As we continue to bear witness to the genocide of the people of Gaza and the increase in violence and land theft against Palestinians in the West Bank and other territories, we wanted to open our space to Palestinian writers because we recognize the need to amplify their stories from their voices. Today we are sharing an essay from Taymani Khalanj about her experiences growing up as a biracial Palestinian American and the complexities of owning an identity the outside world told her did not exist.
When we were children, we only knew ourselves to be Palestinian. When we were older, my mom said she didn’t want us to be confused about our identity at such a young age—that being Palestinian was difficult enough. Learning that she was white—that we were half-white—was something we would eventually be able to process with the wisdom of age. And we are Palestinian, ostracized from the world at birth.
We—my four siblings and I—understood what was happening as soon as we had conscious thoughts. My mother didn’t like TV; she said it would fry our brains, so we had no cable except for Al Jazeera. While my mom was cooking, while we were setting the table, while we were sitting on the couch as a family, there was only ever sad news—bad news: bombs dropping on our people, violence in the holy city, the storming of Al Quds during prayer, children arrested for throwing rocks, families watching their farms be burnt to ash. It showed us what we already knew, that the rest of the world had abandoned us.
When we were in our adolescence, my mom used to tell us, “The world is always going to be hard on you. It’s going to invalidate your existence, make you justify it, tell you that you can’t be from Palestine because there is no such thing.” She was right. We heard this all the time—at summer camp, at school, and on the news. Former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir’s most famous saying among Arabs is “There is no such thing as a distinct Palestinian people.”
How could she say that when my great-grandfather’s glass eye was proof that he had been violently forced out, when my family was still there in Gaza, when our history— when history said we had always been there. Civilization did not begin in 1948, the Nakba did.
My mother was proud and she wanted us to be proud, too. We are a people who have survived the impossible, who have been resisting for 80 years, who preserve in the harshest of circumstances, who never lose our humanity even while the world loses theirs. She never wanted us to hide from the world. My father was more cautious. He didn’t have distance from the Palestinian struggle. He grew up in it. It determined much of his life, the things he had access to, and the opportunities he was given.
I am proudly Palestinian, but when people ask me where I’m from, my mind quickly does a cost benefit analysis. Is this a person who seems like they are going to fight with me if I tell the truth and say Palestine? Is this a person I will have to deal with again? Is this a person I need to have this conversation with at some point? Occasionally, the person would surprise me. “From the river to the sea, I’m down with the liberation.” Many times, though, it would be some shit that once again reaffirmed the cruelty of the world and how we had been deemed less than human. It’s why my father would sometimes say, “Not everyone needs to know everything about you,” but everything only meant one thing. He wasn’t ashamed, but he had been burned, had lost things, and wanted to spare us the same fate.
My mom tried to prepare us for this existence. She told us, “You always have to be the most well-read person in the room because people are always going to fight and argue with you.” So we read. We read more than any of the kids that we knew and even most of the adults. We read both sides. We had to know what their arguments were. We had to have as much knowledge as them and then some. We needed to know the facts, the details, the data. A lot of it was horrible. We read Theodore Herzl’s works and the frequent mentions of “colonizing” Palestine. We read Alan Dershowitz and listened to Ariel Sharon’s speeches, all of it telling us there was no place for us in this world. There were also the agreements and documents that led to this chaos. We read the Balfour declaration and all of the UN resolutions that did nothing but acknowledge and tsk at the war crimes committed against us. We read Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, and Mahmoud Darwish. We read about the discrimination against Arab Jews within Israel, the sterilization of African Jews seeking refuge, the inhumane reasoning behind the West Bank Wall, the nonsensical math behind the rations let into Gaza, the settler violence, and how our resistance would always be branded as terrorism even though it was a fight for basic humanity.
It was tedious, cumbersome, and sometimes even boring when I was younger, but I am thankful for everything my mother made us learn. She would never know what it meant to be Palestinian, but she tried her hardest to understand every facet of the struggle. She cried to us, “I didn’t know that I was going to bring you into this hardship of basic existence before I had you. I couldn’t have imagined it.” She felt such guilt that our lives were going to be forever hard simply because we were born, but she was so unabashedly proud, too.
But now my mother is dead and I realize it doesn’t matter. I know that I know more than them, but it’s futile. The numbers mean nothing; the facts mean nothing; the violence, the prejudice, the ethnic cleansing, the genocide—it doesn’t mean anything to the world, and neither do we.
Taymani Khalanj is a Palestinian American writer living in exile.