Hunting for a Beginning
Many things could have turned out differently, had the crime not been committed. Had my parents not been forced to give up their house, in Majdal Askalan, so that it could become a sanctuary for a killer fleeing the revenge of his victim's family, we could have continued living our ordinary lives there. Perhaps my grandfather would not have had to spend a large part of his life’s savings on court fees, trying to save his nephew, Jabir Salama, from being punished for the crime that he had committed. My mother would not have had to give up her home and move away leaving her bitter-sweet memories, her gentle dreams flung over her bed. My father would not have left, heartbrokenly sad to move into a stranger's house.
On the other hand – and this is a possibility which we cannot discount – we could have all been killed. One of the strikes by the Jewish Air Force flattened our house. My father, my mother, the baby she had been carrying for the past two months, and me, would all have been pulverised, had we not left it. We would have been turned into human detritus, covered with soil and dust, with congealed blood scattered amongst piles of stones. We would have been buried without shrouds or funeral rites; we wouldn't even have had Qurantic verses recited for our souls.
As for Jabir-the killer, he placed himself outside the equation. Meanwhile my mother was fuming as she complied with my grandfather's request to pack up what she could of her belongings and leave straight away. ‘What rotten luck, Jabir does the deed and we have to pay the price.’
In the end, Jabir took his family and secretly left the town.
All this and more could have happened, but the war settled the matter and denied all possibilities, leaving only true events. The air strikes, which hit the town and its environs from April 1948, turned our house and half the town into rubble. What the planes did not destroy, the Jewish Organisations seized after the town fell on November the fifth. Those who had not already escaped before the fall of the town, fled afterwards. Those who were not killed during all this were killed during another war or a massacre, forming a bridge made of corpses and victims spanning two wars. Those who survived from that time lived through some or all that I have lived through.
Here I am in London, middle aged leaving through the doors of exile only to continue in exile. Fifty years after that war and I'm still trying to vanquish the phantom of refuge which has been with me since I was a three-year-old.
I stood on platform four at Richmond Station waiting for the Woolwich train to arrive. I take this train every day on my way to work at APTN Headquarter in Camden Town. I had been there for more than half an hour during which time more than one train had been cancelled or delayed. That's nothing new, cancellations and delays had become the norm for South West London trains. They wasted no time in informing the passengers in question through the public address system, however. The passengers for their part did not catch any of the messages except the word 'cancelled'.
That is exactly what happened today. The PA system came to life with its familiar chime, which could be heard even from outside the station – 'DING DONG'. Everyone's ears pointed in the direction of the loudspeakers. Within seconds, the air was filled with unrestrained reactions, some started effing and blinding as they rushed to the Underground entrance on the other side of the station. Others left the station altogether cursing and swearing in clear and concise English. As for me, I was still not satisfied, so I made a salad of curses and swear words, which I had gathered from other cities of the Diaspora.
The PA rang out again, this time announcing the arrival of the Woolwich train on platform four. I climbed into the last carriage and quietly took a window seat. A few minutes later, as the train left the station normally, a vague feeling of unease washed over me.
Just as the train left the suburbs and gathered speed, my father's phantom appeared from a distant memory, crossing the time span since his death. He dropped on me, a corpse wrapped in a white sheet, just as my mother saw thirty-eight years ago. Then, she said that she had seen small drops of blood congealed on his left hip and for months after his death, she behaved like a mad woman. She kept asking over and over again, questions doomed to tragedy and eternal bewilderment: ‘Why did Khalil die? God, why did you let him die?’
Looking at my father's corpse, which I was not allowed to see on the day he died, I took a pen and paper out of my briefcase. I found myself writing: 'My father has died. He died just after finishing his thirty-fourth year. Sa'eed came to my classroom in the Khan Younis Secondary School in the Gaza Strip to tell me. I felt the ground shaking the walls of the refugee camp. I saw the camp rise up to the sky. I saw the sky weeping for my father. I bent my head against the wall and burst into tears as my father's white coffin disappeared into the distance.'
It wasn't until I finished writing this final sentence that I laid my pen on top of the paper, on my lap.
I whispered silently , Here is the beginning I should start with: ‘My Father died .’ I did not feel convinced. I thought, I am copying Albert Camus in The Stranger ‘Maman died today ...’ Or, the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury in Bab Ashams ‘Um Hassan died...’
I took a deep breath, and through tear-filled eyes, looked out of the window. There were fields shimmering in the distance and trees, which I had never seen before, running, panting in front of my eyes. I felt confused… I had never seen this view before and I did not recognise the trees. Had I boarded the wrong train? Was it taking me to places unknown? Oh my God! It couldn’t be. The Woolwich train might change everything except its platform. It always stopped at platforms four or five. I thought back. I was afraid that I had stood on another platform. The train started to slow down and eventually stopped. Opposite the window through which I was still looking, there was a blue sign fixed to the ground that informed me in white letters that I had reached Dalston. The train had gone beyond Camden Road Station, where I hoped to get off.
I grabbed my pen, gathered my papers, and stuffed them into my briefcase. I dried my tears, left the train hurriedly, and crossed over to the other side to wait for the train that would take me back to Camden Road.
When I got to my station, I hurriedly left the train and joined the throng of people running as if pursued like the Palestinians during the Catastrophe of 1948, known as “Nakba“. We moved towards the well-known Camden Town Underground Station. When I reached it I crossed its two exits, leaving behind young people, idly lounging at corners, their bodies leaning against the walls as if supported by legs that did not belong to them; exchanging languid kisses left over from the previous night's party.
I turned right and tried to cross the road, but a wailing siren of a white police car stopped me short. The car sped towards Camden Lock, but everyone ignored it, no one bothered about a problem, which was not his concern.
Even Delroy, the old Jamaican, whom I called 'the weekend dancer', did not stop dancing in front of the small sandwich shop, or drinking from a can dangling from his hand. He continued to sway and move gracefully to the reggae beat, which came from a music box placed near the wall, providing a soundtrack to the surrealistic scenes unfolding before him.
I crossed the road and passed the traffic lights, studying the glum faces on this rare sunny morning. I passed groups of punks almost disappearing into clumpy black high-topped boots decorated with silver rings.
I crossed the small concrete bridge at Camden Lock and turned at the corner into my workplace. I think I glimpsed two young men sitting close together at a side table in an espresso café. Did they exchange a quick kiss as I passed and I had not noticed? Did it really happen? I shrugged and pursed my lips. This did not interest me any more. However, I might have said, ‘It's a free country and homosexuals have the right to live in this “Butt Democracy”.’
I came home in the evening after an ordinary day at work. However, my father's death in all its details, which I had written down on the train, preoccupied me. It was as if he had not been buried in Khan Younis Cemetery in the Gaza Strip; it was as if the al-Madhoun family had not accepted condolences for his loss thirty-eight years ago.
I spent the evening turning the pages of a book, the second volume in a series entitled “The Demolished Villages of Palestine.” This was a socio-historical study on Majdal Askalan published by the Centre of Research and Documentation at Bier Zeit University in the West Bank, Palestine.
I flicked through the pictures in the book, which were taken of the town centre more than thirty-six years after it had fallen to the Jewish Organisations in 1948. One in particular caught my eyes. It depicted a unique view of the town centre, where I found my self standing, a child at age three, surrounding by a cemetery of history remains under clouds of calamity. I heard calls to prayer from the mosque, where no worshippers or Quranic verses read, mourning in the air. I noticed that the nearby cellars, which overlook the main street, have become a restaurant, a bar, and several shops for the Sephardic Jews. I found out that the café of Ali Muhssin, Abu Ghosheh's small mosque ,the Girls' School, and the Town Hall which the last mayor, Sayyed Abu Sharekh, left in 1948, never to return , all gone. Moreover, Shrines, tombs, houses, cafes and shops, all were reduced to rubble, empty of characters or features.
I moved out of the picture and Shook off the years dust, which pertained in my memory. I leafed through the pages: here is my family tree, long-lived and generous as a Palestinian olives tree; tens of branches extend over 15 pages. I traced most of its branches down toward the roots, which spread to my grandfather, Shaheen, six generations back. A few hundred years ago, his father emigrated from Madhoun Mountain near the town of Ta'ef in the Arabian Peninsula, and came near Askalan where he settled with his family group near Rumyeh Well. He joined the remnants of the Askalanis who had left their village after its occupation by the Crusaders. I climbed up toward the branch which had surrendered it’s name to me.
Raba’i (Grand father-4th generations back),
Muhammed (Grand father-3rd generations back),
Mahmoud (Grand father-2nd generations back),
Salim (Grand father):
Daloul (Aunt, married to Haj Hussein amassy),
Mahmoud (Uncle, married to Dalloul Al-Madhoun),
O’Leem (Uncle, married to Haneyya Al- Madhoun),
Khalil ( father, married to Latifa Al-Madhoun):
Here I am Raba’i, the first leaf on my father‘s family branch; next to me to the right my brother Rassim, to the left my sister Rehab.
I landed off the family tree and walked out of the pages overcoming most of my unease.
I put the book aside, and thought back:, My father begot me once but I will beget him twice. I will give him some of my history so he can live again. First, my father lived as my father. Second, he will live in the story lines. My father will return to live again. Now he will live in the language among the alphabet. Language is a being full of life. My father will be a language and a being.
I carried on writing, the beginning I was looking for, far removed from death, unlike Albert Camus, and Elias Khoury, since my father became alive as a language and a being.
The Taste of Separation
The Memoirs of Three Generations of Palestinians
Ever since Khalil left his boyhood and entered manhood, he had loved Latifa the daughter of Nasrallah al-Madhoun, the travelling fabric seller. When he reached eighteen and thought of marrying her, he did not dare broach the subject with his father, Salim. He confided his shy feelings to his eldest brother Mahmoud, and whispered a few words to his second brother O'leem, who could not keep the secret for long. In a moment of weakness, O'leem whispered the secret to his father. He might have done that maliciously to pre-empt his brother Mahmoud, and also to fulfil Khalil's wishes.
However, when Salim heard this, he decided to nip the whole business in the bud and prevent whispers becoming rumours climbing the walls of discussions and arguments, ringing of scandal, about a silent forbidden love, which had not even been expressed.
That morning everyone left the house. Mahmoud's wife Dalloul and Haniyyah O'leem’s wife went together to the vegetable souq in the town centre. O'leem went to bring cotton thread from the house of Haj Hussein Amassy, his brother-in-law. As for Khalil, he went out early to work at the English Civilian Camp near the town of Fallujah. Only Mahmoud and his father were left at home. Mahmoud immediately started working on his loom in the weaving hall. Salim decided that the time was right. He stubbed out a hand-rolled cigarette in a pottery saucer near him. He got up from the wicker chair that had only known his behind and made his way to the weaving hall on the right side of the large house. He passed the palm tree of Sheikh Muhammad, his grandfather, who it was said, had planted the tree towards the end of his life and had died without ever tasting its fruit.
As Salim sauntered into the weaving hall, Mahmoud stopped working, out of respect for his father. Salim walked down the right side of the wooden loom to stand on Mahmoud's left. He perched half of his dry buttocks on the edge of the loom leaving the other half dangling so that his visit would not be long. He looked at Mahmoud who was surprised at the sudden visit and said,
‘Mahmoud, listen my son. Your brother Khalil has become a man and we have to find him a suitable well-brought up girl to help him settle down, so his eyes won't roam over other people's daughters. I have happily seen you and Oleem, may God grant him happiness, married. Only Khalil is left.’
Shyly, Mahmoud asked his father, ‘Do you have anyone particular in mind,
Salim threw the ball back into Mahmoud's court.‘What do you think of Latifa, Nasrallah's daughter? Do you think Khalil would like her?’
Mahmoud was flustered and tried to cover this by snipping away at bits of thread
dangling from the edges of the cloth in front of him. ‘Latifa is a nice girl. She's also pretty. I'm sure Khalil will like her. However, the decision is yours Father .’
‘Right then, with God's blessing so be it. I'm going to ask for her hand in
marriage for him tomorrow. The sooner, the better.’
Clearing his throat, Salim stood and stretched his short body which only just cleared the top of the wooden loom. He left with a smile playing on his lips. Mahmoud recognised the significance of the smile but that did not diminish his happiness. He went back to filling the big house with the sounds of his loom – Tchjak om jim Tak… Tchjak om jim Tak – and singing ,
Inside your heart you drew her name
far from rumours and gossip’s flame
Love is forbidden love is a shame
Get a halal marriage get right your aim
Tchjak om jim Tak… Tchjak om jim Tak.
I watched Salim as he went to Nasrallah's house, at the other end of the neighbourhood, to ask for the hand of his daughter Latifa for his son Khalil. I watched how a broad smile spread across Nasrallah's face and his blue eyes lit up with happiness dancing like the waves of Askalan Sea. I saw Latifa and Khalil swimming in the sea of his eyes.
‘You want Latifa for Khalil? You are most welcome! Khalil is like my elder son Abdul Fattah and his brothers. At any rate, he and Abdel Fattah are inseparable. We won't find anyone better than Khalil. With God's blessing, so be it.’
Khalil and Latifa were married at the big family house. Salim had two houses. He kept the big one for the rest of the family and prepared the small house for the newlyweds. The bride's father furnished the whole house after he had received the full dowry of three hundred Palestinian Guineas from the groom's father. It was a high dowry like those of all the Majdal girls. The people of Majdal were wealthy, their town didn't know unemployment. Whoever could not find employment, worked in the hand-weaving textile industry which ‘even if it did not bring riches, at least it kept the wolf away from the door’ as they say. Khalil bought his bride six pieces of gold jewellery to wear on special occasions.
The wedding day fell sunny and bright like a wedding dress. Latifa made preparations for her wedding night: painted her hands with henna, put kohl on her eyelashes, a golden necklace around her neck, bracelet around her wrists, and wore her wedding dress. During this time, her mother Halimeh, finished folding Latifa’s new clothes and finery. she packed them in a wooden chest inlaid with silver; on top of all she kept the newly black traditional Majdali’s dress known as Janna o’nar- a name came from it’s two longitudinal green and red lines point for paradise and hell. Once the pride became ready, Halimeh sent up a piercing trill of joy announcing the start of the wedding. The women of al-Madhoun outside the room, answered with trills, which filled the air with joy, and they sang:
‘Who marries Latifa; is over the moooooooon
His first born will come to us sooooooooooon
We’ll rejoice for his birth, Son of Madhoun.’
The sun sank shyly into the Askalan Sea and the Madhouns started getting ready for the party of a lifetime. They celebrated Khalil and Latifa's wedding – the women at the big house and the men at the family Diwan in the centre of the neighbourhood.
Suddenly, their preparations were disrupted by sharp screams, which rent the air. It soon became clear that the screams came from the house of Sa'eed Salha. His three-year-old son Hassan, the bride’s cousin, had fallen down the concrete stairwell and died. The news spread through the town like wildfire and all hell broke loose. The Madhouns had a choice. They could either respect the sorrows of Sa'eed Salha's family over and above Khalil and Latifa's wedding for forty days, as was the custom, and the couple would get married silently; or they could spread the joy of the newlyweds over the coffin of sorrow of Sa'eed Salha and his wife Amna, thereby mortally offending them and all the members of the Salha family who live in the Madhoun Quarter.
Nasrallah, who were with other men in the family Diwan, propelled Salim by the arm to the entrance of the hall, and said, ‘Let's postpone the wedding for forty days as is the custom.’
‘Listen Nasrallah,’ Salim replied, ‘We have made all the preparations and the guests are almost here. We can't send them back home and say, “Sorry, the wedding's been cancelled”. Granted, Sa'eed Salha is a distant relative, but he isn't part of our family and we are not bound by his sorrow and joy.’
Nasrallah was livid. I've always known that he had a short fuse and it never needed much for him to lose his temper.
‘Allahu Akbar, Salim! Either you are insane, or I am losing it! You want me to celebrate my daughter's wedding on the same day my nefew died?’
Salim rushed in to settle the matter with even greater anger, ‘I swear to God I will divorce my wife if the wedding is postponed!’
Nasrallah stormed out of the house swearing and muttering: ‘Who are you fooling? You swear you will divorce your wife and she is dead? It's a sin man…a sin’.
Latifa was married to Khalil quickly and quietly. There were no songs or trills of joy. That night, she cried herself to sleep.
It was noon one day in April 1945 – let's say the 14th, until I can verify the date. I heard my first cry announcing to the Madhoun Quarter, my arrival in the world. I heard the voice of Fatima al-Khatib the midwife, giving a trill of joy and saying: ‘It's a boy Latifa. Congratulations. Oh my God, isn't he beautiful? His face is all rosy and white just like the moon.’
Before I fell asleep I had my first silent and cynical laugh. I was not as the midwife described. It was only traditional etiquette that placed me on the moon of beauty. Maybe Fatma’s greed for a higher fee made her beautify my features.
Whenever my mother would later describe me she would say, ‘When you were born you were a dried up, scrawny, skinny thing, just like a worm. Even your father said when he first saw you: ‘Good God! Who does this boy take after?’
I was woken up by a trill of joy which rang out like a silver anklet. I thought: This must be Rukayyeh, Jabir's mother and my father's paternal aunt who is so joyfully trilling for me. This is the trill that she launches from the right side of her mouth as if her tongue is flapping with one wing.
"Aaayeee congratulations… you've got a booooooy
Aaayeeee I hope he grows up under your suuuuuuun
Aaayeeee May he find happiness along his waaaaay
Aaayeee Be Joyful Khalil…my precious one"
She came into the room filling it with congratulations and sat on the bed next to my mother, who sat up, turned and asked Rukayyeh to pass me over to her.
Rukayya did, taking me tenderly in her arms saying: ‘God love you and keep you safe, my darling’, and passing me to my mother, a lump of meat in swaddles. My mother took me tenderly and hugged me. She raised me up to her face, looked deeply into my eyes and kissed me. She then laid me next to her on the bed where I went to sleep.
I woke up, this time being cuddled in the arms of my Aunty Dalloul, to a lot of whispering.
‘What are you going to call him? Now then, what are you going to call him?’
‘Raba'i, after his grandfather four generations back,’ my father answered, approaching as if walking on air. The whispers turned into congratulations and trills of joy. From that moment on Khalil became known as Abu Raba'i (Father of Raba'i) and young Latifa, Umm Raba'i (Mother of Raba'i).
I grew up . I stopped being skinny, and left the worm stage. I started running around the small courtyard. One morning, my mother went into the kitchen to prepare lunch for my father who was at work, and left me to play in the courtyard. I toddled on short legs to the front door, and lifted my right foot trying to step over the threshold. I tripped and fell, filling the house with my screams.
My mother rushed to me and scooped me up in her arms, ‘God bless you and protect you from evil.’
I stopped crying. My mother stepped over the threshold and sat me on her lap on the third marble step in front of the door. Suddenly, we heard a drone of approaching aircraft. My mother was scared , she put me down and stood up. She then picked me up in her arms. Just as she turned to go back inside, we heard the sound of a large explosion that shook the whole area, flinging us back across the threshold. We were lucky not to be hurt although we fell on the ground from the impact. It was a keg of gunpowder that a Jewish fighter plane had dropped on a house at the end of the street, setting it alight. Putting me down, my mother turned to look at the fire, from the door.
‘My Aunt Amna's house is gone. The keg of gunpowder has fallen on it. My Aunt and her family are gone. Goddamn the Jews gangs and the day that they came here,’ she cried wiping her tears with the corner of her veil.
Later, my mother found out that no-one from the Sa'eed Salha family had been killed. They were all out when the air raid took place.
After that day, we didn't stay long in the house. We were forced to move into rented property because of a crime committed by Jabir Salameh, my fathers cousin.
Eighteen-year-old Jabir, was working as usual at his loom in the weaving hall, next to Ahmad al-Madhoun, my mother's uncle, when his fifteen-year-old sister Mariam, rushed into the hall, crying and wailing.
‘Help Jabir, while I was coming from the vineyard, Jawad Qassem waylaid me and started flirting with me.’
Jabir, livid by what his sister had just told him, jumped from behind the loom and cried sharply: ‘Did you tell him off?’
‘I swore at him, spat at him and threw sand in his face,’ the girl answered shyly.
A wave of outrage coursed through Jabir and he started to shake. He thought, guessed and imagined Jawad sitting at a table in the café of Ali Muhsen in the town centre, while a group of lads sat around him listening to his stories about what happened between him and Mariam, thereby besmirching his honour and that of the Salamah’s family. He thumped the loom with his hand, grabbed his coat and put it on hastily. He jammed his white kaffieh and oqal (black head rope) on his head, and then he grabbed the hunting gun, which he kept in a corner under a huge spool of thread, and started for the door.
Ahmad grabbed him crying, ‘Calm down Jabir . Be sensible. Let me go and see Jawad and talk to him calmly and tell him off so he won't do it again .’
‘Let go of me Ahmad. Do it again or not my blood is boiling and I am seeing red. This is my sister and my honour you are talking about here. I won't be Jabir al-Sheikh Salameh if I did not teach that guy a lesson ,’ he shouted and rushed out.
Mariam went home heavily weighed down by the burden of an anxiety too much for someone of her tender years to bear.
A sound of a shot rang out, shattering the silence of midday in Majdal, only to be immediately followed by another which echoed throughout the town. Large flocks of pigeons took off from walls and rooftops, the sparrows fled in all directions in a panic . Far in the orchards dogs started barking madly. The shop owners in the souq hastened to close up their shops. In the central mosque, the faithful ended their prayers quickly - some did not even have the chance to pick up the shoes they had placed in a corner by the door. People fled to their homes. Pedestrians disappeared from the streets. The patrons of the City Café left their places in a hurry and Majdal Askalan was deserted at high noon. No doubt, the general impression at that moment, was that it must be an attack by armed Jewish settlers from the nearby settlement of Nigba. This was in keeping with the news of increasing attacks by the Hagannah, Stern Leahy and Etsel Jewish Gangs, on the districts surrounding Jaffa, Haifa, Safad and Jerusalem.
It wasn't that at all. Jawad Qassem dropped dead in front of the weaving hall where he worked, after being hit by a bullet from Jabir's shotgun. Jabir stood stunned, looking stupidly and fearfully at the blood-soaked corpse. The bitter truth dawned on him. He had killed Jawad Qassem in a moment of rage. He turned and ran home. When he got there, he was surprised to find his mother Rukayyeh on her way out to the weaving hall with a basketful of bobbins hanging from her arm. It never occurred to her that Jabir would have left the hall earlier. Her daughter Mariam did not dare to try and stop her from going, in case she found out what had happened earlier when she, Mariam had gone complaining to her brother. Jabir burst through the door still holding his rifle. He was flushed and his eyes were brimming with tears. With a sinking heart Ruqiyyeh stopped him at the internal door.
She turned to him and said with surprise, ‘What's the matter son? What brought you home so early? Why is the gun in your hand? Don't tell me it was you who fired those shots we heard? No Jabir…. No, don't tell me…Oh my God no!’
Jabir flung himself in his mother's arms and said in a quaking voice, ‘Ma, I shot Jawad Qassem and he shot me’.
The basket clattered to the floor, bobbins scattering everywhere, unravelling their fine yarn. The arm that had been holding the basket curved itself protectively around Rukayyeh's body as she sagged against the threshold. Jabir pushed the door behind him, flung the gun aside and dropped to his knees in front of his mother who was hitting her face wailing and lamenting her bad luck.
Jabir pleaded, ‘Ma, I swear to God I don't know what happened. Jawad Qassem drew his gun all of a sudden, and shot at me and I found myself shooting back. Forgive me Ma, forgive me!’
Rukayyeh pushed him away gently and looked deeply onto his eyes. Then she wiped her tears with the hem of her veil and said, ‘God bless you son. Now, go immediately to the police station and give yourself up. Go now before the police come and arrest you.’
Jabir got up, picked up his rifle with a trembling hand and left the house. He gave himself up with the gun that had killed Jawad. He did what his mother had advised. That night, the whole town stayed up into the early hours of the morning going over the details of what had happened.
Jabir left prison less than two months later having been found innocent of premeditated murder. The Court imposed a fine on him which his uncle, my grandfather, Salim undertook to pay.
Shock and rumours flew among the ten thousand residents of Majdal Askalan.
They said, ‘Al-Madhouns, the relatives of Jabir, have bribed some officers of the Court.’
‘The Court of Justice is impartial. The people who work there are honest and cannot be bribed.’
‘The Court has covered it up because the relatives of the killer are the biggest family in town.’
‘The country is in a state of chaos. It is governed by the British who don't give a damn anyway, about what happens here.’
‘If it had been a Jew who had died, the British would have turned the whole town upside down and would have arrested half the young men.’
‘When the Jews in the Nigba settlement heard the news, they danced with glee saying, 'A goyim has killed a goyim.’
‘What can you say? Honour is precious and nobody can tolerate its besmirching. Jabir defended his sister's honour and his own.’
On the eve of his nephew's release, my grandfather came and presented my father with a decision he could not refuse.
‘Listen son, I have just come from the house of your aunt Rukayya. Your cousin descended on me with his mother and sister. He said, "Uncle, I throw myself at your mercy. I will never be able to leave our house in the Libbad Quarter. I'm scared that Qassem's sons will avenge themselves by killing me. I am innocent Uncle, the Court has ruled in my favour." And then Rukayyeh begged me to bring them here, the sooner the better. I have agreed. I am going to give your brothers Mahmoud and O'leem a gun each and take them with me. We're going to bring the folks here when it gets dark, so they can live in your house temporarily, until things get sorted.’
My father, torn up inside, said nothing.
My mother whispered, ‘What rotten luck, Jabir does the deed and we have to pay the price. I have to leave my house and home, and be displaced with my husband and child, for the sake of the son of Salamah. This is unacceptable.’
‘Latifa, did you say something?’ asked my grandfather, pacing angrily.
‘What can I say? I'm just praying that things will soon calm down.’
‘Right, so it is agreed then,’ said grandfather, and continued authoritatively, ‘Pack up what you can and take it with you. Go to Haja Khadija al-Hallaq. Before I came here, I rented one of her houses for you.’
My father carried a few hastily gathered things. My mother closed the door behind her, leaving everything - the mattresses, clothes, enamel plates, kitchen utensils, her make-up, lipstick, face powder, the brass kohl bottle, the wide-toothed ivory comb, her silk shawls, her gentle dreams flung on her bed next to her bitter-sweet memories. She only took with her, her gold jewellery that she wore round her neck and arms.
She followed my father, carrying me in her arms, and they made their way to their new home, under a sky overcast with the clouds of a war creeping over all of Palestine.
The Doors of Nakba
The house of Haja Khadijeh was not at all bad. On the contrary, it could have provided my father with the happiness and contentment he craved. The house itself was big – twice the size of our old house. It had two spacious bedrooms, a kitchen and a Turkish bathroom. On the roof there was a pergola which was built over one of the bedrooms. It was surrounded by a metre-high fence, on which rose a wooden trellis. The roof of the pergola was made of wood, reeds and stripped palm branches. It was a wonderful place for a deep and quiet siesta on sultry summer afternoons. On the outside, a wall made of white limestone surrounded the house.
On the eastern side of the house, near the front door which, like the rest of the doors and woodwork, was painted green, an oleander draped itself over the wall. All through the summer its purple flowers spread free smiles to those who came to the house and to passers-by. Inside, in the centre of the house, there was a seasonal lemon tree, which bore fruit almost all year round; the scent of its flowers was always present.
My father quickly furnished the house, with my grandfather helping him to try to make up for all we had lost in the old house. As for me, I found the ideal space for my ever-growing steps and for playing in the front yard.
But the subsequent days were not bright like the fence or sweet like the smell of lemons. The future did not happen, as my father would have wished. It came charged with tension, which woke up the townspeople and they never slept again.
Less than a week after our compulsory move to the new house, the Jewish Haganah organization, launched the first offensive of its campaign Toukhnit Dalet (Plan Dalet), which led to armed conflict spreading all over Palestine.
The bells of nakba began to toll and knock on everybody’s door, but did not reach the doors of the Askalanis and those of the southern part of Palestine, until the British Mandate Athority started to reduce her military and civilian presence in Palestine, for the first time since it's establishment in 1919, and to dismantle some of their camps. This included the camp where my father worked in the administration department. Therefore, my father lost his job. The Nakba start to knock heavily at our door.
My father rented a café on the main street in the centre of the town, which he managed with his relative Mahmoud Dubbok al-Madhoun. The café became a meeting place for political discussions and for the exchange of news of the war. The Philips radio in the café, which looked like a box of cucumbers, sends out happy programmes and songs, stopped even recognising the waves on which they were transmitted, in favour of an either which only broadcast sadness and anxiety.
The news, which the customers of the café intently listened to, was burdened with the corpses of the dead, the fire and smoke, which rose from the Palestinian towns and villages overtaken by small wars. Some villages slept to disaster while others woke up to defeat. Meanwhile, Majdal Askalan put its fear-laden head on its shore, covered itself with its weaving, and slept towards an unknown tomorrow.
In the evenings, upon my father’s return, my mother would hear from him only stories of the war, something she could not bear at her young age.
She covered her fear by sending up a prayer. ‘Oh God, please calm things down and give us some relief.’
In addition, she would hide the loneliness that she felt all day even when my father was with her. It was as if I was useless at entertaining her and keeping her busy. This might have been because she had become preoccupied with him who would soon be the latest addition to the family. The foetus had already started growing in her stomach. She got to know his size through touch. He was in his fourth month. She felt him kicking against her uterus sometimes as if to wake her up so she could chat with him. She chatted to him just as she did to me and vice versa.
She would say things that I did not understand. ‘I’m scared of having this baby during the war. Where would I go with the two of you if the war ever reached Majdal ASkalan?’
On the afternoon of 14th May 1948, the Jewish leader David Ben-Gurion stood in front of the commanders of the "People’s Council", who had met in Haifa Museum, and declared the start of the celebrations for the foundation of the Jewish State.
He read out the proclamation of independence. ‘We hereby proclaim the founding
of the Jewish State in Palestine under the name Madinat Yisrael (State of Israel).’
The commanders sang Hatikvah (The Hope). At one minute past daybreak on the 15th of May, the Independence of Israel was formally announced. Barely ten minutes later, the United States, through its president Harry Truman, was the first country to declare its recognition of the State of Israel. Britain completed the withdrawal of its troops, thereby ending its mandate over Palestine and opening the door to the first Arab-Israeli war. A black shadow of sadness covered palestine, from the river of Jordan in the east to the miditerranian sea in the west, from the north border to the Negev in the south, meanwhile the news of the advance of the Egyptian Army, from the south towards Gaza, was all that people had talked about in the past few days.
My uncle O’leem came running to my father’s café at midday the 16th of May . He stopped in the doorway to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his brow before imparting his news of happiness to come.
He gasped, lisping, ‘Hey, everybody. The Egypthian forces have reathed the outthkirt
of the town .’
All those in the café, including my father, rushed to the door and surrounded my uncle who continued, after catching his breath.
‘The Egypthians have landed on the theathore and will get here soon .’
The guys broke into applause.
Mahmoud Dubbouk, who was standing between my father and his brother O'leem whispered in my father's ear, ‘Khalil, didn’t I tell you the Arabs are going to fight the Jews?’
‘You think they’ll be able to defeat them ?’
‘I am sure they will,’ answered Mahmoud and added, ‘I heard today that the Arab league army, representing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, are crossing the borders from the north.’
Two hours later that afternoon, the rumble of the Egyptian armoured cars was heard clearly in the town. The joyful news spread among the townspeople like wildfire as the convoy crawled towards the main street. Soon, the vanguard of the Egyptian forces appeared and lumbered in the direction of the main market in the town centre, near the Great Mosque. People ran out to greet them. Everyone in my father’s café came out and melted into the welcoming crowd, which started clapping and waving to the Egyptian forces who, in no time at all, joined in the Majdalis celebrations.
Within minutes the Majdalis thronged the streets and covered the Egyptian army with a white veil of rice and salt, amidst the dabke dance of the men and the trills of joy of the women:
Aaaaaaayeeeee…a hundred welcomes to him who’s arrived…
Aaaaaaayeeeee…we will fight together side by side…
Aaaaaaayeeeee…O Majdalis be happy and proud...
Aaaaaaayeeeee… with the help of Allah the victory will be achieved…
The traditional songs and folksongs flew into the sky above the town like the silk veils of its virgins.
The Egyptian Major General Ahmad al-Mawawi got out of the military car heading the convoy and flying the Egyptian flag on it;s bonnet. He approached the Chairman of the Town Council Sayyid Abu Sharekh, who in turn approached him amid the trills of joy. The two men shook hands while the crowd cheered,
The Egyptian Army’s come… Yah yah yah!
To behead the Haganah... Yah yah yah!
‘Welcome to Majdal Askalan, General Ahmad. The whole town is at your service.’
‘Thank you my friend. We hope that God will grant us success in our mission.’
Abu Sharekh took the General by the arm and whispered, ‘By the way, we have prepared a house for your use, donated by the Abbas family, which lies at the outskirts of Majdal. I would suggest that this be the Headquarters for your General Command. It is not far. It lies just behind the municipal gardens on the south side of town.’
General Ahmad al-Mawawi thanked the Chairman of the Council and together they climbed back into the car. The convoy moved off once again, heading towards their headquarters.
The Egyptian forces plan was to extend the fighting along a line starting from Majdal Askalan, going through Falloujaand Beit Jibrin, to the southeast, and ending at Hebron. This would isolate twenty-five Jewish settlements from the main body of the Jewish State, as demarcated by the United Nations partition plan of 1947. In this way, the Negev region, in the southeast, which made up one third of the Jewish State according to the same plan, would be isolated.
The crowd kept cheering them on before going back to their houses and work.
The Egyptian Army’s come… Yah yah yah!
To behead the Haganah... Yah yah yah!
Evening fell gently and the sun quietly sank towards the distant horizon behind the town, flinging its orange body into the Askalan Sea. The town slept to the sounds of marching boots and cheers, embracing the Egyptian forces, and dreamt of victory.
The next morning, my parents were having breakfast when screams rang out. My father hastily got up, threw down what was in his hand, put his shoes on and went out. He had just crossed the alley when he was surprised to find his brother Mahmoud coming from the other side. When the two met Mahmoud said to his brother, ‘I have terrible news Khalil. Your cousin Ali Hassouna has been martyred .’
‘Ali is dead, Mahmoud?’ my father asked fearfully.
The two brothers went directly to the big family house, where Uncle O'leem, and their father were, and told them the bad news. The four men hurried to the Hassouna al-Madhoun family house to pay their respects. The house was teeming with people who had come to offer their condolences from all over Majdal Askalan. My grandfather preceded the others and squeezed Hassouna’s hands, comforting and consoling him. The three brothers did the same and took their places among the other people, while Sheikh Ibrahim carried on reciting Quranic verses for the soul of the martyr.
It was said that Ali Hassouna had left the town early the previous night carrying his gun. He was with seven other men armed with rifles and one machine gun. They left in a car which took them east towards Iraq Sweidan. They stopped a mile from the town near a small bridge - they were worried that the Jewish organisations had booby-trapped it. Ali got out of the car and crawled out to the bridge to investigate, using a small torch. He discovered a mine. In that instant, a hail of bullets rained on him and on the car, seriously wounding him. The others returned fire, forcing the Jewish gang to retreat. The fighters then dragged Ali into the car and sped back to Majdal Askalan. He died en route.
Grief enveloped Majdal Askalan for three days, after which it took off its veil of sorrow and started discussing the initial Arab victories in many areas, which lifted its spirits somewhat.
A four-week truce, from 11th of June to the 8th of July, followed these victories, which complied with a United Nations’ resolution. During this time, Fatima Al-Khatib, the midwife, let loose a sharp long trill of joy which echoed throughout the area. My mother had given birth to a boy my father called Rassim. His features were a mixture of my father and my maternal grandfather, Nasrallah. He was a beautiful baby, with a fair complexion, blond hair and clear hazel eyes the colour of pure honey. During his childhood and youth, he would exhibit some other traits he had also inherited from my grandfather Nasralla, which went beyond colouring and features.
The Egyptian force, based in Fallouja, under the command of Staff Officer Gamal Abdel Nasser, was able to achieve a crushing victory at Iraq al-Manshiyeh. It maintained its initial gains until the autumn, which fell suddenly, warning of defeat, due to a strategic error by the Egyptian forces, and which showed in the defeats and heavy losses that quickly followed. (a map to be supplied)
The Egyptian Command in the Egyptian capital Cairo, had divided its forces and sent them to three unconnected regions; Al-Arish and Negev, the Gaza Coast (with its headquarters at Majdal Askalan) and the Fallouja-Iraq al-Manshiyeh divide north of the Negev Desert. The Jewish organisations took advantage of this fragmentation, and mounted a big offensive on two fronts; the first was at Sinai-Negev and the second at the Iraq al Manshiyah -Fallouja axis. While the Egyptian Forces, in Iraq al-Manshiyeh were inspecting their positions in the town, the Jewish organisations took a vital area around al-Ouja in the Negev Desert, thereby cutting off the Egyptian supply lines. As a result, the Egyptian forces based in Fallouja fell under siege.
Within weeks Majdal Askalan became a refugee town. Its neighbourhoods, orchards, even the cemetery were filled with thousands of families whose villages had been destroyed by the war, or who had fled from the advancing Jewish forces. However, the Israeli Air Force subjected all those who were in Majdal Askalan, to the most violent and relentless bombardment. This led to a mass exodus from the town. There was nothing my parents and relatives could do except follow the others. They left Majdal Askalan on foot via the Bahar (sea) road to Gaza city in the South.
As I was growing up, my father rarely talked to me about those times. My mother, on the other hand, often did, especially when she met up with Uncle Mahmoud’s wife Dalloul, which she did regularly. They would reminisce about the good old days back home, and then recall the exodus from Majdal Askalan. Their conversations were saturated with the odour of Nakba. Their accounts were very emotional and possessed a power of beauty unavailable to those who had not been directly involved – either as a Nakba hero or one of its victims.
My mother was a heroine, a narrator and a victim. This tempted me to experiment and forgetting my role as a narrator, give my mother the reins of the story.
I thought back. My mother begot me once but I will beget her twice. First, my mother has lived as my mother. Second, she will live in the story lines as a heroine and a narrator- although she never ever new the alphabet..
I decided to call her in Gaza, to take a chance and to give her the opportunity to fill in the details that I had not noted down. Sinking into the details, my mother started talking, while I wrote down what she said. ‘We were the first to go in 1948. We left Majdal Askalan in October, right in the middle of winter. I carried your two-month-old brother Rassim in a basket, and took a bundle of clothes and food for the road. The road was long and hunger is hard. Stupid me! I also took my trousseau! I was still young at that time. How old do you think I was, barely nineteen. Oh my, it rained on us and how we suffered, my son. My trousseau was ruined. Do you know why we were in such a hurry? Well, I’ll tell you why. We heard people saying that the Jews had entered Majdal Askalan. So we thought, Let’s leave before they come and slaughter us. Then there were the air raids . The Jewish planes did not let up dropping gunpowder keg bombs. They kept this up for a whole week – seven days! Each bomb was enough to destroy at least three houses. Three planes would come together; they would roar, bang and drop the bombs. I swear to God, there are those who say that during one of those raids, more than three hundred Majdalis were killed. My father’s, house was hit .
‘That day a Majdali woman, no one knows who, saw the planes roaring, banging and dropping the bombs. She screamed “ They are roaring! They are banging! I wish they had partitioned Palestine.' You know son, I wish they had partitioned it between the Jews and us. By God, it would have been a hundred times better than the humiliation of the situation we were in. Do you really think that we are better off now? I’m going to tell you how we fled and you can laugh at me as much as you want.
‘I said to your father, “Khalil, I want to go and see my family.”
‘“Are you crazy woman? You want to go out in this hell? Majdal Askalan is burning. Just sit down and keep quiet.”
‘“Khalil, they are my family and I have to go and see them. Their house has been destroyed and I don’t know who is dead and who isn’t ,” I begged.
‘Your father shouted at me. You know how short tempered he was. He threatened me with divorce if I went. I started to calm him down.
‘“What’s the matter with you Abu Raba’i?”
‘He repeated the oath once again, “I swear I will divorce you if you go. Just pack up, get the children and let’s go.”
‘Later on, we heard that all my family, thank God, had survived the air raid. They had been spending the day in the orchards of Haj Sha’aban al-Madhoun, your uncle Mahmoud’s father-in-law. But the house was reduced to rubble.
‘I was fighting with your father when he had threatened me with divorce, and suddenly your aunt Dalloul and your uncle Mahmoud came in and cried in unison, “What are you still doing here? The whole town has fled.”
‘We immediately followed them. Your aunt’s family, your grandfather Salim, your uncle Mahmoud and his family, your uncle O'leem, two of the Ashqar family, some other people and us; we all got together and joined the throng leaving the city on foot, via the sea, south towards Herybia.
‘There we stayed with some people, God bless and protect them. Four days we stayed with them. After that, we left for Gaza. We walked for more than ten kilometres among the sand dunes, with the rain and wind lashing our faces and butts. Your aunt’s husband Haj Hussein, God rest his soul, carried you on his shoulders for half the way. He had always loved you. He would carry you for a while, and then your father would take over.
‘We stayed in Gaza overnight, and there we hired a truck which took us directly to Khan Younes. We tried to rent a house. We found a mud hut, a hovel that rabbits wouldn’t live in. It was very expensive, so we pitched a tent. Whoever had brought carpets and rugs, spread them over poles and made a tent, put his stuff in it and slept. We all slept that first night under your aunt’s carpet. It was huge. I still remember that day. Your father and uncle Mahmoud put it up. Mahmoud had bought two poles in town. When he came back he and your father hammered the poles into the ground. They tied a rope between them and spread the carpet across on both sides.
‘When the tent was put up, your aunt stood underneath and pulled herself erect. Her head hit the roof and she had to stoop. You know son, your aunt had always stood upright and proud, just like the palm tree in her house in Majdal Askalan. She had never bowed her head. That day she bowed her back and started lamenting the situation. Her words were heart breaking.
I, myself heard her cry, “Sacred is He who changes circumstances. All our lives we trod on carpets with our shoes or barefoot. We have always walked on carpets. Now we are refugees, the carpets walk on our heads. From the moment we fled we lost our worth and can’t hold our head high any more.”
‘Her husband, Haj Hussein, put his face in his hands when he heard that. He might have even shed a tear or two.
Your uncle O'leem said, “Everybody has fled thith, you underthtand me?” You know your uncle, every other word is “you understand” or “you see.”
‘Your aunt replied mocking his lisp. “No, I don’t underthand you. What would you know? Learn how to speak properly first and then give your opinions.'
‘She looked around. Your father and uncle Mahmoud were frozen as if paralysed. Not a peep came out of either of them. Your grandfather Salim stood silently on the side. All of a sudden, your aunt’s voice erupted and she started screaming like a banshee beset by the devil. People started looking at us.
Someone said, “I wonder what’s happened to this woman for her to scream so loudly.” In fact, her voice was so loud it could have reached the town.
She became hysterical, “Who has actually seen the Jews? The Jews have not reached Majdal Askalan. You all fled on hearsay. Rumours dragged you from your houses and you fled. Let’s leave O'leem and his opinions aside. Did you see any Jews, Mahmoud? No it’s better if I shut up.”
‘Mahmoud said, “It’s as if you have no idea what is going on.. Everyone knows that the Egyptian Army went to Fallouja to fight, but was no match for the Jews. They got screwed and we got screwed with them.”
Your uncle, who had never ever let a bad word leave his lips, actually said this.
He carried on, “Didn’t the Egyptians fight in Iraq al Manshiyeh? Okay, no-one is disputing that. But later on, they retreated and went to Fallouja. They were blockaded there. They remained blockaded for months. They couldn’t find any food and they scrabbled in the dirt to find cigarettes to smoke, but to no avail. They just wanted out. In the end, they agreed with the Jews that they would retreat, and in return the Jews, would retreat from Beit Hannoun, north of Gaza which they had occupied. Calm down sis, just calm down.” He then fell silent.
‘Your grandfather Salim stepped up to your aunt and said, “What Mahmoud has said is true. We were not scared until one morning we woke up to find that the Egyptians had disappeared into thin air, without a trace. Like everybody else, when we saw that they had abandoned Majdal Askalan, and the planes were bombarding indiscriminately, we fled. Let me tell you something, Dalloul. Wasn’t it you who came to me with your husband Haj Hussein to hurry me along? And wasn’t it you and Mahmoud who went eagerly and brought back Khalil and his family?”
‘Haj Hussein nodded his head without saying a word. Your aunt thought for a bit and then nodded, “I know that all that you’re saying is true. It was I who dragged you all behind me. I have not forgotten. By God I will never forget what happened to us in a hundred years. But it is my grief and broken heart which are talking.” She fell silent. She said what was in her heart and fell silent. She raged like the Askalan Sea when it rages and then calms down. She got heated, boiled over and then cooled down. It was as if you had poured cold water over her. The others were also quiet. It was as if the carpet tent had suffocated them.”’
My mother said this and wept.