Growing Up Palestinian in Canada

I wrote the following piece about what it is like (for me at least) to grow up Palestinian in Canada (to be more precise, I grew up in Montreal) – all anecdotes are based on my personal experiences.

  “Growing Up Palestinian in Canada”

To grow up Palestinian in Canada is to grow up with an invisible, misunderstood identity. To feel I had to prove my existence. To grow up not feeling wholly entitled to my identity because some felt it was their duty to tell me what I was or supposed to be instead.

Scene 1:

“Where are you from?”

“Canada…”

”No, I mean where are you really from?”

“Palestine.”

”What’s that?”

********************************************************************

Scene 2:

“What’s your nationality? I can’t tell.”

“Palestinian.”

“Palestine doesn’t exist.”

********************************************************************

Scene 3:

“What are you?”

“Palestinian.”

“Don’t Palestinians hate all Jews?”

********************************************************************

Scene 4 (Before I wore the hijab):

“Are you Israeli by any chance?”

“No, I’m Palestinian.”

“Oh really? You look Israeli. I know because I’m friends with some Israelis.”

“Well if your Israeli friends are either of Middle Eastern or North African Jewish descent, then I’m not surprised if I look similar to them.”

“Wait, what?!”

********************************************************************

To grow up Palestinian is not only to have had incidences where Zionist-minded individuals bluntly insulted me with derogatory terms, patronized me or made biased statements whenever I confessed my identity, but to also be advised by a few Arabs, that everyone should avoid conflicts with Zionists – be they students, teachers or neighbours. To avoid conflict to the point that you shouldn’t confess your Palestinian identity unless you’re “obliged” to. That you should primarily respond with ‘Arab’ if someone questions your identity, or claim instead that you’re Jordanian if you’ve lived in Jordan or at least have all your family members living there (even if you don’t identify with being Jordanian). To also be told that intentionally discussing Palestine, expressing support for Palestine and arguing with Zionists is not safe. Stories of Arab children getting bullied at school for talking back to Zionist classmates would be brought up. Much of this was occurring even during the 1990’s – before 9/11. To be a Palestinian has always been an offense.

************************************************************************

I then grow up. I begin to embrace more of my Palestinian identity. I also challenge some people on their ‘two-sided’ ideology on Palestine. The colonization of Palestine. The racialization of Palestinians. I then realize the depth of colonial and racist mentalities that exist in many. That even people I highly respected, people I believed to be reasonable, turned out to have deep-seated colonial and racist attitudes. It was not only among European Jews, but even non-Jews. I face apathy. Denial. More apathy. Denial. Silence. Accused of being biased. Accused of being ‘one-sided.’ Some acquaintances and friends no longer associate with me. Act like they don’t know me whenever they see me. My words were too much to handle. But in the midst of losing acceptance, I also discover that there are more allies than I thought. True allies may be few, but they do exist. I also did not think it was possible that I’d meet allies that do not identify with Arab or Muslim identities. Among those allies was actually a European Jewish professor that taught a college course about race and racism….

“Are you actually going to ask your teacher to do an oral presentation on Palestine?” asked a Palestinian friend.

“It’s a class on race and racism. I don’t see why my teacher would say no.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. You will face backlash. If not from your teacher, then from students in class.”

“I’m mentally preparing myself for that…”

“I still don’t think it’s a good idea. Just because your teacher’s course is about race and racism, doesn’t mean he applies his beliefs to everyone. If he turns out to be a Zionist or thinks you’re being too controversial, he might give you a failing grade on the oral or treat you like shit in other ways. You’ll be surprised how many professors have double-standards…”

“I know, I know. I’ve had teachers like that. Other Arabs we know have had teachers like that. But I’m still going to give it a shot…”

So I drop by my professor’s office during his office hours. I did not know how to begin, so I begin by thanking him for some of the topics he taught in class so far. History of anti-semitism in Germany. The Holocaust. Colonization of Indigenous people in Canada. The Japanese in internment camps. Apartheid South Africa. History of anti-black racism in the U.S. and Canada. The civil rights movement.

“Sir, you know how I chose a novel about South Africa to read and said I’d do my oral on it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I couldn’t help being reminded of the apartheid treatment of Palestinians while reading the novel. Can I do my oral presentation on both the book and Israeli apartheid?”

He said yes. I was surprised I did not have to explain myself. I was not shamed, nor patronized. He even spent most of one class sharing useful facts about Palestine after I presented my oral. What’s even more surprising was I did not face negative backlash from students – at least not in words. My Palestinian friend’s mouth dropped open when I told her what occurred – along with my oral presentation grade of 100 %. This was in 2007.

As years go by, I feel there is growing awareness. I meet more like-minded people as my college professor. More social justice spaces are expressing solidarity with Palestinians. I am beginning to explain myself less. At least most people nowadays have heard of the word ‘Palestine’ and can distinguish it from Israel.

However, my identity continues to offend. I still get probed. And coming even from people that appear good-hearted at first. Perhaps they see fault in those that refuse to invisiblize their identity’s past and present – something not meant to exist, for fear that privilege will crumble and fall.

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