Palestinian-Pennsylvanian: Reflections on My Heritage

parentals

I am the daughter of a Pennsylvanian woman and a Jordanian-Palestinian man.

On one side, I’ve been in America for several generations. On the other, I’m a first-generation American.

Mom and her family raised me. I didn’t even have my proper introduction to my father and his heritage until age 19, already fully developed and ingrained into my Pennsylvanian culture, preparing to navigate a culture foreign to my experience but natural to my bloodline.

Both sides lived lives of struggle and celebration, of keeping and losing land, of raising many children and living in close kinship with family.

Both sides lost the places they called “home,” one due to lack of proper funds and increasing age, the other as the result of colonialism and war.

Both have born the difficulties of maintaining peace of mind, body, and soul, for themselves and for their descendants. Both have sought “better” for themselves and their children, and both have discovered this road and these goals are not as precise as they had been told.

My mother and father left their own homes to seek their fortunes in Orlando, Florida. Mom returned to her family soon after my birth and stayed until she received her degree and found a job teaching in Virginia. Baba returns to his home sporadically due to distance and increased prices of airfare, sending money and visiting when he can, longing for the community he left and which I take for granted.

I know what it means to be Pennsylvanian. It’s eating corn on the cob with every meal in August, rooting for all the Pittsburgh teams no matter how the season fares, riding “quads” instead of ATVs, and drinking “pop” but never “soda.” It’s familiar. I can fall into its rhythms and norms easily.

Being Arabic is a different story, mainly because I don’t really know what it means to be Arabic, not culturally or even ethnically.

As a child, I knew my father came from Jordan, but I had no idea what their customs were, how different or similar they were to mine or my mom’s family. I found out Baba was a Muslim in Middle School when I found a Mecca necklace while snooping through Mom’s jewelry box. I did not know Mustafa was part of my name until I found it on the back of my baby picture hidden inside a “Baby’s 1st Christmas” ornament.

Being Pennsylvanian came laid out and ready for me to claim. It’s my upbringing and my inheritance. I know its stories like the back of my hand. I can recite several from memory without hesitation, with great joy and sorrow when necessary.

Being Arabic did not come for me. I had to seek and find this birthright of mine, and now I’m not even sure it’s mine to have anymore.

I only have an idea of the foods we eat and an even more limited knowledge of the language we speak, the clothes we wear, and the music we listen to. I have yet to set foot on the land taken from my family and the land we settled in our displacement.

Am I not Arabic? Am I only Pennsylvanian? Do I have claim to the inheritances of my mother and father, or only to my mother’s?

And what does it mean to even claim an inheritance you can’t touch but can only experience?

The Farm

Another blast from the past about family and land.

farmp

About two weeks ago, Bryce and I were walking down Davis Road (my family’s road) in Slippery Rock, PA. As we walked hand in hand, talking about my past memories in PA and future ones we both dreamed of having together, we stopped by an old farm. We watched the cows peacefully graze, filled our lungs with fresh country air, and enjoyed the wide expanse of scenery before us. Then I noticed a young calf had somehow broken free of the pasture fence and was hanging out in the middle of the driveway a couple dozen yards away.

I was worried at first and wondered aloud if the owners needed to be told of this little one’s escape. But when Bryce suggested I walk up the long rocky driveway, knock on the red home’s door, and tell the current owners about the situation, all I could was say, “I can’t do that,” pushing the statement past the hard lump that had suddenly formed in my throat.

To so many other passerbys, it’s just another house, another plot of farm land with some old farm buildings. But it’s more than that to me and my family. And for that, I can never again go back inside that house.

Not because I’m forbidden or because I’d be arrested if I tried. I can never go back inside that house, because I need to keep my memories of my own time within it perfectly intact. It’s my family’s farm, you see, and even though we haven’t owned the property for almost 10 years now, we still call it ours. And since it’s still ours, I cannot allow in any new memories that confirm to me forever that this beloved farm no longer belongs to me or my family.

famfarm

I cannot go into the first home I knew as a baby, the roof under which my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins would care for me while my mom was at school or work. I cannot walk into the rooms where my cousins and I spent countless hours playing, nor can I enter the kitchen or dining room where we shared so many delicious meals together. I cannot see new furniture or decorations in those rooms my grandparents made their own, and more than anything, I cannot see people who are not my family making their own home within those walls.

How can I even begin to describe what this farm is to me, to my family? How do I begin to describe all the memories this place has held for my grandparents, my mother and her 5 siblings, and all of my cousins? How do I explain to you how this was more my home than any other roof I lived under or address I occupied? How do I describe how its gold and green fields gave my mind and heart ample room to dream and ponder? How do I explain the unity of family I first felt within those walls? And beyond all that, how can I explain the great hole that remains in my heart when my refuge, sanctuary, and one true home was taken from me and my family?

farmfam

The last time I ever entered any of those farm buildings was after my Poppy’s funeral. It was a time of great grief in our family, laying our great patriarch to rest too soon. It was a time when, as painful as it was, Mom and I just had to get down to the farm and see the place where Poppy and the family had spent many hours throughout the years. Things were a bit different, obviously, but the smells of hay, sheep, and even manure brought me back to a much simpler and happier time, when the barn was my own and my cousin’s playground. Mom and I went to the attic, which had always been a forbidden place for me and my cousins. Of course, we didn’t care about restrictions; we still walked across the ceiling rafters, searched for litters of kittens, and tried to dig holes in the hay for the others to fall in.

Mom and I took in the scene. We shared memories. We wept. Then, we went back to VA, and for 8 years, that was the closest I ever went to the farm.

The truth is, I’m scared to go back, because I’m scared to move forward from a past that held so much beauty in it. How do I hold onto my past and still move on to make new memories? How do I learn to cherish my memories of the farm for what they were while still making room for new, beautiful memories for this younger generation of my family to hold, cherish, and remember?

herd

Some days I do this whole moving forward thing better, but that’s what my family does, even when I don’t have the strength to do it. We persevere. We move on. And through it all, we remember the past. We remember that we are family forever. We hold each other together, we mourn together and travel together (hence our name, The Herd). As I continue to celebrate and mourn my past and look forward to the future, their wisdom and love will guide me.

So I guess you could say we never really lost the farm. Wherever our family gathers, our memories gather with us. And these memories cannot be bought or sold for any price.