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"Where are you from?"

A simple question that might seem mundane to most; yet it's been a formidable puzzle I've grappled with throughout my life.

By Hiba Swaid

I was born in a city on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria. When I entered elementary school, many kids noticed that my accent was slightly different from theirs. Every time one of them asked, "Where are you from?" that suspended painting in my grandfather's house unfolded before my eyes, and words stumbled in my throat. How do I convey that my origin traces back to that painting imprinted in my memory, along with countless stories I heard from my grandmother, grandfather, and their friends? How do I condense all the stories I heard and the tears I witnessed in my grandmother's eyes into a simple answer like, "I'm from Safad," the Palestinian city I've only seen as a faded grey image hanging on the wall? My friends didn't know where Safad was, and they would always ask, "Why don't you live there?" Words would again jumble in my throat, and I wished they could see that painting and hear all the stories.

My grandmother repeated the same stories over and over, not because she had aged, but because the feelings of pain and shock were still alive deep within her.

Every spring, as narcissus flowers bloomed and filled the mobile vendors' carts in Damascus, my grandmother would recount the tale of their exodus from Palestine during the same season. She would start by describing the Palestinian narcissus that covered many slopes of Safad's mountains in spring and the scents of lemon and orange blossoms that permeated the fields. She would then sigh and say, "We didn't return that year to pick lemons in the summer. They stole them, just like they stole our homes, safety, and lives." And she would continue, saying, "We wouldn't have left if we weren't afraid for the lives of our children."

I heard a lot about the Palestinian cities where horrifying massacres had occurred. Everyone left with their children under bombardment. "We never thought for a moment that they would prevent us from returning, especially since Arab armies intervened," but it was a painful catastrophe, the Nakba, that scarred our hearts for decades and scattered our families.

My grandmother often mentioned the young people from our family and acquaintances who had migrated to distant lands and lived far from their families. As the years passed, the situation in Palestine became more complicated, and everyone began losing hope of returning anytime soon. Many young people sought ways to immigrate to foreign countries, aiming for a better life in the first world, relying on themselves after losing everything and being unable to help their families, aspiring for the possibility of being granted a foreign citizenship after a few years and thus a passport, allowing them to move freely around the world.

My relatives talked about the difficulties they faced when trying to travel outside Syria, as we could not obtain a Palestinian or Syrian passport. Instead, we got a travel document for Palestinian refugees residing in Syria, which was barely recognized by any country because its holder was bereft of a homeland. I always wished to visit my aunt, who lived with her husband in a neighbouring Arab country; yet the prospect of obtaining a visa remained an elusive dream as it required depositing and blocking a significant amount of money equivalent to the cost of buying a house.

Throughout my education, my parents encouraged me and my siblings to learn a foreign language because our voices should reach all the free people in the world. Their efforts paid off, and I completed my studies in the English language department in Damascus University before travelling with my husband to Britain.

"We will return one day," my grandmother always said, determination and certainty shining in her eyes. When my husband proposed to me, a young Syrian man, she whispered in my ear, "I know, dear, he seems a good man of a fine reputation, but your children will carry Syrian citizenship and won't have the right to return to Palestine." 

I pondered her words, yet the Palestinian cause transcends Palestinians; it's a cause for all Arabs and for all the free souls worldwide. And so, their future generation, regardless of nationality, will be involved in the quest for Palestine’s liberation until it is free to welcome us all one day. 

As I moved to Britain, the question persisted.

  • Where are you from? 

  • From Palestine 

  • Where is that? 

  • Between Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan 

  • Oh, so you mean Israel?

  • No, not at all

The words would jumble in my throat again, and I’d remember the painting, vivid in my memory – an aerial view of the mountains filled with long-lived trees and small stone houses as if they were climbers of those mountains, matching them in resilience and fierceness. 

In fact, I do belong to that painting, to that city where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony until Israel was established after the Nakba, and we were forced out, and those who remained have faced relentless persecution. To this day, calamities continue and the occupation still seeks to further expand in the region, while we steadfastly uphold our right to return.

It was never just a painting for me; sometimes, it felt like a window overlooking a real place pulsating with life, instilling hope for the return. Then came that difficult day when my grandmother had to leave her home once more. Syria no longer offered the safe haven she sought while yearning for her homeland. She moved to live with my uncle in another Arab country, and I wished she hadn't left the painting behind. Bombs struck the buildings, and the painting fell down; its beautiful frame shattered. Another displacement was forced upon yet another Arab people. Not at the hand of a foreign invader but in the oppressive grip of a tyrant who felt threatened by peaceful crowds bearing flowers and demanding freedom. His response was merciless, silencing them with bullets and arrests; and thus the popular revolution was assassinated and its peaceful protests transformed into a raging civil war.

Still, we will not relinquish hope. We will return, adorn our homes with new paintings, and carry the image of Palestine and Syria wherever we reside in the world. We will teach our children to bear it in their hearts forever.

By Hiba Swaid.



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