Why Palestine?

gggg

Back in Canada, all I had to say to any friend was “I’m going to spend a few months living in Palestine,” and practically a round of applause sounded. Even my colleagues supported this decision, and that hyped me up some more. But for perplexing reasons (among them heavily affected from colonial experiences), many Palestinians living in Palestine do not share that same optimism. The moment anyone learns that I came from Canada to temporarily live in Palestine, I get the same reaction:

  • An incredulous face, along with a “My dear… what has brought you here?

Okay. I get it. Living under an illegal and dangerous occupation isn’t exactly a bliss. But this isn’t even the reason that people question my return.

What has brought me here? Why Palestine?

Well, for starters, regardless about my other career and family reasons… I’m Palestinian.

What’s up with native Palestinians not understanding why it’s perfectly legitimate for me to be here? I am a daughter of the land, after all. Once left, does it mean I would never want to come back? Here are just a few examples of things I can only really revel in Palestine:

  • Partying with aunts, uncles and cousins whom I haven’t seen in many years.
  • Listening to classical Arabic music in taxis, against the backdrop scenery of vast mountains and vineyards.
  • Being a car passenger alongside a galloping horse that is pulling a carriage of vegetables.
  • Driving through small villages and seeing donkeys, herd of sheep, and more horses alongside cars. Here, nature has the same space as technology.
  • Eating cups of corn on the go. Freshly squeezed mint lemonade. Date syrup. Grape syrup. The delight of discovering new cheesecake coffee shops here and there.
  • Speaking with the young people who have lived under occupation, yet still have such a zest and upbeat passion for life. It is not common for me to find bitter and angry teenagers here; rather, they have a hope and vision of the future, and want to be a part of building that better world.
  • When teaching an ESL class, and a Quran quote comes on screen, everyone becoming eager to recite it in perfect personalised melodies.
  • Olive trees, palm trees, and white lightbulbs gracing the streets.
  • Being pleasantly surprised how your heart can connect so easily to another’s, as though you grew up in the same house…

Palestine is an astonishing place, and it grows on you the longer you stay and give it a chance to. It has a beautiful culture, remarkable history of prophetic footsteps, a dizzying plurality of diverse people, and gorgeous landscapes. However, only those with beautiful hearts can truly appreciate the blessing of having a chance to walk on its soil.

So why Palestine? Because there’s nowhere else quite like it.

May God protect Palestine.

And He Knows Best.

A.S.

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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.
.

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.

[video] The Streets of Palestine

Dedicated to the birthday girl, Rania.

I know French and Palestinian culture don’t go together. However, a week before I left Canada to visit Palestine, I stumbled across the bilingual song “J’ai Cherché” by Amir, and now both this song and my trip to Palestine are, in my mind, helplessly intertwined with one another and seem perfectly compatible to me.

It was hard to doze off in any road trip or car ride because the streets and mountains along the road are a dazzle to see. Most of the footage I took with my cell phone camera… which obviously doesn’t do anything justice. Nonetheless, when I have nostalgia for Palestinian streets and mountains, I’ll just play this video which I just produced.

Presenting to you, “The Streets of Palestine”.

The Streets of Palestine from Aya Salah on Vimeo.

Masjid al-Aqsa: the Old & the New

~
The title of this album should actually be “masajid” (plural of ‘masjid’) al-Aqsa… because this looks at the interiors of not only the Masjid al-Aqsa building that everyone visits, but also the ORIGINAL, old building that was first masjid al-Aqsa. It is noticeably older and not as sparkly inside as the newer building… but it still feels upon entering as the sacred holy site. It’s not hidden or secret… but it’s not well-known, either! So here, we look at both. What a blessing!

Masjid Al-Aqsa – First Sight
Masjid al-Aqsa - First Sight

Deep Breath

Deep Breath

Light Upon Light
Light Upon Light

Heading to the Old, Original Masjid al-Aqsa

Heading to the Old, Original Masjid Al-Aqsa

Removing Shoes
Removing Shoes

A Place of Prayer

A Place of Prayer

Oh, Books
Oh, Books

The Library Inside the Old Masjid al-Aqsa

The Library Inside the Old Masjid Al-Aqsa

Calligraphy Everywhere
Calligraphy Everywhere

“Keep Following Me!”

Keep Following Me!

Walking in an Empty Masjid
Walking in an Empty Masjid

Our Kind & Spontaneous Tour Guide

Our Kind & Spontaneous Tour Guide

Workship in the Old Masjid al-Aqsa

Worshipping in the Old Masjid Al-Aqsa

Where the Heads Fall Upon in Prostration

Where the Heads Falls Upon in Prostration

To see the rest of the photos in this album, click here.

All praise is due to Allah.

-A.S.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. May you be granted the chance to visit it, and pray in it, one day.

There was no way that the photos of both masajid al-Alqsa’s (the old and new buildings), and the golden Dome of the Rock, could fit into one album. This is simply Part 2 of 3 photography taken in Jerusalem a couple of months ago.

Staying Gold
Staying Gold

Dome of the Rock – First Sight Dome of the Rock - First Sight

Overwhelming
Overwhelming

Sacred Geometry Sacred Geometry

The Bodyguard Trees
The Bodyguard Trees

Ceiling; Because God Loves Beauty Ceiling; Because God Loves Beauty

Beyond Beauty
Beyond Beauty

Al-Sakhra Al-Sakhra

Dome of the Rock Chandeliers
Dome of the Rock Chandeliers

Gold Details Gold Details

Majestic
Majestic

Behold the Dome Behold the Dome

Wandering Through Jerusalem

Jerusalem (al-Quds) is breathtaking.

There was no way that the photos of both masajid al-Alqsa’s (the old and new buildings), and the golden Dome of the Rock, could fit into one album. This is simply Part 1 of 3 photography taken in Jerusalem a couple of months ago.

These in particular were taken simply while walking and wandering around.

Center of Gold

Center of Gold

Glint of a Sight

Glint of a Sight

On the Way to Jerusalem

On the Way to Jerusalem

Palm Tree

Palm Tree

The Dome, Afar

The Dome, Afar

A White Sky with Blue

A White Sky with Blue

Sky High

Sky High

Art of a Mother’s Love

Art of a Mother's Love

Beige Umbrellas

Beige Umbrellas

Shops in Jerusalem

Shops in Jerusalem

Beige, Blue & Green

Beige, Blue & Green

Symmetry in Architecture

Symmetry in Architecture

Exploring

Exploring

Spray-Paintings of Holy Sites

Spray-Paintings of Holy Sites

Naming After History

Naming After History

Star Light, Star Bright

Star Light, Star Bright

Outside Markets

Outside Markets

Where Archs Are the Norm

Where Archs Are the Norm

Colors, Sights & Sound

Colors, Sights & Sound

Delicious Ka’k Qudsi

Delicious Ka'k Qudsi

Bird in Hiding

Bird in Hiding

Art for Tea

Art for Tea

el Zaatar

el Zaatar

School Established 784 H

School Established 784 H

Fading Color

Fading Color

Hustle & Bustle

Hustle & Bustle

In Old Jerusalem

In Old Jerusalem

Kuffiyahs Everywhere

Kuffiyahs Everywhere

Nets to Catch All that Garbage… (thrown by settlers onto Palestinians)

Nets To Catch All That Garbage...

Rectangular Spaces

Rectangular Spaces

Garbage Thrown by Israeli Settlers onto the Palestinians

Garbage Thrown by Israeli Settlers onto the Palestinians

Freedom Graffiti (الحرية = freedom)

Freedom Graffiti

Sisters

Sisters

Light Despite Dark

Light Despite Dark

 

Photographic Resistance with Kuffiyahs

~

The Palestinian spirit not only lives in every Palestinian, but also in every human being’s heart that believes in the power of justice, respect, dignity, peace, and resistance against oppression. The true noble spirit is found in s/he who can uphold those values with beauty and grace.

Resistance can take form in protests, petitions, speech, visual arts, music, poetry, political levels.. and, in my particular case, through photography as well.

~

انني العاشق والارض الحبيبة

انني العاشق والارض الحبيبة

Burst of Color

Burst of Color

Resilience

Resilience

Yellow Roses

Yellow Roses

Prevails

Prevails

The Bouquet

The Bouquet

Pensive

Pensive

علي الكفية

علي الكفية

لنبني سماءٌ لنا

لنبني سماءٌ لنا

Crisp Memory

Crisp Memory

Spirit

Spirit

The Scarf

The Scarf

Kuffiyah & Roses

Kuffiyah & Roses

Sun Glare

Sun Glare

Passionate Souls

Passionate Souls

Black & White Patterns

Black & White Patterns

Uplift

Uplift

Sunset

Sunset

Dabka in the Woods

Dabka In the Woods

Kindness

Kindness

“Flowers grew where you stood,

sprung from the soles of you,

strong despite the shade

from the shadow you left.

You leave gardens

every time

you walk away.” (Tyler K. Gregson)

All praise is due to God.

A.S.

You Will Never Erase Me

by  Ismail Shammout

by Ismail Shammout

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

(un) Dear Zionists:

 

Isn’t it amazing that you hope

in fooling yourselves and others so easily

that you can

also

fool me?

As though I am unaware, or long ago stopped to care.

 

Isn’t it amazing that you think

by stealing my land,

my cuisine

and declaring tabboula

as  “Israeli salad”, it becomes your own?

As though I won’t recognize cultural appropriation when it is sown.

 

Isn’t it amazing that you insist

on calling the

occupied territories of Palestine

“Israel”?

Like it will erase the reality that

a Palestinian people were ever real.

 

Isn’t it amazing that you believe

by omitting maps of land theft in textbooks

it is as though you were never murderous crooks,

and that, by omitting genocidal facts in the education system,

you can pretend Palestinians wiped each other out,

out of barbaric desperation.

 

Isn’t it amazing that you think

in denying what you support,

what you’ve done,

what you’re doing,

criminalizing, abusing, and marginalizing me,

that you can strip away my heritage and identity?

 

No, zionism-infected minds

and a thousand times no!

You can ignore the truth of who you are,

although

at the cost of your dignity, integrity

and humanity. But…

 

you  will

never

ever

erase me.

 

Signed,

  • a Palestinian

Imagine Being Palestinian, in Canada

I cannot even begin to describe to you what it was like growing up as a Palestinian, in Canada.

But I will try.

Artist: Imad Abu Shtayyah

Artist: Imad Abu Shtayyah

~

Imagine being a child on the road to finding your identity, yet you are unable to convince the world that you exist.

No no, what do you mean you’re Palestinian? Just say you’re from Jordan, it’s what the majority of Jordanians are anyhow, and at least you’ll find it on the map.

The map. Did I mention Palestine exists – in all the hearts & minds of its people, its soil, culture, food, music, dance – I’ve even been there, smelled its sweet air, touched its green leaves, basked under the shadow of its olive trees… but “the map” will not show its existence. Instead it is lumped under an occupier’s name, one I refuse to acknowledge as legitimately formed.

What do I mean by lack of legitimacy? Imagine being thrown out your house by gunpoint with your family members, half of them killed in the process, and made into scattered refugees through violence. Meanwhile these thug criminals take over the house that you built yourself and comfortably live in it, with all your possessions intact. Yet it is now “not yours”, and in a twisted colonizer’s view, “never been yours”. Can we call the occupier a legitimate owner of the house? Never, and a thousand times no.

To be robbed and have it acknowledged as injustice is one thing. But to be robbed of material possession, as well as dignity and pride, and then be somehow blamed for it, is a whole other tragedy on its own.

Imagine being a 10-year old child in a privileged North American country, with little concerns in your pampered little life, when you walk into the living room as the news (obviously not CNN or Fox) plays. You see a small boy and his young father crouching behind a wall as the bullets shoot through the smoky air – and then both father and son crumple. Sudden death, completely avoidable, and completely deliberate.

Imagine knowing that their only crime was that they had Palestine flowing in their veins, but someone else decided they should not be safe on their own land. The land they built with their own hands.

Imagine living in a lovely place like Canada, and instead of feeling as though you are in Paradise, you instead can’t shake off the guilt that your life isn’t as difficult as the kids who risk their lives everyday just walking to school – because the bored soldiers at checkpoints could shoot at you or treat you like a bowling pin to knock over, by launching rocks at your head. (It’s all a game, let’s see who gets more points!) Meanwhile I am here, in Canada, feeling guilty at being safe, as though it were mandatory that a Palestinian child to be in constant danger.

Imagine feeling horrible for being helpless to fight the oppression your own flesh and blood overseas are forced to endure regularly. Imagine this burden on a 13-year old’s conscience. That was me.

The worst of it was, there was no one I could talk to about this. Things may be different now, but rewind over a decade and a half back, I was the only Palestinian (and even Arab), in my grade. It would have been nice to have someone who understood your inner torment, even if you didn’t need to express it.

“call me angry

i hear your voice salt with guilt

and I laugh.

look how easy it is to reveal you.”

— anger is a natural response to oppression (Nayyirah Waheed)

My only outlet in my youth was to write poetry – lots and lots of poetry – to express my frustration and anger. But who cared about the writings of a kid who had an entire country that “doesn’t exist” on her mind, when she should only be concerned with fashion and boys?

I have learned to smile through the anguish until I am now used to having people tell me they cannot picture me in a state of unhappiness.

But if you look past my dynamic colorful outfits and my radiantly positive attitude, you will find a burning sadness inside for the lost part of me I cannot seem to take full ownership of it until it is free.

Inside you will find a fire of rage for the silence of those too reluctant to speak justice when given the platform to do so (and here, the decision to “remain neutral” rings out the opposite message loud and clear). Inside you will find a volcano that erupts every time a Palestinian woman is degraded, every time a Palestinian man is humiliated, and every time a Palestinian child’s dreams are destroyed.

And still inside this heavy-loaded heart you will find the source of my smile, my strength, and my tranquility: the knowledge that Palestine will be free. It is one of those things that cannot die while people believe in it, and millions around the world are not giving up on it anytime soon.

Imagine being Palestinian, outside of Palestine, and realizing your heart never left it.

It is a beautiful ache.

Peace.

A.S.