in Motion

Samah Sabawi:
'So I write: A Palestinian story of finding home, voice and identity'

Theatre provided a valuable outlet for Samah Sabawi, who lived most of her life in various forms of exile after the 1967 war.

1967 is known as the year of al-Naksa, the setback, a year of lost hopes and dreams. It was also the year of my birth. When the war broke out, my parents had been married for almost seven years and had three children, with a fourth on the way - me.

Q:Who started the 1967 war?

Read the answer

A: Israel started the war.

They lived in a modest home with their extended families in the poor district of Toffah in Gaza. They had a vegetable garden where they grew chillies, tomatoes and herbs, and a backyard with a lemon tree, a sycamore tree and a pomegranate tree. Along the back fence separating their property from their neighbours' was a wild cactus hedge that yielded the sweetest prickly pear fruit, and near the front gate, jasmine vines greeted guests with the most beautiful and welcoming scent.

My father was a schoolteacher by day and a writer and poet by night. My mother carried on with her traditional tasks: caring for the children, cooking, sewing and cleaning under the watchful eyes of her in-laws with whom she resided.

Gaza had been under Egyptian administration since the war of 1948, but in 1967, things were simmering like never before. There was great unrest in Gaza's refugee camps, as Palestinians who had fled in terror or were forcibly removed from their towns and villages in 1948 to pave the way for a Jewish state were growing tired of waiting, still denied their right to return.

Q:What is the right of return?

Read the answer

A: The Right of Return refers to Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the homes from which they were displaced in 1948.
Source: American Friends Service Committee

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was delivering fiery speeches promising the end of Israel, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, Arab unity, and hope. My father and many other young men believed in him and responded by joining the Liberation Army - Jaysh al-Tahrir - that served under the Egyptian military.

Nasser never delivered on his promise of liberation. The war of 1967 was lost and Israel expanded and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights of Syria. More Palestinians were made refugees.

Q:Who took part in 1967 war?

Read the answer

A: The Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian armies were the main players in the war.

Leaving Gaza

Two months after the war and one week after I was born, Israeli soldiers searching homes in Gaza looking for men who fought in the Liberation Army came to our house to detain my father. He jumped over the prickly cactus hedge into the neighbour's garden. The soldiers left a clear message for him: stay and be put in jail forever, or leave Gaza immediately.

Q:Were Palestinian expelled or did they flee?

Read the answer

A: The question of how or why Palestinians left historical Palestine is inconsequential under international law. What is important is that they are allowed to exercise the right of return, as stipulated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

My father went into hiding. He knew if he was jailed, our family and his extended family would starve as we all depended on his salary. After a few months, he had no choice but to leave and find work elsewhere. A part of him felt like a coward for leaving, but another knew he was fighting for his family's survival.

At the Jordan River crossing, an Israeli soldier ordered him to sign a document declaring once he leaves the border crossing, he would lose his right to reside in Gaza forever. My father still remembers the blood running cold in his veins. The reality of occupation began sinking into his heart like poison.

At that moment, he understood that the Israelis had no intention of complying with the United Nations resolution calling for their withdrawal from territories they occupied in 1967, including Gaza. At that moment, he understood that the occupation would last for a very long time.

Q:Did the Arabs receive any help from other countries? What about the Israelis?

Read the answer

A: Iraq made an effort to help the Palestinians in the war, and the ruins of an Iraqi tank can still be seen on the outskirts of the northern West Bank city of Jenin.

The first morning my father woke up to find himself exiled in Jordan, he wrote of his sense of estrangement and regret at leaving his homeland:

If only the stray bullets from the occupier's guns were merciful
And pierced through our legs
If only they tore through our knees
If only we sunk into your fields
If only we became the salt of your earth
The nutrients in your fertile soil
If only we didn't leave
- Samah Sabawi's father

Life in Exile

In my first baby photo I am cradled in my mother's arms, my three siblings stand around us.

That was the first ID photo we took so we could get a travel document to enable us to leave Gaza to be with my father. As soon as our papers were ready, my mother packed all four of us, said her goodbyes to loved ones, and turned her back on the only home she had ever known.

In Jordan, my parents rented a room in a house that belonged to a family of 1948 refugees from Palestine in a small camp called Khnefsah.

Khnefsah was an unregistered refugee camp in the Marka district, not far from Amman. Growing out of necessity to house Palestinian refugees from 1948, the camp was an amalgamation of tents and concrete structures. My mother was the only Gazan woman in the camp; the other women were mainly fellahin (peasants) and wore traditional embroidered dresses, very different from my mother's modern clothes.

Q:How many Palestinians hold refugee status?

Read the answer

A: The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides services for an estimated five million refugees. Nearly one-third of registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million people, live in 58 recognised Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

My father chose to move us into Khnefsah because the official United Nations camp for refugees from Gaza, in Jerash, was not properly set up yet. It was also further away from the Jordanian capital, and my father feared he wouldn't find any job opportunities there or find a viable way to eventually leave.


in Motion

Read Raed's story

Raed al-Sakakini and Ayda Addas made a painstaking decision: leave Lebanon in search of safety for their children.

A stream ran close to the house in Khnefsah, and the room was often flooded when heavy rains fell. Ironically, the house had no direct water access itself, and we were forced to share communal toilets with 15 other families. I don't remember any of this, but I am told that in that one room, we ate, slept, washed, cooked, laughed and sometimes cried. I took my first steps there. My father worked odd jobs in Amman and was determined to make it out of the camp.

Q:How many refugees are there?

Read the answer

A: The total Palestinian population is about 12.4 million people, according to Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2015. Of that, about half - 6.2 million people - live in historic Palestine (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea).

And we did: By 1969, my father had saved enough money and managed to get the appropriate papers needed to make our exit out of Amman to Saudi Arabia.

Once there, my family shared a small house in Dammam with my uncle and his five kids. Dammam was a Gulf city rising from the sand like a mythical genie, energised by black oil and the blood and sweat of foreign workers and Palestinian refugees. I remember our living room was divided by a partition. One half was for guests and the other half was our bedroom. We shared two bunk beds against the wall and a mattress on the floor. Our family had grown and now we were five siblings in all.

Childhood in Saudi Arabia was tough. We were overwhelmed by the cultural differences and the difficult-to-understand Saudi dialect of Arabic. And while I had heard so much about Palestine growing up, I had to imagine what jasmine smells like. What does a pomegranate tree look like? How can there be a fruit tree growing in someone's backyard? All we had in Dammam was desert sand and high walls surrounding our home. Outside, the streets were hostile and dangerous, and we always felt like we did not belong.

Discovering the Arab World in the 'Desert Ship'

In 1974, we took our first ever family vacation.

My father announced we would set sail in his Chevrolet sedan, named the Desert Ship, to explore the geography of the world in which we lived. Our goal was to drive across the desert to the Fertile Crescent, and hopefully, visit our home in Palestine. He stocked his Desert Ship to the brim with water bottles, boiled eggs, dried figs, za'atar (a Middle Eastern herb spice like thyme) sandwiches, pillows and blankets. He sat behind the wheel with the love of his life, my mother, beside him, and all five of us squeezed in the back.

It was on that trip that I came to understand so much more about the Arab World and my place in it.

Q:Why is the Palestinian struggle a global campaign?

Read the answer

A: The Palestinian struggle is not a struggle between Israelis and Palestinians; if it were, it would have been resolved a long time ago. It is an international struggle for many reasons, including the role of Britain (the Balfour Declaration) and the UN (1947 partition plan) in supporting the creation of a Jewish state on Palestinian lands.

I was six years old and was starting to develop a need for space and reflection. I refused to be crammed into the back of our sedan, so I stretched my small body across the ledge behind the back seat instead. My face was stuck to the rear window, and my eyes were open wide. I can remember every detail of the two-month journey: the sights, smells, and sounds of the Arab World.

I can still see the sand dunes and camel caravans of Saudi Arabia, feel the warm, salty waters of the Gulf in Kuwait, hear the humming of factories that stretched for miles along the Euphrates river, and envision the manicured trees that lined the impeccable streets of Baghdad, the beautiful, rolling hills of Jordan, the astonishing beauty that is Lebanon, and the simplicity of life in Syria. On that road trip, I learned my geography and embraced my Arab identity. I learned many lessons, too; the first being how generous and hospitable strangers can be.

After driving through the Arabian desert for a full day, we pulled into a small town in northern Saudi Arabia. My father simply rolled down the window, called to a boy standing by the side of the road, and asked him to point us in the direction of the Palestinian teacher's house. My father knew that in every town in Saudi Arabia there would be at least one Palestinian refugee working as a teacher.

Q:How many Palestinians are in the diaspora?

Read the answer

A: There are 6.2 million Palestinians in the diaspora, according to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics.

Sure enough, the boy took us to a small house shared by two Palestinian brothers, both teachers at the local primary school. My father stood at their door and told them we were a Palestinian family that was travelling and needed a place to stay. The brothers took us in, their wives cooked us dinner, and then they gave us their beds to sleep in. The next morning they made us breakfast and sent us on our way with extra sandwiches and water bottles. Their generosity and kind hearts knew no bounds.

Later on, when we couldn't find a restaurant after driving for hours across Lebanon's mountain ranges, we stopped at someone's house to ask if they knew where we could eat. They insisted that we be their guests, and simply wouldn't take no for an answer. They prepared a feast before sending us on our way with full stomachs and treasured memories.

On that trip, I also learned that the lines between Muslim sects were blurry and insignificant, as we, a Sunni family, casually stopped to pray at a Shia mosque on the outskirts of Baghdad. And I discovered just how moving the theatre could be after seeing Duraid Lahham's play, Dhay'at Tishreen, at the magnificent and storied Hamra Theatre in Beirut.

Q:Is the Palestine/Israel conflict a religious one?

Read the answer

A: The conflict in Palestine is fundamentally a political one brought about by Israel’s colonisation of Palestine. However, Israeli Zionists very often use the Jewish faith to rally international support and to justify their policies. Their threats and assaults against Christian and Muslim religious sites have given the conflict a religious dimension, as well.

I got to see an Arab world that, at the time of our trip in 1974, was embracing modernity while also safeguarding its heritage. It was a world where music, museums, mosques, theatres, universities, factories, and gardens combined, and it was thriving.

Visiting Gaza

But not all the trip's lessons came from positive experiences.

When we arrived at the crossing between Jordan and Israel, border officials separated the men and boys from the women and girls, and a female Israeli soldier asked us to all strip down to our underwear. A sense of shame washed over me, combining with my embarrassment for my mother and older sisters. I couldn't understand what the soldier was hoping to find beneath our dresses. I didn't make eye contact with anyone for a few hours after that, and we drove from the crossing to Gaza in silence.

Q:What does it mean that Gaza is under siege?

Read the answer

A: Both Egypt in the south and Israel in the north tightly control the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. As a result, the strip has been under an economic and human blockade since June 2006.

In Gaza, we were welcomed by family members, too many, in fact, for me to remember every one by name. Gaza was so green and it smelled like perfume at night. Later, I understood that that was the scent of jasmine; at last, I had my own memories to match my parents' stories, and over the few weeks that we stayed in Gaza, I filled my mind with new lessons and experiences.

Q:What can end the siege on Gaza?

Read the answer

A: Egypt has sovereignty over its border with the Gaza Strip; if it chooses to exercise independent, political will, it can lift the siege.

I learned to climb the almond trees in my great-grandfather's yard and crack the hard almond shells to get to the nut inside. I learned to stay away from the cactus hedges, and had my mother or father peel the fruit for me. I learned to surrender my cheeks to the endless kisses and pinches of my many relatives. I learned how to walk past the lizards on the wall without flinching. I loved that I could understand the words spoken on the street, much unlike Saudi Arabia, where my ears hadn't yet grown accustomed to the local dialect. I learned to feel safe in the embrace of older women, and I learned their names.

But being in Palestine also showed me a world of gates and borders, and forced me to interact with soldiers who violated our sense of dignity.

Since that trip so much has changed in the Arab World. Today, it is no longer safe to take a road trip across the desert, and the sense of generosity and old-fashioned hospitality that once reigned has fallen victim to the growing mistrust and violence that continues to spread across the region, sparing no one and nothing at all.


in Motion

Read Um Marwan's story

A Nakba survivor and mother of a martyr, Tamam Nassar led a women's movement in Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp.

But back in 1974, I slept in my father's arms in the desert south of Baghdad, looking up at the stars as he recited poetry. While I could not fully understand his pain at the time, I remember that his poems were about his yearning for Palestine. He was under no illusions, even then, knowing full well that divisions, oppression, and injustice stood in the way of him ever moving back to his homeland.

Theatre provides an escape

Our summer vacation was over and we returned to our home in Saudi Arabia. I was ready to start my first year of school. My mother bought me a small black abaya (a loose cloak that covers the body from shoulders to feet) and a veil. I was now a school girl and subjected to the cruel realities of sexual harassment in the street and the relentless pursuit of the religious police who threaten to beat those women and girls not properly covered.

Aware of the predatory gaze of some men in a world where no women were visible, I found it soothing to disappear beneath an abaya and veil. Sometimes, I even wished I could become invisible forever. The only bright light I remember from my early childhood years, was the comfort I found in reading novels and books of poetry, and the joy I experienced when playing theatre with my siblings and cousins.

My sister would make up a story, and we would escape to the rooftop of our house to act it out. One summer, an uncle saw us, and he was so impressed that he hung a red curtain for us to use. Just like that, the rooftop became a professional theatre.

But those years quickly passed, and the curtain eventually came down.

Leaving the Middle East

In 1980, we left the region for good and immigrated to Australia, thousands and thousands of kilometres away.

When we stepped off the plane at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, I felt as though my eyes would pop out of my head as I tried in vain to contain the vibrancy of the green fields that surrounded us. Australia was unlike anything I had ever seen.

By then, our family had grown again, and I was one of seven siblings.

As we drove through the streets of Melbourne, I saw that almost every neighbourhood had a playground with grass fields, swings, slides and picnic tables. That these were shared public spaces that anyone could use for free was an exciting concept.


in Motion

Read Fida's story

After 24 years in exile in Lebanon and Cyprus, Fida Jiryis was remarkably allowed to return to historic Palestine.

My father bought a farm in the rolling hills of the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, about 35 kilometres east of Melbourne. Our house was at the top of a hill. By then, my father owned a successful company in Saudi Arabia, and when he wasn't working on the farm or on his business, he wrote poems and novels about Palestine.

My mother's arms, meanwhile, seemed as wide as the universe, holding us all together, as we floated above the ground, navigating our way between identities and homeland.

We worked hard on the farm, chasing runaway cows back into paddocks, mending fences and herding livestock to greener pastures. Our new world was exciting and filled with adventure! We ached to belong to it.

The first few years were dedicated to learning English, making new friends, and understanding our new, hybrid identities. Now we belonged to the hyphenated Palestinian population that is spread out across the globe. We became Australian citizens, but this didn't change how others looked at us. 'Where are you from?' 'What's your Christian name?' and other annoying questions continued to taunt us. Not only could they not pronounce our names, or recognise Palestine, we could never show them our country of origin on a map.

Q:Where is Palestine?

Read the answer

A: Historical Palestine is located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the place historically known as Palestine has been usurped mostly by modern Israel, which constitutes nearly 78 percent of the total area. The remaining 22 percent are the occupied Palestinian territories: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
(Source: Palestine Remix)

In 1982, the civil war in Lebanon had reached its peak. Our grief-stricken parents watched in horror as news of massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut spread across the airwaves, reminding the world of the many injustices Palestinians continued to endure.

For the first time, I saw Palestinians on the news, but they weren't breathing; they were corpses piled on top of each other, mostly women and children. Melbourne's The Age newspaper ran an opinion piece that expressed outrage, not at the perpetrators of the massacre, but at the coverage it was receiving. The article questioned whether Palestinians would get so much attention if they didn't have oil running through their veins? The insinuation was that Palestinians were Arabs, and therefore, by association, they must have oil and big money. I found myself writing a response to the piece, and to my surprise it was published. I was 14 and had just discovered my voice.

That was when I vowed to use this voice, to the best of my abilities, for as long as I live.

Q:What is BDS?

Read the answer

A: More than 100 Palestinian trade unions, political groups and NGOs in Palestine and the diaspora issued a call on July 9, 2005, for international partners to adopt a strategy of boycott, divestment and sanctions as part of the struggle against Israeli apartheid.

Throughout the years, when I wasn't marching in protests or writing articles or opinion pieces, I found refuge in writing poetry and plays for theatrical productions. I got married and lived in Canada for many years, where I raised my three children, now all adults. I have since returned to Australia.

My life's work reflects the passage of time, the ongoing deterioration of the Arab world, and more specifically, the ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. Shut out from mainstream news networks, I plugged into the online world of Palestinian activism. The Palestine Chronicle was instrumental in my journey of honing my skills as a writer. Other websites like Electronic Intifada and more recently the think-tank, Al-Shabaka, created a virtual space for Palestinian intellectuals to connect, write and learn.

In 2008, the bombs began to fall on Gaza. For three weeks, we watched our families and loved ones suffer the brutality of Israel's ruthless campaign. I wrote poetry, and those poems turned into a play, which in turn became my most significant accomplishment as a writer.

Q:What does it mean that Gaza is under siege?

Read the answer

A: Both Egypt in the south and Israel in the north tightly control the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. As a result, the strip has been under an economic and human blockade since June 2006.

Tales of a City by the Sea explores the lives of Palestinians in Gaza under siege and bombardment. Though its characters are fictional, the play is inspired by the real-life stories I collected during that period. In my play, Rami, an American-born Palestinian doctor who boards the Free Gaza boats, the first to break the siege in 2008, falls in love with Jomana, a Palestinian blogger from the Shati refugee camp.

While Rami promises Jomana he will return, when he comes back to Gaza with his mother to ask for Jomana's hand in marriage, they get stuck at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza. That's when Israel's bombing campaign begins. Rami uses underground tunnels to get into the territory, and he volunteers at Shifa hospital in Gaza City. His love for Jomana is tested by the daily horrors of life in Gaza.

In 2013, during Mohamed Morsi's brief period of rule as president of Egypt, the stifling siege on Gaza was relaxed, and the Rafah crossing was opened. My husband and I took the opportunity to visit our families in Gaza, and I put on a play reading at the Al Qattan Centre for the Child, a local community centre for children. The audience was thrilled to see a love story on stage that reflected their lives, and I vowed to premiere the play in Gaza, the West Bank and Melbourne at the same time the following year. In doing so, I hoped to overcome Israel's walls and efforts to fragment Palestinians by connecting artists in all three places.

Q:What can end the siege on Gaza?

Read the answer

A: Egypt has sovereignty over its border with the Gaza Strip; if it chooses to exercise independent, political will, it can lift the siege.

Little did I know that months before our production teams were ready to stage the play in 2014, a more brutal and ruthless bombing campaign would begin. Lasting 51 days, the war devastated Gaza once again. The Gaza-based production never took place, but we were able to stage the play at La Mama theatre in Melbourne and the Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society in Aida Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

After its sold-out 2014 season, Tales of a City by the Sea was added to the Victorian Certificate of Education playlist, to be taught to high school students. For the first time, I felt that I, a Palestinian, was a part of Australia's cultural and social fabric. That the story of my people would be taught in schools gave me a sense of inclusion and pride.

But adding the play to the VCE curriculum triggered a vicious campaign by B'nai Brith, a right-wing Zionist group, to have it removed. The campaign was so frenzied that the Victorian State parliament even interrupted its own budget hearing to discuss removing the Palestinian love story from its VCE playlist.

In the end, the support of teachers, educators, theatregoers, artists, dramatists, writers and so many others in Australia was overwhelming. The play remained on the VCE list, it had a second sellout season at La Mama, a national, three-city tour across Australia, and an international season in Kuala Lumpur. All the performances were met with full houses and standing ovations.

The tide had shifted and popular support for the Palestinian cause is now visible. But Gaza continues to deteriorate, and Palestine has been reduced to fragmented Bantustans.

Recently, at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Writers Festival, I was asked why my main character, Jomana, chooses to stay in Gaza, the world's largest open-air prison. I explained that the play captures a snapshot of life in Gaza at a time when there was still hope. But if I were to write a sequel to this play today, Jomana would be desperately trying to leave.

Q:How did the Fatah and Hamas “war” affect Palestinian unity and the cause?

Read the answer

A: The conflict between Fatah and Hamas has negatively impacted the Palestinian national cause because it created two separate administrations: one in Gaza and the other in Ramallah, in the West Bank. These two administrations very often disagree on the distribution of their limited funds and resources. As a consequence, Palestinian citizens, especially those in Gaza, suffer when funds and services are withheld.

Today, Gaza is polarised, its people forced to choose between two bad leadership options that excel only at blaming one another for everything from an electricity crisis to the siege and inhumane conditions in hospitals. Who will save Palestinians from their corrupt and inept leaders? Neither Hamas nor Fatah offer any long-term liberation strategy. The Palestinian Authority is only concerned with maintaining its power at the expense of its own people's aspirations. The only hope we have is in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, but BDS only offers a strategy for resistance, it does not offer alternatives to the political power structures that have shackled our people in Occupied Palestine.

Change has to begin with us. Our principles must unite us: freedom, justice, equality. I know my contribution is modest compared to the greater sacrifices of those lingering in Israeli prisons, the families of martyrs, or the refugees stuck in refugee camps since 1948, or washing ashore on Europe's beaches. But all I have is my voice. So I write.


in Motion

From exile to resistance

What does it mean to be a Palestinian today?