Summer Repost- Standing on the Edge of a River: Palestine, Israel, and Identity

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By Nabil Habiby

This post that was first published by IMES in November 2018

It has been a rough week for Palestinians. They witnessed yet more Arab concessions to Israel. Their land continues to shrink. Their hopes of ever achieving freedom from oppression grow slimmer.

It has been a rough 70 years for Palestinians. A few settlers turned into a country. A supposedly World War related conflict has stretched out into an indefinite struggle for survival on the periphery.

I am Lebanese-Palestinian. I was blessed to be born as Lebanese. My family took Lebanese nationality in the 1950s. I have lived through post-civil war Lebanon. In almost every way I am a Lebanese person.

But, I never had an answer to the questions of almost every school teacher, shopkeeper, and parents of friends:

Where are you from?

I would stutter. Evade the answer. I knew back then that the Lebanese were not particularly keen on the Palestinians. Where was I from? I did not have a village in the mountains. My grandparents did not own a house in Beirut. Where was I from?

I remember my high school physics teacher telling me when he saw me search for an answer to the origins question:

Never be ashamed of your origins!

Since then, I have answered with confidence:

I am Lebanese – but originally, I come from Palestine!

What does that mean? What does it mean to be “originally from Palestine?” I have never lived there. I have never set foot there. Even worse yet, what does it mean to be from Palestine when “Palestine” is not recognized to exist at many international levels – or even on Google maps? What does it mean to live a good life (college education, freedom of religion, good job, wife and kids…etc.) but say, proudly, I am originally from Palestine? I do not struggle like the rest of the Palestinian people. My only conflict involves in a few social media posts.

And Israel. The beloved child of the Evangelical church in many parts of the Western world. Israel. What do I do with it? Do I hate it? But Jesus asks us to love our enemies. Do I forget the past, the past I was not part of, yet which fills my innermost being? How can one forget his identity?

In March of 2015, I found myself standing on the bank of the Jordan river, on the Jordanian side (I would not have been able to write this blog if I had been on the other side). I was surrounded by a group of colleagues, not friends. A pastor was preaching. Sadly, he missed the meaning-heavy setting, and chose to speak about God’s care for us. I found my mind wandering. There, a few meters across, is the land of my grandparents. There, a few meters across, is the land of my dreams, the place of identity – a home. There, a few meters across, is the answer to the question:

Where are you from?

I remember walking to the river. I knelt down and touched the waters. It was cold. Regular water. Across the river an Israeli flag fluttered. People were walking around, taking pictures. What did I want in that moment? I wanted to place the Palestinian flag in the place of the Israeli one! I wanted to shout across the waters: Injustice! I wanted to be a Chinese tourist with no emotional link to this place. I wanted, more than anything, to jump across the river. Where to? There. The place of yearning.

What should be the place of yearning for us as Christians in this world? Home? Our place of birth? The Church? Heaven? Jesus?

I sat myself down after that in the silence of my room. I did not come to an intense realization. I did not find the answers. I still haven’t. I wrote down a few words. I was trying to explain, narrate, describe my experience. As I wrote, I found my mind providing the answers. My theology came through and rescued me from the waters stirring within me.

What you will read below are my thoughts. I do not dare call it a poem, for I am no poet. Let us call them reflections. On one level, I have reached the conclusion of these reflections. On other levels, I am still standing on the edge of the river. The river!

Enough then, with my ramblings. I leave you with this humble piece. I pray it washes over you with peace, as it has for me, many times since then.

 

Standing on the Edge of a River

Standing on the edge of a river

Muddy and shallow,

The river!

Stretching out my eyesight

A few meters across,

Over the centuries of history,

Into a green land,

The land!

Knowing that there lies

something holy

Sacred

Pure

Lost…

Knowing that with one jump

I could land in my land,

The jump!

But the river is a wall,

And I do not exist on this side

And become someone on the other,

But the river is deep!

The echoes of old stories come,

As an army of soldiers marching softly,

An army with no weapons…this time,

The story!

And I jump, as if over the river into my land

But land in the story,

And I stay in the water for three days

Till I come out dripping with existence,

And find me a home in the river.

The home!

When Nabil is not lecturing in New Testament Studies at ABTS he is busy engaging in political advocacy, serving the youth at his church, and hanging out with his super cute toddler and baby and charming wife.

2 Comments

  1. Nabil thank you for this, as a third culture kid I have felt similarly and living in the MENA region I am regularly asked where I am from, which for some of the less intelligent results in the comment, you can’t be your skin is white, even my Birth Certificate wrongly states that I was born in the reign of George VI, yet he had died three years before and Queen Elizabeth II had ascended to the throne two years before. My father worked for Eight years as the head of the trade school, and we left when I was aged 4 years old. Within days Somaliland which was a British Protectorate, while Djibouti was French and the southern area was an Italian protectorate or Colony. What was Somaliland merged with. Somalia and became one country, yet what was the British Protectorate, broke away from Somalia and for al least the last 25 years operated independently; They have their own President parliament, Financial Institutions and currency. Yet governments across the world and unlike Palestine the UN refuses to recognize it and it’s Sovereignty,
    I lived for 46years in the UK the birth place of my parents and disliked the place never feeling settled, I am proud to have served Queen Elizabeth for nearly 20 years retiring due to ill health caused by PTSD, which despite having retired in April 1994 I still endure and suffer from. Having returned to the MENA region in December 2011 and July 2012. In order to appease others I returned for three months and despite a revolution and curfew, I returned to the UK and for over a week I felt the same as I had as a ten year old returning to boarding school having spent Christmas with my parents in Northern India. At the time I was told to stop crying, Men don’t cry. Stop feeling home sick. I realized in 2013 it was not my family I was missing, but the country in the MENA area that I had left 6months before having lived there for a quarter of my life. Before that I had visited as we travelled from Aden to the UK.
    Now when I am asked I say my parents were English, my passport is British, I was born in Somaliland and for the majority of my first ten years I lived in African. I therefore consider myself African, unless I have been asked several times an I will not be believed because of the Colour of my skin, i kill the conversation and say I am from the planet Zog.
    If any one is interested in reading more about Somaliland as written by a lady the daughter of a doctor, trained in London on a British government grant as a midwife, later to serve with WHO, a minister and wife of a president, sold all her possessions to build a Hospital and is now part of of a University training students for nursing and ancillary hospital staff in Hargeisa, I commend Edna Adan Ismail’s biography. “A Woman of Firsts. “

    • Thank you Peter for this riveting reflection from your own life story. Indeed, the question of belonging goes beyond skin color, passports, and borders. It touches on the very essence of what it means to be human – to belong.

      Be blessed.

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