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Missing a home I’ve never seen

At family gatherings, asking about life in Palestine felt like a sin because their pain of exile was more potent than my longing to know about what they left behind.

By: /
29 September, 2021
Nablus, Palestine. Audun Bakke Andersen

When my parents named me Haneen, I don’t think they realized my name would also be a feeling I have lived with for as long as I can remember. My name is an Arabic one that means longing and nostalgia. 

On September 30, 2000, a few months after my third birthday, I started growing into my name — longing for a homeland I never saw beyond pictures on search engines. 

It was the day Muhammad al-Durrah, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, was shot and killed in Gaza during the Second Intifada. While many believe a three-year-old is too young to be watching another child dying in their father’s arms on TV, my parents let me watch. 

I asked too many questions that night, and it became the night I understood where I was from. 

I am from Nablus, Palestine, where my dad was born in 1965. 

Two months after my father’s birth, my grandparents moved to As-Salt, a town northwest of Amman, where my grandfather worked as a maestro in the Jordanian armed forces band. He had worked in the armed forces since 1951. 

After the Six-Day War in 1967 that saw Israel gain control of the West Bank, my father’s family couldn’t return to their home in Nablus without getting an Israeli visa — something they refused to do as a form of resistance to the occupation. 

At the time, several Arab countries also refused entry to anyone with an Israeli travel document making it difficult for them to visit Nablus. 

I was born in the United Arab Emirates and visited Jordan almost every summer until we moved to Canada in 2008. During each visit, I asked my grandfather about Nablus. What was it like? Did you like it? Is the family house still there? Do you have the keys? Can you tell me stories about your life there? 

He always answered with the same story about chasing down the kids of the less fortunate neighbours who tried to steal fruit from the trees he grew in Nablus. Some of the trees would dangle over the fence making the fruit easy and appealing to pick. The details of how he scared them off are fuzzy in my memory now, but I still remember how he chuckled every time he concluded the story. I think it was easier for him to laugh than to remember details about a home he had not been to in decades. 

Unsatisfied, I would walk away from the family farm that sat on a slope in Shafa Badran and sit on a stone wall hoping the houses and empty land I was looking at were part of Palestine. 

The author at her grandparents’ farm in Jordan. Courtesy of Haneen Al-Hassoun

If you look at a map, it’s impossible. But I liked to pretend. I let my grandfather’s unfinished stories guide my imagination. Was the fence around the farm metal or brick? Was the sky clear or cloudy when he chased away children trying to steal fruit? What did the figs taste like? Do they taste like the ones he grew in Jordan? 

At family gatherings, asking about life in Palestine felt like a sin because their pain of exile was more potent than my longing to know about what they left behind.

I am not alone in feeling nostalgic about a land I never saw or lived in. I asked another young Palestinian woman whom I met in my first-year journalism class whether she felt the same. 

Sarah Abu-Shaban says she envied her siblings who visited Palestine when her mother was still pregnant with her. “I always go to my siblings and say, ‘Can you tell me what it was like?’” she says.  

They were too young to remember, so Abu-Shaban asked her mother, who has vivid memories of living in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. Abu-Shaban’s mother developed a fear of enclosed spaces after Israeli soldiers locked her and all the children in the house in the stairwell while they ransacked the house in search of weapons. 

Abu-Shaban and I have similar stories. We were both born in Gulf countries to Palestinian parents. We never visited our homeland, but this sense of nostalgia for a life we didn’t know persists. 

“There’s something uniquely Palestinian about not just having one place you call home. You kind of call a bunch of places home,” Abu-Shaban says. 

When I was nine years old, I wrote poems in Arabic about Palestine, exile and occupation. But what do I know about any of that? Why is a child born into privilege in the United Arab Emirates writing about the feeling of being forcefully removed from one’s home? I didn’t have answers, so I stopped writing. 

When I moved to Canada, I struggled to say I am Palestinian — often because of the politics of the identity — but also because of the feeling that I can’t claim to be from a place I didn’t know or see. 

We can grieve the homeland we wanted to be born in, live in or visit, but didn’t.”

Recently, however, I’ve learned that people can still grieve the could-have-beens and would-have-beens in their lives. We can grieve the relationship we wanted to have with our parents but didn’t. We can grieve for the job we really wanted but didn’t get. We can grieve the homeland we wanted to be born in, live in or visit, but didn’t.

I had been grieving a homeland I didn’t know for the past 21 years, but it’s only now that I have the vocabulary to describe what I felt after I saw Muhammad al-Durrah die, what I felt at the age of nine writing about exile and what I felt asking my dad questions to write this piece. 

I grieve knowing my grandpa’s house in Nablus is still standing and I might never know what it looks or smells like. I grieve knowing that my mother has cousins living just outside of Nablus who do not know what I look like, and I don’t know what they look like. I grieve knowing my grandfather had answers to my questions but only repeated the same story because it was funny and didn’t remind him of his exile. I grieve knowing the journey from my grandfather’s home in Jordan to the one he left in Nablus should take only a few hours, but in reality takes much longer. The drive to the border with Israel is short. Once there, however, Palestinians can be subjected to hours of interrogation and arbitrarily denied entry. 

The author’s paternal grandparents at their farm in Jordan. Courtesy of Haneen Al-Hassoun.

Now, as a Canadian citizen, I could book a flight to Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel and gateway to Palestine, but don’t. The possibility of a lengthy interrogation when I get there, and of being refused entry, keeps me and many others away. 

I grieve a lot. I long for a lot. I am nostalgic for a lot of things, even if I never experienced them. 

Sometimes I wish I had asked my grandfather more questions. I wish my maternal grandfather lived longer so I could have talked to him, too. I wish my grandfather built a farm in Jordan that was closer to the border so that I could sit on the stone wall a little longer without reality interrupting my imagining of Nablus. 

I can’t travel back in time. So, I will let my name, Haneen, be the feeling I sit with until one day I can stand on a busy street in Nablus, eat knafeh, a dessert that reminds my family of home,and live out the daydreams I had as a child sitting on the stone wall on my grandfather’s farm. 

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