Sometimes, a good book can shatter on the rocks of our expectations. When I picked up Seeking Palestine: New Essays on Home and Exile, I knew just what I wanted. Yes: This book was to speak to my own (very different) experience of exile.
I have never been forced to leave any nation, nor even prevented from entering one. If a goat-farming ancestor of mine was told to leave his frigid country, for one dull reason or another, I know nothing of it. I was raised in a tidy suburban neighborhood that was constructed in the 1960s. My parents had come to this neighborhood from small farming towns. Their parents had moved around, as had their parents’ parents, until, in a time before living memory, some ancestors had come from across an ocean. The people in my tidy neighborhood also came and went; I would no longer recognize the place if I returned.
As a young girl, my sense of “nation” was created not through community, but through local sports teams, weather reports, popular songs, and through the triumphalist, exceptionalist narratives we were taught at school and TV.
But by age 16 and 17, these narratives began to feel a bit pinched and discomfiting; they did not fit with the other stories I was trying to learn and tell. It was Gulf War One, and I had a vague feeling about Iraq and a vaguer one about Palestine. But I had a sharp, eerie feeling about being a pale-skinned North American of no-particular-heritage (“save a fish, spear an Indian!”) So, in my teenage years, I wrote some terrible poems about my “yearning” for a “true” “motherland.” I don’t remember the words, only how the poems looked in my penciled handwriting and how my mentor, Deborah Keenan, had written in red ink something like: I get the sentiment, but no. Try again later.
When I first saw the cover of Seeking Palestine, I loved its image of a woman proudly knitting from a giant ball of yarn with barbed wire all around, recalling the Penelope of The Odyssey. The image nourished my expectations. I was not looking for “genuine” stories about Palestine. Instead, I hoped that, in the multiple lenses on exile, there would be some new ways of seeing my own.
In reading the first essay, by Susan Abulhawa, I forgot what I was seeking. Susan has a gift for writing about her past in way that makes you set down the dishes and the sponge, smile a little, and listen to her tale. But my expectations came to mind again when reading Sharif Elmusa’s “Portable Absence.” He wrote that, “Britain sends expats to other lands, India immigrants, and Palestine exiles.”
The saying does roll off the tongue, even though one surely knows there are British immigrants and Indian expats, not to mention exiles of both. Moreover, this “expatriate” identity, while a position of privilege, can also be its own sort of global exile.
But such is the gift of multi-author collections: I arrived at Adania Shibli’s three short contributions and was healed. I had read two of these essays before, in Guy Mannes-Abbott’s In Ramallah, Running, but I return to Adania’s writing as to a refuge. In her novel We Are All Equally Far from Love, Adania taught me what it means to sigh. It seems a rather small thing, and yet I think about it often. Here, she examines the movement of happiness in and out of her chest bones, and she sketches it as if with dried flowers and leaves, such that it could be crushed by an unwitting finger or blown away on a gust of wind. And yet you feel the writing inside your own body.
Suad Amiry cheered me, as she always does, with her dark and joyful humor – one always loves to have Suad on their readerly tongue, even if she is being utterly crazy. Raja Shehadeh made me feel serious and settled, with his careful looks at place over time, and Rema Hammami unsettled me with the depictions of change in her East Jerusalem neighborhood between 1989 and now.
Rana Barakat and Jean Said Makdisi made me re-engage with Edward Said on exile. But it was particularly Mischa Hiller’s examination of second- and third-generation exile, in his essay “Onions and Diamonds,” that reminded me of me. Mischa reminded me that one’s exile might be more or less chosen, but that in any case it’s a position vis-à-vis the world. It is a way of reading and narrating our stories.
So, in the end, the book did not falter on the shore my expectations. I still don’t understand my own exile, nor how to come to terms with it. But as I read, my expectations shifted and changed, until the book and I met in the middle, reached across, and understood one another. Perhaps, in that, I found my most reliable sort of home.