How I saw the light in Gaza during my United States trip

Children are seen in Khan Yunis, Gaza (Abed Zagout - Anadolu Agency)

Yousef M. Aljamal

Politics Today  /  December 7, 2022

Visiting the United States again over the years has led to important observations of how domestic politics and foreign policy have been changing in the country.

Since my first trip to the United States in 2014, I knew justice in Palestine is not an unattainable illusion. On October 14, Asmaa Abu Mezied and I landed in Chicago for our book tour with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). While my first tour with the AFSC was in 2014 to promote the book Gaza Writes Back, visiting the United States again over the years has led to important observations of how domestic politics and foreign policy have been changing in the country. This time, Asmaa and I toured seven cities in the United States to promote the recently published book Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire by Haymarket Books.

The tour kicked off with an event that included Palestinian community members, many of whom are from the West Bank. Chicago is home to a large Palestinian community, many of whom come from the central mountains of Palestine, from villages such as Turmus Ayya, Ayn Yabrud, and Al Mazraa. Organized by the American Muslims for Palestine, the event allowed us, two Palestinians from Gaza, joined by the book’s co-editor, Jennifer Bing, to exchange ideas with fellow Palestinians, ironically in the United States and not in Palestine.

The event was followed by a talk at the Grace Place church in Chicago, where Asmaa and I explained our perspectives on the future of Gaza. My chapter “Travel Restrictions as a Manifestation of Nakba: Gaza, the Path backward Is the Path Forward” highlights the generational and ongoing aspect of the Nakba, revealing that travel restrictions are only a manifestation of the Nakba that Palestinians inherit the same way they inherit their refugee status. Although my chapter highlights family tragedies, such as losing my sister as a result of being denied a permit to receive medical care in Jerusalem in 2007, and my mother not being able to see her family for 12 years in the West Bank because of the same system of permits imposed by Israel, it ends on a hopeful note. I narrate how I was able to challenge these travel restrictions and meet my West Bank family, including my aunt in Jordan in 2014, who needed time to recognize me after 14 years.

Asmaa spoke about how agriculture and space in Gaza have been shaken by the 1948 Nakba, in her chapter titled “Lost Identity: The Tale of Peasantry and Nature,” where Gaza has to absorb 200,000 refugees over a few weeks, doubling its population to 300,000. Asma stressed that agriculture has played a prominent role in Palestinian history, such as the 1936 Revolution, which was led by Palestinian farmers who protested taxation and migration policies imposed by the British. She narrated her own family experience cultivating the land and how her grandmother told her, “A lap filled with soil is better than a lap filled with gold.” However, Asmaa adds, due to systematic policies, young Palestinians have been shying away from agriculture and even landlords no longer want their children to be farmers.

After being reminded, again and again, that Chicago deep dish pizza is better than New York pizza (in your dreams, Chicagoans!), we flew to Washington D.C. In D.C., Jennifer, Asmaa, and I were joined by the co-editors of the book, Jehad Abusalim and Mike Merryman-Lotze. We noticed that the public perception on Palestine has been changing in the U.S., to the extent that a cameraman we met near Capitol Hill told us one of his friends had come back from Israel recently and remarked, “He said it is Apartheid there.” He was with a man who was dressed like Donald Trump and was making a film asking people to vote in the U.S. midterm elections, which took place on November 8, 2022.

We took the train to Virginia where we met a group of Palestinians and people working for Palestinian rights. In the guesthouse where we had dinner, we sat with Palestinians from Gaza, the Galilee, Ramallah, Beit Sahour, Jerusalem, and, for a moment, it all felt unreal. In Gaza, we rarely get to see Palestinians from other parts of Palestine, thanks to Israel’s travel restrictions. Many of the people who attended the gathering had ties to the Ramallah Friends School, where Jennifer has previously taught. Joyce Ajlouni, the director of the AFSC, joined us and drove us back to D.C. We had an event at the Jerusalem Fund in D.C. followed by an interview with Aljazeera about the book. The next day, Jehad, Asmaa, and Dorgham Abusalim, a contributor to Light in Gaza, spoke at Busboys and Poets, an event that was moderated by our friend and activist Andrew Kadi. We had a full house and the energy of the people at the event gave us much hope that an imminent change in the U.S. policies vis-à-vis Palestine will occur.

One interesting conversation we had at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) was about the balance between what needs to be done and what can be done. There was an agreement that the discourse on Palestine and Gaza has to change, but also an understanding of what could be done and the limits of politics on Capitol Hill. We joked that an act should be introduced carrying the title “End Settler-Colonialism in Palestine Act.” This balance which limits our demands to what is “achievable” felt suffocating though, because it literally meant giving up on some of what the Palestinian people back home see as their basic human rights.

On the same day, Jehad, Mike, Asmaa, Jennifer, and I met with the staff of Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, and explained to them the situation in Gaza and the impact the siege has had on people over the years, and the need to lift the siege now. The staff took notes as we spoke, seemed engaged in our conversation, and promised to deliver our remarks to Senator Durbin. We concluded the meeting by inviting Senator Durbin to visit Gaza. In fact, the need to connect Gaza with the rest of the world was a key part of our conversations in the United States.

Mike, whom I met back in 2014, drove Asmaa and me to the “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia. The city just had experienced fierce U.S. midterm elections, which saw Democrat Senator John Fetterman win the race. Billboards financed by Republican supporters on the road read, “Fetterman = poverty and crime.” This was another reflection of the growing divide within the United States over domestic politics which became clearer than ever with the election of Donald Trump to the White House. As we settled in Philadelphia and began preparing for our first event, I felt weak. I tested for COVID and the result was positive. Unfortunately, we had to cancel events scheduled for the day, and I had to isolate for five days until I tested negative. The AFSC, represented by Mike, showed me unlimited love and care. Mike took me to Urgent Care and got me all the medications I needed. Tonya, who I stayed with for one night before I tested positive, and Mike sent me all the food I needed during my isolation. I felt they were more than a family to me.

Meanwhile, I joined an event organized by the NYU Kevorkian Center on Light in Gaza online. Jehad and Asmaa joined in person and the book tour went on. Just like the Busboys and Poets event, the NYC event was full of young people, drawing attention to the importance of U.S. campuses for Palestine advocacy work. At all events we attended, the book sold out, revealing people’s interest in learning about Gaza from its own people. During the tour, it was equally important to have intellectual discussions on Gaza, as one of the chapters in the book address the intellectual siege the people of Gaza have been subjected to over the years and the need to break it by all means necessary.

Once I recovered from COVID, I got on a train to Boston and met with Jennifer, Jehad, Asmaa, and Shireen from the AFSC office there. In Boston, we had two remarkable events, one at the Community Church of Boston and another at Harvard University. We met with Dr. Sara Roy who supervised the writing of some of the chapters in Light in Gaza. She facilitated an academic discussion on Gaza at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the renowned school. It felt promising to speak at community centers, churches, and universities with Americans who are willing to listen to our narrative about Gaza. After our lectures, Jehad drove us to the airport and on the way, we got a taste of home, as he played loud popular music from Palestine in the car and stopped by the Atlantic ocean to walk on the beach. Boston felt like Gaza on that sunny day, a home many of us miss.

We flew back from Boston to Chicago. I could maintain civil relationships with my Chicago hosts in the “Windy City” as New York style pizza had not touched my lips (due to COVID) and thus didn’t provoke a conflict over which big city wins the “best pizza” distinction. This time, we had a tour of “Little Palestine” in the southwest suburbs and learned more about the history of the Palestinian-American community there. I also toured other communities of the city including the Polish, Mexican, Cuban, and Peurto Rican neighborhoods, and, of course, tasted their food. I was lucky enough to have a civil rights tour of the city, showcasing its civil rights history and the history of the different communities mentioned above. My understanding of race, domestic politics, gentrification, red-lining, and contract-buying deepened as we toured the different communities.

During our time back in Chicago, we were able to reconnect with Palestinians and their supporters again, see friends, and get a real taste of the city. Our visit to the Field Museum, where we were exposed to the history of native-American nations which once lived in the Chicagoland, was remarkable. Whenever I visit a native museum, I feel a connection: symbols, such as trees, and handicrafts were present and similar to Palestinian culture. I felt uneasy watching the commercialization of native belongings. Some items from Standing Rock was kept at the museum because “people there had no resources to maintain it,” a person there told Asmaa.

From Chicago, we took a one-day trip to the greater city of Milwaukee in Wisconisn! We were hosted for a public event at a Muslim resource center that drew a large and diverse audience (and we sold out all our Light in Gaza books!) We took a quick tour of the city and held a discussion with a group from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Our friend Ruba Khader co-organized the event and we concluded the day with a tour of murals painted on the city walls. We saw images of George Flyod, Malcolm X, and Breonna Taylor, alongside Handala, the symbol of Palestinian refugees. It might be a surprise to many that the auto-biography of Malcolm X is widely read in Gaza and that there are murals for George Flyod there too. Having a discussion with young students from the SJP chapter there was refreshing, and we enjoyed meeting Palestinian students from the West Bank as well as activists from the Milwaukee area.

We returned back to Chicago, where we spent a day, before I headed to the airport to catch my flight to Atlanta, Georgia, the last stop of the tour. Some 72 flights out of Chicago were cancelled and I had to wait 12 hours at the airport to finally board another flight. I thought to myself this was still fun compared to travelling out of Palestine (!). My friend Ilise Cohen and her family hosted me in Atlanta, and I spoke at Charis Books & More and Charis Circle. The event was memorable and well-attended, and again all books were sold out. Going back to Atlanta was important to connect with some friends. We spoke about Gaza, space, and different other topics, but this leg of the tour was also a reflection on intellectual growth. In Ilise’s car, I reconnected with her daughter, Viola, who had tricked the Gaza Writes Back team with an optical illusion game back in 2014. In 2022, she is all grown up and I asked her how she feels about U.S. politics these days.

I was struck by her energy, intellectual ability, and understanding of politics, as she spoke of class, gender, and race. As Ilise drove, I saw the change of my understanding of U.S. politics through Viola’s thoughts, who had moved from optical illusions to race and capitalism. I felt hope. A hope that came from the fact that two people I met on the tour, Becky Evans and Abdelnasser Rashid, who are known for supporting Palestinian human rights, were elected as state-level legislators in Illinois and Georgia respectively.

Light in Gaza will be a reality one day – this is the message the book tour aimed to deliver. Through the exchanges and relationships built on the tour, I am ever more optimistic that day will come.

Yousef M. Aljamal is a researcher in Middle Eastern Studies and a co-author of A Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers. published by An Fhuiseog (July 2021)