Beingness (ˈbiːɪŋnəs), n
the state of being or existing
As a child, my mother often read to me from the Bible, telling me about a land located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. She told me, this land is considered holy by people of many beliefs. The beauty of this sacred place made the people living there wanting to keep it protected forever, like tender buds. Yet over time, the pride for this Holy Land transformed into greed, anger and oppression towards others. The different desires turned into movements and nationalism, resulting into war. The Holy Land acquired many names, suffered destruction and sustained victims dying for the causes of others.
Myself, I have never considered a place my home without having lived there. But I met some individuals who have never set foot in the place they thought of as their homeland, yet still see it as their origin.
“Even then I still felt I did not belong.”
Families have left the Holy Land ever since, fleeing to different countries and leaving behind loved ones, homes and memories, desperately dreaming and hoping to return one day. Children were born and told blooming tales of the beauty of their place of origin; they were raised to dream the dreams of their parents, to fight for a home they never set their foot in, and to stand up for an identity which many of them were not sure about the meaning.
“When I look in the mirror and try to understand who I am, I remember that I was born in Syria among people who are not Palestinians like me, and I couldn’t relate to them at all. Even after I left Syria and came to live in a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, even then I still felt I did not belong.”
Samih, 20 years old, is sitting in a big room with many windows. A warm summer breeze drifts through an open window, and the curtains gently blow in its rhythm. The sun is setting, and the dim light immerses the Lebanese mountains of Zahle, painting them in a delicate reddish colour. Next to him, on another chair in front of me, is Mahmoud, also 20 years old. The two of them, both born into Palestinian families who fled their homeland many years ago, are telling me their stories: how they grew up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, and lived first in Syria, then in Lebanon. They themselves have never set foot in the land they know as Palestine, yet are constantly confronted with questions of who they are and what it means to be Palestinian.
They themselves have never set foot in the land they know as Palestine, yet are constantly confronted with questions of who they are and what it means to be Palestinian.
Mahmoud has lived in Bayreuth, a beautiful historical city in southern Germany, for the last two and a half years. Mahmoud explains that for him, identity is something that is constantly changing, depending on the different conditions and challenges he faces. It is formed, he thinks, by what people around us want to see. I have had long talks with Mahmoud, and he once told me that he is often confronted with the question of whether he is Palestinian, Syrian or even, sometimes, German.
Samih lives in one of the narrow lanes of the Shatila camp in Beirut. When I visited him, these dark damp alleys were astonishingly full of life. Thousands of people are settled here since 1949. The camp was originally set up for Palestinian refugees, but since the Syrian war, the camp accommodates an estimated population of ten to twenty thousand people. Despite the circumstances, these lanes are filled with laughing children playing among the barbers, vendors and scooters that try to squeeze themselves through.
Samih says that he has felt stuck all his life, not knowing how best to adapt to his environment. Growing up among Syrians, he felt he had to change parts of himself, and has since felt withdrawn. When his family moved to Shatila, where mainly Palestinian families live, his classmates would call him “Syrian”. He even got beaten up for defending himself as being Palestinian, and people told him: “You were born in Syria and you came from there. You are Syrian.” At some point Samih surrendered, and accepted what they told him. Still, deep inside, even after he got recognised in the Shatila community – and where, over the years, he was able to open up – he feels the communities who have settled in Shatila just does not belong to this place in Beirut.
“You were born in Syria and you came from there. You are Syrian.”
“After graduating I started working as journalist with the Palestinians in Shatila. It was then that I started to get confused. My journalistic work means that I’m breaking stereotypes about the camp, and I got confused by this. Why should I question those stereotypes when I experienced them myself, when people were beating me so that they could put me and my identity into these set boxes? But then there are moments, on certain events for example, such as weddings or dancing dabke, when I really feel my Palestinian heritage. I was born in Syria, so I am Palestinian-Syrian.”
The sun has set and the mountains of Zahle are covered by a black veil. Samih smiles, but sadly, and looks down at his hands.
”The other day in the street, someone started yelling at my friend and me. He said that he hated Palestinian-Syrians since we are not pure. Palestinian and Syrian armed groups took part in the Lebanese Civil War, and so Syrians and Palestinians still get accused by people for this history. And now I have to live with this crime and hear that I’m impure, even though I have nothing to do with it.”
When I listen to Samih and Mahmoud’s stories, it terrifies me how much our world thinks in terms of categories. We humans tend to exclude others in order to feel a sense of belonging to a particular group. As we join and leave different social groups, we are in different processes of social interaction. The choices we make – from our religious views to the friends we make – serve to position us as part of groups, and communities that define parts of who we are.
“Even though I don’t belong anywhere, I still belong everywhere.”
Mahmoud looks directly at me and talks with a clear voice.
“At the beginning I was kind of angry. But I wasn’t born in Palestine, neither were my parents, and my grandmother was only 15 years old when she left – so I asked myself, why do I consider myself Palestinian? I was born in Syria, so does that not make me Syrian? Still, I am not convinced that I am Syrian: I don’t speak the dialect, I don’t have their traditions and I don’t feel at home in Syria. It used to feel like home a long time ago, but the Syrians I lived with didn’t accept me as one of theirs. When I think about it, I don’t really belong anywhere. I think I am stateless. Actually, I don’t consider that a problem, except when it comes to visa-related issues. But on personal level, it is the most concrete description that I can identify with. I think it’s good, because even though I don’t belong anywhere, I still belong everywhere.”
While talking, Mahmoud scribbles on a piece of paper. The lines he draws emerge as he tells the story of his life journey. Dots mark certain moments, unconsciously emphasized by the pounding of the pen on the paper. The little boy Handala and the fist of resilience emerge as symbols of the Palestinian refugees and their suffering, sketched while he was listening to Samih.
The little boy Handala and the fist of resilience emerge as symbols of the Palestinian refugees and their suffering, sketched while he was listening to Samih.
“I am not Syrian, because although I would like to go and see my family and grandparents in Syria, I can’t go because I don’t want to be forced to join the military and kill people. So I can’t consider myself Syrian. I am not Syrian-Palestinian, because I don’t identify with that label of being a criminal and accused for the civil war. And I am not Palestinian, because I have no proof that I am Palestinian: no papers, no rights, no embassy in Lebanon. I sometimes consider the rats in the camps to have more rights and living a better life.”
Over ten million people worldwide are estimated to be “stateless”. In international law, a stateless person is considered not having a nation. In most countries, nationality is usually acquired through the jus soli “right of the soil”, granted by birth on the territory of a country, and the jus sanguinis “right of blood” by the citizenship of one or both parents. Among others, the European Union does not recognize Palestine as a state, which is why Palestinians are seen as “stateless” in Germany.
“My family used to tell me as child that I am Palestinian and that we would return to our home country one day. So it was important to me to identify as a Palestinian.”
And then, when Mahmoud came to Germany, he was confronted once again with the definition of being Palestinian.
“My family used to tell me as a child that I am Palestinian and that we would return to our home country one day. So it was important to me to identify as Palestinian. In Germany, there are legal issues with my papers and I had no passport from Palestine, so I started to think about myself from a different view.”
“I started to think about myself from a different view.”
There is a critical division in society between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Defining ourselves by the people around us, can often lead to excluding, or even deciding over the fate of others. During the conversation I noticed that Samih and Mahmoud described themselves through their relationships to people and places – as sons, brothers, friends; as members of nations or ethnic groups. At a very basic level, who we are is defined by the social networks and communities to which we belong.
In the distance, a dog is barking and Samih and Mahmoud are looking at each other in silence. Their families have left the Holy Land, fled to different countries and left loved ones, homes and memories behind, hoping to return one day. Their stories have shown me how powerful our thoughts are, and how they can affect the lives of others. Regardless of whether others recognise them as Palestinians or call them “stateless”, it is ultimately their individual choices that matter. Our identities, as Mahmoud said, are always evolving, depending on the different conditions and challenges that we face in life. This is how we develop an attitude to believe in who we want to be.