Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

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Before the launch of the Israeli experiment in 1948, one of its founders summarized the solution to the existing population of Palestine thus: The old ones will die, and the young ones will forget.

How is the solution progressing? Many of the old ones have died; it is true, without ever seeing their homes again, or any justice regarding their forced exile and dispossession. What about their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren?

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

Come with me on a brief tour of exile. Our first stop is Nahr al-Barid (pronounced Nahh-Ral-Ba-Red) Refugee Camp in northern Lebanon. This is the first official refugee camp that UNRWA set up for the population fleeing on foot from attacks on their homes in northern Palestine.

We are walking rather briskly through the narrow lanes marked out by the cement-block houses spaced in winding lines three feet apart. Many of the structures reach three storeys high, and a few even higher, severely filtering the sky’s generous daylight. But like the sea that reveals treasures as you dive farther from the sun’s reach, these winding lanes unfold constant scenes of well-wishing and welcome manners. “Peace upon you.” “And upon you peace. How are you today?” “Fine, praise God. God keep you and your children.” There is something about close quarters that brings out either the best or the worst in people. In a constricted passage where one hem brushes another, it is a happy thing that people make these contacts a positive opportunity. The danger of superficiality is overcome by sincerity, even if it is just a tiny portion o f humane exchange.

We knock on a metal door divided down the middle. “Please come in!” comes the response. So we push open the right panel of the door with its heart-shaped grille-work, and spill into the breadth of a tiled entrance. Proceeding to the first-floor room that constitutes the house, we shed our shoes at the threshold. One light bulb hanging from the ceiling provides plenty of light in lieu of the small window letting in a few grey rays. Brightness also comes from the cheery scene of silk flower arrangements sporting assorted colors in various corners. Here is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of three framed pictures placed in aesthetic order on the walls. Here is a red Mother’s Day card with the photo of a mother’s final farewell to her son as he departs to disable the inv asion of the homeland. “You see, Tahani? The nation is more precious than the son.”

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

Walls in homes and offices become exhibition spaces for the Palestinian flag. More than one door is made into a flag, as the proportions are perfect. The holy places of Jerusalem take myriad forms in photographs, watercolors, oils, pastels, children’s drawings, calendars, bead and shell craft creations, and are framed with flowers or adorned with a martyr postcard. If we were to stack up all of these renditions of the Dome of the Rock, they would surely make a line long enough to thread through all the alleys of the camp.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

We are taking a short drive to Baddawi Refugee Camp which has far fewer people spread over a larger area. Here the sky is bigger than the buildings. But a mural covering the entire side of a building still attracts notice, and we get a full perspective of it from the wide streets and open areas. A four-storey Palestinian flag flies in a blue sky, with a map of Palestine and the Dome of the Rock in the middle. It is signed by the Committee to Support the Resistance in Palestine. This is a delegation of Iranian artists who import their talents during brief visits, and leave colorful reminders of their support on prominent display. Another shows al-Aqsa Mosque with a flag and an armed member of the Resistance in the foreground.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet? Have their outside supporters forgotten Palestine yet?

We travel a little farther this time, and find a portrait high above a main crossroads in Ayn al-Hilwa Refugee Camp. Larger than life, Yahya Ayyash surveys the daily comings and goings, with his traditional checkered scarf/ kafiyya wrapped around his neck. He is known as “the engineer” for his technical expertise in planning explosive operations against an invader who began by attacking Palestinian civilians, and has not yet ceased. Israel annihilated him about a decade ago by using his father’s call to detonate a bomb in the mobile phone he was using. His portrait monitors the streets of the camp.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

Rain is beginning to fall rather than drizzle, so we stop at a shop with umbrellas in every size hanging from the front awning. Palestinian flags and scarves/kafiyyas and Arafat tee-shirts fill the emporium’s glass shelves. The owner is happy to display his treasures: souvenirs to take back home. Souvenirs that bring home, Palestine, to this place of exile.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

We turn into a narrow lane, like the ones in Nahr al-Barid, where the absence of sky dims our way instantly. Our guide pauses, and we halt behind him because there is not room to walk side by side. A low motorbike coming our way has stopped beside a cubby-hole sized shop at the convergence of two narrow lanes. The driver is unloading packages of chips and juice bottles from the box on the back fender. We proceed through the concrete labyrinth and turn in to an unexceptional metal doorway. The half-width stairs make it seem like a toy house, and the pink walls add to the effect. I almost expect to walk into a candy shop. The squeaky-clean walls are pink only halfway up, and white above. Now that we are on the second floor, where the stairwell opens to the sky, the enamel color glimmers more brightly.

We are welcomed with spontaneous gusto. Have they met us before? No, but we are guests of the son and thus guests of the home. “Our house includes our whole family, with apartments on three floors,” Abu Mahmoud booms. “This isn’t like your system, where a child leaves home at age eighteen, and is on their own. We remain one big family.” Their system is working in our favor, because this amazing circle of energetic smiles and immediate welcoming kisses from mother and daughters makes us feel that we must have done something to deserve it. We feel connected.

They are especially proud of Bahaa’ from their newest generation, and Abu Mahmoud quiets the ripples of conversation to spotlight Bahaa’ soloing a well-loved song of the Egyptian legend, Umm Kulthoum. This leads to more performances, and we become one swelling chorus, ultimately breaking up into laughter. Our guide announces that his father recites poetry. So Abu Mahmoud takes the family stage, with a voice to match his robust frame emphasized by an unmistakably mustard sweater. He declaims a poem that brings us to the balcony of a woman who does not yet know if she is a widow or bereaved of her son. His verses affirm her endurance in the face of attacks on Palestine and her people. He composed this in prison at Jalameh near Jenin in Galilee when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. I ask if he has a written copy. Without a break in his enthusiasm, he says, “No, I composed this orally. I am illiterate. I have lots of poems that I have composed and memorized!” He goes on to describe the attack that invaded every home in some way, and he lauds the fortitude of every family’s women.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

Written poems by literate poets include titles such as:

A sparrow from my homeland

Sleep, my child: for the martyr Muhammad Durra

Dreams of Palestine

Reading the Faces of the Suicide-Seekers

I weep for you, Palestine, yet we will return (with God’s permission)

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

A new book title is “The people are mightier than massacres,” and the last page reproduces an earlier poster: The Return of Herod. Relatives mourn 4-month-old Iman, who was killed by Israeli troops in Gaza, Palestine. It’s the return of Herod, the emperor who ordered the killing of children in Nazareth around the time of Jesus’ birth. Let the world know the truth. Forward this picture. DamascusOnline.com 2001.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

We lace through more of the network of slim alleyways. A young boy expertly steers a wheelbarrow past us, balancing a full-sized stove on it. We cannot match his pace on this uneven paving, though we have only our own bodies to balance. As we proceed single file, we hear a boy and his aunt up ahead singing a song of Palestine with a memorable refrain.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

We visit several youth centers, each of which has a group that performs music by their own songwriters. At one, we hear a rehearsal tape that sounds professional enough to be in the shops. At another, we pressure the lead singer to indulge us even though he has a sore throat. We are not surprised to learn that he has professional experience. The glue is still drying on the oud (from which we derive the word “lute”) whose pieces they lovingly patched together. Funds are few, and strings are the next step. Talent abounds and we feel the world is missing out by ignoring these voices.

They sing of:

Muhammad Durra, separate songs in Palestinian and Lebanese dialects

Our Return

Witness, World!

Don’t cry, my nation.

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

Our guide has a niece named Jenin, who was born shortly after Israel’s major invasion of Jenin in March and April, 2002. Schools and streets in these camps have been renamed Jenin. A whole crop of baby girls carry the remembrance of this injustice in their name, Jenin. A local poem comes to mind: “The harvest-grains of our exile embrace the harvest-grains of our nation.”

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

A new friend points to a martyr poster on the wall, and explains that it is her father. The attack on Iraq affected him so deeply, after witnessing decades of attacks on Palestine, that he had a heart attack. As his daughters gathered close to him at the hospital, he uttered his last words: “Don’t forget Palestine.”

Have they forgotten Palestine yet?

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