The Problem With Being Palestinian On Thanksgiving
Wary of a holiday that celebrates one group of people who seized land from another, I learned to love Thanksgiving only when our friends created an Arabized version of it. Now, as the Middle East falls into further turmoil, even that is threatened.
By Zaina Arafat
In 2003 — eight months after Iraq, 25 months after Afghanistan — I was invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some Syrian friends in Washington, D.C., where I grew up. Ringing the bell, I recognized the 2003 Ministry of Sound compilation blaring from the stereo. Mona opened the door dressed in skinny Diesel jeans and a black halter with “Bebe” written across the front in sequins. Her hair fell in tightly curled springs; smoke from a cigarette balanced between her fingers haloed her.
“Habibti, where the fuck have you been?” she asked, referring to my late arrival, though it’s the norm among Arabs. She kissed me three times — twice on my left cheek, once on my right — and I followed her inside, into an Ottoman-themed living room filled with imported furniture and smoke, tumblers of Black Label and Grey Goose martinis, and men in Salvatore Ferragamo loafers and women whose spiked Stuart Weitzmans heels sunk into the rug.
“Zanzoun!” they cried. My nickname, like most Arabic nicknames, is longer than my actual name.
I made my way around the room, giving three kisses to the Lebanese and Syrians, and two kisses to the Jordanians, Egyptians, Iranians, and Palestinians — among them, my mother and brother, who’d arrived before me. Ammo Bassam, the father of one of my closest Syrian friends, pulled me in for a hug.
“Come here,” he said, taking my hand and leading me to the laptop. Ammo Bassam was always equipped with the designer tech products and the best Western music preferences of the over-40 set. “You can practically keep these speakers in your back pocket,” he said, picking up and twisting around a new Bang & Olufsen speaker. “You can throw an instant party on the Metro!”
He DJ’ed, and the hired bartender poured drinks from behind a makeshift table covered with a white cloth. Before long, toasted pumpkin-seed shells called bizir littered the floor and we were dancing on the sofas. Mona didn’t serve the turkey until 9:30, when Ammo Bassam finally called to her, urging her to beckon us to the dining room already: “Yalla, ya Mona.” In the kitchen, lentils and rice drizzled with ground beef, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds flanked the turkey and spilled out from inside it. Yogurt was poured into bowls and placed beside the stack of dinner plates; mulukhiya, a vegetable that exists only overseas and in the freezers of Middle Eastern and North African supermarkets, sat steaming in a ceramic dish and was served like soup beside the turkey.
My brother stood behind me in the plate line, grimacing. The more American of the two of us, he’s always craved traditional Thanksgiving dinners — cranberry sauce, regular stuffing, channel-switching between the Macy’s parade and football, naps. That’s what our Thanksgivings looked like when we were kids: our parents attempting to provide us with a sense of belonging to a culture that was still a novelty to them.
I’d always felt ambivalent toward the holiday, not wanting, as a Palestinian, to indulge in a celebration of the dispossession of one population for the gain of another. Though we didn’t learn it this way in school, the first “Thanksgiving” was declared in 1637 by Massachusetts Colony Gov. John Winthrop, and it celebrated the return of armed colonial volunteers who’d journeyed from what is now Mystic, Conn., and killed 700 Native Americans of the Pequot — men, women, and children. Each year, a group called the United American Indians of New England meet at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill and stand at the feet of a statue of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag; they call the holiday a day of mourning. A day that one community celebrates and another community mourns too closely resembles May 15, Israel’s Independence Day and the Palestinian Nakba, “day of the catastrophe.” They’re both days that look starkly different depending on where you stand, how you narrow your eyes, what you choose to see, and how you choose to relate to them.
After dinner, no pumpkin pies appeared, just chocolate cake and knafeh, a Palestinian dessert consisting of melted cheese, sugar-infused syrup, and pastry dough. Arabic coffee bubbled on the stove and was served in hourglass-shaped, handleless cups. The men lit cigars; the women kept on with their cigarettes. Mona pulled the bar’s tablecloth over her head and did her impersonation of a traditionally overbearing Syrian mother. “Allo?” she screeched into a pretend phone. “Mu ma’aul keef inti mitjawez!” (“It’s unbelievable that someone agreed to marry you!”) Around midnight, the young people left to continue the party on K Street, ricocheting between nightclubs until dawn.
As Middle Easterners living in the U.S., some of us immigrants, others, first-generation Arab-Americans, we mostly appreciate and enjoy our dual ethnic and cultural status. Spending summers in the Middle East and hearing stories of my parents’ experience growing up in Palestine, working in Saudi Arabia, and studying in Egypt and Jordan have left me with an acute awareness of the luxuries that come with living in America. The freedom to criticize government officials without fear of consequences, meritocracy, the ability to buy anything online — you need an Aramex account to order Amazon products in the Middle East, and books can’t be delivered to your Kindle — the right to vote, the right to choose.
And yet, despite the fact that this country is predicated upon assimilation, a self-proclaimed melting pot, we stand out. As a child I was made starkly aware of our nonconformity when my friends would come over and wonder why my parents were going out to dinner at 9 p.m. — on a Tuesday. Why wasn’t my mother wearing ass-flattening mom pants, but rather, wearing formfitting leather Moschino ones? Why did she drive a two-seater soft-top? Why did my father call me “Daddy” and speak to me half in English, half in Arabic? Why did my parents have only travel-size toothpastes?
Both my generation and that of my parents longed to fit in while simultaneously craving home. We miss the intimacy and informality of Arab society, we miss 50-cent oil-soaked bags of falafel, the lyrical voice of the Aadan that sounds five times daily. We miss the lack of anonymity, suffocating as a lack of it can be. Our mutual longing transcends national boundaries, arbitrary distinctions established by British and French colonialists, and unites us here in the U.S., our adopted homeland, as does a shared culture and language. Superficial differences between Lebanese and Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians, even Arabs and Persians, pale when compared with the far greater differences between each of us and the greater American population. From one another’s waving limbs and shaking hips, we take hits of back home. The sum of our parts has always allowed us to revel in our Otherness; together, we act as a collective whole, organizing midweek dinners, Sunday brunches, fundraisers for the disenfranchised in our native countries. That night, we mixed home with here to create a hybridized holiday, one that lasted the duration of an evening.
We called our Arabized version of the holiday Club Thanksgiving, and we made a tradition of it, returning each year to Mona’s house. Though every November I seemed to be living in a different city — first Boston, then New York, and finally Iowa City — I made a point of going home to attend.
Last November, though, my mother told me Club Thanksgiving was not happening. She said no one was really in the mood. I’d already booked a ticket.
“So what will we do for Thanksgiving this year then?” I asked her, surprised at how disappointed I was.
“Rania’s in-laws are in town from Iran,” she said, speaking of a Lebanese friend who was also a regular attendee of Club Thanksgiving. “She invited us to come.” We went. It was fine. Turkey was served at 7. I met people who worked at the United Nations. I took down their email addresses and made professional connections. I did not dance.
The following Sunday, before I flew back to Iowa, my mother and I went to brunch at Peacock Café in Georgetown. For as long as I can remember, Peacock’s been the place to go should you find yourself wanting to run into every Arab in Washington on a Sunday afternoon; patrons spill out of the main dining room and onto sidewalk tables, and Bellinis and French kisses are served alongside walnut pancakes. All of Prospect Street becomes Gemmayze Street in Beirut, and you can hear Arabic from Zara’s Georgetown location three doors down. But on that particular day, the tables were sparsely filled, and the clientele was largely Caucasian.
“How come no one goes to Peacock anymore?” I asked my mother as we sat amid unfamiliar faces, waiting for our food.
“People aren’t going out as much,” she answered, “because of Syria.” I remembered then that most our friends were in fact Syrian. Until that moment, I hadn’t considered this; admittedly, and perhaps Orientalist-ly, I often lumped us all together as Arabs, a Gamal Abdel Nasser–era, pan-Arab mentality that had somehow made its way to the present. As I kept pressing, my mother admitted that Syrians weren’t just staying in, they were intentionally avoiding one another.
“It’s complicated,” my mother said — an understatement. “Some people are upset with Ammo Bassam.”
If our club had had a president — or rather, a benevolent dictator — it was Ammo Bassam. He was the most fluent in the English language and American culture, the one who went by Bob at work, the most willing to leave the old world behind. He was also the one who preferred that Assad’s government remain intact, especially when compared with the alternative. Corrupt and inflexible as it was, Assad’s regime provided stability in a country that, if left to its own devices, would be overrun by sectarian groups vying for power. “Just look at Iraq,” I heard him say earlier that year, as he snuck away to talk politics at his daughter’s graduation party. While no one missed Saddam, his deposition as president proved that Iraq was an anarchic mess of sectarian rivalries without him. For Ammo Bassam, Bashar Assad, like Saddam Hussein, was the lesser of two evils. And at the very least, Bashar was better than Hafez, his father and predecessor.
Other Syrians felt differently, including Mona. Though the situation in Syria had devolved into a tragic and lawless civil war, one that left any conscious human feeling sickened and saddened, it didn’t mean that maintaining the status quo, the dictatorial regime, was the best solution. The regime needed to go. “We’re gonna live under these fucking assholes forever?” she asked, sitting cross-legged on her couch the last time I saw her, newspaper pages scattered on the carpet and a cold cup of coffee serving as her ashtray.
During that trip, I went to get my hair cut by my Lebanese stylist, Paul. When I was in high school and college, his jokes usually poked fun at Syrians, because until April 2005, Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon. Then, fueled by the Cedar Revolution following Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination, the Syrians were forced to withdraw and Paul took to telling jokes about Israel instead, one of the indirect forces that led to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Now as Paul trimmed my split ends, I noticed his jokes had reverted back to Syrians. He was upset that Syria’s internal conflict was spilling into Lebanon, landing in the receptacle of Hezbollah and ripping apart the fragile, still-fluid fabric of Lebanese society. They weren’t even jokes anymore, really, just slander.
“What hurts more?” he asked. “When your enemy hurts you” — Israel, a country whose citizens are forbidden from entering Lebanon — “or your brother?” In this case, I gathered that Syria was Big Brother, Hassan Nasrallah the loudspeaker for Syrian interests.
In the chair beside me sat Rania. “Yee,” she said, clicking her tongue. “They’re our brothers now?”
She laughed along to his barbs, but with reservation, an awareness that her family was still back there (unlike his, which had relocated to Virginia). Again and again that weekend, I saw that what had come to be viewed as a proxy war between the Iran-backed regime and the Saudi-backed rebels was now being exported to the U.S. in the form of a cold proxy war between different members of the Syrian-American community.
The détente continued into this year. Granted, I’ve been away from Washington, but I can tell from the missing pictures on Instagram and Facebook, from the missing late-night texts from the D.C. Arab crew, the typo-filled questioning of when I was next coming home, followed by the long lines of X’s and O’s, the fact that my mother was tucked in bed most nights by the time I called after teaching. I was almost afraid to ask about the status of Club Thanksgiving, but I needed to know whether or not to book a ticket home.
As a Palestinian, I’ve experienced similar cold wars here in the States, between the one-staters and the two-staters, between those who believe in engagement and negotiated solutions, and those who think we shouldn’t concede anything, that we should accept nothing less than everything. At times, it felt like D.C. Palestinians had recreated the schism between Fatah and Hamas, though without the corruption and rockets. I was born into this system, I inherited it, I’m used to it. And yet, seeing it happen between others, here, in this somewhat neutral territory, amplified my sadness. Especially when considering the hope that first accompanied the wave of revolutions that has changed the political, economic, and social landscape of the Middle East, for the better. Or so we initially thought.
This past summer, I sat in my grandmother’s apartment in Shmeisani, an older neighborhood in Amman, Jordan, where approximately half of my extended family lives, the other half divided between the West Bank and the U.S. I watched grainy loops on Al Arabiya of loud explosions and subsequently shelled buildings, jean-clad youths wielding machine guns, protesters carrying coffins shrouded in flags, stone-faced newscasters. What I found most interesting — and disheartening — was that until words were displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, it was nearly impossible to tell which country the footage was coming from. Each reel could’ve been from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt. Gaza, the West Bank. Israel. Or, of course, forgotten Iraq. All of these places were imploding, all were equally likely sites of violence, civil and sectarian strife.
The day before our American Independence Day, I watched crowds flood Tahrir Square in Egypt once again, this time to oust their new, democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president, undoing a revolution that had taken place less than two years prior, in which a 20-year dictator was forced to resign. At that time, I’d updated my Facebook profile picture with an image from the same square, a screenshot with a ticker across the bottom that read, “Revolution in Egypt Leads to Resignation of Hosni Mubarak.”
Every social and family outing inevitably digressed into a head-shaking, finger-pointing discussion about how the region was crumbling around us, Jordan being one of the few seemingly safe places, although small, pro-democracy demonstrations were popping up like whack-a-moles around downtown Amman and causing much alarm. In discussing the events, no one used the term credited to an American professor and Middle East commentator, “Arab Spring,” which has seasoned into an Arab winter. Instead we just called it “the situation,” indistinguishable from the terminology used to describe past “situations” in the Middle East. We had theories for who was to blame. The Saudis, for training and funding the Syrian rebels, which in turn led to instability in Lebanon due to the Hezbollah-Iran-Assad tripartite. The Iranians, for bolstering the Assad regime and its suppression capabilities. The U.S., for trying to force democracy on Arab countries in a one-size-fits-all approach, before they were ready for it and in negligence of the nuances that characterized each country’s political, social, and religious landscape, for not allowing them to grow into democracy naturally, as other countries had done.
One morning last week, I read, two bombs went off at the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon, killing 23 people. In Egypt, police fired tear gas into Tahrir Square to dispel anti-army demonstrators. Jordan remains strained by influxes of Syrian refugees whom its economy can’t accommodate. The Israeli occupation remains in tact. The international community is debating the best way to dispose of Syrian chemical weapons, which killed 1,429 civilians — 426 of them children — this past August. Club Thanksgiving is tentatively back on. Monday we’ll begin negotiating who’s bringing what and who’s making the playlist.
I imagine our conversation this year will resemble the discourse elsewhere. I imagine it will be slightly elevated. It may extend beyond Apple gadgets and designer clothes, beyond superficial and arbitrary distinctions, to more significant happenings. After her Syrian-mother skit, Mona will hopefully impersonate the traditional tyrant on his way out, laid bare before the world and exposed for who he is. We may turn down the speakers and take a moment to recognize that, contrary to how it may have once seemed, to how we often are collectively perceived, ours isn’t a society that’s doomed to dictatorship. Our despots aren’t forever. We will mourn the loss of over 115,000 Syrians, we will pray for those still there, either because of the inability or refusal to leave their homeland. We will give thanks for the good fortune of having thanks to give.
Originally published at www.buzzfeed.com.