Saturday, 1 December 2012

Standing Strong: Asma Jaber

To say Asma Jaber is brave is making an understatement. The young Palestinian American recently lost her father to an accident because of a drunken driver, while her mother is making a speedy recovery. Asma has Palestine in her blood, in her identity, in her life: the link to her motherland, though her family was dispossessed several years ago, is inherent in her existence.
Asma shared her experiences of visiting Palestine, of the trials and tribulations that Palestinians go through, of the difficulties they face and the sense of discomfort that being away from home offers, with Delta Women. 

Asma Jaber is a Palestinian American graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government where she is a Harry S. Truman Scholar.   Asma lived the past six months in Palestine where she interned with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  There she researched movement and access restrictions due to the Israeli occupation in Palestine.  A graduate of the University of South Carolina Honors College, Asma is a native of the Carolinas where she enjoys the Blue Ridge Mountains that are reminiscent of Palestine.
Asma blogs here.  

Asma Jaber
In your growing years, what influence did Palestine have on you?
I grew up in South Carolina. It is not the most liberal place in the US. It was challenging growing up as a Palestinian. In South Carolina, mine was one of the two Palestinian families – my aunt’s, being the other. Palestine had a lot to do with my upbringing – I inherited stories of dispossession at a very young age. I inherited injustice that was meted out to me. My father wanted me to understand very early on that there was wrong in this world. He never made us feel victimized – he would only tell us that we were very fortunate to be away from the epicentre of the issue. We never had to live in refugee camps, but at the same time I knew from his stories that there was something really unjust about our situation. By virtue of being Palestinian, I always felt the fear that childhood immigrants feel – you are never really “at home”. My mum would give me stuffed grape leaves to school and not peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I went to school only knowing how to speak and write Arabic. Besides that, there was this whole existential issue of my identity.

How much did living in the USA affect you, considering that the USA is Israel’s greatest supporter?
There definitely was a lot of impact on my life, having lived in the USA. At a young age, I still got it - I understood because of the conversations at home every time there was war or aggression on Palestinians. My father’s reactions and criticism of foreign policies – I grew up knowing them. Life grew difficult when I grew up – because when I started voting, having a job, paying taxes – I realized the conflict that it made me have within. Here I am, a victim of dispossession, because my parents lost their right to live in Palestine. On the other hand, here I was, paying my taxes to the government that was supporting the country that dispossessed us! I guess it makes you feel guilty – but, I must tell you, it makes me feel that I have a stronger role to play. I am a Palestinian that represents self-determination, and living outside of Palestine put a responsibility on me to fight harder for my cause.

You grew up on a diet of your father’s and mother’s stories, stories of their life and times in Palestine. Could you share a story of your own that reflects your relationship with your country?
I think a really interesting story that comes to mind occurred in an airport. I went back to Palestine with my mum and dad, about three years ago. My father had just recovered from heart surgery and was on an oxygen concentrator – which meant that he was on a wheelchair with an Oxygen machine. The Israelis stopped my father because the oxygen concentrator thing made noise, and they couldn’t check it because they couldn’t open it, it was noisy – and they were stubborn. We had landed at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the three of us. My father and mother got their passports stamped, and were told to go get their luggage. But dad was waiting for me to get my passport, and they refused to send me, saying that they wanted me for questioning. My father did not want to leave me alone with them because he has been under oppressive regimes and he knows how they can be. But they didn’t relent, and grilled me for several hours. They asked me things about my father, asked me his history – and why he left Palestine in 1948. This was particularly an offensive question to ask. Then they went on to asking me my name, my address in Palestine, who I was visiting, they showed me pictures of those I was visiting and asked if they were my cousins, and then they asked me for my email address. I gave them my school address, but they demanded my personal address and disappeared for 20 minutes. They came back but I don’t know if they hacked into my account. My dad was not allowed to come for four rounds, and they came for the fifth. They asked my dad where he was from. He said “here”. After they asked him a lot of questions, my father said that he had some questions for them. The Israeli officer agreed. So he asked him where he was from. The soldier said he was born in Tel Aviv. Then my father asked him where his dad was from, and he said Romania. I still remember what my father said: “I was born here, right down this road, where my dad was born, my granddad was born, and my great granddad was born” – (at this point, I just wanted to cry) – “and I am coming here as a tourist, I am coming here for only as much time as you will allow me – I am here to spend money in YOUR country. What more do you want?” My dad was a man of power – he would always weigh every word before he said it. One point I want to stress on, though, is that all this is nothing out of the ordinary for Palestinians – it always happens to us, and it is NOTHING new.

You were detained and questioned because of a bracelet you wore. Could you tell us about it?
Asma's Bracelet: The Palestine Flag Shaped
ornament landed her in trouble
When I went to Palestine, I lived in Nablus and in Ramallah. When I last was in Ramallah, I was working with the UN in Jerusalem, and in Nablus I did some work for a University.  I would go “home” to Nazareth where my dad’s family is. I had to cross a checkpoint as I was going into 1948 Palestine which is Israel. It is called the Jalaoamaa checkpoint. I had to go north from Nablus, and then take a bus, and then i walk past the checkpoint and take a Israeli license plate. Then I get myself searched, and then I enter. One driver who was mistaken told me I had to drive past the checkpoint and not walk, so I had to ask around to be given a ride. I knew it would be a problem because not many let strangers into their cars. I could have had something dangerous on me, or I could be a West Bank resident – who invariably gets fined a lot for getting into Israel without documents. I knocked on some cars and they refused because they were scared. One woman told me to walk up to the front of the line and ask Israeli soldiers. I thought it was the best thing to do, because it would look suspicious if all I did was to knock on cars. From the observation tower above, a couple of Israeli soldiers screamed at me in Hebrew. Three of them came towards me, and I was scared stiff. I stopped them and said I didn’t speak Hebrew, but only English and Arabic. I told them I was a US citizen, trying to cross without a car. A guy eventually let me in his car, and he said that it had to be done the Israeli way, or not at all. They then subjected us to inspection, with lots of other people. They inspected the car with a robot and a dog, and then we went inside to put our stuff on a conveyor belt for a scan. This was hour two. My family was curious – I couldn’t text them much because I had to keep to the check, and had to put my stuff on belt. Nothing rang on the metal detector – and the lady at the checkpoint asked if I was Asma and I said yes. Then she handed me my passport and I reached out with my hand. I was wearing a Palestinian-flag styled bracelet. She asked what it was, and I said it was a bracelet styled like the Palestinian flag. She sent me off to the side. Three border patrol staff came up to me and began questioning me. They took all my stuff - I just had some clothes and my laptop in tow. It must have been three hours – it was a long time. I was fasting, and tired. They asked if I was from the US or Palestine. I said I was born in US but was Palestinian. They said they didn’t understand what I was saying, so I asked him where he was from. He said he was from the United States, and I immediately asked if that meant he was Israeli, or American. Then they asked some more questions, and then went out. After a while, they came back and gave me my stuff. I left and outside, I tried to find a taxi with an Israeli license plate. At the checkpoint, I tried to take a picture. But you can’t take a picture openly, it had to be actually done with my phone on my ear – but I learned that the hard way. Two men came up to me, tapped my shoulder and told me not to take pictures like that, and to be discreet. They were Palestinian men, and told me to be careful. I said sure, what do you mean? They asked if I was from Massachusetts. I said yes, and asked how they knew. They told me to be careful, because they were sent to watch me. I was shocked! I’m an ordinary student, and here they thought of me as some kind of a threat to their nation? I was barely trying to absorb the fact that I had to tell my family that I was okay, and here someone’s watching me!

Israel is seen as a collective "victim" of the holocaust, but no one sees the "Holocaust" that the people of Palestine are being subject to. Does this have to do with the politicization of the issue?
Definitely. There is a huge appealing to the emotions of the Holocaust. It is definitely an atrocity, what happened to the Jews. But what is happening now is that one set of victims are creating more victims. It is definitely a big issue when politicized. In the US, it is largely all about how our values are Israel’s values. There are so many factors at play. Israel is construed as the only beacon of light for democracy in the MENA. The politicization angle is definitely one of the biggest reasons for the ignorance of the human cause.

What are your thoughts on Palestine’s UN recognition bid?
I am not an expert, but I think it is a good step – though it is not the “be all end all” for Palestine. It is a statement that we are so tired and sick of the US doing nothing to help our cause, that we want the international front to address it. Now, we can ourselves, go international and sue Israel instead of having to depend on other states. I think it is a good step in that sense, but this should not stop short of giving voice to Palestinians. I would say that it is a political route for our cause to get attention. It is important to get rid of the Oslo accords that made Palestine the keepers of Israeli occupation.

What does this Voice of Palestine say?
There are so many voices! A collective voice would be that we are just as human as the others and deserve rights afforded to us. We need justice since we were wronged. A lot of us feel privileged for having received education in the US or Europe or Canada - and we want to use that to help our people everywhere. That feeling is growing stronger with time. There is also this sense that we don’t feel fully at home abroad. It makes us uncomfortable because when you know your people suffer out there, you yourself aren’t. There was a time when 35 members of my uncle’s extended family died. It was very hard and very disheartening to see how awful it is that your own people are being treated like this. These are people who speak the same language, who you know and who know you. What happened in 1948, the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing is all still going on bit by bit. The hardest part is that it is not a commemoration of an event, but an ongoing tragedy. It is very important to recognize that. I have never been happier than when I went back to Palestine. I feel rooted there. At the time when my dad passed away, I was actually getting the deeds to the land he had. I was mapping it for him - but sadly, the whole land was under full Israeli control. I walked by the beach when it was too much to take. Being in Palestine – it felt like home.

As told to Kirthi Gita Jayakumar

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