“A ghetto is nothing you are born with”
Reflections on a life in-between: the former vice-mayor of the city of Nazareth, Walid Fahoum, shares anecdotes from his life as a Palestinian politician in Israel
The streets of Nazareth are quiet on this last afternoon of the holy Muslim “holiday of sacrifice”, the Eid al-Adha. What usually is a hurried and crowded market now rests in quiet, the shops closed behind iron shutters, only the street cats tiptoeing on the white stone across the ground, reclaiming the space usually filled by humans and their daily businesses. Just across from a beautiful white mosque, a narrow stairway leads up to the first floor of an old building, up until a wide metal door.
An old man dressed in a white gown appears from behind the iron gate. His name is Walid Fahoum, a former vice-mayor of Nazareth and a prominent author, activist and intellectual belonging to the communist party. The old Palestinian man makes a modest impression but his house indicates that a lot more lies behind this modesty. As he leads the way into the yard of his house, a spacious dining room appears to the right, with a crystal-luster hanging down from the green ceiling, featuring old but restored artwork. Abu Khaled, as the old man is called after his eldest son, Khaled, sits down in the yard on a large table, surrounded by plants.
As one of the leading voices among the old generation of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, Abu Khaled has seen many events cross his community over the last decades, as wars and politics imposed new borders and realities on people, often creating new frontiers as other broke down. Resting on a chair in his house, in which his family has lived for the last 200 years or so, Walid Fahoum reflects on past and present dilemmas facing Palestinians in Israel:
“If I didn’t go to study in Al-Quds [Jerusalem] when I was young, but instead went to Nazareth, would I still be the same today? No.
When we came there in 1965, my colleagues and I were supposed to rent an apartment from a Jewish landlord. We came there, put our suitcases in front of the door, because no one was there yet, and went out to eat something in the city. When we came back, the wife of the landlord appeared from behind another door, telling us that her husband decided that it was not acceptable that we were Arabs. Then we were walking along Jaffa Street looking for a hotel, moving from hotel to hotel for a while. Like this we were living in a ghetto for two years, until Jerusalem became all Israeli after the 1967-war, and thus the ghetto we lived in became bigger.”
Abu Khaled is someone who tells lots of stories, grabbing anecdotes and scenes from the decades of his life. But his stories are also told for a reason, always leading up to a certain conclusion. This time it was the “Ghetto”, the feeling of living in some sort of Ghetto as an Arab, as a Palestinian in Israel, citizen of a state that defines itself as Jewish, but at the same time being part of the community that is in conflict with that state.
“A Ghetto is not something you are born with. The Ghetto mentality is shaped through interaction between you and society. This Ghetto mind is politicized by the kind of life you live. Sometimes you feel the Ghetto inside you when you live in a Jewish area. When you finish your work there and you go home into your own society, you feel in a Ghetto again, because your free mind becomes closed in.”
Palestinians in Israel who include themselves in the society and economy of the Jewish state, often find themselves living in-between a state in which they are discriminated as a minority, while at the same time taking part in it, working in Jewish companies, or studying at Israeli universities. The price for such inclusion is often high, although hidden behind sometimes invisible borders, or behind symbols, while border crossing between one world and another are often marked with tension:
“Symbols are recognizable everywhere. I began to work in Jerusalem after finishing studying in 1976, and often enough I would drive up to the city of Jenin in the Israeli occupied West Bank Afula [an Israeli city] back to Nazareth. I used to work as a lawyer defending political prisoners. When I went to the occupied Palestinian territory, in order for them not to throw stones at my car because of the Israeli license plate, I fixed a Kuffiyah [a Palestinian scarf] over the front of my car. One day I went back home from Jerusalem and I forgot about the Kuffiyah as I crossed into Israel. In Palestinian territories it saved me from stones being thrown at my car, but in Israel it did the opposite. I took it down as soon as I realized. But when I was back in Nazareth, I felt as if me and the Kuffiyah were becoming schizophrenic. I felt that the scarf looked at me, asking: where do I belong?”
As with the Kuffiyeh, also flags are an issue defining the feeling of living in a Ghetto for some Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Meanwhile sipping from a glass of whiskey as the sun sets over Nazareth, Abu Khaled recounts another event from his past, when he was working as an activist for the communist party under the Palestinian politician and former mayor Tawfiq Ziad:
“We were working in a voluntary camp in Nazareth in 1976. We knew that the guys from Ibna al-Balad [Sons of the Land, a Palestinian nationalist party in Israel] wanted to raise the Palestinian flag, but we were scared that the police will destroy our voluntary camp if we do so. Raising the Palestinian flag in Israel at that time was illegal. So I went over and told them not to raise the flag. They didn’t accept it in the beginning, because I was in their age and had little authority. But later Tawfiq Ziad, who was ten years older than me, went over to them and said: if you raise the flag they will come for you and you will hide it and simply go away. But they will still take down our camp. They listened to him.”
“But then, when in 1982 Israel committed the massacres in the Lebanese refugee camps Sabra and Shatila after invading Lebanon, we had lots of demonstrations in the villages. We were raising the Palestinian flag and faced legal consequences. But as a lawyer, I later researched about the flag and found out that it is actually the basis for many other Arab flags too, and because of that we couldn’t be accused of holding a Palestinian flag by law. The Nazareth magistrate court accepted my critique.”
Fighting for others to take down the Palestinian flag was a difficult choice for him. It was the price he had to pay, a strategic hiding of nationalist identities for the sake of a better life in the Jewish state.
Towards the end of the conversation, Walid Fahoum began to elaborate over the impact of the ongoing polarization of Jewish Israelis and Arab citizens of Israel, criticizing radical voices among Jewish politicians, such as the mayor of the neighboring city Nazareth Illit, Shimon Gabso, who refuses to open an Arab-speaking school in his town and advocates a Jewish-only town, ignoring and discriminating the 20 percent Arab-Palestinians living in it.
Walid Fahoum belongs to an older generation of activists from the Communist Party, who has invested much of his life in the effort of bridging a strong Palestinian identity with a life in a state suppressing this very identity through its institutions and politics.
“40 years ago, I was less extremist than today. What do they want? We are in a period of loud barking of discrimination. It is coming and going like the waves, up and down. And I am scared of myself, scared that this life is making me more extremist.”
Social anthropologist and journalist with a focus on urban issues, displacement and mobility in the Middle East.
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