The Long Road Home

Edna Yaghi’s Column


When I read about Saeed Hotary’s family in one of the English newspapers here in Jordan, I felt that something major was missing. I wanted to know more. I just had to see Saeed’s family. I just had to tell their story to the world.

I am not a native speaker of Arabic. This is one of my great handicaps. I call my command of the language my “survival Arabic.” I guess it served my purpose when I initially called the Hotary family and asked if I could do a story about them.

At first, Saeed’s father, Hasan Hussein Hotary seemed almost antagonistic towards me because I am American and in the beginning I spoke only in English on the phone. However, when I reassured him with, “Though I am an American, I am married to a Palestinian refugee,” his tone of voice changed.

It was agreed that whenever I found the time, I would call the Hotarys and set up an interview. So it happened. On June 17, 2001 I called the Hotary family.

I told Mr. Hotary my name when prompted and when he remembered me, he proceeded to give directions on how to get to his home. The Hotary family lives in Ruseifah, about half an hour’s drive from Amman. My daughter-in-law scribbled the directions down on a scrap of paper and we set off on our quest for the truth.

Our yellow cab sped away from the peaceful hills of Amman to the arid bluffs of Ruseifah. When we reached the end of the area our taxi was allowed to cover, we had to disembark and catch another cab that would take us to the Hotary home. We were lucky as the cab driver knew just where he was going when we told him we were looking for Hasan Hotary’s house, once we explained that Hasan is the father of Saeed. “Ah, Saeed the Shaheed,” the young driver remarked nodding his head, scrutinizing us through his rear view mirror and then proceeding up hill through the rough terrain, through narrow twisting streets until we reached our destination.

The Hotary home is located in an area of Ruseifah called Jaffar Al Taiyar, This area bears resemblance to a puna, in that it is almost treeless and windswept. It has a population of roughly 50,000, most of who are of Palestinian origin. About 10,000 of these are students.

I had expected some kind of mansion. After all, I thought, nothing but a mansion would be appropriate for Saeed’s family. But we descended from our yellow carriage onto a defile dirt alleyway and stopped in front of an unadorned gray house. We rang the bell and Saeed’s sister, a year younger than he was, hopped down a row of outside steps and invited us in. I felt like the Magi come to see the newborn king.

Once inside, we were met by Saeed’s mother. She asked us where we wanted to sit. It didn’t matter to us so we were ushered into an almost empty room containing a chair or two. One or two more chairs were brought in and we sat ourselves down. A few pictures of Saeed cause-celebre, the martyr, decorated an otherwise bare wall. He looked so young, I thought, so unimposing.

I felt so awkward as if I had intruded into the sanctity of the Hotary sanctuary. How could I begin, where should I begin? I looked at the small haggard frame of Im-Saeed. Her eyes were sad and she looked tired and worn but she braved a small smile and I humbly smiled back.

Fedah, the sister, sat beside us. After a few minutes, the lanky figure of Mr. Hotary entered. He had the same sad almond shaped eyes as his wife and daughter. He too looked tired and worn but there was a prophetic aura about him. Somehow I felt even more an intruder than ever and very uncomfortable.

But the discomfort faded when Hotary began to speak. I was no longer a stranger, but a witness to the unfolding tragedy of this family, to the tragedy of every Palestinian family.

Once he began to speak, he didn’t stop until it was time for us to leave. All a sudden, the tired eyes came alive with the fire of conviction and the passion of an earnest freedom fighter. All the time I listened to him, I felt so overwhelmed, so in awe, so ready to break down and cry. A huge lump began to grow in my throat.

The story of the Hotary family is the story of every Palestinian. They are the symbol of the Palestinian resistance and their legacy is one of pain, of tragedy, but also one of courage, persistence and perseverance.

“What kind of childhood did Saeed have?” I asked in a rather subdued voice.

“He was a quiet child. Everybody loved him,” someone answered.

“Why did he decide to go to Qalqilya if he grew up here in Jordan?” was my next question.

I am not sure who said, “Ever since he was a boy, he dreamed of going to the West Bank to live. He was very smart in school but he didn’t have the patience to finish, so he learned different jobs and finally went to Qalqilya as an electrical repairman. He did not take part in the demonstrations against the Israelis and he never even threw one stone at them.”

Why Qalqilya?

Qaqilya is located about 12 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast and is on the border between Israel and the West Bank. Before the Intifada al-Aqsa, Qaqilya was dependent on the Israeli market. A great many of the city’s skilled and unskilled labor force work in construction and agriculture as well as other sectors within Israel. The Israeli siege on Palestinian areas and the closures and sealing off of one part of Palestine from another, drastically affected the economy of Qalqilya and changed the lives of its inhabitants including the Shaheed.

Prior to his death, Saeed had been working and living in Qalqilya for 4 years. But the story begins long before this. In 1967, Saeed’s parents were forced out of their home and off the land that they had loved and tilled and that their fathers and forefathers had loved and tilled for thousands of years before them.

Hotary speaks:

“The Jews took our land away from its rightful owners and left the Palestinians with nothing. They have tried to take away our dignity also, but they cannot. How would anyone like it if another person or group of people denied them their livelihood? What would any family do if someone came and took their land and home away from them?

After the last American elections, President Bush decided to leave the solution of the present conflict up to the Israelis and Palestinians until there were a few successful attacks against the Israelis, such as the suicide bombings. It was then that America stepped in and sided with Israel.

We have been asking for help all along but the world is deaf to what we say. The only way we can make an impact is to take steps to be heard. For 55 years we have suffered. We scream, we cry and we become martyrs, but no one hears us because they don’t want to hear us. We speak to deaf people. Who can we appeal to? It is like talking to a dead person but this dead person is stronger than us all.

If you want a strong person to hear you, then you have to be stronger than that person. The only way the Palestinians can be stronger is through suicide bombings. When martyrs blow themselves up, then the Jews and Americans listen to us.

Palestinians have pressure on them from all directions. If these people are unable to support their families, to earn a living, to work their land, to send their children to school in safety, then they will explode. And what about the Palestinians in the Diaspora? If they are refugees and have nowhere to go and not enough money for their survival, what are they to do?

Every person loves his country. If someone told me that my country is a statue, I would be tempted to go and pray to it. If my family and I go to Germany or to America, would we be accepted as citizens of these countries and would we be free to live in peace and to buy land and build our homes and our fortunes?

The Jews think the older Palestinians will die out and that the next generation will forget Palestine. But this is not true. Ask any Palestinian who lives anywhere in the world where he is from and he will tell you the Palestinian city or village that he originally came from and nothing else. Our children will always say that Palestine is their country.

What is a person’s merit without a family and without a country? How much is a person worth without these things? How can we fight? We can dedicate our lives to Sabeel Allah, (for God’s cause). Otherwise, how are we going to forget all our pain?”

After Expulsion from Qalqilya

After the ’67 war and after they lost everything they had, the Hotary family came to settle in Ruseifah. At first they had no shelter. They built a room and the Hotarys all lived in it.

Waiting for Israeli Withdrawal Like Waiting for Godot

“We went to many different places, to Libya, Kuwait and Iraq. We slept in the streets. Finally we opened a small grocery where we are now.

It was not that we had an option to leave. We had no choice. We were forced to abandon our home and our land. Once a Jew asked me where I was from. I told him that I am from Occupied Palestine. “No,” he said shaking his head negatively, “say you are from the area of the Jews.”

The last time I saw my son alive was in Ramadan when I went for a visit to the West Bank. I witnessed the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. In wording, it is a difference between two prepositions, in and from. For example, the Jews say, “We have pulled out from Area A.” or, “We have pulled out in Area A.” These two prepositions make a lot of difference. When you pull out from an area, it means you are no longer there, but when you pull out in an area, it merely means repositioning tanks and troops. This is what the Israelis do. They merely change the position of their troops and tanks a few inches so it will be so easy for them to drive themselves right back and so they can claim they withdrew their forces.

The Israelis also dig ditches around Palestinian areas to cut them off from one another and from the outside world. Because of this, the Palestinians have to travel on foot around these ditches. Traveling in this way makes it more dangerous than confronting Israeli soldiers because Palestinians become easy targets for Israeli settlers to shoot at them while they are trying to pass from one area to another.”

The Hotary Badge of Courage

“You ask me if I am worried that my older son who still lives in the West Bank will one day blow himself up too. All I can answer is that whatever God wants to happen will. Yes, my son Saeed died as a martyr. But every Palestinian who dies as a martyr is our son. All the people’s children are our children and we are all responsible for one another. Everyone is important to us and every martyr who dies is as important to us as our son. If you ask my youngest son what he wants to be when he grows up, he will tell you that he wants to be a suicide bomber.

I am not asking for something that is not mine. I am asking for my rights as a Palestinian and as a person who was forced into the Diaspora. One thing that is of prime importance is that we do not fear death. Muslims are not afraid to die for what they believe in.

Jihad is Sabeel Allah and Fared (compulsory) for us in Islam. Our souls are an Amaneh (trust) from God. We die when He wants us to. Our lives like our money are a trust from God and God takes either or both away from us whenever He chooses.

The best way to die is to die as a Shaheed.”

Epilogue-Looking Back

All the time Hotary was talking, I was glad that I controlled my emotions and did not shed one tear. When he finished and it was time to leave, I felt as if I was leaving dear members of my family. My daughter-in-law and I said good-bye and we left as gracefully as possible. We walked down the dirt alleyway and from there descended to the paved street in the distance. We were lucky to flag down a cab driver who agreed to take us all the way back to Amman. He took us a different direction than the one we had come. Some distance from where the Hotary’s live, we saw trees and vegetation on the hills leading back into Amman.

Once home, I went about the normal routine of what needed to be done, but Hotary’s face and the faces of his family haunted me and I could not get them out of my mind. I kept thinking that once during his discourse, Hotary stopped talking, looked at me and asked me, “Why do you write about the Palestinians if you are an American?”

I was too stunned by all that Hotary had spoken about. I felt dumbfounded and didn’t know exactly what to say so my daughter-in-law responded instead of me saying, “Each person does whatever he or she can. Some throw stones, some are activists, some give speeches, some write. Writing is how she contributes to the Palestinian cause.”

Hotary then turned to me again and eloquently thanked me for writing. He thanked me for doing so little when he had lost his son and his loss is the ultimate sacrifice. Every time I remember his last question to me and how he was appreciative of my efforts, I start crying the tears that I had to control during my visit.

Thus ends my story about Saeed’s family. But it is not just their story. They are the symbol of martyrdom and the essence of the Palestinian tragedy that has been ongoing for 53 years. Saeed’s sacrifice is the personification of the Palestinian struggle.

He is home at last and he has gone to a far far better place than he has ever been before.