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A Dirty Word Flowers of Palestine, Plate 4 i (2022), 9 × 12" Acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the artist and smoke the moon.   Art by Ibrahim Abusitta

A Dirty Word

Yasmine Dalloul is proud to be Palestinian. She unpacks why that makes Canadians uncomfortable.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “Za’atar Grows in Palestine.” The piece explores how Palestinian food has been co-opted and claimed by Israel as a staple of its own culture. It was my inaugural public snub of mainstream North American and European perspectives on the Israel-Palestine question. I wanted to share my values, my heritage and my vehement belief that everything Palestinian—from the land to the culture—is being ethnically cleansed, appropriated and stolen by the illegal Israeli state.

My way of seeing things is hardly popular in North America. Since I moved to Canada fifteen years ago, I’ve been surprised by the visceral reaction many non-Arabs have when they hear the word “Palestine.” People usually recoil in awkward silence, babble on about “how complicated it is over there,” or launch into a pro-Zionist argument. When I disclose my Palestinian background, strangers jump at the opportunity to interrogate me about why Palestinians are “the way they are” or why “the Arabs don’t want peace.” 

Recently, a prospective employer turned out to be one of those interrogators. He might have learned about my background through the article I wrote, or maybe he saw the map of Palestine I’ve had tattooed on my wrist for the past decade. During my job interview with him, I tried to stay professional and steer the conversation toward my qualifications instead of my identity. 

He pressed on, hoping to convince me that the checkpoints around the West Bank that separate Palestinians from their homeland actually give them a kind of freedom. “You mean they’re allowed to roam and work?” he asked. “That’s the most liberal apartheid I’ve ever heard of!”

Then he jumped into a rant about how Israel gives Palestinians money. “Where does it go? No, no—tell me. What do the Palestinians do with the money?” I could only assume that he was referring to the Paris Protocol, a financial arrangement which sees Israel collect taxes on Palestine’s behalf and transfer the money to the Palestinian Authority on a monthly basis. 

I didn’t bother explaining that Israel has withheld tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority, or that some Palestinian leaders have called this withholding a form of “collective punishment.” Collective punishment of peoples in occupied territories violates international human rights law, as outlined in the Geneva Conventions.

I got up and left the interview with tears streaming down my face. I kept wondering if this was illegal—if I could have reported him somehow. But I had already learned that defending Palestinians or Palestinian self-determination is futile in Canada. Slandering Israel could get you labelled as antisemitic or potentially destroy any chance you have of a successful career. But to mock, question or spin the Palestinian cause as an act of terrorism seemingly knows no repercussions. 

With a heavy heart, I called my mother as I hid in an alleyway and cried. “I wish I wasn’t Palestinian,” I said. “I wish it wasn’t so difficult.”

Settler colonialism has dogged my family and members of our community for seventy-four years and counting. In 1948, my grandparents were driven from their homelands by the Haganah, a Zionist military organization that fought to occupy Mandatory Palestine from 1920 to 1948. The group intended to establish an overwhelmingly Jewish state and withhold national rights from Arabs. During this time, many Palestinians were forcibly removed from their territory through violence and intimidation, under the guise that they had the choice to stay.

The occupation ultimately stripped all four corners of my family of their Palestinian prosperity, as well as the life of privilege and comfort they’d grown accustomed to. My maternal and paternal grandparents were young and happily building their lives. I struggle to imagine the weight that fleeing an occupation carried for them. 

They eventually wound up in Kuwait, thanks to the Lebanese and Jordanian passports they acquired through their socioeconomic status and family connections. By hustling, they rebuilt their lives there with the help of Kuwait’s booming economy. Too many others were not so lucky and wound up in refugee camps, clutching the keys and deeds to their houses, hopeful that they might return someday.

How did this mess start? In the decades preceding World War 1, the Palestinian people led relatively comfortable and stable lives, and many Palestinians sustained themselves by farming the land. After the British promised the Arabs self-governance and independence in exchange for support against the Ottoman Empire during the war, Palestine was passed on from the Ottoman Empire to Britain from 1922-1948. 

Many Palestinians continued to wear their tarboush hats with Western-style suits and learned English, befriending their British occupiers. Yet in 1917, the Balfour Declaration had consigned support from the British for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Or, as Palestinians have heard countless times over: “A land without people for people without a land.”

But the land did have a people. By 1948, 1.4 million Palestinians were living in 1,300 Palestinian towns and villages, with much of the population thriving in agricultural or cosmopolitan commerce. This was before the pressure to leave their homes drove more than eight hundred thousand refugees to neighbouring Arab countries, other spots around the globe, and Gaza and the West Bank—the areas of Palestine which were not yet occupied and under Israeli control, and wouldn’t be until 1967.

I didn’t learn any of this until I was older. There’s a story passed between Palestinians that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once said: “The old will die and the young will forget.” Whether or not the story is true, it often feels like the Palestinian diaspora is being forced to forget, or at least stay silent about our struggle. 

When I arrived in Canada from the Middle East at eighteen, I discovered it’s largely considered indecent to speak about my Palestinian identity in a country with elevated support for Israel. This silencing made me feel isolated as soon as I arrived here. And in many ways, it still does. 

Canada gives lip service to Palestine while providing tangible support to Israel. The federal government claims it “recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and supports the creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state, as part of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace settlement.” Yet it also recognized the State of Israel upon its founding in 1948. As a violent settler nation state guilty of genocide itself, Canada has had a hard time coming up with something appropriate to say about Palestine without jeopardizing its longtime alliance with Israel. 

In May 2021, when the federal government announced it was providing funding for Palestinians in Gaza while families were facing forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, it couldn’t even prioritize Palestinians in its messaging: “Canada firmly believes that the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have a right to live in peace, security, and dignity—without fear and with their human rights respected.” At best, this statement gave Palestinians the tiniest nod, a slight suggestion that Canada might tolerate them living with a bit of dignity. 

Sheikh Jarrah is occupied Palestinian territory and it’s protected by international human rights law. Forced removal of its inhabitants can constitute a war crime, but last year 317 people were driven from their homes in East Jerusalem nonetheless. As violence escalated around the evictions last May, 261 Palestinians were killed over the course of eleven days.

In Canada, political opposition to Israel’s acts of violence was disregarded and censored in the House of Commons. Of course, it would be difficult for the federal government to take a hard stance on this issue given it has been providing Israel with millions of dollars worth of weapons since at least 2000. Last spring, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s calls to halt Canadian arms sales to the state were met with silence. Former Green MP Jenica Atwin left her party after she criticized then-leader Annamie Paul’s stance on the issue, claiming there were “no two sides to this conflict, only human rights abuses” by Israel. Just days later, Atwin crossed the floor to join the Liberals and softened her position to align with her new party’s views. 

It was hard enough to be living in a country where my identities as both a Muslim and a Palestinian weren’t being protected. But having to listen to people defending Israel’s right to kick people out of their homes made me sick. And the silence and lack of support coming from the rest of the world—including supposedly progressive, politically engaged people—made me even sicker. During the evictions last spring, my Palestinian friends and I practically had to beg our non-Palestinian friends to say something, to show any support. Where were our black squares? Our hashtags? 

I was getting into fights with fellow Arabs for not speaking up for us, and I even called out one of my best friends for neglecting to check in. It was a time when I felt that white liberalism was at its ugliest. The headline of a single Reductress article captured how I felt: Woman With BLM in Her Bio Unsure Where She Stands on Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine. It took about a week after the violence erupted, and a number of deleted celebrity tweets, until finally, Black Lives Matter once again opened the door for non-Arabs to show up for Palestine. 

When wider support finally arrived, thousands of people gathered across Canada to voice support for peace. It was the most significant display of solidarity for the cause that I’d seen throughout my life in Canada, surpassing any support received during  equally horrific events such as the claiming of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017, the Gaza bombing in 2014 and the flotilla attacks in 2010. But as expected, after just two weeks of protests, support dwindled. Posts became few and far between, even as more catastrophes took place. More shootings, more killings, more evictions, militant attacks on Gaza, expansion of settlements. 

In April 2022, Israeli police attacked the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during the holiest month of the year for Muslims. At least 150 Palestinians who had gathered for early morning prayers were injured and hundreds of people were detained. Few of my Canadian friends said anything about it. As I watched the death toll increase and read news of Israel’s plans for more settler homes that would displace Palestinians, I felt exhausted. 

In May, longtime Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the head while on assignment in Jenin, part of the occupied West Bank. Eyewitnesses and the Palestinian Authority say Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, was killed by Israeli forces. At her funeral, Israeli police assaulted the people carrying Akleh’s coffin, nearly causing them to drop it. The Israeli military is not, at the time of publication, opening a criminal investigation into her death. After I learned all of that, I felt only rage.

The narrative that Canadians buy into about Israel and Palestine is a product of how their government deals with the issue. Many of the conversations I’ve had with Canadians on the subject made me suspect that they don’t understand that neutrality is not an option when it comes to the Israel-Palestine question. 

For years, people have told me “it’s a complicated issue” and “both sides are wrong.” These positions downplay an active settler colonialist ideology under which the occupation is still ethnically cleansing the Palestinian people and limiting their resources to live. Yet over here, despite everything, Palestine is still a dirty word. ⁂

Yasmine Dalloul is a multicultural pan-Arabist writer who dedicates her work to preserving Palestinian culture and justice. She lives with her cat, Mojito, in a haunted apartment in Montreal.

About the art: From the book Flowers of Palestine, published by the A.M. Qattan Foundation. Wild Flowers of Palestine was originally published around 1870 with editions in three languages: English, French and German. It contained fifty-four plates printed in colour, after drawings and paintings by a Swiss missionary, Hanna Zeller, then a resident in Nazareth Palestine. In this edition, the English text is also translated into Arabic, along with the popular names of the flowers.