When I came to Warsaw I wasn't happy at the prospect of studying here. Back then I dreamed about Prague. I fell in love with Prague when I visited it for the first time as a representative of Palestine in the international congress of scouts in 1982. My second visit was longer: I took a course in journalism and my love deepened not only for this beautiful city but also for my Greek friend. However, the editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine for which I worked persuaded me that it was worth going to Poland. “This country is on fire,” he said. “The Solidarity movement versus the communist government, Lech Wałęsa, an electrician from a shipyard, versus the Workers' Party, the martial law, the political and economic crisis. From the point of view of a journalist, Poland is a gold mine.” I agreed to spend a year there and later I was supposed to start studying in Prague.
The problems started just as I landed at Warsaw Okęcie Airport. I could hardly communicate with anyone. Back then few people spoke English and those who could make up two sentences in English considered themselves as heirs of Shakespeare. I immediately decided to learn Polish so that I could talk with anyone and about anything. It was a good decision, not only with regards to my career. It was a decision which deeply influenced my life.
When I got to know more about the history of Poland and Polish mentality I started to look at the events around me in a different light. I understood that Warsaw is more than just the Palace of Culture and the run-down buildings around it. I discovered that Warsaw is a city with a soul. It's true that its “face” is much uglier than of my beloved Prague but it has a real Slavic soul.
In the 90s Poland underwent great changes. I watched them from close up as a witness and a reporter. I reported on the events in Poland for several Arabic newspapers. Later I was offered a job in one of the private TV stations. My work as a reporter gave me such a knowledge of Poland and Poles which others could only dream about. I couldn't just describe problems but I had to look thoroughly for their sources. This is when I fell in love with this country. I understood why “every other generation needs to man barricades” in the tragic history of Poland, which is also the history of Warsaw.
While my love for Prague was triggered by its beautiful architecture, the reason I love Poland is the character of the people who live here. Is it human solidarity? No! There is no reason why I should feel pity for the present generation. Most of the people here are determined and incredibly ambitious. They build their future tenaciously. Modern Warsaw is completely different than Warsaw from 25 years ago. It is hospitable and its people are kind, helpful and cultured. My opinion about Warsaw people is based on my frequent contacts with them - over 90% of my friends and acquaintances are Poles belonging to various social classes.
In the summer of 2009 I reported the elections to the European Parliament for the Arabic section of Deutsche Welle. I was part of a TV crew and we were supposed to appear on the air 4 times: two times with me speaking Arabic and two times with a German reporter from Berlin speaking German. When I arrived at the place by Warsaw Central Station where we'd arranged to meet, Germans complained about drunk homeless people who had disturbed them while they had been on the air. The winos had shouted, jumped behind the reporter's back, made insulting gestures etc. When I heard that story from the crew members, those homeless people were still sitting nearby. I came up to them, said hello and asked whether they would like Poles to be considered as hooligans and drunkards. They said they wouldn't and they didn't disturb us during our next three broadcasts. In the break between broadcasts they came up to us and asked what we were reporting on and for what station. They asked how we could broadcast live from some street to audiences all over the world etc. In short, Poles don't lack honor or patriotism. Even such people, living on the margins of the society, can turn out to be completely different than we believe them to be.
When I came to Poland in the 80s, many foreigners warned me not to make friends with Poles. They claimed that 'Poles are self-seeking - if they need something from you, you are their friend but if they don't need anything, you are their enemy.' Pretty soon after my arrival I was invited to a Polish house for the first time. I wasn't rich and I had nothing to give these people except for my friendship. Today, when I am looking back, I can say that Poles helped me a lot and they gave me much more than I could offer them. They made me a member of their families. They taught me Polish language, culture and literature. They taught me Polish history, particularly the history you can't find in books. I realized that the statements I'd heard from other foreigners were untrue. I realized that they lived beside Poles, not with Poles. You can't say that you know Poland only because you live here.
The most important thing for me is that I can be myself in Poland. I am a free person living in a free, democratic country. I can say what I think and do what I want. Nobody can forbid me from doing things which are allowed by the constitution.
Foreigners often complain about bureaucracy in government offices. They get mad and they can't understand what's the deal with clerks who refuse to fulfill their requests. At some point I had the same problems as they have but today I know that government offices are not so scary. Clerks are humans too and it is possible to communicate with them successfully. You should just know the law, read a bit, look for some information. Clerks may not be right and that's why you can settle matters in the office more efficiently if you know the regulations. Bureaucracy goes both ways.
After 20 years I went to my home country finally. When I was there I noticed a peculiar way in which I talk about Poland. I say: in my country (in Poland), at my home, in my city (in Warsaw) with my friends (Poles) etc. I identify myself with Poland. I protested fiercely when someone criticized Poland not even knowing its realities. I was angry when we lost matches during the Football World Cup.
I have been traveling abroad very frequently for several years. Sometimes I fly over Warsaw on my way back to Europe. When I notice the shiny Vistula from above I feel that I am back home. My tiredness and homesickness vanish because I am already at home.
Somebody said once: 'New York is my homeland but Paris is my home.' I often say: 'Palestine is my homeland and Warsaw is my home.'
Text by: Maged Sahly
Translated by: Krystyna Szurmańska