The quintessential Palestinian experience, which illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity, takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified. What happens to Palestinians at these crossing points brings home to them how much they share in common as a people. For it is at these borders and barriers that the six million Palestinians are singled out for "special treatment," and are forcefully reminded of their identity: of who they are, and of why they are different from others. 

— Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). 

Despite my American credentials, I was not welcomed with open arms by the Jewish and Democratic State


[Khalil Sakakini] summed up his attitude towards New York and the US in a letter sent to Sultana in July of 1908:

Sultana my love,

I left Rumfold Falls after spending one month working [in the paper mill]. It felt like a century. I came to Boston and was met by Mikhael Sayegh and your cousin Bandeli. Mikhael works for half a day and hardly makes 3/4 of a riyal [dollar]. Your cousin goes out everyday to sell [carpets] but hardly makes enough money to cover his travel expenses. I doubt he will make it even if he spent his whole life in this country. I nearly urged him to return home [to Palestine] except that I do not wish to interfere in what is not my business.

In the evening I bade them farewell…Mikhael's wife was about to deliver her baby. I took the train for about an hour [to Providence?] then I took the boat to New York. Everyone I encounter presses me to go back home, for this country is not for the likes of me. Except that every time I am about to resolve the matter I remember my oath to you to make every effort to make something of myself here. I would then come back and bring you and Melia to visit America. The truth my love is that America is worth seeing, but is not fit to be a homeland [la taslah an takun watanan] for us, for it is a nation of toil, and there is no joy in it. I have one hope left, and that is to go back and try my luck back home. I trust conditions are better now that the Sultan has ratified the constitution.

Sakakini's stay in Brooklyn was dominated by his relationship to Farah Anton, the editor of the Syrian exile journal, al-Jam'ia, and translation work he did for Columbia University Orientalist scholar, Professor Richard Gottheil. He made extra money on the side by teaching Arabic to American students (mostly from Columbia) and the wives and daughters of Arab shopkeepers and merchants, who were illiterate in their mother tongue. For Anton he edited and wrote articles, and proofread the galleys. As he gained confidence, he also became engaged in polemics on behalf of Anton against his conservative opponents. 

Sakakini belonged to the first wave of Arab immigration to America, which began in the 1870s and was halted by the radical antianarchist phobias of the 1920s.

— Salim Tamari, "A Miserable Year in Brooklyn: Khalil Sakakini in America, 1907-1908," The Jerusalem Quarterly, (February 2003) 


In the spring of 1951 I was expelled from Victoria College, thrown out for being a troublemaker, which meant that I was more visible and more easily caught than the other boys in the daily skirmishes between Mr Griffith, Mr Hill, Mr Lowe, Mr Brown, Mr Maundrell, Mr Gatley and all the other British teachers, on the one hand, and us, the boys of the school, on the other. We were all subliminally aware, too, that the old Arab order was crumbling: Palestine had fallen, Egypt was tottering under the massive corruption of King Farouk and his court (the revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers to power was to occur in July 1952), Syria was undergoing a dizzying series of military coups, Iran, whose Shah was at the time married to Farouk’s sister, had its first big crisis in 1951, and so on. The prospects for deracinated people like us were so uncertain that my father decided it would be best to send me as far away as possible – in effect, to an austere, puritanical school in the north-western corner of Massachusetts.
The day in early September 1951 when my mother and father deposited me at the gates of that school and then immediately left for the Middle East was probably the most miserable of my life. Not only was the atmosphere of the school rigid and explicitly moralistic, but I seemed to be the only boy there who was not a native-born American, who did not speak with the required accent, and had not grown up with baseball, basketball and football. For the first time ever I was deprived of the linguistic environment I had depended on as an alternative to the hostile attentions of Anglo-Saxons whose language was not mine, and who made no bones about my belonging to an inferior, or somehow disapproved race. Anyone who has lived through the quotidian obstacles of colonial routine will know what I am talking about. One of the first things I did was to look up a teacher of Egyptian origin whose name had been given to me by a family friend in Cairo. ‘Talk to Ned,’ our friend said, ‘and he’ll instantly make you feel at home.’ On a bright Saturday afternoon I trudged over to Ned’s house, introduced myself to the wiry, dark man who was also the tennis coach, and told him that Freddie Maalouf in Cairo had asked me to look him up. ‘Oh yes,’ the tennis coach said rather frostily, ‘Freddie.’ I immediately switched to Arabic, but Ned put up his hand to interrupt me. ‘No, brother, no Arabic here. I left all that behind when I came to America.’ And that was the end of that.
— Edward W. Said, "Between Worlds," London Review of Books, V. 20 N. 9 (7 May 1998).  

Edward Wadie Said (1935-2003)


Palestinian-American literature emerges from the context of personal and  political displacement that has characterized Palestinian experience over the last half century. A relatively recent body of literature, offering an unprecedented charting of Palestinian experience in a language and diction accessible to U.S. readers, Palestinian-American writing is informed by the longing to return to the original Palestinian homeland, and by the historical, political, and military events that have made such return impossible. It is also informed by other layers of displacement and exile, whether cultural, personal, or gendered. Because Palestinian-Americans, like other Palestinians, are forbidden to return (except, at best, as tourists) to their historical homeland, and hence to their own history, their literature in many ways charts and attempt to "return," as it were, through writing. The homeland to which they seek return is one rooted in history and imagination, grounded not just in the past, but also the future. This is particularly true for Palestinian-American women, who like all women, must negotiate the constraints of gender along with other historical, cultural, and personal exigencies. For those negotiating multiple identities and experiences (as perhaps all exiles must), the return to Palestine becomes on some level a metaphor for the return to the self—a return that for writers most often occurs through language. As Palestinian-American poet Nathalie Handal puts it, poetry becomes homeland. 

— Lisa Suhair Majaj, "On Writing and Return: Palestinian American Reflections," Meridians, V. 1 N. 2 (2001).         

From: "Amérka, Amérka"


From Fassuta, my small village in the Galilee, émigrés went mainly to Brizal and Argentina. My grandfather and his brothers and brother-in-law left for Argentina in 1896, only to return home, empty-handed, a year later. Then on the eve of the First World War, my grandfather tried his luck again, this time on his own, heading once more to Argentina (at least that's what he told my grandmother the night before he took off), where he vanished for about ten years, leaving behind three daughters and three sons, all of them hungry. His youngest son, my uncle Jiryes, followed in his footsteps in 1928, leaving his wife and child behind, never to come back. 

One of my childhood heroes, an old villager whom we, the children of Fassuta, always blamed for having invented school, had actually been to Salt Lake City. I don't have the foggiest idea what he did there for three years before the Depression; his deeds remain a sealed and, I suspect, quite salty book, but he certainly did not betray the Catholic faith, no sir. I still remember him in the late 1950s, breathing down my neck during Mass at the villages's church. He used to wear impeccable white American shirts under his Arab abaya, even some thirty years after he had returned to the village. But that was the only American fingerprint on him; the rest was Middle Eastern. 

The most famous American immigrant from my village, though, was M., my aunt Najeebeh's brother-in-law, Naheebeh being my father's sister. I hate to be finicky about the exact relationship, but that is simply the way it is in Arabic: There are different words to refer to the father's and the mother's side of the family. At any rate, M. left the village in the early 1920s and came back to visit his brothers some forty years later, with his non-Arabic-speaking sons. As a matter of fact, he was the only one of a long, winding line of immigrants who had really made it, or "had it fixed," as the Galileans would sat. He came to own a chain of fast-food restaurants, quite famous in the Midwest. Before I myself left the Mideast for these parts, I went to see his nephews—my cousins—in the village and promised them, under oath, that I would certainly look M. up one day and introduce myself, or at least pop into one of his restaurants and, naturally, ask for a free meal. I have not yet down the former and am still keeping the latter for a rainy Michigan day. However, whenever I come across the chain's emblem, a plump plastic boy holding a plate high above his plumpily combed head, I remember my aunt Najeebeh and think how disconcerted she would be had she known what kind of a mnemonic-device-in-the-form-of-a-cultural-shock she had become for her nephew, in faraway Amérka, as it is called in my part of the world.        
— Anton Shammas, "Amérka, Amérka: A Palestinian in the Land of the Free," Harper's Magazine (January 1, 1991)