Meet… Suad Amiry

Last years TEDx Conference, where Palestinian activist and architect Suad Amiry spoke, was forwarded to me by my mother a last week with the note, “Please, please, please, take few a minutes and listen to this video”. I could tell this was important to her, so I made the time, right then and there.

Suad Amiry, a 1948 refugee from Yaffa who grew up in Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo, introduced me to a new generation of Palestinians. She is of my mothers generation, being only 3 years younger, she missed the creation of Israel in 1948 (she was born in 1951), but grew up in the aftermath of the diaspora. Yet, she is also of my generation because she was born and raised outside of Yaffa, and has had to fight some terrifying images that haunt second-generation Palestinians. You know, that the Israeli’s will make your life a living hell if you even try to set foot in the Tel Aviv airport or King Hussein border crossing, or any other for that matter. I loved the way she could connect being a part of the PLO generation, and at the same time to the displaced and distanced Palestinians who have grown up all over the world.

After listening to her speak, I thought I would pass on some of her words of wisdom to other Arabs, Palestinians and Palestine supporters. I think we can all connect with her humanity, humor and pain.

I will transcribe for you her lecture, which is the one at the TEDx conference my mother sent me.

“Do I make you nervous? Then I succeeded. Actually this was the first class I had at the American University of Beirut when I went to study architecture. Professor Khoury walked into the class, I was nervous anyway, that was my first class. And he brought a sand clock, like this one, put it on the table and said,

‘Today, this is the first class, students. Look at this clock and tell me when you get bored.’
So we kept looking and looking and looking… ‘khalas ustedz, zaha’na!’
‘Are you bored?’
‘Deadly bored!’
Then he looked at us and showed us this: ’20 million minutes’ in front of us.
‘Ustedz shou had el ashreen million?’
‘ If you graduate as ana architect and you are 25 years old and you work until you are 65 years old, you will spend this amount of time doing something you hate. Do you really want to be an architect? Did you father pressure you to being an architect? Did your mother?’

You know, in the Middle East, you are either an architect, lawyer or engineer… and that’s it!!!

And I respected two of our classmates walked out of the class. And actually they were the most successful. Professor Khoury was one of the people who influenced me.

This is my family, looks like any family, we are originally from Jaffa. I have to say that so we don’t forget. I am a refugee. My mother is from Damascus, which leaves a big impact on you, but that’s not the point.

When I was a little girl, my father used to say, ‘You have to love what you do in life. If you love to sell falafel, go out and make a falafel post.’ So I went out and opened a falafel sandwich shop on Teera street in Ramallah. I was so successful that Abu Mazen came to buy a falafel from me. My father kept repeating it, but as a kid, I didn’t understand what he said was only symbolic.

Now, I realized that one of the most difficult things in life really is to know what we want. My father and Professor Khoury made a habit of asking myself everyday, ‘Suad, are you really doing what you love? Are you really wasting your life?’

And here I am very happy. You are a young crowd, and I think it’s an important issue to keep asking yourself – Are you doing the thing that you love in life?’ Dont waste your life. Just go out and do it. But I know it’s not as simple as this photo show us. We have lots of gravities. Not only the cosmos gravities that holds the earth. We have lots of gravities in the world. like I am strong, we would like to get out of this gravity.

But of course it is not that easy.

Ever since we were kids they wrap us, like this. As Muneer said we go to school. Another gravity. Our family, whom we love, is one big gravity. And you know many of us go to therapy just to get rid of the effect of my mama. What my mama told me and what my father didn’t tell me. So our families, we love them, but its a big gravity.

At the end of the day we find ourselves in a box, in a room, either in school, or education, or nationality, or religion, or the country – all of the things that really really, put us in a box. And, being Palestinian, there is an even bigger box, which is the occupation.

But what I find most amazing, really, is that most of these gravities – I wish the human being make a decision about their nationality when they are 18. I would have chosen to be Italian. I wish someone would ask me, what religion you would want to belong to. Probably I would say a Buddhist at this point. I wish somebody would ask me – you know, we take credit for things that we never decided. I don’t take credit for my name, I don’t take credit for my sex, I don’t take credit for my nationality, I don’t take credit… it all came with me! A package like this. Which is fine, but one thing I don’t understand, we become prisoners of these boxes.

‘We are Palestinian and we are the best in human history! And we are Muslim and we are the best religion in the world! And we are Christian -‘ you know, what is amazing that really we become prisoners to something we have not made a choice in the first place. And I find that amazing. And if you ask me the reason for the wars in this world, it is because of this adaptation of the gravities we put and society puts on ourselves.
And I really hope that we believe, that we are human beings, and feelings are exactly the same and its only a variation of a theme that we are Palestinians, Arabs or what have you.

And all of us seek to get rid of these gravities and be liberated from it. But you know, you go through life ‘mama and baba, mama and baba, uncle and baba’. But really the world, is a bigger family. My friends are really the people who influence my life. And here I have put some photos of people who have influence my life, one way or another. They are not the only ones, but they are important…

… Khaldoun was 23 years old when I met him. And at that time, I had lost something that had annoyed me. He comes to me and he says ‘You know Suad, you have to learn how to lose. Embrace loss. Don’t let it eat you. Just accept it, I have lost, Sorry, and walk out.’ Thank you Khaldoun.

Khalil Rabah is an artist, he taught me how to dream. ‘Suad, tell me what is your dream and then we will work it out?’ I realize, that most of us, put obstacles before we dream. We have put blames, before we get there. ‘The fault is because of my brother, my father, the professor, my neighbor…’
Students at Berzeit used to say, ‘I passed, and YOU failed me.’

And this is human nature. And really, Khalil taught me how to fly, how to have a dream, and go fulfill it…

Murad is a Palestinian worker. I accompanied Murad to go to Israel. I wore like a Palestinian worker, made myself look like a man, and I was accompanied Murad for 18 hours in 2009. And as a result, I wrote a book called ‘Nothing to Lose but your Life’. And really, being with Murad, and his colleagues, ‘illegals’ in their homeland, taught me a lot about a section of people in Palestine that we know nothing about. Really we don’t know that these people wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I walked with them 18 hours to be able to get from Ramallah to Tehkeva and accompanying these workers changed my life. Thank you Murad.
So, I didn’t get out of that class, and I became an architect. Actually I must say, I started an organization called Ruwaq, which is a center for rehabilitation of historic buildings and it has been there for 20 years and it is a success story in Palestine because of the people who work together.
And I was very happy, and it became my hobby. I think I am so lucky to have my work be my hobby. I stopped being Director of Ruwaq three months ago and if you ask me, what I want to do as a hobby, I will tell you Ruwaq. But don’t be afraid, Khaldoun! I am not coming back as the Director!
But, when I was 50, I became a writer by pure accident. And, if you ask me, thanks to Sharon, ex-Prime Ministor of Israel, and my mother-in-law – these two people made a writer out of me.

You all remember, in 2003, Israel occupied the occupied, occupied Palestine. I woke up one morning, and there were 13 tanks in front of my house. My mother-in-law was living alone – Thank God. She was 91 years old living next to el Muqataa. So, we were put under curfew at that time for 42 days. The first time they lifted the curfew, I tried to get to my mother-in-law, I don’t know if I tried enough, but, I didn’t succeed…

I tried another time, the Army turned me back. The third time, I managed to bring Um Saleem to come live with me under curfew. I ended up with two occupations – one inside the house, and one outside the house.
And, I don’t know, to tell you the truth, which one was more difficult.

One time, I told the Israeli’s, ‘I may forgive you one day, for what you did to us, but I shall never forgive you for having my mother-in-law with me for 42 days! Which felt like 42 years!’

As a result, she came, and we all lived under occupation, under curfew, and you know what it means – so, you don’t know, is it morning or afternoon, Monday, Tuesday… you are totally confused. No, but my mother-in-law wanted to eat exactly at 8 breakfast, lunch at 1, and dinner at 7. And at 8, she would knock on my door.
‘Suad, Suad! Yalla come one, we have to prepare the breakfast!’ I would stay up all night, writing emails to my friends telling them how terrible my mother-in-law was. And I couldn’t tell her that I stayed up writing about you mother, just leave me alone! Anyways, I ended up in 42 days, writing 42 stories… and I sent them to crazy Murghantini, and she sends them to a publisher and next thing I know, I am a writer.

And that book, ‘Sharon and my Mother-in-law’ made it into, I don’t know how many languages – it changed my life, and became a success. I was thinking, what was it about this ‘Sharon and my Mother-in-law’ that made it so – I was going to Sydney to talk about my mother-in-law, I was going to America to talk about my mother-in-law, I was going everywhere!

God damn it! I did a PhD in Architecture, and I never got there. But one book about my mother-in-law and here I am. And so I decided, this world is crazy. Do you know what my next book is called? ‘Nothing makes sense, why should I.’

And, I will tell you, I have a little dog. When I was a kid, my mother loved animals – we had rabbits, deer, pigeons, all kinds of animals, we had dogs and cats – so I do have a very good rapport with animals. I happen to have a little dog named Noura in Ramallah.

I don’t want to make a long story short, or a short story long, but I ended up going to an Israeli vet in Atarout. I personally don’t go to Israeli doctors myself, but I find the circumstances – because there was a sexist, anti-animal vet in Ramallah that I didn’t like – so, I decided, okay, I am going to go to an Israeli one. I ended up in Atarout with a doctor named Dr. Tamar, he was English and was very nice, I must admit she was treating Noura in a very lovely way. And as we were talking, she went out and came back and she asked ‘Do you have a photograph>’, I said ‘My photograph?’, she said ‘No, no, no, your dogs photograph’, I said, ‘Noura’s photograph, no I don’t have, why?’ she said, ‘We need to put it on Noura’s passport’
I look at Noura, and I say ‘Noura, habibti, do you realize whats happening here? You have a document that 3.5 million Palestinians will kill for!’ A document from Jerusalem – the Municipality of Jerusalem, and Noura was looking at me like, ‘Okay mama, I am lucky, what can I do? I am just not sure I am fully Palestinian.’ And I say ‘Okay Noura, don’t mind’.

And then, as I was walking out of Atarout, Dr. Tamar says ‘Take this passport, don’t forget to take the passport when you go to Tel Aviv airport.’ Noura cannot get to Tel Aviv on her own. Anyways, I said ‘Thank you’ took the passport and walked out.

For those of you who know Atarout, if you go left you go to Ramallah, and if you go right, you go to Qalandia (Israeli checkpoint and entrance to Jerusalem).

‘Yalla, Noura, lets take your passport and go to Qalandia!’ So here I am driving the car, and Noura on the side sitting very proud of herself. You know Jerusalemites! And, so, I get to the checkpoint, and from a distance, of course, there are numbers and a yellow plate. I dont know if you know but we have blue plates and Israeli’s have yellow plates and when the soldier saw the blue plate, he was very suspicious, and they surrounded the car.

And ‘where are you going?’ the soldier came around.
I said ‘I?’
He said ‘Yes.’
I said ‘I am going to Jerusalem.’
He said ‘Do you have a permit?’
I said ‘I, No, I don’t have a permit.’
He said ‘Do you have a permit for your car?’
I said, ‘For my car? No I don’t have a permit’. Of course every Palestinian who wants to get to Arab Jerusalem needs two permits, that you never get. But, never mind.
And he says, ‘And how are you going to Jerusalem?’
I said ‘Ah, you haven’t met Noura yet, have you?’
‘Mazee, Mazee?’
I said ‘You heard me, you haven’t met Noura yet. Come Noura, come habibti, come, come!’

So, Noura comes and sits on my lap, with her head she is looking at the soldiers [shaking her head] ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, I have a Jerusalem passport!’

So, I just give it to the soldier, and I say, ‘Listen, this is Noura, you just met her. And Noura, as you can see, is from Jerusalem, and Noura doesn’t know how to go to Jerusalem on her own. And I happen to be her driver.’
Well, I have decided, really, in a place like the occupation of Israel, it doesn’t make sense. Neither the wall makes sense, or the checkpoints make sense, neither being thrown out of your homeland makes sense – nothing makes sense. And that’s why I decided that humor and making fun of the situation is the best way to survive during this occupation.

I always say, we Palestinians, if we hear everything, if we see everything, or if we react like human beings, we will explode. And I have decided that humor and making fun of the situation is the best mechanism in life.

So! I will end up with a graph. Of course this is the – you know, in the Arab world or in the world in general, you go to school until the age of 25. And then, by the age of 55, in the Arab world at least that I am familiar with, they can throw you in the garbage by the way. 55? Khalas! Come on, at 50, what do you want more? Thats enough for you. You know?

So, everyone expects at 50, maximum, if you stretch it until 55 – then, you go down.
But for me, it’s completely different. I became a writer, at 55. And I have the future still waiting for me. I may be an actor, I might be an opera singer, I might be in a circus. Who knows? I am going to celebrate with you my birthday [60]! Thank you.

On this occasion I really want you to take 60 seconds and think of your life of what you are doing, and are you really doing what you love in life. Thank you.”

If you liked that, here is a second video, an interview with Riz Khan on AlJazeera in August, 2010.