Cultural Connections: Palestinian resident’s deep ties to her native roots

BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES

Despite not living much of her life in Palestine, Hyattsville resident Mai Abdul Rahman feels a close affinity for her native land and culture. Abdul Rahman spent her formative years at boarding school in Lebanon while her parents lived in Saudi Arabia because of her father’s oil industry work. Yet her Palestinian roots run deep. “Although my father’s family was poor, they were peasant landowners who relied on their land to survive. My mother’s family was very poor. However, in Palestine, names are very important, and my mother had good lineage which connects her to the Prophet Mohammed.” 

Abdul Rahman’s family was deeply attached to the land and suffered many hardships over the years. “My grandmother picked olives and seeds to be able to send her only son to private school. Everyone worked very hard to make sure that he would have the education he needed. He struggled a lot because he’s a Palestinian.” After Israel became a state in 1948, much of her family’s land was seized, and they had to relocate to the West Bank. “My father would go in the darkness of night into his family’s property to cut flowers, clip olive and grape branches and pick figs to replant the clippings in the West Bank where they were living.”

Abdul Rahman has fond memories of visiting Palestine, where much of her extended family still lives. “The first day of spring is Mother’s Day in Palestine. Called “Silat Al-Rahim” [meaning “womb connection”], it’s a huge day for Palestinians because the maternal connection is sacred. It’s a day of celebration for all girls and women, for the maternal ancestors and for the future generations that will come. It’s a very important value to Palestinians. It connects us to our past and future.”

Abdul Rahman also feels sadness when she thinks of her homeland. “The occupation is a common factor that affects all Palestinians the same — rich or poor. I worked as a U.N. consultant in 2008. I would see young Israeli kids with guns and young Palestinian kids trying to cross the checkpoint, and I saw fear in both of their eyes. The occupation does not only exact a price on its victims but also on the young Israelis as well. I hated it. I couldn’t take it.”

After graduating from high school in Beirut, Abdul Rahman came to the U.S. in the late 1970s to attend college in Iowa. Her parents moved to Dallas a year later. Despite being well-traveled, she experienced “culture shock beyond imagination. I had traveled all over the world. I thought I was fairly liberal until I came to the U.S. In college, the drug culture, the sex, all of a sudden I had to decide who I was. There were things I wouldn’t practice. I wanted to be engaged but didn’t want to do things that were against my beliefs and that wouldn’t add to the quality of my life.”

Abdul Rahman headed East to attend graduate school at American University.   She eventually met her husband, a photojournalist, while she was covering  Congress and the State Department for an Arab publication. After raising their four children in Chevy Chase, where they lived for 27 years, her husband and daughter discovered Hyattsville and fell in love with the arts scene. They relocated to Hyattsville a year ago. “There are so many activists and socially conscious people in Hyattsville. Here I feel a communal sense of belonging. I feel home — it feels really good. There are caring and nice people. The mix of classes and cultures and religions. It’s wonderful to be here.”

Although Abdul Rahman has adapted well to her adopted homeland, she holds nostalgic memories of Palestine. “I miss the beauty of the land, the care every farmer shows his trees. They name their trees and their small plots of land. The pungent smell of every flower, sage, cactus and all these wild things that grow from the earth, despite the arid land. It’s a blessed land. It stimulates my spiritual side.”

Julia Gaspar-Bates is a cross-cultural trainer and consultant. “Cultural Connections” is devoted to bringing forth the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.