Two Guests at the Camp: The Story of An Involuntary Journey – Michigan Quarterly Review

Two Guests at the Camp: The Story of An Involuntary Journey

Ahead of the launch for Decades of Fire: New Writing from the Middle East and North Africa, a special Spring issue of MQR dedicated to the documentation of political, social, and cultural transformations of the past three decades, MQR Online is featuring additional non-fiction, poetry, and fiction not available in the print issue. We have gathered work here that, as Guest Editor Huda Fakhreddine writes in her introduction to the print issue, confronts the Middle East and North Africa as a bind, one that the writing presented here and in print might “begin to unravel in the mind, by some rearrangement, some association or unexpected juxtaposition, some turn of phrase, some wild metaphor.”

The work published below is Katharine Halls’s translation of Farah Barqawi’s original essay in Arabic, which can be read here.

This is an awkward text. And this is an introduction to this awkward text.

I was invited to contribute to a special issue of on Palestinians of Syria around three months ago [the article was published in Arabic in December 2020], and since then I’ve been going back and forth over the details of my short life—or my former life, or the formative period of my life—in Syria.

By necessity I forget my relationship with Syria from time to time, or push it to one side. But it always rises to the surface—out of my skin, my words, the complicated way I define myself in this setting or that. Then I forget that too. I must admit I’m not totally sure that my voice, or anything I have to say, has a legitimate place in a special issue on Syrian Palestinians, and I said as much to the editor. Then a different space opened up inside me, telling me it might be a chance to say something, or rather to understand something, about that oft-forgotten existence in Syria. 

But how to do justice to all those ruptures in both my memory and my story?

Perhaps it would be a chance to ask my mother about some of the things we’d never fully spoken about thanks to the alienation that had grown in distance and duration as the years went by. I told the editor that I’d talk to my mother to work out how to get started. She’d lived there longer than I had: she was 29 when she moved to Syria, and she left at age 42. I, on the other hand, arrived in Syria direct from her womb in 1985, then left with her for Gaza ten years later.

So this text is based on a video conversation that lasted three hours—four in the afternoon, Berlin time, to eight in the evening, Gaza time—with my mother, Zainab El-Ghonaimy, better known as Ustaza Imm Farah.

1. How did we get there?

My mother was born in 1953 in the city of Rafah to a family who had been forced to leave their home in Jaffa in 1948. She grew up in Gaza, then studied law at Cairo University. When she graduated in 1977 she was unable to return to Gaza, having previously been detained in the prisons of the Israeli occupation, yet she was also unable to remain in Egypt, where Palestinian students were being hounded while Sadat’s peace initiative was underway. Beirut was the obvious next stop. There, she was politically active and became involved with the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Unified Media Unit, working for Filastin al-Thawra (“Palestine of the Revolution”) magazine and Wafa news agency. She also met the person who was later to become my father.

With the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, things changed for the grassroots of the Palestinian revolution. Anyone not carrying Palestinian refugee documents issued by the Lebanese state was to be expelled, a condition of the ceasefire agreement which led to the departure of many of the rank and file who held other Arab passports, or refugee papers issued by other states—including my mother, who held an Egyptian travel document for Palestinian refugees.

Palestinians left Lebanon in waves, headed for many different destinations. The cadres of the Palestinian revolution were scattered on both shores of the Mediterranean and beyond.

Z. So we left Beirut, all of us, bit by bit. Some people went to Yemen and Algeria, especially the military fighters and their families, and others went to Tunis with Abu ‘Ammar and the revolutionary leadership, because nowhere else would have them. Others went to Cyprus and further afield. But your father and I decided to go to Syria.

F. Why?

Z. Mainly because we didn’t think it was right to go to Tunisia when there was no diasporic community there, no Palestinian population, no camps. It felt so far away. We were always concerned about the intensity of our sense of national belonging. That intense belonging was always connected to the fact of being in one of the countries that encircled Palestine. Meaning Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon: the countries where the Palestinian national revolutionary movement had momentum and strength. After the revolution left Jordan and Lebanon, Syria was the last remaining place where we could go and be among our people—especially when you bear in mind that we were members of the Palestinian Communist Workers’ Party, and we were always thinking about the importance of living among the people.

Mama gets quite vehement as she’s comparing the choices of Tunisia and Syria, criticising those who went to “distant” Tunis even as she recognised that the Syrian regime did not give a warm welcome to the Palestinian revolution and in fact was party to the ceasefire agreement that scattered it far and wide. The “shameful deal”: she says it with such resentment it sounds like it happened yesterday. She goes on to talk about the Syrian regime’s contradictory public and de facto positions towards the Palestinian cause and Palestinians themselves, telling me how they hunted down the last fighters remaining in Lebanon. Some Palestinian groups even co-operated, she says. And many other details.

F. But Mama, you’re contradicting yourself. You say Syria wasn’t a place that was welcoming or suitable for the future of the revolution, but you thought—

Z. Right, so why did we choose it?

F. Yes, when everything you’ve said so far is an argument against going there.

Z. Well, because we didn’t have any other choice, don’t forget. There was nothing else we could do. Where would we have gone? At least in Syria there was a Palestinian population.

I laugh at how pompous my mother was at the start of the conversation, how she said “we decided to go to Syria” when they hadn’t really had a choice at all. 

F. Right?

Z. We weren’t going there to take up arms. We were a political party. As a minimum, we organised cultural and political activities, educational and awareness-raising campaigns among our own people. At that time, the Syrian regime wasn’t showing its true face. Of course it claimed to be burning with zeal for the Palestinian cause, and there were Palestinian factions that were ideologically aligned with it. In fact, after the war of 1982 most of the Palestinian parties on the left were aligned with Syria. The only ones who were persecuted and prevented from engaging in political activism in Syria were Fatah, under Yasser Arafat’s leadership.

F. So you were optimistic, or hopeful?

Z. No, definitely not. We trod very carefully, not least because we had no official status in Syria and were not formally recognised as a political party there. We weren’t one of the ten Palestinian factions with which Syria had formal relations, who would later become known as the Alliance of Palestinian Forces, because we were a political party and we co-operated with the communist groups active in Syria, in particular the Communist Labour Organisation which itself wasn’t recognised.

“Treading carefully” meant not openly engaging in political activity in Syria, and behaving as model citizens. Members of the party were scattered far and wide, though they maintained their old positions, just like the revolutionary cadres were. (The party was ultimately dissolved in the early 1990s).

Z. After a while it became impossible to keep our political work in Syria a secret, and a number of people were forced to leave. Your father was one of them. But I stayed.

So, Syria it was. A year or so in the Rukn al-Din neighbourhood, once known as the Kurdish Quarter, which at one time was home to many Palestinian revolutionaries, and then Yarmuk camp for eleven years and a handful of months.

2. Building a nest in shifting sands

In the years following the 1982 invasion and the move from Lebanon to Syria, the map of relationships, whether of love or comradeship, was transformed. Or, as my mother puts it, “shattered—when personal relationships were shattered, when the revolutionary spirit we had in Lebanon was shattered.” Although people continued to do political work in its various forms, something of their former souls had been lost.

Many of the newly-arrived Palestinian revolutionaries were refugees who had settled in Syria before relocating to Lebanon, and to some extent they returned to their former lives and communities. Others arrived with extended families, since it was common for members of a single family to belong to the same party, which meant there was some company to be had in their new place of residence. But others had started families and formed relationships in Lebanon: of these, some were separated, and some clung even more tightly to each other, to their groups, and to their tiny bubbles.

Parties relocated too, bringing with them differences which only grew larger. More and more relationships became frayed. “Don’t forget,” says my mother, “comrades aren’t always friends.”

My mother was one of those who moved further and further away from the flock. Her party was outside of the flock to start with, but it wasn’t just that: she didn’t live in a traditional family household, and she’d always been outspoken. She also carried a mixed assortment of identity papers comprising an expired Egyptian document and a Yemeni document she received along with other Palestinian revolutionaries in the early 1980s.

Her strategy was as follows. “If I’m staying here then I have to get on with my life. I have to make myself at home, even if no-one treats me like a citizen and I don’t have the documents of a citizen.” (I consider this sentence as I write it; I think I’ve inherited the same habit from her).

She quickly resumed her feminist activism as a board member of the General Union of Palestinian Women—and also as “just Zainab, not a representative of any party.” Working in journalism and writing, and being a member of the Writers’ Union, she had a bird’s eye view of the Syrian arts milieu—and later on that of Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen—and never restricted herself to Palestinian or refugee circles alone.

My mother’s attempts to distance herself from the political infighting that tore the PLO apart after 1982, and to dedicate herself to feminist work and the activities of the Writers’ Union, created a different life for her. Or to put it another way, she led two lives which at times ran parallel, and at others intersected. I entered those lives in 1985 and lived them both alongside her. Inside the camp and out; in the UNRWA school and in my private piano lessons at the Russian cultural centre. Al-Rashid bookstore, the al-Hasan flower shop, Broasted Chicken at the top of al-Mansura street, the Labour Club, Abu Kamal and the Golden Lamp restaurants, al-Khalisa cultural centre, exhibition openings and the annual book fair.

The funny thing was, we collected serviettes and souvenirs every time we went anywhere, inscribing them with the date and the names of those present like it would be our last visit. It was a lovely bad habit that left us with an entire memento box—maybe it was more than one, even—full of paper napkins that we later carried with the rest of our bags and belongings to countries where there was no joy, and no reason to collect souvenirs.

Z. The house became a cultural meeting-place, because we weren’t a big family and there weren’t noisy children running around—you were a very very quiet child, and you never gave me any trouble. All that activity gave a real momentum to our life. Both inside the camp, within Palestinian society, and outside it in Syrian society, a world came into being that had a real sense of stability. Syria, at that time, really was my home, or my country. Of course it helped that we were immensely wary of coming into conflict with the regime; at that time I wasn’t forced to enter into any conflict.

We were everywhere. We were from everywhere, neither here nor there. It was a stability built on shifting sands.

3. We were their guests

I return to my first question: Syrian Palestinian?

F. Mama, we always talk about Oslo as a defeat, but to judge by what you’re saying and by what happened, it seems to me that the defeat began in 1982.

Z. Of course. That’s true. The defeat began in 1982 with the military defeat of the PLO.

F. In that case, how did you imagine the future before the Madrid conference and the Oslo Accords took place? Did you feel like the situation was temporary? Or were you planning to stay in Syria, seeing as you’d created a social life and a degree of stability for yourself? Or to put it another way, were you planning to become part of the Palestinian refugee community there?

Z. In those days I was certain there would come a day when we would win. The Palestinian cause would be victorious, we’d defeat the Israeli occupation, and we’d find solutions and be able to return to Palestine.

F. Wasn’t that everyone’s dream, including the refugees’?

Z. Certainly, it was shared by all of the 1948 refugees, but it was different for us. Their dreams had already begun to fall apart because they’d spent so many years living as refugees and because they’d assimilated, to a large degree, into Syrian society, to the point they were almost citizens. Generations passed away, new generations were born and settled down, and with time, Syria became something akin to a homeland for them.

Humans have always migrated, whether because they want to, need to, or are forced to—relocated or displaced, for study or work—and the play of privileges has always been a part of this process, to different degrees and by different names: on grounds of gender, colour, race, class, nationality, and the political value of one’s passport. But the divergent experiences undergone by Palestinians in the course of their continuing dispossession and migration have created layers upon layers of privilege connected to the duration of one’s dispossession, the policies of one’s host country or the country which has granted one its papers (whether real or forged, as for those involved in secret political work), and the many other circumstances and choices which sent Palestinians down such different paths.

Prior to 1982, the existence of Palestinians in Syria was synonymous with their refugee status. You were “Palestinian” and the rest of the story was taken for granted; you only became a “Syrian Palestinian refugee” when you left Syria. The wave of refugees who fled to Syria, especially those who arrived in 1948 and subsequent years, were granted significantly better rights than those who went to Lebanon and Egypt, most notably the right to work, access to free university education, and the right to employment in government posts.

That wasn’t the case for those who arrived later on, or those who held other travel documents, whether Egyptian, Yemeni or Jordanian. As far as the Syrian regime was concerned, they were foreigners, even if they came from exactly the same country as other Palestinians and lived alongside them in the same camps. It was by no means easy to find legal employment or access education. Nevertheless, Palestinians with non-Syrian refugee documents sometimes enjoyed more breathing space and greater ability to communicate with the outside world than those with Syrian papers.  

F. Mama, when I was asked to write this piece and I thought about the term “Palestinians of Syria,” I felt like—

Z. —It didn’t apply to you.

F. Yeah.

Z. Same here. For the very simple reason that we never enjoyed the same rights and conditions that the “Palestinians of Syria” did. They worked, they owned property and built houses, they could go to university for free. For example, as a Palestinian [without Syrian refugee status] I wasn’t allowed to sign up at Damascus University to finish the Master’s I’d started at the Lebanese University before we left. I had to obtain an exceptional republican decree in order to do so.

F. How about schools? Wasn’t I at the UNRWA school?

Z. When the 1982 war happened, Syria decided on a policy that Palestinians who’d come from Lebanon could attend school up to secondary level.

F. And if it hadn’t been for the resettlement from Lebanon, you wouldn’t even have been able to enter Syria with the papers you had, right?

Z. Yes. Had it not been for the ceasefire agreement, I couldn’t even have gone to Syria. I had never been able to go to Syria when I lived in Lebanon, with my Egyptian travel document for refugees. When I flew from Damascus airport to Copenhagen in 1980, to attend the World Conference on Women, high-level intervention from the office of the PLO was required just so I’d be allowed to go to Damascus airport. Later, my travel document from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen helped me move around, and after that I had a different Yemeni travel document issued after the unification of North and South. Then in the early nineties I got a Jordanian passport after Jordan ended the sanctions that were still in place against people involved in the Palestinian revolution. Only then was I able to obtain an official permit to practice journalism and work for news agencies other than those under the aegis of the PLO.

You know who most felt like they were genuinely a part of refugee society, and who came to live in the camp even though they were Syrian? Our neighbour Imm Wisam, who was a refugee too, from Qunaytira [in the Golan heights]. We went on a trip with them once to the Shouting Hill, and shouted across to the other side. Do you remember?

The situation of Palestinian revolutionary leftists who were forced to leave Lebanon for Syria in 1982 was neither grim nor rosy; it was simply not uniform, because their circumstances and their identity documents varied so widely. It was a blurry image. They neither identified completely with the local Palestinian refugee community, nor were they entirely alienated from it. Their situation was something like an extended visit to some facsimile of Palestine. An intimate, faithful copy, and yet one that was distant and out of date. Maybe?

Z. It wasn’t just that we didn’t feel like “Palestinians of Syria.” The actual Palestinians of Syria also never treated us like that’s what we were. They treated us like guests. They looked at us differently.

F. How do you mean?

Z. Unfortunately, some of our comrades had an arrogant, patronising way of treating people. They’d done the same in Lebanon. Because, supposedly, they were the standard-bearers of the revolution and the struggle for liberation.

F. Do you ever feel you played a part in that too?

Z. Without realising it or meaning to, I might have done, sure. Even with the best of intentions. Why? Because there was a sense that we possessed political understanding and experience of the struggle, and that we’d be the ones to help teach people what it meant to belong to the nation.

F. Revolutionary egotism, then.

Z. When a person starts feeling that way, regardless of the context, then it’s a given that they will contribute to increasing discrimination. 

F. OK, so how did the camp or refugee community treat you?

Z. Some people accepted us because they wanted to gain personal influence—to be close to the revolutionaries in the hope of getting jobs and opportunities, or acquiring the social status that was associated with the struggle. Other people felt genuinely invigorated and hopeful that our return was close at hand, and they needed to renew that hope by supporting our existence and our struggle. By the way, there were many people who did actually go back—who achieved the dream of return, so to speak—but by way of the Oslo Accords: either they married someone who was able to go back, or they were on the lists, prepared by the parties, of members who were to be granted exceptional entry to Palestine.

My mother believes the simultaneous feeling of difference and acceptance was stronger in her case—our case—because she arrived and started a life in the camp as an independent, educated woman, who was very different to the other women, many of whom were less fortunate in terms of education, work and independence. But she came ready-made that way; she didn’t take chances away from other women, or compete with them, and that ensured that she was accepted and welcomed with affection. There was no hostility or rivalry, but instead a loving embrace.

4. Solidarity and Chosen Family

On October 3rd, 1992, I was seven years old. We were in the camp, crossing Mansoura street on our way to visit our neighbour in the building opposite. My mother wasn’t wearing eyeliner like she usually did, or lipstick, and nor was she wearing any of her colourful earrings. I remember (or at least, I remember from the stories I’ve heard repeated over and over) that I asked her what was happening and she told me that her mother, my grandmother Imm Fawzi, had died the day before. That was how she put it, short and succinct. I didn’t yet understand death, and I didn’t know who my grandmother was or what a grandmother was, but to make her feel better, I replied, “I’m sorry, my love. Mothers have to die sooner or later!”

We soon arrived at Aunty Imm Husam’s, where I spent much of my time with her daughters. Opening the door, she was taken aback at my mother’s appearance, and immediately asked the same question I’d asked two minutes earlier. My mother repeated her response. This time Imm Husam opened her arms wide, tears streaming down her face, and took my mother into her loving, broad-chested embrace. My tough mother’s defences crumbled and she burst into tears. She hadn’t seen my grandmother for nearly twelve years.

Imm Husam had been there from the beginning, just a stone’s throw away in the building opposite ours. When my mother moved into the camp she was more or less alone; she was also the first person to move into our apartment building, before the other apartments filled up one by one. The two women were one year, several worlds, and many children apart, but their relationship was one of intimacy, safety, and sisterhood, and one which my mother misses to this day. If Mama’s political and cultural existence was complicated, then you could say that our relationship with Imm Husam and her home summed up our life in Yarmuk camp, with all its contradictions and dangers.

My mother has always preferred to address people by their given name. I ask her whether she always called her Imm Husam—the name I’ve known her by since childhood. She says no: they’d always addressed each other by their first names until my mother gave birth to me and acquired a new status in the camp. That’s when Imm Husam started to call her Imm Farah, like all the other mothers.

Though I was still a tiny infant, Imm Husam’s home was my home at the times when my mother was busy with her constant meetings and appointments. I was particularly lucky because Imm Husam had given birth to her sixth daughter, Amani, just four months earlier, which meant there was warm milk ready for me whenever I cried. Imm Husam lifted me to her breast with a mother’s spontaneity, and from that moment on, she was a mother to me. Amani became my sister. I called my own parents Mama and Baba; Imm and Abu Husam, on the other hand, were Yamma and Yaba.

The electricity cuts out in Gaza while Mama and I are talking.

Z. Give me a second to switch the electricity over. Remember how we had to do that in Syria?

I remember. There was a changeover switch in between our house and Imm Husam’s, because we were on different lines and often one would continue to function even when the other was down. The sentence “The electricity’s back on, switch it over again!” was probably shouted between households more often than the words “good morning” in Yarmuk. When I lived in Gaza, things there weren’t as bad as they are now; in fact, everything looked shiny and new and modern to me after Damascus, which was closed off to the world. But recent years have pushed Gaza back in time, and the changeover switch has reappeared in my mother’s life and that of her neighbours. 

I ask Mama how she managed to have such an intimate relationship with Imm Husam across such an enormous cultural and social gulf. Did she live behind some kind of mask in the camp, I wonder? Were there different masks for different people, including Imm Husam and their other female neighbours?

Z. Imm Husam is a spontaneous person who loves getting to know her neighbours and the people around her. Honestly, it was thanks to her that we became so close, because I’m not the kind of person who finds it easy to make friends, especially when there’s a difference at play…

F. A cultural difference?

Z. Yes. It isn’t easy. I’m grateful to her, honestly, and I still say so, because I learned from her how to go about breaking down those barriers. If you want to put it more profoundly, you could even say that my integration into Syrian society came about thanks to her.

F. How so?

Z. She was the one who broke down my resistance, or my rigidity, about how and why and with whom to build relationships or friendships. I thought I was meant to stay in my pigeonhole, with others who shared the same revolutionary ideology and culture and background. I ended up having close friends from outside politics who had a big impact on my life, and yours too.

Imm Husam—and later Imm Wisam, who lived on the same floor of our apartment block—didn’t just offer social intimacy and a cuddle for me when my mother was working late. They were my mother’s first line of defence in the traditional surroundings of the neighbourhood, because they knew her well and they trusted her. This allowed my mother to go about her political and cultural work and activism undisturbed, and even to host meetings in her home without causing the kind of gossip and insinuation that might have ensued, since she was a single woman living alone, without their support.

Z. I was very open with Imm Husam. She knew that I had a political position in the party, that I worked as a journalist and that I had a wide network of contacts. Sometimes when I was expecting lots of guests she’d help me prepare the food.

F. And it wasn’t weird for you when she started breastfeeding me?

Z. Not at all, it was an obvious solution. She took my place like she was my sister.

There was another sister, this one younger, who was and still is like an aunt to me: May, Mama’s friend and mine. May lived with my mother for several years from 1984; she was there when I was born and played a huge part in the development of my personality. When her partner returned from prison we all lived together in an apartment divided in two, until they eventually moved to Jordan.

This solidarity and sorority—and those cuddles—were the fuel that made my and Mama’s lives possible despite the ongoing state of exile and homesickness in which we lived.

5. How to return—and to what?

In our last two years in the camp and in Syria, as PLO funds dried up and with it my mother’s media work, we needed to find some way to make a living. Mama invested everything she had in a book and stationery store at the end of our road, as well as making use of her typing skills to give typewriting classes—this was long before computers were available in Syria. The fact we lived in the camp meant the business could function without too many official constraints, but money worries and political anxiety finally pushed my mother to a decision: we were going to take advantage of the new opportunity offered by the Oslo Accords, and return to Gaza.

F. I often wonder if we really did have to go back, and what our life would have been like if we hadn’t.

Z. Maybe if I’d started a family in Syria, had more kids, I might have chosen not to go back. But I don’t really think we could have stayed, with the way things were for us.

F. But the big “return” was a disappointment, wasn’t it?

Z. I recall you were very angry with us, your father and me, and you said it was unfair we were making you go back.

F. What about you, Mama?

Z. When I was living so far away, of course I missed my homeland, the sea, my family. There was something dreamlike about it. And I had no idea when I’d next be able to go there. I had this dream that I’d go back to Gaza and buy a small piece of land and build a house with a view of the sea.

F. And then?

Z. The funny thing is that when I got back to Gaza, I didn’t want that any more. The city had changed, it and I had nothing in common any more, and there was no space for personal freedom. The dream disappeared.

F. Do you regret going back?

Z. I don’t regret it, because we didn’t have any choice, and because we built a life here too. But even though it’s 25 years ago now since we came back, the thirteen years I spent in Syria remain the best years of my life, in that I enjoyed a measure of freedom and stability and even a sense of belonging there. I don’t know. In the end, this return has been a political disappointment too, year after year.

F. Do you think a lot of people feel the same?

Z. I imagine so. Those who were able to go abroad again, did. And the younger generations have left—(like me, she means)—but there are others whom it helped, who settled down. Big families, say, whose children got married and now have their own children—it’s done now, life has flowed onwards and regained some of its former normality. Like your aunt’s family, my sister, after they came back from Egypt—but then it was different for the people who were in Egypt. Also, I’m on my own, and I’ve become lonely.

An awkward end to an awkward text

Mama got tired of my questioning, and so did I. She was amazed I couldn’t remember things, places, the names of friends. She thinks they’re my memories, but they’re hers. She has the memory of a young woman, a lover, an activist, and a mother. But I was just like any little boy or girl living a more or less ordinary life: she brought me into the world, and I lived with her, and when she decided to leave or was in one way or another forced to, I left with her.

I’m not a Syrian Palestinian, and I’m not sure why people think of me as one. It must be my multi-layered accent or my complicated set of interests and political positions. I’m Palestinian most of the time—that’s how I like to introduce myself—and Jordanian on paper, or when it suits me. But my place of birth never changes, whether on paper or in conversation: Damascus, Syria.

My place of birth follows me wherever I go. At borders, when I’m asked if I carry a Syrian passport, I can always see the disbelief in the officer’s eyes when I say no. In official transactions I’m sometimes subjected to the discrimination and obstruction that Syrians face; plenty of banks have refused to open an account for me. Many countries, like Germany for example, consider a person’s place of birth to be more important than their nationality, or simply have bureaucracies too clunky to absorb the complicated details of the lives of people, like us, who are constantly on the move, because we fail to be born and die in the same place and we don’t hold the nationality of our original homeland.

Now, twenty-five years after leaving Yarmuk, here I am in Berlin. I think about the quirk of fate that has brought me together here with women and men from Syria who were forced to leave the camp in the wake of the revolution of 2011 and the subsequent war that crushed it. Would I still have ended up here even if we hadn’t gone back to Gaza? Could I have remained in Syria as an adult, without refugee papers? Would I have been living in the same house at the moment when the camp was besieged and destroyed and its residents forced to leave? I ask my mother if she can imagine that, but I find her unable to even imagine our existing in Syria in the first place. Our lives must have taken the only path it was possible for them to take.

We were two guests among them, but we were also guests in Gaza. We were the returnees who searched for something during years of exile, displacement, and solitude—we’re still searching—but could not return to what we had sought.

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