He clicked his prayer beads shoving a heavy breath out of two enormous nostrils that, I imagined, tumbled over a thick mustache before joining the air. In fact, it looked more like a broom than a mustache. His voice was cluttered and laden with years. He is seventy one. I almost closed my eyes, taking in as much aura as my lungs allowed. It was a mixture of baked cookies, stench, and coffee.
A young woman sneaked out of a clay-and-cement shack holding a tray of coffee close to her chest. She bent down and placed it on a plastic table in the middle of a circle of which I, Hajj Othman, a friend of mine and her father formed the contour.
A few strands of hair slipped out the young woman’s yellowish headscarf and landed on her forehead. She raised two perfectly arched eyebrows as if summoning a thought from the air but instead of speaking, she lowered her eyes, and nervously pushed the strands back into the hijab.
“Tfaddal, please help yourself” she finally broke the silence, serving the first cup to her grandfather, the Hajj.
“The guests first, seedi, darling” the grandfather rumbled, tenderly tapping her shoulder.
I never drink coffee except in funeral ceremonies where sugarless coffee becomes an arbitrary ritual; but her seemingly dim character and slight smile made me too vulnerable to reject anything. “Bless your hands, it is very well-made” I said, sipping the bitter liquid. “And your hands” she said, her face perking up.
I was in a meter-wide space between two shacks, one of which belonged to Hajj Othman; in an alleyway in Deir al-Balah refugee camp. To me, it was a fulfillment of a dream I had for so long denied myself. For so long I had been scared by the thought that I might look like an intruder who did not belong to this fragment of history.
Hajj Othman Sa’d Aldeen al-Habbash was born on 29 June 1941 in a small Palestinian village west of present-day Ashkelon known as al-Jura. On November 4 and 5 1948, the village was mercilessly depopulated of its native inhabitants who numbered just under 3,000 in 1948. Just like the rest, Hajj Othman, seven years old at the time, fled to Gaza.
“The Jews told us to grow crops and promised to export them for us; we waited and the crops rotted,” he recounted, rubbing his head, as if to stimulate the memories. “They imposed heavy taxes knowing that we would never be able to pay them, and once the due date had come, and we couldn’t pay, they mortgaged our lands and eventually confiscated them.” He arched his head towards the ground, clicked his beads for seconds and said: “Egypt sold us. King Hussein sold us.”
“I left my schoolbag at my house in al-Jura, we thought it was temporary. They raided us from their planes. Eighty-six were murdered in a matter of few minutes.”
The air was too dense by now; a rusty faucet at the turn of the alleyway was dripping. Two men approached us; we stood up and hoisted the chairs over our heads to make some space for them to pass. Alleyways.
“We were poor and scattered in tents; we mixed flour with powdered milk for food,” pause, a heavy breath, and a resumption: “I remained barefoot for many years. When I first enrolled in an agency [UNRWA] school, they handed me a pair of shoes. I embraced them, I couldn’t believe I owned them.”
I sank in my chair grappling with a tear quivering on the rims on my eyes. I was too immersed in my pain, too selfish to notice the reactions of my friend, and her father. He embraced his shoes.
Hajj Othman caressed us with a gentle gaze and smiled. When his smile stretched to take over the rest of his face, magnificent lines gradually appeared on the corners of his eyes. Without much resistance, my face adhered and loosened into a smile.
“I used to smoke four packets a day. My wife begged me to quit smoking but I never listened to her;” he said in between bursts of laughter, “when the agency replaced the tents with shacks, I hurled the last packet I had that day on the rooftop and I never smoked again.”
Hajj Othman told us about his village’s sycamore. He told us about his grandchildren. I thought of the young woman who served us coffee. “Not a single moment does my country skip my thoughts,” he boasted. “It is the same for my grandchildren; they miss al-Jura even though they have never seen it. They know exactly how it looks like.”
In a refugee camp, everything has a meaning; colorful laundry dangling from overworked lines, a boy leaving traces of Falafel behind his steps, two girls locking their arms and running their tongues over cheap ice-cream, a mother calling her son a “devil,” or a grandfather clacking his prayer beads, just like Hajj Othman. Everything has a meaning.
We were immersed. I, my friend, and her father. The air, in addition to baked cookies, coffee and sewage, was saturated with dormant anger. It was there in the “we shall return” graffiti, in the “Palestine is more precious than our blood,” and in the youthful faces, alas killed, staring down from posters perching on top of iron pillars or glued to walls.
750,000 native Palestinians were expelled during the Nakba and 531 villages were destroyed so that the “State of Israel” could come into being. “Kill the Arabs” read their graffiti, and so they did in Deir Yassin on April 9 1948; so happened in “Operation Mopping-up” in the Galilee. For those who owned lives in the Galilee — indeed all Palestinians — were “cockroaches” according to Raphael Eitan, the 1976 Israeli Chief of Staff.
The Nakba never ceased. We were treated like “cockroaches” during so-called Operation Cast Lead. And we are the “cockroaches” on a hunger strike in Israel’s cells. But we will always remain the “cockroaches” who pray, laugh, and fall in love. Nevertheless.