In 2015, Palestinian author Mona Abu Sharekh guided me through the clean side streets of Shati refugee camp in Gaza. Eighty-five thousand refugees live in the half-kilometer shantytown, making the camp one of the most crowded places on earth. Some of the alleyways were too narrow for us to walk side by side. We turned one corner and found a bedsheet hanging across one of the lanes, blocking our way. A young girl, her hair a chaos of curls, explained that her family had draped the sheet to make an impromptu extension to their home. She told us firmly and adorably that we could not pass.
We wandered instead through the market, past carts of vegetables and herbs and the horrid stink of chickens, before returning to the tangled streets. I would have gotten hopelessly lost in Shati’s maze were it not for Mona. She was born in the camp thirty-five years ago, and though she spent much of her childhood in these streets, she hesitates to call Shati home. Her father’s family comes from Asqalan, a city just a few kilometres up the coast but out of reach for Palestinians since the spring of 1948. “You know this story,” Mona said. “It is boring.”
I did know the story. In 1947, the war-weary British declared an end to their quarter-century mandate over the land of Palestine. The newly formed United Nations drew up and voted for a partition plan that divided the territory into separate Jewish and Arab states. Most of the region’s Jews accepted the UN partition. Palestine’s Arabs, who made up two-thirds of the population but were granted less than half of the territory in the plan, rejected it outright. An armed conflict ensued which escalated into all-out war between Jewish forces and a coalition of Arab militaries on May 15, 1948.
The war would last fourteen months. By the time the final armistice agreement was signed in July 1949, Jewish forces had seized control of all of the land promised to them by the UN plan, plus half of the land allocated for the Arabs. Seventy-eight percent of the British Mandate territory of Palestine became the State of Israel, while Egypt administered the Gaza Strip and Jordan annexed the West Bank. Over the course of the war, Israel had effectively erased over four hundred Palestinian villages from the map, and 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Of these, more than 200,000 refugees sought sanctuary amongst Gaza’s eighty-thousand residents. Gaza swelled. The tiny sliver of coastal territory represented only one one-hundredth of the area of Mandate Palestine but housed a quarter of the Palestinian population after the war. Gaza had become, according to one historian, an “involuntary Noah’s Ark.”
This past spring marked the seventieth year of the Palestinian displacement, what the Palestinians and their supporters call the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” The forty-thousand Gazans who demonstrated near the fence, under the watch and fire of Israeli snipers, were marking this anniversary. Three generations of Palestinian refugees and their descendants—more than five million refugees according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA—remain scattered throughout the world and among UNRWA-administered camps like Shati in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The vast majority of these refugees have never been to the place where their families come from. Their ancestral homes remain out of reach, if they stand at all. And so second- and third-generation Palestinian refugees possess a fraught and complicated notion of “home.”
“My life is here in Shati Camp,” Mona said. “All the streets. All the corners of Gaza. My family are here. All my experiences. The first person I fell in love with was here. I was married here. This is the place that lives inside me.” But for Mona to openly declare Gaza her “home” would be a betrayal of Asqalan and her family’s ancestral home. To do so would be akin to surrender. A forfeiture of her Palestinian right to one day return.
This is the refugee’s dilemma: to somehow long for a place your heart does not know, and to demand a return to somewhere you’ve never been.
I’d sought out Mona during the research for my last book, Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense. I’d wanted to seek out stories about life in contemporary Palestine, and could not think of anyone better equipped to tell these stories than the storytellers themselves: Palestinian poets and authors. Many spoke about what the idea of home meant for second-generation refugees seventy years after the Nakba. After touring Shati with Mona, though, I wondered about the descendants of refugees who live far from the villages their grandparents lost—not just across a fence, but across an ocean. I wanted to meet with members of the distant diaspora, those separated from Palestine in both time and geography. So I decided to go to Brooklyn and meet some writers there.
Fatimah was thirteen years old in May 1948 when her father shouted at her to get into the back of a truck driven by a man she didn’t know. She was on an errand from her mother and was returning home from the baker with seven hot loaves of taboun bread balanced on her head. Fatimah handed the tray of loaves to her father and climbed into the truck bed. They drove east, away from Yaffa and the seaside. The loaves were still warm by the time they reached Aboud, a village northeast of Ramallah where her father’s family lived.
“Every time she got to this part of the story, she started crying,” said Tala Abu Rahmeh, Fatimah’s granddaughter and a poet living in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. “I never knew the rest of the story. My grandmother was a tough person, but she broke when it came to Yaffa. That is the place where it seemed everybody’s heart broke.”
Fatimah’s father became mayor of Aboud, and Fatimah married a man who used to sell oranges on the beach in Yaffa before the Nakba. “I am the daughter of the mayor who married the orange seller,” Fatimah used to say, always smiling at the poetry of their union—and leaving out the less-poetic fact that her husband’s family were also successful landowners. They eventually moved to Jordan with their daughter Halima—Tala’s mother—who met and married another Palestinian refugee from Yaffa named Ibrahim. Tala was born in Amman in 1984, and Ibrahim started telling her about Palestine when she was only four years old.
“He told me I was from a place called Yaffa. It is by the sea. It has all these beautiful oranges,” Tala said. Ibrahim described the Nakba, too. “He said the Israelis came on a dark night. They came into our homes. They kicked out the Palestinians.” He also told her about the massacre at Deir Yassin, where more than one hundred Palestinians were killed, many children among them. “He told me things you should not tell a four-year-old,” Tala said. “I imagined Israelis as a very dark shadow that took everything in its wake and swallowed it. I didn’t understand death. To me, the Nakba was about disappearance.”
Halima was far less angry when she spoke to Tala about Israel. “She said, ‘Israelis don’t know any better,’ which was a very strange thing for a Palestinian to say,” Tala said. Every other Palestinian of Halima’s generation had little trouble vilifying Israel, but she would not. “I think she thought hating the Israelis would destroy her own humanity,” Tala said. “That’s why I always think of my mother as a majestic and angelic human.” Despite her sympathy for Israelis, Halima would not relinquish Yaffa to them. “You must remember that Yaffa is ours,” she had said. “Yaffa is Palestinian. It is just hard for us to live there now.”
Tala was ten years old in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, a far-right Israeli settler, opened fire on Palestinian Muslims praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Tala remembers her mother screaming on the phone with her grandfather when she heard about the murders, and her father trying her best to comfort her while Tala and her brother Tareq watched in horror. “I was so confused about why this man would just murder twenty people who were praying,” Tala said. “Later on, my father explained to me that they were killed simply because they were Palestinian, and I remember feeling this seething anger at my father and mother because they made us Palestinian.” For Tala, being Palestinian also meant that the only place she knew as home, Amman, was not her home at all. “I was suddenly faced with the fact that I was from somewhere else. I resented that idea.”
When Tala was ten years old, Halima divorced Ibrahim and declared, “We are going to live in Palestine.” Halima believed Tala and Tareq would be better off living with a single mother in Palestine than as the children of divorced parents in Amman where they would have to spend every second weekend in a different house. She brought Tala and Tareq across the Jordanian border to Ramallah where Halima had family. Tala was furious. She couldn’t understand why her mother would move them from a free country to a place with a curfew, military jeeps on the road, and no traffic lights.
Tala started to understand what being in Palestine meant to her mother the following September when her mother and all of her aunts crammed into a car to drive Tala and Tareq to their first day of school. It was 1994, during the early days of the Oslo Accords, and the Palestinian Authority had just been granted full autonomy over parts of Palestine, including Ramallah. The first day of school was the first time Tala’s mother and aunts would see the Palestinian flag raised and hear their anthem sung. Until then, such expressions of Palestinian nationalism had been forbidden. Halima felt that seeing her children stand and sing beneath a Palestinian flag was worth all she had endured: her heartbreak, her divorce, her move from Amman.
The moment still resonates with Tala nearly twenty-five years later. “This is what Palestine is for me,” Tala said. “Not a country or a cause. It is the story of the person I loved the most in my life, my mom, who fought for something that was so magnificent and dignified.”
Tala also remembers a day when Halima brought her and Tareq to visit relatives elsewhere in the West Bank. The original steering wheel in Halima’s car had broken, and the mechanic replaced it with a steering wheel from a truck. Tala recalls how hilarious her tiny mother looked behind the oversized wheel. As they drove, Halima asked, “What would we do if we were free? What if all the checkpoints suddenly evaporated?” Halima, Tala and Tareq always used the word “evaporated” when they fantasized this way. They didn’t want to imagine the bloody violence of war and revolution. They just wanted the occupation to silently disappear.
“We’d go to Yaffa,” Tala said.
“We’d eat some fish,” Tareq said. “And we’ll find an apartment by the ocean.”
During that same terrible spring of 1948, Hala Alyan’s grandparents were also fleeing their homes. Jewish soldiers launched Operation Ten Plagues against Egyptian forces garrisoned in an old British prison fortress in a Palestinian village called Iraq Suwadayn, sixty kilometres southeast of Yaffa. Like Mona’s family, the Alyans escaped the fighting to Gaza, but Hala’s grandmother had relatives there and so the family was spared the indignity of having to live in one of Gaza’s refugee camps.
Hala’s father, Nafez, was born and raised in Gaza, then traveled to the Gulf in the late 1970s to study economics in Kuwait where he met and married Hanine. Hanine gave birth to Hala during a trip to visit Nafez’s brother in Illinois in 1986, and travelled back to Kuwait with her parents when she was only ten days old. Hala, then, is an American citizen. Had she been born in Kuwait, she would have inherited Nafez’s status as a stateless Palestinian refugee.
Just as her grandparents in 1948, Hala would flee an invading army. Hala turned four years old the week before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and she would leave unopened birthday presents behind; her parents allowed her to open only a couple of gifts every few days. “They were trying to teach me discipline,” Hala said. Hanine, five months pregnant at the time with Hala’s brother, borrowed money from her cousin—the Kuwaiti banks had crashed in the wake of the invasion—and hired a driver to take her and Hala into Iraq and then across the Syrian border where Hala’s maternal grandmother lived.
Hala remembers little of her escape from Kuwait. “I had food poisoning at some point,” she said. “I remember being really hungry, and being somewhere that had za’atar and zeit on the table, but feeling really sick. My first intense memory was in Syria where we waited for a couple of months for my father to get out of Kuwait. I can still see my mother’s face when she told me to pray he would be with us soon.”
The family traveled from Syria back to the United States, deciding to land in Oklahoma because Hala’s father knew someone there. Hala’s parents spent the next ten years working wherever they could while simultaneously pursuing graduate degrees in colleges in Oklahoma, Texas, and Maine. The Alyans lived on food stamps and government assistance when they needed to, and moved into bigger houses whenever they found better jobs. By the time Hala became a teenager, Nafez was a Professor of Economics and Hanine had earned a PhD in Higher Education. Then the family moved back to the Middle East, where Hala’s parents found work in the UAE and Lebanon. Hala finished high school in Lebanon, then completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the American University of Beirut before moving to New York in 2008 to study for her Master’s Degree. She is now a clinical psychologist as well as an award-winning poet and novelist. Her debut novel, 2017’s Salt Houses, about a displaced Palestinian family, won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Such a nomadic childhood meant Hala’s idea of home was never linked to geography. “My concept of home was very much attached to my mother and father,” she said. “Our family was very insular. Very dependent on each other. It was us against the world.” Hala always took for granted that she was Palestinian, but she cannot remember ever being taught about Palestine. Her father spoke affectionately about his own Palestinian childhood in Gaza. He told Hala and her brother stories of how his grandmother baked bread in clay ovens, or how a favourite market vendor used to dye baby chicks in bright colours and give them to the neighbourhood children. “My father infected in us a nostalgia for Palestine,” Hala said. Though she’d never seen Palestine, she came to love the place because of her father’s love.
After completing high school in Ramallah, Tala enrolled as an international student at American University in Washington. Going to America had long been a dream for Tala. “I always had this fantasy to be a Palestinian-American,” Tala said. Many of her friends and classmates in Ramallah were Palestinians with US citizenship. She admired their American cool, and when the violence of the Second Intifada reached a peak in the early 2000s, Tala also envied their ability to leave. “I wanted that escape route. I wanted to be ‘Palestinian-Something’ so I could run away when need be.”
Personal tragedy compelled Tala to run back to Palestine. In 2006, when Tala was twenty years old and studying for an MFA in poetry, Halima was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Tala left school to return to Palestine to be with her mother during her remission. Halima had been admitted to the Shaare Zedek Hospital, an Orthodox Jewish hospital in West Jerusalem where she was treated by Israeli doctors. “That complicated my heart,” Tala said. The hospital staff were “spectacular humans.” Tala holds particular affection for a nurse named Rifkah who fought her superiors to get Halima’s Palestinian Authority-issued health insurance approved. “She just loved my mother,” Tala said. She remembers Rifkah administering Halima’s chemotherapy drugs. “My mom just sat there and extended her arms to Rifkah. I was very touched.”
Still, Tala questioned her mother’s easy affection for her Israeli caretakers. After all, Halima had to cross through the Israeli military checkpoint at Qalandiya, by foot, to reach her appointments. All her doctors and nurses—and all their children—had served in the IDF. These people were supposed to be her enemies. Halima shrugged at Tala’s questions. “I had a blood transfusion,” she told Tala. “I have Israeli blood in me now. Maybe that is why I am more compassionate.”
Israeli authorities had issued Halima a permit to enter Israel for her hospital appointments, and the permit extended to her family. Halima’s Israeli friend, Mariam, suggested they take advantage of the permit to visit Yaffa. Halima, Tala, Tareq, Halima’s sister and a friend of Tala’s crammed into Mariam’s car and headed west to the sea. As they drove, Mariam started to point out the sites of Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba. Halima cut her off. “Don’t be depressing,” she scolded. “I want to enjoy myself.”
They got a table at The Old Man and the Sea, a famous seafood restaurant in Yaffa, and Halima joked with the waiter to bring them everything on the menu. “We had this huge spread of seafood and hummus and whatever,” Tala said. “We ate until we couldn’t breathe anymore.” Near the end of the meal, Tala caught her mother’s eyes drifting from the restaurant to the old city surrounding them. This was the place Halima’s mother was born, and where she fled with seven hot loaves of taboun on her head. Halima’s father sold oranges along the beach that stretched below them. This was the Yaffa where the sun never set, the beloved city swallowed by the dark shadow in Tala’s imagination.
Halima, still weary from the chemotherapy that in the end would fail to save her, turned from her lost city back to her family and friends. “It doesn’t matter who it belongs to in the end,” she said. “Isn’t it such a beautiful city?”
Hala Alyan wanted to visit Palestine for the first time with her father. “We talked about it for years and years and years,” she said. “The joke in the family is that my father totally betrayed me.” Her father took Hala’s brother to Palestine in 2010 while Hala was busy with her comprehensive exams in clinical psychology at Rutgers. When she finally visited Palestine by herself in 2012, she was happy she’d gone alone. “Had I been with my father, I would have seen the place through his eyes.”
The experience was strange. “I felt like an imposter in some ways,” she said, “and there were other times when I felt so at home.” The ease with which Hala navigated Israeli airport security and the Qalandiya checkpoint made her uncomfortable—most Palestinians don’t have the privilege Hala’s American passport affords her. “I was a tourist,” she said. “A diasporic tourist.” But the Palestinians she met did not treat her this way; they welcomed her with warmth and excitement. Birzeit University in the West Bank near Ramallah, invited Hala to give a lecture to their psychology students. Afterwards, she told one of the professors she felt awkward calling herself a Palestinian.
“Don’t ever stop,” he said. “We rely on you to feel entitled to that identity and owning it. In some ways, you are just as important as the people living here.”
Hala could not visit Gaza during her time in Palestine; the only foreign nationals Israel allows past the Erez checkpoint are accredited journalists, diplomats, and international NGO workers. Still, Hala possesses both a curiosity and kinship for Gaza she admits she doesn’t feel entitled to. In her poem “Push,” Hala addresses the cities she has visited during her nomadic existence. “I love you like an arsonist,” she tells Beirut, and proposes marriage to Istanbul. She tells London she wasn’t ungrateful, and expresses her longing for the starlit eels and honey water of Doha. But to Gaza, she says over and over, “I’m sorry.”
Hala has many reasons to apologize to Gaza. “I am sorry for what is happening there, and I am sorry for watching idly by,” she said. “I am sorry for being distracted by my own mundane life. I’m sorry that my father lost you, and I am sorry you’ve lost so many. And I am mostly sorry that I haven’t put in more effort to visit. I have a very loaded relationship with that place.”
Halima died in August 2008. Tala returned to America after the funeral and, afterward, vowed to never visit Palestine again—she could not forgive her uncles for burying Halima in Aboud against the wishes of Tala and Tareq, instead of in Ramallah where she would be closer to her family. “No one ever asked us where we wanted our mother to be buried,” she said. She couldn’t forgive Ramallah’s sexual harassers, nor Palestine’s corrupt political class. “And I was also mad at my mother for dying,” Tala said. “I always considered Palestine my first mother, and both mothers had abandoned me.”
But on the first anniversary of her mother’s death, Tala suffered what she called a “nervous breakdown” and checked herself into a Washington hospital. A close friend convinced her she needed to go home, to Ramallah, to deal both with her mother’s passing and with her relationship with Palestine itself. “I was twenty-five years old and broken, and I knew that if I didn’t deal with this I would be broken forever.” Five months later, after travelling around the US to say goodbye to friends and family, Tala sold everything she owned except for two bags of clothes and went to Ramallah. She moved in with her grandmother who has suffering from dementia, and her aunt who was also still struggling with Halima’s death.
The thought of visiting her mother’s grave in Aboud broke Tala’s heart. Instead, she paid homage to the hilltop tomb of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died the day after Halima in 2008. “I figured he couldn’t live in a world without her, because she was the brightest light there ever was,” Tala wrote in an essay for This Week in Palestine.
Darwish and Halima had never met, but they seem to have conspired to make Tala into a poet. Tala first learned about Darwish when she was a six-year-old in Jordan; at the time, she adored the famed Egyptian chanteuse Fayrouz and told her mother she wanted to grow to be a singer, too. Halima frowned and lifted a collection of Darwish’s from a bookshelf. “Here,” she said to Tala, handing her the book. “I want you to be like him.”
“Who is this?” she asked her mother. “Why should I be like him?”
“Darwish is a great poet,” she said. “And poems are like songs.”
“No. He writes.”
“Why is that different?” Tala asked. “You listen to Fayrouz all the time.”
“Yes, but when Darwish writes, he writes in my heart.”
Tala had long considered Darwish and Halima to be kindred spirits, and imagined Darwish was her actual father. “He was the one Palestinian who never disappointed my mother,” Tala said, “who always said something beautiful. Even when he wrote about heartache it was so lovely and tender. Tenderness is something so important to me. Tenderness is not weakness.”
She recalls a section of Darwish’s poem, “State of Siege,” in which the poet addresses an Israeli soldier who killed a pregnant woman. Instead of raging against the soldier and his crime, Darwish compels the soldier to imagine the child, a boy, growing up after the end of the occupation and not remembering “the time of siege.” What if this boy grew into a young man who studied in the same school with the soldier’s daughter? What if they fell in love, married, and had a little girl of their own (who’d “be Jewish by birth”)? The tenderness of these verses always move Tala. “Not because I give two shits about Israelis and Palestinians and their peace,” she said, “but because this is such a beautiful moment to imagine the end of all this misery.”
Tala regained her own affection for Palestine after finding a job as an undergraduate Arabic Literature instructor at Birzeit University. As she taught her students to learn and love their own indigenous literature, they, in turn, taught Tala that Palestine was a place to be loved for all its blemishes. Many of her students lived their entire lives in refugee camps where they endured terrific poverty and despair. And still they expressed a compassion for Palestine that Tala felt ashamed for lacking. “They brought Palestine’s tenderness back to me,” Tala said.
Because Tala was only a few years older than her students, they felt comfortable coming to her with their own experiences of trauma—especially the young women. “As the youngest member of the faculty, I was like their big sister,” she said. They told Tala their experiences of physical and sexual abuse, often at the hands of their own family members. “I remember feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was rooted in Palestine. For the first time I felt that someone needed me. I have a purpose, and it is not to throw stones,” Tala said. “It is giving people a chance to be okay with their trauma.”
This was something she’d been denied in the wake of Halima’s death. “People yelled at me not to cry when my mom died,” Tala said. “They told me she was in a better place. That it was god’s will. But my students cried at their trauma. And I cried with them. And this restored my feeling of power. I learned how to love my identity as a human being, and as a Palestinian, through all these kids who were just as lost as I was.”
Tala stayed in Ramallah for five years before deciding to move back to the United States. Without her mother there, Palestine no longer felt like home. Halima’s passing gave both Tala and her brother permission for leave Palestine for good. One of Halima’s old friends, also named Fayrouz, told Tala, “It breaks my heart to tell you that I am so glad you are leaving. Palestine is getting worse every day. I made a vow to your mother when she was sick that I would always have your back. And I can’t have your back anymore because this place is full of thugs.” Even Fayrouz, who used to speak of the beauty of finally crossing over the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Palestine, felt betrayed by what her homeland had become under the crush of occupation and the corruption of the men in power.
“Our mom’s dying gave us freedom,” Tala said. “We got to build lives without feeling guilt for leaving her.”
Hala’s Lebanese grandmother used to warn her not to fall in love with America. “She was afraid I would never come back to Lebanon,” Hala said. But Hala did fall in love with America. She has lived in Brooklyn for a decade, the longest stretch of time she has lived anywhere. “And I married a white American man. The very thing my grandmother warned against is what happened.” Now, America, and Brooklyn in particular, is home.
Hala used to define “home” as the place where the people she loved lived. Lately, though, her idea of home has also evolved to include all the places that contributed to her identity. Each time Hala moved from one house or apartment to the next, she wandered through the rooms and touched all the walls. “I say goodbye. I say thank you. I have a such a ritualistic relationship to physical space,” she said. “I identify different versions of myself—different mistakes, different loves—with the places I’ve been. The idea of home has changed because there have been so many rebirths of me.” Each time she revisits one of her former homes, either physically or in her poetry, Hala returns to old parts of herself.
Despite the fragments of herself scattered around the world, Hala maintains a monogamous love of place. “Teach me to love a country without hating the other,” she wrote in one of her poems. “One of the things I struggle with the most is finding ways to be attached to these different places that often have such contradictory associations,” Hala said. “To love parts of the West. To love parts of the Middle East. It is difficult to carry those two at the same time. There is no such thing as choosing a place without betraying another place.”
Brooklyn is home for Tala, too. After years of living with her mother or her aunt in Palestine, or in her student housing in Washington, Tala’s tiny apartment on Nostrand Avenue represents the first place she’s had absolute sovereignty over. “Everything in that apartment is mine. No one has any say over how it looks. It is clean and smells nice. It has pictures of my mom and my fiancé. The little dumb things I’ve collected. All my clothes. I’ve always wanted lots of clothes.” Opening up her mailbox every day and seeing her name on the envelopes brings her joy—even if they contain bills.
Tala sometimes feels she is an “occupier” of Nostrand, an odd sensation for a Palestinian refugee. She is, after all, a foreign national whose lucrative translator job at the United Nations affords her the ability to live alone while the lower-income families who share the building struggle to pay their rents. Being racially ambiguous helps her fit in; most of her neighbours assume she is Latina. “Nobody looks at me like I am a stranger,” she said. “I feel very welcome. It is easy for me to walk around and not feel like an asshole. But it is crazy for me as a Palestinian woman who grew up with very little to have more money than the people in my building who are American.” The fact that her landlord is an ultra-Orthodox Jew adds to the irony of her position. “God is looking down at me and laughing,” she said.
But privilege can feel tenuous in Trump’s America, especially for Arabs who are not yet citizens. Tala experienced this anxiety first-hand in January 2017 when Donald Trump suspended the entry of travelers from seven Muslim majority countries. The day the executive order came in, Tala went into “a full-fucking-blown panic” fearing that Jordan might be on Trump’s list. It wasn’t. Tala’s fiancé, Mark Doss, works as an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and reassured Tala that she was not facing deportation.
Later than night, as Tala and Mark were having drinks with friends, Mark received a phone call from one of his colleagues at IRAP telling him that Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi man who worked as a translator for the US military in Iraq for a decade, was being detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Tala and Mark took a cab to the airport, which, by then, had grown into a mob of activists, immigration lawyers, protesters and news media. Mark and a group of other attorneys demanded access to Darweesh. An official refused, and told Doss to “call Mr. Trump.” Mark feared what might happen to Tala, a non-citizen, if the police took them into custody. Mark turned to Tala and whispered, calmly and in Arabic, to “run.” Tala ran to the other side of the airport and eventually went home. Mark stayed behind, and thanks in part to his advocacy, immigration officials released Darweesh the next day.
The experience altered Tala’s perception of America. The protestors and immigration attorneys that mobilized at JFK, and elsewhere in the United States, revealed to her the goodness of Americans. “I know a lot of people in this country don’t want me here, and I also know that there is a huge lobby that doesn’t like me just because I am Palestinian. But there are so many people that made this place their own. Since I was never able to make Palestine my own, I want to make this place my own.”
Tala applied for permanent residency status last fall. “I wonder how I am going to feel,” she said, “when, for the first time, I am not a guest here.” She dreams of the day she receives her green card in the mail and holds it in her hand. “It will be the first time I hold something that I’ve chosen. I love New York. It is a privilege to come from this place, and to say that this is my town.” Recalling her mother, now gone for ten years, she said, “I am nobody’s daughter now, and I want to be New York’s daughter.” Tala’s green card arrived this past spring, not long after the seventieth anniversary of Tala’s grandmother’s panicked flight from Yaffa.
Mark and Tala married at City Hall in January and will have a proper wedding in October. Mark is a Christian Egyptian-American born in New Jersey, but Tala wants him to fall in love with Palestine. “I want Palestine to look pretty to the man I love,” she said. And when they have children, Tala will make sure they know who they are. They will learn to speak Arabic with a Palestinian accent. She will teach them about their grandmother, about Darwish, and about their homeland. “They are probably going to be brats from Brooklyn,” she laughs. “But I will beat the love of Palestine into them.”