Flying Home is a touching new children's story produced by youth from Lajee Cultural Center in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, in collaboration with Rich Wiles, a British artist.
Thirty pages in length and illustrated with fifteen full-page photographs taken by the children themselves, Flying Home is a complete package. It is exceptionally well produced, an educational tool for young readers of both English and Arabic, and combines a powerful, human message that is neither culturally specific nor heavy-handed in its delivery.
Though the story of the book’s production might invite cynicism or paternalism, a fair reading immediately rejects any tendency to belittle the final result. On the contrary, Flying Home stands on its own as one of the best children’s books to come out of Palestine in a long time, while highlighting some of the best universal and emancipatory aspects of the human condition and the Palestinian revolution overall.
Flying Home tells the story of a child from Aida camp, whose youthful curiosity leads him to have a series of discussions with his wise grandfather. The child’s questions emerge from the boy’s growing awareness of his surroundings marked by the densely populated, concrete labyrinth of a 60-year old refugee camp, caged in by Israel’s eight meter high Wall and its accompanying sniper towers. Though the child’s questions are hardly political in nature, the pair’s very existence in the refugee camp inevitably is. This puts the grandfather in the complicated situation of needing to explain aspects of the Palestinian reality in exile when the child himself cannot understand the full aspects of his family’s history and the Palestinian predicament in general. But rather than fall in the trap of providing trite, clichéd answers, the grandfather repeatedly responds by emphasizing simple yet important guiding principles of humanity and dignity, including patience, determination, the importance of freedom, and the need to preserve one's dreams and rights.
At one point the grandfather decides to teach the child how to build a kite from a flag, as a means to illustrate how it can be made to fly. The pair build the kite together with the child soon releasing it into the sky next to the apartheid Wall. The child’s initial elation at the sight of his creation soaring high is short lived however, as a large gust of wind whisks the kite from his hands, eventually causing it to crash on the other side of the Wall beyond the child’s reach. The boy returns to his grandfather in tears, devastated by his loss of possession of their creation.
In a final, consoling and moving response, the grandfather responds:
You have given the kite and the flag, its freedom, and freedom is the most valuable thing in the whole world. We cannot see the kite right now but that does not mean it no longer exists. The kite has flown past the Wall to our homeland, for this is where it truly belongs….
Tonight we will both dream happy dreams as we have worked together and helped the kite achieve its freedom. One day you will see the kite again, for it will wait for you in our homeland until you can fly it once more, when we also find our freedom…
Flying Home’s simple language, layout, and storyline are nonetheless remarkably profound and sophisticated. Its secret lies in its identification and portrayal of hidden tensions that lie beneath the surface of Palestinian existence, and extend to humanity in general: the tension between youthful ignorance and adult consciousness; between a people (in this case Palestinians, and particularly refugees) and the places they come from (the homeland to which they are prevented from returning); between one's hopeful dreams and an ever-present, caged-in reality; and the tension between seeking to possess something materially, and the knowledge that real possession is ephemeral, and in fact, that it is us who are possessed by our idea, history, nature, and cause. These tensions are magnificently symbolized in the analogy and image of the boy’s hand holding the spool of string that controls the kite, and the uncontrollable forces of the wind that make it fly.
The grandfather’s final response is profoundly orienting, emphasizing the need to set and uphold one’s values and principles before all other seemingly more immediate considerations. It is these principles that define us as Palestinians, refugees, and human beings. Moreover, these can never be taken away from us without our consent, and can achieve realization through patient work, and not abandoning one's dreams and rights. Palestinian refugees' aspirations for return to their original villages are the obvious reference of the book’s message, but it is also not limited to this. The story’s emphasis on freedom being the most valuable thing in the world underlines how, though freedom is a physical state of being, it is also a state of mind. While Palestinians are denied its manifestation in the former, they can never be denied its existence in the latter, as long as they remain aware of this truth and exercise it in practice.
The story shows exactly how this can be done, by structuring itself through the grandfather-grandchild relationship, which also contributes to the story’s power, effect and universality. This kinship bond through which the transference of wisdom and identity takes place, plays a crucial role in the preservation and development of Palestinian refugees' rights and struggle through living beings, and not just legal conventions. Flying Home’s exceptionalism is that this transference is not of static or ossified knowledge, but that of common values of dignity, freedom and justice. Its message beckons Ghassan Kanafani’s words in Return to Haifa, where the main character declares that “man is a cause,” and that one’s humanity and its realization must be the force at the base of the Palestinian struggle. It not only distinguishes oneself from one’s oppressor, but also provides the tools for victory and liberation.
Seeing the continuity of this liberationist stream within the writings and photographs of the children of Lajee center is a beautiful testament of how these ideas remain alive within the Palestinian body politic, despite the overwhelming and seemingly never ending oppression it undergoes at Israel’s hands, and the discouragement these ideas face within the national movement from those who have abandoned or ignored them.