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By Riyam Kafri-AbuLaban
This Week in Palestine
Rayya’s household of four brothers (Nooh, Idrees, Ibrahim, and Ilias), a sister, a mother (Im Nooh), and a father (Abu Nooh) changed faster than you can say Palestine. It was a breezy spring morning in 1948 when everything transformed in a discontinuous moment in time. Rayya, today, is seventy-eight years old and packs so much energy in her little old body that even the youngest of us is put to shame. Rayya remembers in memory spurts what happened that spring. When she spills her memories out, sometimes there are tears, other times there are just quivers of anger rattling her words, begging to be released. On that fine spring Friday, with green fig trees playing in the breeze like little children trying to fly a kite, death and destruction slowly crept around the village of Abu Shoosheh and surrounded it from every direction…When she tells me her story, and every time she remembers a new detail, I get sweaty, clammy, and incredibly uncomfortable, you know, the same way as when someone is watching a horror movie waiting for the next person’s body to be splattered all over the screen, with one fundamental difference, this is not Hollywood, you cannot mute the soundtrack or stop the movie and never watch it again. This is Palestine, and it is not a choice, but a duty to listen, to etch the memory in our minds so that we may never forget what has befallen us.
Rayya tells her story sitting straight in her living room armchair, at her never empty home in Ramallah, with grandchildren and great grandchildren making so much noise in the backyard, it is almost hard to hear her. Her back is erect and proud, her hands delicately laced at the fingers, making all the proper gestures at the right time. You know how we [Palestinians] speak with our hands. She is seventy-eight years old and legally blind. When I ask her about her eyes, she always says, “I cried my eyes out...” She carries her memories in the gentle folds of her wrinkled face so tenderly; just like she carries my children in her arms with overflowing heart-aching love….Rayya is my mother-in-law…. It is perhaps best that she cannot see, because as I listen to her tell the story, my tears roll silently down my face, blurring the notebook page and smudging the ink. My mother-in-law is not a superhero, she has no extraordinary story to be turned into a box-office hit, but she is a living treasure. She gives you a first-hand account of what happened in 1948. Her memory is an act of the past in the present… (I read that somewhere, I cannot remember where, but I always thought it true of our story.)
Rayya’s story begins with her brother Nooh’s murder in a battle against the Haganah militia in Bab Al Wad near Jerusalem in early April 1948. “He went to defend his country…the Haganah were taking over one village after the other. He wanted to stop them.” Nooh left behind three children and a young wife (Im Mahmoud). Forty days later Abu Shoosheh was attacked for the third time. Every time the Haganah came, they would return empty handed, but this time it was different. They brought in extra force, more tanks and more men. This time Abu Shoosheh would fall. The women hid where they could, in their homes, or in caves around the village. The men left to resist. The battle raged for seven days. The sound of fire exchanged travelled through the village for several days and then came silence…A heavy, pregnant silence wrapped the entire village, the kind that only carries death in its muted wind. The women of Abu Shoosheh slowly ventured out. We humans are a curious caring species; our first instinct is to search for each other, to find each other. Nothing moves forward until we look, examine, and assess. And that is what the brave hearts of Abu Shoosheh’s women did when they could finally leave the darkness of hiding. They looked for their men - brothers, fathers, husbands, grandfathers, fiancés, and even secret lovers. They moved through the village searching, finding, and all the while grieving…The men were gone…bodies strewn everywhere…with the breeze moaning gently trying to tell them what happened here, as if they needed to be told. Rayya walked with her mother (Im Nooh), and her sister-in-law (Im Mahmoud) searching for her brothers (Idrees, Ibrahim and Ilias) and father (Abu Nooh). It was not easy to identify bodies that had sat in the air and the sun for so many days. They were swollen and had changed colour. Those were not the men they once knew, not the husbands they once loved, not the sons they once held, not the fathers they once adored…those were disfigured bodies that smelled wretched. The kind a moviemaker pays artists to create except that everything here was real. Those bodies had names, memories, and laughter that once bounced through the village walls. Rayya and her mother walked around searching, and every time they did not find anyone, hope would bubble up and spill over. Maybe they fled? Maybe they got away? Maybe they are hiding somewhere and are just waiting to come out. Maybe? But alas, maybe not. Rayya found two women sitting in front of a body covered with a sheet; she said that as soon as they saw her, they started wailing. Rayya, the twelve-year-old girl, lifted the sheet and looked…and there he was, her brother Idrees. She ran to her mother (Im Nooh), so proud of herself, just like any other child given a chore, happy to have successfully completed it, not fully comprehending what it meant to find what they were looking for. “Yumma lakait Idrees [Mother, I found Idrees],” she pulled at her mother’s dress and pulled her in that direction. Her mother, in complete denial, not ready just yet to have lost another child, slapped Rayya. “Waleh, hatha mish Idrees (Girl, this is not Idrees).” “Imbala yumma hatha Idrees. Look! I found him!” Rayya insisted.
“Mother slapped me hard every time I insisted that the body lying in front of us was my brother Idrees.” My mother-in-law unconsciously put her hand on her face, as if remembering Im Nooh’s slap…
Rayya’s mother, Im Nooh, refused to believe. This could not be her beloved beautiful son. Her Idrees was handsome, young, and strong. He was going to get married and have children. This body is rotten, swollen, and filled with bullet holes. It could not be her son, the one with a smile that could brighten a moonless night. How will he get married looking like this? What happened to his smile? No, no, Rayya is wrong, this is NOT Idrees, could NOT be Idrees, CANNOT be Idrees, but it was, indeed, Idrees. And Idrees was DEAD. When it finally started to sink in, she and her daughter carried his body silently, painstakingly, looking for a place to hide him away from the sun and the vultures flying over looking for an easy and an unassuming prey, just like the Haganah. There was no one here to dig a grave, the men were gone, and all that was left were women and children. There was no one here to give her beloved Idrees a proper burial. So Rayya and her mother carried Idrees into a nearby cave and went to look for Ibrahim. It was not too long before they found Ibrahim’s still body lying in the sun waiting to be rescued. Ibrahim was gone too. Three sons dead, within fifty days, and counting. This kind of loss cannot be described, cannot be written about, it is felt in the deepest layers of the soul where no human words can reach. Only God can feel the pain.
They searched for Ilias and Abu Nooh but could not find them. This is good, Rayya’s mother thought, there is hope they got away, that they were somewhere breathing freely, moving, eating, and talking…that they were still alive. The search continued for a couple of days. Women moved from one body to the other, covering it with shrubs, a little bit of dirt, and some stones. None of the men was buried in a grave. None of them was laid to rest…Their souls, I am sure, soared restlessly into the heavens demanding some kind of justice. There were no headstones to mark their death or to celebrate their life…
My mother-in-law stops, she cannot talk anymore. “Thank you khalto, we can continue on another day,” I say. “La ya bnayty, we can continue now, make us some coffee.” So I go and make coffee. In the kitchen I look around; there are all signs of life here. There is food in the refrigerator, the dishwasher is humming comfortably, cleaning the dishes from Friday morning brunch, and on the stove sits today’s dinner ready to be heated and served. There is life in this house….How can life rise from so much death? I wonder. I come back with two cups and a coffee pot. We sit and sip quietly, and between every sip, my khalto releases a sigh as if to make room for the hot coffee to enter her body. “So khalto, what happened next?” “On Friday, they called all of us into Dar Al Khawaja….
On Friday all the remaining women and children were called to Dar Al Khawaja. Rayya, Im Nooh, and the remaining members of her family had no choice but to follow the orders. They had no idea why they were being herded into Dar Al Khawaja, but most thought they were going to get killed just like their men. Arriving at Dar Al Khawaja, which is a large home for a family that lived near Abu Shoosheh, they were met by the Haganah who threw them out. “Kbab!” They yelled, “Go to Kbab; do not stay here!” Kbab was the next village near Abu Shoosheh; it was at least a one-hour walk…So they walked in the hot son, carrying with them a few personal items in their hands. Grief and loss lay so heavy on their shoulders. They walked slowly, purposefully, painfully until they got to Kbab. And under the trees they found men and women from other villages. And to Rayya’s relief and joy they were reunited with her father and brother Ilias. Ilias was injured, a minor setback, most important is that he was ALIVE!! And so was Abu Nooh. From Kbab they walked from one village to the other, Imwas, Yalo, Bait Shanna, all empty…
“So we walked ya Riyam…akh ya Riyam [oh ya Riyam]…we walked and walked and walked….”
One village after the other passed by them until they got to Deir Latroun, which is still there; some decided to stay there. Abu Nooh took his family on to Bir Ma’in. There they found people under trees, all now homeless, all now looking for the next village to walk to. In Bir Ma’in, Abu Nooh and his family were received with open arms. Bad news travels fast, and by the time they arrived, everyone had heard that Abu Nooh had lost three sons. A kind man took them into his house because no martyr’s family is ever homeless or left to live under a tree. They remained in Bir Ma’in for a while and then decided to move to Ain Areek. Abu Nooh knew the priest in Ain Areek. He was a friend who often visited Abu Shoosheh. The family walked from Bir Ma’in to Ain Areek, and there they took up residence under a tree. The church opened its doors for those wishing to sleep in it. Rayya and her family stayed in Ain Areek for two months, living under that one particular tree, and then moved to Ramallah, again taking up residence under yet another tree in what is now the old city. Abu Nooh finally managed to find a room for them to live in and started traveling to Khalil to buy pottery. He worked in selling pottery and slowly built his life. His family finally moved into a set of rooms in Batn El Hawa (an area in Ramallah). Rayya was married off to Khamis, another refugee from Abu Shoosheh and Zachariyya, at the young age of seventeen. She had her first child at 18.
When the war started in 1967, Abu Nooh took his remaining son Ilias who was now married, Im Nooh, Im Mahmoud (Nooh’s wife) and her three children to Jordan. He could not stand the idea of losing another son in another war. And like many Palestinians he managed to build a life there. What is most impressive is that he refused to move to refugee camps. Every time he moved his family, he did it independently. He worked hard to provide for them and did not rest until they were comfortable. Today Ilias and his five children and their families live in Jordan, comfortably, to say the least. Life again has risen from death, loss, and diaspora.
Rayya was in her early 30s when the 1967 war broke out. Her husband Khamis refused to leave again; he was already uprooted once and would not endure it again. He also left Abu Shoosheh. He was done moving…so the family stayed put here in Ramallah, and grew to become a large, loving family….Here, life has risen from death, loss, diaspora. Life has risen from the Nakba…
“Thank you, khalto, ta’abtek ma’ay (you must be tired), thank you so much for the time. But can I ask you one more question? Ba’dek bit-hinny la Abu Shoosheh? (Do you still yearn for Abu Shoosheh?)” My mother-in-law smiles slightly, and says with a strong voice: “Law bak’od ‘ala trabha min ghair wala ishy, wala adalny laji fee hal bait fee Ramallah! [I would rather sit with no possessions on Abu Shoosheh’s dirt than remain a refugee in my house in Ramallah.” My tear rolls down my face again silently…we sit quietly, sipping what is left of our coffee, the refugee and her daughter-in-law.
Dr. Riyam Kafri-AbuLaban is an assistant professor of organic chemistry at Al Quds Bard Partnership based in Abu Dis. She is the founder and managing partner of Riyamo Natural Body Care Products-Ramallah. She co-writes and co-manages The Big Olive, a blog about life in Palestine and Ramallah as seen by two young professors teaching and living here. She is married to Ahmed AbuLaban, and both have recently joined the fearless frontlines of parenthood with the beautiful and lovely twins Basil and Taima.