‘Y todo esto es mío y no lo es,
y parezco judía y no lo parezco.’
Margo Glantz, LAS GENEALOGÍAS
‘So everything is mine and yet it isn’t, and I look Jewish and I don’t.’
Margo Glantz, THE FAMILY TREE
FACES IN MY FACE
It’s dawn, it’s October, it’s Berlin’s Tegel Airport, and I’m en route again to some European city. I’ve got a cup of black coffee balanced in one hand while the other is pulling a suitcase, and since there’s no escalator, I get into the lift. Riding up with me is a couple dressed for vacation. Ripped jeans, polo shirts, tennis shoes, two massive suitcases. He’s got a pirate bandana tied around his head. I’m silent as the three of us ascend. The pirate turns to me and, faintly smiling, asks if I’m Hebrew. You are Hebrew, he says, like that, in English, taking it for granted that I am. An odd way of asking if I’m Jewish or if I’m Israeli, conflating religious and national identity with the language. Hebrew? I avoid the eyes of the pirate, who must speak Hebrew himself. Why? I say, hearing the irritation in my tone, my voice breaking out in hives. Do I look like I am? The pirate hesitates a moment, the smile still plastered on his face as he listens to me say that maybe my face looks Mediterranean. (But what does it mean to be or look Mediterranean, I wonder now as I write?) I’ve spent years explaining that I’m not French Italian Greek Egyptian Spanish Turkish, that I’m not even entirely Palestinian, however much, the one time I travelled to Palestine, the trained eye of the Israeli security forces instantly detected my Palestinian origins. Of course, Mediterranean, the pirate’s girlfriend says in a conciliatory tone, attempting to rescue him from his shipwreck. But he smiles with absolute confidence and states it’s not just my face. We Hebrews are very lazy, he says, you can spot us because instead of climbing stairs we take the lift. Like you, he says, his teeth gleaming triumphantly. Like me, I think, looking down at the coffee now burning in my left hand. My right is holding my suitcase, and a backpack is slung precariously over my shoulder. The hot coffee and my difficulty finding firm footing on stairs hands shoulders suitcase and backpack. And I’m tempted to explain that that’s why I’m in this elevator. But the doors open and I realise that’s not the answer and I go ahead and tell them I’m not Israeli or Jewish but actually Palestinian, or of Palestinian descent, which in their eyes must be pretty much the same thing.
It wasn’t the first time an Israeli had identified me as a Jew, I told myself as I studied my face in the airport bathroom mirror and thought back to the woman who’d once come up to me at a bus stop in Jerusalem to ask me the time in a language I didn’t recognise. I’d apologised, saying in English that I didn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic. The woman rebuked me in a tongue I then understood, raising her voice to exclaim one of the few words I knew in Hebrew. Arabic! Arabic! Who’s speaking Arabic here? How dare I think she might be an Arab? But she was the one who’d spoken to me, and in Hebrew, I thought; she’d assumed she was speaking to an Israeli.
The two pirates were still outside, waiting at the gate for the Turkish flight to Tel Aviv. The same flight I’d board a few weeks later, with another cup of boiling coffee in my hand and the same suitcase in the other.
ERASING A FINGERPRINT
How many faces are hidden in a face?
I scrubbed my face in that airport bathroom, trying to erase it. Erase from it what was not my own. For a moment I thought that maybe I shouldn’t erase it entirely – every face is unique, a fingerprint. But then I remembered that fingerprints wear down over time; if they can disappear from your fingers, a face can certainly be washed away too.
VARIATIONS ON THE SAME
I close my eyes the night before my return to Palestine, before what will be my real return if they let me in. And though I was sure I’d washed off my Jewish face, beneath the surface markers of it have reappeared. It is because of those markers that so many people have been marginalised – the shape of their faces, the complexion of their skin, the colour of their eyes, the line of their eyelids, the thickness of their brows. The high, flat cheekbones. The hooked nose. The untrustworthy lips of an entire people. I shake my head back and forth as I think about the bun I plan to use to hide my curls, the clothes I’ll wear to throw them off the scent. And the answers to a million potential questions I wasn’t ready for last time. I start practising them with my imaginary interrogator. Chilean, yes. US resident, yes. University professor, yes. Writer, what kind of writer? Journalist? Palestinian? And have you ever been to Israel, yes, I say, hearing my voice leap from one neuron to the next, my voice sparking in the middle of the synapse. Up to that point, I can’t attempt to hide the real answers because they’re recorded in my virtual biography. But I also practise fake answers, the cold blood of falsehood or omission, because I’ve learned that Palestinians must never confess, that one piece of their peaceful resistance is the truncated answer or the non-answer or, better yet, the fake answer, and I know that in order to lie or leave things out I have to train myself to look straight ahead without lowering my eyes and without ever smiling at the agent. I can say I’m on vacation, say I’m staying at the home of my friend Maurice, an academic I met at a conference a couple of months back. I cannot say that Maurice is a Palestinian born in exile who then returned, that he’s married to a Palestinian. Cannot say that Maurice has written an essay about my book on Palestine. Cannot say that in that book I criticised Israeli policies. Nor that I’ve given talks, sat for interviews, written a poem of denunciation. Nor that I’ll be staying not in Ramallah but instead at the Jerusalem Hotel next to the Wailing Wall. Nor that I’m planning to visit resistance projects in the West Bank, or that I’ll be taking the opportunity to visit my aunts, from whom I haven’t heard since I met them at their home in Beit Jala five or maybe six years ago. That house made of stone, firmly rooted on a hill. But I cannot talk about their home or speak their names without getting us all in trouble. Again an empty sentence, and again and again another one that leads them off the scent, and variations on the same until fatigue overcomes me and the cock crows.
They don’t ask me one question at the airport. Not a single one. There must be some mistake; I keep waiting. My legs are reluctant to move on, my body wants to stop in the boarding area and demand those questions I’ve prepared for. My lungs are swollen with answers and I’m about to burst when the open smile of the flight attendant deflates me: this Turkish airliner has a layover in Istanbul and it’s the next plane that will be taking me to Tel Aviv. And if they don’t question me there, they definitely will in Ben Gurion. I land once and board another plane and land again and only in Tel Aviv am I faced with an immigration agent. I hand over my passport and wait for the official to examine the stamp-filled pages. The man flips briefly through my passport and then raises his tired eyes and asks me my father’s name. Does he live in Chile? My veins burn with adrenaline. I brace myself for the interrogation that’s coming and then doesn’t come. Go ahead, he tells me, and I wonder, dejected, if he has recognised my Israeli face.
Following a map of Ramallah, my Greek companion and I reach the bus station flanked by a coffee shop with a round green logo called Stars & Bucks that is and yet is not an American coffee shop. The street seems packed with people, women either bareheaded or swathed in long dresses, and men, especially merchants, taxi drivers, passersby, minibus drivers shouting at the top of their lungs. Every time we ask which of the yolk-yellow minibuses is going to Bethlehem, we’re given different instructions; the drivers we ask are always on their way to other towns. Somebody leads us to the mall and points us toward an elevator, and at the top we find minibuses to our destination. We sit in the back row, in the two remaining seats next to a youngish Arab man, and all of us head out into the light, toward the highway, toward the south. We have half an hour ahead of us, my companion and I. We are talking about the road we are travelling on, who it belongs to. We speculate about what Bethlehem will be like, how long it will take us to walk around it before we split up.
It is then that the Arab man pipes up and asks where we’re from.
From Greece, says the Greek activist. From Chile, say I, the Chilean, and the Palestinian face of the Arab man lights up. I’m a little bit Chilean too, he says, as of today, he continues, in a Palestinian-inflected English. And opening his backpack he produces a bright burgundy passport with gold lettering and the crest with its condor and huemul, also in gold, and an ID card they’ve sent him from Santiago. They are the same two documents that I’m carrying in my own backpack. A quick exchange of documents, my fingers racing through the pages until I reach his identity: the passport claims that the Chilean man is Nicola Jadalah Tit, but the Palestinian man tells me he actually has four given names, Nicola Antón Hanna Khalil, followed by his father’s surname, Tit, or Alteet, meaning the Tit family. In Chile they’ve given him his mother’s last name. And though I want to ask how it is that the Civil Registry has screwed up and turned him into two people, how they’ve managed to mix up his last names even now, with the twenty-first century well under way, with computers and scanners and a bureaucracy full of educated people, another question is vibrating in my inner ear.
Tit. Alteet. Eltit?
Yes, he says in English, a proud yes. Alteet and Eltit are the same name with pronoun attached. And his Chilean Eltit relatives are so close to his father that they come to visit every summer with their burgundy passports. He says this in English because Nicola’s Spanish is about as good as my Arabic, two or three polite words. But I kept going back to that last name, Eltit, because it is the name of the writer, a descendant of Beit Jala, who was my mentor years back, in my twenties. Given her name, I sometimes joked that our families had probably been neighbours, that maybe we even had relatives in common. Maybe we were distant cousins without knowing it. And Diamela Eltit would laugh at this idea, agreeing that it might be true: Beit Jala was such a tiny place during the years of the great migration that there’d been no need to name the streets or number the houses. Do you know who Diamela Eltit is?, I ask him enthusiastically, feeling a rush of envy at the Eltits, whose last name is still around while mine has disappeared from the face of Palestine. There aren’t any Meruanes left, I think to myself, just those aunts who carry my blood or I carry theirs but who cares who the blood belongs to, I remind myself, it’s all family ties.
Diamila, he slowly repeats, interrupting my thoughts as he dusts off his memory. No, no Diamila. He bites his lip and shakes his head swathed in its thick black hair and beard. He doesn’t know who Diamela is, he didn’t know there was such an important Chilean writer with his last name, and he smiles, his eyes, black too, narrowing, embarrassed that he doesn’t know her, that he’s never heard her name before. He promises to ask his father, who’ll definitely know. Because his father lived in Chile for a number of years, whereas he’s never set foot there.
A GIRL FROM BEIT JALA
Nicola doesn’t know that so many Beit Jalans live in Chile, that there are probably more of them in my country than in his, although country isn’t the word so I repeat, more Beit Jalans in my land than in yours. There are more Palestinians living in Chile than in any other place outside of Palestine and the Arab world, I say, they migrated in great numbers in the early twentieth century, when the Ottoman Empire was having some trouble and young Arabs, Christina Arabs especially, were being sent to war as cannon fodder… The Turks suspected Christian Palestinians of being allied with the Europeans, or loyal to the Europeans, because of their religion. So it was mostly Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, who came from Bethlehem and Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, I add, showing off my recently acquired historical knowledge. And why would they all go to Chile, right? Nobody knows! Nobody I’ve asked, anyway. It’s like a legend – everybody has a story. But it’s probably very simple: one Palestinian brought another Palestinian, a sibling, a sister, and because they were able to live a better life, they stayed. Nicola shakes his head in silent disbelief and then smiles awkwardly because what does he know about Chile other than that his father spent some years of his youth there? Nicola’s not even familiar with Chile Square, which is on the bus route to Beit Jala; he hasn’t paid attention to the fact that there is also a Chile School in his own town. I wonder what that square and that school are known as to locals, in Arabic, but I insist to him that there is a square called Chile – I got off there when I last visited your town, I took a picture of myself under a blue marker probably funded by my own Chilestinians, my oldest Palestinian aunt who is and is not Meruane told me it existed because she lives around the block – but Nicola raises his bushy eyebrows like he’s shrugging his shoulders and, changing the subject, says to me, You look so much like a girl from Beit Jala. And he says it isn’t just my face, my hair, but also the way I laugh, that easy laugh, and the way I use my hands when I talk.
Greece, which is what I’ve started calling her, a name she has politely acquiesced to, will be going to Jerusalem on one bus, and I’ll head to Beit Jala on another, to look for my aunts. Nicola will be picked up by his father: he speaks to him on the phone while Greece and I say goodbye, and in the midst of his Arabic sentences behind me I catch the word Chile. Chile. Every so often my country garbed in that language I cannot penetrate. Nicola’s father, Antón, has never returned to Chile, and he now wants to meet me, wants to be the one to take me to Beit Jala and drop me off in Chile Square next to my aunts’ house. And though it may not be a good idea to get into a car with not one stranger but two, I say goodbye to Greece, whose bus is already leaving, and walk with Nicola to the corner where he and his father have arranged to meet. We climb into a wheezing jalopy and the man, now elderly, has me sit in front so he can talk to me in a Chilean Spanish sprinkled with the occasional French word and coloured by a Palestinian accent. He speaks quickly because Beit Jala is so close that we won’t have much time. He comes to a stop a few minutes later; we’ve arrived at Chile Square. ¿Dónde viven tus tías? Over there, I say, pointing uncertainly at a little side street where I think they live. But maybe it’s the other street. Now I’m not so sure. ¿Y a qué horas te esperan? he asks, but nobody is expecting me. ¿Y cómo dijiste que era el nombre? And I repeat my aunts’ last name, both of their first names, Maryam, Nuha. I don’t know them, he says suspiciously, and he looks back at his son and they exchange ideas and Antón tells me, Look, I don’t know them but I know a few members of the family and they should know, but it’s lunchtime now and I’ve made some artichokes stuffed with meat and, what’s the word – he doubts his Spanish again – ¿arroz? Come eat with us and afterwards I promise I’ll help you find them. I immediately think about Palestinian hospitality, about the four courses that could eat up the little time I have for this visit, but I figure I’m going to need help in this land that is both familiar and unknown, so I accept, letting the father know in Spanish and the son in English that I won’t be able to stay long. With that settled, the father starts the ancient engine and we head toward the Tits’ home at the top of a hill.
CITIZENS OF THE WORLD
Nicola would tell me afterwards, months later in our written correspondence, that his father Antón hadn’t just lived in Chile but also in France Algeria Jordan Brazil, and that he’d spent summers in Turkey Lebanon Egypt Syria Libya Cyprus Bulgaria Monte Carlo Nice, back when it was still easy to travel. It was returning home that turned out to be difficult. Antón was teaching in Algeria with his sister when she decided to get married. It was 1967, the year of a bloody war that lasted just six days but forever changed, yet again, the fate of Palestinians. It was 1967 and they didn’t let brother or sister across the border. 1967. The same year my grandfather – already an adult, already married, already the father of five adult children, already a citizen of the Republic of Chile – tried in vain to visit his home in Palestine for the first time. Young Antón, too, was unable to enter and went instead to Chile, where his uncles lived and worked. They used to work in textile, in bunnies iris with recollita, Nicola wrote in an email, and I translated to myself while looking at a map of a neighbourhood in downtown Santiago I don’t know that well, Buenos Aires Street, I read at the tip of my fingernail, and, off to one side, Recoleta. He lived near fatronato, and his uncle used to live in rio dejunaro, which was Patronato and Rio de Janeiro, and bunnes aries, Buenos Aires, and he used to work in this area. He’d worked with the Eltit uncles in that neighbourhood crisscrossed by streets named after cities, and eventually opened his own clothing store. Of all the places he knew, Chile was where Antón had lived the longest, almost seven years, and he’d become a citizen by the time he was forced to return by his father, the elder Tit or Alteet, who’d forbidden him to live in a foreign country past his thirties. He was expected to return to marry a Palestinian woman and have Palestinian children, so that’s what Antón had done just before the Chilean coup d’état in 1973.
LAST NAME AS LABYRINTH
We drive up and down various streets but my aunts aren’t where I left them five years earlier. The stone houses all look alike. The steep street blurs together with the photo I remember taking, but my phone is now dead so I can’t retrieve old pictures and compare them to what I’m seeing on the narrow lanes. I ring a doorbell. A young man appears, shirtless, seemingly roused from a nap, and tells me he doesn’t know the Abu Awad sisters I’m asking about. So we go around and around some more, but the house from my memory has disappeared. Antón tells me not to worry. He knows a number of Abu Awads. We’ll go to their houses and ask about my aunts, the only surviving aunts that carry my last name in Beit Jala, their Meruane very far behind or buried alive under the weight of other Arab names. These aunts who are descended from my grandfather’s elder sister. Maryam is the eldest sister, followed by Nuha, or that’s what I understood the only time I met them. Am I certain this is their last name? But my certainty is gone, laid low by my faulty recollection. We drive around some more in that old car with Nicola in the backseat, and we come to another stone house with several doors, front side rear, and we knock on all of them until a young woman appears, three children hanging from different parts of her body, and they talk while she eyes me, curious, and I return her gaze, knowing she must be my distant cousin. I see that she is nodding but then she shakes her head and looks at me again and I at her, searching for a resemblance I don’t find. I see that Antón is also nodding slightly and turning around and telling me that my aunt or our aunt is dead. As if an aunt could never die, as if five years wasn’t enough time for death to happen, as if dying itself wasn’t possible, I insist that she must be mistaken, it must be another Abu Awad, another aunt of hers, her aunt but not mine, or mine too but not the one I’m looking for. I start describing the short, thick-waisted woman with cropped black hair and deep wrinkles, she was in Chile years ago, she speaks some Spanish, choosing verbs in the present tense of existence, rejecting the past, even though in the past she’d hoped we would see each other again in the future. And she has a younger sister. Taller, slimmer, I remember her dressed in an orange cardigan while her elder sister was dressed in black. Antón translates, and she keeps nodding, it’s her, definitely her, she died just a few months back from brain cancer.
The house seems different to me now that I’ve found it again. Different people. Maryam’s brother lives on the second floor, where I’ve never been: a brother I’ve never seen before, with a wife. We sit in the kitchen where the wife who speaks bits of broken Spanish is cooking dinner. He, who speaks only Arabic, repeats my name over and over as if he needs to repeat it in order to memorise it, Leena, Leena, the ees stretched out and my name turned Arabic in his mouth. He offers the girl from Beit Jala that I now am oranges that he peels himself and coffee that he’s made for me. Unable to talk to each other, we use gestures, hands moving in the air, eyelids fluttering. And I know they telephone the other sisters. Others, I think, how many? And here comes Lucía, she arrives first and smiles and hugs me and looks at me intently while I wonder what she sees, who she is seeing, but she doesn’t say. And then Nuha, who looks at me a moment, recognises me the next, and embraces me. Her slim body shakes as she sobs against my collarbone. I’d like to weep along with her but I’m so delighted to see her, delighted to have found her again, alive, delighted to be meeting these other members of my family I’ve never heard of. And maybe that’s why I wish Nuha would stop doing what she’s doing now. Lacking the words to describe her sorrow, she hands me her telephone and plays a video of Maryam in her final days. Her dead sister is still alive, sitting in a chair talking to somebody’s kid. Her wrinkled face swollen from medications has become strangely unwrinkled. An unrecognisable Maryam. Illness has changed her face, buried her name and placed a terrible mask on top of it. The mask she wore to her grave.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
LINA MERUANE is an award-winning Chilean writer and scholar. She has published two collections of short stories and five novels. Translated by Megan McDowell into English are her latest: Seeing Red (Deep Vellum and Atlantic) and Nervous System (Graywolf and Atlantic). Meruane has written several non-fiction books, among which is her essay on the impact and representation of the AIDS epidemic in Latin American literature, Viral Voyages (Palgrave MacMillan). She received the prestigious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Novel Prize (Mexico 2012), the Anna Seghers Prize (Germany, 2011), as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and a DAAD Writer in Residence in Berlin, among others. She currently teaches Global Cultures and Creative Writing at New York University.
ANDREA ROSENBERG is a translator from Spanish and Portuguese. Her full-length translations include novels and graphic narrative by Manuel Vilas, Tomás González, Jorge Franco, Inês Pedrosa, Aura Xilonen, Juan Gómez Bárcena, Paco Roca, and Marcelo D’Salete. Two of her translations have won Eisner Awards, and she has been the recipient of awards and grants from the Fulbright Program, the American Literary Translators Association, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.