Words We Use to Talk About Home: An Interview with Abeer Khshiboon, author of “The Stranger”

ABEER KHSHIBOON interviewed by NASHWA GOWANLOCK

 

headshot of Abeer Kshiboon

Abeer Khshiboon’s short story, “The Stranger” is featured in Issue 23’s portfolio of stories from Palestine. Here, Abeer and translator Nashwa Gowanlock discuss the story’s inspiration and the context in which its events unfold.

Farah, the protagonist of “The Stranger,” is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, often known as ‘48 Palestinians, in reference to the Palestinians who remained within the boundaries of the newly established state of Israel following the Nakba in 1948. More than 750,000 Palestinians fled from their homes or were expelled during the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” and those who remained within the borders of Israel were granted citizenship, though not rights equal to Jewish Israelis.

Since Palestinian citizens of Israel can enter only Arab countries that have signed normalization deals with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, Farah’s trip to Amman is conflicted. She is keenly aware that her blue Israeli passport means she cannot visit the Syrian “stranger” she befriends at the concert, and that he wouldn’t be allowed to cross the Israeli checkpoints to see her.

But their joint passion for the music of the legendary Lebanese singer, Fairouz, distracts them from the pressures of politics, if only for one night.

 

NG: From the beginning of the story it is clear that Farah is elated by being at the concert in Amman. Is it because she’s excited to see Fairouz live for the first time or because she’s in another Arab country?

AK: Farah’s happiness initially stemmed from the fact that she was about to see Fairouz for the first time. Jordan, as an Arab country, wouldn’t excite Farah to that extent. The countries that she would be excited to visit are Syria and Lebanon—countries she can’t visit, because of her Israeli passport.

The joy in this story is primarily the result of Farah coming face to face with a bit of Lebanon (Fairouz), and with a bit of Syria (Hassoun). Many Palestinian citizens of Israel feel this connection with Syria and Lebanon. The link between Palestine and these two countries relates to their geographic proximity and their commonalities, from culture and music to food. They are also connected by their resistance against the successive occupations of the Levant region (the Ottoman and British mandate eras are still rooted in the collective memory of the population of the Levant).

NG: Your character Farah seems to experience a deep-set loneliness. Where does that stem from? And is this eased or exacerbated by her being in Amman?

AK: I would like to stress once again that in this story, Amman is no more than an accessible meeting ground between Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, in light of the political conditions of the time. The Israeli occupation did not only separate Palestinian families, it also separated the citizens of the Levant region and dismembered these societies that had lived for hundreds and thousands of years in a cultural, economic, and political partnership. After the peace accords between Jordan and Israel were signed (1994), Jordan became a meeting place for those who had been separated, especially for Palestinians who live “inside” (within the area named Israel today) and those who live in Syria and Lebanon. For example, after the Jordan-Israeli accords were signed, many Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon went to Jordan to meet the relatives they had been torn away from during the Nakba. I’m sure that Farah doesn’t derive her joy from being in Jordan specifically, but from the opportunity to meet those whose countries she is deprived of visiting because of her passport and identification documentation.

Farah is a lonely young woman; she studies at an Israeli university and feels isolated. She has some friends, but it’s clear that her social and psychological needs are not satisfied by the present reality in her occupied land. Of course, everyone has their unique personal circumstances and Farah suffers from a sense of isolation as an individual. But we can’t ignore the fact that she suffers from isolation on the level of the whole of Palestine, and from being deprived of her natural community that should have been in her country too, had it not been for the occupation. Worst of all is that those who settled where the original residents lived tell a different story about Palestine, which completely contradicts the story of Farah, her family, and her people. Anyone interested in history will know that there are two sides to every truth.

The story of the Nakba that Farah lived through her family, and through Palestine as a whole, has no place in the consciousness or memory of the Israelis. The Zionist project did not only create a military state from the river to the sea, governed by the might of the military and separation walls. This state also created another narrative, a Zionist narrative that completely refutes the plight of the Palestinians, and that denies their pain and loss and right to dream, to return, and reunite once again into a community that longs for one another.

Like the majority of Palestinian citizens in Israel, Farah studied in Arabic schools within the Israeli academic system, until the age of 18. But then at university and in the workplace, the atmosphere is noticeably different. Israeli universities are militarized in every sense of the word. It would be normal in any Israeli university to find armed soldiers studying in the same classes as students like Farah and others.

The State of Israel promotes itself as a country that draws together those who are different, both Jews and Arabs, but this is another colonial lie. The Arab citizens of Israel are prevented from exercising their Palestinian identity without fear. According to the equation of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinians have to deny their collective memory, deny the family trauma that has been transmitted from one generation to the next since the Nakba, and learn the Hebrew language and master it in order to be able to communicate with the Israeli-Zionist. This is the society in which Farah and other Palestinians in the academic and professional environment are living inside Israel.

In Amman, with the presence of its Arab atmosphere (which is not Zionist), with the presence of Fairouz, and through meeting Hassoun, Farah regains her sense of her natural personal narrative, that no one there dares deny in the plot of our short story. There, Farah feels that she is seen, as opposed to how she usually feels under the Israeli occupation. Therefore, the answer is yes, in Amman Farah feels that her loneliness is fading, thanks to all these factors.

NG: It appears that visiting an Arab country is an experience loaded with emotions for a ’48 Palestinian (Palestinians who remained in Israel after the Nakba in 1948). How much of Farah’s story is based on your own personal experiences? For example, did you ever visit Amman and how did you feel when you were there? Were there any specific incidents that you remember clearly as having made you feel either welcome or unwelcome?

AK: Farah’s story is my own, 14 years ago, with some slight differences. I visited Amman for the first time for a Fairouz concert in the Fall of 2007. Farah’s feelings in the story and in the answers to the questions of this interview are my feelings, as are the loneliness and sense of isolation.

I only visited Jordan once, in 2007. I visited Egypt several times, the most important being the 2010 visit to Cairo to attend that year’s Ziad Rahbani jazz festival. My visit to those two Arab countries was charged with many contradictory feelings. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, there is a certain enjoyment in being in an Arab space that is not Zionist. But I have an ideological problem with every country that has normalized relations with Israel. This is a declared betrayal of the Palestinian cause, which in essence is a humanitarian cause. We were not treated with trust like normal tourists during these visits, since our passports are Israeli.

In Cairo, we were a group of Palestinian youth from the occupied lands inside Israel, and we discovered that we were being pursued and spied on by Egyptian security officials. I don’t understand what the point of pursuing us was. Our interests were only art, music, and culture. We visited the pyramids, the national museum, and archaeological sites. None of us could have posed a security threat. But it seems that despite the normalization of relations with Israel, Egyptians don’t have any confidence in those of us who hold an Israeli passport. Or maybe there was no confidence in us because we were Palestinian. I don’t know exactly. I don’t think I totally understand the relations between Israel and the governments of Arab countries.

NG: The character of Hassoun introduces another dimension to Farah’s experience of loneliness since his native country doesn’t allow anyone with a blue passport to enter. Was there any reason you chose to write him as Syrian rather than Lebanese, for example?

AK: Hassoun’s character is based on a real person (with another name of course). I met him at the Fairouz concert in Amman in the Fall of 2007. As I said before, this Farah/Fairouz/Hassoun triangle can be considered a reflection of the Palestine/Lebanon/Syria triangle. I think that Hassoun being Syrian is not a coincidence, but his nationality happened to complete the triangle shattered by the Israeli occupation, and the British-French mandate before that. During the Fairouz concert, this broken triangle was able to realize an opportunity for some of its parts to reunite in one place, or rather in a temporary “bubble,” unsullied by the occupation, separation barriers, Zionism, denial, and erasure.

NG: Their blossoming friendship and romance are heart-breaking because they are unattainable. How common is this experience of two people in love being separated by borders, even within historic Palestine?

AK: This friendship in reality didn’t take a romantic turn, but of course, it could have. This natural, smooth and spontaneous relationship is normal when people of the Levant meet.

This question reminded me of the song “Borders and Promises” by the Palestinian artist Haya Zaatry.

In this song she says: Distant no matter how close you are… the same sea and the shore, the same air and the wind, not the same cage exactly, the same wounded bird, borders and promises, and the hope is there, but far, far…

When I hear this song, I imagine that it tells a sad love story between a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a Syrian or Lebanese person. This is probably quite a common reality among Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese couples, especially after the internet entered our lives and virtual communication became possible, but face-to-face meetings are an impossible dream.

NG: In the story, Farah reflects on the lack of unity among those who share a common blue Israeli passport. While she finds a connection with a complete stranger she meets at a concert, she admits she can’t even say good morning to her Russian neighbor. She mentions how that neighbor also feels isolated from her neighbors. Why is there such a sense of alienation in one neighborhood?

AK: Farah feels isolated from Israeli society due to her narrative being erased and denied. As a result of this denial, she can’t be herself. She can’t immerse herself in her Palestinian culture within Israel. She is a citizen according to the identity papers, and no more. There is no real integration between Palestinian citizens of Israel and the rest of the Israeli population. In fact, there are dozens of laws ratified by the Israeli Knesset with the aim of distinguishing dealings with the Palestinian minority (like the Nakba law, which prohibits any mention or commemoration of the anniversary of the Nakba and its events).

As for Israeli society as a whole, there’s no real integration between all segments of the Israeli-Jewish community. On the contrary, relations between the different segments of Jewish-Israeli communities are shockingly fragmented, which is obvious in appalling racism. Inside the greater Israeli society, there are smaller communities that each live within their own bubble: a Russian community, a Moroccan one, an Ashkenazi one, and so on. The Israeli can’t simply be Israeli. From my experience of living in this state for 34 years, the Israeli can’t escape from their geographic origin, i.e. from the place they emigrated from (or that their parents or grandparents did) to Palestinian land.

NG: Translating the word el blaad (best translated as homeland in English) poses a challenge for readers who don’t understand the history of the creation of Israel. How important is it to Palestinian writers to use this term, rather than referring to their home being part of Israel, or even calling it part of a country?

AK: We use this word a lot to talk about home. The use of the word “nation” is not common in our conversations. I feel that the use of the word nation is often used in a dreamy or cynical context. The word el blaad is undoubtedly the most common way we refer to our land. The homeland refers to Palestine before Israel, before the ethnic cleansing, and before the conversion of most Palestinians into refugees. For example, when an elderly person talks about Palestine before the Nakba, they say: “In the days of el blaad, there was such and such…” This is what the word el blaad means in the context of the past. And in the context of the present, if I want to clarify the destination I am traveling to, for example, I would say: “I’m going to el blaad.” If I said “Palestine”, this wouldn’t be clear, since Palestine, in our consciousness and our unconsciousness, is everything that exists on Palestinian soil, without any barriers or separating walls. As for el blaad, for us, for us as Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel, it is that Palestinian land in which we live, but which is called Israel today.

I also think that the words “Palestine” and “Israel” refer to an idea, rather than to countries or a geographical location. I’m not a linguistics expert, but I think that when we say Israel, we mean the government, the powers, the occupation, and the colonial system. The word Israel comes with a military package: checkpoints, military, army, Shin Bet, Mossad. On the other hand, when we say Palestine, we mean a country that is free from militarism, and this does not exist today. Perhaps it never existed, as Palestine has been suffering from successive occupations for more than 2000 years, and it has never been free. However, the Israeli occupation is undoubtedly the worst in history, because it is the only occupation that has carried out systematic ethnic cleansing in Palestine. Personally, I think it’s also worse because Zionism is derived (based on incorrect interpretations) from Judaism, which is the Palestinian heritage of religion and culture, but that’s another issue. Many Jews around the world agree with this and are ashamed of the Zionist practices done in the name of this fundamentally peaceful religion.

NG: Both Hassoun and Farah seem to be trying to break past all these political boundaries that beset them—Hassoun, by engaging in a Fairouz fan website with ’48 Palestinians, and Farah by traveling to Amman. Meanwhile, they are trying to find beauty and purpose in their own lives, exemplified by Farah’s mentorship project, and Hassoun’s candle-making passion. Do you think they represent a more hopeful younger generation of Arabs?

AK: Farah and Hassoun definitely belong to a generation that wants to break the barriers of colonialism. We are already living in an era where remnants of colonialism are being destroyed and statues of the colonizers removed. I don’t think we live in a post-colonial era, but post-colonial discourse forms part of our present awareness and patterns of thinking. The white man who convinced our ancestors that he came to offer us civilization, can no longer keep his record clean of the many terrible charges such as slavery, genocide, and the systematic erasure of different cultures (for example, in the Americas, and in Africa).

NG: The choice of Fairouz as a center for the story is ideal because she represents Arab unity in a sense, much like music can be a force to unite. Is this why you chose to focus on her music? How big a fan of Fairouz are you?

AK: I grew up in a house where everyone loved Fairouz, and of course, this meant that I absorbed music and songs from a young age. In my twenties, I turned to the hobby of collecting old, rare songs. I have a large Fairouz archive. And I have to say that my friend, whom I named Hassoun in “The Stranger,” became my partner in this beautiful hobby after the concert that brought us together.

My love of Fairouz is still a part of me, but I don’t listen to her every day like I used to. Months may pass without me listening to a single Fairouz song. But I do miss the hymns of Easter and Christmas when these holidays come about because I grew up in a Christian home. I feel a nostalgia that is only narrated by Fairouz hymns, that I became accustomed to since childhood.

I listen to different genres of music now. For example, I like the Iranian band Pallett and keep up with whatever they bring out. I also love the Syrian band GENE, who have unfortunately disappeared (perhaps because of the war in Syria). I’m no longer addicted to Fairouz, but my addiction to music hasn’t changed!

 

Abeer Khshiboon was born in Haifa in 1984, grew up in Galilee, and has been living in Berlin, Germany, since 2018. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and two master’s degrees, one in educational counseling from the University of Haifa and the other in Jewish theology from the University of Potsdam. She is a doctoral candidate at the faculty of theology of Humboldt University of Berlin. She is the author of the short story collection Small Joys, which received an honorable mention in the A M Qattan Foundation’s Young Writer of the Year Award competition in 2012.

Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, editor, and translator of Arabic literature. Her translations include After Coffee, by Abdelrashid Mahmoudi, and Shatila Stories, a collaborative novel by nine refugee writers. She is the co-translator, with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, of Samar Yazbek’s memoir The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria and is a contributing editor of ArabLit Quarterly.

Words We Use to Talk About Home: An Interview with Abeer Khshiboon, author of “The Stranger”

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