“Beiruti in Jaffa, Yafawi in Beirut”: Shafiq al-Hout’s story in his own words

4 August 2009

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Shafiq al-Hout

On Sunday, 2 August 2009, the celebrated journalist and founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Shafiq al-Hout passed away in Beirut, Lebanon at the age of 77. The following is part of Shafiq’s story as told to me as part of an oral history project conducted in Beirut in 1999. The project aimed to develop appropriate material for teaching English to Palestinian refugee children based on oral history interviews with five Palestinians old enough to remember their lives in Palestine before the 1948 dispossession. Shafiq was most enthusiastic about participating in the project, explaining, “They want to erase Palestine from the memory of the new generation, and anything I can do to fight that, I will be more than happy.” Shafiq not only agreed to be interviewed, but suggested other Palestinians from his generation for the project, and in some instances helped arranged meetings with them. Tears would well in Shafiq’s eyes when he spoke of his life in his home city of Jaffa and of the experience of being dispossessed from his country, and the story of his grandfather’s death in exile. Shafiq al-Hout was passionate, emotional, critical and a fierce fighter for the Palestinian cause and people. While we are shedding tears over his loss, we must also follow the road to return, a path from which he never wavered. — Mayssoun Sukarieh, Beirut, Lebanon

“The Beiruti Mayor” is what people in Jaffa used to call my father. He had inherited mayorship from his father and used to practice it in his small shop in Manshiyyah Street. The people of Jaffa had affectionately nicknamed him “Beiruti” as a token of their immense gratitude for the services he had rendered to them free of charge. Another reason why he was named “Beiruti” was because the ancestry of his family, the Houts, was deeply rooted in Lebanon. My grandfather, Salim Youssef al-Hout, constantly visited Jaffa at the end of the 19th century. The glamour of the city attracted him like it did other Lebanese people. He then decided to settle there and married a Jaffa woman from the Manshiyyah quarter.

My five siblings were born in my grandfather’s house, while I was born in my parents’ small, humble house. In fact, when my parents decided to have their own house they were accused of being revolutionaries. This unpleasant incident angered both my father’s and my mother’s families equally. Characteristically, the entrance to our home was like most of Jaffa’s houses. It had a well and a palm tree under which we indulged playing for hours on end. It also had a backyard planted with fragrant flowers and juicy vegetables. Not very far from my house was a sandy playground where we played football with our neighbors.

The window of my room overlooked the street below, thus providing me with a panoramic view. I remember being very happy in Ramadan, since during that time of the year I could see Abu Hussein, the musahharati who used to bang the drum and wake people up for suhur — the early morning last meal the faithful are allowed to have before daybreak, when actual fasting starts.

Although my house appealed to me, it was in my grandparents’ house that I really felt at home. In fact, my happiest days were those I spent playing with my cousins in grandparents’ house. Nothing used to stop our noise and our running except my grandfather’s arrival home. My grandfather, by the way, wasn’t necessarily the ideal grandfather. He was a serious, tough man; he never told us stories, or hugged us like grandfathers usually do. All I remember of him is a hand stretched out, waiting to be kissed, and, with much discipline, we all stood in line upon his arrival to do the ritual. On holidays this ritual was our first duty of the day. He would sit on his armchair and next to him was his cloth bag filled with money. Each of us would in turn kiss his stretched hand and take his eidiyyah — a holiday allowance that was always proportional to our age.

In my grandfather’s house, I had the opportunity to meet Jewish kids Mael, Maraz and Sholomesh, with whose parents my father and grandfather had commercial relations. The wedding party of Haim Bazar, whose brother Daoud used to play football with me, was another memorable event that I can still remember vividly.

I received my schooling, up to high school, at Ameriyyah Public School, which was adjacent to al-Zaharaa School for Girls. I used to climb the walls of the school together with my friends to look at girls and be looked back at flirtatiously. The girls from al-Zaharaa School used to do the same.

Next, I joined the boy scouts at school, and as a result, I was able to form a clear picture about this great institution. Our first trip was to the Dead Sea. Upon our arrival there, and as soon as we alighted from our buses, we all dashed towards the sea and furiously dove into its irresistible waters, only to come out as quickly as we could, crying and shouting because our eyes would all be burning with salt!

In addition to our school activities, we had our special hobbies. Swimming on Jaffa’s gorgeous beach with its white, sugar-like sand was our favorite pastime. We used to call each other and go to the shore to swim, wrestle or play football. When bicycles first arrived in Jaffa, we started renting them out and used them to roam in its streets. We’d head towards the clock tower and then back to our quarter.

When we got a bit older, we started enjoying going to movie theaters, which were located in different parts of Jaffa. The al-Hamra movie theater was similar to the Roxy in Beirut. In this theater I watched many plays such as The Green Table, directed by Youssef Wehbeh, and The Street Kids, as well as many other movies starring Ismail Yassin, Abdel Wahab and Layla Murad. One of the movies, which I can still remember very well, was First Look, featuring “al-Sahroura” Sabah and Abdel Wahab.

After watching the movies we used to discuss them and argue about their themes and morals. These movies used to make us aspire to become actors some day in the future. Each of us would choose an actor as his ideal; someone with a nice voice, for instance, would aspire to be like the towering personality of Abdel Wahab; another young fan with a good sense of humor would dream of becoming Ismail Yassin. I personally delighted in taking the role of the great Youssef Wehbeh, maybe because he played the cool lawyer in most of his roles, and becoming a lawyer someday was one of my most cherished dreams. I frequently spent time in front of the mirror and imitated that kind of voice he would have when defending or prosecuting someone. I even used to imagine cases and include every single detail in the courtroom of my mind with its defendants, prosecutors, culprits and judges. I would also visualize myself dynamically defending or prosecuting some troubled soul in my imaginary courtroom.

April 1948 is a month I can never forget. During this month, [Palestinian resistance leader] Abdel Qader al-Husseini was martyred and sadness overshadowed Jaffa and the entire country of Palestine. In this month as well, my rebel brother Jamal attained martyrdom, which added to the sorrow I inherited as a result of being a citizen of an usurped country, the personal sorrow of now losing a very dear spiritual brother.

After al-Husseini died, signs of defeat started to become apparent. We in Jaffa used to hear news about Palestinian villages falling into Jewish hands as well as massacres committed by the Jews. This was news that reached us on a daily basis. The people of Jaffa grew restless after hearing such news. This restlessness turned into fright after the British started shelling Jaffa’s squares and streets haphazardly.

The people of Jaffa resisted, hoping for Arab support, but our patience was running out since this support was taking too long, possibly because Jaffa was far from the Arab borders and close to Tel Aviv, or because of its narrow terrestrial passages, along with the impossibility of the arrival of any troops by sea.

In April 1948, a small number from the Arab Rescue Army, accompanied by some Yugoslavians — fierce fighters with Arab names — arrived, so one would find Khalids, Umars and Jaafars among them. They were more punctual and better organized than the Rescue Army.

News about the Deir Yassin massacre reached Jaffa, causing a wave of anger and fright in the city. Meanwhile, a spontaneous decision was taken to evacuate the children, the women and the elderly from the city until the Arab troops would enter it and until things went back to normal.

Under these disturbing circumstances my family decided to leave the country for Beirut as we had some roots there. This way, we would spend the summer enjoying the beautiful Lebanese landscape. My father insisted on getting an entry visa to Lebanon. The Lebanese Consul, Edmond Rock, used to live in Jaffa, so he granted us a visa free of charge. My visa was stamped on a Palestinian passport numbered 21203. I had that passport prepared a short while before that, since I had planned to travel to Britain and study law there, to realize my dream and stand for people’s rights.

How could we possibly reach Beirut? The land road was closed, and also dangerous, since the [Jewish militia] Haganah had taken positions all over the place. We had no choice but the sea. Thus we headed for the sea where a Greek ship called “Dolores” was awaiting us. Being among the lucky few that arrived early, we were able to rent a cabin in the ship which was so crowded, even on deck, that it was about to sink due to the huge number of people who hoped to seek refuge in the ports of Lebanon.

I can still remember the fright stamped on people’s faces in the port of Jaffa. Thousands from Jaffa were elbowing their way through the crowd trying to escape death. No naval transportation means available was left unused, even boats two meters long. Boats would head to wherever the captain or the wind would take them, regardless of the direction. Some headed north and reached Lebanon, and others headed south and found themselves in Egypt.

The flight was random. There were many families whose members were “distributed” on different boats, going in different directions.

I spent most of the day’s long trip sitting next to the captain, observing two large fish that were escorting us all along our journey. They bade us farewell as we approached Lebanese territorial waters.

We arrived at the port of Beirut the next day in the morning. Thousands of Palestinians and thousands of Lebanese were there to welcome their Palestinian relatives. All faces were bewildered and gloomy, not knowing what the future was going to be like. With unprecedented cordiality and ardor, the port workers greeted us. They were used to seeing Palestinians come and spend their summer vacations there.

Our Lebanese cousin, who was there to receive us, then drove us to his house where we were to spend a few weeks in the summer. Then, we decided to rent a house in the Souk al-Ghareb region to spend the summer as we always did, and we planned to go back to Palestine in the wintertime. However, this much-awaited return was not meant to happen as soon as we had thought. Winter was fast approaching and people started searching for apartments in Beirut to rent. But my grandfather, who originally was Lebanese, had insisted not to settle in Lebanon. He refused to rent anything but a furnished apartment. Toward the end of the summer, he got ill. He had no prayer but to be buried in Jaffa. When he got seriously ill and became delirious, he started confusing the pine trees that his window overlooked in Souk al-Ghareb, with the orange trees that could be seen from his window in Jaffa. He would point to the pine trees and ask my father to bury him under the orange tree that he himself had planted. And this was how the Souk al-Ghareb pine trees became my grandfather’s Jaffa orange trees.

“The Yafawi” [the man from Jaffa]: that was what they started to call me in
Beirut, where we ended up living after spending our summer in Aley [a village in Mount Lebanon]. Our long-awaited return to Jaffa was, once again, postponed. This new nickname triggered in me a lot of new questions pertaining to my identity. In Jaffa we were called the “Beirutis” [the ones from Beirut] and in Beirut we became known the Yafawi. Who am I? Why should we have restricted or specific identities? I must have an identity broader than Beiruti or Yafawi — an identity even broader than Lebanon and Palestine.

At the beginning, we followed my father’s wish to rent a furnished apartment instead of a house, because we felt our return to Jaffa could happen anytime soon and we should be ready to travel light, and therefore, buying furniture wouldn’t be such a great idea. It was in that house that I received a telegram from my friend Ibrahim Abu Loghod congratulating me for passing the matriculation of the British high school. At that very moment, big questions regarding my future began to pervade my mind.

I wouldn’t be able to defend my clients the way my hero Youssef Wehbeh used to do in his movies. Further, I had to abandon that dream because this major didn’t exist at the American University of Beirut (AUB), my only hope, and since I was English-educated, I could not continue my studies in any other institution. So what were my other alternatives?

“Why don’t you join the faculty of medicine and become a doctor — someone who will bring joy to our hearts, someone we’d all take great pride in?” my father suggested, and I obeyed. I enrolled in AUB in 1949.

During my first few months there, I was literally fought for — like all the newcomers — by adherents of the different political persuasions who were at AUB, as the whole of the Arab world was potentially on the brink of an explosion.

“The Arab countries share the same history and use the same language. We
should all be one nation.” This was the theme that George Habash, Hamed Jabboury and Wadi’ Haddad, who constituted the hard-core of the Arab Nationalist Movement, tried to impart to me. Then, I was attracted to Saadoun Hamadi, Fouad Arrikabi and Leila Bouksmati, who stressed on me that unity, freedom and socialism are the only means to liberate Palestine, and that we are an Arab nation with a “lasting mission.”

Virtually all political groups tried to convert us to their ideologies, from the leaders of the Baath Party to Mansour Armaly, who used to grab my hand, drag me away from AUB’s West Hall to invite me for a cup tea and a cigarette at the cafeteria, and assure me that it was the Soviet Union that would help solve the Palestinian cause. “We have to struggle for the oppressed classes because they will revolt and liberate us from oppression,” he used to say. I just couldn’t tell who had the truth.

At the beginning, the university and all that was going in it wasn’t really my concern. I was living there, while my people were outside its compounds. In collaboration with a group of friends, we decided to establish a Palestinian club and applied to the Lebanese Ministry of Interior for a license.

“Let’s visit Mufti Amin al-Husseini, and ask for his support in getting the license. He is quite influential among the Lebanese officials,” I suggested. So we went to al-Nouzha, next to Mansourieh, where Hajj Amin lived, but both Hajj Amin and the Lebanese authorities disappointed us. We didn’t get the license. What to do then?

My friend and I toured the refugee camps, trying to enlist Palestinians capable of shouldering the responsibility for our cause. Despite the horrible conditions that still plagued the refugees, they received us with an unbelievable zeal, repeatedly asserting their readiness to do anything they could to return home. Such admirable commitment to the Palestinian cause was present in the camps of Tel al-Zaatar, Shatila, Burj al-Barajne and Rashidieh. All this great political mobilization, it seems, alarmed the followers of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who didn’t subscribe to our ideologies. This explains the several threats we received from his followers, which culminated with an ambush they had prepared for us, when we were severely beaten. To make things worse, they also called the Lebanese General Security Services and accused us of being communists. At that time, communism was one of the worst crimes that any person could be accused of.

I then decided that the best thing for me to do was to shift the focus of my work to the university’s campus. During that time, our economic conditions started to deteriorate. We moved to live in the same house where my uncles and aunts were living. Moreover, my dad was no longer capable of paying my university tuition fees.

The competition among the various political movements at AUB was at its peak, and communists, nationalists and Baathists, in addition to others, were fighting for supremacy on campus. I joined the communists who strongly appealed to me because they focused on the students’ basic necessities of life. These necessities were a major cause of suffering to me as well as to my Palestinian colleagues. After the student elections of 1951, as I was working in the chemistry laboratory, I was summoned to the office of Archie Crawford, who was then the university’s vice president. I thought he wanted me to pay the late tuition fees, but it never occurred to me, not for a second, that I was about to be banned from being involved in any political activity henceforward. That was soon to become evident to me when Crawford started his interrogation into the nature of my extra-curricular activities within and outside the AUB campus. Both he and the Lebanese authorities condemned such activities and considered them a sort of breeding ground for riots and mutiny. After the interrogation, I was shocked by two Lebanese inspectors who stepped from behind a curtain, cuffed my hands, and led me beyond the university’s gates to a jeep that had been waiting for us. During the interrogation at the police station, I was accused of being a communist. When I was released a week later, I found that President Charles Helou had issued a presidential decree ordering my deportation from Lebanon.

The Lebanese members of my family tried to approach several political Lebanese leaders in an attempt to get me a permission to stay in Lebanon, but it was all in vain. And then my day of judgment came! It turned out to be a day of joy when we discovered that the judge who was to preside over my case was Mr. Mahmoud al-Nouman, who was married to one of my father’s cousins.

Just a few hours before my trial, my father was surprised by an unexpected visit by Judge Nouman to our house; my father at first he thought that the judge had come to assure him that everything was going well. How wrong he was!

Not knowing how to start, he finally said: “Uncle, I have come to tell you that I have relinquished your son’s case and asked that it be transferred to another judge.” Before my father asked about the reason, the judge said: “In similar cases, the decision are already made and put in a sealed envelope that we simply open and then read. This is high-level politics; it is state politics; we really have no say in these matters at all!”

The next day the judge read the verdict that had already been written for him: “Imprisonment for three months and deportation from Lebanon.” By the time I was released, however, my family had successfully convinced Prime Minister Sami Solh to suspend the presidential decree ordering my deportation from Lebanon.

I went out of prison to find out, however, that the decree banishing my friends Muhammad Lasawi and Nashat al-Shaar was carried out. The first was deported to the Lebanese-Palestinian border where he met a Lebanese shepherd who sympathized with him and helped him cross over to Syria. But the Shishakli government, which shared the Lebanese government’s anti-communist position, arrested and imprisoned him for eight years, and when he was released some time later, he was a sick and disabled man. As for the second deportee, he was lucky enough to escape from Syria to Iraq, where he might still be living.

When I was released from prison I discovered that I had been suspended from the university for one year. This latest setback hurt my father terribly, as he was passing through the worst days of his life; he had to line up in order to receive UNRWA [the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees] rations, given the magnitude of our financial problems … I decided to seek a job and started teaching at the Makassed schools, but the administration disliked the discussions I usually had with the students on the Palestinian cause, and eventually kicked me out. The seemingly unending saga of moving from one school to another without finding a job drove me to an acute state of desperation to the point that I was now even contemplating suicide.

One day I went to see my friend the barber, someone I felt could share with me my misfortunes. A man who happened to be there coincidentally overheard our conversation and said, “You, the Hout people, are a prominent Lebanese family and it is certain that your father and grandfathers are registered as Lebanese, so why don’t you apply for the Lebanese citizenship?” I ran to my father and begged him to apply for the Lebanese citizenship; he cursed me instead and hurriedly answered: “Do you want me to give up my Palestinian identity? This is impossible even if we have to be kicked out of Lebanon.”

My father’s reaction forced me to apply on my own for Lebanese citizenship, and to submit forged papers stating that I was born in Lebanon a year before my real date of birth. Three times the case was rejected and during that period, I graduated from the American University of Beirut. Later, Judge Othman al-Dana summoned me and tried to find out about my reasons for persisting to obtain Lebanese citizenship. I told him that I had signed a contract with a school in Kuwait and that I had to go there before the beginning of the school year. That was how, without any further questions, I was declared Lebanese and given Lebanese citizenship.

When I reached Kuwait [following unexpected complications related to obtaining citizenship], I found out that the Ministry of Education had decided to replace me for being late and hired another teacher, but I found another job at another school. At that time, I started to correspond with Salim al-Lawzi who was the head of al-Hawadeth, a prestigious magazine in Lebanon. I returned to Beirut and started to work as a journalist for al-Hawadeth and this magazine became the platform from which I would vouch for the Palestinian cause. In addition, the magazine provided me with the opportunity to communicate with the Palestinians now scattered in the Diaspora. Through this platform, we were able to start a secretive political movement called the Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and issued a monthly newsletter titled Tariq al-Awda, or “The Path of Return,” which until 1964 was printed at al-Hawadeth Printing House. Membership in the Front increased steadily and by now it included newcomers from the refugee camps in Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Amman, the West Bank, as well as people belonging to the different Palestinian classes, ranging from simple workers to teachers and engineers. Our aim was to struggle for the liberation of Palestine and emphasize the Arab character of this cause.