‘When I tell people I’m Irish Palestinian it always raises a few eyebrows’

Hannah Khalil brings Bitterenders, her play about a Palestinian family forced to share their home with Israeli settlers, to Dublin as part of Sendiana, a celebration of Palestine

When I tell people I’m Irish Palestinian it always raises a few eyebrows. “How did that happen?” I’m asked. “What a strange combination”. But of course anyone who knows their history will have twigged that the story of both my parents’ countries share many bloody similarities. Both occupied by the British and divided by partition.

I’m asked whether I feel more Irish or Palestinian. The truth is I identify as both, although I’m often denied as the former by my Irish countrymates because of my English accent; and as the latter by fellow Palestinians because of my pale skin. No matter – my access to the two cultures has given me a unique perspective on both.

I grew up in the UAE but spent every long summer in Windgap, my family’s small village in Kilkenny, gawped at by local children and accused of being a “tinker” because of my sallow complexion (I was browner then).

In Ireland, I spent my time terrorising Granny Kennedy, my brilliantly irreverent, blind grandmother, who even in games of hide and seek always got the better of me. She sent me to the village on clandestine missions to buy corn cob pipes, taught me rhymes, 100 uses for a pig’s stomach and scared the bejesus out of me with tales of the Pooka and rogue fairies.


My Palestinian Sitti I saw even less frequently than my annual visits to Granny Kennedy: trips to Palestine were few and far between. Dad worked in hotels so time off was non-existent and on many occasions when family trips were planned in earnest my uncle would dissuade my Dad, saying things were too volatile.

So Sitti became something of a mythical character and Dad told stories of her courage and fortitude – legend has it she was working in the fields when labour pains came on her – she walked home, gave birth to my Dad, handed him over to her own mother, and went to finish her work. Whether that’s fact or fiction I bore witness to her hardiness when – on a rare family trip to our village Yassouf in the West Bank in the late 1980s – Sitti has to be taken to hospital with a broken arm shortly after we’d arrived: she had fallen out of an olive tree harvesting the olives. She was in her 70s at the time.

I don’t speak Arabic so was never able to talk to her. But I remember her joy and ululations whenever we arrived, her wet kisses and hugs that were so hard they almost hurt. I knew she loved me.

These women both existed in patriarchal worlds without men: my grandfather died when my Mum was 15 and Seedi worked in Kuwait because there was some opportunity for Palestinians there. They were strong, inspirational survivors and have infiltrated my creative consciousness. Amalgamations of the two appear in many of my plays: the Palestinian grandmothers in my plays Plan D, Scenes From 68* Years and Bitterenders are conjured from memories of them both.

It’s appropriate then that scenes from Bitterenders, my one-act play about a Palestinian family in Jerusalem who are forced to share their home with Israeli settlers, is being staged as part of Sendiana, an Irish celebration of Palestine through dance, music, spoken word and theatre at Liberty Hall on May 11th.

Sendiana means acorn in Arabic and is a symbol for a brave old woman who has given birth to many generations, her roots growing deeply and the shelter of her leaves spread wide.

May 11th is an important date for Palestinians. It marks 70 years since the creation of the state of Israel – the apotheosis of the deal made between Sykes and Picot, the reverberations of which are being felt as strongly as ever today in my father’s divided country.

70 years since the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that violently expelled 800,000 people, more than half of Palestine’s native population. 70 years of bloodshed, massacre, displacement, occupation, ever increasing boundaries. Checkpoints. A wall. Unlawful settlements. Martial law. Palestinian men, women and children being imprisoned for the crime of simply existing.

A situation where soldiers walking into a family home is so normalised that rather than feeling fear of the uniform, the gun, a child has the courage, the bravura to retaliate with a slap. And is thrown into jail for her trouble. This is the fate of Ahed Tamimi. Joining many other children in Israeli prisons. Things are so bad for Palestinian prisoners in indefinite detention that many are on hunger strike. Right now. It chills me. And we know where else political prisoners were driven to such action as a last means to having their human rights recognised.

Sendiana will be held in solidarity with Palestinians living in an untenable limbo in a country that is being gradually eroded by many illegal settlements spreading over the landscape in contravention to international law.

Cultural resistance plays an important part in fighting oppression and reasserting identity. The Irish language survives despite British colonial attempts to erase it. When someone is trying to wipe out your history – your identity – collective acts of remembrance and resistance through art, food, theatre, language, storytelling become a vital part of our arsenal. They shout Palestinians are here, we have history – we exist.

Artists from Ireland and Palestine contributing to Sendiana include world-renowned spoken word artist Rafeef Ziadah with a specially-written body of new work, music from world/trad band Kila, award-winning theatre director Jim Culleton, designer Robert Ballagh, poet Catherine-Anne Cullen, actors Marion O’Dwyer, Sahar Ali and Sorcha Fox, director Jeda De Bri, dancer Edwina Guckian and her Irish-Syrian troupe, CYD dance with Welcoming The Stranger, Sharon Murphy and the Forever Young Choir and many more. They will together form an enormous warm welcome for a Palestinian grandmother from Bethlehem to Dublin, as part of the Bealtaine Festival 2018.

It promises to be a very special evening – not least because so few events are marking the occasion of 70 years of Nakba in a way that recognises the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination and justice.
Sendiana, Liberty Hall, Dublin, Friday, May 11th, 8pm. Tickets €20 & €15 (conc) from takeyourseats.ticketsolve.com 
Hannah Khalil was named winner of the Arab British Centre's Cultural Award 2017