Home Away from Home: Little Palestine by the Bay

Photographer Najib Joe Hakim documents the experiences of Palestinian-Americans living in the San Francisco Bay Area, the second largest community of Palestinians in the U.S. With a camera and audio recorder in hand, Najib explores how Palestinian-Americans connect with the idea of “home,” how they’ve experienced returning to Palestine and the indignities of living in a country that is often ignorant if not hostile toward Palestinians. As Najib relates,

Home Away from Home is not about solutions. It’s about leveling the playing field. It’s about raising the perception of Palestinian humanity to the level that the Israeli, the Jew, the American take for granted. Odd that this even needs discussion, isn’t it? Believe me, it does. . . . I want to portray how these people feel and live “Home”. How they bridge the distance to “back home”. How their memories and ideas about Palestine collide with their daily lives in the US. . . . And perhaps most surprising, you will find that each one, whether s/he was born in Palestine or never ever breathed the illuminated air of the Holy Land, refers to it as “back home”.

Lubna Morrar. Beit Duqu, Palestine to San Leandro, CA.

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“It was the first time that we went back to Palestine since 2005, so the Israelis grilled us for hours at the airport. What were we doing here? Why were we here? Who were we here to see? Who my father is? My grandfather? Who my mother is? My mother’s mother? All these different things. And it’s funny because I felt more at home at that point than at any other time in my life. And the reason why I say that is because I felt like they know that I have roots. They know that I have roots in that land. That I have a connection to that land. More than they do. You know? And when I say ‘they,’ it’s that piece of shit 17-year old from Brooklyn who was grilling me. It’s a powerful thing. It’s something you don’t necessarily feel ever in your life. It’s kind of like, I don’t know, sometimes I imagine being an orphan, like what being an orphan feels like and then finding your mother, you know that feeling? That’s what I feel when I go back home.”

Fr. Bernard Poggi. Nazareth-San Francisco.

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It’s almost impossible to live in that part of the world and not encounter the political situation. You encounter it every time you go through the checkpoints.

“Where you’re from?” “America”.
“Why’re you here? Who asked you to come to Israel?”
“Well, technically, I’m not in Israel. I’m on the West Bank.”
“No, you’re in Israel. Why’re you in Israel?”

You explain. But it’s never good enough. Your excuse for your being there, for your existence, is never good enough.

You must try to get across to that person. Make a human connection.

At one checkpoint, a lady on the bus was fasting for Ramadan. She had bought fruits, vegetables. But misplaced her permission. An Israeli soldier made a big scandal. “Where is your permission? Why are you here illegally?”

“I had it. Let me look in these bags.” The sun set. It was time for Iftar. She stopped looking, pulled out a banana and offered it to the soldier thinking he too was fasting. He looked at her and said, “No! Go, go. Just go.”

She got through to his humanity.

At the same time, you lose possibilities to encounter that humanity if you’re afraid. You can’t live your life afraid.

That’s what resistance means.

Amin Aftim Saba. Lydda-San Jose.

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When the Jews took Palestine, we were obliged by force to leave. They came to Lydda with guns. “Go on, finished. It’s not your country no more.” They wouldn’t let anybody stay. “All out, go out, go out. The Jews forced us out.

My friend, his name is Amin also. Amin Hanhan. Hanhan owned grocery in Lydda. When the Jews came, Hanhan had 2,000 guineas [gold coin] saved. How could he take with him? He brought a bonbon [confections] box, put the money inside and covered it with bonbons.

A Jewish soldier asked, “What’s this?” He told him, “These are bonbons for my kids.” He didn’t believe him. The soldier emptied it, found the money and took it. Hanhan began crying. 2,000 guineas is a lot. A major came and asked him, “What’s the problem?” Hanhan said, “The soldier took my money. You are taking our country and even the money we have.” The major said, “Do you know this soldier?” He said, “Yes. This is the one.” The major said, “Give the money back.” The soldier returned it.

That soldier followed Hanhan and later took the money again. Hanhan cried again. The Jewish soldier killed Amin Hanhan.

To read more stories visit Social Documentary Network, where you can also listen to the narrations.

Photography and text credit: Najib Joe Hakim, Jaffa Orange Photography.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.