On visiting the place of my birth

BY AMER ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published July 29, 2001

As I write this column, I am attempting to secure travel arrangements from Jordan into Palestine/Israel. As of yet, I have been unable to do so.

Paul Wong
Amer G. Zahr

The past few days have been extremely emotional for me. After finishing a 12-hour flight from New York to Amman, Jordan, I was ready to drink some bottled water (those of you who have traveled overseas know why you have to drink bottled water) and take a long nap. But it of course was not to be, as my father, mother, two sisters and I were immediately met at the airport gates by family and friends who took us to the house we are staying at, fed us and made sure we had everything worked out (which we did not).

While I am Palestinian, my roots in Jordan are deep. After being expelled as a refugee at the age of one month in 1948 as a result of the creation of the state of Israel, my father was raised and attended university in Amman. Amman was his home in exile, and it was also the place of my birth. At the age of three, amid my father"s political "disagreements" with the government of Jordan, I became a refugee and was subsequently raised just outside of Philadelphia, PA (Incidentally, the ancient Roman name for the city of Amman was "Philadelphia"). When it comes down to it, my father and his families were expelled from Palestine in 1948 for being Palestinian and expelled from Jordan in 1980 for acting Palestinian.

A few days ago, for the first time in twenty years, I entered my childhood neighborhood. In Arabic, its name is Jabal al-Hashimi al-Shamaali. I was born there and spent the first three years of my life living in a small apartment as my father began a career as a professor in the University of Jordan.

The neighborhood was and still is a lower-class area. The people are poor, work is generally hard to find and all the vices of tough urban life are present. Yet when I first stepped foot into my old apartment building, a strange feeling rushed through me. I felt a sense of strange belonging, and as I made the rounds to all our old neighbors, they transferred to me a feeling of being "home." My father, mother and I must have drank five cups of coffee and cold drinks as we could leave no neighbor"s house without at least drinking something small.

My neighborhood, when I was growing up, was almost exclusively Palestinian, mainly consisting of refugees from my father"s birth town of Jaffa (now Tel Aviv in Israel). Amman today is, by most estimates, about three-quarters Palestinian. This is, in a nutshell, the Palestinian story. Living in towns and cities where either we don"t belong, are made to feel we don"t belong and, most times, both. Amman holds a special place in my heart, as it is where I constructed my earliest memories. But I am also aware that I should have never have been born in Amman. My father should have not have traveled upon the feet of my grandmother from her hometown to there.

The vast majority of Palestinians in Amman live at or near the poverty level, with a select few living with extreme wealth, yet many tens of thousands more living in UN refugee camps. I visited these camps and attempted to talk with some of the residents, whom I found to be extremely hospitable and open despite their physically and emotionally depressing living conditions. Their smiling kindness and warmth was almost unexplainable, and their Palestinianness is stronger than ever. Streets and stores are named not after families or owners, but after Palestinians villages and towns. They are the ones who deserve self-determination and not to be swept under the rug, by any leadership: Israeli, Palestinian, American or otherwise.

Only when the world Israel and America in particular can fully grasp the concept that these and other Palestinians like them are human beings with the same freedoms as anyone else, with the same right to dignity as anyone else and with more determination than any of us could ever imagine, will there ever be any kind of justice.

Amer Zahr"s column runs every other Monday. He can be reached via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.