A Different Ending Is Possible: From a Palestinian-American

Columbus-based poet Sara Abou Rashed, whose family roots stretch back generations in Palestine, on the unprecedented human tragedy continuing to unfold in Gaza.
Sara Abou Rashed
Sara Abou RashedCourtesy the poet

When I started writing this, the Orthodox Church in Gaza had not yet been bombed, nor had Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital. The death toll in the hospital complex alone hadn’t increased from 200 to 300, eventually hitting more than 500 killed and over 600 wounded by the time we went to sleep.  Since October 7, that’s 4,385 Palestinians killed and 14,245 wounded. On the Israeli side: 1,405 killed, 5,007 injured and 210 held hostage.

I write wishing to linger in these before times. Not before all of this, for all of this has been here a while, but before more children lost their parents, or their siblings, or their limbs, or their own laughs. Before the doctor, the rescuer, the ambulance driver and the injured dissipated into thin air. Before the killed were wrapped in coffins only to be killed, again.

For more than a week now, I have glued my eyes to news reports and closely followed countless social media updates. The first question on everyone’s tongues: What do you think of what’s happening? I think it’s horrific. I think it’s numbing. I think it’s far and yet so close. I think it’s always been there. I think it’s one more tragedy in the history of our people, following Al-Nakba, Al-Naksa, the First Intifada, the Second, and the past four wars Gaza alone has witnessed since 2006.

By now, you might have assumed who I am from the names I’ve given events. And you would be right. You see, naming is the first border to which we cling. From there, a story is weaved around an object, a person, a country. Palestine and Israel. Arabs and Jews. In a recent Netanyahu tweet, ‘’the children of light’’ and those of ‘’darkness.’’ Naming, then, is a way of seeing.

I’ll clearly name myself: I’m a third generation Palestinian, born in Al-Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, Syria, to parents also born refugees there, to grandparents who escaped Haifa in 1948 as children. We carry neither a Syrian citizenship (because we’re not Syrian by blood) nor a Palestinian one (because we lived on the outside). And yet, I have never once wondered who we were. Growing up, we watched the news religiously and Palestine lived all around us: in my grandmother’s stories, in our neighbors’ dialects, in cross-stitched dresses and keychains, in photos of Muhammed Al-Durra, in burgundy onion and sumac, most importantly, in the dream, that one day, we would be allowed to return.

This dream of return we have held onto for more than 75 years, for as long as Palestine has been under (this ongoing) occupation. Though the exiled may occasionally forget that the places they left are still there or let their origins slip like a minor detail or even believe that they belong and blend into wherever they live so seamlessly, a single headline can change it all.

I find it a most troubling oxymoron to be Palestinian-American. The hyphen in between is no warm embrace, no friendly politician palms extended toward one another, but a deadly weapon pointed in both directions. Annually, the United States sends billions of tax dollars to fund the Israeli military. Not only that, but I and my entire family – like hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim communities – have voted for the very president refusing to push for a cease fire and be on peace’s side. What happened to 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoumi in Chicago we fear will happen again, with both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism on the rise.

But that is not to say I don’t love this country or consider it home. In truth, I do. Or did. Or want to. I am a Palestinian because my grandmother was born there and an American because my grandfather died here, in Columbus, Ohio, 24 years ago. In a strange turn of events, my American citizenship is actually my only. Most days, I forget my two identities are at war. I perform my poetry at Palestinian nights, attend weddings that transport us back to the villages and smile back when, on the street, I am greeted in Arabic by a familiar face or two. 

In fact, only two weeks before the latest attacks, I was with a friend at America’s first and largest in-person gathering for Palestinian creatives. It was the Palestine Writes Festival hosted at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and although multiple statements tried to stand in its way, the festival was a wild success, bringing nearly 1,500 people from all over the world, including Gaza. On the last day, I couldn’t stop weeping, the whole experience at once a taste of return to the homeland and a loss all over.

I do not know what foreign policy solution is best, nor how it will pan out, but I know this: This time, it is deadlier than it has ever been. Entire families in Gaza have been wiped from local records and neighbors recognized one another as body parts. This unjust occupation cannot continue, for all parties involved. We want our basic human rights, and we want to stop pleading for them. We want the pain and suffering and bloodshed to stop. We want our friends to stop saying their goodbyes. The very people I took photos with last month have been burying their dead and sharing photos of their homes-turned-rubble, including my fellow poets Yahya Ashour and Mosab Abu Toha, who lost his entire uncle’s family of 30 at once.  

A call to a Free Palestine is a call for freedom for all. We recognize the pain caused to Jewish and Israeli families and send condolences to their dead and demand the immediate release of their hostages. No one’s grief must go unnoticed; for this reason, I ask us all to look beyond our names and ways of seeing, keeping in mind that what’s happening now is but a continuation of what’s been happening for the past 75 years. In the U.S., some of my most supportive mentors and the biggest allies of our cause are Jewish, while in Palestine today, the two communities are deprived from simply seeing each other as human, for the only relationship possible between a Palestinian and a Jew is one of subordination, of occupied subject and occupier. 

I write wishing to linger in the before-times, when my grandmother, born in 1945 to a Palestinian father and a Jewish mother, still lived near the blue tides of Haifa.

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