This is a blog dedicated to a personal interpretation of political news of the day. I attempt to be as knowledgeable as possible before commenting and committing my thoughts to a day's communication.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


People rationalize, forgiving themselves for making choices that alter their lives and the lives of their children in dreadful ways.  How sensible does it seem for a young family to make the wrenching decision to uproot themselves from their status as landed immigrants in a wealthy country where they are able to live a comfortable, middle-class life in a major city, to opt to return to the country of birth, as refugees, living a life of primitive hardship?

Yet, this is exactly what the family of Nahlah Ayed did, as she relates in her recently-released memoir: A Thousand Farewells: A reporter's Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring.  Ms. Ayed relates the story of her parents deciding to uproot their family from their life in Winnipeg, to a refugee slum in Jordan.  Because, as she surmises, they, like many others in their position, felt assailed by guilt that they had forsaken their heritage.

They sold everything they owned in Canada but for clothing and a few of the children's favourite toys.  There was Nahlah, at nine years of age, and her younger brother, being carried in their parents' arms, exhausted from their trip, arriving at the refugee camp, at the home of an uncle where Uncle Hussein "was firmly in charge and determined the affairs of everyone within it."

Within the rambling shambles of a dwelling within a courtyard were her grandparents, her uncle's family, her aunt, and themselves.  "We were offered a small room off the main hoshe, or courtyard, where we staked out a corner for ourselves among the bags of rice, dried lentils and beans that my uncle sold in the market.  The camp was officially known as Amman New Camp", or Al-Wihdat.

It was administered by UNRWA, built in 1955 in southeast Amman for five thousand Palestinian refugees.  By the time Nahlah and her family arrived the population had swelled considerably, with added makeshift homes as new generations came into being. 
"The unpaved alleys were simply seas of wahl, with suction so strong it was easy to lose a shoe.  Garbage was everywhere: paper and plastic bags, wrappers of all kinds, discarded clothing, tattered notebooks, a lone shoe.  The edge of the camp opened onto a small field where residents who had them took their goats and cattle to feed."
"Dad repeatedly pointed out that this "repatriation" was for our sake, but even as a child I found that assertion illogical.  I could vaguely understand that it was for my own good when my mother forced a spoonful of cough medicine into my mouth.  But no matter which way I turned it in my head, I could not fathom how bringing us to a rate-infested refugee camp was for our own good.  I concluded within days of our arrival that we kids must have done something so terribly wrong that Al-Wihdat was the only suitable punishment.

"Other Arabs - and certainly other refugees would have given anything to have the safe and secure home we had in Canada.  Yet Mom and Dad were giving it all up for the sake of a history lesson.  One relative was brave enough to point out how far we'd fallen - but there were nods of approval from most of the others, who believed my parents had done "the right thing" for their children.

"By returning to Jordan, we could appreciate our culture, meet our relatives, and learn our native language.  Most important, we could learn about our roots.

"Recent immigrants to North America - among the many Arabs and Muslims - are often driven to reclaim their heritage in just the same way.  Parents worry that by raising children in an adopted country they may have single-handedly undone generations of tradition, religion, and family history.  No immigrant, no matter how open-minded wants to be that person."
 She writes of those who opt to remain abroad, yet are fixated in attempting to control "damage".  As soon as their children spent time with other people's children, coming under the influence of "foreign" teachers, coaches, music instructors and mentors, they would pull back.  This is where the strict orders to children to remain separate and apart comes in.  To wear headscarves that identifies young girls as Muslims.  To restrain children from visiting the homes of non-Muslims.  To impose values and instructions averse to the prevailing North American values.  To, in many instances, alienate children born in Canada, from their other Canadian peers.  Confusing some, angering them to the point where they feel vulnerable and detached from mainstream society.  And prepared, in some instances, to undertake activities inimical to Canadian values and society.

She writes of her father, "who immigrated to Germany long before his family was forced to leave Nueimah during the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours..."  And this is where her familial/tribal/religious/heritage bias creeps inevitably into the narrative.  No hint that Israel was defending itself from its Arab neighbours who had decided to mount yet another combined military attempt to dislodge the Jewish State from the geography.

The reader is left with the indelible, deliberate impression that Israel was the aggressor and the Arabs were 'neighbours' in the fullest sense of the word; vulnerable and preyed upon by another.

But the book is instructive in many ways.  The newly-introduced (to the Ahed children) ritual of standing before Mecca, bowing and prostrating to Allah.  "In that house, we also began to acclimatize to the prevailing mood of brooding, lament, and disappointment.  Everyone was so serious.  Melancholy.  Out-loud laughter was frowned upon, even rude.  And if you happened to lapse and laugh hard, you'd better pray for god to deliver you from the evil that it could bring."

They did, eventually escape the misery of living in her uncle's house, along with the hostility expressed toward the young Nahlah by a few of her cousins who derided her genteel, Canadian-bred ways and her distaste for the dank, dirty shared toilet which she feared to enter with its scuttling cockroaches.  Eventually her father found a small house they could rent.  "It also had its very own hole-in-the-ground toilet with its own native cockroaches - for our exclusive use."

And the conclusion: "Learning about our culture somehow meant being punted back into the Dark Ages.  We had no furniture save for a large playpen to which our little blond-haired blue-eyed brother was often confined.  During the day we sat on the thin mattresses that at the time were so ubiquitous in Palestinian households; these were set upon straw carpets that did little to protect our feet from the cold concrete floors.  At night, the mattresses doubled as our beds.

"Where was our dining table?  Our living room set?  Most important, why didn't we have real beds like we did back home?  There were no answers."

Oh yes, there were: she and her brothers were inundated with tradition, with the culture they had left and then returned to.  Including the culture of clinging to refugee status, of blaming and hating Israel, of pining for the past, which in fact they lived within.

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