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What is it like to grow up half Jewish and half Palestinian?

Claire Hajaj with her mother, father and brother in Kuwait, 1979 

At 11, I discovered I was a stranger in my own family. It happened at a
relative’s “do” in Regent’s Park – a bar mitzvah, or a wedding. I remember
soft-pink tablecloths, gilded place-cards and cutlery gleaming like silver
fish.

A board at the reception-room entrance listed table numbers and names in
grand, italicised print. I looked for mine, brushing the silky front of my
ball-dress, admiring my carefully curled dark hair reflected in the glass
doors. And I remember the rising panic as I searched. There was no sign of
me. Surely my cousins could never have forgotten me?

My mother passed by; I grabbed her arm. Was there some mistake? She moved
close, her neat blonde bob blending into dozens of others passing oblivious
through the doors. She pointed over my shoulder to a name I did not
recognise – similar to mine, but anglicised.

“There you are,” she whispered.

“But that’s not my name,” I whispered back, shame filling the back of my
throat. She squeezed my arm.

“Oh, Claire,” she said, sad and scolding. “You can’t possibly think anyone
would show your real name here?”


The authors’ parents on their wedding day

From that moment and as I grew up – through all the bar mitzvahs and Eid
celebrations, through Rosh Hashanahs and Ramadans – I have known a bitter
truth. My real name, my father’s name, sets me apart from both sides of my
family. Because, once in the dazzling Summer
of Love
,
a young Palestinian immigrant fell for a Jewish girl
studying with him at Manchester University. He loved her enough to defy all
the bitter lessons of his childhood and marry her. But he told me clearly:
he could not love a Jewish daughter.

The Hajajs and the Shaperos were two immigrant clans forging new futures in
England. And despite this shocking marriage they still clung tight to their
wayward kin. But we, the children, faced much stricter tests of loyalty.
Where would our allegiances lie? And how would our choice be revealed?

I was my father’s first-born, the first to be tested. I shuttled reluctantly
from the glitz of my mother’s north London tribe to the “other” family south
of the Thames, to watch my aunt smoke “hubble-bubble” and hear my cousins
chattering in an Arabic I could barely understand. There, I wore my
Palestinian last name like borrowed robes – a thin disguise easily pulled
away to reveal the enemy underneath. When my cousins cursed the Zionists I
never felt more Jewish. But when my mother’s family defended Israel, I felt
those same curses come surging into my chest.

My father blamed me for seeing the grey zones in a war of blacks and whites.
Once we visited the al-Aqsa
Mosque
in Jerusalem together, surrounded by young Israeli IDF
carrying Uzis, and Palestinian police officers in muted blue. The day before
we’d rung the doorbell of his lost family home in Jaffa – a tall, white
house wrapped in pink bougainvillaea. An elegant woman with an Austrian
accent had answered: my father refused her kind invitation to tea.


The author with her mother and father

Now, in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall, bells of the
Holy Sepulchre pealing through the evening, we stood angry and divided.

“I come from both sides,” I screamed at him. “How can I choose one?”

“You have to choose,” he shouted back. “Or else you’ll be alone. A child who
doesn’t share her family’s values has no family.”

My father was right. Which is why he and I have never been able to make our
peace, and why the
bitter conflict between Jew and Arab

seems unending. The middle ground between the two sides is a lonely
no-man’s land. But I have chosen to spend my life there, even while part of
me longs for the certainty of the trenches.

The last time I spoke to my father was four years ago, the day before my
daughter’s birth. I called when they laid her in my arms, but he never
called back. Perhaps he could not bear to watch me fail his final test, to
see his first grandchild wrapped in a blended identity rather than pure
Palestinian colours. As I watch her grow, I often wonder if my choice was
right. Maybe she won’t find her name on our family lists either. But I
prefer to believe she will take the best of both tribes forward. And that
they will come to celebrate her for her unique spirit, rather than for whose
flag she bears.

“Ishmael’s
Oranges” (Oneworld), by Claire Hajaj, is available from Telegraph Books

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(via Telegraph)