Kamal Boullata gazed out the window of his Dupont Circle artist's studio. This country has been his home for 14 years and he is now a U.S. citizen. But somehow, he says, he still feels exiled, not for lack of a home, but for lack of a homeland.
"One does not choose one's own destiny," said Boullata, who is Palestinian. "I would not choose to be in exile . . . and citizenship papers, whether Arab or American, would not express my feelings toward the smell of earth . . . of a specific place on earth, or of a sense of belonging to people who belong to that specific piece of land."
Palestinians and Americans of Palestinian descent who live in the Washington area, conservatively estimated at about5,000, have assimilated into American society with notable success, ease and pride, often saying they cherish their U.S. citizenship. But they remain obsessed with a political quest: restoration of their homeland, a place in which they and their fellow Palestinians scattered all over the world can reunite as a people.
Many Palestinians say their sense of helplessness and anger has been sharpened since war erupted in Lebanon five months ago and the massacres of Palestinians at the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps.
To them the war had mixed results. While they discern more understanding and sympathy for their cause among Americans in general, they also acknowledge that Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have suffered a grievous blow both in lives and in organization, which many compare to the disarray of 1948 when Palestinians were forced to leave their homeland.
The plight of Palestinians in Lebanon was the focus last night of a fund-raising dinner at Georgetown University's Hall of Nations. About 350 members of the local Palestinian community showed up to make donations to the Palestine Aid Society and express their solidarity with those in Lebanon.
The Palestine national anthem and pictures of the Palestine flag on the walls expressed the nationalist sentiment of the gathering, which applauded the demand by Hassan Rahman, head of the local Palestine Information Office, for "a national, independent Palestinian state on Palestinian soil."
Ellen Siegel, a Washington nurse and a Jew who was in Beirut during the massacres and testified before an Israeli board of inquiry that she believed the killings could have been stopped, was given a standing ovation when she addressed the group.
Recent events in the Mideast have coincided with a renewed attempts by local Palestinians to maintain their identities in the midst of American culture.
To maintain their ties with each other Palestinians have formed groups such as the Ramallah Federation, which now numbers about 25,000 across the country. Any Palestinian whose family can trace its origins to Ramallah can join.
Likewise, the El Bireh Palestine Society of America, formed last September, includes those whose families come from El Bireh. Maisoun Hasan of Falls Church said there are about 20 members of the El Bireh Youth group chapter in the Washington area. It was formed so that "children grow up knowing where they came from and where they are going; so they can know their language and help the cause." Those who want to learn Arabic attend classes at George Mason University Sunday mornings.
"Most of us have never been to Palestine," said Hasan, who is 22, "but we do want our homeland back."
This resurgence of Palestinian nationalism among people in their 20s has been nurtured by their parents' memories. As Chris Mansour, a graduate student at Georgetown who was born in Flint, Mich., explains, he cares about Palestine "because it's my roots. Palestinian consciousness has been embedded in me ever since I can remember. I sit and talk with my grandparents and they tell me of the time they used to live in Jerusalem and how they are longing to go back.
"For me, it's more a political consciousness of the injustice done to my people. Someday and some way I would like to rectify the situation."
Members of the Palestinian community are scattered throughout the Washington area. In addition to students, there are academics, journalists, artists and businessmen. The Ebbitt Hotel of Washington, Bethany Travel and Limousine Service, which provides "stretch limos" for visiting dignitaries, the Saah Furniture stores, VIP Travel Agency of Vienna and the 'Steak in a Sack' shops of Virginia as well as the District's Mama Ayesha's 'Calvert Cafe' and the 'Alkhayyam' restaurants are some of the Palestinian-run businesses in the area.
Some Palestinian Americans, like VIP Travel's George Shokwe, trace their roots in this country back to the early 1900s when their parents arrived here, typically working as door-to-door peddlers or grocers.
Most however, came to this country as refugees in successive waves after the founding of Israel in 1948. Michael S. Saah, for example, a 59-year-old real estate broker in Fairfax, came here in 1952 after fighting the Israelis, first in the militia of his West Bank home town of Ramallah and then in the Jordanian army.
Ahmad Manna, owner of the Georgetown Cafe, is a typical success story. Manna, who wears a gold tie clip in the shape of the map of Palestine given him by his children, arrived in Silver Spring 26 years ago. "I sold dry goods from door to door in Baltimore. I didn't speak one word of English. I had a piece of paper on which my friends had written phonetically in Arabic 'You wanna buy some dry goods?,' " Manna said.
Manna saved his money, bought a luncheonette at the corner of Seventh and O Streets and eventually prospered enough to buy the Georgetown Cafe, which offers 'falafel' and other Mideast snacks.
Palestinian Americans in the area have been active in such groups as the United Holyland Fund and the Palestine Aid Society which raise money and supplies for Palestinian refugees, mainly those in Lebanon.
All Palestinian organizations in this country belong to the Palestine Congress of North America. The congress was founded, according to its executive director, Jawad George, to unite Palestinians and to lobby for recognition of the PLO, which Palestinians and Palestinian Americans overwhelmingly regard as the representative of their people.
"The PLO is the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism," Saah said. "It created awareness of Palestinians. Before the PLO they were refugees, now they are Palestinians."
"Every Palestinian, even my kids born here, are PLO," comments Manna.
If the PLO had not existed, "Palestinians would be over, it would be like the Armenians -- nobody dreams of Armenia anymore; they were too late in acting." said Khaled Sifri, a Palestinian law student at Catholic University whose family left Palestine "for three or four days" in 1948 and has never returned. Their former home is now a museum and they live in Kuwait.
Many Palestinians here admit they were uneasy about the PLO when it was actively engaged in highly publicized terrorist activities such as the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and plane hijackings. They acknowledge these activities harmed the PLO politically and diplomatically.
"It did get harmed by the hijackings; terrorism is inhumane," said Rabee' Dajani, a Palestinian who heads the local office of the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. "I did feel uneasy about the PLO during that time."
"I went through phases: bewilderment, frustration, understanding and then agreement, when some of their actions were not something I would personally participate in or condone," said Victor Joubran of Falls Church, a 40-year-old data processor who came to this country when he was 8. "I felt uneasy about their actions, but not about their motives . . . but what I learned was that they are not terrorists . . . . Had I been less fortunate and not been able to come here [to the U.S.] I might have been a member through no choice of my own."
Despite their ideological support for the PLO, Palestinians here have maintained an organizational distance from it for two reasons. In the first place, the PLO is not a membership body, it is an umbrella organization of 22 different groups, not all of them guerrilla factions. For example, the General Union of Palestine Students, to which many Palestinian students in the United States belong, is a member group of the PLO.
Secondly, as Americans, many Palestinains were wary of openly identifying with a group that has had a reputation as a terrorist organization. "In this country . . . to admit identification with the PLO ostracizes the person immediately and labels him in so many negative ways that he will lose all his chances for a normal life," Dajani said.
Many Palestinian Americans say changing the image of the PLO and Palestinians as terrorists is a priority for them. "One of the most important things for the PLO and Palestinians to do is to change the image of it in the U.S.," said Zeina Seikaly, 26, who is executive assistant at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
"Americans jokingly say to me 'Oh, where is your gun?'" Seikaly said. "It's a joke, I know, but I think it's an indicator of how Americans regard Palestinians."
Although recent events have highlighted the plight of a homeless people, some fear the shock on the international community will wear off soon enough. "Now things are different because of the massacre," Saah said, "but give them six months and everybody will forget what happened in Lebanon."
When asked about the future, many Palestinians gloomily predict more massacres or another war. And some harbor fears about their own community here, which they fear may mirror the defensiveness and introspection that characterized Jewish communities before Palestine became Israel in 1948.
"I have seen many Palestinians who remind me, when they talk, of Jews from Europe. I actually know many stories of people who have gone through experiences that have begun to lead them into paranoia," Boullata said.
"I see in my own community a mirror of the Jewish community, and that makes me afraid, because I believe we cannot afford to have a ghetto mind. Israel is a ghetto and I hope the homeland we would build would not be a ghetto."