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Palestinian-Egyptians refuse to be identified by passports

Roba al-Sotary greets her guests in a traditional beige dress with red floral pattern, which represents a Palestinian tribe. Her walls are decorated with photographs of men wrapped in the traditional Palestinian "hatta" scarf, pictures of the Dome of the Rock, barbed wire and a framed copy of Al-Ahram's 11 February 2011 front page, which reads  “the people have overturned the regime.”

On this night, Sotary's dining table is filled with Palestinian dishes, including stuffed grape leaves made with olive oil, meat wraps, za’atar pies, a large dish of rice and meat, hummus and many more delicacies from her homeland. She has invited her friends over to a traditional Palestinian dinner to celebrate her newfound Egyptian nationality.

Before being granted citizenship, Sotary was among many Palestinians born here who have been denied citizenship rights. In 2004, the government passed a law that Palestinians born to Egyptian mothers and raised in Egypt are eligible to receive citizenship, but it wasn't implemented until former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf ordered it applied last year.

Her new legal status doesn't change the dynamic of growing up straddling two cultures and places, but it does mean a lot in terms of her rights.

Palestinians have long been denied citizenship in their Arab host countries and subsequent civil rights based on the host government's argument that naturalization would jeopardize their right of return and weaken their Palestinian identity.

Sotary believes that her new Egyptian passport will not hinder her return to Palestine one day. She says her father still has the deed and key to their home in Jaffa, which he was forced to leave with his family in 1948. The house, now occupied by Israelis, has always been an imaginary space for Sotary.

Sotary’s daughter Farah al-Ashi is a 20-year-old student at the German University in Cairo and has witnessed the revolution unfold with passion. She participated as best she could, but with the fear of being caught as a foreigner since she only had a Palestinian refugee document at the time. She would go to the demonstrations and then be accused by acquaintances of meddling in affairs that are not of her concern.

“You will not imagine how many people I have unfriended on Facebook because of these accusations,” she says.

Ashi has visited her family's homeland three times and while she admires the Palestinian culture and the people, she says she does not see herself completely integrated into Gazan society. Although she identifies more as an Egyptian, there are values and traditions her immediate family practices which she feels she will never let go of and which she largely describes as Palestinian. Such traditions include the strong bonds within Palestinian families.

Her mother, she recalls, would give her a sandwich made out of olive oil and za'atar, a spice mixture made of thyme, every morning before she went to school. Ashi would eat it even though she hated the taste, but says that is one tradition she will hold onto forever.

Like Ashi, Alaa al-Dajani’s experience lingers between his Egyptian and Palestinian identities. His grandfather fled Palestine in 1948, arriving in Egypt as a boy. Dajani’s father was born in Egypt and married an Egyptian woman. He describes his home life as generally Egyptian.

“Although there was the regular nostalgia for Palestine, I was born and raised as Egyptian,” Dajani says. All that was missing was the passport.

Being Palestinian is accompanied by a strong stigma regarding marriage, Dajani says. Before he got married, Dajani says he had asked for another woman’s hand, but her father declined because of his nationality. He recalls that his current wife was given condolences over her engagement to a Palestinian by a Lebanese acquaintance. The stigma is associated with the sense of insecurity that a marriage involving a Palestinian can entail.

Dajani had applied for an Egyptian passport in 2007 and was rejected.

"Those in charge wouldn’t take the [Palestinian] papers,” he says, “so I took the case to court.” With all the paperwork delegated to his lawyer, Dajani was awarded citizenship in February 2011. Although in official documents he is still recorded as a dual citizen, Dajani feels the Egyptian nationality has opened up possibilities he has always felt he had the right to.

For Sameh al-Agha, who received his Egyptian nationality in 1977, citizenship only meant better treatment, rather than having any connotation about his sense of belonging.

His father, who was working for the Kuwaiti government at the time, had a diplomatic document and his mother an Egyptian passport. As young children, he and his brother had Palestinian refugee documents and would be kept at border crossings and in airports for hours-long security checks despite their parents being allowed through. One time they slept in a car at the borders between two Arab countries before being granted permission to cross.

Agha is now a professor of ophthalmology at Cairo University, a position he would not be allowed to hold without citizenship. Agha believes, however, that the Egyptian and Palestinian identities are not mutually exclusive.

“You can retain both identities without any contradictions between the two,” he says. “Although growing up I had this confusion of who I am; I resolved it early on in life.”

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