Return. I am assaulted by that verb every time I think about the possibility of Palestine. I tell myself it wouldn’t really be returning, just visiting a land I’ve never been to before, a land of which I have no images of my own. Palestine has always been a murmur in the background, a story I tell myself to rescue a shared origin from extinction. The return would not be mine, I tell myself. It would be borrowed from someone else, made in someone else’s place. My grandfather’s, maybe. Or my father’s. But my father has had no desire to set foot in those occupied lands. He has been only as far as the border. Once, from Cairo, he turned his already-elderly eyes eastward and let them rest there a moment on the horizon that might be Palestine. The wind was blowing, kicking up a sandstorm worthy of a movie set, and he stood amid swarms of tourists with their predictable sneakers and shorts and backpacks. Tourists being strangled by their Japanese cameras, their sweaty hands full of brochures. Tourists accompanied by guides and interpreters to whom they paid no attention. My father peered out through them and gazed off toward that little piece of Palestine there on the Egyptian border. That Palestine felt distant and different from his idea of Beit Jala. That was Gaza: hemmed in, under assault, Muslim, and somewhat foreign. On another occasion my father was at the Jordanian border; he could see the desert straddling the line between Gaza and the rest of the world. He had only to approach the checkpoint, but his large feet remained sunk in the shifting sands of indecision. Seeing an opportunity in his hesitation, my mother pointed a stiff finger into the distance, at the wide valley of the River Jordan spreading out below Mount Nebo, at the rushing waters that the Christian religion considers sacred, and insisted that they cross into Palestine. We must go, she told him urgently, as if, of the two of them, she were the Palestinian. After all those years together, that’s how my mother had come to feel, like one more voice in that murmurous clan. But my father turned on his heel and walked in the opposite direction. He refused to subject himself to interrogation at the Israeli border or to the country’s frequent checkpoints. To being treated with suspicion. To being called a foreigner in a land he considers his own, where his father’s house still stands undefeated. There, on the other side, stands the heritage he has never been able to properly inherit. Maybe he dreads the idea of arriving at that house without a key, of being forced to knock on the door of a home that has been stripped of his family and filled with strangers. He must, I think, be afraid of walking down the streets that might, if only things had been different, have been his playground. The anguish of finding, in the once-empty landscape beyond those alleyways, the cookie-cutter houses of the settlers. The settlements and their security cameras. Soldiers in boots and green uniforms, holding long rifles. Barbed wire and rubble. Trunks of ancient olive trees sliced off at the ground or turned into stumps. Or maybe it’s that crossing the border would mean betraying his father, who did try to return once, in vain. The Six Days War thwarted that journey. He ended up stuck with the airline tickets, the suitcase full of gifts, and the sour taste of a disastrous defeat: the annexation of the Palestinian territories. The war lasted only a week, but the conflict was still dragging on when my grandmother died. She was the only one who could have accompanied him on his return. That loss hurled him suddenly and irremediably into old age. There was no turning back for him. No turning back for so many Palestinians who no longer could or no longer wished to return, who had even forgotten the Arabic word for it—Palestinians who had come, like my grandparents, to feel like regular Chileans. The bodies of both now lie in a mausoleum in Santiago that I have not been back to since the last funeral. I wonder if anyone has paid them a visit in the past thirty years. I suspect not. I even suspect, though I do not ask, that nobody would be able to tell me where to find their graves.
What names were used to bid them farewell? The Spanish Salvador or the Arabic Isa, which means Jesus? Milade or María? My mother gives a start in her chair, and I give another, hearing their original names for the first time. My father fidgets, trying to picture what letters were carved in the stone.
The story has become uncertain even for my father. They didn’t tell him enough or he didn’t pay attention or he was given material that had become worn with retelling. He often passes off storytelling duties to his sisters who are still alive. Your aunts will know, he says to deflect my questions, they’ll remember more than I do, he repeats, pushing me a little further away with that sentence, fearing that time has sown its forgettings in his sisters too. Invariably, my eldest aunt fends me off when I press her for details, saying, didn’t your father tell you? At the other end of the table, my father shrugs his shoulders. Don’t you read Al Damir?, the same aunt, the memorious one, continues. I have to remind her that I left Chile years ago and don’t have access to that publication. And why doesn’t your father send it to you? Now I’m the one who shrugs. An accusation of indifference hangs in the air. An accusation directed at me and at my father even though he, like many fellow Chilestinians of his generation, maintains firm ties with Beit Jala but never makes a big show of it. Their donations have added up to the existence, over there, of a school named Chile. A plaza named Chile. The daily needs of Palestinian children, real Palestinians, if Palestine can still be said to be real.
the andes, in the distance
Snowcapped mountains in the distance down the road. Tendrils of neatly trimmed grapevines rushing in the opposite direction, reminding me of the hypnotic effect this landscape has always had on me. I open the window to take in a wild air that stings my lungs. Breathing in the countryside, now, is a form of intoxication. As is this movement in reverse. An incursion into a time that no longer exists. An excursion out of the present. Our journey lacks the drama that the passage to this valley had for the first immigrants. I think about the history of those hopeful but above all harrowing sea voyages that, unlike European emigration, were funded by no government and received no subsidies. The ships set sail from Haifa and stopped over in some Mediterranean port (Genoa or Marseilles) before continuing on to America, their third-class decks full of Arabs, rats, and famished cockroaches. Those wandering Arabs were Orthodox Christians whom the Turks despised. They were considered emissaries of the West, European advance armies, protected by hostile nations. The Arabs left their lands, carrying an Ottoman passport that paradoxically allowed them to flee the empire, avoiding military service in a war for which they would serve only as cannon fodder. Those who were able to escape that death sentence did so burdened by a contradiction: They would forever be known as Turks. On the blurry map of their emigration, the enemy name was printed as an everlasting curse. Over the years, the Arabs drew each other to the Americas and to Chile in astonishing numbers. All through the valley nestled between the mountain ranges, they sowed the legend that the soul of the new land was Syrian or Lebanese or Palestinian and would allow them to mimic life just as it had been, as it never would be again. They convinced themselves that was their only chance. Amid orchards of apricots and olives and then avocados and eggplants and squashes, and tomatoes so sweet they were near to bursting. On afternoons in the shade of grapevines whose leaves had to be harvested starting in September, before October turned them to paper. Under the same blistering sun, the Palestinians proliferated until there were twice as many of them as there were of the other Arabs who had set sail with them in the same ships, stopped over with them in Rio de Janeiro, shared the moons that rose glistening from the sea before they disembarked in Buenos Aires and crossed the mountains together astride pack mules or, in later years, in the cars of a trans-Andean railroad that has now been almost entirely dismantled.
We move forward in silence or in Spanish, though there are other tongues slumbering in the web of our genealogy. As the immigrants learned Spanish, they lost their native language, but they kept speaking it among themselves as if it were a secret code forbidden to their children. They would rather swallow their tongue than pass down the stigma of second-class citizenship. A shadow went along with that accent, a shadow as evident as the shabby garb of poverty. They had to shed both. It was not so difficult to don the new clothing, which resembled the style of the clothes they had brought with them. Nor was it difficult to add Spanish to their porous languages: Their ancestors had inhabited Spanish for centuries on the Iberian Peninsula; they had Arabized it, conquered its soul with audible hs and intrusive articles. Speaking it now was another way of returning. My grandmother, says my father, learned it when she arrived as a little girl; my grandfather, though, didn’t learn until eleven or twelve or perhaps fourteen. My father explains, seizing on this twist, that Salvador’s age was uncertain, his birth certificate having been lost when the Palestinian church burned down. (Another fire, I note. Another loss, this time of the documents that confirm his origin.) But his mother and siblings must have known the date, I argue, raising my pencil from the paper, raising my eyes toward my father. He purses his lips and turns to my second-eldest aunt, who is also unable to explain this mystery and, rather than trying, says that little boys were baptized late, and falsified dates were used to put off or avoid Turkish military service. I later discover that it is also unknown whether Isa came over with his widowed mother, a woman named Esther (who had very blue eyes that none of us ever inherited), or if she was already in Chile with his older siblings when Isa came with an aunt and uncle. The various versions contradict each other. My father also says, though he cannot swear to it, that my grandfather went to work in southern Chile, in his older brothers’ mill, while he learned his third language. He had studied German with Protestant priests in one of the many schools run by European religious communities in Palestine at that time. My father recalls a few scenes: my grandfather speaking broken German with a customer at La Florida, his store; my grandfather volunteering as a scribe and reader for illiterate compatriots who received letters from family members in the Levant. My father says: I can picture one of them now, a frail old man from the Palestinian colonia, short, very pale, with blond hair and light-colored eyes, who didn’t know how to read or write. When he got letters from his family, he went to my father to have them read to him and then dictate an answer. I was sometimes there working in the shop, and I was always spellbound to see my father writing from right to left. At that time, it was no tragedy to bury one alphabet under another, to reverse the direction of writing, transpose syntax, alter intonation to perfect the Chilean accent: the signs marking that linguistic fork in the road pointed toward progress, and the Palestinians chose that route. They eventually gave up working as traveling salesmen, just as my grandfather gave up his trips through southern Chile as a representative for Manzur, a textiles company. My father insists, fussy with details that are not needed, that don’t even matter to me but that for him seem to indicate social status, that Isa was never a traveling salesman. And it was to maintain that unstable status that my grandfather had to give up the mill and the little general store that he owned with his elder brothers in Toltén, a city in the Araucanía region that would disappear, wiped out by a tsunami twenty years later. (Another disappearance, I note, in a long line of losses.) He had to settle in central Chile so he could provide a better education to their three daughters, and then to the two children who came next. My grandmother, who was more learned or at least better read, often repeated that no progress was possible without education. It was she who insisted on sending my aunts to university, giving them the opportunity she’d never had as a student at a technical school from which she never graduated. It was she who objected to my father’s inheriting at sixteen the large textiles emporium that Isa had established before becoming worn out by his successive ventures and deciding to pass the management of La Florida on to his son. She also intervened so that her daughters could marry outside the community. So they would assimilate, yes, but without losing their last name as an unassailable sign of belonging.
It might not be a return, but the idea of travel comes with that word attached to it. That word and all its synonyms and a string of unforeseen events push me toward Palestine. And so my first emissary appears: I clamber into one of the hundreds of so-called gypsy cabs that move through my New York neighborhood. Taking him for a Dominican or an Ecuadorian or even a Mexican from Puebla, I address the driver in Spanish and ask him to drive me to the airport. But in his Dominican voice I also hear another faint accent. I fine-tune my ear and detect an Arabic inflection in his speech. Rather than asking and being mistaken, I look at the identification card attached to the back of his seat. His name is unmistakable, forever linked to the resistance and the Palestinian Authority. Jaser. Arab from where, I ask, and in the rearview mirror I recognize my grandfather’s eyes. He is a Palestinian from a town north of Jerusalem whose name does not ring a bell. Near Ramallah, he adds. A town in the West Bank, he clarifies in English in case that name is more familiar to me than Transjordan. It can’t be too far from Beit Jala, I say, and he says that it’s not far at all, distance-wise, though time-wise it depends, and he lets the sentence trail off. And then I tell him that part of me originates there. I ask him if he recognizes my last name, but he has never heard it before. I mention other last names from the colonia and then I tell him that Chile has the largest Palestinian community outside the Arab world. That the first Palestinians emigrated from four Christian cities in Transjordan. That their successors are still coming to Chile. That the most recent emigrants were fleeing Iraq. Now they’re all Muslim, like you. They’re all refugees, and my country takes them in, and maybe in time they’ll become like regular Chileans. Like me. From behind I see Jaser’s head nodding at everything I say, but when I get to this last phrase, he turns around and corrects me. You are Palestinian, you are living in exile. You have never visited your homeland? he asks, surprised but not admonishing. You should go. Where are you traveling to now? and then immediately, abandoning any formality, he says, Spain, huh? Hey, the territories aren’t so far from Madrid. A five-hour flight. You must go there, he insists, swiftly switching back to a more formal tone, you will love your homeland, and he begins to list the reasons I should return. Return to Palestine, I muse as he chatters on, staggered to realize that the destination has never occurred to me. I think about it a moment longer, slipping Jaser’s card into my pocket. But when I get to the airport, I discard the idea—and the card. I file both away as a curiosity, an odd anecdote.
I toss a mental coin in the air: if I receive an invitation to Europe, I will travel from there to the East on my own. As the coin rotates, I contemplate all those subtractions. My grandparents’ thwarted attempt to return. My father’s refusal. My own indecision. The world standing silent while land keeps being taken from the Palestinians. All the trials in which they have been denied their voice. A history full of holes through which return journeys slip away and bonds are severed. Add back to that subtraction, I tell myself. Return to Palestine. Become. I toss another coin in the air and now it clangs like metal: a letter that will take me to London appears in my mailbox.
who are you
The date for my London trip approaches, and I begin to experience dizzy spells. My eldest-aunt sends word through my father that I should go visit those faraway aunts and bring them a gift. Buy them wool sweaters, or a silk kerchief, or a little purse that doesn’t take up much room in my suitcase; she will pay me back afterward. Keep the receipt, insists the conscientious daughter-of-immigrants who is my eldest-aunt. And I should call them as soon as possible, she also says. My father recites a phone number and, meticulous as ever, asks me to read it back to him. I read out the number slowly and am thrown off by a sudden thought: in what language will we communicate? In Spanish, of course, my father says, because Maryam lived in southern Chile for several years; it was a long time ago, he tells me, but she still speaks some. I leave the number on my table a couple of days, or a few. Time keeps passing, and eventually I have no choice. I force myself to dial and ask for her. Hola, I say, Maryam? Maryam, I hear as an echo at the other end of the line, and then a long sentence in Arabic that could be a question or perhaps a funeral song. Hola, I repeat, hello, I repeat, English?, and I try to say merhaba but my tongue tangles in my mouth. I repeat: Maryam. The person who has answered must be the other sister, the one who has never left Beit Jala, the one who speaks only Arabic, but she dredges up a few fragments of somewhat stiff English and explains—or I interpret—that Maryam has gone to visit a sick relative and will be back at some time, or the next day. There is a silence followed by a slow who are you, and I try to explain who I think I am. Then there is a moment of turmoil on the other end of the line, the convulsion of a tongue attempting to translate what I am telling her, and, feeling pressure to respond, to say something, she begins to cry out the only word she has at hand. Ahhhh, family! she says, with wild excitement, Family! Family!, and I, not knowing what else to say, respond, Yes, yes, and I start to laugh because there is thunder and exaggeration and confusion in that word, and also an immense abyss of years and oceans and possible poverty, but with every family she shouts, I laugh even harder, saying, Yes, family, yes, as if I had forgotten all other words. And I’m not sure whether in that telephonic exchange I ever tell her or she understands that I am about to travel there, or return there. That I would like to pay them a visit.
a revolutionary truth
The city of London is merely a tunnel between transport terminals. I don’t stay a minute longer than I have to. I don’t peek at its palaces, wander through its fogs, or lounge in its parks; instead, I impatiently drag my suitcase to Heathrow. After going in circles a couple of times, I find the little area that’s set aside in every airport for El Al Airlines. It doesn’t take long to spot the Israeli security forces. They look just like the government thugs of the Chilean dictatorship. The same dark glasses with wire frames, the same military haircut, the same tense vibe. Expressionless faces. The most important thing, I tell myself as I approach, is not to lose your cool, and always tell the truth. Because the truth is revolutionary, said Lenin, though I hear the words in the obstinate voice of Diamela Eltit, another Chilean writer descended from Beit Jala. My steps slowing, I recall that she utters this maxim whenever she is faced with some difficult but necessary truth. The questions begin, and the truth seems to make the agent shudder. He’s got jet-black hair and never learned to smile; he probably laughs off-key and someone seems to have taught him that a woman traveling alone must be up to something. That’s his first shot: why am I traveling alone? (I’ve got a long answer and a very short one, but I can’t decide on the spot which one to give him, so I just shrug my shoulders.) Why am I going to Tel Aviv? (Tourism, I tell him, but he’s unconvinced by such a banal response.) Where am I coming from? (He turns his eyes to my pathetic passport photo and mutters Chile, thinking—I read it in the furrows on his brow—a country infested with Palestinians.) How long have I had my job at the university? (A year, I say, rounding up.) Less than a year, he then corrects me, very slowly, as if he were mentally counting off each month. But how long have you lived in the United States? And it’s true, it’s been many years now, but it’s also true that I only recently got a work visa and though I don’t live in Chile, I’ve never planned to become a U.S. citizen. The truth acquires yet another wrinkle when a German visa appears among my papers. Now his pale skin goes blotchy and faintly ochre. A grimace appears on his face. My revolutionary truth, I think, is going from bad to worse: I spent eight months in a German city that was full of Turks he probably imagines as radical fundamentalists, Turks who practice Sharia law. The truth could become more complicated still were I to name the neighborhood where I’ll be staying. Beginning to feel I am guilty of something, I declare that I’ll be in Jaffa or, if he prefers, in Yafo, the Hebrew name for that ancient Muslim city south of Tel Aviv. Yafo, the Israeli chides me, one narrow eyebrow arching. And who lives there, if I don’t mind? The truth, I tell myself. The truth. A writer-friend, I answer, though the friend part is a bit of an exaggeration, a Chilean way of saying that we spent three days together on a tour in Germany and recently exchanged a dozen e-mails. But as if he hadn’t heard me or hadn’t understood me, he asks what my friend does for a living. I suspect he writes—what he does is write novels, write short stories, write columns and articles, give workshops, with luck win a prize and survive a few months. I don’t know if my friend has a day job. Writer who writes, that shadow of a man rasps harshly, wrinkling his forehead, writer, dragging out the word before calling his supervisor.
The supervisor repeats all of his subordinate’s questions, and I repeat everything I’ve already said exactly until we got to my friend-the-writer-in-Jaffa. How long have we known each other? (All our lives, I say vaguely, recalling the paragraph in which my future-friend, whom I’ll call Ankar, told me, “Regarding your concerns: when you enter the country, they may ask hostile questions and search your bags a couple of times, but they never go any further than that.”) It’s a good thing my so-called friend has a Jewish last name. But where does he live, what street, insists the agents’ supervisor, running a hand over his shaved bald head with a few missed hairs sticking up here and there. I hand him the address I have noted down on a piece of paper, forgetting that written beside my friend’s name are those of his wife and children—all of them irrefutably Arab. I see his finger skim across the paper, the gleaming half-moon of a buffed fingernail, and at its tip, all of them appear in writing. The supervisor sounds out their names as if, by uttering them, he could deactivate their Palestinianness. Then he holds out his arm and with his Arab-stained finger points me to the little room in the back. The dark room, dreaded in childhood, but also in migration. I see an armchair piled with bags and papers, a stray shoelace peeking out from underneath. Junk that the agents push aside so I can sit down. Make yourself comfortable, says a voice in an English inflected with the Middle East. A water cooler stands beside the door, and they offer me water again and again. Cold or room-temperature?, asks the long-haired female agent who’s playing good cop. I am startled by her resemblance to the nurse of my New-York-Jewish gynecologist, the young nurse who talks to me about her husband’s diabetes, the husband who just gave her the Star of David she’s wearing around her neck, the harmless star that I stare at while she sticks the needle in and draws my blood. Cold? repeats the agent, or the nurse, but I don’t care. Cold is better, she decides, and I don’t object because I am suddenly aware that my mouth is dry and bitter and my cheeks are burning with righteous fever. I know I could explode if I open my mouth, but there are no more questions, at least for now. Not a single question from the five agents who take turns keeping me company and offering me water that I decide not to drink. The worst would be wanting to go to the toilet and not being allowed to while they beg my pardon. You understand we do this for security, they say to me, or ask me, from time to time, one after another, like cult members. Yes, yes, I say, because they expect me to say something, as long as I don’t point out whose security we’re talking about. I wonder why they haven’t asked me about the origins of my last name or if I plan to visit the territories. I realize they don’t need to ask what they already know. Then the supervisor comes in, stooping a bit so as not to hit his head, and asks about the suitcase and purse he’s just taken from me. Are they mine, he asks. Am I carrying anything that could hurt anybody? The only truthful response, I think, is this. One: the ink in my pens is toxic. Two: with sufficient force, my pencil could be used to stab a body. Three: the laptop cord around someone’s neck. Four: the computer hurled violently at a head that cracks, splits open on impact. I lose count. Mentally, I open up my suitcase and find the books that my so-called-friend-the-writer asked me to bring him for his next project: one is On Killing by Dave Grossman, and the other is the biography of a CIA agent responsible for the War on Terror. I break out in a cold sweat. The supervisor repeats his question. Anything. Hurt. Anybody. For a moment I gaze around that room, which is so dark to me and to them quite bright, and, lowering my voice a little, I mutter a confession. I have some supplies for my insulin machine. They include needles, tiny needles. But the supervisor is stuck on the previous sentence or doesn’t know the word needles. What machine?, he asks. I hear the adrenaline rising like a screech along his larynx. I stick my hand between my breasts and pull out the pump that keeps me alive. I pull on the tubing that connects it to my body so that he understands that in addition to what he can see, there’s a needle that goes into the skin below my belly button. The supervisor’s self-assured expression crumbles; on his face are only surprise and the shadows of fine hairs standing on end. And that?, he asks, and I attempt an explanation in English. That?, he repeats, without hearing me or understanding me. What the hell is that?
The Muslim-writer-wife of my Jewish-heritage-writer-friend will be amused to hear me describe my airport ordeal when I finally get to Jaffa, or Yafo. Nicely done, congratulations, they recognized you—you’re a real Palestinian now. She says this while selecting vegetables for dinner in the shop of an old man in a yarmulke who eats ice cream compulsively, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth with startling expertise. We step out into the street, loaded down with bags. Zima explains that the old man is very friendly and never treats any of his customers differently from anyone else. He doesn’t have a mouth full of categories, she says. Jews and Muslims are the same to him. The phrase takes me back to the airport and to the obvious distinctions drawn among passengers. I am certain that I was more Palestinian during the hours I spent with the security officers than I’ve been in the last forty years of my existence. My Palestinian heritage, which I had defended only as a difference in Chile when, on occasion, they called me a Turk, in Heathrow had acquired weight and presence. It was a thick scar that I was now eager to show off. I wanted to bare it, to wave it at the female officers who had made me pull down my pants, unbutton my shirt, turn around, remove my machine. To give them the scar instead of that device, which they took with gloved hands, promising to give it right back. To set the scar down next to the sugar pills that I was also carrying with me, for emergencies. Why not try one, I said to the bomb expert, they’re orange-flavored. But then I found I was not the only one who bore that mark. In the room they’d just moved me to, there were other young people, dark like me, curly-haired. Thick, unruly brows above damp-coal eyes. We were soon joined by two bleached-blond Russian women in short black dresses with plunging necklines, their pale legs bare. They did not bear our scar, but like me, like all of us, they had to remove their shoes, their stiletto-heeled boots. The agents had to make sure there were no bombs on the feet of those women who were traveling at the behest of Russian lovers, or customers. More and more Russians have been entering Israel, passing themselves off as Jews. That’s another problem for Israeli security. But it was my Palestinian heritage that ended up separating me from them. The supervisor came to get me, and the Russians, recognizing the greater threat I represented, objected to the special treatment I was being granted. Lucky you! said one. Special treatment! said the other. Indeed, said I, without turning to look at them, following the supervisor, who took the opportunity to inform me that I would be allowed to carry only my passport aboard. He confiscated the few belongings I still had and left me at the airplane door, saying with either sarcasm or relief, Have a good trip, Miss, be well. And once I was on the plane, my seatbelt already fastened, I felt the wound sting again because one last agent came back in, the same one who had suggested I take a turn through the duty-free shop as a way to relax. She didn’t ask me about the duty-free shop—she knew all I’d seen of that English airport was the room for suspected terrorists. Instead, she asked me to give her the passport with my suspect identity in its pages. I watched her disappear down the aisle. The engines rumbled to take off, and the airline logo began to scroll across individual screens. Sweetly, a voice murmured: “El Al. It’s not just an airline. It’s Israel.”
Lina Meruane’s Volverse Palestina is an evocative memoir about identity and belonging. (And even the title presents a translation challenge! Palestina is both the noun “Palestine” and the feminine form of the adjective “Palestinian.”) In this selection of fragments from the book, Meruane writes compellingly of her awakening interest in exploring the personal and political ramifications of her Palestinian origins. She offers poignant reflections on language, memory, family, stigma, and the troubling question of whether a person can go no-longer-home again. I was struck by the richness of the text, and as a translator, I was exceedingly grateful for some of the coincidences between English and Spanish—principal among them, the double meaning of “tongue.”