My grandmother is getting old. She spends most of her days at her home. She usually disappoints us when we invite her to join in some family gathering. “I’m so achy and full of pain,” she says, “I better just stay where I am.” My brother and I decided to change our strategy with her.
Yesterday, we didn’t ask her to come with us, we just went to her place, literally picked her up, put her in the car and took her up the hill and around the corner. We took her home with us. Her unexpected visit was the extra love and warmth our family needed in the midst of war around us. You see, Grandma is our heart. Mother to 11 children and grandmother to 35, she brought us all up with dishes of lemon flavored milk and crispy pudding, magical tales and a tremendous amount of love. She personifies the importance of family to us and makes us who we are in our Arab world.
Still, our grandma is not the closeted housewife and mother image that many Westerners have of Arab women. In truth, this image as well as the patriarchal realities of the past are fading quickly as more and more Palestinian women take on both careers and families. Our grandmother and her mother before her, however, were forerunners of the modern Arab woman in our country. Grandma’s mother was widowed before grandma arrived. Granny was born in the Palestinian coastal city, Yaffa, in 1912. Four uncles attended to the family with as much care and concern as they did for their own immediate families. Nevertheless, our great-grandmother did not stay home behind veiled windows to simply enjoy privilege. She had a huge house, which she herself supported by owning and managing three stores in the port area of Yaffa. She was educated and worldly and a superb business woman. I don’t know if great-grandmother smoked, but grandma did and from the age of 14, no less. We all lament that fact, today.
In 1936, grandma, now a married woman, began to feel the pressures of life in Palestine. Our grandfather and three of her brothers were arrested for being involved in the rebellion against the British, whose mandate government controlled much of their lives at the time. Great-grandmother’s stores were closed and her stock confiscated to punish the family for the young men’s rebellious attitudes. It is not just the Israelis who use collective punishment to control the place they want to rule. The British made this practice a reality for our relatives long before 1948. The Palestinian Nakba (The Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948) effected grandma even more, though. In 1948, when the Zionists arrived, massacring people and destroying villages on the outskirts of Yaffa in order to stir fear in the hearts of the citizens of the city, grandma’s family stood helpless and without resources to resist.
They were violently forced to walk out of their house and into trucks going where they did not know. They had to leave everything behind: clothes, money, furniture, 14 dove pairs, a great jasmine tree that our grandfather planted in honor of his and granny’s wedding. The personal effects did not matter much to the family, but the idea of leaving living things like the doves and the special tree broke their hearts. Our great-grandmother died on the truck unable to physically tolerate her displacement.
The rest of the family fared better. Our grandfather, a respected teacher, did not stay in a refugee camp, but took the family to Jerusalem. There, he got a job as principle of the only school for orphans in the ancient city at the time, Dar Al-Aytam School for Boys. The family lived in a beautiful old house set high on a knoll in the Old City. We say that the house # 13 on Bab Al-Hadid housing compund sat on the roof of the Old City. Built 450 years before our grandparents moved in during the regime of the great Muslim ruler Salahiddin Al-Ayyoubi, the house proudly displayed traditional arched windows and doors. The family could stand on their little balcony and look across the tight mingling of elegant houses to the esplanade of Al-Haram Al-Sharif. The Dome of the Rock Mosque was in full view. Although my grandparents and all their children adapted and enjoyed their new home in historic Jerusalem, it was not in them to forget what they had lost or left behind, great-grandmother, the jasmine tree and the doves. They could not go back and get the tree to transplant or the doves to put into a now cote even though Yaffa wasn’t all that far away.
Then, in 1967, trauma again asserted itself into my family’s lives. Israel invaded the rest of the land we had always known as Palestine and began an occupation I have lived with my entire life. It was a dreadful transition and many of our young Palestinians reacted with furor. One of my grandmother’s teenage sons, Ghassan Kamal, an uncle I never knew, heard the news of the Zionist invasion when he was in school. He did not come home that night and my grandparents heard nothing from him or about him until September 8, 1969 when they saw his picture in a newspaper with a story saying that he was responsible for a bus bombing in West Jerusalem. He was incarcerated, three of his brothers were sent abroad into exile and our family’s glorious old house was confiscated.
This was, in effect, the beginning of an ongoing suffering for all of us. Our grandma survived. Even today she sits like one of our uprooted olive trees, roots a detached tangle, branches weeping on the ground, but dignity remaining. Our grandfather did not survive the upheaval and died soon after it was clear that he would not find his son and that his other sons were no longer content to study and spend their lives held tight in the arms of a loving family. Now, today, we sit together as Arab families do, but not in the happy circumstances that grandma grew up in. Grandma will have to stay the night because we dare not drive her home, a few blocks away, during the curfew imposed upon us.
I watch my grandma as we sit in our living room drinking rich Arabic coffee. Thoughts of the history of her life swirl through my head. I watch the twinkle in her eye as she sips her coffee with us, delighted that we have brought her to be with us. She would like the evening even more if we’d give her just one cigarette, but that won’t happen. We turn on the television to watch a special program on Palestinian refugees and the peace process.
A reporter explains various American proposals suggesting a trade. If the Israelis agree to allow refugees to come home or at least make reparation for land their military and governments have taken, surely, then, we Palestinians will return to them peace. I suggest, “They ?say’ they want peace, but act’ as if they do not care about it at all. The idea of conquering us seems quite fixed in Israeli Zionist behavior regardless of the words told to the world via television and newspapers. We sit in silence except for the drone from the television. Then, granny speaks up. “I won’t live long enough to go back to my house in Yaffa. But you, kids, do not forget our house in Yaffa. It is yours.” Still, the rest of us do not speak. We do not bring up the declarations and conventions and United Nations’ resolutions that speak of the right of return, the inalienable right of human beings to own property and to find validity in their lives through their heritage and their traditions.
We do not want to trouble granny’s dream of us going home even if she can’t. That night watching my family, I wished the world could peek in our window to see us as we really are. Surely, seeing our granny and us and her great-grandchildren running in and out of the room would make clear to the world why Palestinians resist oppression so hard.
I’m pretty sure, in the hearts of my mom and dad and brother and sisters, not to forget many beyond our immediate family, there resides a determination that our grandparents have bequeath to us. I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t worry, Grandma, we Palestinians do not trade our rights and our heritage. This determination to stay is what makes us your heirs. Yaffa, Akka, Haifa and every single Palestinian town and village remains in our minds and hearts through the stories we’ve heard from our revered elders, from you, Granny. We will not go until this time of war ends and we return to ourselves what is ours.” I went over and gave my grandma a hug.
(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)