Why Some Caged Birds Don’t Sing

By Rima Fadlallah, LSA junior at the University of Michigan

“Signs like this are seen all over the South of Lebanon, reminding civilians that their beautiful neighboring country is Palestine indeed.” -Fadlallah

Athens, Greece. Sitting on the lobby couch, typing away at some old laptop that we borrowed from a friend at the hostel, we try contacting anyone who can possibly help us get our bags back (not relevant, but really fun back-storynevertheless). Next to me, my friend Angela is laying down, staring blankly at the wall, irritable because we had been in the same outfit for two days.Meanwhile, this older man who’d been lingering around the Athens Backpackers hostel for a few days was snoring on the other couch. He always looked like he was intoxicated; he’d been wearing the same blue and red striped polo for those few days that I saw him, and he didn’t seem to fit in at a hostel filled with young travelers who want to conquer the world.

With a fit of coughs that told me he’s a chain smoker, Mister Stripes jolts up from his slumber. I pay him no attention, still absorbed in the computer screen. He, on the other hand, seems to be very intrigued by his new company: “Where are you from?”

Angela isn’t going to answer. Without looking up from the screen I mumble: “America.”

“I’m from Israel,” he says enthusiastically.

I think I have to control myself. I’m always open to and curious about different identities, but right here and now is not the right time. After the rough day we just had, I am in no condition to engage in conversation that I (clearly) have no interest in, let alone a conversation with a man whose political views most probably oppose mine directly. The plight of the Palestinian people is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart, but I have no energy to get arrogant and tell him how his “nation” was founded on murders, emotional appeals, and continuous injustice and propaganda. What do they say again about making assumptions?

Anyway, I take a deep breath, stay staring at my computer screen and say: “That’s great.” He seems to get the point that I don’t want to talk because he doesn’t say anything to that. I, on the other hand, can’t stop thinking about it. After a minute, I just look at Angela, die laughing like a maniac and say: “I can’t believe this! Is this really happening right now? Of course this is happening right now.”

Mister Stripes jumps right on it, obviously not catching on to social cues. “What are you talking about,” he asks, genuinely curious. Still not looking at him, I tell him as politely as I can that I am talking to my friend. To this, he proceeds to say: “You should visit Israel, it’s a beautiful country.”

At this point, I am convinced he is testing me. I stay focused on the screen in front of me, though I am doing nothing productive at all, and say through almost gritted teeth: “No thank you.” When he asks why, I look up at him, gather up all of the attitude I have (and that’s a lot of attitude), smile, and say: “Because I’ve heard Palestine is more beautiful. I’d much rather spend my time there.”

Here’s where the assumption part makes an “ass” out of me (and possibly you, too)…His face lights up and he says: “I’m Palestinian!!!” Hearing this makes me so confused and frustrated with him.

“Then why would you say that you’re from Israel??”

Mister Stripes explains that he lives in Israel and therefore has an Israeli citizenship. This makes me even more upset (yet admittedly more willing to talk). I feel that he not being vocal about his Palestinian identity, he is essentially helping the Zionists ethnically “cleanse” not only their Jewish State, but even the individuals living in it.

He tells me some story about how he lived in England for several years, how he had a business that flourished. He recently returned to Palestine to invest over a million dollars where his family lives, but Israeli officials allegedly threatened his life and stole all his money. He is in Athens supposedly with a lawyer, waiting for his father to meet them so they can file a lawsuit.

Now about this story, I really have no idea. But it’s truth really means nothing to me, what concerns me more than the alleged threat and theft is the fact that this man, like many other Palestinians, are made to feel like their identity is illegitimate. Why is it that Palestinians hesitate to share their identity? Why are they made to feel that it is more politically correct to say they are from Israel? This is their nationality, their heritage, their language, their culture, their history—how can anyone deny someone that?

Rewind.

First day of college – Arabic class. The professor asked the class to name Arab countries. Several students raised their hands and started naming: “Iraq. Lebanon. Syria. Saudi Arabia. Qatar…”  One girl –who I would later learn is Palestinian – raised her hand and said, “Palestine.”  I’ll never forget what happened next. The professor was pacing back and forth, and when she said Palestine he stopped, leaned his weight on his right leg doing this weird sort of pivot as he said: “Okayyyy…Israellllll…What else?”

I walked out of class infuriated. At the time, I wasn’t as informed about the occupation, so I didn’t quite understand what about it made me so upset. But it made me angry nevertheless, angry enough to drop his class for another (way better) Arabic professor. But that’s not the point. The point is that today I understand. I understand why it pissed me off that he could just say that. It frustrated me how he could make her feel stupid for claiming her country as her own. Granted, Israel is written on the map, but does that deny her existence? Israel replaces Palestine on the map today, leaving “Palestinian Territories” in small print if we’re lucky – but who reads the small print?  Where does this leave her and her family, their memories, their people? Zionists can’t just write over all of that…Or can they?

When I think about that day, I get so angry at myself for letting him silence me. Even with so little knowledge about the occupation, I knew that by being pro-Palestine, the odds were against me. I felt intimidated, like I had no right to say how I felt. As crazy as it sounds, this psychological warfare seems just as malicious to me as the actual bloodshed and destruction in Palestine at the hands of the Zionists.

While the Zionists have this dehumanizing and anti-democratic (because they so often falsely claim to be a democratic state) plan to ethnically “cleanse” the land of the Palestinians, it seems even more alarming to me that, like residue leftover in their almost-tidy state, Zionists are working intently to see that along with the bloodstains on their murderous hands, they wash the Palestinian culture away entirely.

But what they don’t know about is language.  Sure, they can speak it, sometimes even perfect their Arabic accents. This language that they speak, while it may sound the same, serves a far different purpose. It is merely a means to a very villainous end –but they won’t make it to the back cover of the book, let alone the next chapter. There is so much history involved in our language, so much potential for unity, too much culture behind those words to ever be washed away at the hands of any aggressor. What they don’t know about is language.

This is why it frustrates me when people don’t speak. I’ve been meeting so many “Mr. Stripes” lately, so many people who let the taboos and controversies of society intimidate them to the point of silence. Hell, I was there too, until I realized that the only thing that will help me move forward is the power of my voice, the freedom to speak what I feel, the same basic human rights that my brothers and sisters in the Middle East are dying for – who am I to take that for granted? Who are you to silence me?

The answer may or may not surprise you. The answer is that nobody has the power to silence you.  Nobody. Not an ignorant, rude and insensitive Arabic teacher, not a ruthless regime who threatens and steals the lives of those who dare speak up, not a “nation” whose lies are pathetic, fallacious attempts to bury the Palestinians along with their culture under stolen turf. Nobody. When you’re silenced, you’ve made the choice to silence yourself. So you can just as easily make the choice to speak up, a flip of a switch. From what I recall, even with his wings clipped and his feet tied, it’s the caged bird that sings the most mesmerizing of hymns. This is no coincidence, “for the caged bird sings of freedom.”

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