WHEN A GRAVE BECOMES A HOMELAND
We came out of the crematorium crying. Lamees and I, heavily dragging our feet with the lost look on our faces drowning in sorrow telling the whole story. That was our first time ever at a funeral or even at a cemetery despite having lived for years in a seventh floor flat of a rundown high rise building in one of Glasgow’s roughest schemes, with windows overlooking an old graveyard. I never once had the urge to just walk in for a closer look at the headstones as I used to do when I was in Syria. In this cold city, I just found more comfort looking at them from a distance, a distance that allowed me to fly with my provocative memories to Mokhayyam Alyarmook’s three graveyards, where my father, brother, and dearly beloved are having their eternal slumber.
Returning home in the car, I was driving silently, overwhelmed with what had happened to our friend Colin, how good he was, how full of energy and life, and how he died alone in his tiny flat. Amazed how we asylum seekers and refugees had made up the majority of his mourners. Stopped at the traffic light, I could hear Lamees weeping, with tears filling up her eyes, she said in choked voice: “I do not want to die here, like an outsider in a cold room in a dimly lit hospital.” She sobbed and swallowed her saliva and continued: “Honestly from the bottom of my heart I wish that I could go back to die there. The soil here is muddy and freezing, I will never sense the warmth underneath this ever-wet grass. I can’t imagine this land will hug my body and show compassion towards my bones after I die when the beats of my heart meant nothing to her when I was alive.”
Ironically, the voice of a folk Palestinian singer was sneaking out from the CD player of the car, and the lyrics spoke of the burning yearning for home after living away for long time. What a deep wound that song opens, and what a long chain of almost unanswered questions that those simple words draw behind. Is there anything still worth living there, while the news of the destruction of the camp and eliminating it from the map of existence spreading all over the world. The government forces besiegement and bombardment has transformed the buzzing camp into ruins, where nothing remains but death. The death that those people living there try to escape from by coming here. While we who are away from it here seek it there.
Trying hard to escape away from the creeping eyes of nosy people and their bitter whispers. Crammed with two sons and a wife into a damp hotel room. We were four bodies heaped on the double bed amongst the stinky smell of humidity on the outskirts of the bustles of life city. Eight eyes take a rotatory turn in staring at the ceiling that does not stop raining dust particles, and sometimes changing the direction to watch the slow relentless transformation of wallpaper, from yellow embroidered with purple flowers to the green which devours those flowers and reproduces them as a soft textured musty meadow expanding at every moment towards the top. She tilted her head slightly to avoid the boys hearing her and whispered; “What the hell has brought us over here?”. She blew out a windy sigh and added; “I can’t stop this traditional Arabic saying from reverberating through my head all the time, he who abandons home, loses his self-respect”.
It was as if someone smacked me on the head. I looked at the other side of the room and started gazing at nothing, flying with my distracted obsessions. Self-respect! What a beautiful moral word that has no place in any Middle Eastern dictionary, to console myself, I thought; “but even at home enjoying self-respect was an unobtainable luxury”. And more or less, where we had to flee wasn’t home for us, it was our first exile. As I was forced out of my homeland twelve years before I was born, I have never known a home. ‘Home’ has always had an ambiguous meaning overlapped with exile in my mind, and I hardly could recognize any borders or highlight a clear-cut between them.
My exile is my home, my home is my language, my body, my family, my poem, and as everyone in this world has a home to live in, my home lives in my heart, I carry it with me and so we struggle in this hypothetical diaspora until we get to the long postponed actual one. Yes, we had a small house which we built together using our hard earned cash and sweat in the camp, but at the end of the day, the camp is not a home, it is no more than a threshold of the home’s locked door, or an ajar window on it, that even in its best situation, or our high level of satisfaction with it. Yes we love it to the extent that we wish to die in it, and be buried amongst our folk there. But it is not our home, and for the self-respect; with a clear conscience, I could say that the original people of that home only knew just a tiny taste of it.
We were sitting in the bus heading for our allocated flat in Glasgow, when I took her hands into mine, warmly rubbed them, looked at her eyes and said; please forget the camp for a while, yes it was the first home we ever knew, but was our first forced exile at the same time, where our parents had to resort to even before we were formed in their bodies, no doubt we had experienced a mixture feeling of it between home and exile when we were born and grew up and got married there, but it is not necessary to spend the rest of our life and die there, we have the full right to choose a new destiny for our kids and us.
Here the matter is different, let us see the positive side of it, we have to try our best to make this new exile a real home which we deserve like everyone in this world, if we work hard here, and we have to do, we will become British and change our sealed fate to a better one. She looked at me wondering and said nothing, I pointed out of the window and shouted: Look at these almost endless green fields and prairies, be honest with me, have you ever seen a more beautiful and splendid scene before in your entire life? She shook her head saying no, and noted with a long sigh, yes, they look beautiful, but they are not for us, our beautiful views are over there.
The down-pouring rain hadn’t stopped since we left Oxford, even the sky started to become bleaker with heavier downfall as we were getting further north. Leaving England and entering Scotland without border line or checkpoint, after eight hours of sitting in an uncomfortable bus seat, with the feeling of stress and inconvenience I called back what had happened with me in Croydon two months prior. Monday 2nd of October 2000, the longest day ever in my life, listening to immigration officers whispering and making fun of me; in no time, a chaotic whirl of images and memories has passed through my mind. Lord Arthur Balfour and his damned declaration, 1948, my blind grandfather’s hollow eyeballs, the family gathering around the meagre stove in a freezing night of a Palestinian refugee camp, my mother’s tears, my father pleading with my sons not to forget their roots, to live up to their faith, to cling to their mother tongue by tooth and nail, Mahmood Darwish, T.S. Eliot, Robert Burns, Geneva convention…
“You joking mate? Do you really want to claim asylum in here? But you are already a refugee - ha, ha, ha…” I wanted to storm at his blank features. But having had a glance at my sons’ bewildered looks, my wife’s haggard and sad face: I held back my tears, swallowed my pang, and sank in a sea of silence.
The officer: So, you want to claim asylum here - Yes sir - Ok, where are you from - I’m from Palestine - So you’ve come from the Palestinian territories - No, I’ve come from Syria - So you are Syrian? - No, I’m Palestinian - How long have you been in Syria? - I was born there - Then, why you don’t have a Syrian passport? - Because I’m a Palestinian refugee - How come, so you are already a refugee and want to seek refuge again in this country, why don’t you go back to the Palestinian territories? - Because I’m not from there - Come on, don’t drive me mad, how on earth you are a Palestinian, but not from the Palestinian territories? - Because I’m from another part of Palestine - And where is that? - It’s called Israel now, but it’s Palestine - How? And why? - You don’t know why? It’s Because of you - Me? - No, no, I don’t mean yourself personally, I mean your government, Lord Arthur Balfour, your Foreign Secretary who gave the Balfour declaration to Jews helped establish their state on Palestinian land in 1917 - Come on, this happened nearly a hundred years ago, and wait a minute, he was Scottish, while I’m English - Scottish or English, doesn’t matter, he is British
After nearly nine long extended years I became British. Just like the immigration officer who interrogated me in Croydon, like Arthur Balfour, I could say even like the Queen. British, but only on paper, I am still the boy who was born in that deprived refugee camp, I’m the boy who opened his eyes in a house which could be anything but, a house, an army barracks, where I witnessed the tears mixed with grief in my grannie’s eyes, where I felt the warmth and the intimacy of people who lost everything, but, their spirits. When I was a Palestinian refugee living in a camp I used to dream of Palestine while sleeping, and when I sleep here, after becoming British, I dream that I’m sleeping first in the camp, dreaming of Palestine. There I was the Palestinian refugee, and here I am still much the same, I am still the outsider, the one who is always picked out, the one who is always fit for all kinds of phobia. Officers in airports and train stations pick me out randomly from amongst hundreds, just because I look different, and I have to smile and take it easy, and show my gratitude.
When I was giving the pledge to comply with Great Britain law and values upon receiving my new nationality, the only thing that came to my mind, was the reaction of my late grandfather once he hears this news. I would imagine him sitting on the mattress in his divan, smoking ten hand rolled cigarettes within the space of five minutes, drinking five cups of Arabic bitter coffee, biting on his denture, tightening his lips, extending his neck up, opening his blind eyes, moving his head right and left, slapping down the palms of his hands strongly on his thighs, and saying in a heartbroken voice: British! Alas, alas. Then he would call for an urgent extended family meeting to give strict commands to my father to declare me as a dissident and disown me and my sons, and order all our relatives firmly to boycott us and not to deal or talk to us under any circumstances anymore. But in good faith I can say: there is only one thing might make him reluctantly compromise, just if he would know years later that because of the British passport exclusively, my sons and I managed to visit his birth place village between Tiberius and Nazareth in Galilee of Palestine, and watered the dead plants on the grave of his brother, who was killed in a British air raid over there in 1936.
Here in the land of frost, we had to make our own country. I lived in her eyes, and she stayed in my poems, she was always present in the text and beyond, even when I write about my sense of loneliness in exile while sitting beside me, she did not object saying: But I’m here with you. She knew perfectly well that I was writing about our one spirit which we had landed with on this land, which we once engraved on the trunk of a Scottish pine tree in a wood in the highlands, when we were lost for a while before finding our way back to the main road.
Four people we came to Scotland, Lamees, Aatif, Mahir, and me, with loads of dreams, four people we are now, Aatif, Mahir, Faris, and me, with broken dreams, and no more Lamees. Despite her constant optimism and passion for joy, and her innovative different ways in making it, Lamees never hid her love for my sad poems, and always asked me to read one of them during our evenings. The poem I wrote for my fiftieth birthday made her cry whenever she heard it. I had asked her to promise me not to do so when I read it for her on her fiftieth birthday, and I have no doubt that she has fulfilled her promise, and perhaps even laughed when I recited the poem beside of her grave in Linn Cemetery. The grave that became her homeland in Scotland, the homeland that she dreamed of over there, in Palestine.
Iyad Hayatleh is a Palestinian poet and translator. He was born and grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, and has lived in Glasgow since 2000. He has published work in Arabic and given readings in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. In Scotland, his work has appeared in magazines as well as pamphlets. His first collection, Beyond all Measure, was published by Survivor’s Press in 2007.
He collaborated with the poet Tessa Ransford on a two-way translation project resulting in the book A Rug of a Thousand Colours (Luath, 2012), inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam.
He is an active member of Scottish PEN as well as Artists in Exile Glasgow, and has led workshops in Glasgow and Inverness schools, sponsored by the Scottish Poetry Library and Oxfam. He has taken part in readings across Scotland, including events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
To learn more about Iyad and his work please visit his websites