BOSTON — Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Lea Kayali bonded with her Palestinian grandmother by making maqluba, a traditional Palestinian dish typically consisting of meat, rice and fried vegetables.
Their time spent together in the kitchen also helped Kayali, a 24-year-old Boston-based Palestinian American activist, feel closer to the country from which her grandmother was forced to flee as a child. As a 4- or 5-year-old girl, Kayali’s grandmother fled during the 1947-1948 Nakba — or “catastrophe” in Arabic — when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes following Israel’s declaration of independence from British control of the land, which prompted the first war between Israel and Palestine.
Maqluba, the Palestinian dish, has an apt English translation: “upside-down,” which refers to how the pot in which the dish is cooked is flipped over before serving. Kayali sees it as a metaphor for the uncertainty and dispossession Palestinian people have experienced for decades.
“There’s something kind of poetically accurate about that: [Palestinians] are kind of being simmered in our culture, but then flipped upside down into this context of ongoing exile and ethnic cleansing and repression,” Kayali said.
The metaphor became material for Kayali the past few weeks, as an 11-day conflict raged between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in Palestine. More than 240 Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank — including at least 66 children — were killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, while a dozen Israelis were killed, including two children. A cease-fire, brokered by Egyptian mediators, took effect on Friday, putting an end to the latest round of violence.
Kayali kept up with the news through a combination of news reports, social media and WhatsApp group chats with fellow U.S.-based organizers standing in solidarity with Palestine. The activists’ group chats were blowing up so much — partly with plans for protests and rallies, which attracted thousands in Boston during the past two weekends — that Kayali and her friends joked that “the revolution is happening over WhatsApp.”
When news came of the cease-fire, Kayali felt some semblance of calm for the first time in weeks. And she felt like she could finally take a short break from looking at the nonstop messages coming through on her phone — before, the group chats were filled with testimonies from people in Gaza describing the sounds of bombs on their streets, she said.
“That’s really hard to peel away from,” Kayali said.
The issue has been garnering controversy in the nation’s capital, with liberal Democrats, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — the only Palestinian American member of Congress — criticizing the Biden administration’s response to the conflict.
Several prominent U.S. Jewish organizations appealed to the Biden administration to combat antisemitism after there were attacks on Jewish people across the country as the violence unfolded in the Middle East. On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) became the latest top official to condemn the violence.
Jewish Americans hold widely differing views on Israel, with party affiliation acting as a dividing line, according to data collected by the Pew Research Center before the latest round of violence.
For Kayali, her grandmother and other Palestinian refugees, the violence proves their ongoing oppression at the hands of Israeli forces — and the need to stand in solidarity and continue the long tradition of Palestinian resistance.
“It can feel like the sky is on fire all the time, but the reality is our ancestors have been resisting ethnic cleansing for 73 years,” Kayali said.
On a sunny Sunday in Somerville — a city about four miles north of Boston — Kayali addressed a crowd of more than two dozen people gathered on a patch of grass nestled between a river and a shopping center.
“What we’re doing with the [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement is we’re fortifying our resistance to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” Kayali said into a microphone. “We will not rest until Palestine is free, from the river to the sea.”
Most people there, including Kayali, were members of BDS Boston, a group of local activists promoting the Palestinian-led BDS movement, which says its mission is to urge governments and corporations to put nonviolent pressure on Israel to end its military occupation of the West Bank and the displacement of Palestinian people. The movement has risen in national consciousness with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but the House of Representatives roundly condemned the movement in 2018.
On Sunday, the group was gathered for a monthly protest of the sportswear brand Puma, the main sponsor of the Israel Football Association, which the BDS movement and Human Rights Watch claim operates on occupied Palestinian land. In 2019, more than 200 Palestinian sports clubs urged Puma to end its sponsorship of Israeli teams on settled land.
The company supplies both the Israel Football Association and — as of March — the Palestinian Football Association with branded equipment through distributors, according to Puma spokesperson Kerstin Neuber. Neuber added that neither the company nor its distributor has affiliations with football teams in Israeli settlements and that the company “does not support any political direction, political parties or governments.”
Soon after Kayali and the other organizers finished addressing the crowd on Sunday, about half the group walked two blocks to the Puma store to protest, switching places with the second half of the group about an hour later.
Outside the store, more than a dozen protesters walked in circles, holding signs emblazoned with “Boycott Puma,” passing out fact sheets to curious passersby and chanting calls for accountability.
“Women were seen as a central part of moving our movement forward for liberation,” Kayali said. “Part of liberation from colonization was also being liberated from the patriarchy.”
In Palestine, women continue to lead the fight for liberation. In Sheikh Jarrah, the Jerusalem neighborhood at the center of the most recent land dispute, Palestinian women have assumed prominent roles by refusing to leave their homes for Israeli settlers, attending residents’ meetings and monitoring the legal battle underway, according to Middle East Eye.
Kayali sees herself — and other Palestinian women organizers — standing in solidarity with Palestinian women of the past and present.
“At this moment, I feel more connected to the Palestinian community than I ever have,” Kayali said. “What to me is the most energizing is being in community with other Palestinians, particularly other Palestinian women.”
One of those women is 27-year-old Tala Berro, a co-founder of BDS Boston. Like Kayali, Berro has spent the past few weeks navigating between her identities as a Palestinian woman grieving the latest violence and an activist resisting it.
“As a Palestinian, it’s been a heartbreaking few weeks, and as an organizer, it’s been an energizing moment,” Berro said.
When waves of grief hit, Berro and Kayali have each other — and other Palestinian women organizers — to lean on. When the activists were burned out and didn’t feel like they could take on planning another protest, they told each other, Kayali said.
They also took breaks to be in community with other Palestinians: Last week, Berro and Kayali attended an outdoor dinner with fellow Boston-based Palestinians, where they ate tabbouleh, shawarma sandwiches and rice pilaf.
For Kayali, food was the foundation of her Palestinian identity as a child. Her politicization, she said, came later.
“Being Palestinian to me was going to family every two weeks and making food together and playing music,” she said. “But then learning about our political history and history of struggle, as I became a woman, was part of my maturing.”
For Kayali, that political education came in college — in part when she studied abroad at Birzeit University in the West Bank, where she took classes on Arabic and Palestinian history. And when she interviewed her grandmother and other family members for an oral history project, she learned more details of the Nakba.
This fall, Kayali will resume her academic career at Harvard Law School, where she hopes learning the law will help her envision “what justice will concretely look like in a liberated world.”
Though she’s unsure of exactly what kind of work she’ll pursue, Kayali is confident she’ll put her education to use advocating for the Palestinian people — inspired by her grandmother, whom she considers emblematic of sumud, a Palestinian concept that translates to “steadfastness.”
As Kayali put it: “To be a young Palestinian woman remembering our heritage and my people’s struggle, and insisting that we’re still here, we haven’t forgotten — to me, that’s the most core part of my identity as a Palestinian.”