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from the November 2006 issue

Is This Home?

In the days prior to my return I had decided to assume a cool demeanor and contemplate my country as a tourist might, and not as a rapturous and homesick returnee. I wanted to hold the moment in my hands, examine it, and write up the experience. And I wanted to minimize, to the extent possible, any emotional entanglement on my part, so that I could see things clearly. I've gotten tired of emotional entanglement . . . My entire life has been full of that. Now I am an old man who wants to see things with a neutral eye. Yes, I want to be as cold and dry as a stone, if I can. I had been afraid that I would fail in this, and end up-as always-emotionally entangled. So I tried to arm myself with anything that might shore up my resistance and help me to stand by my decision: I am a tourist, not a person returning home. I won't drop to my knees and kiss the ground, my eyes won't moisten with tears, my voice will not quiver. No, everything will be just the way I want it to be.

Then I got to the bridge that connects one bank of the river to the other. I arrived, and ended up on the other side. I came away from the bridge with my blood boiling. Five hours of interrogations and closed rooms with the Israeli secret police seemed to have injected poison into my veins, and obliterated all of the happy scenarios I had constructed for the moment of my return. For the Israelis, these hours were needed so that each and every returnee would understand the truth they wanted understood: you are coming to place yourself under our heel. This is the supreme truth, and everything else follows from it. The proofs of this truth were totally convincing and sufficient, as far as I was concerned. I had to swallow this bitter pill, in one fell swoop-not in small doses. And I gulped it down. I choose living under occupation over living in exile. I simply must believe that living under the boot of occupation is less demeaning than life in exile.

For despite my poisoned, boiling blood I had enough experience of exile to hold on to this belief.

So I had no need for the various scenarios I had created for my crossing over to the other bank. I emerged from the bridge choking with rage, affronted and humiliated. Entangled, in a totally different sense.

I was unable to behave like a tourist who sees things with an indifferent eye. I was unable to act like a returnee overcome with yearning and joy. I was unable to take in the views or see the scenery clearly. I had no ability to contemplate and enjoy, nor to observe or critique my feelings. It took me a few hours in Jericho before I could regain a bit of my composure.

Then we set off from Jericho. The palm trees on my right provided pleasing company. I found joy in them, until our guide informed us that the Israelis owned all of the palm groves. We walked on, our little flock shimmering ahead like a mirage, stopping only at the Israeli checkpoints.

Then, we turned onto the path to Wadi al-Badhaan. As we climbed, the valley seemed to sink down ahead, below us.

We climbed on together, a group of companions and escorts. The mountain blocked our path, diverting us toward Talouza. From my childhood I had heard tell of this village, but I had never before seen it. Talouza seemed to rise higher and higher as we approached. Even the umbrella pines and sticky brambles kept up with us as we climbed.

There was with us a man who had reached, or nearly reached, his old age. He was returning after forty years of absence. All he had left in the homeland was a married sister in Talouza. He was afraid that his sister might not recognize him, and not acknowledge that he was her brother. She might refuse to receive him.

His thinking was beyond me. How could a sister shut the door on her brother, whom she has not seen in decades? The thought seemed ludicrous to me, but the man was afraid it would happen. He wanted us to wait for him until he knew his sister's reaction, and that of her husband. We didn't have time to wait. Every one of us wanted to see his mother and family. So we went on our way. We left him knocking on his sister's door, hesitant and in trepidation.

Here I am, a whole year later, wondering if his sister opened the door and hugged him, or if she shut it in his face as she would upon an importunate beggar.

I arrived in my village at night. Night, time, and change had all hidden from me the road to my home. I couldn't find my way to the house until I asked someone. It was only when I saw the mosque that I could get my bearings and make my way to my parents' house. The family home consisted of two concrete rooms whose doors close only at bedtime. There, on my arrival, my sister cried, while my father seemed to be only semi-conscious, thinking of days long gone by, and of the death that hovers around him. As for my mother, she smiled. But her smile seemed to me to be carrying some illness-some effort to forget-that I could not yet understand.

The reunion was no bolt of lightning. I was weightless.

* * *

From the very first moment I had to go back to using my old name, the name I had tossed aside like a tattered shirt. Now it came back to cling to me and to my body, like a wild and sticky thorn. I'm now "Da'oud," and not "Zakariya." I have to resume my life with my former name, as if I had only been away for a week. "Zakariya," the name I carried for a quarter of a century, had to disappear. My mother, father, and all who came to greet me did not acknowledge the time I had passed in exile. This was clear from their eyes.

I'm now "Daoud," not "Zakariya," and the only thing that has changed is that my head has gone gray.

The problem was that I could not accept this so easily. I am Zakariya Muhammed. And this Zakariya is a quarter of a century in exile. In this quarter of a century, this person's life has taken shape . . . a name is not a tag that is stuck to your shoulder and ripped off in an instant. No, its paper will stick to you-so much that if you tear it away you take with it a piece of the flesh of your shoulder. To name is to distinguish and to create. My exile created me differently, and gave me a different name. I created a self in exile and I gave it a different name. The name was not beautiful at all. Perhaps it was cruder than the first, but I chose it, or it chose me. And I accepted it and it, me. Once, someone in exile, upon hearing that I had another name, said to me, "That's amazing! I would never have thought so. You cannot be anyone but Zakariya! You fit your name perfectly!"

I am Zakariya Muhammed, creature of exile and creation of my own hand, and I am Daoud Eid, creation of my father and mother, and of my village.

So there it is. I stepped into a masked ball a quarter of a century ago, and the ball came to and end-but the mask stayed on my face. I've been wearing it for a quarter of a century. I don't know myself without this mask. I am the mask. I cannot return to my old name, ever. . . .

And here I am wearing my old name, visiting my village every Thursday afternoon, and shedding it again when I leave on Friday evening. My name symbolizes my exile. I would like to reconcile my exile with my home. I want them both. I don't want to toss one of them away. I am not capable of doing that. I want to soar with two wings; my wing that sprouted in exile, and the other wing, the one that grew in the homeland but remained stunted from the moment I set forth in departure across the bridge, a quarter of a century ago. I want to exercise that wing and build up its strength, so it can take me soaring high above, it and my other wing.

* * *

The first days passed in a rush of greetings and hugs. But gradually the war between memory and reality broke out, in my mind.

In exile we lived in memory, and on it. Memory would devour us. It gave us vitality, and it adorned the goal, the purpose of our exile. It would grow and expand, merging with truth and delusion. It had its own routine. It would conjure up a scene from the past for me, whenever and however it wished. We would play together. Memory and I were twins. She was my kitten, and I was hers. Now here I've come back and her role is done with. She was no longer something essential to me. She had no further role to play. She was to hand over her trust, her charge, and take her leave. She had to eliminate herself now. I needed her in exile. But now, everything was at hand: my home, my mother, my father, the almond tree, the olive trees, the dust, the narrow streets-everything . . . everything.

But memory dug her heels in and refused to abolish herself. She refused; just as a guard might reject a charge or a task that failed to match specifications or instructions he had been given. For when the image fits the reality, memory will abolish itself. But this was precisely what was impossible. The image kept by memory was constructed of longing and delusion. These two would cut and paste, reduce and enlarge. Beyond that, a quarter of a century of occupation and change had shattered many of the similarities in the separate outlines of memory and of reality. The two images were no longer like the similar pictures you see in the entertainment sections of newspapers, between which you are to locate the most minute differences. It's not like that. These are two different pictures, and you have to search with a fine toothcomb to spot the points of similarity. Although memory is not going to play that game: this is not her home.

So here's my memory going round and round, like an ant that can't find its hole after some miscreant hand had messed up the path, the sand, and the scent. This is my memory: a lost ant in churned-up sand. Since she can't stay in this condition-running around in circles-forever, she began on her own to dig a new hole in the ground. And the new hole in the ground? It was my exile. She is working with everything she has to construct an ant hill to replace the one that was smashed. She finds her subject, and her self, in exile. Is this home then? Is it "home," for memory to be forced to transform exile into being her "thing," instead of home?

* * *

One week later I climbed up the hills west of the village. There I saw with my own eyes the sea of Jaffa glistening in front of me. The destruction there was terrifying. The wide-open stretch of space of my childhood, a space of wandering and seclusion, had been obliterated. A settlement had been planted on top of each and every hill to kill off the emptiness-the space that had been created for contemplation and prophecy, so that each human being could stumble upon a god. There was no space here-not for human beings, not for animals. The earth God created for his creatures was being roamed by creatures of iron and steel, ripping open the flesh of the land with their claws: the bulldozer, the drilling rig, the flatbed truck. How can this land sprout new prophets, after this? There is no place for them to seclude themselves and contemplate. You see, the land here, our land, is being prepared for the sake of the generals and their plans. Not for the sake of inspiration and prophets. Inspiration has been trampled, and all traces of it have been crushed under the treads of the bulldozers.

No open spaces. The land is full of the squalid litter of the settlers. The chassis of their old cars, covered in rust, tumble down the slopes of the hills. The stinking water of their sewers gushes in every valley. Wild packs of dogs roam the garbage dumps they established by our villages.

I looked around: there was a settlement for every village, to squeeze out the air we breathe and to keep us besieged. Between each village and its settlement nearby there is a design war. The village homes rise quietly from the foothills to the peaks, in harmony with nature, with wild plants growing unmolested in the walls of the houses and on their rooftops. Whereas the homes of the settlers perch, right there at the summit, as though dropped by parachute. They isolate themselves and dominate the scene. As if it were all a huge game of LEGO, liable to be disassembled, crated off in trucks, and returned to their origin.

* * *

You will never know what exile has done to you until you return to the homeland. It is there that you will feel the devastation that has befallen you, and know the full extent of the loss you have incurred.

People greeted me. The people of my village, my relatives, friends-all came and greeted me. I knew the ones who were over forty, those who were my age or older. I sat with them to bring back the memories, to tie together once again the bonds that had been severed a quarter of a century ago. That was wonderful. But after some hours it appeared to me that reconnecting the cord was very difficult. For my friends were not actually still my friends. And I was no longer their friend. There was nothing left for us to talk about, once we finished speaking of childhood. Everything that bound us together was in the past. As for the present, we had no stake in it.

After two weeks not one of them was still coming around to visit me. There was nothing between us to discuss. We had discovered that the bond that has been severed cannot be joined together again-or that to do so would take years. I had lost the friends of childhood in one instant, and quite likely, forever. I met them only to lose them. That is what a quarter of a century in exile does. I wished, somehow, that I hadn't seen them. Then they would have remained in my memory as children-impish, exuberant, and lovable.

From "Is This Home?" in The Korean Monk: Travel and More, The Palestinian Citizen's Institute for Democracy Study, Ramallah, 2005. Copyright © 2005 by Zakaria Mohammad. Translation copyright © 2005 by Michael K. Scott. All rights reserved.

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