Words by Darah Ghanem
Like any child of the diaspora, I am addicted to the past. I often go through piles of old photographs and memorabilia, dissecting and analysing them as a way of preserving my identity, in a world insisting on forgetting it. It’s a spiritual practice. I dig through my mum’s old photo albums in hopes of piecing together her past , my past and come face to face with stories all of which are related to me. The older I get however, the more these stories mean to me, and the more poignant, more remarkable, they become.
I recently came across a set of photographs my mother kept hidden away in an tie-dye photo album from the 1980s. Despite having just laid my eyes on it for the first time, the album is worn out. I figured the album wasn’t supposed to be found. After asking my mother about it she told me that, “I didn’t want anyone to find these photos. I kept them secret from everyone at home.” There isn’t anything particularly worthy of secrecy about these photos. I believe it was just the time and place they were in . The community they were surrounded by, heavily frowned upon dating that wasn’t chaperoned and micromanaged by the parents and families of the couple involved. The album is an ode to my parents’ unconventional relationship.
What strikes me most about these photographs is how deliberate they are. What made my parents decide to document their relationship so thoughtfully? Given the norms at the time, the documentation of an unconventional love with such intent , made it all the more unconventional. In some ways, this was a testament to their radical left wing politics , particularly their belief in the self-determination of the Palestinian people and in others a testament to, at risk of being cliché, the power of love to succeed all such repressive social proprietaries.
The Palestinian people always called what happened to them , us, a ‘catastrophe’. In a twisted irony, the catastrophe provided a context for my parents’ bond. Not only was the question of Palestine fertile ground for their shared longing for the contested physical place, but it was also a longing for each other. They imagined Palestine in one another. This can be seen in their early correspondence and even until today , 30 years later they still bond over their imagination of ‘home’.
The love my parents shared reveals a great deal about my sisters and myself. We grew up believing in the same values my parents admit in their love to one another. We believe in independence, freedom (especially of thought), and in fighting for justice. Like everyone else, our parents’ relationship isn’t perfect, but it’s these shared values that influenced an upbringing rooted in ideals of almost utopian equality. Though the catastrophe displaced generations of Palestinians, including my own, it has cultivated new definitions of love passed down from one generation to the next. These letters and photographs are proof of these new definitions and of an upbringing unique to daughters of the Palestinian diaspora.
My parents met when my mother was just out of high school. According to her, it didn’t take them long to fall in love. They spent almost six to seven years in a relationship prior to getting married. My mother spent those years between Jordan and Damascus, while my father spent them between Kuwait and Jordan. In these photos and letters, a great deal about their relationship is revealed.
My dad regularly sent postcards to my mum while she was in Damascus. They spent a good portion of their relationship in long-distance; my dad was serving in the Jordanian army while my mum was waiting to be given a place at Damascus University (at the time, Syria gave displaced Palestinians the right to education). My dad had, and still has , a penchant for making the most mundane of greetings poetic. This doesn’t surprise me about him. My mum says that during her time in Syria, my dad’s postcards became a solace. She waited impatiently for his letters and spent every afternoon excitedly waiting for her eldest brother to come home from the Damascus Post Office, in hopes that he was carrying something that would bare my dad’s writing. In a postcard from her birthday in 1987, my father writes:
“I couldn’t find flowers the colour of your smile so I send you this postcard of Jerusalem in hopes that, one day, we will see spring”.
Every postcard my dad sent had some sort of image or illustration of Palestine. Every letter that my mum wrote back included a mention of the homeland . The homeland was always present in their writings to one another, as if their romance would cease to exist had it not been for Palestine or its occupation. In a postcard sent back that same year, my mum writes a well known Mahmoud Darwish poem to my dad that starts by saying:
“My homeland… you are beautiful as you are.”
It is almost as though my father was her homeland and the homeland was my father. Separating home from love or love from home was foreign to them.
My infatuation with my parent’s documented love is a direct result of my diaspora-ness. Unlike those that know exactly where they came from, memories of where I come from are fragmented to me. My story is a puzzle that I have to piece together, events have to be sewn together for me to make sense of it all. Memory is a recurring theme in my experience: I hold on to memories from my upbringing and weave them with my parents’ past to form the complete story of my identity.
The more pieces I put together, the easier it becomes for me to navigate my future. If there’s one thing about being in the diaspora that puts us at a disadvantage is the many uncertainties , of the past and therefore the future. My biggest fear is that I won’t be able to tell my children where they come from. My parents’ memories are my biggest asset in this life; they carry our values, beliefs, triumphs and defeats which I hope to pass down to future generations of Palestinians that come after me. These memories keep our sense of who we are in tact especially in a time when our sense of self is slowly dissolving.