The Invisible Diasporan (Part 1)
Fri 24th Mar 2017
I returned. I stood on the long drive. My eyes drank in the pretty little cottage. They roamed in a circle across the surrounding fields. As always, they stopped at the distant Elm trees – long dead – and stared at them. I moved my head in different ways to change the perspective. The trees danced gently. They stood side by side. They slowly moved and became one. Their branches flailed upwards in a crazy ritualistic dance. I used to fancy that they were praying. I never knew what they were praying for.
I dreamt of Mallards Cottage again last night.
The sun was shining. The grass was bristling with hidden reflections. The sky was so blue - as it always is in my recurring dream.
The dream recurs in as far as it is always at Mallards Cottage that I find myself.
I stand on the drive and stare at the tiny cottage.
I am lost although I know that I am near Mallards Cottage. I cannot move down the drive. I stand motionless and in utter panic. I do not know the way to the cottage in front of me.
I walk around the cottage over and over and over again. Never stopping. Never going inside.
In all these variants of the same recurring dream, I never go inside the cottage.
I can hear voices from the inside.
“Daddy, I am going to write a novel when I grow up. About a nun who faints in a church.” I can see my daughter sitting at her little desk, speaking like a little homunculus of about four or five years old.
“Bodoom! Bodoom! Bodoom!” shouts my son in response to his sister’s declaration. Even in the dream I can see him sitting on my lap, his little arms flailing in excitement as he repeats the same sound over and over again. I used to think that he was making a shooting sound. If he was, then he must have been the only killer with innocent smiling eyes. In the Middle East, they’re all going ‘bodoom’ in the back of the head in front of the barrel of their hand gun.
I stand on the drive looking at the cottage. I wish that my wife would open the door and see me.
“Darling. I am here. You will be fine. No one is going to hurt you again. I shall make up for all the hurts of my five year old.The hurts of my fifteen year old. The hurts of my twenty five year old. The hurts of my thirty five year old. The hurts of my forty five year old.” And I shudder at the thought that this was the age of the biggest hurt of them all – an irretrievable loss as she stopped making up for all the hurts and inflicting a final one of her own before leaving our home.
Last night, I dreamt that I was back on the drive of Mallards Cottage in Fingringhoe in Essex. I made a supreme effort and walked with heavy legs down the drive. I was approaching the cottage but not entering it. I turned left into the garden. Looking through the window I saw her huge eyes – angry at first and then smiling. Behind was the chatter and laughter of the two little ones.
I walked into the garden and heard stifled sobs to my right.
I looked and saw nothing but the back door leading from the front room into the garden. The sobbing continued and grew louder. I could place it against the wall by the back door. Loud, guttural, deep, ugly man’s sobbing.
But I saw no one there.
I know that the sobs were coming from a younger me in September 1982. I was crying over the Sabra and Shatila massacres. I listened to my sobs and stared at the spot from where they came. There was no one there.
The back door opened. She came out. She looked towards me and smiled. I smiled back and waved. She glowered – or maybe just grimaced because the sun was in her eyes.
A voice behind me said something and she looked at me and smiled again. I look behind and saw our neighbour Shirley – long dead now – and I waved.
Neither could see me. They were not looking at me. They were looking through me – at each other.
My wife smiled again and said that she would come over later. Explain later. She knelt by the wall.
“Cry. Cry, my little one. Let it all out…”
I came forward and put my hand out to touch her hair. There was nothing there. I could see her but could not touch her. The sobbing subsided. She held the sobbing nothingness before her circled in her arms and kept whispering reassurance.
I dreamt that I had returned to Mallards Cottage.
Where I used to live for twenty or so years. The only place where I used to dream of returning to Palestine.
And Mallards Cottage became my new Jerusalem. I felt at home there. I felt that Palestine was within me. And in my recurring dream about Mallards Cottage, I dreamt of Palestine.
Being all in all Palestinian in the open in the dream and in secret when awake, I woke in blistering heat on an isolated beach.My Rose and I lived in a small but comfortable hut in Palestine – Gaza I think. We spent our evenings reading or writing. She sat across our large table, her glasses on her forehead writing poems on Jerusalem and its history.
“Imagine,” she said. “Imagine if the Jews had succeeded in creating their dream of Israel. We would not be here.”
Even in my dream, I laughed at such a bizarre notion. The very thought of not being Palestinian in Palestine.
We ate olives and strong bread. Drank local red wine.And made long languorous love.
As we coupled and I looked into her eyes, I thought of what she had said. Those poor Palestinian Jews thrown out with the immigrants. They are scattered across the face of the earth making the best of exile and haunting our national consciences.
She looked at me and mouthed something. I knew.My soul poured away and we lay still – sweat from the afternoon heat steaming.
Late afternoon and our ageing neighbour, Yassir Arafat, called. He was excited showing us his new poetry book – just published.A thin volume with white yellowing sheets. On them were words – musical notes that only he could play.
Rosie told him of occupied Palestine. The Jewish State. He threw his head back and laughed.
“What a wonderful notion. I would probably be a little terrorist like that ageing bum Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia. The poor sod has been fighting American imperialism for thirty years.”
“And what would I be?” I asked apprehensively as if this were for real and not a dream within a dream.
“Oh, some crappy academic like a Sicilian Jew out of Palermo. Somewhere in the United States without Rose. And Rose would be an itinerant Arab wandering the land of Israel.”
“No,” said Rose smiling. “I couldn’t live without my Anthony.” She lisped the ‘th’ in Anthony so childishly.
I wanted to tell her that my name was not Anthony. It was Faysal.
I did not want to wake up though.
Yassir lit a pipe. It smelt good. I wanted him to go so that I could go to bed with Rosie. Please.
He did. I did. And at the moment of heavenly bliss, I woke up. Back into my dream of being in the garden of Mallards Cottage.
“What is it with you Palestinians? Why can’t you let it go? Let the Jews have it. Go and live in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt…” I sat there in the garishly affluent Dubai hotel lounge listening to a Christian Evangelist. I did not how to respond. I felt like punching him straight in the face and, as I helped him get off the floor, asking him how he would feel if he went home to West Sussex and found his home occupied by several French men and women and their brood of brats destroying his garden in the name of une mission civilatrice. How would he like a flag of France fluttering on his roof as he is told to clear off and live in Surrey. After all, God gave West Sussex to the French years ago. He would, of course, tell me that I was talking ridiculous stuff. But God promised Palestine to the Jews. And the Palestinians were thrown out to live and die in surrounding inhospitable Arab countries – where they eked a minimum livelihood for decades – and occasionally died in many proxy wars. Of course, I said nothing. I was invisible. I was so thankful to Tony for having the courage to argue for Palestinian rights. The other idiot got angrier and angrier and suddenly exploded: “I don’t care what you say. God promised them the land. So it is theirs. The Palestinians can go to hell…”
Mallards Cottage became my little Palestine where I sat in my small study reading Mahmoud Darwish and arguing with Kanafani. Occasionally, I penned a letter to some newspaper endlessly suggesting a peaceful settlement between us and the Israelis. To no avail. No one was listening because I had become invisible. Even my ink was invisible.The ribbon on my typewriter was white printing on white sheets.
I walked around the garden hoping that the children would come out soon. We could scrump apples from Peter’s garden next door. We used to eat them under the hedge hidden from sight. The apples were cookers and as bitter as hell. But to us three children, they were divine – as sweet as a lover’s kiss. And when she caught us, she reprimanded me with a quivering smile on her lips and the children giggled behind my coward’s back.
Mallards Cottage was where I wrote my first novel. I called it The Return. I used to dream most of its events – the very plot was born of a dream on Christmas Eve of 1976. It was to be my magnum opus born of so many dreams. Many a night, I awoke and rushed downstairs to carry on writing. The idea of the return was a return to Palestine. But the plot was about all kinds of returns – the biggest of which was a return to childhood. And as we grow, a return to youth. A return to middle age. A return to retirement age. As we age, each previous age looks so sunny and colourful.Like Palestine which is no longer Palestine.
Returns are impossible. Returns are almost always disappointing. There is no return in our waking hours.
But our dreams are full of returns.
And I often still dream of returning to Mallards Cottage and of standing in the drive looking at the cottage. I can see it, just as I could see Palestine from the Syrian border, the Lebanese border, the Jordanian border or in the stories that my father told me. I remember so many times standing staring into Israel, wishing that I could be there and being filled with terror when a passer-by on the other side waved at me. As a child, I often wondered, “Do I wave back? Or is waving at an Israeli an act of treason?” And Mallards Cottage was the first place where I had actually met a real live Israeli. And we became lifelong friends. We went to the University of Essex together. We discussed literature. We went to see plays together. And we discussed the possibility of peace someday.
I visited him in Israel and we went around together like a pair of doe eyed innocents in search of peace. We are old now.We are old. And we wear our aspirations rolled – away from the horrors of the endless killings of our countrymen and women. And the Palestine of my endless dreams was no longer there. No beautiful orange blossom smells. No low level white houses with their green gardens sporting an ancient olive tree or two. Even the beautiful hills were now overcrowded an urban hells – Jewish Settlements where I could not go. On my father’s land.
In my dream, I so wanted to walk into the cottage. Sit in my old front room and play with the children. Read endless beautiful books and cuddle her I loved. If only I could go into my “library” with its boxes blocking the doorless entry to stop the children coming in and disturbing the piles of papers on my desk.
It was there that I put together a few poems by Mahmoud Darwish, a few from my newly published anthology and from other Palestinian poets. I took them all to an adult literature class and we read them together. The lesson went well. Indeed, I felt that the students were enthusiastic and the discussion was fruitful. Except for two women sitting at the front looking uncomfortable. A few days later, I was summoned to the Director’s office to be told that the two women had complained of Palestinian poetry being read in a literature class. I was told “to pack it in”. I resigned as a matter of principle. It was an evening class that I did for an extra twenty six pounds a week – to pay for the summer holiday in a caravan in Charmouth in Dorset.
The two women were moved to another class. They wrote to Selwyn Gummer MP alleging anti-Semitic poetry being read. He wrote to the Local Education Authority who, of course, launched a major investigation that went on for three months. I used to sit in my cottage study dreaming of revenge and feeling sorry for myself.
Three months later, weighing significantly less than at the beginning of this ugly saga, I was summoned into the Director’s office. He informed me that the investigation had been concluded. It was determined that there was no case to answer for. He even laughed as he said that the panel thought highly of my poetry although not of Mahmoud Darwish’s work. Amidst my sense of outrage, I was oddly flattered. I argued. I was told to let it go. I got excited. I was told “to get back to my teaching and to stop reading Palestinian poetry to students…”
That experience was a nightmare – even for a man like me who dreams a great deal. After all, my dreams had become my reality.That parallel every day world was now my nightmare.
At least, for once, I was no longer invisible.That did not last long. I returned into a state of invisibility soon thereafter.
Even in my dreams I am invisible. I walk around the garden, up and down the long drive and I try to peer through the windows in search of my past life. I know that I am dreaming. In fact, I like it that I am dreaming because I can reinvent myself and reconstruct my past. To do what I did not do and to undo what I did do. That is the essence of all returns – in dreams or in real life. A chance to rewrite our individual stories.
The most vivid aspect of this recurring dream is my sense of smell. It is so strong. I smell the soil, the grass, the vegetation in the adjoining fields, the rotting apples under their mother tree, the barbecues in the garden, the French cigarettes that I so loved and the kitchen smells emanating out of the window. These smells are so powerful that they take me there – just like the Madeleine Cakes did a French man before me. But mine is À la recherche d’un pays perdu. For we have lost it all – even in my dream of the return, I know this to be true.
In my waking hours, I listen to classical music and still dream. Occasionally, I listen to Radio 4. Or, I used to, before PM was utterly trivialised with endless idiotic digressions away from the news into commentary and so-called human interest stories that no one with two brain cells could be remotely interested in. One such story recently was a visit to Bethlehem to report on a British chap who had brought icon paintings back to life and who was allegedly training Palestinians on how to do them. The report ended with a comment about the return of history – but this time the historic icons were being produced by the “natives”. How quaint is our post-truth world and how final is the end of history – our Palestinian history.
It snapped me out of my dream world. The realisation dawned on me: we have now become like the Native Americans on our little reservations. We produce little trinkets for tourists coming to retrace Christ’s steps and, whilst doing so, they coincidentally enjoy watching us natives making such lovely souvenirs to take home: A Christ in a manger carved out of olive tree wood, mother of pearl bibles lined up prettily awaiting a new home, olive oil in pretty bottles made by Palestinian hands, worry beads threaded by tired and crushed Palestinians. Apparently, we are now so good at painting icons that even Israelis are ordering them. The radio standing on my kitchen window does not see me either. I stand there, arm outstretched in search of the off button blurred by tears of frustration.
And I go to bed and dream that I returned to Mallards Cottage. I press my face onto the small window into my study. I can see my desk. The papers are neatly arranged on the table. The walls are covered with cheap shelving straining under the heavy weight of many books. I can see them so clearly. The biggest section is the Dickens one and, below it, the Palestine section. There is a long bed settee bought by my wife (why can’t I say her name anymore – like the name of the town my father came from? Would naming either loss bring renewed pain? Would a “return” to each bring dolorous heaviness? I do not know for I am in a dream and incapable of thinking straight).
I see me sitting at my desk with an open copy of David Copperfield. I recognise my Penguin copy. Its back is broken. The pages are hanging by a thread. It is all held together with endless browning cello tape. It is 1976 and, amidst the excitement of incipient peace between Israel and Egypt, I am carefully re-reading David Copperfield with my pencil in hand following each word in search of categorised items from the novel: animals under many individual species headings, characters, items of furniture, ‘things’ quintessentially Dickensian…etc… Beside me is a large pile of papers listing everything that I have collected so far. I want to knock on the window and shout out to the earlier me that all this work occupying almost a whole blissful year of my life was destined to be a mere three line footnote in an unreadable MPhil thesis which was disapproved of by an aptly named external examiner by the name of ‘Killem’ who wanted the chapter on David Copperfield in Arabic removed. It may have been my sensitive imagination, but his nose wrinkled when, asking me where I came from, I replied “Palestine”. Thereafter, my life was absolute hell. The award of the MPhil was deferred pending resolving the offending Arabic chapter. Six months later, a compromise emerged and the chapter concerned became an Appendix and I was awarded the MPhil in his absence. If only we Palestinians could become a little appendix where we can live peacefully on some 22% of historical Palestine. According to a good Israeli friend, we should settle for 2% of Palestine in Gaza – we could build a veritable Hong Kong. Millions of us could live in phenomenally tall skyscrapers. Today’s technology would allow us to build whole cities thrusting into the heavens. I think that, knowing my much loved Ya’el, she is being deliciously ironic. Or maybe she was being very serious, because Zionists do not have a sense of humour – there is nothing funny about Jewish suffering, as another good Israeli friend told me when I suggested that our Palestinian suffering aped Jewish suffering. She was quite assertive in telling me that what happened to the Jews was unparalleled and Palestinian suffering could not remotely be equated with the Holocaust. In my dream, I told her to tell that to displaced Palestinians, injured Palestinians, dead Palestinians, Palestinians watching their house being demolished to make space for Jewish only Settlements and the millions of the wretched of the earth languishing in the squalor of refugee camps in the so-called brotherly Arab countries.
Never in my recurring dream about returning to Mallards Cottage did I manage to enter the cottage. I remained outside. Like the days I stood on Lebanese soil looking into Israeli homes. Being on the outside taught me the absolute value of invisibility. It made me realise, for the first time in my life, the vital importance of being invisible in these wild times.
So much so, that when I first arrived in Britain amidst the fallout of Israel’s triumph in the Six Day War, I could not even admit that I spoke Arabic. I pretended that I spoke nothing but English and French. I read Arabic poetry in secret. When my roommate read the adorably smutty magazine Forum hidden inside his Samuelson’s Economics, I read my Arabic poetry anthology hidden inside a large Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales which we were then studying. When asked where I came from I invariably said Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and any Arab country that came to my mind. It took me forty years to speak Arabic in public on a mobile, read Arabic books wherever I wanted to do so, and respond assertively and loudly; “Palestine” to the usual marginalising “So… where’re you from then?” question that the British love asking anyone with remotely darker skin. Even then, many people look at me, smile politely and say, “I thought so. You look Pakistani.” Some occasionally say, quite gently, “That’s Israel, isn’t it?”. Ah! Dreaming is much safer. I am the Palestinian who arrived at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport and had to undergo a series of unbelievably stupid questions followed by, “Welcome to Israel, sir…” …and then the nice man generously gave me a ninety day visa to visit my own homeland. Wonderful!
I find this recurring dream oddly enjoyable despite its frustrations. Every time I have the dream, it starts with me standing at the entrance to the seventy five meter drive looking at the little cottage. Each dream had new additions to it based on the frustrations of my waking moments. But never has Oneiroi allowed me into the cottage. Ikelos occasionally allows me a glimpse from the outside – these frighten me for I fear change. My favourite god, however, is Phantasos who lets me fantasise to my heart’s content.
I do not actually enter the cottage in the dream. I always stay outside. But somehow, Phantasos enters me and allows me to see all that I wish to see inside whilst I remain standing on the long drive. It is the nearest to entering and physically being there. So, I look for memories.
I see the deep hurt felt when my brother and sister wrote a venomous letter condemning my second novel. I walked in a daze for days afterwards. The novel was modestly successful. The reviews were encouraging. But my own flesh and blood denied me recognition or support. We patched it up as families always do, but, in my invisible way, I never have been able to, never will be able to, forgive such crass inhumane action, when siblings plunge the knife in. That incident taught me that we Palestinians have no one to rely on. We are betrayed even by our fellow Arabs. We are betrayed by our Muslim brothers and sisters. We are betrayed by our own leaders who cheerfully police Israel’s occupation. We are ignored by the rest of the world wherein condemnations pore out for every unsavoury action done by human beings to each other except when the victim is a Palestinian. Russia annexing Crimea (which used to be part of Russia anyhow) caused loud outrage. Israel creating de facto annexation in the territory occupied in 1967 and the response is a deafening silence. When Russia bombs Aleppo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, gives us a heart rending speech about “humanity” intoning “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?” I agreed with her wholeheartedly. But she, like so many politicians in the Western World, made me feel sick by what they never have the courage to say. Not a word was uttered when Palestinians were being bombed indiscriminately in Gaza. Indeed, acts of inhumanity inside Palestine have become as invisible as I have. Even when Secretary Kerry comments on the adverse effect of the continued building of Jewish Settlements on Palestinian lands (barely three weeks before he and his boss leave Government after eight years of being utterly ineffective), Prime Minister May’s office reprimands him for narrowing the focus on to one issue. The matter is much more complex than that! No it is not. Israel has occupied Palestinian land. It is holding on to it by force. It should get out and allow the creation of a Palestinian State that would live in peace and harmony side by side with Israel without either country lording it over the other. Can those fools in Israel and Palestine really not see the incredible benefits that would come from an equitable peace treaty between the two sides? Can they really not see the burgeoning of everything positive for both sides that would emanate from cooperation and mutual support?
Can you not see me? Hello, Ms. Power. Hello, Prime Minister. Hello President Obama. I am here. A flesh and blood Palestinian seeking some redress to the biggest injustice in human history. No, you probably cannot see me. I am, after all, invisible. Off you go and get on with the business of looking after number one – enlightened self-interest (greed to the normal invisibles amongst us).
Watching the news, reading newspapers and chatting to many friends and acquaintances, I often feel as disoriented as I do standing on that long drive in my dream – a sense of being in a parallel universe. A surrealistic feeling overpowers me and I wonder if I am actually there where my body tells me that I should be.
There was that time when I was having coffee with an Israeli friend. She bemoaned the fact that we had two different “narratives” that were essentially “opposed” to each other. I wanted to scream that the only narrative in Palestine is the Palestinian narrative. The other so-called “narrative” was imported from Europe, Russia and the USA. It was an artificial construct and the only way that it could work was, as Ben Gurion acknowledged, through sheer force: “If I were an Arab leader (Ben Gurion did not even want to acknowledge a Palestinian nationality because being an “Arab” could justify sending me off to live with other Arab countries – many of which persecuted, and still persecute, my people mercilessly), I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs.There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So, it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out.” (Ben Gurion, 1956, Goldmann, Nahum, The Jewish Pardox, 1978, translated by Steve Cox).
So my sad narrative grows out of the barrel of my Israeli friend’s gun. She simply could not see the deep hurt caused by someone sitting on my land, in my house and telling me how she regretted the dichotomy of our two opposing narratives. Not even when I suggested that we could now share the house concerned in order to stop our mutual suffering of the last seventy or so years. Not possible, in her opinion, because our religions had a history of enmity and Jews would “never again” suffer what they had suffered all through history. In Mallards Cottage I read Herzl – not in my dream but in the real world and in my real Mallards Cottage study. I agreed with his proposal of a national homeland for the Jews. But, why on my land? Why in my home? Why in my school? My hospital? My farm? My orchard? My market? My hills and valleys?
What did the suffering of the Jews have to do with my people, the Palestinians? The culprits were Europeans, Slavs, Russians and many others – never in history had these inhuman persecutors been Palestinians. If Jews deserved to have a place to call their own, why not a part of Germany? Russia? The USA? They were infinitely more responsible for what happened to the poor Jewish victims. We Palestinians were those backward people living quietly in Palestine where we had been since time immemorial – I never understood how Mark Twain saw an “empty” Palestine; maybe my forefathers were also invisible, like me. We eked a living from the land. And the white man came along and pushed us aside – a wonderful construct replicating what had happened in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and so many other places.This mode of behaviour was codified by the arrant racism of great men like Winston Churchill, for whom I have the greatest admiration: “I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger (better be a dog than an invisible Palestinian is what I say), even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do.