When they were young, one of my children’s favorite games was reciting the family lineage. In our culture a person’s full name is a combination of his paternal parentage. My son, born in Jerusalem in 1988, would say his name is Bishara Daoud George Musa Qustandi Musa Kuttab.
Our family name came from the profession two brothers had a long time ago. The first Kuttabs were scribes who sat outside the court and wrote up petitions for people who had a claim with the authorities. Kuttab is Arabic for writers or scribes.
Upon graduating from North Park University in Chicago and returning to Palestine, Bishara visited the St. James Orthodox Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. He met with the head of the local Palestinian Christian parish. Using extensive baptismal records, they were able to patch together the history of Kuttabs in Jerusalem for hundreds of years. This turned into a family tree that has been circulated on Facebook to all Kuttabs.
My son’s visit had another reason: He wanted to collect rent on our family’s property. On the eve of World War I, many Palestinian families turned their properties over to local churches or the Islamic Waqf (trust) for safekeeping. The properties were controlled by the churches but the owners were able to collect a meager rent. Our history is typical of many Palestinians.
When my father was born in 1922, the world was abuzz with the self-determination doctrine advanced by President Woodrow Wilson. Palestinian Arabs attempted to become independent after the British mandate ended, but the British pledged Palestine simultaneously to Jews and Arabs.
In addition to owning property, my father had a passport issued by the government of Palestine and he often showed us Palestinian coins that he had used before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Dad, his brother Qustandi and their mother escaped the violence to Zarqa in Jordan. Their sister, Hoda, decided to stay on with her family and lost her husband, Elias Awad, in the fighting that broke out in the Musrara district just outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.
My grandmother’s family, the Fatallehs, left their home in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem and, as Palestinian refugee, have been barred by Israel from returning. Their house still stands, not far from the King David Hotel.
With the unification of the Palestinians under the Palestine Liberation Organization, and with the Arab and international recognition the P.L.O. acquired, questions began to arise over Palestinian identity and nationhood. In 1969, for example, the Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel declared, “There were no such thing as Palestinians.”
Nearly 25 years later, in 1993, Meir’s successor, Yitzhak Rabin, shook hands with Yasir Arafat after the P.L.O. and Israel exchanged letters of recognition. The handshake on the South Lawn of the White House was witnessed by President Bill Clinton and leading Jewish and non-Jewish American leaders and members of Congress.
Newt Gingrich attended that ceremony, and reportedly shook hands with Arafat. Now, as a Republican candidate for president, he is claiming that the Palestinian people were “invented” because there was never a Palestinian state. The 107 states that recognized Palestine as a full member of Unesco would seriously disagree with this logic.
Gingrich never does say what should happen to this “invented” people if he is elected president.
The people themselves are the best authority on what a people is. If the learned Republican nominee really wants to know who Palestinians are, I would suggest he listen to what they say about themselves.
The historian Rashid Khalidi, in his book “Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness,” argues that the fierce conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is one reason why the Palestinian identity is so poorly understood. He traces the development of the Palestinians’ identity to the late Ottoman area, “when they had multiple loyalties to their religion, the Ottoman state, the Arabic language, and the emerging identity of Arabism, as well as their country and local and familial foci.”
In the end, however, Gingrich’s attempt to deny Palestinians their identity has nothing to do with history. It is simply political pandering.
The majority of Israelis and Palestinians understand that they must share the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. The last thing we need is for American politicians to use our lives and future as a political football.
By Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist who was born and lives in Jerusalem.