In my youth and well into my twenties I had one recurring dream and one recurring nightmare which I could not shake off easily. My dream consisted of me sitting on my grandfather’s lap in an old Mercedes taxi next to the driver. All of a sudden, we are on a hilltop and beneath us I can see gleaming in the distance the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jerusalem. As we are speeding along, I spot a long line of heavily- armed Israeli soldiers and tanks standing between us and the Dome of the Rock. At that moment I am terrified and turn to my grandfather, pleading with him to go back to Jordan for fear of the soldiers, but he laughs and assures me that nothing can stand between us and getting to the mosque and the taxi driver will drive faster. And this is where my dream would always end. I never got to the mosque no matter how many times I dreamed that dream. As for the recurring nightmare, I would rather keep that to myself!
The source of this dream was probably an incident that took place when I was about six years old. It was a few months after my maternal aunt got married and went to live with her husband in the West Bank. One day I woke up to find my mother, my grandparents and two of my uncles (who were, in fact, my age) preparing to leave for Jerusalem, before going on to visit my aunt in Nablus, leaving me behind with my aunts in the city of Irbid in Jordan. I saw them leaving in a Mercedes taxi with assurances from my grandfather that it would be my turn the next time they visited Jerusalem. When they came back a few days later, I heard all about their visit to Al Quds, the Arabic name for the city of Jerusalem. This Arabic name has such a resonance to leave an impression even on a child of six . It is derived from the Arabic word for Holiness. For Muslims, Jerusalem was the first Qibla – the place towards which we prayed - before Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad that they should pray towards Makkah. Jerusalem also embodies the strong links between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Not long after this, in June 1967, the so-called Six-Day War broke out and ever since the West Bank has been under Israeli occupation. It remains so to this day and is unequivocally regarded as occupied under International Law. As a result, I never got to visit the city of Jerusalem, with or without my late grandfather. Even though Jordan has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1994, in remaining true to my dream, I have vowed never to visit the Dome of the Rock whilst it is under occupation. I no longer dream the dream, but such an experience remains carved into my soul. Imagine what it is like to be made a refugee overnight and to spend the rest of your life dreaming of returning to your city, village or childhood playgrounds? How long will it stay with you, and will you pass it down to your children and grandchildren?
When living in the UK I came to know three people who have never met but who share the same yearning for Palestine, the Holy Land and the Orient. The first person I shall call “Salem”. He is a Palestinian. He grew up as part of a wealthy family in the 1930s in the city of Jaffa. Salem being a bright student was sent to Durham University in the UK to get his bachelor’s degree. At the time, he travelled on a British passport issued to Palestinian subjects since Palestine was under British Mandate. Imagine the situation when he graduated in 1949, a year after that Mandate ended and Israel was established. Not only could he not travel back to his birth city of Jaffa but also his British passport was no longer valid. He was made a refugee, and it took two years before his maternal uncle in Jordan could swing things to enable him to get a Jordanian passport. He never got to see Jaffa again or his parents, who were among the few lucky ones not forced out of their homes. It is estimated that the creation of the state of Israel resulted in 700,000 Palestinian refugees. Even though I first met Salem when he was in his early seventies and, by then, a fully naturalized British citizen and a retired oil executive, he never stopped talking about Jaffa, its orange groves and the powerful Jaffa Orange Board. It is said that they used to export oranges to Germany in return for Mercedes cars!
The other story relates to a Jewish Iraqi who I shall call “Shlomo”, who grew up in Baghdad. Then Shlomo’s father, a tobacco merchant, decided to leave for Palestine in the 1930s. From Palestine, Shlomo was sent to study medicine in the UK but after the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Shlomo’s father advised him not to return but to stay in England. He married an English women and settled in the UK permanently. The real story begins with Shlomo’s son who I shall call Michael. As Michael grew up, his yearning to visit his father’s homeland grew too. Under the Israeli Laws of Return, Michael was able to travel to Israel (for the first time), enlist in the Israeli Army and eventually work briefly in the country before deciding to go back to England. But his infatuation with the Orient and his Iraqi-Jewish roots never stopped nagging at his soul; so despite his medical degree he decided to do a Master’s degree in Islamic studies and it was at that time that he met his future Iranian Muslim wife. Last time I met him was in Amman a few years ago and he informed me that he planned to learn Aramaic (the language of Jesus Christ) upon his retirement so that he could get even closer to his roots.
The parallel between the two stories for those who want to open up their hearts and minds is obvious. Whereas Shlomo and his son had a right of return anytime to a country in which neither man had been born and Michael had not lived in until he was a grown-up, Salem, born and brought up in Jaffa, never saw his homeland again. Like him, millions of dispossessed Palestinians are denied the right of return simply on the basis of religion and ethnicity. Once a refugee, it stays with you for the rest of your life and perhaps for many generations afterwards. Being dispossessed is not something that you can shake off easily nor does it go after acquiring another nationality. There is a world of difference between refugees and immigrants that we who are neither find hard to grasp. The first is an enforced status born out of denial of your basic human rights whilst the latter is predominantly a choice people make to better themselves and their lot. In this day and age, is it right that the Palestinians have to wait two thousand years before they, like the Jews, are allowed to return home?
Coming from a relatively new city like Irbid I have often wondered what it is like to come from ancient cities like Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria, Basra, Granada, Constantinople, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Jaffa or Acre. I could never come close to understanding the pride of Damascenes taking you on a tour of the ancient Umayyad Mosque nor come close to what it’s like to grow up playing in the ruins of the old city of Baalbek in Lebanon just as Saladin did in his childhood. However, I know from my friends from the Crusader city of Al-Karak in Jordan that there is a certain pride and sense of belonging like no other. Today, if you are an Arab Jerusalemite, you are denied so many basic human rights – everything from building an extension to your house to accommodate your newly-married son to participating in Palestinian elections. Every conceivable effort is made to drive Arab Jerusalemites from their ancient city and to make them feel alien and undesired. The recent troubles that flared up in the Sheikh Jarrah area of Jerusalem when eviction orders were resisted represent only the tip of the iceberg for Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank as a whole. Palestinians are increasingly finding themselves being squeezed out of their land inch by inch as more illegal settlements are being built in the occupied West Bank. Confiscation of Palestinian-owned lands for the flimsiest of reasons are regular occurrences in the West Bank but do not appear to attract much attention in the Western world; nor the ploughing up of ancient olive groves or the building of high concrete walls separating Palestinian farmers from their land.
Today there are well over 700,000 Israeli setters living in the West Bank in hundreds of settlements surrounding and suffocating practically every Palestinian town and village across the West Bank. Roadblocks are set up by the Israeli Army where Palestinians have to wait anything from 30 minutes to several hours to get from one location to another; so much so that the Palestinians now have smart applications and WhatsApp groups telling them which roadblocks to avoid and which roads are free. With the overwhelming number of Israelis now living in the West Bank anybody who is still calling for a two-state solution to this problem is either blind or simply trying to buy more time to build more settlements (I recall that brutal English expression: “possession is 9/10 of the law”). The reality is that the two-state solution is dead in the water and definitely unattainable. Despite all the right-wing policies in Israel, the Palestinians are simply not budging, which makes it inevitable that the only feasible solution is a one-state solution. The dream of one state for all its citizens and inhabitants is our only chance for a permanent peace in the region. As an Arab I can quite easily imagine an Israeli Prime Minister or President at the helm of the new state. But can the Israelis imagine an Arab Prime Minister or President?