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I’m almost used to it, now, the way my friends react when they come to my house for the first time. Whether commenting on the tapestries of Quranic recitations on the walls, or staring intently at the row of wooden camels on the mantelpiece, they are all enamored with the décor that to me is simply a normal part of life. The rooms in our house look as if a Palestinian souk has exploded, leaving behind an excessive amount of oriental fringe in its wake, and every evening my family crowds around the table for a normal dinner considered exotic by classmates, friends … everyone except myself. In my family, pita bread is simply bread, and hummus is a necessary condiment.
Customs that never needed explanation to me often became a lesson in culture for my classmates; why I had to fast during Ramadan, or why I cover my hair when I pray. Considering me the local expert on all things foreign, students and teachers would bombard me with questions about Islam, the Middle East, and my consumption of pita bread in lieu of a fork.
Returning to my parent’s country was not a new cultural experience; it was simply a trip into familiarity, a relapse into my father’s endless musings. I no longer had to explain the five pillars of Islam, or the significance of the Oslo Accords. Surrounded by family and old friends, I felt welcome and at home.
I returned to America with a renewed sense of patriotism, even feeling a pang of longing when my father retold stories of my grandparents and his childhood among the olive groves. I pushed myself harder in school, with the new goal of becoming a doctor for the war torn nation, rather than creating a successful practice or heading a hospital department as originally planned. As my dreams shifted, so did the steps I needed to take. I immersed myself in both science and social studies classes, feeling that it would provide the balance needed for two majors in college; a science – geared towards medical school – and International Relations, so I may practice in a global environment.
Not all the studying and planning in the world could ease my anxiety regarding my identity. I constantly straddled the line between Palestinian and American, calling myself Palestinian–American at some points and American–Palestinian at others. America had given me what Palestine never could: a life of limitless education, a gift to be embraced and explored until that day I could return to Palestine as someone who would make only the largest impact.
I owed America every opportunity given to me – yet Palestine laid claim to my family and cultural self. Though grateful to the United States, not having a cultural “home” distressed me. Did I deserve to call myself a Palestinian if I have never seen a single winter within its borders? Was it Un-American to stay so grounded in my family heritage? I feared that tiptoeing across names would keep me continually shifting from hyphen to hyphen, never completely set in one culture.
As time has passed, I have become comfortable with the hyphens in my nationality, growing up with American independence and Palestinian pride. Being my classes’ Middle Eastern textbook is no longer a nuisance, but a chance to exult my heritage. I will continue to appreciate the opportunities I have in America, and one day, I will use what I have learned to save lives in both nations. As the Palestine’s Laureate Mahmoud Darwish states in his poem, I Belong There, “I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home.”
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