I never knew Faisal Husseini. When the news of his sudden passing came, I said a silent prayer for him and later that night I asked Natalie, my four-year-old daughter, to include him in her prayers. “Who is Faisal?” she asked. I explained that he was a very courageous Palestinian man who died. Still, the loss I felt was abstract and not personal.
Days after he passed away, I headed to Palestine, nearly nineteen years after I left my home at Dar El Tifl orphanage in Jerusalem. There, one of my first stops was to visit the orphanage to pay homage to its founder, Miss Hind. Like Faisal, Hind was from the ancient Jerusalem family, El Husseini. In 1948 she gathered the newly orphaned children of the Deir Yassin massacre where Zionist forces slaughtered over 300 civilians in their homes. With those children, who watched their parents die, Miss Hind’s home became an orphanage. With time the number of her children grew and what was once a hotel, became their dormatory.
Miss Hind never married. She dedicated her life to helping needy Palestinian children, of whom I was one. It was through my affection for her, that came to revere her family. So, on my first visit back home, I went to tour her legacy of compassion, strength, and selflessness that was richly Palestinian, Husseini, and woman.
For most of my stay at the orphanage, Miss Hind was usually traveling trying to raise money and solicit scholarships for her children. She was a larger than life figure to us. So when she sent for me one day as I was opening a can of tuna fish, I ran out right away, forgetting to wash my hands. By the time I made my way to her quarters, I was breathless with the excitement of having been ‘called upon.’ But my fishy hands presented a delimma. So when I got to the front door, I just stood there wondering how I was going to shaker her hand. She solved that problem when she opened the door and bent over to embrace me. She had heard that I was getting good grades and wanted to personally congratulate me. I don’t remember much else from the conversation. That day was inevitably colored by the smell of tuna and walking-on-air pride.
As I walked the halls of my youth guided by gracious current residents of the orphanage/school, across the street, verses from the Quran blared and people lined the streets to go into what I recalled as the Husseini ‘castle.’
That mansion had become the famous Orient House that I knew so well through the internet. The Orient House was a powerful mark of Palestinian belonging in Jerusalem. From the US, I followed the receptions of international dignitaries at that Palestinian headquarter in Jerusalem. It was an irritating thorn in Israel’s “master plan” because it established a focal point of Palestinian government in occupied East Jerusalem. Every visit by a foreign Prime Minister to that ancient Husseini mansion, was an acknowledgment of the authenticity of Palestinian Jerusalem. By definition, then, it was a repudiation of Israel’s undivided eternal and fully Judaized capital. I relished in these small pleasures, but never realized it was located at the Husseini ‘castle’ of my youth.
I walked into the aza (mourning place) to pay my respects. Pictures of Faisal were large and hung from every door. His eyes were gentle and authentic, like fine silk, and seemed to look right at me. A collage of photos were put together on a poster. Most showed him shaking hands with one dignitary or another. But two photos stood out before my eyes. In both, he was with his people in acts of defiance, and incidentally, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi was at his side in both cases. One showed the two of them, holding candles and each other as they led a candle light vigil. The other photo caught his and Hanan’s faces contorted in the physical effort of trying to rescues a Palestinian young man from the clutches of soldiers.
I never spoke to him nor heard him speak. I never stood with him in an elevator or walked with him in a march. I think I must be the only Palestinian alive who doesn’t have a real life story of Faisal. But those photos made him come alive to me. As I stood there looking at those two pictures, I walked behind him and Hanan in their candlelight demonstration and I stepped into the moments he put his own life in danger to free a Palestinian boy from the grip of soldiers. I loved him at that moment. It was then that his passing transformed from the abstract loss of a national treasure to a personal tragedy. I wept and dried my tears with the thought that he was now in Heaven’s Jerusalem with Miss Hind and his ancient Jerusalemite ancestors.
The night I asked Natalie to add Faisal to her prayers, she asked me if “the soldiers killed him.” My answer came without hesitation, but it was only before his picture, thousands of miles away from my little girl, that I understood and felt my own answer: “no honey, Faisal went to live with the angels so he can watch over Jerusalem from heaven.” I think Faisal and Miss Hind are taking Jerusalem and her children’s case to a higher court.