For 33 years, I’ve lived in the UK. Having been born here does not make one British – whatever ‘British’ means. I was born in Manchester, yes, but I spent my formative years in Kuwait. Despite personal and collective ‘teething problems’ in the scorching heat of what was then a relatively progressive Arab Muslim country, I can confidently say that my days in Kuwait were the happiest of my life. And life-forming they truly were.
My upbringing, which had solid Palestinian/Arab/Muslim roots, was quite ecumenical. Mama cooked traditional Palestinian chicken with fried onions and sumac on freshly-baked bread (Musakhkhan) as well as British-style roast chicken with potatoes & two veg. She served traditional baklava on her 70s style dessert trolley alongside chocolate pudding. She studied at the Christian Missionary School in Nazareth, and sang in its choir, whilst she was taught the Qur’an by a Dutch nun who had studied Classical Arabic.
I was named after one of my mother’s paternal aunts, ‘Amti Reemie, who has since become part of Nazareth folklore because she had a vision of the Virgin Mary standing by the Virgin’s Well in Nazareth the night before she died. My mother always reminded me that this is why she called me ‘Reem’, and for that, she believed that I “will always be blessed”. Baba, with whom I didn’t get along on many issues, was comfortable with reciting the Qur’an, listening to Alfred Brendel’s rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, and singing along to Fred Astaire’s ‘Cheek-to-Cheek’.
I can look into the eyes of a typical white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and say that I speak English as a native, whilst they don’t speak Arabic. Most probably, I know more about the Bible than they will ever know about the Qur’an. Most of them may not know that the Bible was written in Aramaic, an ancestral language of both Hebrew and Arabic. Worse, they might lose their marbles when I tell them that Saint George, England’s patron saint, was Palestinian and Turkish, not an inebriated bald-headed white nationalist football hooligan. I embrace the values of the ‘West’ and Christianity and encompass them – to the best of my ability – within my own values as someone from the ‘Middle East’ who is Palestinian and Muslim.
When the great Syrian filmmaker Hatem Ali (1962-2020) passed away from a heart attack in his hotel room in Cairo, a wave of collective grief washed over social media in the Arab and Muslim world, like I’ve never seen before. Because I live in the UK and don’t have satellite TV (so that I do not ‘lose’ my English), I have only been privy to YouTube video clips of his work. Since Ali’s death, however, I started going through his dramatic production archive which spanned the past 30 years. At last, the penny, or rather the ‘silver dirham’, dropped.
For the same three decades in which Hatem Ali was producing one superb Middle Eastern drama after the other, I was trying to ‘fit into’ the West. I barked up the wrong tree that is “World Music” – a fabricated genre which rarely shows interest in the music of the other if the other is based in the West – and which invariably kowtows to Israeli cultural propaganda.
I was trying to protect my Palestinian narrative in an environment which seeks constantly to suppress it, in the media and on stage. I always sought to keep as much as I could afford of my Muslim faith, whilst attempting to assimilate in a British society which has issues with Islam.
This in-built prejudice dates back to the time of the Empire, when Britain colonised much of the Muslim world, and it thrives to this day. Not to mention Britain’s shameful role in handing Palestine to the Jews of Europe, notwithstanding that it was other Europeans who had brutalised and murdered them.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. I have learnt so much in the past 30 years. I have made lifelong British friends, of all faiths and races. I’ve come to know and befriend anti-Zionist Jews, who taught me to speak out against the herd, and with courage. I’ve made numerous radio programmes on matters than concern me personally and collectively. I’ve released one full debut album, one full live album and one live EP. There’s another studio EP coming, as part of my long-term project ‘This Land is Your Land’. The concept of ‘Land’ is something that I will explore in future blogs, InshaAllah. But all this was achieved in spite of, and not because of, the fact that I live in the West. It has been exhausting and consuming, and I feel that some parts of me have perished and may never return. On the plus side, I married an Englishman whom my mother described as ‘a man of honour’. She did, though, go on to remind him cheekily that I might make him ‘pay’ for the British occupation of Palestine! Ironically, he swears that he was welcomed more warmly by the Arab world than I was in the West.
For some reason, it seems that all of ‘me’ never seemed to be enough to get accepted in this society, politically, religiously, socially, professionally, and most recently and painfully, personally.
I remember a Jewish comrade from the Free Mordechai Vanunu Campaign (to free the Israeli nuclear whistle-blower) telling me, on one of their endless vigils on a rainy day in front of the Israeli embassy: “The problem with you Palestinians…..is that you are way too forgiving.”
Forgiveness is easy, and do-able, believe it or not. What’s more challenging is forgetting, as well as finding a way forward which compromises me no more.