A kufiyah hung between the two beds and a children’s book titled ‘I belong to Palestine’ lay on the side as we watched a documentary on the Nakba and ‘Letters from Yarmouk’ –
a documentary following the lives of residents under siege in the camp, which is now more a large town, through a local photographer’s images.
I had only met Mulham by chance. Having at first failed to find a couchsurfer to stay with in Stockholm, I had booked into a hostel, but a day before arriving I checked my email to find my booking to have been cancelled and a message from Mulham offering me a place to stay. Considering that I’d not long decided to research Palestinian identity among Palestinian refugees from Syria, focusing on camps in Jordan in the belief that it would be too hard to find the community in Europe, it felt like more than a stroke of luck. I was even more fortunate that Mulham turned out to be a particularly generous guy, eager to tell me about the Palestinian community in Syria, the conflict and how he felt moving to Europe impacted Palestinian identity and resistance.
The Swedish Theory of Love – a film about the state-driven independence of Swedes – claims that it takes an average of seven years for foreigners to become part of Swedish society but after eight months in the capital it was clear that Mulham had already begun to adapt. Earphones in, he waits for the pedestrian light to turn green with more patience than most Swedes, and an addiction to Swedish chocolate ensures a large yellow packet is to be found in his bag at all times. Though he’s modest about his level of Swedish, I was impressed that he’s already able to converse somewhat in the complex language and is progressing determinedly through a Swedish self-help book.
But even though carb-free crisp bread has replaced the traditional pitta, it still stands beside a large tub of za’atar and a bottle of olive oil – a typical component of a Palestinian breakfast. His loyalty to the Palestinian cause was evident too as we discussed the occupation and the role played by the US, Europe and Arab states in upholding the Israeli regime.
It was this that led to what, for me, was the most illuminating point Mulham made. I had assumed that in those places where conditions were worst for Palestinian refugees, such as the camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the sense of Palestinian identity and desire to return would be strongest. In contrast, those who had moved to Europe, thus technically giving up the ‘right to return’ and no longer being a member of such a dense and populated Palestinian community, would be more likely to become less active in the resistance as their sense of Palestinian identity weakened and they were no longer part of the struggle and suffering of camp life that is in itself a form of resistance.
However, Mulham suggested the opposite – that life for Palestinians in the Arab states often presents such economic challenges that the struggle to get by becomes the priority, whilst the political situation also hinders the ability of Palestinians to engage in direct acts of resistance. In Europe, on the other hand, he argued that the Palestinian community is both more able to divest energy to the Palestinian cause and in a better position to affect change in the US and Europe – two sights of power that cannot be ignored in the fight against the occupation.
It’s certainly an optimistic view but not one without reason. In Chile, where the fourth largest Palestinian population reside, a Palestinian football team exists and Palestinians have been able to educate Chileans on the realities of the Israeli occupation. An international Palestinian solidarity movement, comprised of Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, is testament to such a trend, as are the numerous Palestinians in exile famous for speaking out against the Israeli regime. From Edward Said to Emily Jacir, a greater space is available for the voice of Palestinians who have spent at least parts of their life abroad. I certainly like the idea of loci of power spread across the globe – gophers of resistance popping up in numbers too great for Israel to hit them down with its mallet of oppression.
Still, I fear that the more times a people find themselves displaced, the thinner their sense of belonging to their original homeland becomes. And so I was curious as to how Mulham now felt about returning to Syria, in relation to the simultaneous desire to one day return to Palestine. But he had reassuring words…
“Syria,” he told me, “is like the lover that I spent my youth with, who gave me a love and warmness and cared for me, so of course I miss being with my love… but Palestine is like the mother that I haven’t met but will fight all my life to be held by, to be between her arms.”
For however strong or weak one’s sense of Palestinian identity remains, whatever opportunities present themselves to resist, perhaps all will only be lost once the last kufiyah ceases to hang above the bed of one who dreams of Palestine.