There’s No Place like Home: Through the Lens of a Palestinian American Girl

Butheina arrived in Palestine with her family three weeks ago and she still could not stop crying. She was forced to leave her beloved America because of her father’s clients in Palestine threatening to bomb their relative’s homes if he did not come back and help them. In between sobs she heard her father on the phone with her cousin Jo; who had been taking her to school everyday since her fourth day in Palestine.

“Butheina told me what happened today, I told you that she is not a part of this Jo. Do not put my daughter’s life in harm’s way again or I will see to it that you are the next ploy on the list.” Silence. “What? You are? Who told you this? What do you have to do?”

“Butheina!” Her mother called for her to come down for dinner. Butheina wiped her eyes and walked out the closet of a room. She had to go down the steep stairs to the small kitchen. 

In the kitchen there was an island, much like the one back home in America, yet where the dining room table would be there was a circular board made of wood where the vegetable biryani, qidra and naan sat steaming hot. Around the wooden circle there were five large pillows on which the family sat to have their dinner.

“Is everything alright Butheina?” her mother, Mrs. Humdoh asked.

“Yes, I just really miss America. When are we going back home?”

“Butheina, I have explained it twice this week already. You are thirteen years old please stop acting like a child. Wash your hands and come sit down.” She said,

“Jamaal, dinner is ready!” Mrs. Humdoh yelled out to her husband who was a few feet away in the living room. A boisterous woman. Which is why she has not gone out much since the move to Palestine, her mother was not the type of woman to hold her tongue and Mrs. Humdoh feared that if she came into contact with an Israeli soldier that it would not end well. She had already had to chew a man out on the second day for trying to humiliate Butheina for wearing a pair of pants. Luckily, Jidda, Butheina’s grandmother prepared for her arrival and had gone shopping for all of her necessities for living as a Muslim girl. 

The family sat around the circular wood, table, and ate their dinner quietly until Mr. Humdoh interrupted the silence.

“Butheina, tomorrow I want you to stay home. I need to have a conversation with Jo before I allow him to take you to school again and I do not want you traveling alone.”

“But I have a test on Friday and tomorrow we are reviewing.” Butheina pleaded.

“Jamaal, that is not fair to her and her schooling.” Mrs. Humdoh chimed in.

“Jenell, shh! I will discuss the circumstances with you after dinner. What I said is final, she will stay home and study from here.” He continued to eat the tofu, rice, cauliflower and broccoli mixture atop the garlic dough.

When they finished eating Mrs. Humdoh sent Butheina away for leisure time, which was a relief for her, for once she did not have to wash or dry the dishes. Butheina decided to go upstairs to her room and play with her bunny rabbit. In her room she had a desk, a full sized bed decked out in animal print, cheetah being her preference, and on top of her dresser drawers sat the bunny’s cage. In America she

had a television in that place instead, but customarily in Palestine that was not normal and in case of visitors her father did not want to be judged. She played with the furry white creature in solitary, speaking to it as if it were her best friend Alyssa.

“I just don’t get it. Why did we have to come back here? Why didn’t your family ask to keep me with them, I thought they loved me like a daughter?” she waited for a response, which was the blank stare of a fast breathing carrying nibbling mammal. “Want to see what mom bought me yesterday? It is a new hijab, now I have navy brown, black, orange and green. Want to play dress up?” With the same response as before, she picked the bunny up and took her dirty orange hijab from the laundry basket that was beside her bedroom door and wrapped it around the bunny. She held the bunny tightly in her arms and danced with it. “Oh Michael, I absolutely adore the way you dance. So graceful and gentle, dancing with you is much better than having fried worms and grass.” She chuckled to herself.

***

“You eat it first!” Butheina yelled to Michael looking down at the fried worm on the paper plate. It was the summer before her move to Palestine and he had asked her on a picnic.  Little did she know, at age twelve he was still eating fried worms, grass and other insects he though were tasty.

“Fine, I will.” Michael picked up the work and placed it on his tongue for her to see before he swallowed it whole. “Yum.”

“Ew, that is so gross!” she said squirming as he tried to grab a hold of her. They went off into a laughing frenzy before she eluded him and ran. He chased her across the

grass and into the trees where she stopped. The sun had begun to set and her brown eyes were catching every ray left. 

“Butheina, I like you.” He said as he kissed her as fast as he could and turn to run away.

Shocked and standing in disbelief she said, “I like you too”, to his back as he was already yards away.

***

After getting tired of playing with the bunny alone, Butheina put the furry mammal back in its cage. Then she walked out of her room across the hall to the bathroom to get ready for bed. In the mirror she looked at her complexion, no blemishes, no wrinkles, no baggy eyes but they were still bloodshot red from her crying fit hours ago. That was the one thing she hated about crying, it would show on her face for far too long. She slipped out of her school clothes and placed the green and blue pinstripe button down shirt and navy blue pants on the toilet; then grabbed her navy blue silk pajamas from the hanger behind the bathroom door. When she got them on, she brushed her teeth, put her long brown hair up in a ponytail, grabbed her school uniform from the toilet seat and went back to her room.

“Butheina?” Mrs. Humdoh came around the corner into her room.

“Yes mama?”

“I have just finished speaking with your father and he is right, it is best for you to stay home tomorrow. But I also came in her to tell you why.” She motioned for

Butheina to get into bed, then she tucked her daughter under the covers and sat next to her. “Butheina, do you understand what is going on in this country.”

“Yes.” Butheina knew exactly what was going on, there was a fight for the land between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, the Palestinians who have been here for centuries were fighting to keep the Israeli from seizing their property, their government and their lives. It was all because the Israeli people saw this area as their promised land and they were willing to do anything to get it. They first started by bombing schools, when they were closed as  to not harm the children but scare the community into leaving, when that didn’t work they started rioting, damaging property and making threats. The government had finally stepped in and separated the two groups but to the surprise of the Palestinians, the government allowed for Israeli soldiers to monitor the area.  Over the years a wall was built to separate Gaza from the West Bank area where the Israeli had begun to occupy, the area in which the schools, shops and government agencies were located. 

“Well, you should know that this is a war zone and I want you to be able to protect yourself”, she said as she handed her daughter a bottle of pepper spray, “This is for protection only, do not play with it and do no spray it unless you are in real danger. That does not mean if a soldier yells at you but if he points his gun at you, use it. Now, Jo is helping organize certain missions and he is involved with a Palestinian group that is for the protection of our community. We do not know what they have planned for him tomorrow but we cannot risk you being out with him in case it is something serious. I hope you understand?”

“Yes mama, I understand.”

The next day Butheina woke up around noon, according to the clock that sat next to her bunny. She got out of bed and put on some pants and a t-shirt then headed downstairs in search of a snack. 

“Good morning my child.” She was greeted by her mother, who was in the kitchen making falafel and fool two of Butheina’s favorite dishes. 

When it was done, she satin the living room on the couch with her mother, something her father would never allow, and they turned on the television. The only thing that was on was the news and according to the reporter the Israeli soldiers were in a brawl with a few Palestinian men who did not have the proper paperwork to go through the wall into West Bank. The brawl resulted in three deaths, none of which were Israeli soldiers. Mrs. Humdoh turned off the TV and looked at Butheina with worry. Although she said nothing Butheina could tell that she too was scared for the Butheina’s well being in this country.

After lunch, Butheina turned the television back on when Mrs. Humdoh went upstairs to nap. There was news about a minister who went into hiding, the Israeli soldier who was assigned to monitoring his movements lost sight of him and they had not seen him in days. The minister was well known for organizing a group that promised to keep Palestinians safe and they also promised to eventually blow down that wall so that the people could return to having a normal life. Butheina then feel asleep.

Hours later she was awaken by shouting voices outside of the front door.

“What the hell do you want me to do? I have no purpose for being here any longer, I’m returning to America when Butheina is on break.” She heard her father say.

“You will remain here until the war is won Jamaal! Nobody in this area knows the ins and outs we need you to keep creating identities so that these men can move freely.”
“But it is against the law!”

“Whose law Jamaal?! Not ours, they came into our homes, our lives, and they took everything away. We are living like prisoners and you don’t seem to care.”

“It is not my problem, my duty is to my family. Your threats are the only reason I returned, and soon enough I will have enough money to take and support my mother, father and brother. You cannot control me.”

“You will force my hand? The hand that wrote the letter that got you into your fancy school?”

“I am forever grateful for that but you must understand, everything is not worth risking your life over. The Americans, the live right next to me, they judge my clothing, my skin, my language, the smell of my food but they still have to live next to me, they cannot harm me. They may hate me, they may fear me but they cannot harm me. It is possible and doable to live with the Israeli.”

“Not when they are terrorizing you, you know American laws don’t apply here.”

“Then run for an office, get an education!”

“Just like an American, you only fight when you want to and in the ways that suit your life. You don’t want to help, fine. But you will carry out this mission. I need those papers by midnight. I will be back later.” The man said.

Butheina ran away from the door and up the steps to her bedroom, then she heard the front door open.

“I’m home! I have falafel! Butheina?” Mr. Humdoh called out.

Butheina ran downstairs in an instant, jumping into her fathers arm and embracing him in a bear hug. He hugged her back and kissed her on the forehead.

“I brought you falafel.”

“We had that for lunch.” Mrs. Humdoh said as she started down the stairs to greet her husband. 

“There is never a such thing as too much falafel in one day.” Butheina replied, eager to have some more. With the falafel they ate left overs from the previous night. Then the Humdoh’s cleaned together before getting ready for bed.

Butheina was the first one up the stairs and in turn, the first to have the bathroom. She showered and put on a fresh pair of silk pajamas before brushing her teeth. After she was done, in her room her parents sat on her bed. She joined them and they all knelt in prayer. 

“Praise be Allah”, her father began, “Please watch over Butheina as she will be away from our sight tomorrow. I pray that she make it to and from school safely. Amen.”

“Amen.” Butheina and Mrs. Humdoh said in unison. 

The next morning Butheina woke up for school at six a.m. She put on her pinstriped button down and the navy pants, then she tied the navy blue hijab around her head and beneath her chin. Then she put on her shoes and grabbed her pink backpack from the floor. Downstairs her mother had a banana and peanut butter sandwich waiting for her. To avoid being late she took the sandwich to go. Kissing her mother and father goodbye she walked outside to meet up with Jo.

“Little cousin! Let’s go, we have got to get a move on.” He said as he began walking briskly. Down the street and around the second corner they made it to the bus stop just in time. The bus was still loading passengers. They hopped on together and sat next to each other on the same side as the driver. The bus pulled off and drove out of the town to the next bus stop where six people were waiting.

The people boarded the bus and the bus sat and waited again. The bus would make two more stops before the first checkpoint. If they had missed that bus they would not have seen another until noon and by the time that one made it through the two checkpoints school would be long over. 

The bus pulled to the last stop and the people that got on overcrowded the it so Jo gave up his seat so that a woman could sit down. The bus then made its way to the first checkpoint, which was two miles away from the last stop. Butheina looked out the window and saw that there were a lot more soldiers than usual walking around. They were all dressed in fatigue and carrying military assault rifles. The bus pulled to a stop and two soldiers climbed aboard to check the ID’s of each passenger.

When the soldier approached Butheina, she pulled her wallet from her backpack and proved that she was a temporary citizen and had the right to travel; her cousin Jo showed the same soldier his proof as well. At the back of the bus there was commotion but the man and the soldier were arguing in Arabic and Butheina could barely understand.

“What’s going on?” she asked Jo.

“The man doesn’t have his ID.”

The soldier grabbed the man by his shirt and dragged him off the bus where they continued to argue outside. The other soldier finished checking the rest of the passengers’ ID’s then hopped off of the bus and directed the driver to continue through the large wall.

On the other side of the wall there were three lines of cars and two long lines of people, one full of men and one full of women. Hundreds of soldiers all in fatigue with assault rifles just like before, were monitoring every car and everyone. Butheina watched out the window as soldiers walked through the line checking ID’s and verbally assaulting the people. One soldier pulled a woman from the line and escorted her to the building attached to the wall, Butheina never saw them come out because the bus pulled through the checkpoint and proceeded to the next bus stop, which was Butheina’s school.

“I will be back right after your last bell, as usual. Have a good day.” Jo said as he waved to Butheina.

Butheina got off of the bus and walked into the school building, it was packed inside full of small and big kids, she wen to her classroom. Inside of the room there were at least thirty students. She found a desk to sit at which was between two girls wearing black hijabs; in fact she was the only girl wearing a navy blue hijab. The bell rang it was 8 and time for class to begin. The teacher, Mr. Pol walked in and began talking about algebraic formulas and how to calculate long hand.

After each class ended, five minutes later another teacher would walk into the room. Classes lasted forty-five minutes, the teacher erased the board and then went on to their next class then another teacher would come in to teach a different subject and this same routine would repeat until the last class of the day. In Palestine, there was no recess and no time to talk in between classes to friends, which wasn’t a problem for Butheina since she didn’t have any yet. At three o’clock on the dot the bell rang and Butheina did just as her cousin said. When she made it outside he was standing by a different bus. 

“Butheina, let’s go, the bus is about to leave.” It wasn’t the same bus because they did not have regular school buses, just public transportation.

The two boarded the bus and the driver closed the door, waited for them to sit down and then it pulled away from the school. This bus didn’t go back the way that they came to school.

“Where is this bus taking us?”

“The checkpoint got shut down due to another brawl. We have to go to a different one.” Jo replied, “I’m not sure which way we are taking but if anything happens remember to keep your head down.”

Butheina looked around the bus and noticed that she was the only girl on it. All of the men on the bus including the driver and Jo were wearing matching clothes. 

“Jo, what’s going on? Why are you all dressed the same?”

“So that we can confuse the soldiers.”

“Why?”

“We are trying to sneak the minister through the checkpoint, he was banned for preaching against the Israeli soldiers.”

“Which one is the minister?”

“It is better that I do not tell you.” Jo said, “Here, take this. Just in case anything goes wrong.” He handed Butheina a piece of paper.

Butheina took the paper and held on to it, tight. Then she looked around the bus to see if she could pinpoint him herself but it was nearly impossible, the men all looked similar some even had the same haircut and beard length. When they reached the checkpoint she could see that there was twice the amount of soldiers than the first checkpoint.

“It’s okay Butheina just relax, the soldiers won’t bother you.”

The bus got to the beginning of the line of cars and a soldier boarded and began checking ID’s, this time he started from the back and worked his way forward. Butheina handed him her ID, Jo followed then the next man and so on.

When the soldier approached the man in the fifth seat, a man from another line began screaming at a woman from the next line. Butheina looked out the window to see another man throwing fruit at a group of soldiers. The Israeli soldiers made their way over to the commotion when two cars sped from the back of the line and started doing donuts near the middle, a military truck pulled up from out of nowhere and began shooting at the cars. More soldiers came out and began moving people out of line when the soldier on the bus started yelling in Arabic at the man in the fifth seat, Jo pulled a gun from his waist and shot the soldier.

The bus driver stepped on the gas and began driving through the opening in the wall then continued to pick up speed as he attempted to make it through to the next wall. Military vehicles followed the bus and Butheina put her head down as the soldiers began shooting in their direction. The first five cars in the beginning of the next line drove out of the way as the bus swerved around to make it through the wall. Butheina looked up and saw that her cousin Jo was bleeding.

“Butheina, keep your head down!” he yelled.

She ducked back down and the bus went over a few bumps then she felt a tire go out, the bus swerved and the driver got it back on three wheels and one rim. The military vehicles full of soldiers were catching up to them. The shooting never stopped and the bus began tilting on one side, then it flipped, slid and stopped.

Butheina closed her eyes and clenched her fist tighter so that she wouldn’t lose the paper. She heard fast footsteps approach the bus and she heard the soldiers pull each man out of the bus, then she felt a strong arm hoist her out and throw her on the ground. She kept her head down and her eyes closed. The voices around her were angry and all speaking in Arabic. Then she heard Jo say,

“I am sorry I put you in danger Butheina, just show them what’s in your hand and they will not harm you. Tell your father I am sorry but this is something I had to do.”

The soldier yelled at Jo but Jo did not respond, the other soldiers lined the other men up on their knees next to him and continued to yell in Arabic none of the men said anything. A soldier brought his gun up to Jo’s head and shot him, Butheina closed her eyes again, and then one by one each man was shot.

A soldier walked over to her, she opened her eyes as he raised his gun then she lifted up the piece of paper Jo gave her. The soldier lowered his weapon and reviewed the paper. He took it over to another soldier then they both began speaking in Arabic. Butheina heard the word embassy and she knew her father worked at that place. The soldier that shot Jo grabbed her and put her in one of the military vehicles then drove back to the checkpoint. 

Inside of the building next to the checkpoint Butheina sat inside of a room where soldiers surrounded her. A commanding officer walked into the room and sat down across from her.

“My name is Captain Roth, what is your name?”

“Butheina Humdoh.”

“Butheina, how old are you?”

“I’m thirteen.”

“Thirteen, so you’re old enough to know what’s going on?”

“No, I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Well, we have about ten minutes before your father gets here, he gave me permission to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“Where is the minister?”

“The soldier shot him.”

“WRONG ANSWER!” The captain yelled.

“I saw the- “

“You saw nothing, you will go home and you will speak of none of this. If you do, I will find you and I will kill you and your family. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir.” Butheina began crying and she wished she were at home, safe, in America.

The Captain left the room and so did all of the soldiers except the one that shot Jo. He waited with her. “I’m sorry you had to see that little girl.” He said.

“I have a daughter too and I wouldn’t want her to witness anything like that, but you have to understand that I am just following orders, I have to do what I have to do to ensure the safety of my people.” Butheina didn’t respond to him. She just sat and waited until her father came. 

Butheina Hamdah is University of Toledo graduate most known for her written work on Muslim-American culture which was also documented by a New York Times opinion writer. She’s also gained notoriety with the ‘canary mission’.

https://books.google.com/books/about/Liberalism_and_the_Impact_on_Religious_I.html?id=FAoTyAEACAAJ

https://canarymission.org/individual/Butheina_Hamdah

Published by Star

Creative Content Specialist

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