Tel Aviv: Nineteen Forty-Eight

Patrick Seaman

In Lebanon, where I spent my summer living just outside one refugee camp, Bourj el-Shamale, and teaching in another, Rashidieh, we didn’t say the name Israel. It was an unspoken rule among volunteers when we talked about Israel. It didn’t matter if the conversation was in regards to recent events, such as the demonstrations over security measures in Al-Aqsa, or if we were just discussing the history that was so pertinent to our jobs as educators in the camps.

When we — a mix of Americans, Indians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Britons, Australians, Canadians and Ghanaians from all walks of life — wanted to bring up Israel, we had a few ways to circumvent our mini-ban on the word. We would say “our neighbor to the south,” “blue team,” “I-Town” or any other way to get around saying the actual name, Israel. The word we used most frequently, though, was “48.”

Discussion of the Nakba was always spoken in reverent, quiet tones, like we were afraid to speak too loudly and awaken the latent, sleeping trauma that some of our volunteers, and all of our friends and students, endure regarding the Palestinian exodus from Israel. When we talked about it in any way, we would say “1948,” and those words would always hang heavier in the air than any of the other ones, like they were bloated with history and meaning.

Stranger in a Strange Land

When I landed in Tel Aviv, I exited the airplane, followed some signs, walked a bit and saw a huge poster, just outside the airport, complete with stars of David, Israeli flags and a sign that read “1948.”

Where I am now, the term “1948,” which carried so much weight for us in Lebanon, is something that is proudly declared at almost the first sight I had of Israel. A date that my friends and students in Rashidieh hold close to their hearts as the biggest catastrophe — not in their lives, but in the entirety of remembered history of their people — was displayed triumphantly over my threshold to this new part of my life.

The difference between my experience this summer and the two weeks I have spent getting orientedd to Israel with my fellow students is night and day. We can act almost without fears or constraints here, other than the rules NYU has set out for us. We can drink, we can have people of the opposite sex in our rooms, we can talk loudly and about topics we want to discuss even when we are on the street. The city of Sour was so different from here, not just in the atmosphere of the city, but in the way that I can comport myself in public and private spaces.

We were respectful almost to a fault, quiet in the streets, reserved in the Hayy (our neighborhood, also called Bourj el-Shamale). In the cafes, we would have fun and talk, but we were always cognizant of our positionality, who we were in this public space and what we carried with us as English-speaking foreigners. It was very important for us to remain quiet, respectful and tempered, especially when dealing with locals and the people living in the refugee camp. Our reputation, and, by extension, the reputation of our program and even the countries and cultures we represented were always being scrutinized.

Eighty Miles to Sour

In Tel Aviv, we are only 85 miles from Sour, but it feels like at least 1,000. I have to adjust to a lot of things. Taking photos of anything and everything, like many of my peers do, was deeply frowned upon in Lebanon. Pictures can be very presumptive and exploitative, especially when you are surrounded by poverty. Drinking openly would never have been OK in Lebanon. Even things like taking off your shirt at the beach is weird for me now, as I spent more time at the beach in Lebanon, where there were very strict unwritten rules on remaining clothed even while swimming, than I ever spent at the beach on vacation before.

The biggest change though is being in this country, seeing the beauty and the wonder of the land and knowing that I really have no right to be here. It is hard not to be critical of my friends here. They all seem to have some varying degree of understanding of the conflict and are even on what I think is the right side. Even so, they all interact with the area around them without seeming to think about it. They talk about how amazing the country is and how they would love to live here if they could, but they don’t seem like they critically think about what that means, what the idea of living in this country as a foreigner implies.

Walking with Ghosts

When I walk in Israel, I feel like I am walking around with a herd of ghosts. Not ghosts that are trying to haunt me, but the ghosts I’m carrying with me from Lebanon, the ghosts of people who used to breathe the air here. The ghosts who walk where I walk, work in the fields or talk to their neighbors, people who lived their lives here free. Not all the ghosts are the ghosts of the dead. Some of them are my students, who write stories about returning to their families’ towns and draw pictures of the Palestinian flag in the borders of their 20-cent notebooks. Some of them are the older men and women who would tell us stories of their villages that their parents told them, looking off into the distance like they could see the orange trees and homes they described, even though they had never been to Palestine before.

When I look at the ocean or the mountains or even the dry, brown land in Jisr az-Zarqa, I feel like I’m sharing my eyes with my students — children who have never seen this country that they love and crave so much, and may never see. I carry that burden and that guilt, that I am here, even though I’m an American with no ties to this country, and that I’m even enjoying myself (despite myself) while they can’t be here. I wonder what they would think of me if they saw me.

I’m glad I keep this all in my mind, even though it can be really, really hard. I think that if I ignored my experience this summer, even if it would make people happy who are probably tired of hearing about it, I would be betraying the people who trusted me to remember them and their stories. Even though none of them know that I am here and would probably hate me if they did, I think I made the right decision. Being able to be here is a privilege, and I think it’s part of my duty to learn as much as I can here, and then use that knowledge and this experience to be better at advocating for the people I met. I just wish there was more I could do.

Email Patrick Seaman at [email protected]

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What an interesting article! The main problem with it, though, is that the author seems to accept the Arab narative as if it is factual, when it almost entirely imaginary and fictitious. There has never in history been a Palestinian state, people, country or empire. Never. Never been a Palestinian culture, diet, dialect or religion. There is NOTHING at all that differentiates between the Arabs on the West Bank and those living on the East Bank, in Jordanian-Occupied Palestine. There are vastly – vastly – greater differences in all of these characterstics between New Englanders, Californians, Texans and Minnesotans – but no one claims those to be separate nationalities. Thinking people can decide for themselves what is more convincing: the Jewish narrative on ancient and current ownership of Jerusalem, based on Biblical documentation and supported by literal mountains of archeological evidence, or the Muslim claim that Mohammed, who never set foot in Jerusalem, somehow flew over Jerusalem on a magical, flying, feathered, winged donkey named al-Burak. Decide for yourselves. What is more likely, more convincing, more believable? That’s the whole point of going to visit and seeing with your own eyes. I think that you are on the right track. Thanks for the article.

  2. @Jake so Jewish fairy-tales are considered factual but the Muslim fairy-tales are not? Mohammad flying over Jerusalem on his magical donkey is literally as real as any of the Old Testament. Sure you don’t believe that menstruating women should be isolated in menstrual huts, or half the bullshit in the Jewish fairy-tales?

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