To Whom It May Concern,
The last hand raised, there I was before a panel of distinguished Palestinian artists speaking on the importance of the role of preserving history through art within the Palestinian diaspora. My shaky yet firm voice eloquently asked this question, as if I asked it every day of my twenty-three years of living: aside from the sixty-eight plus years of occupation, what defines us as Palestinians? They were dumbfounded, then quiet. I caught onto the dumbfoundedness pretty quickly and immediately wanted to retract the question. But this was a sincere question and it therefore deserved an answer. The audiences’ ears perked, eager to hear the answer, too. But there was nothing; silence. I waited, my heart sinking lower by the moment, I so badly wanted to hear them proclaim, in front of this large audience of predominantly non-Palestinians, that we refuse to allow the deprivation of our well being to become our sole existential identity.
I would rather not ask this question to a panel of esteemed Palestinian doctors, human rights lawyers, or even political strategists. It needs a human answer; an answer that will give me something, if not hope, then inspiration. An answer from an artist: one who recognizes and analyzes the issue at hand only to translate the extracted emotion with each brushstroke of vibrant colors, each snap of a camera, and each stanza of a poem. Like all artists, Palestinian artists feel. But unlike most artists, Palestinian artists carry a fresh load of trauma due to the constant deprivation of a legitimate identity that nullifies their whole existence.
This delicate personification comes from a genetic trait that can only be understood with the encounter of a Palestinian. The evolutionary process over the course of a century of constant oppressive occupation created the Palestinian trait. Starting with the nine months of the embryonic period, it is a time of preparation; whether pure bred, or created with a mere drop of Palestinianism, the battle for homeland, for legitimacy, begins at conception. With this temporary home, the protest begins with the mere defiance of the notion that Palestinians have ceased to exist. And as soon as we are forced out of the first and last place of comfort, we sprout between the legs of injustice and into a world of conflict. We then immediately learn to swim and navigate the proverbial pool of ruthless politics. With a constant urge to fight for liberation; our “wokeness” was instilled in us even before our first words. But the largest battle is a fight for legitimacy; our identity is defined by our homeland, and the proclaimed lack thereof.
As Palestinian Americans, our paradoxical reality of our current home-land (not homeland) evokes frustration as we advocate for human rights on colonized soil, marching around in shoes assembled by mistreated factory workers, that stimulates our mass-consumerist capitalist society, married to the federal taxing system that finances the very occupation our families fled from. Not to mention advocating for the causes of our oppressed American friends, when our own families are stuck in a rut of phobias and racisms. The contradictions can be extremely discouraging to an activist, but overall it is hard to attain a progressive mindset with all these setbacks in a country that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of your ethnic origins. The reformations of social policy can only do so much; our screams and echoes for change outside of government buildings can easily be muffled by the ill-speech of our president reiterating the unbreakable, unshakeable, unmistakable bond between the perpetrator and the glamorous, oversized refugee camp we call America. Palestinians have been driven off their own land because of sociopolitical and socioeconomic tactics by the oppressor, and those who settled in the United States have been lured in by a country that continues to repeat the same offenses, while simultaneously whitewashing the history and culture of any marginalized group that graces foot on the land.
With the slow erosion of the Palestinian cultural presence, and the constant silencing of our voice, how does one, who is neither recognized by a country of asylum or country of origin, become visible? How does one prove their existence in silence? In order to leave a ripple effect, or an echo, a constant presence must serve as a reminder: something to watch over, and to be watched over: something to be spoken and to be spoken about. Something on a wall, on a shelf, in a frame, on a screen, in a book, where it is permanent. In print, where it’s presence is immortal; unlike its maker. Where the message is noticed, so long as it is reiterated.
And I will repeat, the arts speak louder than policy. It preserves history; their story, the firsthand narrative of the oppressed. In a way that cannot be erased or forgotten; what is heard and seen cannot be reversed. The arts evoke emotion out of the viewer, and does the important role of humanizing the ‘other’. It provides a healing process for the artist, and may do so for the viewer as well. It connects the stories of those living on the spectrum of oppression. Art brings the issue to life and forces the viewer to confront it.
Today, the type of viewer can range from a gallery attendee to a Twitter follower. Our stories are being released one post at a time, with every 140 characters the neglected words of our teachers are finally being told. We, as Palestinian-Americans, are individually painting our own narrative because we are tired of being spoken for. We exist; and we face underlying issues of nationalistic identity while simultaneously carrying multidimensional internal conflicts. In a time where every conflict worldwide is becoming noticed, we as Palestinian-Americans, as the greater diaspora of displacement, as victims of emotional warfare, as the bastards of injustice, are not defined by our catastrophes; rather, we are defined by what we make of them.
These significant conclusions could not be found without that one dumbfounding question. Therefore, I testify that the art of asking questions, and the questioning of the arts, are crucial, whether in front of a panel of prolific artists, in a dialogue between one another, or within oneself. This internal inquisition can allow for otherwise unreachable depths in unexposed matter; and the discovery can lead to a world of expression that can further affirm a strong existence. With each Palestinian, artist or not, is a level of resilience waiting to be questioned, recognized, challenged, and embraced.
Long Live Revolution,
The above piece originally published in 2015 as “An Undeniable Existence,” by J7.