I’ll never forget the hilarious conversation we had back in the summer of 2005. The extended family went to the beach that day. As the sun went down, my father ordered an argilah, and whenever he’d break to continue a conversation, I’d take the pipe and draw a few puffs, much to the indignation of my mother. Seeing how my dad obviously didn’t object his fourteen-year-old daughter smoking an argilah, she appealed to my grandfather, who was sitting right next to me and pretended not to notice. At her request, however, he jumped into action.
“Linah, I’m not satisfied with how you look,” his voice carried over half of Gaza’s beach. “You’re nothing but skin and bones. At your age, you should be bursting with life! A long time ago, young women used to be like this —” he made curvy shapes with his large hands — “and like this!” Another curvy motion. “You don’t eat enough. You have the body of a child.” He was really getting into his stride now, as I sank lower and lower in my seat, my cheeks flaming, highly aware of the stares from other people on nearby tables. “You should eat meat! Lots of meat! And fruits! Meat and fruit! And an assorted variety of nuts!” I wondered if the pilot in the F-16 plane above could see Sido’s wild gesticulations or possibly hear his voice. “Eat! Eat meat, fruits and nuts! Eat, so your breasts can grow! But smoking? NEVER!”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry from sheer embarrassment. He just used the b-word, more common sounding in Arabic.
“But you smoke,” I said in a tiny voice, desperate to gloss over my public humiliation.
“I smoke because I’ve been doing it for years now, decades! Since I was a young man. It’s an addiction, I can’t stop it.”
“There are nicotine patches you could wear on your arm.”
“Whoever invented them is an idiot. They don’t work.”
“Well, there are special types of gum you can chew —”
He stared at me. “That’s a fine idea! An old man, chewing gum with his mouth open! Heheheh.”
My grandfather, 84 year old Ibrahim Hasan Alsaafin, was older than the Zionist state of Israel when he died on Monday in the Khan Younis refugee camp, still yearning to return to his village of al-Fallujah 64 years on, a mere 15 miles away.
On my way to Hebron last Friday for the third annual global Open Shuhada Street protest, the taxi I was in passed by a sign pointing right with the black letters of “Qiryat Gat” emblazoned on it. My heart caught in my mouth, and I craned my neck to hold that sign in my vision long after the taxi turned left.
Qiryat Gat is the Judaized name for my village of al-Fallujah. My village became a Jewish-only settlement for Russian immigrants in the 1950s, and the site for one of Intel Corporation’s biggest manufacturing plants.
Al-Fallujah was completely ethnically cleansed on March 1st, 1949 — a year after Israel’s so-called independence. Sido Ibrahim was a young man then, 19 or 20 years old, and fought with Egyptian paratroops against the terrorist Zionist guerrillas, who attacked the village with jet fighters and long range canons for six months. Most of the villagers fled, taking with them only their children, some even leaving the doors of their houses open. Sido, along with my great-grandmother Nabeeha, joined the scores of villagers in providing food and supplies to the Egyptian and local volunteers who were defending the village. Among the defenders was the Imam of the village Sheikh Hussein, who was killed when a jet fighter droped a bomb on his shelter. Five minutes before this happened, he threw the helmet he got from the Egyptians to my Sido, insisting that he has nothing to do with it, and as a young man Sido has more right to wear it becauze he represents the future.
After six months of shelling and raids, the international community decided that al-Fallujah must be evacuated and remain under international control. Sido and my great-grandmother Nabeeha exchanged hugs and tears with the Egyptian fighters who dropped them off along with other civilians in Gaza in their trucks before returning back to Egypt. Sido did not forget to bring the land deeds with him, which we still keep, and my great-grandmother took the key with her, which we also still keep.
I haven’t seen my grandparents for six and a half years, despite a distance of only sixty miles apart. In that sense, there is no difference had I been still living in England or the US. We were separated from each other by incomprehensible racist laws of an occupying military state, which sought to encircle our hearts with barbed wire. Gaza is only an hour’s drive away from Ramallah, the same distance as London is from Portsmouth, the same distance as Philadelphia is from Atlantic City.
It kills me that I haven’t been able to see Sido. We live in the same small country, but a thousand and one hindrances kept us pinned to opposite sides. I’ve missed my grandparents so much. I wanted to dye my hair with henna again, something my grandmother always does. I wanted to look into her pea-green eyes and listen to her highly inappropriate delicious fairy-tales, which made me and my cousins curl our toes with delight when we were younger.
I wanted to take pictures of them, to record Sido’s voice, complete a mini-project about oral history and to hear stories of al-Fallujah. When my mother was first pregnant with me, Sido saw her sucking on a lemon and told her she’d be having a girl. I dreamed about my visit, teasing Sido if he remembered how he was so upset I wasn’t named Nabeeha after his mother when I was born, claiming that now that my parents were in a western country they’d be naming their children infidel names. He stopped complaining after my mother explained to him that “Linah” was an Arabic name, mentioned in the Quran chapter 59 verse 5.
It was always with a sense of pride and dignity that I tell people that my grandparents are from an era before the state of Israel came into being are still alive, and that they are still refugees. They are history in itself. They have lived through so many wars. I was so eager to document that from their point of view, and to get to know them more.
Sido was a cantankerous man. His tempers were hugely fascinating and downright scary. Sometimes his rage would manifest itself by flinging meticulously prepared dishes of food. I recall helping one uncle scrape bits of food from the kitchen ceiling and window once. He had a loud gravelly voice and would strike the fear of God into someone quite easily. In the mornings he would sit cross-legged on a mattress, reading from the Quran out loud, pontificating every word. He was a strict disciplinarian, and as long as you weren’t at the receiving end of his temper or walking stick, the whole situation would become very comedic. Once he chased one of my cousins up on the roof with a hose, cursing his lineage and my cousin’s future descendants, as the rest of my cousins and uncles almost wet themselves from laughing so hard.
At the same time, Sido had so much compassion and generosity in his heart. He loved babies, never in short supply in my family. It was a mark of honor when he called you to his room, where he would give his grandchildren sweets from a hidden stash. He would take out a clear plastic bag full of shekel coins from the folds of his white dishdasheh, and one by one would distribute them to us. Back then, you could buy so much stuff at the candy store with one shekel.
I really wanted a recent memory of Sido and I. A photograph, a conversation, a touch.
Sido died. A memory flitted in my mind’s eye. One summer, years ago, the electricity was off for hours. When it came back on again it was past midnight. Sido turned on the TV and leaned forward from his mattress, chuckling as he watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Occupation has denied us of so much. The right to visit family. The right to be a family.
Sido died, and I walked home in the late afternoon, willing myself not to bawl, a dull pain in the pit of my stomach. My eyes welled up when I thought of my dad, all alone in the UAE. My mother called my uncles earlier. One of them was crying so hard she couldn’t understand him. I called them later at night, and they seemed more calm. I asked to talk to my grandmother. The phone was passed from one room to the next, and I pressed my cell phone closer to my ear, listening to a world I couldn’t be in: a baby coughing, children murmuring, hushed voices, “It’s Abdullah’s daughter, talk to her.”
The formal statement given when someone passes away. The formal reply. The tears ensued.
“The pain in my heart, ya sitti, the pain in my heart!” my grandmother cried.
“God give you strength,” I whispered.
“This is life, people are born and people die, but the pain!”
I can’t accept that the unfairness of the whole situation. I’m not talking about death, because that runs its natural course. I’m talking about the mini-diaspora within my own family. It gets so overwhelming sometimes to think that we can’t be together because of a screwball xenophobic government, a whole state that wills it so. It doesn’t make sense. The heartbreak and the anguish, the suffering and the despair is totally absurd when one considers the reason why we must experience all of this. I believe my skin color is appropriate, but my religion isn’t. I don’t speak the chosen language of Hebrew. That human beings should be the cause of the suffering of other humans based on some imperial ideology is unfathomable, when you really think about it. I can’t accept that, and I can’t do anything about it, and who cares anyway? My last name is not Levy or Goldberg or Schliemann. What are basic human rights to a Palestinian when you’ve become so dehumanized in the world’s eyes?
My family wanted to go to Gaza last summer, but things simply didn’t work out. So we postponed it to January, but that also didn’t work out. I had firmly set it in my mind that this June, no matter what I will go to Gaza, inshallah. It is too late now.
The hardest part was talking to my father, all alone without his wife or children to comfort him. It’s hard listening to your father’s sobs over the phone. He told me this:
“Just two days ago, I was thinking of the fact that you are an hour’s drive away from your family and yet you cannot see them…I felt crushed under this feeling of injustice, but comforted myself by looking forward to next June when we can all meet again and you and your sister Deema will have the chance to see Sido…but he did not wait. Not only for me…Sido, my dad, was in a hurry …as he has always been…so he left us…but will never come back..and June will come to this world..but Sido will not be there..Allah Yerhamo…he spent his youth struggling to make us happy and to make us grow up to appreciate the love for our homeland, and instilled in us love of truth, justice and rightness..he loved your Mama, he always called her his 5th daughter. He loved you, Mohammad, Ahmad and Deema…I could see the joy in his eyes when I talked about you, and he always blamed me for not settling in Gaza…next to him.”