It has been nearly five years since I was in Palestine, but it feels as though it was yesterday experiencing some of the greatest moments of my life; the one where you get to say ‘I am from here’. You see, I was born and raised in Oslo, Norway; home to the Oslo Accord but not home to the official signing. That was done in 1993 at the White House; the day PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat agreed on the declaration of Principal on Interim Self-Government Arrangements.
However, Norway is one of the greatest countries, great education system, great social equality, human rights, women’s rights and the list goes on… but with all that greatness there was always one thing missing; belonging! Being ethnically from the Middle East, living in a country so well observed in its own culture is difficult (though never do I doubt that my mother did everything to make us feel like we have the best of both worlds), anything from trying to explain to your 99% Norwegian classmates why you are fasting to why what Hummos and Labbaneh is. Despite it all we never questioned where we are from – it was always Palestine, said with pride.
Once graduated from High School, I decided to pursue a degree in Human Rights with Media in London. Throughout my three years, I had an end goal: to graduate and make a difference – and do a job that takes me out to the fields: I succeeded! I landed a job with Oxfam GB in Jerusalem; working on a project to empower women and communities in oppressed and occupied areas of Palestine (Walajeh in Bethlehem and five other villages in Jericho also known as the Jordan valley).
These communities suffered from immense oppression from Israel, meaning, all sources of import were soon to be banished, the communities profoundly relied on other neighbouring communities, simple day-to-day necessities; food, health, education, and work. They would soon be imprisoned by the prodigious, solid occupation wall and have a curfew, meaning the men who worked could no longer get back home to their families, students could no longer go to school and food and health was limited – all because Israel continues to build illegal settlements on each and every beautiful hill in Palestine.
My dream and hard work had finally happened, the day I opened my eyes and saw ‘The View’ the Dome of the placed so gracefully in the middle of the Old city of Jerusalem (a picture famed in every Palestinian house). The enriching, liberating and heartening feeling was and always will be my favourite feeling. I couldn’t wait to start work and see the city of Jerusalem, travel around Palestine; Akka, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramallah, Nablus, Khalil…
You see, I got to do it all, I got to travel around all the cities in Palestine that I wanted, I even managed to get into areas through checkpoints without a word said to me, how? because I was Norwegian? Do you think that’s fair? I surely didn’t, after some time I started avoiding sitting on that bus which was labeled ‘everyone except Palestinians’.
I walked through the dungeon of steel and stood in the long queues and showcased my ID and let them search my bag every single time I went into the West Bank, despite the danger and risks. I couldn’t find it in me to be treated any different than my own kind, only because I am so called ‘privileged to have a passport from a non-Middle Eastern country.
This was all triggered the day a few friends and I were sitting on a hilltop in Ramallah, looking over the many hills and see the night-light of beautiful Jerusalem, until one of your friends says: “You are lucky, you get to go home tonight and see those lights and walk on those streets in Jerusalem.” Nothing hurts more than hearing those words of inequality and injustice.
It wasn’t long until it hit me; the hate, anger, frustration, and the true prejudice that was part of every Palestinian’s daily life. It’s one thing to read about it from the comfort of your safe and sound home in Europe, and a whole different thing to experience it.
Ironically, living in Jerusalem made me feel both happy and angry – two incredibly dissimilar emotions!
I was in heaven every day after work when I got to walk into the old city of Jerusalem, passing through the freshly baked Ka’ek and boiling falafel on the street (best falafel in the world), the beautiful iconic olive trees and the amazing Palestinians who smile at you every time you pass by their shop. Coming from Norway, you can imagine that not many of my relatives are there; it was usually only my immediate family. Every holiday I would hear my friends say: ‘we will be seeing grandmother and my cousins this holiday’, I didn’t. It would be years before I would see any of my cousins and grandparents. Thus, my mother always managed to make us feel close to our relatives by telling us stories of how they would be spending Eid with their cousins in Jerusalem, or in Nablus, what they would eat, the traditions, the play area etc. she painted a beautiful picture in our mind.
For the first time, I got to live in Palestine. I met my incredible, honorable relatives who hosted me, who treated me as one of their own and I got to meet my cousins and was lucky enough to spend Eid in Palestine the real traditional way (praying Tarwaeeh at the Aqsa Mosque, eating turmus in the old city and visiting relatives). I even got to live the feeling of ‘everyone knows you’ (even the bus driver would know you as soon as you said your last name).
These feelings wouldn’t last for too long while passing through the picturesque historical and religious city; there would be soldiers heavily armed walking on that same pathway as you are holding an MK14 gun and fully dressed ready for a kill.
There were always two views in my head for every experience in Palestine; the first one would always be ‘my inner Palestinian nationalist’ and the second would be ‘the innocent Norwegian’. When I would see any IDF soldier I would feel incredibly angry and ready to attack, and as a Norwegian, I had never seen a gun before (police officers in Norway do not carry any guns). So for me to see an IDF soldier would be scary and unsafe. I would always question: why? Why carry such a big gun when everyone around you are going by with their day casually and peacefully?
On the other hand, I used to face issues with own people and my so-called ‘enemy’ on a daily basis; being Palestinian in Palestine wasn’t enough; I had to have lived there, know every street and every family name that existed, my looks didn’t help either, being a Muslim but not cover my head was seen as a slight shock – especially being a natural blond, fair-skinned Arab – some would think I was a foreigner on a leisure trip – with that came the Arabic street slang words, little did they know I understood everything they would say. It was difficult to belong – it made me sad that even there I couldn’t feel that I belonged.
And of course, with the Israeli part, I would confront any IDF soldier that came my way – I was even held at gunpoint on one of my trips of discovering my Homeland, My Palestine.
Rola Chami Al Jaouni is a Humanitarian activist with a Human rights and Media degree. She has worked as a PR account Manager and works as a freelance writer on the refugee situations in Jordan. She runs a sexual, mental abuse awareness page on Facebook called @surviveforwomen (https://www.facebook.com/surviveforwomen/) where all the bracelets are handmade by her and sold in honour of all survivors out there.