Writing from Interviews

Dreaming of Palestine

Originally published in The Davis Beat
December 13, 2014

The Middle Eastern music at Sam’s Mediterranean Café provided the perfect ambiance for interviewing Aisha Alshorooqi, a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at the University of California, Davis. Her journey to Palestine earlier this year was the culmination of a lifelong dream and the fulfillment of a promise.

Aisha Alshorooqi was born in a Palestinian enclave in Bahrain. When Alshorooqi’s mother was a teenager, she befriended a Palestinian girl and was unofficially adopted by the community, so Alshorooqi grew up with Palestinian traditions, food, dance, culture, and a Palestinian Arabic dialect. The history of Palestine was like food to Alshorooqi and her parents, who fed her so well, Alshorooqi today knows more about Palestine than she does about her home country of Bahrain or any other country in the world. Keenly aware of the history and political reality of Palestine, Alshorooqi yearned to go there, to make a difference in the lives of the Palestinian people.

“I have always wanted to do something about it,” Alshorooqi said. “My grandma never got to go back to her home country and I held the intent for her. I really wanted to do something for her, and say, ‘Look, I’m actually going to the homeland!’”

Making the trip to Palestine would not come easy for Alshorooqi. It was not simply a matter of scraping together the money to buy a ticket or taking time off from work or school. The problem was, she had an Arab passport.

“Having an Arab passport,” she said, “you can’t just go in and out, you have to have a permit, and those permits are not just issued right away. I had been applying every year, for years, to get a permit.”

She was in New York during Christmas in 2013, when she got a text message from the Palestinian Embassy in Bahrain to let her know the permit had come through.

“Excuse me, what?” she said to the two Palestinian friends who were traveling with her. “We were on the boat to go see the Statue of Liberty,” Alshorooqi said, “and I was just sitting there saying, ‘Oh, my God!’ My friends said, ‘Are you OK?’ I told them, ‘I just got a permit! I’m so excited!’”

Alshorooqi’s parents were concerned about her safety traveling into—and out of—an occupied territory that had seen a tremendous amount of armed conflict, periodically, for many years. It was a risky proposition.

“My dad was always scared security wise and I don’t blame him,” she said. “Every time I went to renew the permit application, he would say, ‘Why are you doing this? What if you get it and you go? You know the situation is unstable.’ But when I actually did get it, he was excited.”

Although she is not technically Palestinian, Alshorooqi’s adopted Palestinian family has roots there, so she did not make the journey as an outsider.

“To me that is normalizing the occupation, normalizing the inhumane situation, so I connected with an organization back in Bahrain, Friends of Palestine, whose mission is to help people in the refugee camps within the West Bank,” she said.

Friends of Palestine had been in operation for some time, and they had already assessed the needs of refugees in order to provide them with appropriate assistance.

“What they need is money,” Alshorooqi said, “because a lot of them, for example, can eat, but they can’t pay their rent. They’re a month away from being kicked out, being homeless. So Friends of Palestine gives out cash.”

Alshorooqi and the Friends of Palestine raised funds from friends and family and literally took it house to house for those in dire need. Alshorooqi also brought along toys for the orphans.

“It was a very emotional and spiritual experience,” Alshorooqi said. “The situation in the refugee camps was shocking.”

The camps in the West Bank have been described as a medieval ghetto with, for example, a two-room dwelling for a family of five, a hole in the concrete floor to use as a toilet, and a stack of blankets for beds. Generations of Palestinian refugees have never known the luxury of a bathtub, let alone a kitchen with amenities.

“They’re living in circumstances I had never even imagined. It was beyond that,” Alshorooqi said.

What struck her most was their spirit. They live in a grim situation and yet find a way to cultivate a strong and lively spirit.

Alshorooqi said, “How do they do that? I have the money. I have a house. I live in a peaceful country. I am studying and teaching in the U.S. I have it all, and I still don’t even come close to that spirit.”

In the West Bank, they talk about recent massacres as we might talk about the weather. According to Alshorooqi, it was an inspiration that the Palestinians could speak of living in mayhem and terror without breaking down, but then again, it’s the only reality that most of them have ever known.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency concurs with individual reports about the situation in the refugee camps, stating, “Socioeconomic conditions in the camps are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructures such as roads and sewers.” According to the UNWRA, there were 750,000 registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank after the Arab-Israeli war. Today there are five million worldwide, with 1.5 million living in refugee camps.