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Self Portrait (2007)

Photo 1


I have learnt a lot about myself in trying to write this self-portrait. I say in trying because it is the attempt to capture who I am in the most characteristic manner possible that taught me things I wasn't quite aware of in myself. I had first intended to write snippets of my life that are most memorable to me. These snippets were supposed to illustrate a sense of intense fragmentation that I believe I suffer from. But there was always something missing every time I went over what I wrote - something I couldn't put my finger on. Still, I continued to write; there was an odd sense of freedom in this state of incoherence. Let me explain.


When I think of this feeling of fragmentation, I imagine a blackness that is speckled with thousands of jagged pieces revolving around its center- somewhat like a galaxy. The key here is the center. Writing this portrait in snippets was like wandering between those jagged pieces, mulling over each one a bit before moving on to the next. This is when I had an odd sense of freedom- odd because it was a directed freedom. In a way, I intended a scattered narrative that represented my state of mind, and used this state as an excuse to discard any form or limitation to my writing. But what I later discovered is that this very aimlessness was really unknowingly taking me somewhere specific - the center, my center. This self-portrait had me uncover feelings for matters that I usually go through great lengths to avoid talking about, turning them into a negative space that I merely circle around without really getting into- hence, the fragmentation.


The snippets, however, remain important. Here are some odds and ends about me before I get into the heart of this self-portrait.


In May 1983, I was born in Dubai to Palestinian parents who settled in the UAE for a stable life. I have lived here ever since and have come to love this place like home. Lately though, I have been feeling a persistent urge to move away. Something tells me that my time here is up. This place, I think, curbs spontaneity. There's really no joy in spending hours on the road for a ride that would normally take minutes. I want to live somewhere I can walk to the bookstore or to the bakery. I love to walk. Anywhere that allows me that is bliss. It doesn't have to be fancy or anything- just friendly.


Photo 2


Studying architecture with a hint of philosophy has changed my view of the world in many ways. I have become acutely aware of my surroundings. Two things come to mind when I think of what I most react to in a space: its natural light and feeling. The image of abundant light drifting generously into a room, casting with it shadows of the windowpane on the wall makes something in me unfold. There's a feeling of serenity that seems to emanate from the light and across the room, and I can physically feel it. That's the other thing. I am amazed at how houses and buildings - but houses more because they are more intimate - have feelings. How sometimes I enter an unfamiliar house and instantly feel the walls closing in on me, as if they're thirsty for an intrusion on their misery. I believe that walls absorb all that goes on within them, so much that they seem to throb with the secrets they've witnessed. I remember an old friend's house distinctly- it gave me the creeps. There was something very Agatha Christie-like about it. I could tell there was a lot going on in there. There were too many paintings on the wall. Almost as if they were meant to silence it. I'm weird in observations like that.


I imagine days as vertical rectangles and the feeling of excitement as a colourful force that moves like it's on a rollercoaster ride. When I listen to Bach, I imagine Tom chasing Jerry. The smell of car-engine smoke reminds me of the old souq in downtown Amman. Big couches make me want to read a book, drink tea and wear socks. I absolutely love the image of sunrays filtering through a late afternoon chat.


My name is special to me because of what it represents in relation to my mother. She named me after a song by Fairuz that she danced to with my father on their wedding night. Ever since I can remember, my mom has had a habit of calling me every time the song came on the radio. She would crank up the volume and without a word, place the phone on the speaker for me to hear. No matter how many times she did this, it never failed to make me laugh. My mom is sweet like that.


This gesture became more meaningful after I became mature enough to start reflecting on things. You see, this song has a lot more meaning to it than my mom would let on. It started out as a standing memory of her wedding day; a day that she wanted to commemorate by naming me - her first child- after the very song that symbolized her wedding. As things would have it though, my parents' marriage didn't work out. They got divorced 10 years later.


To me, it means the world that my mom would still find joy in that song simply because it has my name. How she could find it in her to cheerfully boost me up with the very song that holds so much poignancy is something that amazes me. I began to see how much spirit my mom has and how much love for life. To her, that song is beautiful not because of what it used to mean, but because of what it means. I wish I were more like my mom- simple and sunny.


I remember when I was about seven, I developed a passion for reading and writing that was also enhanced by the fact that my dad was a journalist and a writer at the time. I still keep poems I had written, some to him. These poems evoke bitter-sweet feelings because they conjure such a sharp contrast between the way things were and are today. I don't write poetry anymore.


This is really difficult. I try to psychoanalyze him; try to rationalize his words, actions, and thoughts. All I can come up with is most probably a fabrication of my own mind that is most likely true because in the end, I think we're more alike than we both know. You see, my father is a very intense man. By 'intense' I mean he is passionate, hot-blooded, and brilliant. His intensity is double-edged; it could prove self-destructive or radiant like a star. I think I know exactly what happened to my dad because I constantly see in my life manifestations of his. Because when I try to imagine myself in his shoes at a time I suspect affected him so much, I feel anguish. Because it can't be easy facing an identity crisis after it has almost completely formalized. This is all mere speculation but I'm almost sure this is what happened.


My dad was born in his hometown, Qalqilya, in Palestine in the year 1950- two years after the Israeli invasion. Qalqilya was one of the towns that showed resistance to the invasion in 1948 and then later became part of what is called the West Bank. My dad lived all his teenage life in Qalqilya until he left to Baghdad for university where he studied journalism. He began to travel back and forth to Palestine to visit his family until one time, because of circumstances that kept him away for more than three years, he lost his right to enter Palestine .


I honestly can't begin to imagine the impact this has had on my father, but you imagine this: someone tells you that you will never be able to go back to your hometown or your country. Never. Please take a moment to think about this; it is the reality of so many people living in the world today. Yet even though it is the reality of so many, including my own father, I find myself unable to describe what it means to be in exile in a way that is truly fitting. I have tried posing different scenarios through which one could really imagine what it might feel like to be castrated from everything one knows. But every time I tried doing that, it felt unreal. Something felt completely off. I guess exile is one of those things that you just cannot describe or imagine.


And so when I think of how my dad suddenly found himself physically cut off from the very place that housed his past, it makes me wonder at how that must have radically changed who he was as a person. Overnight, my dad became an exile. What an ugly term - exile; like a convict for a crime or a beast or a monster. It must have been a gut-wrenching experience - to be banished into the wide world of everywhere but home. It must have stabbed at his heart time and time again, again and again and again because he probably realized deep down, that there will be no return for him - ever. I have no words for this.


My dad then came to the UAE to work; that's when he married my mother (they had met in Baghdad) and they both settled here for a life. He worked in one of the local newspapers as a columnist, writing lengthy articles on the politics that were taking place at the time. I believe my dad was an idealist who had so much hope for his cause, who actually believed that things would change in his lifetime, anytime soon now. It will change, he told himself. I will fight for it all I can; I will write, I will speak, I will call on everyone willing to listen because I believe. I have faith in justice and in life, in hope and in tomorrow. My dad lived off the fire of his cause. I can see him in the eye of my mind, with his classic pose- smoking over Turkish coffee, blowing the fumes from his cigarette into a haze of long lost memories and an irretrievable past. The look in his eyes; how can I begin to describe it? It's a soulful look that speaks of a loss so deep, of a pain so strong, of a struggle so sorely inevitable. I think my dad was losing faith. The same faith that sustained his fight, that fed his resistance to giving up, the faith that whispered every morning in his ear that today, today things will change. Yes, that faith was dying. As he slowly but surely felt his dreams slip through the fingers that held his cigarette, my dad became hard with cynicism. It's strange how hope softens our skin, how it shines through our eyes; a reflection of light, no matter how tiny and how far.


Dawn in Sharjah, 2007


Photo 3


I don't know precisely when it was that my dad reached a complete halt. I don't recall when exactly it dawned on him that the place he called home will remain a slave to his imagination, or that his mother who gave birth to him, flesh and blood, will transform from a physical body into a wistful voice on the distance line. My grandmother died in my father's imagination; she died in the homeland that became bound to his imagination. Like a mirage testing his sanity, my father's life became a hazy mix of the real and the unreal. All of this lay heavy on his shoulders and the man that once felt he could conquer the world with his words suddenly had no more to say. My dad quit journalism and immersed himself in the commercial sector where he taught himself the techniques of trade. My dad the journalist became a businessman. In a way, I think, he wanted to materialize his existence because he felt like he was holding onto thin air.


I am sad for my father. I feel like he sold out on his cause and that he aches over it whenever he gives himself the luxury of reminiscence. The only thing that remains from that time when he had so much vigour is that look in his eyes- that soulful look that has become eternally linked with my image of dad. What makes this look so distinct in my mind is that it is this look that often made my dad seem distant to me. Dad would not let anyone intrude on what went on behind that look. That he still has the same look today only makes me believe that my father was a changed man forever. The person he was some 25 years ago only exists in his mind as a memory not as a self; a memory that resurfaces only when he has that look. And I know-I also feel- that in him there is so much regret. If you've ever felt regret you'll understand that a lifetime filled with it is suicidal to one's soul. I can almost taste the bitterness of my dad's thoughts, as bitter as the Turkish coffee he sips. How can one go about forgiving himself for betraying what he stood for? Back then, my dad had absolutely nothing, yet he had so much. You can sense it in the way he moved, the intensity that illuminated his words, making way for more greatness to come. Yet he turned his back on his passion. Or did he turn his back on it after it seized being a passion? Still, I wonder how my dad decided to put down his pen once and for all. I wonder how much it hurt.


Why am I so hung up on his troubled mind, making it mine? What started as a self-portrait of me became a lengthy insight on what my dad may have gone through. Why? I somehow feel that this is important for me to move on. It's not like I am constantly preoccupied with the quest to understand my father. I am not. But there is a need in me to talk about this no matter how much I hate to do so. I would like to think of it as part of a healing process because I am deeply affected by my relationship with dad.


For a while, I blamed my father for the way things were between us. When I was too young to comprehend the situation, I felt that it was his duty to do the caring. I hate talking about my dad like this because I do love him, but at a time when I was most vulnerable as a child, I couldn't help but feel let down. But now that I have tried to imagine what he must have gone through in those years of physical and mental displacement, I feel like I understand my father. I understand him as a human would another, not as a daughter her father. My dad could not have been the superhero that I, as a child, expected him to be. How could he when he was going through the epic struggle of his life? And I forgive him. I forgive him for everything that has happened in the past, for all the things that are too painful to mention here. I haven't told him this yet. It feels like the most difficult thing to do. I guess I fear his reaction. What if he fails to see my pain?


To such a question, I would normally be tempted to say that I don't care. That is how I've become today: quick to profess indifference, nonchalant, and distant. I've discovered that it is less painful to be detached. But this whole time I've been working so hard to pretend like I'm unperturbed, I was lying to myself. I do care. I give a damn. Why? - Because life is nothing if not an experience of meaning. The moment I give into apathy, I will have given up on meaning. And if there is one thing I learned from my father, it is to never give up on meaning.


I remember Viktor Navorski (played by Tom Hanks) in The Terminal (2004); a man who is stranded in the JFK International Airport because his country's government was overthrown by rebels, therefore invalidating his passport. In one part of the movie, the Immigration officer, in an attempt to offer Viktor asylum, asks whether he is afraid of his country because of the violent revolution. Viktor, incredulous, says 'It is home. I no afraid of home'.


(What is home?)


'Home' is a concept that has been burned in my conscious time and time again and on so many levels, tangible and otherwise. Growing up as a Palestinian in the exile, the word 'home' became linked with endless nostalgia. My elders have images of it in their minds; images they have weaved together creating a loyal documentary of the homeland that is beautiful and that is bountiful. For the longest time while growing up, I equated the homeland to heaven. But now I know better. I have been there; I have seen poverty, corruption, desperation. The image of heaven fell apart.


Going home became a psychological and an emotional ordeal. I became increasingly aware of what it means to be Palestinian - checkpoints and strip searches made sure I do. And humiliation. If I were to describe my sense of being in Palestine with one word, that word would be humiliation - the deep sort, the type that really marks you. Yet while that created a lot of bitterness that I struggled to resolve, it also awakened something in me. I guess it made me more alive in a sense. It made me more adamant on breaking that which breaks me. I think resistance is the word. There is something very enriching about an act of resistance - even if it is only mental. In a way, it brings out a person's true mettle and I would sense mine emerging every time I went home.


That is why I related to Viktor in that specific scene. What he was essentially saying is that home may not be perfect. It may even be a risk to your life, but it will always be home. Because home is a place that houses you. But it doesn't just house you, it embraces you. It gives rise to you as you. At home, you can be anyone or anything you want. A home can be modest, even poor. It can be made out of rudimentary material - of straw or mud. But it will always be sufficient for those who live in it. And it will always be beautiful. A home can take any form or shape. It has no specific scale. A home can be a whole country or a tiny hut because a home is not a structure - it's a feeling, a sensation that you get in a place that allows you to come forth.




This summer, I had a beautiful experience. To feel so in tune with what you're thinking - so much that everything around you seems to be a vivid manifestation of what your mind's thoughts looks like - that's what a perfectly beautiful experience feels like.


This summer I stood in a refuge camp and saw the meaning of home emblazoned on an old woman's brown forehead .


Hajje Fatima was shy at the beginning. I noticed because she stood awkwardly in her tiny living room/bedroom, embarrassed because she couldn't invite us to sit - she had only bed sheets spread on the floor. I felt embarrassed because here I was, a girl old enough to be her granddaughter, and I was causing her discomfort. But as I began engaging her in a conversation about how her house can be renovated, she warmed up and her eyes looked twenty years younger as they sparkled with excitement. She spoke of how she wanted just enough space for her granddaughter to play and a well-lit kitchen that wasn't too stuffy for when she cooked meals for her tiny family. Her hopeful tone didn't go unnoticed but what got to me, really, was how her eyes turned into star-filled skies, soft and hypnotizing. In her eyes, I saw how she imagined herself standing in her sunny kitchen; whipping up a meal from the available ingredients and love while her granddaughter babbled away her six-month-old vocabulary in the tiny living room.


Something else struck me in her eyes - dependency. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean the overbearing type of dependency in which one becomes a burden on someone else. This was more a...delicate dependency. Something in her eyes clung to me, seeking healthy compassion - humanity, not to be mistaken with pity. I guess that encounter was enough to hook me. That old woman was a breath of fresh air to me. In her face, I saw raw emotions that I've never seen or have seen occasionally and missed. Beautifully unrefined, that's how I would describe her. I felt fervour. I felt a need to act unlike anything I've ever known. I felt my dad's previous zeal now running through my blood. It was my priceless inheritance. I saw my dad's words becoming my actions. It occurred to me, my dad has been indirectly raising me to become his translator, his mediator. Things fell into place in my mind so beautifully. I was unknowingly paying tribute to my father in that old woman's house, because she represented my father, my relationship to him, and his relationship to home, his cause, and its effects. Everything made sense all of a sudden, even my infatuation with the image of abundant light drifting into a room because that was how I felt standing there and then - warmed by the rays of light seeping through, vision all clear.


I felt that I have finally come home.


Photo: 'My cousin and I (left) in the garden of my dad's childhood home in Qalqilya, Palestine (1984)'


My cousin and I (left) in the garden of my dad's childhood home in Qalqilya, Palestine (1984)


- Al. (October 20,2007)