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On Not Going Home Again

by Joyce Zonana

We'd been planning our trip for over a year: six first cousins, ranging in age from 50 to 70, who hadn't been together in one city (let alone one country or one continent) in at least forty years; a 93-year-old uncle who hadn't seen his nephews in more than twenty; second and third cousins - children and grandchildren of the cousins - who had never even met. For some of us, it would be the first trip back to the place of our birth since having left it more than fifty years ago. For others, it was a journey to the fabled place of origin, the ancient city about which we had all heard so much.

Along with my oldest cousin in the U.S., I was the informal organizer of what we had taken to calling our "family reunion," though it was much more than that and we all knew it. My brother called it a "reconciliation of sorts with the country that had made our parents unwelcome," and I shared his view. Overcoming my initial fears, I had already gone back numerous times, and I loved the place. The collective journey back to our homeland had been my idea, and I had worked to reassure everyone that we would all be safe and happy. As the date approached, we exchanged eager emails across the oceans . . . old photos were unearthed and shared, memories began to spill forth, anticipation ran high. An eleven-year-old in public school in London was excused from his exams so he might attend; a 65-year-old in California who rarely traveled because of a debilitating back injury decided he would come.

And then, on May 31st, in the international waters off Haifa, nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli commandos who hoped to keep their ship from delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. The moment I heard the news, my heart sank. As a Jew, as an Arab, as an American: all of my identities came into play as I mourned the death of nine people, feared a rise in tension throughout the Middle East, and anticipated how this terrible incident might affect my family's plans.

For the city we were all planning to meet in on June 11th was Cairo. We were flying from our various homes in Israel, England, and the U.S., and we expected to spend our time exploring old haunts and introducing the children to the wonders of Egypt. My immediate concern was for my Israeli cousins: one of them had already had difficulties obtaining a visa; would they be able to cross the border safely, would they be free to travel? How would they be received in Cairo? In my previous visits to the city of my birth, I had never had any problems: I would always announce to people that I was Jewish and Egyptian, and they would inevitably respond with an embrace: "Welcome to your homeland." But in the face of Israeli violence, would Jews, and even more particularly, Israeli Jews be welcome in Egypt?

Not unsurprisingly, anti-Israel demonstrations blossomed overnight throughout Europe, the U.S., and, of course, the Middle East. In Cairo, on June 1st, several hundred protestors declared their support for Hamas, their critique of Mubarak, and their longing for Nasser. For my American cousins, who had been expelled from Egypt in 1956, this must have been the worst kind of déjà vu, reminiscent of the days in the 1950s when mobs roamed the streets of Cairo shouting "death to the Jews" and torching businesses and synagogues. How could they bring their children and grandchildren here?

The attack on the Mavi Marmara occurred on Monday. By Saturday my two American cousins decided: they did not feel comfortable traveling to Cairo at this time. My brother concurred. My Israeli cousins, accustomed to conflict, announced their willingness to go ahead. But without the rest of us, my uncle lost heart. And I, the organizer, who, perhaps more than any one, had cherished the dream of re-union, lost my nerve as well. How could I guarantee anything? I call myself an Arab Jew, I believe in and work for peace, and I know how hard it is for all of us to hold a vision in which there are no victims or aggressors, only a collection of dispossessed and frightened peoples, seeking home.

A Muslim friend in Cairo promptly answers my email when I write to say that we will not, after all, be coming. "That's too bad. Things are calm here. No difficulties, thank God." I often anger Jewish acquaintances when I declare that my family lost its homeland because of the establishment of the Jewish state. It's an over simplified view of things, I know, but it holds a truth. Middle Eastern Jews lived peacefully in Egypt for generations before European Jews created their state in a place where Palestinians had lived for generations. Today I declare again: we lost our homecoming because of the actions of the Jewish state. And our own unwillingnes to stand in the strength of our dream, to abandon our fear that the past must determine the present. Next year, I say then, in Cairo.

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