Friday, May 5, 2017

Going Back to Palestine: What we Gain, What we Lose

This months marks ten years (!) since I last went home to Palestine.

I remember a time when I promised myself that I would never go years and years and years without going home.  I remember that my aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in America would come and visit my family in Jerusalem, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, spending long weeks with us, making hummus in our kitchen, making the coffee and pistachio rounds with the relatives.  They would count the years of absence on all of their fingers, and the years of absence dazed me. How could you go that long, I wondered?  How could the strings of time stretch that long?  How could you stay away from home for year after year?

And yet.

It has been ten long years since I stepped off an airplane onto my homeland, an exile of another sort.   I have grown up and learned the lesson that my aunts and uncles never said: that it is not always easy to come back home.

This month, we go home.  A trip home has been gifted to us, and quite truthfully, I have never been so grateful for a gift in all of my life.

This trip is for me, to find my way home.

This trip is for my children, to let them walk in the footsteps of their own people.

This trip is for my parents, to let them hold their grandchildren in their own land.

This trip is for my whole family, to write another story together.

What We Gain, What We Lose

People keep saying to me, Oh, how wonderful!  Your children will learn so much!

And I say, Yes. They will learn so much.  They will have their first taste of real Arabic bread, fresh olives, tomatoes.  They will get to pick wildflowers in the West Bank. They will get to see Jerusalem, Bethlehem.  They will get to stay in their grandparents' house for the first time, meet cousins, aunts and uncles that they have never met, meet my dear friends, see the streets that I grew up in, visit the school that I called home.

But also, I know that they will learn other things.  They will learn about checkpoints.  They will learn about walls.  They will see many different people, many different faiths; and they will ask me the questions that all children ask - who are we?  Who are they?  Why are we different?  

A few months ago, I was sitting in my son's martial arts class, and my son announced loudly in class that we were going to Israel soon.  I winced slightly, to hear the loud proclamation in class.  Another parent sitting next to me turned to me quickly.  Are you Israeli, she asked, with a huge smile on her face.   Well, I said, Yes, but I am an Arab. I waited for the usual confusion or disinterest.  Instead, her smile grew wider.

Turns out, this mother I was sitting next to was actually a grad school professor, an expert on Jewish studies who teaches a comparative literature class on Palestinian and Jewish literature.  Next thing I knew, we were elbow deep in conversation, as we watched our white-robed boys dash around of the mat and practice their kicks.  It was one of those rare moments, when you find someone who already understands, no explanations necessary.

One day I asked her:  Have you ever taken your children to visit Israel?

No, she said, looking over at the mat.  She paused.  It is far. Our family is here.  We have no reason to visit.  And . . . you know, I don't want them to be exposed to all of that.  I don't want them to see things, hear things.  

I nodded.  I understood.  We sat elbow to elbow, Arab and Jew,  and we watched our brown-haired, white-robed boys sparing on the mat.

I know I am not taking my children to Disney World.  But we still go home, because, after all, isn't that what all of us need to do anyway?

There, we will find the world there, as it is here, broken and beautiful.  I have learned in this life is that beauty always grows in the cracks, that to turn away from the hard things is to also turn away from the magical things that grow in the cracks: grace, mercy and sometimes even forgiveness.

Join Me for the Journey

What will we gain from this trip?  My prediction:  ten pounds!

I have given everyone in my family fair warning:  I will be eating my body weight in kanafe.  And then I will take the rest home and eat it for breakfast.  I will be eating ka'ak from carts outside of the Old City, and shawarma from stands, and Mom, please make sure there is falafel and hummus and labaneh and cucumbers and tomatoes and za'atar for breakfast every day, thank you very much.  Also, bring on the pots of grape leaves, and stuffed everything.  I know my toddler will be fed by hand by every auntie and Teta as he roams around the house,  and my children will learn that their plates will never be empty, no matter how much they eat.  And my husband, who quite possibly loves Arabic food even more than I do, is going to be spoiled on all of the good food.

I hope you will follow me here and also on Instagram.  I plan to write some travel posts when I return, and bring you along on the journey.

Until then, my friends, God be with you.


  1. Please give your parents big hugs from Bob and Debi (via Orlando) and soak up every special moment with them in your homeland. My mouth waters as you list all the foods you will enjoy there!!! Take lots of photos and make a million memories.

  2. I cannot say how delighted I am to read this, Jessica! Seeing the picture of you and your dad brings back many wonderful memories. I am grateful for your willingness to introduce me to your parents and homeland then, and I will be praying for God's grace and peace to be with you and your family throughout your trip!

    1. Bill - writing this post brought back all of my memories of our last trip home. I went through all of the pictures, and remembered how much that trip was a gift to me, too. Thank you for your prayers. Much love to your family!


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