The Landscape of Return, Part 2

At the beginning of this summer, I wrote that I wasn’t able to answer the question of what it feels like to be here, but that maybe I would be able to after visiting Isdoud or maybe never. I am beginning to lean towards never.

This week was a whirlwind. A whirlwind of traveling, emotion, and moments of absurdity that the mind simply can’t wrap its brain around. I am still not sure whether it was a good idea to start the trip with Isdoud, but that is how it started, and it undoubtedly set a mood in me for the rest of the week.

I spent Monday mostly running errands, and visiting with Hiba and Aboud, respectively, at their houses  and with their families in the afternoon before heading to Jerusalem for the night. I kept putting off leaving. I went to Qattan to print off the map of Isdoud that Dad had emailed and found myself staying for 3 hours before going to the bank. Then to Hiba’s, then Aboud’s, then home to pack and carry on one of the longest conversation with my roommate I have carried on since the summer began.

I didn’t want to deal with Qalandia. I was not in the mood and my stomach was in knots over this upcoming “return” of mine.

But, I packed up my backpack and off I went. I spent the night in Jerusalem and woke up early the next morning to take the bus to ar-Ramla. On the way out of Jerusalem, we passed Lifta on an overpass and I saw a side of the mountain that Adam and I hadn’t reached. There had to have been at least another 20-25 homes still standing on this majestic, persistent, and heartbreaking reminder of a past. I spent most of the ride to ar-Ramla choked up and holding back tears, anticipating some overflow of emotion I wouldn’t be able to stop.

When I arrived, Sameh met me at a restaurant in the old city and we sat for a while and chatted. It’s crazy how the world works sometimes. There are a lot of scenarios I imagined for the first time I would see Isdoud, but tracking down and going with the grandson of my Father’s schoolteacher wasn’t one of them.

Before we headed out, we stopped by his grandmother’s house and gave her a copy of the map my Dad had drawn. I printed it out on nice cardstock as a present. She was shocked to see the town put on paper like that, shocked that someone still remembered it that way, shocked but grateful.

We were lost that day in more ways than one. The road to Isdoud had changed dramatically from the last time Sameh had gone, and suffice to say, even more since Dad’s last trip in ’86. We passed Yibna on the way and I thought of my grandmother and my great uncles, of names of places now tied to images and landscapes that I could reach out and touch.

Boys' School

We followed the road to Gaza, with the train tracks at our side, like a tease of a destination. Then there it was on our right – Jami3 il-Jawada (Joudah Mosque). We got off the highway and took a dirt road in to “town,” but found that almost everything had been fenced off. We drove through the brush until we got to a beautiful old building with a large sycamore tree and an olive grove between it and the railroad tracks. It was the boys school, and the area behind it used to be an orchard of orange trees, now gone. We got out of the car, and to the right was the new girls school which they never got a chance to use. Sameh and I, like lost kids on a treasure hunt, pulled out my Dad’s map and tried, the best we could with his drawings and stories to figure out where things used to be in relation to what was still standing. We had hoped to walk the entire town bit by bit, but since so much was fenced off, we were extremely limited and most of the day was filled with conjecture.

For as emotional as I was on the way to ar-Ramla, I was surprised at my state of bizarre calm in Isdoud. This is not to say that I wasn’t deeply upset and profoundly touched by where I was and what it meant to me to be there, but there were no tears. I took pictures and video and imagined it as it was. I am more emotional writing this than the time I spent there. I am finding that the thought of its absence can move me to tears almost instantly, but my presence there was not upsetting; it was validating.

Joudah Mosque (Jami3 il-Jawada)

We walked absolutely everywhere we were allowed around the fence of grazing cattle, and crossed the highway that now divides the town to find two more buildings. From the other side would have been the most eastern point of the town and we looked in front of us towards the jami3. I sat there in the ruins of some building looking out on to the highway, where is the closest I could position where our house would have stood, the cows where our neighborhood (7arit il-Jawada) was, the wheat fields and grape-vines to the south.

We sat there for a while, just quiet, suddenly our chattiness from earlier in the day, gone. The map, the conjecture, the new roads and overpass and getting lost on the way, the heat, all just melted away. And we sat there, in the wind tunnel of these ruins looking out on to the landscape of our return, a landscape of near complete erasure.

My trip to Isdoud was followed by one to Haifa, Akka, Nazareth, and a final swing back to Yaffa. When I told someone how uncomfortable Haifa made me while I was there, even in comparison to Isdoud and other cities and towns in 48 Palestine, they seemed surprised.

The closest I could explain it was this: Isdoud is gone, all but in our hearts and our determination. We remember what was there despite their destruction of it, but you can’t see its streets and life except on paper and pictures. But Haifa, Haifa stands, but it has been taken over. When you see or visit Isdoud, you know that it once was because you’ve been told, because you’ve been reminded of its existence. When you go to Haifa, it slaps you in the face and you see what could have been and what already was. It is a landscape of return that is not one of complete erasure, but one of  hostile takeover. It is a landscape of colonial enterprise in action.

So much has happened this week, from seeing Isdoud, to visiting these other cities, to amazing conversations, to finding out there is someone whose job it is to fluff sand on the beach (insert roll of eyes here), to staying in a village, 3ibileen, which turned out to be the site of a mosque named for Sheikh Zaher il-Umar – the man on which my father’s book is focused, to eating my mother’s favorite fish while by the sea in breathtaking Akka, to exploring the streets of Nazareth and being taught how coffee is roasted and ground, to spending the day in Yaffa with a good friend and seeing its other side, to ending the week tonight at a bridal party in Ramallah. It has been exhausting, overwhelming, and possibly the most beneficial thing I have ever done.

The other thing I wrote in the beginning of the summer in response to what it feels like to be here or when I would know, was that perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps it just matters that I am here, that I can be, and that I want to be. I think that is still true.

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