In the late afternoon hours of August 8, 2014, exactly one year to the day, my wife asked me the following question: “Do you have your birth certificate here?” “Sure, if it is not here, then it is in the safe deposit box,” I responded. Since we had just met with Social Security staff to sign up for Medicare and Social Security benefits, I was certain that my birth and naturalization certificates were still at home.
“But why do you ask?”
At the height of Israel’s 2014 brutal assault on Gaza Evangelical Christians bought into Newt Gingrich’s lie that “the Palestinians are an invented people,” a notion that has been repeated by Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister worshipped by hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Christians across the South as the paragon of Christian righteousness and as one who “speaks to the power of biblical truth.” Mike never misses an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Fundies, AIPAC, and Sheldon Adelson. You’d think that as a preacher he would be above taking gambling money to fund his political stunts.
Give credit to Golda Meir who started this hog-wash. In 1969 Golda stated the following: “There were no such thing [sic.] as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist [emphasis mine].” Naturally, not a single major newspaper called her hand on this fabrication or bothered to delve into history books and documents to ascertain the veracity of this outright lie. How dare anyone question this grandmotherly figure? Yeah, Golda, tell that to the 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed in 1948 and the tens of thousands cleansed in 1967.
Sometime in the 1980’s I served on a two-person National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored panel to discuss the Palestine/Israel conflict with a group of high school Social Science teachers at the University of Arkansas, Monticello. Formerly a Jesuit and a convert to Judaism, Ron Lanoue, in his capacity as president of the Arkansas Jewish Federation, was my counterpart to present the Israeli side. Citing by rote from the Israeli propaganda disinformation talking points and taking a strong Zionist position, Ron uttered the following: “There never was a Palestine.” Prepared, I pulled an old 1930’s map of Palestine and provided it as a proof-positive exhibit to refute his assertion. To which Ron insisted that the map was a forgery. Since the 2.5×3.5 ft. map had been repeatedly folded and unfolded, it had several crease marks and had begun to fray, discolor, and betray its age. To save it and, by extension, to save Palestine, albeit as a historic document, I had previously had it mounted and laminated on poster paper. After passing the map around and pointing to its condition, date of publication, and the publisher’s name, the group concurred that the map was authentic. And, when I pointed out to Ron that, as a convert to Judaism, he was not considered a full-fledged Jew (because his mother was not Jewish), things went downhill for him, and he began to agree with me that a Palestinian state must come into being so as to achieve permanent peace in the region. And for a very good while Ron and I communicated and maintained an amicable relationship.
Back to La Belle Femme’s question.
Turns out that at the height of the 2014 Gaza carnage someone wrote on Facebook (for the record, I don’t do Facebook, yet) that there never was a Palestinian state; therefore, Palestinians and Gazans are an invention. Taking cues from Israeli official propaganda and using Israeli sponsored social media, some folks in our community went into high gear and posted Israeli maps, photos of Israelis in shelters, triumphant Israeli soldiers, and bible verses in support of “God’s chosen people” as the latter waged their righteous war against heathen Palestinian Moslem terrorists. One person in particular, a person we’d known for well over 35 years, posted the following: “There’s never been a Palestine. Palestinians are an invented people.” The person attends one of the local Baptist churches where no doubt this sort of group-speak-think-end-of-times rubbish permeates Sunday School classes and sermons that cloud the minds of honest-to-goodness, decent, worthy, and wholesome people who are incapable of delineating between ancient text and modern times. It is as though the history of Palestine stopped at marker 80 A.D., went dormant for some 2000 years, and was resurrected with the creation of Israel — without any mention of the malicious dispossession of its indigenous people.
La Belle Femme only briefly entertained the notion of copying my birth certificate and sharing it with this ill-informed person, a university graduate at that. I therefore looked for my birth certificate in the roll top desk where I usually keep important documents. No luck there. By then it was too late to make a run to the bank, and for the ensuing 60-hour weekend I fretted and spent much time frantically looking in filing cabinets, files, and other possible locations I might have deposited the document for safe keeping. And only because I was unable to find my naturalization certificate and marriage license in all the possible places at home, I became convinced that my birth certificate was in the safe protection of a steel metal box. Had I left it at the Social Security office? Had I dropped it or lost it somewhere? Perhaps thrown it away in the recycling bin? And, while I took some solace in knowing that this was an opportunity to clean accumulated clutter and dispose of outdated materials, the nagging fear that I might have lost my birth certificate plagued me to no end, and I couldn’t wait for the Monday morn strike of eight to get to the bank.
No luck there!
Back at home, the search was fraught with frantic fear that I might have lost that damn piece of paper. Since the marriage license, the naturalization certificate, my old Laissez-Passer (the Lebanese document I used to enter the U.S., and a document issued in lieu of a passport which lists me as a Stateless Person) were in the safe deposit, my birth certificate was bound to be in that 10×24 inch metal box. On my second trip to the bank on that Monday afternoon I slowly rummaged through every single item as though I were looking for a concealed treasure, a gem-studded gold parchment. And there it was, folded and creased, a birth certificate, issued by the government of Palestine, attesting to my existence in bold Arabic letters, English and Hebrew. While the original lies eternally and safely in the safe deposit box, two Xerox copies are in my possession, just in case I had to prove to the doubting Thomases who populate this earth that I am who I claim to be, a Wandering Palestinian who found a welcoming mat abroad, a refuge from a cesspool of killing by interlopers who are doing unto others as was done unto them, and a home in Arkansas.
And why did this haunting fear take over and ruin my weekend? With some effort, I would no doubt have been able to acquire another naturalization certificate and marriage license. And the silly, cheap-looking, orange-jacketed, worthless Lebanese document? Why would I want a document issued by a government that did not recognize my identity and posited me in a Kafkaesque vault of anonymity, a Conradic kind heart of nothingness abyss? My birth certificate is as dear to me as life itself, and I was fully aware that the Israeli government, a government that daily wishes Palestinians away into nonentity by expelling, killing, terrorizing, confiscating, bull-dozing Palestine and her people and disposing them in its on-going pre-meditated acts of violence and memoricide and carnage would not honor my request for a replacement birth certificate. This same government would never acknowledge my existence and issue what is rightfully mine, duly and officially recorded at the Tabo in Jerusalem, Palestine, in November of 1947, and issued by no other than the Government of Palestine.
A year ago I determined to commit this experience to the keyboard and solicited the advice of one of my dearest friends and lifeline on matters phonological, morphological, etymological, and grammatical, a linguist par excellence, a wordsmith of sterling quality, and a scholar of impeccable repute.
“… Hanna, [Johnny]” I wrote, “I looked for that faded only link to my existence, my identity, my proof to the world that I, Raouf J. Halaby, exist. Hard for me to explain the range of feelings, Hanna, but I aim to commit the experience to words, when the mood hits. So, here goes the question: In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago, in a dialogue with Othello, makes the following statement (and I am merely paraphrasing): ‘He who steals from me my purse steals nothing. ‘Tis his, ‘tis mine. … Yet he who steals from me my name steals everything. …’ If I made reference to this quotation, would I then be likening myself to a Machiavellian character? … I want to use the quote as a synonym for identity.”
In his lengthy missive, and in erudite fashion, Hanna’s eloquent and prompt response travelled across town in that magical world of fiber optics. He wrote:
… My advice is this: One of the great things about Iago is that, base villain though he be, he is a tremendously wise fellow in some arenas. Even the devil can quote scripture, and Iago quotes some, in my view, when he says what he says about purse versus name. Notice that, as he victimizes Brabantio, he turns his wisdom about purse on its head. ‘Put money in thy purse.’ To hear what he tells Brabantio, you’d think only the purse counts for anything. What I would do, if I were you, is offer a short note about the devil’s being able to quote scripture and Iago’s being able to do the same. What a harrowing thing about the birth certificate?
Today the mood did hit me and, inspired by Hanna’s persuasive articulation and a full year later, I committed the harrowing experience, never to be physically or mentally lost or forgotten, to a permanent record. It is all about les paroles écrites.
While he who steals ancestral lands, homes, orchards, and natural resources, steals much because in his way of thinking ‘tis not his/other’s, but ‘tis mine/and mine alone – even though ’twas his for ages, he who steals from me my identity is akin to the lurking midnight prowler and thief, that grim reaper who steals from me everything, including my dignity, self-respect, selfhood, legacy, memory, life itself, and, most significantly, my past, my present, and my future.
As for the local denier, La Belle Femme and I let the matter slide only because we’ve learned a long time ago that you can’t argue with indoctrinated folks whose convictions circumscribe them and box them into rigid beliefs that, unfortunately, keep them from thinking past the county line and realizing that the Good Book they hold close to their hearts is all about Love, Justice, Harmony, Peace, Forgiveness, and Redemption.
And Jesus cried then as he cries today — for a humanity obsessed with power, killing, and hegemonic designs. How truly frail and shallow we continue to be.