Recently I was browsing at a bookstore when I stumbled across a copy of A World I Loved by Wadad Cortas. The book’s cover had a black-and-white picture depicting the author’s family and a caption that read: “The Story of an Arab Woman.” I ended up buying it. Two days later and half way through the book, I had to pause and confirm that it wasn’t a work of fiction. It wasn’t.
On the contrary, it is a personal account of the Middle East’s history between 1917 and the late 1970s. The reason I was almost convinced that this was fiction was due to the account provided by the author of the early 20th century Middle East.
An educator and a descendant of a prominent Lebanese-Christian family living in Beirut in 1917, the author speaks of a Middle East unrecognisable by today’s standards, one unimaginable to my generation of Arabs.
It seems that a moment existed in Arab history, albeit brief, when the region was united in the love of homeland – the larger Arab homeland. And apparently, this passion transcended nationality, religion and sect.
Despite the turmoil then, hopes were high. Dreams of independent, postcolonial nations were real and a future of moderation and tolerance seemed within reach. It was particularly fascinating to learn how Arabs then lived through the “Palestine question” that shaped the political scene in the Middle East during the first half of the 20th century.
From the political stance of Arab governments all the way to the pulse on the Arab street, the Palestinian issue dominated the hearts and minds of Arabs and united them.
The second half of the 20th century and the first years of this century read very differently.
More recently, one can’t seem to find any reference to a larger Arab homeland, let alone a shared passion for one. The chances of a future of moderation and tolerance seem so slight today in the midst of the sectarian frenzy we live in. The “Palestine question”, one that is personal for me (I am Palestinian), is a question that no one really wants to raise any more.
Growing up as a Palestinian refugee had a stigma attached to it. I arrived in this world long after the initial years of pan-Arab nationalism and the honour it extended to the collective Palestinian cause.
In the Arab world I came into, the burden Palestinian refugees were placing on their host nations was at its height. And it was a burden in all possible ways.
The Palestinian refugees had an effect on the social fabric of the communities. In general, Palestinians lacked education and wealth that would have elevated them to a more “welcome” status. They arrived with different norms and customs, and although these differences were subtle in most cases, they were there all the same.
I came into an Arab world where host nations were announcing that they could no longer economically sustain refugees. As a result, these refugees were banned from assuming certain jobs and in some cases were confined to refugee camps. Palestinian refugees were seen as posing a serious threat to the security of their host nations.
By the time I was born, the Palestinian cause had been appropriated by many factions. For Palestinian refugees, all of this manifests itself in the form of emotional and practical challenges.
From being denied certain jobs all the way to restriction on the freedom of movement, the cycle of stigma seems perpetual.
But why bring all this up now? As I watch news reports on the TV and skim through articles in newspapers and magazines, I see the pictures of a new generation of refugees of the Arab world.
And although their plight may seem different from that of their Palestinian predecessors, the similarities are striking. Their cause no longer evokes the spirit of Arab nationalism.
They too bring social, economic and political baggage with them to their host nations. They too reel under the stigma of being refugees, further fuelled by a time of heightened intolerance and economic pressures. They too seem to be on a course leading nowhere.
Before we engage in a dialogue on how to restore lost homelands, lost property and lost possessions, perhaps we are better off discussing how to restore Arab nationalism.
If the Arab Spring has proved anything, it is that any of us can one day be reduced to refugee status, where losing self-worth becomes the highest price one has to pay. The resurrection of Arab nationalism seems today like the only window of hope, the only chance we have at a better Middle East.
Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer with a focus on Middle East issues