Between Worlds, Never to Belong

oil painting

“Under the Olive Tree” – Oil painting by Aya Salah (2017)

Perhaps it is fate, and perhaps it is destiny.
Perhaps it was always meant to be this way, and perhaps it simply never was. I don’t know. What I do know, is that for most of the time, I do not feel like I fully (physically) belong anywhere.
Belongingness is a complicated abstract concept. Do you belong with your heart, with your yearning, or with concrete memories that physically connect you to a place?
I can’t be the only one who hangs in midair, between worlds, always identifying with both yet never feeling completely embraced in either.
Being a Palestinian Canadian is a most intriguing experience, but it is difficult to describe to someone exactly what it’s like to be a Palestinian in Canada. Having grown up since babyhood and well into adulthood in the marvellous city of Montreal, I can hardly picture myself living anywhere else. Montreal is my home, the bounds of my childhood, the foundation of my character; it is where I feel safe, strengthened, and comfortable to grow.
And yet, I still don’t feel like I fully belong as a Canadian, or that I truly have a right to use this term since I am not originally a native of the land. No matter where I’ve planted my roots, the seeds first and foremost came from Palestinian soil. There is no way to ignore that.
Deep in my aching soul, I keep finding myself yearn for the land and people that had once been, and relentlessly continue to be, a part of me, even way before I was born. It is for this reason I find myself gravitating towards places and experiences in the West that satisfy my nostalgic emotions. I always felt as though a piece of me belonged in the Middle East, on another continent, and that perhaps if I spent more time in both worlds, then Canadian-me and Palestinian-me could comfortably coexist in satisfied harmony.
It was mostly for this reason that I took a great leap of faith, and decided to try living briefly in Palestine. Maybe, just maybe, I could find that missing part of me in new, strange yet vaguely familiar lands.
But alas, belongingness is a far more complicated concept than I ever thought it to be. If only it was simply a matter of physically connecting with a place. The truth (my truth, at least) is… this diaspora situation extends beyond the physical realm. It includes emotional, spiritual, and intellectual (dis)connections at times.
On the surface, I fit in Palestine in a lot of ways. The language, core cultural values of generosity, family, hospitality, and even my self-chosen dress code happen to align quite well with the society I am currently in. But every passing day reminds me how much I do not belong here. Maybe it’s the noticeably different dialect that flows from my lips; maybe it’s the uneasiness I feel at commonplace trashy (yet embraced) values, like cheating and bribery; maybe it’s my constant waves of shock as I learn of occupation and violence that I have obviously never needed to deal with in my own life, and never envisioned I would ever live through.
Fact is, the longer I stay in Palestine, the more I suspect that my heart really belongs in Canada. Yet when I go to Canada, my heart jumps right back across the fence. It’s like it thinks grass is greener on the other side – even when I have been on both sides, where the grass is the same shade of green!
So am I never to belong anywhere? Am I to remain suspended metaphysically between worlds, and realize that no place on Earth can actually ​fill my inner thirst for complete connection? Does anyone actually feel like they belong anywhere, or are we all equally lost, yet too timid to confront the void?
These are a lot of questions that come to mind when I daydream or drift off. Of course, I don’t expect that definite answers exist for them; but they are something to muse over.
Personally, I have no problem with not fully belonging to one single world. Perhaps who I am depends on the very fact I not get blindly attached to one particular worldview. I am a lifelong traveller, travelling between realms of cultures, ideas, controversial histories, intricate experiences and lifestyles.
Perhaps I am never to belong anywhere. 
This constant diaspora, manifested in multiple realms…
And you know what? I am at peace with that.
And God knows Best.
-A.S.
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A Ramadan Away from Home

Detail

They keep asking me where I like Ramadan more: in Hebron or Montreal.

They ask as if they’re clueless, but their eager faces betray the fact that they’re sure Ramadan in the East is superior to Ramadan in the West. For many people, it is. For me, I thought it would be, too. But it’s a bit more complicated, as I’ve learned…

They keep asking me which country I enjoy Ramadan most in – Palestine or Canada. What a distressing question for me, if only they knew!

All my Ramadans before 2017 have taken place in sweet, sweet Montreal. In Canada, I am often in crowded rooms being the only one refraining from food and drink. But this has never been an obstacle to having a spiritually and socially enlightening month. In Montreal, I always celebrated Ramadan with my parents and siblings. Being in the company of my two youngest sisters Wisam and Rania during taraweeh is a fundamental part of the night prayer experience. Eating from homemade atayef mostly prepared by my sister Rwan is a delicious and traditional element of the Ramadan vibe. Listening to my brother Mohammed reading Qur’an with me to practice his tajweed is a refreshing pre-iftar routine I love. Driving to the masjid in my dad’s van at fajr time is a luxury I try to take advantage of when I am not too sleepy to stay awake a little while longer after suhoor.
But this year, I am spending Ramadan in a completely different setting. I am fasting and Ramadan-ing it up in my native homeland of Palestine.
It is wonderful here.
The streets are decorated for Ramadan.
The traditional seasonal sweets are sold at every corner.
Everyday you’re invited to an iftar feast.
The athan echoes throughout the day, adding beauty to the wind.
It’s almost perfect.
But where are my multicultural friends’ faces whom I always run into at taraweeh?
Where are those STM bus drivers whom I don’t realize are Muslim, but then loudly exclaim “Ramadan mubarak, salamu alaikum!”
Where is my usual stash of fair-trade 70%+ dark chocolate to break my fast on?
Where is my jar of thick rich honey to sweeten everything the light touches?
Most of all… where are some of my favourite people in the world to break their fasts with me at the exact same time?
See, half my family came with me to Palestine, but I miss the other half. Sorely. I miss my family left back in Canada. Two months have passed but it feels so much longer. As much as I love and adore my relatives and extended family in Hebron, nothing and no one can replace the fondness and nearness that Rwan, Wisam, Rania, Mohammed and my father occupy in my heart.
Half of my heart is literally stuck in Montreal, in an unknown location. Maybe you’ll find it in a smoked salmon bagel cafe like Hinnawi Brothers, in a sushi restaurant like Sushi St.Jean, in a chocolate-loaded place like Coco 70, or in a beehive loaded with honey somewhere…. My heart ironically yearns for the place where the streets are NOT decorated for Ramadan, where Arabic sweets are NOT the norm at every corner, and where the athan is NOT visible from your home but is only heard from the inside the mosques.
And yet, Ramadan in Montreal is absolutely perfect.
In Montreal, the atayef tastes just right. They even look more appetizing! (I have only enjoyed one actual atayef in Palestine this whole month. It just ain’t the same.) Maybe it’s because the hands that make them (Rwan’s) are full of a sacred care no one else can provide. Maybe it’s because the syrup that sweetens the atayef is made by my lovely mother. Maybe it’s because as a family, members of us gather around the Qur’an together and discuss it more frequently as a group than in other times of the year.
And maybe… probably… it’s just because the small group of people in Montreal I love, I love with a fierceness greater than my love combined for everything in Palestine.
atayef

Photo of Rwan’s masterpiece dessert.

Nothing can replace the bond of a sister or brother – so how to explain that as wonderful and gracious that everyone is in Hebron, nothing can replace four sibling bonds… even if those bonds are limited to social media right now with a 7-hour time zone difference. How could people even ask me such a question? It’s infuriating sometimes! Honestly, what a blessing Whatsapp, Messenger, Snapchat, and TextPlus have all turned out to be for me. Thank God!
I don’t mean to be harsh on people. They mean well, and I know it. When people ask me where do I enjoy Ramadan more, they usually assume that my definition of ultimate satisfaction is measured by the number of feasts I attend and number of people I greet. But how to explain that all the pecks, formalities, and kisses on cheeks over several months totalled up, do not amount to even one simple “yo” exchanged with my brother? Do not amount to just one bone-crushing hug with Wisam and Rania? Do not amount to one pre-bedtime rambling conversation with Rwan?
Between you and me, dear reader, here’s my personal truth: Ramadan in Palestine is really nice. But Ramadan in Montreal? It’s just perfect.
All praise to Allah for everything, alhamdulileh. I am blessed to be spending this holy month in a holy land. And thank You for the blessings of technology, which make it easy to keep in constant communication with those physically far, far away from me!
Until we hug again, my friends! Shout out to Mohammed, Rania, Wisam, Rwan and yaba for making me miss you so much. That speaks to how wonderful of human beings you must undoubtedly be.
And God plans Best.
-A.S.
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Daughter of the Land

Daughter of the Land

“The sight of it, from afar or inside the labyrinth of its walls, softens me. Every inch of it holds the confidence of ancient civilizations, their deaths and their birthmarks pressed deep into the city’s viscera and onto the rubble of its edges. The deified and the condemned have set their footprints in its sand. It has been conquered, razed, and rebuilt so many times that its stones seem to possess life, bestowed by the audit trail of prayer and blood. Yet somehow, it exhales humility. It sparks an inherent sense of familiarity in me– that doubtless, irrefutable Palestinian certainty that I belong to this land. It possesses me, no matter who conquers it, because its soil is the keeper of my roots, of the bones of my ancestors. […] I am a daughter of the land, and Jerusalem reassures me of this inalienable title, far more than the yellowed property deeds, the Ottoman land registries, the iron keys to our stolen homes, or UN resolutions and decrees of superpowers could ever do.”
-Mornings in Jenin, p.140