Issue No.
175, November 2012 Latest update 31 2014f May 2014, at 6.56 am
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   Wed. July 30,2014

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo by Firas Mukarker.

I Am Not the Local, You’re the Foreigner An Open Letter to Foreigners in Palestine
By Tala Abu Rahmeh
Dear Foreigners,
Annoyed much by the introduction? Now you know how I feel every time I receive an e-mail, hear a conversation, or read an article about being a local.

Before I begin, I have to say that coming here, in and of itself, is an act of bravery. When any of us strap on our boots and march into unknown territory, we are taking a risk - first and foremost, for ourselves. Coming to war-torn areas gives us a chance to cultivate humility and compassion, and get a little closer to figuring out our contribution to the world. I remember the first time I stepped into a ghetto and how the poverty in the capital of the United States shook me to the core, and made me feel so small.

Speaking of humility, it seems to be severely lacking in the world of international NGOs and endless foreign funding. To be frank, to this day, no one has been saved. Palestine is still occupied, and poverty has reached a whole new level. There is no peace, just fake suit meetings that result in long agreements that are better off in a shredder, so forgive me if I sound too harsh, but where do you get off?

In a brilliant article by Uzodinma Iweala, titled “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa,” Iweala touches on a very similar sentiment. He says, “There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority.” And that is exactly where I get stuck. After all, it’s safe to say that being an officer/director/head of some division that funds painting classes for “local” kids in Al-Amaari Refugee Camp looks very attractive on a resume.

The shocking part comes even later, when many of you meet in nice coffee shops in Ramallah and talk about how corrupt the Palestinian institutions are, how Palestinians are loud and they hit on you because you’re blonde/tall/white, and how you don’t feel safe. Then you pack your overnight bag and have a relaxing day on the beach in Tel Aviv. Well, guess what? I get hit on (surprisingly, even though I’m brown and have curly hair), but I don’t get to recover from it because I can’t go past Qalandia.

You know, a few weeks ago I was in Yaffa, where I’m originally from (after miraculously finding a way in), and I met an 84-year-old man who knew my family. My family lives all over the world because they were forced out in 1948 and have never found a way back. Other than my father, I had never heard a person even recognise my family name, and here I was, sitting in an old neighbourhood in Yaffa, crying while an old man told me that my family was generous and educated, and owned orange orchards that stretched for miles. I cried all the way back.

Stories like this offer tiny insights into the depth of our wound. No matter what your organisations allow you to call my country (West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories, OPT), or what kinds of travel advisories it sends you on idle days when I’m stuck in traffic on a bus, or the horrors you witnessed when you covered a killing in Jenin, you will never understand what it means to grow up knowing that every trace of you was raised in Yaffa and your city doesn’t even recognise you, and that your father might die without ever coming back, and that your mother was buried so far from where her heart was, and that you knew at age six what a martyr was.

You will never know how 18-year-old Israeli soldiers look at us, or what it feels like to drag your mother across a checkpoint to receive her dose of chemotherapy, or how you crossed Allenby Bridge when you were 10 years old and saw a man your grandfather’s age being dragged to a strip-search room.

So next time you sit to talk about the locals, remember this: being a saviour will not set you free. We are not darker smiling victims for you to take a Facebook photo with, your dance/art/photography/communication workshops will not give me Yaffa back (nor will it ever make me forget), and no matter what Ivy League school you went to, if you fail to talk to me in my own language, and with respect, I will not take you seriously.

And finally, we throw big lunches for you not because you’re foreign, but because we are generous, and we make amazing food.
Yours truly,
Tala

Disclaimer: There are a number of internationals doing great work with their Palestinian counterparts all over the country. You know who you are.

Tala Abu Rahmeh is a young writer and professor of Arabic literature and creative writing, based in Ramallah. She holds an MFA in poetry from American University in Washington, DC. She is a regular contributor to Mashallah News Magazine, and her poems have been published in a number of magazines and books. She is also the cofounder of a blog: The Big Olive: the Tales of Two Professors in Palestine (
http://thebigolive.tumblr.com/). She is a lover of awful reality TV, old pictures, Jazz music, and books where the awesome magical heroine wins at the end. She is currently working on a memoir.

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