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Ode: 'We are all visitors here'


Sometimes, when people hear my accent, they’ll ask where I’m from. It’s not an easy answer. The place I call home is East Jerusalem. I hold a travel document, not a passport, from Israel and a visa to be here. I am stateless. In the eyes of the government, I barely exist.

When I was growing up in East Jerusalem, I often asked my grandmother where we came from. My family spoke Arabic at home, but we lived in a Jewish country that spoke Hebrew. My grandmother called these other people “our cousins” since they did not share our language or our faith. What we did share was a great ancestor from the Bible, called Avraham or Abraham. Our cousins were the descendants of Isaac in the Bible. We were Christian Palestinians – the descendants of Ishmael, Isaac’s brother.

My grandmother told me that, when she was living in another city, called Haifa, my grandfather came home one day in a panic.

“We have to leave,” he said. “They’re blowing up the other villages, and it’s only a matter of time before they come for us and our village.”

She grabbed what little she could from their home, and they took the first train headed south. But as the port city in northern Israel, or what was Palestine at that time, faded in the distance, they heard explosions on that train. They jumped off and landed in Jerusalem. It was 1948, the year of the First Arab-Israeli Conflict. My grandparents were internally displaced Arabs, though, not quite refugees because they did not cross to another neighboring country.

When I asked my father why Jerusalem was divided into East and West, he told me a story about being 13 years old and playing in the street.

“I remember seeing Jordanian tanks, and my friends and I hid,” he said. “We heard gunfire, and when we came out again, there were bullet shells. I had never seen them before, so I kept them. I thought it was cool. I heard them say it was the end of the war and we saw the Jordanian troops withdraw. It was 1967. We never saw Jordanians in East Jerusalem again.”

But the threat of violence didn’t end.

By 1990, almost all Israeli houses had bomb shelters, but Arab houses did not, so my parents had to create their own with what they called “Saddam Hussein duct tape” during the Gulf War. My mom would wake us up in the middle of the night to go to the makeshift bomb shelter with duct-tape sealed windows. My sisters and I had to wear gas masks that were too heavy to keep up on our faces, and they would fog up around our eyes. We’d play pretend games with the masks and eat special snacks.

When the air-raid siren sounded several nights a week, I heard my dad tell my mom in Arabic, “Don’t wake up the kids. If a missile is going to fall on us, we will die. There is nothing else to do. No gas mask will save us. What's going to happen is going to happen. The only one who can take our lives is the one who gave them – Allah, God.”

My mother stayed up and worried what would happen to us as she listened to the news on the radio. We slept through the night, through the wailing sirens, while my father sat outside and smoked hookah, staring up at the sky.

Now, when I call my sister, asking her how she is, how things have been since things don’t look too good on the news – they never do. I hear her puff on her own hookah pipe and she tells me, “What’s going to happen is going to happen. God, Allah is the only one who can take away a life when it is time so don’t worry.”

Somehow, hearing her repeat my dad’s words does not comfort me while I am far away, here in the States. Only when I return home again and want to use the trains and buses do I have to face my own fear and live in Jerusalem, and in so doing, I accept kismet – fate. What’s meant to be will take place regardless.

I worry. I’m scared to use public transportation.

“What if someone decides they want to blow themselves up or stab someone on the train?” I asked an American friend on the phone while I am in Jerusalem. He is what I consider a “cousin,” as my grandmother used to call the Jewish people.

“They are always trying to kill us anyway,” said my Jewish American friend, referring to Arabs trying to kill Jews. “You have to live life. You go on the train, and if it happens, oh well. We live despite fear.”

It seems that I share more in common with my “cousins” than history or ancestry. There is a Semitic mentality that says, “God, Allah, Hashem gives and takes away. None of this is yours to begin with.”

I didn’t leave East Jerusalem to seek safety. I was a medical student, about to graduate, when I found out I was matched with a residency program in Iowa to train in psychiatry and family medicine. There’s just one problem. I need to get a visa to go, and I need to get a letter from my government to be granted that visa.  

No country would give me that letter since I do not belong to any of the countries.

Israel didn’t consider me a citizen. After all, I was not Jewish. Jordan wouldn’t claim me because they withdrew from Jerusalem in 1967. And the Palestinian authority, well, there was nothing in my papers that said I was Palestinian.

After talking to my dad about how I couldn’t get that letter, he told me, “It is not meant to be.” He took another sip of his hookah.

Yes, not meant to be. Maybe I should just start smoking hookah myself. I began to look at medical training elsewhere until my last rotation of medical school in dermatology.

The dermatologist teaching us asked each of us medical students where we were going to train in the United States.

When it came my turn, I told him I was supposed to go to the University of Iowa, but I couldn’t get a letter to get the visa. This physician, another “cousin,” looked at me. “I remember you,” he said. “Didn’t you bring me that Sudanese refugee last year to take a look at his skin, and we diagnosed him with psoriasis?”

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened to him,” I said. “I got him the medication you recommended and never saw him again.”

You see, the year before, there was a crisis of Sudanese refugees who crossed over to Israel from Egypt, and since I spoke Arabic, I volunteered to help translate for the Israeli physicians. The refugee was one of them that I took to the dermatologist, Dr. Vardi.

“Well, I misdiagnosed him,” Dr. Vardi said. “He had river night blindness. I was at the Dead Sea and ran into him. Then, his symptoms fit. I treated him. He got better, and he’s still at the Dead Sea.”

“So river night blindness can look like psoriasis?” I said. “Interesting.”

Then, I proceeded to explain to my “cousin,” Dr. Vardi, that I probably was not going to be able to go to the States because no government would claim me and give me the letter.

“That’s easy,” he said. “I know who can write you the letter in the Israeli government. Do you have someone who can pick up that letter in West Jerusalem?”

I called my dad in East Jerusalem. He picked up the letter the same day. I got my visa and came to Iowa.

Shortly after that, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away. I never saw Dr. Vardi or the Sudanese refugee again.

Yes. Iowa. That’s what Iowa means in Arabic. Yes. God, Allah gives and takes away. None of this is yours to begin with, including visas, travel documents or even stories. In the end, we are all visitors here – as Baba Ram Dass says – just walking each other home.


Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, February 3 at {be}Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Be Moved: An ode to transitions and transformations.”Tickets are available at kwit.org.

For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.    

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