A Passion for Life

I didn’t realize it until recently, but my sisters and I grew up in an academic environment. My mother was very committed to making sure that she raised us, and as a result, we never had a baby sitter nor did we go to summer camp like most of our friends. Instead, my two sisters and I had the privilege of observing my mothers career, an enriching environment for immigrant refugee children to grow and establish roots. We bore witness to every festival and parade my mother participated in, every workshop and lecture she held in universities, cultural centers and art schools. We even tagged along with my mother to live belly dancing and traditional folk art events, where her friends performed and spoke. My sisters and I were deeply entrenched in the Palestinian artistic community in Massachusetts in the 1980’s.

The below speech was what appears to be an open house event at a local performance center. During this time, we were living in Somerville. My father worked at Baybank Harvard Trust in Cambridge,  in the financial operations division. This was the time when my parents were discussing the prospects of moving to Milwaukie, Oregon where my mothers younger sister and her family had moved to recently from Massachusetts. We had grown up with my Aunt and her kids, who were three (like my sisters and I) and each close in age, and it made sense for us to stay together.

My parents sacrificed their established careers and community in Massachusetts, making the more responsible choice of raising their daughters with family. Ironically, most of my youth was spent suffering from the antics of my relatives. When I was young, I didn’t quite understand. What ensued was many years of my relatives coming up with untrue stories of us, being very difficult and unkind to our face, or entirely avoiding us. I internalized that treatment though feelings of isolation and rejection from the Arab community, which has taken many years – and I venture to say will take many more – to begin feeling accepted again.

We all have our own stories, our own observations and perspectives. What is important is that we find peace in our stories, and feel strength in our positions and beliefs through the spirit of forgiveness and love. I have a deep connection with my family and my relatives, and will always extend forgiveness to them. Anger and resentment only destroy one’s self. It is not in naivety and vulnerability that we forgive, it is through being present, accepting our feelings and choosing to move FORWARD.

Text of speech delivered by Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim
Sunday, February 12, 1989
Longly School of Music
Somerville, Massachusetts

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We would like to welcome you all to our second open house of our Oral History Center program, A Passion for Life, which was mentioned by Ruth in her opening.

Before I address any subject I would like to express my ideas about our present condition as Palestinians in and out of our homeland.

I am Palestinian. I was born in Safad in 1948. I was forced to leave my homeland with another million Palestinians, I wandered as a refugee in many Arab countries and presently, I am an immigrant to the U.S.

My only identity is my national dress. It is my own work which I inherited from my ancestors through my mother and my grandmother. I will pass it on to my daughters because this is their real identity.

My history is recorded on my dress. I believe in my dress more than I believe in scholars and historians, because books are easily distorted and biased but not my dress. This embroidery was created by common people who do not know distortion at all.

When I hear songs, they remind me of the story of my people, my nation.

The Palestinian folklore like any other folklore is derived from our joy and sorrow. So the colors are bright in peace time and pale in our agony.

I do not intend to tell history but the historical cycles that dominated Palestine from the pharaoh’s to the present invasion colored our dresses and influenced our folk art and our culture.

Through all this time, the woman wanted to express her views, to express hatred for violence and weapons. She expressed that clearly on her dress and in her songs.

Even with the tragedy of the dispersion of 1948, the woman still continued to document our history in a song or on a dress to transfer her knowledge to coming generations.

Now the folklore becomes a part of political life since the political condition shapes the human being, our lives and our land.

As we are approaching the end of the 20th century, still we see that violence is the mean for imposing peace. But peace does not come this way because peace cannot be imposed by force but rather through a mutual understanding and through the mutual respect of human beings.

Human beings, regardless of cultural or political creed, share the same basic feelings and views.

As women we were created to love peace and father our families together. Why do we not proceed to do what we were created to do?

Let us denounce aggression, oppression and violence, and let us stop the killing and dispersion. These are the enemies of human life.

I am here today to tell my story from my heart, because if anyone else were to speak for me, they would not feel my feelings. Some people might interpret my story as an attack, but would they want me to be silent about suffering, and keep my story locked inside?

Anyone who has suffered knows the meaning of suffering. And since we are suffering today, we feel the pain of all human suffering, either in the past or now. All human suffering is my legacy too.

We are singing today not because we are happy, but because our songs convey the meaning of our people.

To end my speech I say, now and always, I smuggled my dream in my hidden wishes, and crossed the ocean in hope for peace and justice – peace for all nations.”