Imagine a tree is uprooted. It can be replanted, over, and over again. But each time it is damaged just that little bit more. Each time, it finds it harder to adjust to its new environment. Each time, its memory of that original piece of land where it first saw the sun grows more faint. Imagine that feeling. It’s hard to verbalize it when you don’t know exactly what it is; all you know is that you’re supposed to feel that way – you’re supposed to miss that place – or something is inherently wrong with you. You can’t explain why. You can’t explain how either. The human brain isn’t something that can be easily manipulated. You can’t inject the emotions into your bloodstream.
From the start, it was horrible. It was the summer before 7th grade and we were visiting Palestine, as we always do. It had been nearly eleven months since I had last been there, so I was feeling awkward and clumsy. There was a large gathering, with all my cousins, uncles and aunts, and my mom convinced me to wear my Palestinian thobe.
“You’re sure it’s not weird?” I asked, smoothing a hand over the fabric.
“Of course not,” she reassured. “You look beautiful habibti”.
That may have been the case, but I quickly realized that the people here didn’t wear their national dress except for on occasions. This was not considered one of those. The adults cooed over how pretty I looked, but the children shared amused glances as they lounged around in their casual outfits. Trying to ignore them, I greeted my aunts with two kisses on the cheek, but some of them went in for a third, leaving me awkwardly pulling back as they leaned in. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the rule was for the number of kisses.
When the greetings were over, my mom instructed me to serve the tea with a pointed glance, but I stumbled on the hem of my thobe with the tray in my hands and one of the cups fell over, spilling the steaming liquid across the rest of the tray. As I hurried back to the kitchen to make more tea, I felt the shame burning in my stomach so intensely I thought I would puke.
After that, I spent the majority of the gathering hoping no one would address me. If I spoke in English, they would send me disapproving looks and mutter about how westernized I was. If I spoke in Arabic, they would send me judging looks because I didn’t speak Arabic fluently. The words didn’t slide off my tongue like they did with my mom and dad, but rather they felt thick and heavy. I slipped back into English every few minutes when I struggled to remember a word that I knew but couldn’t recall in the moment.
After dinner, my grandmother was gracing the family with funny stories. She spoke rapid Arabic, heavily accented, and it was hard to keep up. I tried not to stand out, laughing when the others laughed and staying silent otherwise. But of course my dad noticed and asked me, with no malicious intent whatsoever, if I had understood the story. To him, everyone around us was family. It didn’t matter that he saw them so infrequently, because he knew them as well as he knew me and my mom. But to me, most of these people were strangers. I couldn’t even remember who some of them were. With so many unfamiliar eyes on me, my cheeks burning bright red, I had to admit that no, baba, I didn’t understand the story.
I always knew I was the ‘odd one out’ amongst my cousins, the one who disappeared for months every year then showed up in the summer with a distinct lack of an Arabic accent, dressed in clothing that didn’t make sense to them. I had thought I was dressing modestly, but my jeans were too tight and my hoodie didn’t cover my butt, and so my normal became abnormal. But that day was the day I felt strongly, for the first time in my life, that I did not belong there.
Later that night, I confronted my parents, driven by the humiliation I had faced. I had felt it bubbling up inside me as the night went on: the urge to yell, to fight back, to lash out. When my mom was pulling the pins out of her hair and my dad was hanging his suit in the closet, I exploded. I knew I would regret the words I said, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself. “Why am I even here?” I yelled. “I hate coming here. I hate this stupid place. I want to go home”.
My mom lowered her hands slowly. She shared a confused look with my dad, who was staring at me as if I were a puzzle he couldn’t quite figure out. The silence seemed to stretch on forever. Finally, she spoke.
“But you are home”.
Experience wears away at my identity like a river wearing away at a riverbank. I was born with key attributes: a nationality, a gender, a family, a name. Everyone else sees it quite simply: Palestinian, female, only child – that’s Rania. If they’re digging deeper, they might add a few additional labels: introverted, indecisive, reliable. But the more I make my way in the world, the more that core foundation is chipped away. I move from country to country, from school to school. With every choice I make, my path is split into hundreds of thousands of possibilities.
I think that’s part of the reason I acted the way I did following that horrible day before 7th grade. I was scrambling to hold onto that side of me, I wanted to believe Palestine was my home as strongly as my parents did. So I made myself more Palestinian. I did my school assignments on various aspects of Palestine, conducting research through my relatives. My grandfather told me about Palestinian agriculture, and my grandmother told me about Palestinian education. My uncle gave me information on the First Intifada, and my aunt talked to me about the healthcare situation. It was easy to talk to them when there were hundreds of kilometers between us. Then I would present to my teachers, smiling humbly as they praised me on my creativity, and my ability to find sources in such an unreachable part of the world. I didn’t know how to say that it felt unreachable to me too.
As the years passed, my efforts increased. I wore my thobe to International Day, smiling as everyone oo-ed and ah-ed over the intricate embroidery and the vibrant colors. I made an effort to speak more Arabic at home, trying to develop the vocabulary and fluency a Palestinian my age should have. I liked and shared posts on my social media about Palestine, the occupation, the resistance, and more. I built up an impressive social media presence, watching my followers on Twitter grow from dozens to hundreds to thousands. Dispersed within the political posts were pictures of me in my thobe, pictures of the Palestinian dishes my mom cooked, and pictures of my dad’s old photo album, where grainy photographs showed him and his siblings in Palestine as children.
I proudly introduced myself as Palestinian every time nationality came up, disregarding the fact that I have an American passport, that I grew up all around the world, that I had never even lived in Palestine. “I visit every summer,” I told people when I was asked. “Most of my family lives there”.
“You’re so lucky,” my Palestinian friend told me once. “I’ve never been, I’m not allowed in. But inshallah I’ll visit one day”.
An unknown feeling grew within me as I caught the gleam in her eye, the longing in her voice. I felt guilty. Every single summer I visited for a month, I lived her dream, and I didn’t even really appreciate it. If I had to admit it – and after that outburst with my parents, I would only admit it to myself – I didn’t like going there. I felt as uncoordinated and inept as a newborn calf. I wasn’t close to any of my cousins, and I spent more time on my laptop or my phone than I did with them. I spent my time there counting down the days till I could be back here. And then there was my friend, who was counting down the years, till she could be there, for the first time in her life.
But the thought was fleeting, and I brushed it off. I shouldn’t feel guilty. In fact, I was lucky. I visited so often when others could only dream of it, and that made my connection to Palestine stronger, in a way they could never understand.
I was carefully crafting an exterior, fitting each piece together perfectly, reinforcing it with more and more lies every time. But just one trigger and it shattered, the sharp pieces nicking me on their way down. Each time, I would slowly build it back up, knowing that it wouldn’t last long. It was an endless cycle.
Looking back, that part of my life was the rapids. I was rushing through, being shoved along by the current, doing my best to avoid the jagged rocks. Little did I know, I was rapidly approaching the waterfall.
The summer before 10th grade, I was sat cross-legged on a chair on the front porch of my grandparents’ house, scrolling through my social media and replying to the comments on my pictures. The adults were in the garden having tea, and my cousins were scattered around the house. I felt content, spending a hot summer’s day outside with a steaming cup of tea beside me. With one earbud in, I could block out the world around me and pretend I was somewhere else.
That illusion quickly shattered when my mom appeared through the front door, dressed in one of her nicest outfits, pulling a suitcase with her. “Ready?” she asked me. I nodded, patting the small suitcase next to me. It was stuffed with a few changes of clothes, my toiletries, and the chargers for my phone and laptop.
We were leaving in a few minutes to visit her family in Jerusalem, like we did every summer. My dad couldn’t come with us, because he has a West Bank ID. He can only visit by applying for a permit; if he gets lucky, they’ll respond in time and issue it. That wasn’t the case that summer, so it was just my mom and me. Since my mom’s family lives in Jerusalem, she has the ID and passing the checkpoint wasn’t an issue. For me, it was a little more complicated. IDs are usually issued at sixteen, and I was fifteen that summer, so I didn’t have an ID yet. Technically I wasn’t allowed to visit Jerusalem, but because of my young age they usually didn’t stop me.
We were waiting for my grandparents from my mom’s side to pick us up. No one on my dad’s side could drop us off, because they wouldn’t let the car past the checkpoint. I eyed the empty road in front of the house in anticipation. I loved all my grandparents, but I saw my mom’s side even less than I saw my dad’s side, which was saying something. So the initial greetings were always awkward for me, and something I dreaded. Just as the thought crossed my mind, a car pulled up in front of the house. I took a deep breath and plastered a smile on my face.
The first half of the car ride passed with my head against the window, staring outside. With music blasting in my ears, I surveyed the countryside and tried to attribute some feeling of familiarity to it. When I got bored of that, I pulled out my phone and started a Q&A on Twitter. After that, the hour-and-a-half drive blurred into just minutes. I glanced up from my phone a while later to see that we were approaching the checkpoint. Beyond that was Jerusalem. I put my phone away, feeling my stomach churn. For my grandparents, this was their normal. Even my mom, who is a worrier by nature, only stiffened slightly, but continued her conversation with her dad. But for me, it was quite a sight.
The cars split towards the left, right or middle as they approached the checkpoint, forming three lines leading up to the small booths. All around us were signs with arrows directing us where to go, and more signs in Hebrew that I couldn’t understand. The steel structure loomed as we approached, the cars crawling forward like snails. And if we were the snails, the soldiers were the ants, scattered all around us in their uniforms, with large guns strapped across their chests.
“Slump down in your seat,” my grandmother instructed in Arabic, turning to look at me. I did so quickly, hunching my body together to make myself smaller. Unfortunately, I took after my parents and was quite tall for my age, making me look older than I actually was. This meant that every time we passed a checkpoint I had to duck down to avoid getting caught.
As we approached the booth, a barrier lifted to let the car before us go through. I watched as it drove forward without being stopped and emerged on the other side. I held my breath as we drew nearer, and the barrier lifted. I stared at the back of my grandmother’s head, until I felt the car roll to a stop. I heard my grandfather roll down the window and a grinding voice floated through. My grandfather replied smoothly in Hebrew; living and working in Jerusalem, he has had frequent interactions with Israelis and picked up on a significant amount of the language. Unable to understand their conversation, I watched as a soldier circled the car with a long black device, like a lion circling its prey. He scanned the underneath of our vehicle, then slammed his hand down on the trunk. My grandfather pressed the button to open it and let the soldier search it.
I saw something in my peripheral vision and turned to my left, letting out a breath of air when I saw a soldier standing right next to my window. She had short black hair tied tightly back into a bun and was barking something at the man standing at the trunk. I couldn’t help but let my gaze linger on the massive gun that was thudding against my window as she gestured. Suddenly, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I jerked my head upwards and saw the woman staring at me harshly. My heart dropped into my shoes and I quickly averted my gaze, staring down at my hands. I held perfectly still until I heard her move away from the window. Unfortunately, she wasn’t leaving.
She said something to my grandfather, gesturing at me in the backseat. He turned to glance at me. “Rania, give me your passport,” he instructed with a reassuring smile. I didn’t know how he could be so calm in a moment like this. I fumbled for my bag, trying to find my passport and feeling the seconds stretch into years. After what felt like an eternity, I found my passport and passed it to him. He handed it to the woman who fixed me with a piercing glare then retreated into the booth.
“Why did she want my passport?” I asked no one in particular.
“She’s just checking your age,” my grandmother soothed. Once again, I marveled at their ability to remain composed in moments like this. “Once she sees you’re under sixteen, she’ll probably let us through”.
“And if she doesn’t?” I demanded, ignoring the warning look my mother sent me.
My grandfather shrugged. “If they don’t let you through, we’ll just take you back to your dad. There’s nothing to worry about”.
I nodded, sitting back in my seat but still feeling on edge.
The woman returned and yelled something at my grandfather, rapping her gun against my door. I watched my grandmother’s eyes widen and my grandfather stiffen.
“She says to open the door,” he instructed in a strained voice, before turning back to her and saying something.
“Should I?” I asked, my heart pounding wildly in my chest. I felt like I was going to throw up. Before anyone could answer, she ripped the door open, grabbed my arm, and pulled me out of the car.
“There’s some kind of misunderstanding,” I heard my grandmother say, amidst my grandfather arguing with the male soldier standing beside the woman. Meanwhile, all I could feel was her tight grip on my arm. It felt like it was burning through my skin and melting my bones.
“Listen, Rania,” my grandfather said to me. “Just go with them for a minute, cooperate. Be honest, you didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll figure this out”. I nodded, barely catching a glimpse of my mother, white as a sheet, staring at me through the window as if it was the last time she would see me.
The woman jerked me forward and I followed her towards the booth. My mind felt blank, as if on autopilot. My body, however, was reacting intensely. I swallowed down the bile in my throat and forced my feet to move, so she didn’t have to be any rougher than she already was. She swerved around the booth and dragged me to a small, white building on the side of the road. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining the eyes that peered out at me from the line of cars stretching down the road.
She opened the door and shoved me through. All I saw was white walls, patterned uniforms, and more guns. I had never been so close to a gun before, and it felt surreal. I could feel it banging against my shoulder as the woman steered me through the enclosed space, and somewhere in the foggy mess that was my brain, I processed that it could kill me in an instant. I blinked and I was in a small, bare room with a single table in the center, and one hard, steel chair pushed up against the wall. The woman yanked the chair out and pushed on my shoulder, hard, till my knees buckled and I collapsed into the chair. Then she left the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
They left me to my thoughts for a few minutes, which wasn’t great because that’s when it processed that I was in deep shit. Shudders wracked through my body and I gripped the edge of the table to keep myself grounded. They must have checked the system and seen that I wasn’t sixteen yet, so what possessed them to pull me out of the car? I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I had been dragged in here for, but I also knew that with Israeli soldiers there was rarely justification behind their actions.
The door slammed open, but instead of the woman, two male soldiers stalked in. The door clanged shut behind them, and I heard the click of a lock. That’s when the panic started to set in, and I felt a wave of coldness wash over me. As if my life was flashing before my eyes, I recalled all the stories I had read on social media and the videos I had watched on the news. I knew what these people were capable of. I remembered the broken ribs and kidney failure, the dark circles and sunken eyes, the purple-black bruises and inflamed scars, and the ragged, ripped clothing torn off the bodies of Palestinian women.
The first soldier approached me, grabbed the front of my shirt, and pulled me to my feet. I stopped breathing. For the rest of my life, I would never forget the pure terror I experienced in that moment. It sunk between every pore, drenched every molecule.
He started patting me down, feeling my pockets, my sleeves, my hood. The feel of his hands on me felt so utterly wrong. I wanted to push him away, I wanted to burst into tears, but all I could do was stand as still as a statue and try not to throw up. He yanked my phone out of my back pocket and tossed it onto the table. Finally, apparently satisfied that I wasn’t hiding anything else on my person, he shoved me back down into the chair.
I could see his mouth moving, but I was so shell-shocked that I couldn’t even begin to process the words. When he shook me roughly, I regained my sense of hearing and realized the reason I couldn’t understand was because he was speaking in Hebrew.
“I don’t understand,” I bit out in Arabic. He didn’t seem to hear a word I said, and shook me harder, repeating himself. “I don’t understand!” I snapped loudly in English. He glared nastily at me, but let go of my shirt. He turned, muttering something to the other soldier standing behind him, who stepped forward.
“You are part of the BDS movement?” he asked me in English, his voice grating on my ears. I stared blankly; of all the things I expected to hear, that was not one of them. I knew vaguely what he was talking about: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. But I had no clue why he would think I was a part of that.
“No, no I’m not,” I stuttered out. It was like a switch flipped within his brain. He slammed his hands down on the table, moved way too close to my face, and roared, “don’t lie”. His spit landed on my face, and I flinched back into the chair, feeling the metal dig into my back. I felt sure that the pounding of my heart would bring the whole building down.
“I’m not lying,” I sputtered. “I don’t even live here, I’m just visiting, I promise”.
He pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it onto the table. I could see that it was a few pieces of folded paper, but I didn’t dare move till he jerked his head at the papers impatiently. With shaking hands, I picked them up and unfolded them. It took a moment for me to process what I was looking at. They were screenshots of my social media accounts. Over the past few years I had retweeted, shared, and commented on dozens of posts about various political groups in Palestine, protests, resistance movements, injustices committed by Israel and more. The more I flipped through the papers the more I realized how completely stupid I had been. I had built up an image of myself as a controversial, vocal, Palestinian political activist. I had put myself out there for the world to see, and it was coming back to bite me in the ass.
It was hard to speak around the lump in my throat, even harder to vocalize that they were interrogating me because I was an idiot, not because I was a threat.
And so it went for the next hour. Question after question: where do I live? What am I doing in the country? Who do I know here? In what cities, what are their names? Do they have any connection to the BDS movement? What do I know about the BDS movement? Why am I going to Jerusalem? Who were the people in the car?
The skin on my arm grew red and raw from the way they jerked me around, and my neck felt sore from the way they yanked on my shirt. The whole time I felt like I was balancing on the edge of an abyss, waiting for the moment they would land the first blow. Then, the door slammed open.
The woman from before had returned. She barely spared me a glance, instead saying something to the men in the room with me. She passed them a paper, and they looked over it before turning to me. With three pairs of eyes on me, I thought for sure I was about to topple over the ledge, but instead, the woman just jerked her head at the open door.
I stared in disbelief, but didn’t hesitate, scrambling to my feet. I felt dizzy and disoriented, like a gentle breeze could knock me over, but I forced my feet forward anyway. A second later I was back outside, standing in open air with the sunlight shining down on me.
When I slipped back into our car, which had been pulled to the side of the road, my grandfather looked furious, my grandmother looked faint, and my mom… her hands were shaking, and her eyes were shining with tears. She immediately pulled me into a suffocating hug. “What happened?” she whispered as the barrier lifted, letting us through. She released me but rested a hand on my knee, like she couldn’t bear to let go of me.
“I’m fine, Mama,” I reassured her, hiding my own trembling hands in the crook of my knee. “They just asked me some questions”. When she wasn’t looking, I shrugged my jacket on and pulled my hair out of its ponytail, hiding the angry red marks up and down my arms and along my neck.
It wasn’t until we pulled up to my grandparents’ apartment in Jerusalem, and I slipped into the guest bathroom under the guise of showering before dinner that I dug past the shock and let myself cry.
I didn’t tell anyone the details of what happened that day. In fact, I barely spoke about it at all, although my mom told my dad, and my dad told his parents, and news spreads like wildfire with my relatives, so basically all my family in Palestine knew. It was only a week later, when the plane’s wheels touched the ground back home, that the antsy feeling that had engulfed my being for the remainder of the trip to Palestine began to ease.
The first thing I did was grab my laptop – I had never gotten my phone back at the checkpoint – and clear all my social media accounts. I finally understood the assumption the soldiers had made. It was true that, through my social media activity, I had presented myself as an activist. But I had expressed my support for groups and protests I didn’t even understand. I had vouched for things when I had no idea what they were.
The tweets, likes and shares of Palestinians suffering – actually suffering – felt like a mockery now. This was the place that my parents spent nearly the whole year yearning to return to, the place they grew up, the place they will always, always see as home. The carelessness with which I had shared its stories made me feel sick. So, I cleared the slate. And this time, when I built myself up, I didn’t do it with twisted lies that would hurt me as they shattered. I started from scratch, and I fit the pieces together carefully and deliberately. Just like before, I was fiercely passionate about my home country, but this time my actions held meaning, they weren't dull and empty.
Slowly, as the years passed, I began to make sense of that feeling I first spoke of, that eerie connection to a place I felt so disconnected from. Maybe it is a constant work in progress. Maybe it took me so long – too long – to arrive here. But it’s worth it. Because that glimpse of who I am, of who I’m meant to be, feels more right than anything I know. And the more I work on it, the more familiar it becomes. Like slipping into an old hoodie, or into the embrace of a loved one.
Maybe I do know what this feeling is. Just because I can’t put it into words, doesn’t mean it’s not real.