Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Gale Courey Toensing

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By Gulamhusein A Abba
 On Monday, February 5, 2018 Gale Courey Toensing, after a tough battle with Parkinson’s disease, died peacefully, surrounded by family members, She was born on April 7, 1946 in Montreal, the daughter of Mae (Kenmey) and Philip Courey. She emigrated to the United States and became a citizen and received her MFA from Norwich University. She is survived by her husband Craig; her daughter Liz and husband Ethan, of West Cornwall; her son Seth and his wife Beth, of Somerville, MA; her brother Jeffrey Courey and his wife Myrna and their two children, of Mississauga, Canada; and her niece Jennifer and her husband, of NYC. She was predeceased by her sister Joyce

In Palestine, Mazin Qumsiyeh and his colleagues planted a tree in Gale’s honor and money was donated to a museum in her name.   

A celebration of her life will be held in the spring and will be announced once plans are finalized
Gale Courey Toensing

With Gale’s passing away, all those who support Palestinians and their cause, Native Americans and their cause, truth, justice, freedom and equality, those who oppose tyranny, oppression and inequity, those who know the remarkable Gale Courey Toensing -- all of us have suffered a grievous loss.

She was a writer, journalist, a gifted poet and fearless and passionate activist, a champion for the rights and welfare of the common people.

For the Palestinians, she published on her web site The Corner Report forceful articles and opinion pieces. She put not only her talents, time and work for them but put her life itself where her mouth was and was on one of the ‘aid to Gaza’ ships. It was intercepted by Israel in international waters. The entire crew, including Gale, was taken into custody by the Israelis.

Gulamhusein Abba when he, along with Andrew Ziegler, visited  Gale

As for Native Indians, she started reporting for Indian Country Today since May of 2005. In addition she regularly contributed articles covering the array of issues in Indian country, publishing more than 100 articles per year on a variety of subjects. demonstrating mastery of the complexities of issues in Indian country.

Among her articles were:
What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale
It gave a better understanding of what really happened 401 years ago at the first Thanksgiving, and what Wampanoags do today.

Indian-Killer Andrew Jackson Deserves Top Spot on List of Worst US Presidents

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s $610 Million Lawsuit Against CT Inches Forward. It reported that
the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation alleges that the State of Connecticut sold off its land without paying; it's suing for $610 million.

Keith Harper on Obama, Trump and Global Human Rights
In this article attorney and Cherokee citizen Keith Harper, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, opens up about global issues.

First Wampanoag-Pilgrim Treaty Signed on April Fools’
The first Wampanoag-Pilgrim Treaty was signed by Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Nation, and the leaders of Plymouth Colony on April 1, 1621.

Expand Your Reading List With These Seven Books: 2016 Hot List
About a long list of promising titles covering the full range of reading tastes.

 ‘No Diplomacy with a Hungry Lion’: Native Leaders Look Ahead for 2016
Five tribal leaders were asked to revisit last year’s thoughts and look ahead to what they expect or hope for in 2016.

Sonny Skyhawk Bringing His War Bonnet to Oscars, Fighting for His People

In an eulogy to her, Christopher Napolitano, former Indian Country Today Creative Director,      wrote: “Toensing was working as a reporter in Connecticut when her curiosity and nose for injustice was alerted by state-level skullduggery aimed at repealing the federal recognition of an obscure Native nation in nearby Kent. Her first article on the subject for Indian Country Today, a precursor of many more pieces to come, appeared in May 2005, “Schaghticoke Status Attacked.” The fight of the Schaghticoke was never far from view for Toensing; a dozen years later, when her health was failing but her determination to investigate and publish the truth remained firm, she came through with her last piece (pre-hiatus for the fully-staffed ICTMN)—an excellent summation of the case so far—on September 3, 2017: “Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s $610 Million Lawsuit Against CT Inches Forward.”

She did not just write about them. She attended annual NCAI, NIGA and USET conferences and worked in Washington DC to provide coverage of issues facing tribal leaders and federal policy
She even went to their Pow Wows!

Andrew Ziegler when he went with Gulamhusein Aba to meet Gale
One of her friends,  Pat Mechare has written,“Some might not know that Gale’s interests were broad. She sought justice for the Native Americans and worked for a prestigious Native American Journal. There she focused on current litigations involving the Native American community. She traveled several times to the Middle East to see first-hand the struggles of the ordinary people in those regions and was another voice of support for them. She became a part of several groups in the area who worked for peace there and found lifelong friends.

“She loved to garden and see the blooms of the flowers she grew. She loved reading, debating and family and was so very proud of her children, Liz and Seth. She had a gentle and wry sense of humor. We owe her a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. We extend our sympathies to her family, especially her husband, Craig, who lovingly cared for her during her illness, with the reminder that her deeds and the person she was will not soon be forgotten.”

Gale was also an accomplished poet, having earned an MFA in poetry from Norwich University in Vermont. She wrote evocatively, tenderly, lovingly. Here is an example of her poetry, her remembrance of her mother

Personal Belongings.
My mother’s nightgown lies furled at the back of the drawer,
flimsy like a shadow someone forgot to pack.
I stashed it there unwashed five years ago,
death cells still clinging to its fibers. I want to take it out
and shake it, run it through the washer by itself
on gentle cycle, small load, dry it with a sheet
of Bounce and fluff it back to when she was a paradox,
a five-foot giantess, reliquary of bad advice.
I remember her pitying stare, poised dressed-to-kill
and dripping jewels on the living room sofa,
her daily exhortations, flipping through fashion magazines—

You look like death warmed over in those black clothes.
Why don’t you make yourself glamorous?
Go get a permanent and learn how to cook,
don’t show how brainy you are, show some cleavage,
that’s the way to catch a man—and the night her own brain,
hooked by a random ruby red hardening of blood, cleft itself
into smooth-surfaced planes between clearing
the dinner dishes and serving the tea, how her body
slid to the floor, fluid as a silk negligee tossed off a creamy shoulder,
the porcelain cups tinkling into shards like the memories
she tried to piece together the next four years, and never could.

I’d enter her room from the coded elevator
and she’d say my name, then Sister! Or, lost somewhere between
Intention and expression, Blue! as she waved the only hand
she could still move to flaunt the diamond rings my father
had given her through the years, until she grew so small they slid
over the bones of her fingers and fell into the safe
deposit box at my bank where I keep them with her gold bracelets
and emerald necklace and other sparkling things,
in a rectangle of steel as dark as the coffin she was buried in
or the drawer where her nightgown lies,
so I can tell her shimmering from mine.
–Gale Courey Toensing (1997)

Though Gale has left us physically, she continues to be with us in spirit and will forever inspire us.

A personal note: Gale and I had been friends for a long time. We started exchanging views, opinions, personal news and feelings from February 2006 and wrote to each other pretty regularly

We had hoped to meet on June 15   2016. This would be the first time she and her husband Craig and my wife and I would be meeting together “to break bread” and chat. She was very happy about this and looked forward to it. On that day, after keeping a medical appointment with Craig’s doctor, they were on their way to pick up my wife and myself. Half way through, Gale’s illness started acting up and they had to return home. She called to let us know. I told her not to worry about it and that we will meet soon,” Inshallah”. Here is what she replied; “Dear Gulamusein  My mother used to say "inshallah" when I asked if I could do something she didn't want me to do but didn't have a good reason to deny my request. Then when something happened to prevent whatever it was I asked for she could say "It was God's will." I never believed her. But now I find myself longing to understand and accept Allah's will. I'd very much like to talk to you about that, if that's possible. I will try to call you tomorrow around 1pm after I return from physical therapy. I was so exhausted when we got home that I fell asleep on the sofa and woke up 10 minutes ago -- just in time to go to bed 🙂 I think tomorrow will be a better day -- inshallah! Talk to you then. Good night...”

Unfortunately her illness prevented her from making a trip to Danbury again. I too became too ill to go out.  Besides I had no transport. But I was determined to find a way to go and meet her. I tried very hard. Ultimately my good friend, Andrew Ziegler offered to take me there and look after me all the way. And so, armed with a urinal and assisted by my friend, at last visited her on Saturday, December2. 2017 to pay our respects to her, express our appreciation and thanks for all that she had done, and do what she loved—'break bread’ with her!. As usual, in spite of limitations due to her illness, she went about being a perfect hostess, flitting about in her wheelchair from the dining area to the kitchen area, bringing food, getting the dishes, setting the table, lovingly putting food onto our plates: “You must taste this. My husband specially made this”!! She ignored our pleas to forget about being a host and the food and just sit and talk with us. That is what we had come for, we told her. We did manage to have some conversation with her and promised to come again, bringing food with us. But that was not to be. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Gandhi’s 70th.death anniversary

By Gulamhusein A. Abba

On this day, January 30, in 1948 Gandhi fell to the ground, shot by a young Hindu extremist, Nthuram Godse, while he was walking, at about 5 pm., to his prayer meeting in the lawn of Birla House, New Delhi


Painting by Anis Hamadeh

 That event is very personal to me. I had seen Gandhi, attended a couple of his prayer meetings, was at a large public meeting being addressed by Gandhi at Chowpaty, Bombay and heard his speeches live on radio. That is not all. I actually met him, not as an admirer but as an antagonist. I greeted him but not with a Namaste. Instead I stuck my hand out for a handshake and he graciously responded. And I bluntly asked him why he hated us Muslims and why was he opposing our getting a homeland of our own within India. He patiently explained.

I was alive and in India when he undertook his fast unto death in Noakhali to end the massacre between Hindus and Muslims, and again when he undertook his last fast, after the partition of India, to compel the government of India to pay to Pakistan its share of the assets left behind by the British and which were in India’s control.

I started out as an antagonist but ended up being an admirer, albeit with reservations on certain issues.

On the day of his death I, along with my friend Mehboobali Khan, was at the Strand cinema in the Fort area of Bommbay. watching a Rock and Roll movie. The screening was stopped before the movie ended. The audience was informed that Gandhi had been shot dead and that curfew had been imposed in the whole of Bombay. We were told to go home as soon as possible and by the safest route we could find. It was a long and frightened journey home that day.

Initially the news was that he was shot by a Pathan, a Muslim. It signaled a bloody massacre of Muslims. Fortunately, it was soon confirmed that the assassin was a Hindu.

It was chaotic and frightening for some time, Even as the nation mourned it was puzzled and dazed. A pall settled on the country.

It listened with rapt attention as Jawaharlal Nehru rose to the occasion and delivered his now famous “The light has gone out of our lives” speech.

If there is a national day of mourning for Indians, wherever they may be, today is the day.

 Here are some pictures that stir up memories

The trinity; Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sadar Vallabh Bhai Patel

Gandhi's famous visit to Jinnah at his house. He went there to persuade him to give up his demand for Pakistan. He even promised him that the Congress would accept him to be he head of the Indian governmen when it attained its independence

Gandhi's body laid out after his death

Gandhi's Samadhi

Modi paying his respects


Saturday, January 27, 2018

*A Republic of Inhospitality: India, January 26th

January 27, 2018 by Vinay Lal

India has just finished celebrating Republic Day, and as the chests of millions of Indians swelled with pride at the thought of our immense diversity and imagined military prowess, it is well to reflect on what kind of Republic the country has become.  We may begin with some elementary if often forgotten meanings of the word “republic”:  a republican form of government is not merely one in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch; rather, the modern republic rests on the idea that sovereignty resides in the people, and that the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives, is supreme.
What has, however, been critical to the idea of the ‘republic’ everywhere is the notion of inclusiveness, even if this does not form part of the word’s typical dictionary definition. In this respect, the stories that have been coming out of India in recent years tell a tale that is chilling to the bones, a tale which leaves behind a stench that no amount of sloganeering about ‘swacch Bharat’ or even something more than a symbolic wielding of the broom can eradicate.  If inclusiveness is the touchstone of a Republic, what is characteristic of India today is how increasingly large constituencies are being excluded from the nation. Muslims and Dalits have been hounded, garroted, and lynched; the working class is being trampled upon; the Adivasi is nothing more than an obstacle course for a mining company.  None of this is news, some might argue; perhaps things have only become worse.  Such a view is profoundly mistaken, because whatever India may have been in the past, it has never been, certainly not to the extent it is today, a Republic of Inhospitality.
There are other ways, too, of understanding the pass at which we have arrived.  On his last day of office some months ago, the Vice President, Hamid Ansari, warned that Muslims were feeling increasingly insecure in India and that there was a corrosion of Indian values.  His successor, Venkaiah Naidu, was dismissive of these remarks and shot back, “Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.” The Prime Minister, who appears a model of graciousness when he is in the company of foreign dignitaries but has been glaringly contemptuous of political opponents and previous occupants of his office, could not resist taking a dig at Mr. Ansari.  The veteran politician, Mr. Modi suggested, had spent too much time in the company of Muslims—at Aligarh Muslim University, as a member of the Minorities Commission, and as a representative of India to West Asia—and his sympathies did not really lie with India.  One should, of course, not expect anything else from this Prime Minister, What Naidu and the Prime Minister failed to understand was Ansari’s unease at the fact that India no longer seemed a hospitable place to him. India does not even remotely feel like a hospitable place to the Africans who have been set upon by mobs or to those from the Northeast who been humiliated and killed since they seem too much like the Chinese—aliens all.

African students injured in mob attacks in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, April 2017.  Source:
More than anything else, India has long been a land of hospitality.  I use the word hospitality with deliberation and with the awareness that our present crop of middle-class Indians who study hotel management and business administration with gusto will assume that I am speaking of the ‘hospitality industry’.  There is a different story to be told here about how some of the richest words in the English language have been hijacked for the narrowest purposes.  I use hospitality in place of tolerance since both the right and the left have demonstrated their intolerance for ‘tolerance’.  To liberals and the left in India, all discussion of Hindu tolerance is merely a conceit and at worst a license to browbeat others into submission.  Surprisingly, but perhaps not, the advocates of Hindutva are equally unenthusiastic about proclaiming the virtues of ‘Hindu tolerance’.  It was Hindu tolerance that, in their view, made the Hindus vulnerable to the depredations of foreign invaders.  ‘Hindu tolerance’ is only for the weak and the effete.

A delegation of students protesting the death of 19-year old Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh killed in the south Delhi colony of Lajpat Nagar.  Photo Source:  Press Trust of India.
What, then, does it mean to speak of the culture of hospitality that has long characterized India and that is eroding before our very eyes, turning this ancient land into a most inhospitable place not only for foreign tourists, African students, and the various people of northeast India, but even for the greater majority of its own citizens?  We may take as illustrative of this culture of hospitality three narratives that are humbling in their complex simplicity.  There is a story that is often told about the coming of the Parsis to India, although some doubt its veracity.  As they fled Iran, so the story goes, they were stopped on the border as they sought to make their way into India.  The Indian king already had far too many people in his dominions and could not accommodate any more refugees.  The cup was full.  The Parsis are said to have responded, ‘We shall be like the sugar that sweetens the cup of tea.’

Parsis outside their Fire Temple, Mumbai.
Those who wish to make the story plausible will offer dates and there may be mention of the political dynasty that prevailed in Western India in the 8th century with whom the first batch of Parsis would have come into contact.  The story may well be apocryphal, though if that is the case it is wholly immaterial:  its persistence suggests something not only about the tenor of those times but the continuing attractiveness of the idea that those who came to India have each, in their own fashion, sweetened the pot and added something to the country.  But there may have been many other registers of hospitality in India, as Tagore sought to explain to his audience on a visit to China.  The Mahsud, a Pathan tribe inhabiting the South Waziristan Agency in what is now the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, were being bombed from the air.  A plane crash landed in one of the villages; the pilot was desperately trying to extricate himself from the plane which was already on fire.  Though the villagers had been plummeted by this very pilot, they ran to the plane and lifted him out of the cockpit; he was wounded, but they nursed him back to health; and some weeks later he made his way back to England.  It was a culture, indeed an ideal, of hospitality, and their notion of dharma, that made the villagers act as they did; however, as Tagore tellingly adds, their behavior was “the product of centuries of culture” and was “difficult of imitation.”
Though Nehru shepherded the country after independence, it was Mohandas Gandhi more than anyone else who was committed to the constituent idea of the Republic, that is inclusivity and what I have described as hospitality.  It is, therefore, fitting that my last story should end with him.  Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, but he often had visitors to the ashram who were accustomed to having meat at nearly every meal.  He took it upon himself to ensure that they were served meat; and he also adhered to the view that if he had insisted that they conform to the rules of the ashram and confine themselves to vegetarian food, he would be visiting violence upon them. Although reams and reams have been written upon his notion of ahimsa, little has been said of how hospitality was interwoven into his very notion of nonviolence.  And, yet, it is in this very India that Muslims and Dalits have been killed on the mere suspicion of eating, hoarding, and transporting beef.  On this Republic Day, at least, Indians should ponder on precipitous has been the decline of their country into a Republic of Inhospitality.
The above is from Vinal Lal's blog at:
[A slightly shorter version of this was published under the same title in the online edition of The Indian Express, 27 January 2018.]

Monday, January 1, 2018

A slap that reverberated around the globe

By Gulamhusein A. Abba

One fine day, Friday, December 15 to be exact, a teenaged girl, 16 years old, saw two fully armed soldiers, in battle gear, with guns in their hands, standing in the front court of her house. She did not want them there. She went up to them and asked them to leave. They did not budge. She started prodding and pushing them. There was a scuffle. At this point the mother of the girl came out of the house and intervened to calm the situation. Then the teenaged girl, acting with the recklessness typical of teenagers, did something unimaginable. She slapped one of the fully armed soldiers! The scuffle escalated. The mother pulled the girls away and pacified the soldiers. The scuffle ended. The soldiers stayed where they were. The incident was closed.

However, five days later, on Tuesday 19, the soldiers came back. This time they did not just stand in the front court. They soldiers burst into the home and dragged the grl out of bed. They placed her in handcuffs and put her in the back of their military jeep and drove off

Ahed Tamimi
 It did not stop there.  The next day, her mother was arrested at the police station trying to find her daughter. The following afternoon, her 21-year-old cousin was taken into custody.

On Monday 25, the court refused to allow bail for her and on Tuesday Dec.26 it extended her detention for a period of 10 days ,

Ahed Tamimi and her mother Nariman Tamimi
Arrest a teenager for slapping a soldier? And the mother who intervened and pulled away the teenager? And why days after the slapping incident? And why were there armed soldiers in the front court of a private house?

First, why the arrest took place days after the incident?. It turns out that the teenager was a Palestinian girl, 16 years old, named Ahed Tamimi and the soldiers were IDF soldiers. The whole scuffle between the teenager and the soldiers, including the slap, had been videotaped. It was put out on social media and went viral

There was a furor. The Israeli public and the politicians were demanding that this chit of a Palestinian girl be punished. Words like “castrated” and “impotent” were bandied about to describe how they felt when they saw one of their soldiers, with his helmet and his body armor and his gun, being slapped by 
this chit of a Palestinian girl. There were calls for her being raped. Joining them was an Israeli journalist.

Why were the soldiers in the front court of Ahed Tamimi’s house?

On the day of the slapping incident, Friday Dec.15, there was the usual Friday protest by the villagers at Nabi Saleh against the confiscation by Israeli settlers of the al-Qus spring and other village-owned land. The spring lay in the valley between the village and the settlement of Halamish, and Nabi Saleh had joined a handful of other villages that chose the path of unarmed resistance, marching to protest the occupation every Friday, week after week. These peaceful demonstrations have been held from December 2009.

Ahed’s cousin, Mustafa Tamimi, had already been killed, shot in the face with a tear-gas canister. Her mother’s brother, Rushdie Tamimi, was killed In November of 2012, shot in the back by an Israeli soldier just down the hill from her house. But the tiny village didn’t stop. They kept marching, every Friday, to the spring. The soldiers kept stopping them with tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets. The army came during the week too, “making arrests, searching houses, spreading fear”

Mohammed Tamimi lying in a medically induced coma in a hospital to which he was rushed after being shot in the face  shortly before Israeli Occupation Forces went to Tamimi residence and it led to Ahed slapping one of them
At the December 15 demonstration 14-year-old Mohammed Tamimi was shot directly in the face by an IDF soldier with a rubber coated steel bullet.  The boy was rushed to surgery and had to be placed in a medically induced coma. Moments after the shooting, armed Israeli soldiers came to Ahed Tamimi’s house.

Why did Ahed “foolishly” slap the IDF soldier? It was not just the trespassing by the soldiers. It was all that had gone before it. The Tamimi family has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli forces because they refuse to stand down in the face of their invaders. 

Billboards of Ahed have been posted at bus stope and train statins in London
Despite attempts by Zionist media to downplay the story of her arrest, it has drawn international attention. She has made news in Pakistan, India, and Singapore, and her face can now be seen on billboards at bus stops and train stations in London.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

From exile to resistance

What does it mean to be a Palestinian today?

Samah Sabawi:

'So I write: A Palestinian story of finding home, voice and identity'

Theatre provided a valuable outlet for Samah Sabawi, who lived most of her life in various forms of exile after the 1967 war.

1967 is known as the year of al-Naksa, the setback, a year of lost hopes and dreams. It was also the year of my birth. When the war broke out, my parents had been married for almost seven years and had three children, with a fourth on the way - me.

They lived in a modest home with their extended families in the poor district of Toffah in Gaza. They had a vegetable garden where they grew chillies, tomatoes and herbs, and a backyard with a lemon tree, a sycamore tree and a pomegranate tree. Along the back fence separating their property from their neighbours' was a wild cactus hedge that yielded the sweetest prickly pear fruit, and near the front gate, jasmine vines greeted guests with the most beautiful and welcoming scent.

My father was a schoolteacher by day and a writer and poet by night. My mother carried on with her traditional tasks: caring for the children, cooking, sewing and cleaning under the watchful eyes of her in-laws with whom she resided.

Gaza had been under Egyptian administration since the war of 1948, but in 1967, things were simmering like never before. There was great unrest in Gaza's refugee camps, as Palestinians who had fled in terror or were forcibly removed from their towns and villages in 1948 to pave the way for a Jewish state were growing tired of waiting, still denied their right to return.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was delivering fiery speeches promising the end of Israel, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, Arab unity, and hope. My father and many other young men believed in him and responded by joining the Liberation Army - Jaysh al-Tahrir - that served under the Egyptian military.

Nasser never delivered on his promise of liberation. The war of 1967 was lost and Israel expanded and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights of Syria. More Palestinians were made refugees.

Leaving Gaza

Two months after the war and one week after I was born, Israeli soldiers searching homes in Gaza looking for men who fought in the Liberation Army came to our house to detain my father. He jumped over the prickly cactus hedge into the neighbour's garden. The soldiers left a clear message for him: stay and be put in jail forever, or leave Gaza immediately.

My father went into hiding. He knew if he was jailed, our family and his extended family would starve as we all depended on his salary. After a few months, he had no choice but to leave and find work elsewhere. A part of him felt like a coward for leaving, but another knew he was fighting for his family's survival.

At the Jordan River crossing, an Israeli soldier ordered him to sign a document declaring once he leaves the border crossing, he would lose his right to reside in Gaza forever. My father still remembers the blood running cold in his veins. The reality of occupation began sinking into his heart like poison.

At that moment, he understood that the Israelis had no intention of complying with the United Nations resolution calling for their withdrawal from territories they occupied in 1967, including Gaza. At that moment, he understood that the occupation would last for a very long time.

The first morning my father woke up to find himself exiled in Jordan, he wrote of his sense of estrangement and regret at leaving his homeland:
If only the stray bullets from the occupier's guns were merciful
And pierced through our legs
If only they tore through our knees
If only we sunk into your fields
If only we became the salt of your earth
The nutrients in your fertile soil
If only we didn't leave
- Samah Sabawi's father

Life in Exile

In my first baby photo I am cradled in my mother's arms, my three siblings stand around us.
That was the first ID photo we took so we could get a travel document to enable us to leave Gaza to be with my father. As soon as our papers were ready, my mother packed all four of us, said her goodbyes to loved ones, and turned her back on the only home she had ever known.

In Jordan, my parents rented a room in a house that belonged to a family of 1948 refugees from Palestine in a small camp called Khnefsah.

Khnefsah was an unregistered refugee camp in the Marka district, not far from Amman. Growing out of necessity to house Palestinian refugees from 1948, the camp was an amalgamation of tents and concrete structures. My mother was the only Gazan woman in the camp; the other women were mainly fellahin (peasants) and wore traditional embroidered dresses, very different from my mother's modern clothes.

My father chose to move us into Khnefsah because the official United Nations camp for refugees from Gaza, in Jerash, was not properly set up yet. It was also further away from the Jordanian capital, and my father feared he wouldn't find any job opportunities there or find a viable way to eventually leave.

A stream ran close to the house in Khnefsah, and the room was often flooded when heavy rains fell. Ironically, the house had no direct water access itself, and we were forced to share communal toilets with 15 other families. I don't remember any of this, but I am told that in that one room, we ate, slept, washed, cooked, laughed and sometimes cried. I took my first steps there. My father worked odd jobs in Amman and was determined to make it out of the camp.

Once there, my family shared a small house in Dammam with my uncle and his five kids. Dammam was a Gulf city rising from the sand like a mythical genie, energised by black oil and the blood and sweat of foreign workers and Palestinian refugees. I remember our living room was divided by a partition. One half was for guests and the other half was our bedroom. We shared two bunk beds against the wall and a mattress on the floor. Our family had grown and now we were five siblings in all.

Childhood in Saudi Arabia was tough. We were overwhelmed by the cultural differences and the difficult-to-understand Saudi dialect of Arabic. And while I had heard so much about Palestine growing up, I had to imagine what jasmine smells like. What does a pomegranate tree look like? How can there be a fruit tree growing in someone's backyard? All we had in Dammam was desert sand and high walls surrounding our home. Outside, the streets were hostile and dangerous, and we always felt like we did not belong.

Discovering the Arab World in the 'Desert Ship'

My father announced we would set sail in his Chevrolet sedan, named the Desert Ship, to explore the geography of the world in which we lived. Our goal was to drive across the desert to the Fertile Crescent, and hopefully, visit our home in Palestine. He stocked his Desert Ship to the brim with water bottles, boiled eggs, dried figs, za'atar (a Middle Eastern herb spice like thyme) sandwiches, pillows and blankets. He sat behind the wheel with the love of his life, my mother, beside him, and all five of us squeezed in the back.

It was on that trip that I came to understand so much more about the Arab World and my place in it.

I was six years old and was starting to develop a need for space and reflection. I refused to be crammed into the back of our sedan, so I stretched my small body across the ledge behind the back seat instead. My face was stuck to the rear window, and my eyes were open wide. I can remember every detail of the two-month journey: the sights, smells, and sounds of the Arab World.
I can still see the sand dunes and camel caravans of Saudi Arabia, feel the warm, salty waters of the Gulf in Kuwait, hear the humming of factories that stretched for miles along the Euphrates river, and envision the manicured trees that lined the impeccable streets of Baghdad, the beautiful, rolling hills of Jordan, the astonishing beauty that is Lebanon, and the simplicity of life in Syria. On that road trip, I learned my geography and embraced my Arab identity. I learned many lessons, too; the first being how generous and hospitable strangers can be.

After driving through the Arabian desert for a full day, we pulled into a small town in northern Saudi Arabia. My father simply rolled down the window, called to a boy standing by the side of the road, and asked him to point us in the direction of the Palestinian teacher's house. My father knew that in every town in Saudi Arabia there would be at least one Palestinian refugee working as a teacher.

Sure enough, the boy took us to a small house shared by two Palestinian brothers, both teachers at the local primary school. My father stood at their door and told them we were a Palestinian family that was travelling and needed a place to stay. The brothers took us in, their wives cooked us dinner, and then they gave us their beds to sleep in. The next morning they made us breakfast and sent us on our way with extra sandwiches and water bottles. Their generosity and kind hearts knew no bounds.

Later on, when we couldn't find a restaurant after driving for hours across Lebanon's mountain ranges, we stopped at someone's house to ask if they knew where we could eat. They insisted that we be their guests, and simply wouldn't take no for an answer. They prepared a feast before sending us on our way with full stomachs and treasured memories.
On that trip, I also learned that the lines between Muslim sects were blurry and insignificant, as we, a Sunni family, casually stopped to pray at a Shia mosque on the outskirts of Baghdad. And I discovered just how moving the theatre could be after seeing Duraid Lahham's play, Dhay'at Tishreen, at the magnificent and storied Hamra Theatre in Beirut.

I got to see an Arab world that, at the time of our trip in 1974, was embracing modernity while also safeguarding its heritage. It was a world where music, museums, mosques, theatres, universities, factories, and gardens combined, and it was thriving.

Visiting Gaza 

But not all the trip's lessons came from positive experiences.

When we arrived at the crossing between Jordan and Israel, border officials separated the men and boys from the women and girls, and a female Israeli soldier asked us to all strip down to our underwear. A sense of shame washed over me, combining with my embarrassment for my mother and older sisters. I couldn't understand what the soldier was hoping to find beneath our dresses. I didn't make eye contact with anyone for a few hours after that, and we drove from the crossing to Gaza in silence.

In Gaza, we were welcomed by family members, too many, in fact, for me to remember every one by name. Gaza was so green and it smelled like perfume at night. Later, I understood that that was the scent of jasmine; at last, I had my own memories to match my parents' stories, and over the few weeks that we stayed in Gaza, I filled my mind with new lessons and experiences.

I learned to climb the almond trees in my great-grandfather's yard and crack the hard almond shells to get to the nut inside. I learned to stay away from the cactus hedges, and had my mother or father peel the fruit for me. I learned to surrender my cheeks to the endless kisses and pinches of my many relatives. I learned how to walk past the lizards on the wall without flinching. I loved that I could understand the words spoken on the street, much unlike Saudi Arabia, where my ears hadn't yet grown accustomed to the local dialect. I learned to feel safe in the embrace of older women, and I learned their names. 

But being in Palestine also showed me a world of gates and borders, and forced me to interact with soldiers who violated our sense of dignity.
Since that trip so much has changed in the Arab World. Today, it is no longer safe to take a road trip across the desert, and the sense of generosity and old-fashioned hospitality that once reigned has fallen victim to the growing mistrust and violence that continues to spread across the region, sparing no one and nothing at all.

But back in 1974, I slept in my father's arms in the desert south of Baghdad, looking up at the stars as he recited poetry. While I could not fully understand his pain at the time, I remember that his poems were about his yearning for Palestine. He was under no illusions, even then, knowing full well that divisions, oppression, and injustice stood in the way of him ever moving back to his homeland.

Theatre provides an escape 

Our summer vacation was over and we returned to our home in Saudi Arabia. I was ready to start my first year of school. My mother bought me a small black abaya (a loose cloak that covers the body from shoulders to feet) and a veil. I was now a school girl and subjected to the cruel realities of sexual harassment in the street and the relentless pursuit of the religious police who threaten to beat those women and girls not properly covered.
Aware of the predatory gaze of some men in a world where no women were visible, I found it soothing to disappear beneath an abaya and veil. Sometimes, I even wished I could become invisible forever. The only bright light I remember from my early childhood years, was the comfort I found in reading novels and books of poetry, and the joy I experienced when playing theatre with my siblings and cousins.

My sister would make up a story, and we would escape to the rooftop of our house to act it out. One summer, an uncle saw us, and he was so impressed that he hung a red curtain for us to use. Just like that, the rooftop became a professional theatre.

But those years quickly passed, and the curtain eventually came down.

Leaving the Middle East

In 1980, we left the region for good and immigrated to Australia, thousands and thousands of kilometres away.

When we stepped off the plane at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, I felt as though my eyes would pop out of my head as I tried in vain to contain the vibrancy of the green fields that surrounded us. Australia was unlike anything I had ever seen.

By then, our family had grown again, and I was one of seven siblings.

As we drove through the streets of Melbourne, I saw that almost every neighbourhood had a playground with grass fields, swings, slides and picnic tables. That these were shared public spaces that anyone could use for free was an exciting concept.

My father bought a farm in the rolling hills of the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, about 35 kilometres east of Melbourne. Our house was at the top of a hill. By then, my father owned a successful company in Saudi Arabia, and when he wasn't working on the farm or on his business, he wrote poems and novels about Palestine.

My mother's arms, meanwhile, seemed as wide as the universe, holding us all together, as we floated above the ground, navigating our way between identities and homeland.

We worked hard on the farm, chasing runaway cows back into paddocks, mending fences and herding livestock to greener pastures. Our new world was exciting and filled with adventure! We ached to belong to it.

The first few years were dedicated to learning English, making new friends, and understanding our new, hybrid identities. Now we belonged to the hyphenated Palestinian population that is spread out across the globe. We became Australian citizens, but this didn't change how others looked at us. 'Where are you from?' 'What's your Christian name?' and other annoying questions continued to taunt us. Not only could they not pronounce our names, or recognise Palestine, we could never show them our country of origin on a map.

In 1982, the civil war in Lebanon had reached its peak. Our grief-stricken parents watched in horror as news of massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut spread across the airwaves, reminding the world of the many injustices Palestinians continued to endure.

For the first time, I saw Palestinians on the news, but they weren't breathing; they were corpses piled on top of each other, mostly women and children. Melbourne's The Age newspaper ran an opinion piece that expressed outrage, not at the perpetrators of the massacre, but at the coverage it was receiving. The article questioned whether Palestinians would get so much attention if they didn't have oil running through their veins? The insinuation was that Palestinians were Arabs, and therefore, by association, they must have oil and big money. I found myself writing a response to the piece, and to my surprise it was published. I was 14 and had just discovered my voice.

That was when I vowed to use this voice, to the best of my abilities, for as long as I live.

Throughout the years, when I wasn't marching in protests or writing articles or opinion pieces, I found refuge in writing poetry and plays for theatrical productions. I got married and lived in Canada for many years, where I raised my three children, now all adults. I have since returned to Australia.
My life's work reflects the passage of time, the ongoing deterioration of the Arab world, and more specifically, the ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people. Shut out from mainstream news networks, I plugged into the online world of Palestinian activism.

The Palestine Chronicle was instrumental in my journey of honing my skills as a writer. Other websites like Electronic Intifada and more recently the think-tank, Al-Shabaka, created a virtual space for Palestinian intellectuals to connect, write and learn. 

In 2008, the bombs began to fall on Gaza. For three weeks, we watched our families and loved ones suffer the brutality of Israel's ruthless campaign. I wrote poetry, and those poems turned into a play, which in turn became my most significant accomplishment as a writer.

Tales of a City by the Sea explores the lives of Palestinians in Gaza under siege and bombardment. Though its characters are fictional, the play is inspired by the real-life stories I collected during that period. In my play, Rami, an American-born Palestinian doctor who boards the Free Gaza boats, the first to break the siege in 2008, falls in love with Jomana, a Palestinian blogger from the Shati refugee camp.

While Rami promises Jomana he will return, when he comes back to Gaza with his mother to ask for Jomana's hand in marriage, they get stuck at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza. That's when Israel's bombing campaign begins. Rami uses underground tunnels to get into the territory, and he volunteers at Shifa hospital in Gaza City. His love for Jomana is tested by the daily horrors of life in Gaza.

In 2013, during Mohamed Morsi's brief period of rule as president of Egypt, the stifling siege on Gaza was relaxed, and the Rafah crossing was opened. My husband and I took the opportunity to visit our families in Gaza, and I put on a play reading at the Al Qattan Centre for the Child, a local community centre for children. The audience was thrilled to see a love story on stage that reflected their lives, and I vowed to premiere the play in Gaza, the West Bank and Melbourne at the same time the following year. In doing so, I hoped to overcome Israel's walls and efforts to fragment Palestinians by connecting artists in all three places.

Little did I know that months before our production teams were ready to stage the play in 2014, a more brutal and ruthless bombing campaign would begin. Lasting 51 days, the war devastated Gaza once again. The Gaza-based production never took place, but we were able to stage the play at La Mama theatre in Melbourne and the Alrowwad Cultural and Theatre Society in Aida Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

After its sold-out 2014 season, Tales of a City by the Sea was added to the Victorian Certificate of Education playlist, to be taught to high school students. For the first time, I felt that I, a Palestinian, was a part of Australia's cultural and social fabric. That the story of my people would be taught in schools gave me a sense of inclusion and pride.
But adding the play to the VCE curriculum triggered a vicious campaign by B'nai Brith, a right-wing Zionist group, to have it removed. The campaign was so frenzied that the Victorian State parliament even interrupted its own budget hearing to discuss removing the Palestinian love story from its VCE playlist.

In the end, the support of teachers, educators, theatregoers, artists, dramatists, writers and so many others in Australia was overwhelming. The play remained on the VCE list, it had a second sellout season at La Mama, a national, three-city tour across Australia, and an international season in Kuala Lumpur. All the performances were met with full houses and standing ovations.

The tide had shifted and popular support for the Palestinian cause is now visible. But Gaza continues to deteriorate, and Palestine has been reduced to fragmented Bantustans.
Recently, at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Writers Festival, I was asked why my main character, Jomana, chooses to stay in Gaza, the world's largest open-air prison. I explained that the play captures a snapshot of life in Gaza at a time when there was still hope. But if I were to write a sequel to this play today, Jomana would be desperately trying to leave.

Today, Gaza is polarised, its people forced to choose between two bad leadership options that excel only at blaming one another for everything from an electricity crisis to the siege and inhumane conditions in hospitals. Who will save Palestinians from their corrupt and inept leaders? Neither Hamas nor Fatah offer any long-term liberation strategy. The Palestinian Authority is only concerned with maintaining its power at the expense of its own people's aspirations. The only hope we have is in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, but BDS only offers a strategy for resistance, it does not offer alternatives to the political power structures that have shackled our people in Occupied Palestine.

Change has to begin with us. Our principles must unite us: freedom, justice, equality. I know my contribution is modest compared to the greater sacrifices of those lingering in Israeli prisons, the families of martyrs, or the refugees stuck in refugee camps since 1948, or washing ashore on Europe's beaches. But all I have is my voice. So I write.


in Motion

© 2017 Al Jazeera Media Network.

Written by: Samah Sabawi

Photographer: Mohammed Asad

Developed by: @AJLabs

Courtesy of Al Jazeera. It has, in its wonderful series Palestine in Motion published several engrossing and illuminating stories of loss, love, trauma, hope, and ultimately, of what it means to be Palestinian. To read the deeply personal and revealing stories of ordinary people who survived massacres, displacement and military occupation go to