Palestine, Nestled Between Pakistan and Panama

Maher Nasser, a 53-year-old Palestinian United Nations staffer in New York for months trained for, and then last week completed, the New York City Marathon race. He did so registered under the “State of Palestine.”

As I travel the world and witness the global quest for Palestinian national rights and a normal life, I become increasingly confident of our eventual success. Because everywhere I encounter the tenacity and depth of Palestinians’ individual and collective identity, the essential foundation of statehood and nationhood. Jews know this better than anyone else in the world, as do Armenians who achieved their state, and Kurds who are on their way there.

Palestinians have been denied their state since the creation of Israel in 1948 took over 78 percent of historical Palestine. The 1.5 million Palestinians of 1948 now number an estimated nine million; the 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled by Zionists or became refugees by fleeing war in 1947-48 now number around 4.5 million. They achieved a symbolic milestone recently by becoming a “non-member observer state” at the United Nations. Sovereign statehood remains a distant dream, goal, and right.

I witness the vitality of Palestinian identity every time I take a trip somewhere. Anywhere, it does not matter where. Here on an extended trip in the United States, I see Palestinian identity rear its head everywhere. On over 125 university campuses, chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine actively challenge oppressive and illegal Israeli actions. Palestine Film Festivals span the world, including in Boston, Washington, Chicago, Toronto, London, Ann Arbor, Atlanta, and many others cities. Hundreds of films and documentaries on Palestine made and shown every year can only correct Zionism’s distortions of our shared factual history.

But most of all I was struck this autumn by the efforts of a certain Maher Nasser, a 53-year-old Palestinian United Nations staffer in New York, who for months trained for, and then last week completed, the New York City Marathon race. He did so registered under the “State of Palestine.” 

This is not earth-shattering stuff, I know; but in the annals of durable identities and indestructible communities, of entire peoples who will not disappear from the world because others have more power, imperial political support, or money than they do, it is actually the stuff of legends—and certainly a building block of statehood. When he first registered for the preliminary races that runners must complete to qualify for the marathon, Maher did not find “Palestine” in the website’s pull-down menu of countries. He only has a Palestinian passport, so could not register under another nationality.

He contacted the organizers, shared with them the UN General Assembly Resolution making Palestine a non-member observer state in the UN system, and the organizers correctly added Palestine to the list of countries. On the marathon website, Palestine (PAL) now nestles between Pakistan and Panama, just hanging around matter-of-factly with all those other established countries, waiting only for recognized borders and stuff like that.

Maher enhanced my conviction that we will one day live in a Palestinian state because he also set a goal of raising $32,000 to provide scholarships for Palestinian university students at Birzeit University in Palestine (he is just $3,000 short and is continuing his fund-raising efforts on Facebook and elsewhere). When he, four siblings and his father were all going to college simultaneously 35 years ago, they all benefited from scholarships. He wanted now to give back to younger Palestinians, he said, so the next generations of young Palestinian men and women could succeed and become the best in their fields of interest, to serve their fellow Palestinians, and also to serve all humanity.

He was the only Palestinian to finish the marathon this year. A few others had completed the race from 2005-14, men with names like Bandak (two years in a row), Rantisi, and Nureddin, and two women from the Fakhry and Wafi families. For Palestinians, these are familiar family names, even though we do not know them personally. They are the names of our neighbors, schoolmates, grocers, and teachers. We recognize them, because they form our community, dispersed, occupied, and exiled as it is.

It was important for Maher to run and be listed as a Palestinian because, he said, “It is the only identity I’ve ever had.”

 What does it mean to be a Palestinian, I asked him. “It is the collective feeling of being denied something,” he explained, that something being a normal life in one’s ancestral homeland.

At two points during the race when his strength and will both flagged slightly—not surprisingly for a non-expert runner—he turned a corner and saw his wife and two daughters waving a Palestinian flag. His legs and lungs found new strength. He finished the race.

Afterwards his wife told him that a policeman near them asked what the flag represented, as he was not familiar with it.

“It’s the flag of the state of Palestine,” she told him.

Many more people around the world today know about Palestine and its flag, and most importantly, its determined and devoted citizens. They run. They make movies. They challenge public misconceptions. They support other Palestinians in college. Most of all, they assert their humanity, and work to end the denial of their statehood.

I learned this again this month, as I do every time I travel, anywhere in the world.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global