Finding Home without a Map, an Interview with Soha Al-Jurf

image credit: Mia Coo

I had the opportunity to interview Soha Al-Jurf, transform. contributor and writer of the memoir Even My Voice Is Silence, which tells about her journey back to Palestine. It’s a story is about home, memory, history, and finding oneself. Her story reflects the stories of many countries and many peoples, especially in the ways in which it confronts that place of unease so many of us “hyphenated” Americans carry inside of us as we try to find home.

XC: So, why did you write the book?

SAJ: I wrote the book because as a Palestinian-American Muslim woman who was raised in America, particularly raised in Iowa,  I faced some challenges in reconciling my own identity. My internal sense of what I saw portrayed of myself in the media, and particularly in the situation with Palestine, brought up for me all of this conflict and contention. What I saw portrayed in the media didn’t reflect what I saw in my personal life as a Palestinian American, or of what I knew from being in Palestine, or in the West Bank or of what I knew from living as a Palestinian American.

So I wrote the book to provide both myself and people like me, whether they were Arab Americans, Muslim Americans or just hyphenated Americans–people who felt like they didn’t really fit into American society–a story that might reflect their experiences. But I was also trying to figure out my own experience on some level.

XC: I recognize that. I read a section of the book, and I realized, this is a book about home. This was before I read your introduction. As I thought that in my heart I felt the depth of what that must’ve meant to you. And I wondered if after your experiences in palestine, whether or not you feel like you’ve found home. I mean, you grew up in Iowa, which I would imagine does not feel a lot like home.

SAJ: No. And I think ultimately through this process, which I also find in my Buddhist practice, there’s a recognition, a constant restlessness that I’ve lived with my whole life, which has been a search for something. And I recognize that there really is nothing–no arrival point. So, there’s an ambiguity in that search and to some degree still an ambivalence. But I think I did reach a point where some of the restlessness resolved itself as a result of the journey I took. Not because I found what I was looking for but because I realized that there really is nothing to look for.

That’s the sort of more spiritual perspective. The real perspective is, I’m still left with that feeling of being neither here nor there. Edward Saïd, the Palestinian scholar, used to describe this phenomena of being neither here nor there, and that didn’t go away with writing the book. It wasn’t as though I suddenly thought, “Okay, great I’m home.” But I think I did reach a certain degree of comfort with the ambiguity by going through this journey, because I searched and searched and searched and there was nothing there. There was literally nothing there in my recognizing that Palestine is no longer. And on some level, obviously, Palestine is still there, but there are certain things that will never be recovered. There are just certain parts of my ancestral existence and my life and life as a Palestinian American–there are certain things that will never be recovered. No matter what you do, they’re just gone.

I think I did achieve a certain level of peace in the pain of that, in the discomfort. I think I did achieve a certain degree of resolution by sitting in that pain and just being in it.

XC: Listening to you makes me think of what it must be like as a Black American to return to Africa (I’ve never been) as a way of looking for home or perhaps a Japanese American who’s grown up here her entire life and then returns to Japan and finds that people are not very accepting of her as Japanese. It’s a lot of people’s story. It also brings to mind the chapter in which you talk about a woman you met who was not allowed to walk down a certain section of road because she was Palestinian, which made me think of the American South in the 50s and 60s–and in some areas it’s also the South today.

SAJ: Yes, and a lot of people have drawn a parallel between what’s going on in Palestine and apartheid South Africa. I’m not an expert on apartheid South Africa, but I do think it’s a reasonable comparison in the sense that there is quite literally a caste system. People refer to it as racism. I think  that’s because that creates a context that people can understand a little bit better; it’s not exactly racism, because it’s a lot more about political conquest than it is about color or hatred of a specific group, but there are definitely similarities.

As you were saying it’s a lot of people’s story. But literally having to carry your ID around to walk from place to place, literally having the potential of severe repercussions for not carrying your pass, including imprisonment, including fines depending on who you are–there’s a definite hierarchy based on where you’re from–are similar to apartheid. There are the people in the West Bank, and there are Palestinians who have been issued a Jerusalem ID and, because Jerusalem is a contested area, they’re treated a little more like Israelis. Within Israeli society you have all these Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship, because they were granted citizenship in 1948 and  you have what they call the Arab-Israelis, who are clearly Palestinians. They choose to call them Arabs instead of Palestinians, but they’re really Palestinians who were given Israeli ID and citizenship, and they are on this low end of the totem pole.

Within Israeli society you also have quite overt racism, because part of what happened to create the Jewish state was that they brought in Jews from all over the world. You have Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews and Black Jews from Ethiopia. You have Jews from the surrounding Arab countries. And with that you genuinely have racism in Israeli society. There are stories of Ethiopians being helicoptered in to take up space on the land and being treated horribly. That’s where race literally comes into Israeli society, but all for political gain. All to maintain this Jewish state.

XC: It’s kind of a mess.

SAJ: It’s kind of a disaster. You have the occupation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but within Israeli society things are a disaster. Not just because of the issues I just mentioned, because this is a nation that is trying to sustain a military occupation over people who are living in the same country. And the economic toll, the psychological toll it’s taking on them is huge. There are scholars who are discussing how Israel, as a result of poor decision making in all of these realms, is probably going to implode.

XC: I would imagine so. I was wondering what it felt like to be in Palestine. What does it feel like to be in a room with people?

SAJ: It’s a pretty constant pressure cooker. Conversations are all about, Is the checkpoint closed? Does anybody know of any violence that’s happened today? Does anybody know if anyone has been shot or imprisoned today? It’s part of the daily dialogue. There’s no respite from the thought of the occupation nor any respite from functioning within the occupation–whether that’s because you’re trying to navigate a checkpoint and there’s soldier’s in your face or because you’re thinking about trying to go from point A to point B and you don’t know if it’s going to be a fine checkpoint or you don’t know if you have the right ID or you want to get somewhere for which you don’t have a permit or an ID. It’s constant. Constant talk of trying to get out of the country and not being allowed exit because Israel won’t issue the paperwork. By contrast, if you are allowed to go into Israeli society, depending on what permit you have, it’s like entering another world.

In the book I describe being in the West Bank like being in Brigadoon. It has this surreal feeling of not quite existing. There’s a ton of pressure and it’s like everybody’s just sitting and waiting for something to change. I mention this in my book. I’d take a day and I’d go to Haifa and I’d sit on the beach and I’d see the Israelis drinking beer and playing paddle ball. I’d see dogs running around frolicking on the beach. In Palestine you can’t even go to the sea anymore; you’re not allowed access to the sea. In the meantime, the Israelis are living.

I keep hearing Israelis claim that they are living under constant violence, but when I’ve been there it’s like being in Europe. It’s like some shift between being in a completely developing country and then going across the checkpoint and stepping into Europe. Streets are all of a sudden paved–it’s such a different society. People are living their lives, which I’m sure are different in different parts of Israeli society, but that’s definitely an aspect of Israeli society, especially in Tel Aviv. People are just living; they’re just living. And Palestinians are waiting to live their lives.

XC: I feel like that’s a reflection of much of the world. The West versus so many developing countries. American suburbs versus reservations or barrios or ghettos within the same region.

SAJ: I would think that’s true if you think about Oakland versus San Francisco on a lot of levels. I often use that comparison to try to explain the limited mobility that’s happening to Palestinians. I think there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn just by going across the bridge and seeing how differently people are living. I think it happens everywhere.

XC: Indeed. But in my imagination the contrast is stark, having never been to either Palestine or Israel.

SAJ: I grew up with it. When I was young that’s what it was to go visit grandma. We’d go through checkpoints, get strip searched, and be exposed to soldiers and weapons. That was my life as a child. That was my summer vacation. But I hear from people who say, “I would never go there. I would never take my children there.” And I kind of stop short when I hear that, and I think, “Oh, yeah, you have a choice.”

I understand that, and I understand why people wouldn’t want to expose their children to the violence. And I’m not saying they should, but it is definitely a very poignant realization when I hear people say, “Oh, I would never take my children to the West Bank.” I know a lot of people, Palestinians who’ve married Americans and have children, who have an American spouse who’ll say, “I’m not taking my kids to the West Bank.” Even though their spouse is from there, they won’t allow their children to visit.

And I think everyone should see it. Just like I think everyone should’ve seen apartheid South Africa. I think you need to see what’s going on in the world. And I think if people just saw it they couldn’t abide. The people that I know who’ve become activists, especially Jewish friends of mine who’ve become really active in Palestine, have done so because they went and they saw, and they could no longer tolerate it. They say, “This is what’s happening? I can’t tolerate it. I have to do something.” It’s true in any situation like that.

XC: What did you get out of going back to Palestine? Is there anything you can claim from having had that experience?

SAJ: It’s hard to picture who I was before I had that experience, because I know the experience changed me profoundly. I’m trying to think back to who I was before writing this book and who I am now. The process of writing the book, of going back to find my father’s village, spending time there with a pen in hand, was a very different experience for me. Rather than just being a participant, I became an observer and an observer with a very clear purpose and intention. So I went everywhere with a pen in hand and was writing things down. I wrote everything down. I think that there’s a way in which the process of doing that helped me to claim those stories as mine in a way that I hadn’t when I was just living them. Seems like it should almost be the reverse. There was definitely a way in which writing those stories down resulted in me feeling that I was more of a participant in the history. It helped me claim my history.

I went to find my father’s village specifically because I thought that I might connect with some part of history, not just some part of history but some part of my history. I don’t know what part of that ended up settling into me, but the process of simply doing that, and writing it down, did help something settle into me in the sense of I finally saw it; I finally did it. I was no longer wondering about it–kind of like your description of Black Americans going back to Africa. You know, it’s not necessarily that they’re going to go back and suddenly feel like, “Oh, I found home.” Some might. But more likely they’re going to get there and think, “What the heck? I don’t fit in here either.” But having had the experience and being in it allows them to leave with the sense of, “Okay, I’m no longer wondering about it; it’s no longer a nebulous thing that I’m reaching out toward and not able to grasp. Now I know what the thing is.”

So I think that was definitely something that I came away with from this last trip with a conscious intention to write down my story. It gave me the opportunity to officially claim my story, even though that story is ambiguous and ambivalent, even though that story is confused and mired and incomplete, I still claimed it. I claimed all of the pieces that do and don’t fit together and made them mine as confused as all the pieces are, and I think that was something that I have now that I didn’t have before.

XC: There’s something so ineffable about one’s personal, ancestral story. And to me that is often the home that I’m actually reaching for, something that I can’t actually be in or stand beside but something that will unfold as much of the story for me as possible. And I find, for myself, that I’m often trying to understand the mystery of say my grandfather’s family. And while there’s a part of me that wants to find it, there’s also a part of me that wants it to remain a mystery. Because once I find it, then what?

SAJ: I agree. I think that we all share that unsettled sense of the elusiveness of our ancestors. And there is something in it where connecting with it–it helps to make something that felt somewhat scattered more whole. I think it’s a very important the pieces together. Inherent in it there are parts of the mystery that will never be answered. Parts of the story you will just never know.

Part of what happened in my seeking out this story is that I did get out more and more pieces of story, because unless you set out to write something like this you don’t have those conversations with your elders. And stepping out with a pen and paper gives you an excuse to have conversations with people who have the answers to your questions. Otherwise, you just sit around wondering, and you get tidbits, you get bits and pieces, an aunt says something here, an uncle says something there, and you sort of construct a narrative. But when you go out with pen and paper and you say, “Hey, I’m looking for this story,” all of a sudden people start to offer pieces that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And I think that was a pretty magical part of the process for me. Some of those stories were generously revealed through this process, and I got bits and pieces that I otherwise would not have gotten. It’s sort of like a journalist’s recorder. It gives you the excuse to ask those hard questions.

XC: Thank you so much for sharing your story.


Read Even My Voice is Silence


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