The Complex Construction of Palestinian Identity

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By Hla

Music strum with the oud, freshly cooked Mansaf and dabka dancing come to mind when picturing Palestine, according to second-generation Palestinian-American college student, Mohammad Jubran. In a perfect world, this image would be the only truth. 

With a military occupation of over 50 years, Palestine’s reality is one that weighs heavily on the identities of Palestinian-American young adults. Often times, along with participating in activism, Palestinians maintain their identity through imagining a liberated homeland where Palestinians are free to return. Without the ability to visit or return to their homeland, Palestinians claim their identity only through memories, stories, and photographs passed down from previous generations in their family. The simultaneous physical and mental displacement forces Palestinian youth to struggle with identity construction. 

This struggle is deeply felt by the likes of Jubran, whose grandparents were forcibly displaced into Jordan after Al-Nakba: the Palestinian exodus. Jubran’s parents grew up in Jordan and eventually immigrated to America as adults. While growing up in Los Angeles, Jubran visited Jordan every summer. 

Although he was able to see his family, Jubran had little room to develop his Palestinian identity. Many Palestinian young adults embrace their heritage while living in the diaspora.  However, their displacement still causes confusion. As a child, Jubran felt disoriented while juggling three different identities. 

“I didn’t know I was Palestinian until the end of middle school and beginning of high school,” Jubran said. “As I got older, I actually began to delve into my identity a lot more. The displacement really erases your actual identity. I grew up thinking I was Jordanian because that is all I experienced until I began asking questions.” 

Although he only visited his homeland once as an infant, Jubran says his current connection to Palestine is “strong and spiritual.” Like many displaced Palestinian young adults, he depends on his own memory and awareness of Palestine to keep this piece of his identity strong.

  First-generation college student, Jumana Esau, says that her family’s displacement into Jordan caused confusion for her growing up particularly because she identified as Jordanian as much as she did Palestinian. This is quite common — approximately 70% of Jordan’s population is made up of displaced Palestinians, many of whom consider Jordan a second homeland. Living in Jordan for five years caused Esau to develop a deep connection to the land. 

“I’m very grateful to Jordan because it’s a small parcel of land with barely any resources of its own, taking in all these refugees,” Esau said. “I would not be where I am today if my parents didn’t go to Jordan.” 

Although Jordan acted much as a safe haven, Esau believes it caused her connection to Palestine to become muddled because she was never able to meaningfully experience Palestine first hand while growing up in exile.

“When I was young, I was skeptical it [Palestine] even existed because when you’re young, you only believe what you see,” Esau said. “As I got older, my perception has gone from questioning if this place exists to I know this place exists but I don’t know where or how I fit in.” 

 It’s common to see Palestinian youth fully embrace their Palestinian identity as they get older, and develop their own connections with their homeland. Constructing and maintaining Palestinian identity directly lie in the hands of Palestinians who keep their roots and history alive. 

Since Palestine is constantly being denied the basic right of existence, the passion for the homeland and culture, coupled with participating in activism, are often some of the only things Palestinian-Americans have to hold onto.  Much of this passion is often displayed in the form of fierce activism targeted at raising awareness for the Palestinian cause.

 Palestinian college student, Cenna Abboushi, is one of the many who eagerly participate in protests and other types of activism. Abboushi has been an activist since the age of 15 and most recently has participated in raising awareness through Anti- Zionism week at her university. Similarly to Jubran and Esau, Abboushi also struggled with her identity as a child due to the displacement of her family into Jordan.  Since she grew up thinking she was half Jordanian and half Palestinian, Abboushi did not always feel a connection to the activism around her.

“When I was in elementary school, people in my school would protest for Palestine and I didn’t always know if I was allowed to be helping them because I thought I wasn’t full Palestinian,” Abboushi said. 

The effects displacement had on Abboushi didn’t allow her to truly connect with her full identity until she was old enough to discover it herself. With age, however, she was able to secure her identity in part due to activism.“Activism helps me remember my identity even though I live here [America] where it’s hard to avoid assimilating into American culture. I am able to educate others about my culture instead of just the other way around” Abboushi said.

This passion for activism fuels the hope of freedom and allows for the integrity of Palestine to live on regardless of the realities of war and occupation 

Identity construction proves to be a complex journey for many displaced Palestinians. Whether it’s Jordan or another neighboring country, forced exile leads to generational confusion that can take years to unravel. Nevertheless, Palestinians maintain their identity strongly through their passion for the homeland.

“Power lies in representation. The only thing we have to hold onto is our passion for our homeland,” Esau said.