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Two Shores, One Sea

Longing for Palestine’s Mediterranean

The first time I made it to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, I was twenty years old. It was early August in Alexandria, Egypt.

A few days earlier, Mahmoud Darwish had died of a failed heart surgery in the United States. I was in Cairo when I got the news of his death, sitting with my family over a lunch of shish taouk. I remember vividly a feeling of intense hunger that day, gnawing and relentless; I needed to eat before I would be consumed by the feeling. I was well aware that my mood was overtaking what was supposed to be a memorable family vacation, and yet I couldn’t do anything to quiet it. Soon after we sat down at the restaurant and ordered, my father glanced at me, holding my gaze for a few moments before he finally told me, his only child studying literature, “Mahmoud Darwish died today.”

I sat there unable to fully grasp the weight of the statement. Every few years, my father would pull me aside to tell me that another literary heavyweight had died, as if he somehow knew that, although I was young, I would understand. He had done the same with Edward Said and Fadwa Tuqan in 2003, but the death of Darwish had a different weight to it. It was almost as if we knew that this was a definitive shift in the world of language—that the language we knew in and of itself, and its capacity to express our longing for return, would never be the same after Darwish was lain to rest. These moments physically alter you. Nothing can be done about it.

I wanted the first time I experienced and fully came to know the Mediterranean to be in my country.

When we left Cairo for a daylong excursion to Alexandria, the atmosphere felt lighter, more calming, undoubtedly because of the sea. I remember feeling euphoric as I walked with my family barefoot on the beach. As a Palestinian with a West Bank hawiyyeh, or ID card, there were a number of factors working against my ability to experience this simple act in my homeland. The first was that I was born during the First Intifada and came of age in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the Second Intifada, when the architecture of apartheid fossilized to an impenetrable degree. This meant that I wasn’t able to go outside of the West Bank without military permission, that this permission was almost impossible to get, and that in the rare instances it was granted, it was fleeting. A return to the confines of the so-called West Bank had to happen before nightfall.

The engineering it took to visit and to experience an element of this earth that has formed, if not defined, my genetic memory made the moment I reached the Mediterranean’s Egyptian shores all the more significant. And yet, as I reached the edge of the water, a paralysis took hold of me. I was unable to submerge my body into the sea. I thought again of Darwish. I wanted the first time I experienced and fully came to know the Mediterranean to be in my country. I didn’t know if the day would ever come; I knew that it might not come. But I also knew, on a cellular level, that I had to wait—and to wait for Jaffa, specifically.

A year later I found myself in Barcelona, sitting on the beach near the W Hotel with a friend whose family hails from Nazareth. The same feeling of longing and anguish I felt in Alexandria overtook me once again. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, or as she sometimes called it, a 1948 Palestinian, my friend had been to Haifa and Jaffa many times. Her version and experience of Palestine differed greatly from mine. I noted the differences in our lexicons—that is, how we would refer to the land—Palestine or Israel, 1948 or 1967, “The Inside” (Al-Dakhil), and the West Bank. All of them meant the same place: our home.

I glanced across the beach, several feet away from the shore, and told her about my paralysis. “I can’t go in. I have to wait.” She looked at me confused, unable to fully understand my inertia. She tried to convince me that there was no point in depriving myself of the experience, that perhaps an insistence on fostering a connection to the Mediterranean—all of the Mediterraneans—was an act of defiance, if not a homecoming in and of itself. I watched her fondly as she demonstrated what she meant by brushing the sand off her legs and running passionately towards the water. I watched her swim far out into the sea and stay there, floating freely above the surface for minutes on end. How could I explain to her that I had been pulled from this element by colonial violence? How could I explain that my grief made it impossible for me to learn how to swim, though I had tried two times? My aquaphobia was linked to territorial alienation, a forced migration.

I remained anchored to the sand. As I looked at the waves violently cascade onto the shore, I recalled Darwish once again and what he wrote in Memory for Forgetfulness:

He who watches the sea doesn’t know the sea. He who sits by the shore doesn’t know the sea. And he who comes only to look doesn’t know the sea.

Only he who dives knows the sea.

But I couldn’t dive. I couldn’t even dip my toes. The only possibility I could conceive of was to wait, with an almost foolish, if not delusional, optimism that one day the city of Jaffa and I would meet.

One thing that Palestinians have grown accustomed to since the onset of the ongoing Nakba is the act of waiting. The ability to wait, and the belief that our sense of time, though brutal and unforgiving, will eventually lead to a necessary and colossal breakthrough toward freedom. My conception and lived experiences of this, as of yet, have been reaffirmed in the two instances I have been granted a tasreeh, or permit, to go beyond the West Bank. Jerusalem is sometimes easier to visit, especially during Ramadan, when the Israeli Army allows girls, women, young children, and elderly men to visit the Aqsa Mosque compound on Fridays. But the coastal cities of Jaffa and Haifa remain in the realm of the near-impossible for someone with my paperwork.

In 2010, a year after the summer’s day in Barcelona and two years after the August afternoon in Alexandria, I sat in an office chair in Ramallah, holding my breath. I waited, frozen, as my distant cousin’s husband made a phone call to an Israeli officer, asking him to look at my application for a permit, vouching for my good character, and assuring him that I would be up to no trouble if granted permission to enter Israel. A few nods and intense glances of concentration later, he hung up the phone and told me, “The good news is that it’s granted. The bad news is, you only get twelve hours, and you have to be back before 11 p.m.”

“That’s just what Jaffa’s sea does, it throws up things,” the resident told me. “It gives them back”.

The following day, my family and I woke up at 5 a.m. and made our way to Jerusalem to pray in the Aqsa Mosque. In a feverish rush, we paid our respects to the Holy City on an expedited pilgrimage, thankful to be there but not fully able to enjoy anything entirely. By lunchtime, we made it to Haifa and sat on the rooftop terrace of a restaurant, submerged in the blueness of the city: blue for the color of the sea all around us, and for the sense of melancholia enveloping every stone, pillar, and archway.

Years later, sitting in a lecture hall at Oxford University as a PhD student, I heard Ilan Pappé recount the events leading up to Haifa’s violent depopulation in April of 1948, when in a matter of days, almost fifty thousand Palestinians were forcibly expelled by the Zionist paramilitary militia from their homes. I understood the melancholia I felt at lunch that day a little better, beyond any personal grief, that my family and I were deprived of what should have been a regular, if not mundane, occurrence in our lives—that we should have been able to have lunch in Haifa on any given day. Yet this semblance of normalcy would only be experienced by the few thousand Palestinian Haifawis who, to quote Emile Habibi, “remained in Haifa.” And it was fleeting: they were corralled into one or two lone neighborhoods in the city, ghettoized and contained by the reality of the new Jewish state.

After wrapping up lunch and a quick tour of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, our driver told us that if we wanted to spend our remaining time in Jaffa, then we had to get going. We made it a few hours before sunset and were deposited on a beachfront that seemed to be more private than the main beach, allowing us to really enjoy the full emotional pull of that moment. Once again, I thought of Darwish:

Only he who dives knows the sea. He takes risks. He forgets the sea in the sea. He dissolves in the unknown, as he might in a lover. Nothing to separate the blueness from the water.

There was nothing left to do now other than to break the paralysis. I made my way to the sea and walked in. I let the saltwater soak my summer dress until it reached my chest, and I stayed there, allowing the waves to rock me back and forth. I collected seashells, shards of eroded glass that had been in the water so long that their edges had softened, and bits of broken tile and stone. I had never been to a beach that had these types of treasures all over the shore. All these years later, there are no words that can sufficiently describe the emotions I felt that day.

Long after this visit, I would learn that when the Zionist militia depopulated Jaffa of tens of thousands of its inhabitants shortly after ethnically cleansing Haifa in the spring of 1948, they threw the rubble and remains of demolished Palestinian homes into the sea. But, as if in violent protest, the sea washed them back to shore. What wasn’t collected by museums and archivists entered a perpetual cycle: evidence of Palestinian life would be taken to the sea, then spit back out to shore, then washed back to the sea, then back to shore again. Palestinians often speak of this haunting and spectacular feature of Jaffa’s sea. The city, its land and its water, tell you the story of what happened there. If you pay attention, it can’t be ignored.

In one such tale shared with me by a Jaffa resident, one that has circulated among Palestinians, there was an old Palestinian cemetery that predated 1948. It was routinely ignored by the state, not only for what it commemorated but because of the bodies it cradled in its earth: Palestinian bodies that, over time, turned into Palestinian remains. It is said that during high tide, the graves would further deteriorate; the skeletons were exposed to the elements, and descendants of the deceased feared that their loved ones would be consumed by the sea. The state, in turn, feared that those same remains would later wash onto the beach—skeletons resting on the sand in broad daylight, making it impossible for people to ignore the brutal extent of its violence against Palestinians in life and in death. “That’s just what Jaffa’s sea does, it throws up things,” the resident told me. “It gives them back.”

I have only experienced such a day one other time, twelve years later, in the summer of 2022. I was given a second elusive permit to go to Jaffa: this time for three days, but also with a curfew. Overnight stays weren’t allowed; I had to go back to the West Bank and sleep there every night.

I expected the second trip would be like the first, but it wasn’t. I was different now, a woman in her mid-thirties who never missed an opportunity to visit as many Mediterranean countries as I could, to experience the pleasures of a regional slowness that wasn’t afforded to me where I am from. I learned to borrow it in Lebanon and Egypt, in Spain and Italy, in Tunisia and Morocco. Though comparable enough, they never felt the same as being in Jaffa. I was devoted to that city, as if in a state of constant prayer. I lamented that I didn’t have the experience of my great-grandfather, who was fifty-three at the time of the Nakba and knew this land from the north to the south, from the western bank of the River Jordan to the shores of the Mediterranean. I mourned that I didn’t know the city intimately, that I didn’t know where the locals went to eat, that I couldn’t make my coffee in a kitchen whose window overlooked the sea and had to buy an overpriced latté from a port-side café once every twelve years. Most of all, I was devastated that no one around me acknowledged my right as a Palestinian to feel this sadness, let alone the right to movement on the land I and every member of my family were from for at least eight or nine centuries back, if not millennia. The irony of my containment is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that I have no record of ancestors from other lands: they were all Palestinian, all from Palestine.

They use sand to smother white phosphorous fires, which can’t be extinguished with water.

Today, when I think of Jaffa, I can only think of one thing: the city’s residents who didn’t escape on makeshift boats to Cyprus and Lebanon or on death marches eastward. They either drowned in the sea or were forced southward to the city of Gaza, which would later become part of the walled-in enclave of the Gaza Strip. Almost every Palestinian I have met from Gaza is originally a refugee from Jaffa or the city of Al Majdal-Asqalan, the latter of which was renamed Ashkelon after the establishment of Israel in 1948. In that sense, the historical significance of Jaffa is now linked to the material reality of Gaza. Many Gazans are Yaffawis and Majdalawis. They are people who still have keys to homes that were destroyed in what is today southern Israel. They are people who are currently under siege: starved, contained, and forcibly displaced for the second, third, or fourth time in their lives. I carry in me, at once, grief that I can’t live in Jaffa and guilt that I have managed to visit the city at all, when many of its original inhabitants have never left Gaza and are now facing unconscionable and indiscriminate aggression.

In the days following October 7, I thought often about Gaza’s few mercies—that it is the last remaining contiguous piece of Palestinian land in the most general sense and that it is the last Palestinian territory that meets the Mediterranean Sea. In this, Gazan Palestinians are not like me, a Palestinian from the areas near Jenin and Nablus. For them, the sea is an old friend. They are connected to its salt, its scent, and they are not afraid of its tide. They use sand to smother white phosphorous fires, which can’t be extinguished with water. In the absence of food, plumbing, and electricity, they use the sea to bathe and prepare fish dinners with limited catches. In the West Bank, Palestinians almost never have access to fresh fish; we view tinned sardines and canned tuna as a luxury.

I think about the metaphorical and material ways that the sea makes its way to our consciousness. As long as there is apartheid, there will always be two shores: the shores of northern Gaza where Israeli soldiers are dancing and swimming, and the shores of southern Gaza where Palestinian refugees are bathing and fishing. The shore of Jaffa where Israelis are sunbathing and teaching their children how to surf, and the shore of Jaffa where Palestinians step into the sea for the first time. The shore of Palestine’s Mediterranean, and all of the other Mediterraneans. The European Mediterranean, and the Arab Mediterranean; the Dolce Vita Mediterranean, and the treacherous, migratory Mediterranean. A luxurious and hedonist Mediterranean, and a cruel, heartless one.

It is one sea with multiple shores. It is one sea, as Darwish notes, “and there you seize upon a world that words can’t get hold of. It can’t be seen or touched except in the depths of the sea. The sea is the sea,” and I will never stop longing for it.