What I Found in the Catastrophe

Translated by Katharine Halls
Rasha Hilwi

Rasha Hilwi is a Palestinian writer, journalist and a mother of twin girls. Born in Akka in 1984, she is co-editor-in-chief of Raseef22, An Arabic-language media platform standing at the intersection of identity, democracy and social justice. She is also co-founder of Hammam Radio, a participatory feminist online radio platform, and of Khan Aljanub, an Arabic bookshop in Berlin. Rasha is also a DJ storyteller—an artistic form that combines stories and music. In her work she focuses on the questions surrounding home (بيت) and ghurbah (غربة) and the ways they intersect with womanhood, feminism and identity.

How is personal memory a form of resistance? Image: Rasha Hilwi

I always reserve a place in my writing and journalism, whether visibly or between the lines, for an act of searching: a searching for the peculiar way in which catastrophes―social, political and even personal―lead us to paths where, sometimes after many years, or months, or days, we might find something illuminated; or perhaps not, necessarily, but we might at least grasp a meaning of some sort. In this search, I meet strangers, relatives, and friends. I write very little of my conversations with them down on paper—I mean, on my laptop—and instead, I carry these conversations with me as knowledge and life wisdom, sometimes not sharing them with anybody else at all.

Looking back at the years I’ve been writing, I see that I have always dug deeply into the history of my family, my town, and my people in Palestine. I’ve talked to friends who have had to leave their countries—Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran—and I’ve met people virtually or face to face in Berlin, the city where I decided to settle after leaving Palestine. I came across stories I never would have heard of were it not for these encounters—many of which came about by chance. In all of them, amid the sadness and the catastrophe, there was a certain meaning, according to the storytellers, and that meaning was the illuminated thing. There’s nothing clichéd about this story.

I moved from Akka to Berlin in 2017, searching for a home that resembled the one where I lived in my own parallel universe, where stories would be within reach, as would be the wisdom that is gained from living through catastrophe, and yet outside of the geographic space controlled by Israeli colonisation. I could not have imagined that exactly three years after moving to Berlin, my room would become indistinguishable from any other room on the planet, with all communication with the outside world, near and far alike, taking place by phone or computer. It was the beginning of the pandemic and the state-imposed restrictions felt like divine punishment for people like me, who spend more of their lives outside their homes than inside them. For me, a home can be people, gardens, a bar we like, a conversation with a friend, or a kiss by the river. Houses—those structures that have doors, windows, ceilings and walls—are just for sleeping, especially for those who live alone.

After one month of quarantine, I moved from a shared apartment to a rented flat of my own. Friends hinted that the timing of my decision to live by myself was somewhat strange, especially since I truly was alone: I didn’t have a lover or boyfriend and visits by friends were prohibited at the time. Those who expressed their surprise knew me well—but I looked God’s punishment in the eye, and accepted the challenge.

After taking on this semi-voluntary, semi-imposed isolation, I secretly started to pray. I knew, as we all did—even though we denied it—that the world would never again be like it was before the pandemic. I started to experience emotions and fears that I knew existed, but not in my own body or soul. In many ways, it was a new lived experience. Inside me, I silently wished, like a secret prayer not written on Facebook walls or Instagram stories, that this new world catastrophe would bear some fruit that might be good, or gentle to my heart—even if just one.

Not much time went by before my prayers were answered, and an old lover came back into my life. “I wish I’d prayed every day!” I thought to myself. Anyway, he was back. Thanks to the pandemic, to the silence and isolation, to the realms of thinking granted us by boredom and the profound questioning that took place when cities ceased their daily function of making us afraid to lose things outside of our homes, we were able to express—my lover and I—our desires and our dreams, and talked about how nothing outside the home was guaranteed any more. We asked questions like: What are cities? Why do we migrate? Where are our homes? What is a home, anyway? We talked about smells, about food and about lots of music. Do you want a family? Do you want to be a father? I’m a strange person, habibi: after this catastrophe, I want to be a mother more than ever. And then—so suddenly!—the quarantine was lifted.

There were no direct trains running from Berlin to Amsterdam due to the pandemic, so I had to book several separate tickets and change trains three times. I couldn’t complain, not only because I was going to see my lover, but also because any travel at all, after so long in quarantine, was a blessing!

I like travelling by train because of the windows that invoke nature and imagination. The seats are comfortable, more or less, which is also good for the imagination, and I can write in a notebook or on my laptop. Most trains also have an internet connection, and I can read or sleep too. But I did neither that day: from the moment the train left the station in Berlin, through all the stations in between, all the way to Amsterdam central station, all I wanted was to see him. And I was not afraid.

I arrived late at night, and from the moment we met again we knew where we were heading. Honestly. The route we saw before us was the only certainty in a world that was trying, ourselves included, to improvise its way out of a pandemic.

Amidst all this, we decided to start a family and build a home. We wanted children, of course, and we talked about how we’d furnish our home; in the same spirit, we decided to get married, and being true to our word, that’s what we did. We moved in together to a house in Amsterdam near the canal (everywhere in the city is near a canal). To relieve my sadness at leaving Berlin, and many things too, I said to myself, “I come from a beautiful city—Akka—and so I deserve to live in another beautiful city like Amsterdam.” To be sure, the canals are not the Mediterranean, but the fact that there was fresh fish in a European city was attractive, even if they couldn’t compare with the fish in Akka. Still, it was a good reason to fall in love with the city, and to decide to make a home there.

In my constant search for meaning in catastrophe, I have always looked for homes while leaving others behind, some that I would return to and others that I couldn’t return to or didn’t even want to. What I fear most, when catastrophes control the paths we take, is that they might impose more barriers on top of the ones we have already. The harshest of all, perhaps, are those that are erected for invisible reasons, even though, at the end of the day, they are of humans’ own creation.

It is as if the catastrophe that cannot be seen by the naked eye carries into our lives all of the inherited catastrophes which we did not live through, from my grandmother’s stories of displacement from her village in Palestine, to the story of my lover and his mother, who fled the oppression of a dictatorial regime through the mountains of Iran, to the stories of my friends who long to eat makdus prepared by their mothers in Damascus and so many other places. Corona is an invisible embodiment of those catastrophes we know, and those we do not yet know of. Today—speaking at least for myself, and for many people I love—we are living the dimensions, effects, questions and fears heralded by these catastrophes in many places around the world.

And yet, in my constant search for meaning, in past catastrophes still making themselves felt and in catastrophes at the moment they are taking place, I found love: pure, present, unafraid, and a good and gentle home. And there’s nothing clichéd about that.