I never thought about the correlation between memory, identity and trust until I had a conversation with one of my students, Hadeel after class this Monday. She told me about her Palestinian roots, her love for her country — the country she’d never been to and will probably never go to, her adoration for Palestinian landscapes and scenery — all judged by the pictures she’d seen online. “Google” she told me, “Google has so many pictures of my home Palestine”, she smiled and sat closer to me “Google also showed me pictures of other Palestinians who live in Palestine. My people.” She said. Google seemed to be the glue that bridged her Palestinian identity to her sense of being and feeling Palestinian. It struck me as odd that her identity wasn’t something she knew. She doesn’t know Palestine. Yet the first thing she told me two weeks ago when I first met her was that she was Palestinian. “My name is Hadeel. A Palestinian refugee. What about you? Who are you?”
Something about the confidence and the certainty in which she spoke those words “I am a Palestinian refugee” was simultaneously beautiful and confusing. I asked myself how she could be so certain about something she was unfamiliar with. The beauty of it was embedded in the way she knew the unknown.
“Tell me what you know about Palestine” I asked her. “I hope to work there next summer. I’ve always wanted to go.” I told her. Her face lit up and with excitement she told me “my grandparents tell me stories about Palestine every Saturday night.” She looked away ensuring that only I was part of her bubble as if we were the only two traveling to lands far away ready for an exciting new adventure. She put her hand on my hand and said “I hope when you go to Palestine you can tell me everything about it. I miss my home.” I smiled and said of course. Of course I’d keep in touch, of course I’d send her pictures, of course i’d tell her about what I do there; I was lost in the of courses before I realized she had begun narrating her family’s story about Palestine.
When she had finished, she told me how much pride she felt; how much love and admiration she had for her people — especially for her uncle, who had stayed in Palestine. Who, she said with great sadness, she’d probably never get to meet. “I love my uncle. I am only sad because sometimes I think that he thinks he is alone in this world. I want to tell him that he is not. We all love him. Everybody loves him. We are all one. We are all Palestinians.”
I realized how much of her Palestinian identity was bound up to memory. She feels pride being Palestinian based on the stories her grandparents told her, she feels love for her people because of the history that she learns about her country, she finds beauty in Palestinian landscapes because of the pictures she finds on Google. Her entire identity is based upon memory. Not her own memory though — the memories of those around her.
Here’s the issue with relying on others’ memories. You need a certain degree of trust to be able to legitimize what you’re hearing or seeing. “Do your grandparents remember Palestine well?” I ask her, intrigued and admittedly slightly skeptical at her only source of stories. “How can they ever forget our Palestine?” She asks me, wide-eyed and expecting a reply. I had none. I looked at her, she looked at me. We looked at each other for what felt like a very long time.
She trusted them with the biggest task of all: the formation of her identity. What they told her about Palestine was what she knew about Palestine and it was also what made her Palestinian. It was the stories they told her that made her who she is — her trust in their memories was her identity.
I think one of the reasons I found her confidence and certainty of her Palestinian identity so beautiful yet so confusing was because she knew who she was. There was no hesitation, no room for deviation and nothing anyone could say or do that would change who she was. I admire this about Hadeel, my 16 year old student who was born into this world with a crystal clear identity.