Learning the Arab narrative

Elika Roohi / Sun Star Contributor
May 1, 2012

Last week, I found myself at a school holding the deeds to some land and a house in historic Palestine.  The documents were from the time when the Ottoman Empire ruled this part of the Middle East, so they were written in Turkish and transliterated into Arabic.

They belong to the family of Ali Abu Sbah, a 22-year-old culinary arts student whose family has been in Jordan since Al Nakba in 1948.  When the war started back then, Abu Sbah’s grandmother grabbed the deeds to the house and land, locked the door behind her and fled to Jordan to wait out the fighting until she could return home.

She thought she would be able to come back.  All the refugees that left during the war back then thought they would be able to come back.  But the borders closed, and they settled in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries.

I volunteer once a week teaching English at one of these camps.  Al Baqa’a is the largest Palestinian refugee camp outside of the West Bank.  It started after the 1967 war.  These days there aren’t any more tents, but the standard of living in the camp is far from good.  Trash is not really collected, there are water shortages and kids are crowded into large classrooms where they are taught by overworked teachers.  And the conditions at Al Baqa’a are nicer than most of the other camps.

I spent my semester learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and listening to the stories of the people I have met.  This has been a full immersion into the Palestinian narrative. I have seen everything from extreme optimism for solving this problem in the future to dejected pessimism about being able to return to Palestine.

I can understand both sides.  As an idealistic foreigner, I like to think that some day soon things will really start to change for the better.  As a student studying this conflict, I can see that it’s been 20 years since the beginning of the peace process and not much has changed.

But in the last year, the Arab Spring has given a lot of people hope that the potential for change is in their hands and possible.  Abu Sbah has been an active participant in protests in Amman.

“We started to say no,”Abu Sbah said about finally being able to speak freely about some of the issues he cares about.  “It was a great feeling.”

The house on the document Abu Sbah showed me last week doesn’t exist anymore.  It has long since been demolished and turned into a farm, but documents like the ones belonging to Abu Sbah’s family are worth a lot of money.  The Israeli government tries to buy them up from the Palestinian families who still have them.

Abu Sbah told me that one of the documents was worth fifty thousand dinars (more than $66,000).  He said that he would never, ever, ever sell it.  Things like these are the only remnants a lot of Palestinian families have of their former homes, and they are holding on tightly.

It’s stories like these that have truly shifted the way I see the world this year.  I started out in Italy where I was a stone’s throw away from the violent occupy protests in Rome, lived with the Eurozone crisis and watched Berlusconi resign.  Now here I am in Jordan, living in an area of the world that has done its own rallying for change lately.  If anything, all of this traveling, learning and listening has given me the idea that maybe all of us are not so different after all.  We all just want to be listened to.

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