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Monday, December 4, 2000

Dear Diary,

As the car started making its way down the dusty narrow alley leading to the main road, I couldn't look around. I didn’t have to. There was no need for my eyes to capture the images in order for me to see what was there. Um Maher standing by her front gate, chattering with acquaintances as they pass her by. Abu Mohammed and Abu Shaker sitting right outside Abu shaker’s damp apparel store to catch some sun. Young school boys crowding Hassan's ‘Quick Meal’ falafel shop, rushing to buy a sandwich that they can gulp down before the school bell goes off. And Abdullah downloading the boxes of fresh produce from the roof rack of his car, and haggling with customers over the price of the zucchinis, or tomatoes, or red apples.

The car reached the main road, turned right and headed north toward the Bethlehem checkpoint. I closed my eyes and leaned my aching head on the back of my seat. No one in Dheisheh knew I was leaving. I didn’t have what it takes to say goodbye. I just knew that if I had to embrace all the people I love, kiss them and bid them farewell, the pain of my departure would have been too great to bear and I would have probably opted to stay. And I could not stay. There were so many reasons why I had to go.

As the car approached the Bethlehem Israeli military checkpoint, the tension inside me felt like two strong hands choking the breath out of me. What if the soldiers check my American passport and realize I didn’t have a valid tourist visa stamped inside? My foreign friends in the car with me kept telling me that I could lie and say that my visa is stamped on a piece of a paper that I had forgotten at home. But I was so bad at lying to the soldiers that I knew my fear of getting caught would be my dead give away.

The checkpoint resembled a war-zone military compound on high alert. Tanks, jeeps, police cars and armed soldiers stood as a barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. This is the military might that Israel uses to intimidate the Palestinians into believing that it has the power and is in control. I looked at the tanks with utter disgust. Would the Israelis be so intimidating if they were stripped naked of their guns? Would they like the feeling of being equal, or is superiority so deeply engraved in them that they would feel lost without it?

A soldier ordered us to stop and my friend behind the driver's seat rolled down her window. A quick glance at her foreign passport is all what the soldier needed to see before letting us through. Just like that. Foreigners with foreign passports have the right to go in and out of the West Bank, but not the Palestinians. Oh Israel! wake up. Wake up and see what apartheid rulers you’ve become. Didn’t anyone whisper in your ear that South Africa is now free. When are you going to listen?

A strong sense of relief, of guilt, of excitement and of anticipation engulfed me as the car drives deep into Jerusalem. I begin to see a crack in my cage door and know that after a few more hours, I would be on a plane that would take me to the United States, to a place where there is no siege, no checkpoints, no occupation, no soldiers and no guns. But at the same time, being in Jerusalem made me feel such sorrow. Israeli men, women and children were so clearly going on with their lives as usual, leaving me with the sense that I was on a different planet. They had no checkpoints to hinder their movements, no soldiers shooting at them and no tanks threatening to blow them to pieces. I thought of Marianna, cooped up in Zone A of Bethlehem, when a whole world was out there, waiting for her beautiful eyes to see. Is she an animal? Is she a beast to be put on a leash? Doesn't she have the right to see the world too and to roam in it like the free spirit that she is?

Damn Israel’s injustice. Just damn it to hell.

With several long hours to kill before my plane is due to depart for Washington, my friends take me to Tel Aviv and to West Jerusalem. And in both places, I am shocked by what I see. They’ve been lying all along. All this official Israeli talk about wanting to guarantee the security of the Israeli public is one big lie, and so is all the talk of the Palestinian Intifada being a threat to the security of Israelis. Business was going on as usual in both cities. Restaurants were packed in Jerusalem and so were the sidewalk cafes in Tel Aviv. I had to remind myself that I was in Israel and not in the US, and there were those excruciatingly long moments when it was hard to make the distinction. It was just too clear that the Intifada in the West Bank had no impact whatsoever on the Israeli public. While Israeli snipers brought innocent lives to an end with the rise of each new day, Israelis were going to the movies, walking their dogs, jogging and doing whatever else people in a ‘normal’ society do. The contrast filled me with anger. How could the Israelis enforce an inhuman siege on an entire population, preventing people from going about their ‘normal’ everyday life? Do they honestly believe that caging the Palestinians will force them to kneel, to succumb and to surrender? For all their smarts, don’t the Israelis realize that free men and women cannot be caged, and if they are, all they do is think up ways to be free again!

The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv warned me that the Israeli Authorities at Ben Gurion Airport may either force me to pay a sizable fine for “overstaying my welcome in Israel” for a considerable number of years or may altogether prevent me from leaving the country. I had been in the West Bank without a valid tourist visa since May 1995 and no matter how much I tried to get some form of residency approved by the israelis, they always had an excuse for delays. In the end, I stopped caring whether they gave me residency or not. I mean, I was born in Jerusalem and considered living in Palestine my right. I didn’t need Israel to legalize my residency there. I already existed there, with or without their consent. True, I couldn't travel to Gaza or abroad, but I existed nonetheless. Of course, I can’t deny that the notion of paying a fine or being prevented from leaving the country terrified me. Friends loaned me money for the fine, just in case, but I didn’t believe that the Israelis deserved to take the money. In principal, I was against having to pay a fine for staying in "my" country. It just defeated logic. Any kind of logic.

So I was almost a total nervous wreck when I approached the security check at the airport. I didn’t care what I had to go through, all I knew was that I had to be on that plane. My entire being and my existence depended on it. I suppose in the end, the Gods stepped in and decided to have mercy on my soul. I had worked myself into such a state of anxiety that things at the airport went far better than I expected. There was no interrogation, no search of my bags. There was only the warning, the clear threat. Oh yes! the direct and blunt warning that I would face "very serious problems" if I ever attempted to return to “Israel”.

The young passport officer who told me this must have not been more than 22. I looked at her and said “O.K.”, and that was the end of that. I had no interest in finding out what sort of problems I would face. The message was clear. I was not welcome back. So what is new? What is new about us Palestinians being constantly reminded that basic rights are not ours to enjoy? What is new about Israel’s arrogance in telling a people that their homeland is not their own? Nothing is new. Too many Palestinian generations have swallowed and vomited Israel’s arrogance, and for longer than any of us care to remember. Life simply goes on, and so does the resistance and the steadfastness and the immense desire to be free.

As I sit on the plane and look down on the white patches of clouds, I imagine that I am a little girl jumping from one cloud to the next. I feel as if the clouds are cushiony cotton that would wrap me in softness. I close my eyes and doze off into a very restless and disturbed sleep. Fifteen minutes I hear myself sobbing out loud, and open my eyes startled. And then the tears come and I find myself too weak to control them. I nibbled at my cage and got out. I walked away from a life that meant everything to me for ten sweet years. I left loved ones, a people that the world knows as the refugees of Dheisheh, but whom I know as individuals with hearts filled with different dreams and desires. And I know that without having them in my life this past decade, that today, I wouldn’t be me. And none of them realize, not even my darling little Marianna, that they taught me many a valuable lesson about pride and dignity, about giving without taking, about resilience and about having the sort of spirit that refuses but to be free.

And all the loved ones I left behind don’t know that it was precisely because I had learned my lessons well that I had to leave. I had to walk away from a personal cage that I had put myself into and didn't know how to get out of.

And you know what my dearest, dearest diary! It was you who helped me open my personal cage and fly away. For how could I write on your pages, reach so many people, and talk about liberation when I myself was not free. The contradiction just killed me inside. It ate away at my heart, piece by little piece, each passing day. And my silent pain felt like a sharp knife, twisting and twisting inside my bleeding heart. And I just knew that I could no longer write about freedom for my people if I myself were not free. For without self-liberation, what meaning does liberation hold? Tell me you silent, silent diary, what meaning does liberation hold?

I sit here in Austin, in the heart of Texas, where there is so much space around me. Adjusting to open space is an overwhelming adventure. I feel like a child. For space here lays before me without barbed wires, without tear gas bombs, without blood and without pain. I look out the window at the squirrels and the crows and the birds, and the green grass and the trees. I think of Marianna. She has never seen green grass and has never looked at the squirrels on the trees before. And I imagine her before my eyes, running carefree and trying to catch a bird with her small hands. And I know in my heart that her right to be, to live, to roam free is just so very, very basic. She has to have it. She just absolutely has to have it. There is no other way.

My longing for her adorable little face pushes me forward. My pain for no longer seeing her grow before my eyes will most definitely keep on pushing me forward. And one day, when there is a rainbow in Palestine, and lots of green, green grass, I shall go to you Marianna and together we shall run in the open space around us, and pick peaches from the trees, and we shall open the palms of our hands, watch a bird rest in their warmth, wrap it with our fingers and then, together, we shall set it free and watch it fly up to the sky, and enjoy the surge of liberation that overwhelms us as we do….

Do you hear me my darling Marianna? There will be a rainbow in Palestine and you shall be so very free.

Muna Hamzeh
Austin, Texas

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