; clothes and sizes; the news, songs, poetry and prose; Lebanese national exams and our imminent exposure; strong, feeble and suppressed dialects; friendships; sound barriers; martyrs and their photographs; sensitivity; prophets; tears; death; funerals and sweets; frail bodies; digging; holding coffins; and running away.
The woman, after various failed attempts to board a car, was collected by a taxi-driver who did not know her family, and decided to drive her outside the camp. According to those who found her body in the only park in Tripoli, she looked the same, with her two bags full of clothes. Palestine will never fade away as long as the power of imagination becomes an ever more powerful act. Many will continue to die in the refugee camps, many more will die while attempting to put memories in the right order, but, one thing is certain: the palpable and symbolic value of Palestine will continue to be entwined with the ultimate values of humanity and fairness.
Then I remember; then I find myself again. – Bachelard
Acknowledgement: This piece was originally published as a chapter in Yasir Suleiman’s edited collection:
Qasmiyeh, Y.M. (2016) “My Mother’s Heels,” in Suleiman, Y. (ed) Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora (Edinburgh University Press, 2016: pp. 303-305)
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