My Brother, My Land
A Story from Palestine
Sami Hermez, with Sireen Sawalha



This is a true story. When I first started working on it, when I first met Sireen and she began telling me stories, I was a young and nervous student at Princeton University. Along the way, I got distracted. I finished my PhD, wrote a different book, and started a family. Although the time I gave to this project waxed and waned, my commitment never wavered. Throughout the years, Sireen continued recounting stories from Palestine. Initially, she was motivated by a desire to show how her family was intimately connected to and impacted by the political events of the Second Intifada, the period during which we first met. But there was always a tension between this motivation and conveying the story of her life, her family’s life, her brother’s resistance activities, and the general Palestinian condition. This is a tension I tried to preserve when writing this story.

I struggled with the process of stitching together an account that spanned decades. I was weighed down by a perhaps-unhealthy obsession with accuracy and with making sure the narrative I was assembling was the one Sireen wanted out in the world.

Sireen made the process easier. Her stories, her words, and her unflinching determination and passion to tell the story of Palestine through the trials of her family provided me with the inspiration to write. Through the process of storytelling, and as the digital tape turned and captured our voices, I found my feelings intersecting with Sireen’s life, her past woven with my present as I spent more and more time with her—recording conversations, meeting her friends and family, meeting for coffees in various cities, and watching her children grow. We encountered each other too many times to count, had many dozens of meetings and social outings over the years, and logged hundreds of phone calls. The story that came together through this process is about Sireen’s family life through her eyes and at times in her words, but more often than not in mine. What you read has been reviewed and approved by Sireen at multiple stages of the process, from early drafts to the final proofs. Her words, as they appear, are as true to her spoken words as possible, excluding any liberties I took in translating and minor edits I made for readability. She gave me permission to narrate around her memories in the hope of submerging the reader in the family’s experiences while providing an accurate narrative that retains the voice of her actual oral storytelling. To preserve Sireen’s voice, I alternate between her voice and the narrator’s in two different fonts.

Narrating allowed me to write speculatively about instances where neither of us was present and thus did not know exactly how things unfolded—namely, instances involving prison experiences, secret operations, and clandestine moments. In all cases, speculation was informed by research and carried out with an eye toward accuracy and truth. It is for all these reasons that we decided to sign this book with both of our names. As you’ll see, in this book you are accompanying me as I curate, recreate, and narrate the larger story of Palestine with Sireen.

As I collected Sireen’s story, as we went back and forth with drafts to ensure that my narration honored her wishes, and as we met just to catch up and simply be in each other’s company, we grew to be friends, and later, to be like family. “You’re like a son,” she would say to me on several occasions, while I would come to see her as an older sister. And as our relationship developed, this book became more than a collaboration; it became an intertwined life—a collective story that settler colonialism upturned by fracturing our communities and delineating where our stories begin and end.

In this process of entwining lay multiple layers of love. Or perhaps love is that which allows for intertwining—love for Sireen, for her family, for Palestine, for the world around me, for a humanity that can embrace all life. And yet, when one tries to write from love, ethics weighs immensely like a boot on one’s neck. How does one write? How does one do justice to love?

Love. And a million second-guesses.

We Arabs and Palestinians exist within a history of being second-guessed. It can break you if you are not careful. It makes a subject out of you, this second-guessing. It subjugates the way you think and what you prioritize. It took me a long time to overcome it. It took years of writing and revising to refuse such thinking in producing this story—to refuse, as much as possible, to let the second-guess control my writing.

Research for the book helped with this. I undertook years of research that involved numerous conversations with almost all living members of Sireen’s family; meetings with friends, neighbors, and other members of the village community; observations during several visits to Palestine; and archival research at the Center for Palestine Studies in Beirut, Lebanon. This story also relies on a variety of primary and secondary texts and videos. I have included notes for readers who wish to understand more about where some of the details (and sometimes, direct quotes) come from and to read further if they question my accuracy or the truth. Of course, in matters of life and death, in matters of settler colonialism and occupation, truth is a tail we can chase forever. This, mind you, is what the occupiers intend. And there is that second-guess rearing its head again!

Two final notes. The first concerns the Arabic script for place names used throughout the text. This Arabic script is an important reminder of the history of these places in the face of the deliberate erasure of Palestine. Second, the question of how to handle naming people was of much concern to me, as there is no way to anonymize and detach certain people from Sireen. While most names remain unchanged, I have changed the names of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the Israeli military because this book is neither trial nor verdict. There is no conclusive evidence that can be defended in a court of law that these presumed collaborators were indeed collaborators. I am not here to judge or expose based on hearsay.


November 2022

It has been seventeen years since we began this project, Sami and I. There were times when I thought this book would never see the light of day. Times when I felt this Palestinian story would be lost, like Palestine. Times when I thought the odds were slim that my voice, a Palestinian voice, would be heard. Now, as this book goes to production, I feel I can breathe a little.

When I was born, my mother named me Sireen, and my father thought it would bring the family good luck and prosperity. He even named a business after me that operated for some time. When you read this book, you may ask yourself, Where is this prosperity, and where is this good life? But indeed, compared to my siblings, I have had a good life. Compared to what my brother experienced, I have lived well. Compared to many other Palestinian daughters, sisters, and mothers, I have been lucky. Out of gratitude and a sense of duty, I wanted to write the story of my family and my people for the sake of the memory of those who passed and the benefit of those who are still here and are still to come.

It has been seventeen difficult years, unkind years at the end of which this book feels like a blessing. During these years, at the school where I taught, a student accused me of being a terrorist, and after a battle with the administration that stripped me of my dignity, I was let go from my job. I sued, but due to poor representation in court, I lost the case. And I lost hope. Then, two years ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer, and I lost strength and will. This book kept me going. I never stopped dreaming of the day people would read it. I held on tightly to the dream, pushing Sami to continue with the project. While sitting in radiation, unsure of my future, the only thought in my mind was, I need this book to see the light of day soon! The belief that it would bring me justice kept me going. I hope in reading it you will see it as an invitation to learn more, to talk to me, to us, and to hear our stories. While this is a personal story, it is also a Palestinian story, my people’s story, of the suffering we endure. Yet many other Palestinians have stories perhaps even more vivid and complex, the collective of which, written and unwritten, is the Palestinian story. This is my family’s chapter.


November 2022

1947 UN Partition Plan of Mandate Palestine

Division of Mandate Palestine, 1948–2010