A Palestinian-American Comes Home to Texas
Muna Hamzeh, USA (Palestine)
October 19, 2001
It was the open space in Austin that initially overwhelmed me. I couldn't
adjust to it. The ease with which I could get in a car and drive from my
new South Austin home to Little City Cafe on Congress Avenue left me
bewildered and confused. Where were the military checkpoints? Where were
the armed soldiers asking for my identification papers? Where were the
barricades that would force me to turn back?
The month was December 2000. I had just returned to the United States,
after an absence of 11 years during which I lived in a refugee camp in
Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born. I was not accustomed to freedom
of movement, nor to going more than a few miles without encountering
military checkpoints. From 1995 to 2000, I was confined to the tiny,
49-square-mile area of Bethlehem under Palestinian control, because the
Israeli military authorities would not grant me any type of legal
residency status--in the country where I was born—that would enable
me to travel distances as short as the distance between South Austin and
downtown. Being an American citizen made no difference. I still lacked the
proper documents that would enable me to leave Bethlehem.
Getting comfortable with my sudden freedom in Austin was going to take
time. I had to adjust to no longer feeling like an animal inside a cage.
Most days, I felt utterly dazed. I would spend hours sitting on a stone
bench at UT [University of Texas], staring at the squirrels and the birds as they hunted morsels of food. The lushness of the bushes and the trees left me intoxicated. The expansive green lawns brought tears to my eyes.
My mind would drift to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, and to
3-year-old Marianna, my delightful ex-neighbor. Marianna has never seen a
green patch of grass in her life and has never seen a squirrel. She lives
confined to Bethlehem, condemned to remain a prisoner behind the
checkpoints and the military barricades. The distance between Marianna's
house and Jerusalem is no further than the distance from my South Austin
home and downtown. Yet Marianna has never been to Jerusalem and is
unlikely to go there anytime in the near future, because no Palestinian
can venture into the Holy City without a special Israeli-issued permit,
and those permits are almost impossible to come by.
Imagine needing a military permit to drink coffee at Little City. Or
another permit to reach your office downtown. Or another permit to visit
your doctor in North Austin. This is precisely how ordinary Palestinian
children and their parents live in the Palestinian Territories. And until
I left, this is how I lived too. A human being, caged like an animal in a
Visions and Nightmares
But adjusting to my sudden freedom paled in comparison to overcoming my
fears and my nightmares. When I left Bethlehem, the second Palestinian
uprising against Israel's military occupation was already two months under
way. The sound of bomb explosions, gunfire and Apache helicopters overhead
lingered in my mind. Hard as I tried, I couldn't shake the sounds away.
They were always there, ringing inside my head.
Now, in Austin, there were nightmares. I would dream either of friends
being shot dead, or see pools of blood spilling from bullet-riddled
bodies, or that I myself was the target of gunfire. I would wake up in a
sweat, terrified of going back to sleep. During the day, the sound of
police or ambulance sirens made me jumpy. Helicopters flying overhead made
me uneasy. I had to constantly remind myself that these were most often
civilian and not military helicopters. I had to remind myself that the
ambulances were not rushing to evacuate wounded demonstrators.
In retrospect, it seems that I spent the entire month of December in a
comatose state. Coffee and cigarettes were my constant companions, and I
had little interest in doing anything but staring blankly into open space.
I didn't realize that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. A
warlike situation takes its toll. By the time I left the Palestinian
Territories, I had visited too many gutted houses, and been to too many
funerals of ordinary adults and teenage children whose lives were brought
to an abrupt end by gunfire. The pain you feel when you see so much human
life wasted is immense, particularly when you realize that you are
impotent—because you can't make it stop.
As the months rolled by, my nightmares began to subside and I began
enjoying being a free American again. Instead of being afraid of armed
soldiers who might shoot me, I was in a place where there was law and
order, and a 911 police number that I could call if I were in danger. But
I remained sad and depressed. Surfing the Internet for news from the
Palestinian Territories brought daily updates of more death and
destruction. Yet when broadcast on American television, this reality was
somehow transformed—the Palestinians were always portrayed in negative
terms, as the aggressors or worse: as "terrorists."
The Mall of America
Thinking a shopping spree would lift my spirits, a friend took me to
Barton Creek Mall one afternoon. The place was packed with shoppers and
the playful shrieks of children filled the air. Mothers pushed strollers
and grandparents sat on benches, catching their breath. I thought of
little Marianna again, and wondered what she would do if she were ever to
set foot in a mall. I imagined her racing around, having the time of her
I looked around me, and I wondered if anyone at the mall realized, or even
knew, that the Apache helicopters being used by the Israeli military to
shell innocent Palestinian civilians are actually made in this country! As
a writer in Palestine, I had regularly visited bombed-out houses in search
of stories. The home of a young nurse sticks out in my mind. Situated only
a few miles away from the manger in Bethlehem where Christ is said to have
been born, her house came under attack by Israeli tanks and was completely
burned. I held the remains of some of the tank shells in my two bare hands
and read the inscription: "Made in Mesa, Arizona."
I wanted to stand on a railing and scream this information to everyone
walking through the mall. The tear gas civilians inhale in the Palestinian
Territories is made in Pennsylvania, and the helicopters and the F-16
fighter planes are also made in the USA. Yet here in this consumer
society, no one appears to care that their tax money funds armies that
bring death and destruction to civilians, civilians who are no different
from civilians in this country.
And I worry about the indifference in this country. I worry because
someday, young American men will find themselves fighting another Vietnam
war—his time possibly in the Middle East—without a notion of what
it is they are doing there. And we will have a repetition of history:
Mothers will lose sons and wives will lose husbands in an unnecessary war.
I have been repeating this foreboding in all the talks I have been giving
in the past nine months, and reiterated it in a late-April public-radio
interview. No one took me seriously. And the public's indifference toward
U.S. foreign policy frightened me. I couldn't understand why young
Americans, with their whole futures ahead of them, should go to die in a
war they will not understand.
All Changed, Changed Utterly
Then came the latest Black September: September 11, 2001 is etched forever in our minds. For a group of people to plan such a calculated,
cold-blooded attack on innocent air travelers and office workers is beyond
conception. The immense loss of life and human suffering will haunt us for
many years. The scenes of wives and sisters and fathers and husbands
looking for missing loved ones has left a lasting mark on each and every
one of us. How could anyone be so brutal and so inhuman as to target so
many innocent people in one day? I don't think any of us in this country
will ever be the same again. Ever.
Today, a few weeks after the gruesome attack on New York and Washington, the open space in Austin frightens me. Suddenly I feel defensive about being an Arab American. Yet I don't understand why I ought to be
defensive. Suddenly we are transformed from ordinary law-abiding citizens
who pay taxes and spend our hard-earned money as consumers, to a marked
people who fear reprisal, racial profiling, hate crimes. The possibility
that our civil liberties can be jeopardized because of our religious
beliefs or ethnic background is so distressing.
For days now, I have been feeling as if I were back in the Palestinian
Territories—unsafe. And each day, I have to remind myself that I am an
American, that I have a right to be here, that I have done nothing wrong
and have no cause to hide my ethnic identity, my home country. Yet now I
jump when I hear a car pull up in my street. I avoid speaking to friends
in Arabic in public places. I search the eyes of customers at the store to
see if they recognize that I am Arab.
I find it hard to believe that I am feeling these things here, in the
United States of America! And I resent having to feel defensive, when I
have nothing to be defensive about.
I tell myself this is not the Palestinian Territories. I am not under
occupation, and this is the safest country where I can live. Yet the other
night I was afraid to stop at a convenience store in Pflugerville for
cigarettes. I am no longer comfortable riding a bus alone or being in a
public place alone. My friends tell me I am paranoid. But the press
reports attacks against Muslims and Arab Americans throughout the country,
and I know that my paranoia is not completely unjustified. Every Arab
American I talk to in Austin is experiencing the same sense of uneasiness
and discomfort. Yet most of us are citizens of this country.
The phone rings day and night. American friends call to say they are
worried for us. They want us to be careful. They offer us their homes as
refuge should anything go wrong. Their calls soothe me and make me realize
I am not alone, and that there are so many people here who don't hold Arab
Americans responsible for what we did not do.
War and Rumors of War
I search the faces of college students who may someday soon be called to
war. I wish we could rewind time; I dwell on the thought. It is September
11, 2001, and it is another day as usual in New York and Washington. The
day ends and there is no attack. We are not going to war. But I start to
cry, and I know that Black September did happen. The little girl living
inside me wants to believe in Santa Claus and in goodness and love, peace
and harmony. I imagine all world leaders, of all nations of the world,
coming together and deciding to destroy all weapons of mass destruction,
all the guns and the bombs and the bullets that exist in this world, and
to bring to an end all regional conflicts and military actions and
I tell myself that this planet is big enough for all of us. Yet I know
this is a make-believe world. What lies ahead is terribly frightening.
While those who planned this atrocious and cold-blooded attack must be
brought to justice, I worry about the additional loss of innocent human
life. I worry that any retaliation could escalate and lead to World War
III. We live in an age of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons:
"weapons of mass destruction." Should such a war begin, I believe none of
us will survive.
During each decade of my life, I have lived through a war. I was 8 years
old during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; 11 in 1970, during the Civil War in
Jordan; 30 in 1989, when I moved to the Palestinian Territories during the
first Palestinian uprising; and 40 last fall, the beginning of the second
Palestinian uprising. I don't believe anyone ever escapes victorious from
war. War is defeat and devastation: It forces ordinary people to lose
their loved ones, their property, and their jobs, and to become refugees.
It never makes this world a better place.
Muna Hamzeh is a Palestinian-American journalist who has reported on
Palestinian affairs for numerous publications since 1985. She recently
moved to Austin from Dheisheh, Bethlehem.
From The Austin Chronicle, October 19, 2001.