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The Untold Stories of Palestine: A Daughter’s View of her Mother’s Palestine

By December 28, 2017 May 11th, 2021 9 Comments

DISCLAIMER: They say the view is always clearer from the bottom. My account from the bottom is inspired by friends who have asked to hear more about my mother’s story. I believe Palestine lives on forever through such stories, some told, others woven into the threads of Palestinian dresses, and painted on walls and canvasses. All are firmly etched in our hearts and imaginations. I attribute all factual errors to the fact that I chose not to consult my mother prior to writing these words.

I did not know how to break the news to my social media-sceptic mother. Kehlani’s best friend, I am told over loud victory dances, had reposted a picture of my mother holding the Palestinian flag at a peaceful demonstration last week. That picture was incidentally posted on Instagram by yours truly and all the granddaughters without her consent. I had no clue who Kehlani was -let alone her best friend. I did not want to take away from the excitement, particularly since images of that picture making it on the evening news were slowly depositing terror into my every cell. All I knew was that Kehlani’s best friend was not going to help me dig myself out of that hole. So why not settle in and dig deeper?

Bahjeh Bitar’s image is iconic, whether she likes it or not. If she could have wrapped herself in the flag that Friday morning, she would have. And not because she believed standing on a small, paved plot of concrete in the most affluent neighbourhood in Amman would end the occupation and free Palestine. She wanted to be heard and seen -not on social media, but by the politicians who strive to erase all memory of what was once Palestine, a land of peace where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived and worshipped side by side. Until -as the beautiful Lebanese artist Fairuz tells in her sung story of Jerusalem, the city of prayer,

“Peace was martyred one day, on the very land of peace.”

My mother is another face to the story of Palestine and its people. The youngest of 10 brothers and one sister, she was born in the city of prayer. Her father, Sheikh Mohammad Naseeb, was serving as Chief Judge of Jerusalem at the time. He passed away in 1948, when most of Palestine was occupied to become “Israel”. Her mother died on the same day in 1967 when the rest of Palestine fell.

Sheikh Naseeb was born in 1890. I am guessing he was born in Nablus, where he studied until he moved to Cairo for an Islamic Law degree at Al Azhar University. From there, he went to Istanbul to finish his post-graduate studies in Islamic Law. He served with the Ottoman Army in the First World War. After four brave years, the handsome young sheikh returned home to Palestine to work in its Islamic courts in Jaffa, Gaza, Nazareth, Jenin, Haifa, and Jerusalem, where he finally settled in 1946 to serve as its chief judge. In honour of his stature, he used to be asked to lead prayers in the main mosque in Nablus whenever he visited.

Sheikh Mohammad Naseeb Al Bitar

It was during his time in Jerusalem that my mother and her twin brother were born, within the walls of Al Haram Al Sharif (Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.) I was fascinated as a child when my mother would tell me stories of them playing inside those famous walls I saw on posters, especially the tales of haunted rooms. Equally intriguing were the stories of them having to carry on large trays the bread dough -and knafeh– to the baker’s to be baked. My favourite image that comes back to me often is of my tween mother sitting on steps a short distance away from her home, discreetly sliding her knee-high socks down to her ankles and stuffing her veil in her school bag. Her father was deceased at the time. It was the traditional, possibly chauvinist pressure of one of her siblings that forced her to pretend to compromise. I have no doubt her father would never have allowed the boys to bully her into anything. She was his favourite. And he was always proud of her, even at 12 years of age. I think he saw what I see everyday.

Like her father, Bahjeh had an exceptional education. And she excelled. She graduated at the top of her class and attended university in Beirut, along with other equally formidable Palestinian women. Many of those women have led the resistance movement in the diaspora. She was awarded a scholarship to study for her Master’s degree in Education in Albany, New York.

My mother was 12 years old in 1948. Jewish paramilitary groups were pillaging Palestinian towns and villages. The massacre of Deir Yassin (Monastery of Yassin), a small Palestinian village of 600 people near Jerusalem, was underway. The International Red Cross documented atrocious war crimes that evening in April, with corpses decapitated and disemboweled, and others paraded through the streets of West Jerusalem. All the victims were innocent civilians seeking shelter in their homes. Her birthplace was under attack. Her 58-year-old father was feeling very ill and complaining of severe headaches. I suspect he was having seizures while his countrymen were being slaughtered. Because of the war, hospitals in Palestine would not accept to treat him, and he had to be moved to the Italian Hospital in Amman, where he died shortly after, on June 26, 1948. By then, West Jerusalem and most of what is known today as “Israel” had fallen. He was buried in his birthplace of Nablus.

On June 26, 1967, my grandmother passed away in the same hospital in Amman, as the rest of her beloved Palestine fell to the Israeli occupier. She had cancer, and my uncles felt bringing her to Amman would be best for her. My mother was still in the West Bank at the time with my brother and sister.

My father’s handwritten diary

When my father passed away, she gifted me two briefcases full of handwritten journals by my father. Some included detailed accounts of battles against the Israeli army in the West Bank and Jordan. It was difficult for me to read them. His handwriting was literally impossible to decipher. But the tears came from tracing the outline of his handwriting on the paper he actually touched. And then to begin to grasp the depth and passion he had for his service to his country and love for its people.

I looked through them again recently. My eyes fell on a special page. In it, he wrote about the June war of 1967. He felt that as the wife of the army general, my mother’s resolute presence in her home in the West Bank would reassure her neighbours that all was not lost. So he left her to stay even though the Jordanian Army had withdrawn its forces and returned to the East Bank of Jordan. In the end, it was those neighbours he cared about who ensured the safety of my mother and siblings. My father wrote that he was eternally grateful for Father Bandak, a devout Palestinian pastor, who helped my mother through those trying days cross the Jordan River with my baby brother in her arms and my sister by her side, on foot, with the rest of those who were forced to leave.

That was the last day my mother would set foot in her home. Family pictures and treasures were all destroyed. Her brothers were paranoid the Israeli army would use those to harm our family and chose to burn them.

She arrived in Amman to the news that her mother had passed away, in the same hospital on the same day as her father twenty years before, on the day all of Palestine was lost.

My mother is fortunate. She chooses to wrap herself in the Palestinian flag and share stories of her home with her children and grandchildren. She says the beautiful Ahed Tamimi reminds her of my youngest daughter. Maybe deep down she hopes her granddaughters would go on to tell the stories of Palestine.

I believe Palestine’s saving grace is its people. 2017 has been the year of the heroine. She is rising, telling tales of freedom and courage. I am reminded as the year comes to a close that I am born to my very own legend.

Peace may have been martyred on the land of peace, but fortunately for the world, it has left behind heirs. They are the women of Palestine.

My friends tell me I remind them of my mother. I wish I had an ounce of her grace. She is the embodiment of extraordinariness. Peace may have been martyred on the land of peace, but fortunately for the world, it has left behind heirs. They are the women of Palestine.

Happy 2018 to you and your heroine.

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