Issue No.
168, April 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Photo by Hassan Qamhiya.
Photo by Sultan Mansour.

A Taste of Freedom Palestinians who Have Returned from Abroad and Their Desire to Leave Again
By Fida Jiryis
“I would leave for sure, if family weren’t tying me down.” This is the recurring sentiment that I hear in my interviews with several Palestinians inside Israel. They are all in their twenties and thirties, and have experienced life abroad and subsequently returned to live here. Reverse culture shock (the shock of coming back to our own culture) and the lack of opportunities for Arabs in Israel come up as the main reasons for this desire to leave.

Fozi, 31, was born in Canada and returned at the age of six with his family to his native village of Kufr Yasif in the Galilee. After finishing high school, he returned to Canada to study for five years, and then took off to travel around the world for four more. A few years ago, he came back to Kufr Yasif, where he now works as the chef and manager of a local restaurant.

“I wasn’t planning to come back,” he says wistfully. “I came back for a visit and got stuck.” He explains that, as the oldest child, he was under pressure to return and live near his family, especially his aging parents who needed support.

I sit across the table from him and instantly pick up the subtle vibes of a temperament different from that of local people. Fozi’s manner is gentle and unassuming, trusting and accommodating even to a total stranger who has showed up to probe him on a difficult subject. There is no display of ego, no macho attitude, and no trace of the inherent suspicion that I frequently encounter in conversations with local people. These are qualities that many try to conceal, but which are, sadly, too rampant in our society for me not to notice them. Fozi is the antidote. He welcomes my questions calmly, reflects deeply on the answers, and speaks in quiet, gentle tones. I’m briefly transported to my years in Canada, and I feel refreshed and grateful for this brief respite from the culture that surrounds us.

I question him on his experience abroad and, more importantly, his feelings now that he lives here. His eyes turn wistful and, with hardly any probing, he hits at the core of the issues that we struggle with on a daily basis, “We have an insecure culture. We don’t seek and fulfil personal freedom. Personal freedom was something that I sensed and touched in Canada, but here it’s lacking. There is less opportunity and less self-expression. You just roll along, like the rest of the herd.”

Fozi expresses the dilemma common to many Palestinian returnees. Their families’ involvement in their personal decisions creates a tug-of-war, where young people either go their own way and travel in search of their dreams, thus feeling selfish and bearing the constant burden of their parents’ disapproval, or give in to their families’ wishes and stay here, living a limited existence in terms of self-fulfilment and opportunity, and constantly yearning for the other world that they knew. It’s not an easy decision, and one that tortures every young man or woman who tries to do something alien to this society, act as an individual and make choices that do not conform to the mass norms. Travel and emigration are perhaps the starkest example of such decisions, yet interference and trouble are pervasive in every decision that we make, large or small. There’s no getting around the cookie-cutter mentality that wants you to be exactly the same as everyone else.

I ask Fozi whether he feels that he has made compromises and sacrifices in his life. “Of course,” he affirms. There is a telling hesitation for a few seconds before he continues. “I started to see my dream…I was nominated the Best Young Chef of Toronto in 2004. I could have gone on and done something with that, but now I guess I’ve lost that chance.”

Has he attempted to apply to bigger and better positions here? “No,” he replies, and the response is left hanging with no explanation. I sense that it is part of the overall inertia and lack of motivation that one feels in this country. The reality around us is very difficult to break through. In the system of discrimination and exclusion of Arabs, so widely practiced in Israel, you hear so many stories of people who have tried and failed that you unwittingly start to ask yourself, what’s the point of trying?

We also make decisions in our culture on an emotional basis rather than on a logical one. We feel too guilty and selfish to break our parents’ wishes, so we often swallow our dreams and aspirations or trim them to fit this reality, and we stay. Fozi expresses this succinctly, “You live, trying to think about your dreams, visions, future … but every day you’re pounded by daily life that brings you down. I used to work longer hours abroad and party every night, but I never felt as tired or weighed down as I do here.”

I know this feeling too well, it’s one that stems from existential frustration, of not being on a true path of your choice. Every day, your real dreams and the person you once were seem to fade a little more, until there is an unexplained sadness and melancholy about your existence that people around you don’t notice, but that is immediately picked up by those going through the same. Sadly, this feeling does not exist only among those who have travelled. I see it every day, all over the country. Family and social pressure kill us. People choose jobs they don’t want. They live in places they don’t like. They marry out of pressure. They socialise out of expectation. Before you know it, you’ve built an entire life around yourself and are standing in its midst, asking yourself how on earth you got here.

One of the greatest problems of our culture is the daily killing of thousands of dreams and aspirations under the pretext of family and society. It is truly lamentable how we are made to feel selfish and lacking because of simply wanting to carve our own way.

Wisam, 35, from Mi’ilya village in the Galilee, expresses the same feeling. “I was thrilled to be living abroad. Things went well for me. I felt respected, appreciated. There’s better treatment of people abroad than here. There were entire days when I wouldn’t think about Mi’ilya at all. But I came back for the first time after eight years and was shocked to see how much my father had aged. My parents’ wishes forced me to stay, and everyone in the family is very attached to me, even my nephews and nieces. But is family everything?”

Our culture is riddled with yet more problems. “We have a lack of appreciation for what we have, what we’ve been given, and what we can do with it. We don’t appreciate art, music, nature…human relations…even family,” says Fozi. “We’re stuck in negative thinking and insecurity. We don’t seek freedom, but money, and we all act out this big play all the time, living in social pretence.”

This is probably the chief cause of people’s agitation, and is something expressed by all those from our culture who possess some ability to view it from the outside. “What will people say?” is the chief sentence fired at us in every argument. We strive to be correct towards a culture that takes us to pieces regardless, a culture in which gossip is rampant about you regardless of what you do. Only a few enlightened people realise this fact and then set about to live their life the way they want.

Our society often seems lacking in real love and empathy, true feeling for the other. Others are always competitors, whether they are members of our family, co-workers, or even friends. We try to dress better, talk better, have a better job, and drive better cars than anyone else. It’s exhausting. If you do well, very few people are truly happy for you; if you have rough times, many take pleasure in your discomfort. I have lived and sensed this reality for ten years, not only among the Palestinian population but also among Israelis. In this respect, our societies are almost identical!

This feeling is amplified by the stress of living in Israel, which everyone who lives here agrees on. Not only do the Palestinians here have to deal with rampant discrimination against them, but the system is one of the most demanding in terms of taxes levied, constant paperwork, unexpected laws and payments that pop up, and the amount of scamming that you may fall prey to. In addition, the tension one feels in the air in this country, never mind in its daily dealings, is not like that of any other place that I’ve lived in. Wisam mentions a point that strikes another chord with me, “When I came back here, and I started to go to the government agencies to renew my ID, driving license, medical care, and taxes, I would stand there amidst this shoving, bustling mass of people, hear their loud, rude talk, and ask myself why on earth I had returned. It felt like I had left order and calm to come to noise and chaos. I had a hard time remembering how I’d grown up with all this.”

Despite this shock, Wisam stuck it out and opened a catering business in Tel Aviv, determined to make something for himself. The result? “My restaurant was in a high-tech area and I catered to employees of companies. I became good friends with several of the managers there. Eventually, some of them started to tell me that they received phone calls telling them not to deal with me because I’m an Arab. There were several attempts to affect my work. It’s hard being here; you deal with this tough climate every day. I closed up and came back to open this restaurant in Mi’ilya, my village. Here at least I don’t feel any racism.”

He stares into space thoughtfully when I ask him if he’s happy, laughs quietly, and shakes his head. “You know, even though I have my own business, I’d up and leave in a second if I could.”

On my visits to Fassouta, my village in the Galilee, I often meet with a couple of my friends who have also returned from Canada. The conversation is always the same. They’re trying to re-integrate and doing their best, placating their family by staying. But underneath is a sense of wistful sadness. Once they have experienced the difference of life abroad, they don’t have the luxury of blessed ignorance, and they see their life in Israel for what it really is.

“I only felt alive, respected, cherished as a human being when I was out of here,” my friend says. “Those few years abroad made me understand that the world is much bigger than the cocoon we’re in, that it’s very different from what we have to cope with here every day.”

These are disturbing statements, for sure, and ones symptomatic of a very real problem of alienation. “I feel I have the right to belong in Canada, but I don’t have it here.” These words are a sober reminder of how alien we’ve been made to feel in our own country. Two factors work relentlessly so that any brief respite from one brings up the other: our culture, still traditional and tribal despite our exterior advancement; and the state of Israel with its stress, racism, and discrimination.

Sadly, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
It is no wonder, then, that people who have returned from abroad tend to gravitate to each other for that sense of understanding that someone who has been through the same experience can offer. Meanwhile, the others look on and shake their head. They’re probably wondering how they can eradicate this bug from the brains of their sons and daughters, insecure that it might, at any minute, pop back up.

And yet, one can’t blame them. Who wants their child to leave and live so far away from them?

Fida Jiryis is a Palestinian writer, editor, and author of Hayatuna Elsagheera (Our Small Life), 2011, a collection of Arabic short stories depicting village life in the Galilee. She can be reached at
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