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By Rifk Ebeid
As soon as I step foot onto its soil, I am always overtaken by the incredible freshness of its air. Palestine, my beloved homeland. A place that enriches my spirit with its rich history, vibrant culture, and bountiful soil. My happiest memories are the summers I was fortunate enough to spend there as a child, soaking in every minute I could before the summer had to end.
I must emphasize the term fortunately, because most Palestinians are barred from stepping foot in their homeland, a reality that influenced the storyline of my book.
Today marks 72 years from the day Palestinians were officially dispossessed of and/or expelled from their native homeland by a settler-colonial project. While this settler/colonial project was designed and slowly being implemented long before May 15, 1948, this day marks the mass expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians and the birth of the Palestinian refugee crisis. Today there are over 7.2 million Palestinian refugees, including those registered as refugees, those internally displaced, and those that fled their homes in 1967. These are the facts from a narrative often unheard of or silenced in the mainstream discourse on Palestine. Palestinian identity has largely been shaped by this harrowing injustice and continued denial of not only their legal right to return to their homeland but of the right to even advocate for their rights or discuss their narrative.
For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a visceral connection to my homeland. Growing up as a Palestinian-American, I never felt like I fully belonged here or there (a fate many of us hyphenated Americans tend to experience), but when I was there, I always felt an overwhelming sense of calmness and peace, mixed with the wondrous joy and excitement that only the innocence of childhood can invoke. It was always as if my mind and soul were suddenly ten pounds lighter.
When I sought to undertake this children’s book project, I desperately wanted children who can’t physically go to Palestine to be able to feel like they are still connected to the land and to experience those same feelings I felt. I wanted to expose them to Palestine’s beauty, not its politics. I also wrote this book as a way to contribute to the documentation of our experience as Palestinians and to highlight the people and culture that thrived and existed prior to their catastrophe and loss of their homeland, and the people that continue to exist against all odds.
Baba, What Does My Name Mean? is a children’s book that follows the experience of Saamidah, a young Palestinian refugee, whose family was forced to flee in 1948. She asks her baba (father) what her name means and discovers that “Saamidah” is an Arabic word for one who is steadfast, a term that has come to be synonymous with the Palestinian people. In order to understand why she was named this, she has to first learn about the land of her ancestors, propelling her onto a magical journey to nine different cities in historic Palestine where she learns about what each city is known for, from their delicious foods to their historic sites or beautiful geography.
As a child, my only exposure to Palestine (outside of our summer vacations) was through higher-level textbooks with dense material or one-sided dehumanizing news programs with no Palestinian representation. The written material we did have was always centered around our historical tragedy and subsequent violations against our human rights, making our entire existence political. I would be remiss not to include this catastrophic loss of our homeland or subsequent horrific experiences under foreign military occupation from our narrative, which is why I did weave in concepts of refugees, right of return, and fighting for justice in my story. But I wanted there to be a book for children that exposes them to an authentic, indigenous narrative that shows that we exist beyond our tragedy and that we will continue to persist in spite of it.
I strongly believe in the importance and necessity of indigenous cultures to write their own narratives, and not to allow others to write it for them. Palestinian culture and life are not bound by the confines of the dominant narrative that aims to dehumanize or silence them. Children’s literature, in particular, is a critical genre to advance our narrative because it is what gives children their first opportunity to be introduced to our story and our humanity.
Another theme I wanted to explore in the book was that of identity. As someone who grew up in the deep south, I found myself always engaging in a discussion of the origin of my very Arabic name. With time, I grew to appreciate the uniqueness of my name and its special meaning. When I had my first child, I knew I wanted her name to be meaningful, and to be something she could embody with pride. My husband and I excitedly decided to name her after my favorite city in Palestine, Yafa (Jaffa), which is where I also made the main character of my book from. In ancient Caananite language, Yafa means gorgeous, and because of its beauty, Palestinians fondly refer to it as “the bride of the sea.” Yafa is one of the oldest port cities in the world and was once the thriving epicenter of the intellectual prowess, agricultural abundance, and economic wealth of the Palestinian people.
When I introduce my daughter, her name allows me to engage in a positive discussion on Palestine, and to highlight our culture and history. This is actually what inspired the title of my book because I knew one day my daughter would ask us why we named her this. With Saamidah, I wanted her name to reflect not only the Palestinian struggle for justice and human rights, but to also reflect the beauty of its meaning and to forever connect her to her homeland.
When children are taught to be confident in who they are, they are more equipped to be proactive participants in their lives. We are not here to be passive observers, nor are we here to be on the defensive or to play defense at every turn. For Palestinians, our mere existence is a form of resistance, and I want the children reading my book to know that each one of them plays a unique role in affecting the course of history. I want them to know that they have a right to tell their story and to tell their truth. They also have a right to be exposed to diverse narratives. It is my ultimate hope that children from all marginalized groups feel that they are heard, that their voices are important, and that there is a space for them. If they don’t see that space, I hope through my book they can see that they can create that space. The key is to know your history, know your truth, and be confident in using your voice and your words to educate others.
Rifk has a JD from George Mason University, an MA in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, and an MA in Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Northern Colorado. She has worked extensively in the field of human rights and media advocacy with various human rights organizations in the US, Jerusalem, and the UAE. You can find Rifk on Facebook and Instagram.