“I was supposed to be born in a villa by the sea”

Atef Abu Saif (Marryam Haleem)

Her name meant “lively.” And from the way her grandson spoke about her, she was in nature as in name. Aisha, full of life.

She lived in a beautiful villa on the sea. She was friendly, passionate and generous, like most Palestinians. And proud of her hometown, like most Jaffans. When Jewish refugees rolled in from war-torn Europe in the 1940s, Palestinians took them into their homes. Aisha took in a teenaged girl, gave her a room, and made her part of their family. In 1948, when Jewish terrorist gangs attacked Jaffa and started to round up the people, killing and throwing them out of their homes, Aisha refused to leave her beloved home. But the Jewish girl who lived with her in her home put a gun to Aisha’s head and forced her out of the house. Aisha screamed, “What are you doing?! I gave you my home! I gave you my family! And this is what you do?!”

Aisha, her family, and hundreds of other Jaffans walked until they reached the Jabaliya area in Gaza. She lost everything — her home, her identity, her dignity, and a beloved son who was killed in the fighting. Aisha, so full of heart, lost her sight from crying over his death.

She gained, however, the absolute adoration and undying love of a grandson who was born and raised in that corner of Jabaliya which was now a refugee camp. She gave him all she had — love and memories of a place called home. She told him every detail of Jaffa. The names of the streets. The neighborhoods and houses. The trees. The mosques. Each smell and sound. It was the whole world to a boy who was born in a refugee camp.

Grandma Aisha was not the only one with these stories and her grandson, Atef Abu Saif, was not the only one who took them to heart. These memories and these stories are the only treasure and wealth of the refugee. They are the sole inheritance for the children of the dispossessed generation. Memories of what once was. Stories of what ought to have been.

“The old men in the refugee camp,” said Atef, recalling his childhood days, “in the evenings they would sit and talk about Jaffa.” And the children would gather round, listening with fascination as the grownups talked of the place they knew they were from, but had never seen.

“The refugee in Gaza,” said Atef, trying to explain the significance and meaningfulness of the stories, “the refugee lives in his memories. In the old towns and villages. Even us, the sons and grandsons of that generation, we also live in this moment, this wishful moment.”

Grandma Aisha, her life and her stories, became his inspiration to write. He started at a young age and is now a published novelist and short story writer. He has written four novels, a collection of short stories entitled Everything is Normal, and two plays. Many of his short stories have been translated into English and can be found online.

“One of my first dreams was to capture those moments she gave me and to retell them in writings,” he said, “because in her stories there is a kind of pain which you wouldn’t feel if you didn’t hear her telling it. And this is where literature matters.” To show what can’t otherwise be conveyed.

Atef’s writings reveal the everydayness of oppression, providing a glimpse into how very mundane suffering truly is. The muted scenes of pain catch the reader unaware: one realizes with horror that the grief is inescapable, occupying even the most banal of acts — writing a letter to a brother, driving to the airport, a day at the beach. His stories show, with raw accuracy, the unspoken knowledge that something is deeply wrong in the Palestinian life.

“I want to remind my readers that these people don’t live in the refugee camps by their own choice. The refugee camp is not a place to love. It’s a curse … [In my writing] I have to be faithful, loyal to the people’s suffering. I want to make it clear that this is not a ‘national issue.’ It’s not about ‘the struggle.’ It’s a human issue.”

Paradise lost

“Like my grandmother, if I’d tell her something here [in Gaza] is beautiful, immediately she would be like, ‘Don’t tell me that, Jaffa is more beautiful!’ Or if I’d compliment the sea, right away she would respond, ‘This sea?! This is not a sea! You should see the sea in Jaffa!’ I mean, it’s the same sea,” Atef said, laughing affectionately. “But in her mind, it was not the same sea. It was an entirely different world. If I’d tell her about a place here, immediately, ‘You should see the buildings in Jaffa! But I excuse you,’ she would say to me, like I said something wrong, ‘I excuse you because you didn’t live there.’

The loss of the refugees is as painful as it is irretrievable. The ever-present feeling of injustice is felt by the Palestinians, individually and collectively.

“But the Jaffans,” Atef said, smiling wryly, “we feel that we were done an especially great injustice by being driven out of our homes. You have to understand,” he said facetiously, “we are very racist in Jaffa. We are very proud of our city. We are from the largest Palestinian city. We are urban people, not villagers. Before 1948 we had 20 newspapers. We had 12 sports clubs. We had a union for the railway workers. This was the second Arab metropolitan city after Cairo. Many Arabs would immigrate there to work, especially from the Levant — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan.”

This was what they lost. The memory of the greatness of Jaffa became the symbolic reminder for all Palestinians of what life ought to have been. “Jaffa means Palestine for us, the true Palestine. So in this sense Jaffa is something imagined, the lost Paradise.

“Even we [the children of the refugee camp] had this image of Jaffa as this Paradise, this lost Paradise. When you grew up in the refugee camp, with all this suffering, you believe strongly in this idea that if we lived in Jaffa, this wouldn’t be happening. It’s a real feeling, not just for my grandmother, but for me and my generation.

“I grew up in a home of 80 meters — me, my father, my mother, my grandmother, my brothers. Just three rooms. It was very crowded. And then you think, if the Nakba didn’t happen, we would be living in my grandfather’s villa on the coast of Jaffa,” he paused, “It’s owned by a Jew from Yemen now. Not owned,” he corrected himself, “but he lives in it.”

To be a refugee

The refugee lives with the constantly reinforced feeling that he is illegitimate. From childhood he is taught that in the civilized, established world, the refugee has no place and, by default, no rights.

“I remember,” Atef said, “sitting in a geography class as a kid and the teacher saying that there are three kinds of places where people live: the city, the village and the desert. So I asked, ‘What about the refugee camp?’ I didn’t understand why he didn’t mention the refugee camp. It was real for me and it was all I knew. The teacher responded saying that the refugee camp wasn’t really a place where people lived. It is temporary, he tried to explain. It doesn’t actually exist in normal urban or rural settings. It is something that happens for a moment, or was meant to happen for a moment, until the problem is resolved.”

There is little stability or sense of belonging in life as a refugee.

“We never think of the place as permanent, as ours. Take the architecture of the refugee camps, for example.” It is, in its form and function, incomplete. “You will make your flat very beautiful on the inside. But you won’t care about the outside. Because you don’t care. The place is the thing on the outside. And that place doesn’t belong to you.

A man will build a floor and the rooms he needs for the immediate present and no more. Even if he has money to build a complete house, he will not. He builds for necessity only. He does not build to establish himself. He does not build to make a home. He already has a home, but he is barred from it.

“Take my grandfather,” said Atef. “He refused to buy a piece of land outside the refugee camp in order to build a house, even though he had the money. Because he felt that this is all temporary. It’s not permanent. This refugee camp is temporary. ‘We are going to leave it,’ is the feeling, the hope of every refugee … Palestinians do not live in the today … We either live in a past that was beautiful or a future that would have been beautiful.”

Life becomes a conflict between holding on to the past and taking the reigns of the present. One’s immediate reality is temporary. What is permanent is a place imagined, a Neverland that cannot be.

Visitors only

Atef described this best with a story about his grandfather. It is a scene in his upcoming novel. After being kicked out in 1948, his grandfather refused to ever visit Jaffa again. It would be too painful to see his hometown in the hands of the very people who threw him out. But in 1982, after 34 years of exile, suddenly he ached to set his eyes on his Jaffa again. So they got in a car — Atef, his father, and his grandfather — and headed for Jaffa. When they reached the town just before Jaffa, Atef’s father pulled off the highway and turned onto a side road. This road would take them into the city. In just a few minutes they would be able to see it from the road.

“Stop!” Grandpa Ibrahim said abruptly. He was crying. “Stop and drive back, Talal,” he told his son, the tears falling freely, “drive back.”

“He couldn’t see Jaffa again,” Atef said softly, “he wanted to keep Jaffa as he left it in 1948.”

The old man died without ever seeing his home again. But he died with a pristine memory of how it was, when it was his. That is the strength of the permanency the refugee feels and its unspoken pain. It is passed down to and relived by those who never had the privilege of being born and raised there.

Atef described how, when he visits Jaffa now, he feels the great urge to mentally edit the reality he sees before him with the descriptions Grandma Aisha gave him. With her eyes he imagines the Old Jaffa, “with the same streets, the same buildings, the same architecture … You want to rebuild the city [in your mind], to recapture the old place. So you don’t live in reality even when you see it before you. This is where your life is a kind of metaphor. Our lives are a kind of metaphor.”

The metaphor gives the refugee a kernel of hope. It is a protective cloak that shields away some of the painful reality, that veils part of the humiliating knowledge of one’s status, that covers a little of the irrevocable sense of loss. Visiting a hometown, for a refugee, is like a catharsis without the relief.

“You visit, you don’t return,” said Atef. “I’ve been to Jaffa a few times. The last time I went was in 1998. It was the 50th anniversary of the Nakba,” he explained, referring to the forced dispossession of historic Palestine during the establishment of the State of Israel. “I went for a couple of days and stayed with some relatives that are still there. I cried — mostly for my grandmother. I imagined her walking in Jaffa again … It’s this beautiful villa,” he said, talking of his grandparent’s house, “a very nice house on the sea. Seeing my family’s house was very sad.

“I wrote about it in one of my novels. There is this scene with a dialogue between this Israeli girl and a Palestinian guy. It’s this encounter between the two characters. She tells him, You live in the past. Lets live in the present. The Palestinian responds, telling her, But your present is my past. You live in Tel Aviv now. I was supposed to be born in a villa by the sea. But I was born in a refugee camp.

“I was supposed to be born in a villa by the sea,” he said again, talking of himself this time. “But I was born in a refugee camp. A place where you can hear your neighbor snoring while you sleep.”

He, like every Palestinian, is each day made newly aware of the crushing knowledge that “a stranger came and changed the natural course of my life.”

“And you don’t have hope,” he concluded. “The people now wish they could fly over Gaza and leave. Unfortunately, of course. It is the opposite image of the Palestinian returning to his country. But it’s true. Because life is pushing them. And they have such a hard time. When you lose hope you lose the ability to continue.”

Later that day, I sat brooding as I looked out on the grey Gazan sea and watched the gulls soar majestically overhead, as if they owned the world and had not a care in their hearts. Hope is the thing with feathers, I thought, recalling the first line of Emily Dickinson’s poem. Hope, the elusive metaphor of the Palestinians. A metaphor they daily renew, only for it to be perpetually broken.

Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

The waves crashed loudly against the shore. Yes, I thought, sore, indeed, must be their storm.

Marryam Haleem is a senior at the University of Wisconsin studying philosophy and comparative literature and spent last summer in Gaza doing research for her senior thesis.