Give Us Back Our Freedom: A Palestinian Odessey
Contributed by Terra Sancta School For Girls on 11.03.2006:
Here are Palestinian memories. They are a present from me to anybody who is interested. Where shall I begin my story? Should I start from my birth? No, it’s older than that. Should I start from my father’s birth? No, it’s older than that too. I start with what my grandfather was told by his father.
My grandfather’s father told about the Turkish period: “The Turkish army forced people to pay heavy taxes. My own grandfather was asked to join the army but refused. When he was caught on the way to Nablus, he found some money in his pocket that he gave to the soldiers and ran away. The people were poor and the cholera disease spread fast. While he was in Jordan his wife and children died because of the cholera. When he came back, he got married once more. After the Turkish rule ended, he went with his new wife and stole a bed from the Turks.”
When the Turks were in Palestine, people used to buy without paying until the wheat was in season. They then paid back in kind the people from whom they had bought. They also used to deal in golden lira [equals 120 kirsh or 0.10 sterling] and in the Turkish currency [which was called bashlak and majideh]. A jar of oil was half a lira or about half a sterling. When the British came, the work opportunities improved. A worker earned six to ten pounds sterling a day. People used to go from one place to another on horse or donkey; there were yet only few cars. They used to make coffee without sugar and they didn’t know tea until Britain came. They also didn’t wear trousers like the English people.
When a guest came to an Arab house at the time, they used to cook chicken or pigeon for lunch. On Fridays, the main meal was lintels. The meals were made of vegetables people had planted themselves. They used to go to springs to fill their jars with water. When my grandfather had money, he dug a well in the middle of the house. “How many times we quarreled over the spring!” he said. Their life was simple. There was no TV; they used to sit together and discuss things. Because there were no newspapers like today they didn’t know the news except when somebody came from Haifa.
My grandfather said that the old life before the occupation was better. He told me the story of his own life: “I was born on 10 October 1920 in Beit Mreen [15-20 kilometers north of Nablus, near Sebaste]. In 1936 when the revolution against the British Mandate took place I was a small boy. The strike lasted for six months. I was involved in the clashes. At the age of 14, I went to Jaffa for work. Afterwards I went to Haifa where I worked for eight years in an oil station. In 1941, during the Second World War, I got married. We stayed in Haifa for a while; then went to Nazareth because of the shooting and problems that erupted. “
“I kept commuting between Nazareth and Haifa until 1948 when the Israelis came and forced the people to leave their houses. They occupied the country so I went back to Nazareth and took my wife and the kids to Tubas [in the West Bank]. We stayed there for two years and then went back to Beit Mreen. We were obliged to go back after my father died. I built a small house and we stayed there. In 1952, I was looking for a job and found one in Bahrain, and later on in Pakistan and Kuwait, where I stayed until 1967.”
“When we heard the news that the country was under Israeli occupation, I left my work, my car and all my belongings and came back to be with my family and children; I didn’t want to leave them alone in such situation. There was a closure all over the country and they issued an Israeli identity card for me. There was no work. The boys grew up, most of them became teachers. We sold our house in Beit Mreen and went to Bethlehem in 1972.”
I myself lived through the first Intifada of 1987 while I was only three years old. My father, Elias Salman, who is 40 years, got excited about the subject matter that my grandfather and I were talking about and he joined in with his own stories about the first Intifada.
“During a curfew a pregnant woman was going to the hospital with her husband. The Israeli soldiers met them on their way and they had a heated argument with each other. They threw one of her relatives in the dumpster, so the woman ran to defend him but a soldier hit her on the belly. They went to hospital and she lost her baby.” (What crime did they commit? What was the baby’s guilt? He hadn’t even seen the light!)
Once during another curfew we were given two hours to buy things. We went to my grandfather’s house and there my sister broke her arm. They took her to the hospital and so we lost the two hours. I think my parents were very anxious at that time. They said that if we bought anything, it was always consumed by me because I used to eat a lot (I haven’t got rid of that habit until now). My mum told me that when the alarm went off, I used to say: “It’s time to eat.”
After speaking with my father, I discovered that once he had helped an injured young man during the first Intifada. At that time we were living near Aida Refugee Camp [in Bethlehem] in front of the Girls’ school. My father said: “One morning, while we were asleep at 7:00 a.m., boys were screaming outside. I got up and went to the balcony. People were holding an injured boy and were trying to stop a car to take him to the hospital. No one stopped for them so I went very quickly in my pajamas and started my car. Seven boys went with me in the Fiat. Blood was all over the place. I took them to the Hussein Hospital where a doctor came and examined him. The bullet had come in his hand from the right side and gone out from the left. It had not touched the bones. I stayed in the hospital until I was sure that he was OK, and then went home. Your mother used up her perfume on the injured boy because he fainted several times before reaching the hospital.”
“One day, two of our neighbors were on the roof fixing something. They were holding their phones. When the soldiers noticed them, they ran into the building like crazy, caught the two men and took them to their military headquarters. They thought that the men were informing others about the soldiers’ position. They were released the same day. The Israeli soldiers used to knock with their rifles on our doors at midnight. We always put off the lights and didn’t answer them. They were wearing black. One night they saw light in our neighbor’s house and knocked hard on their door. A woman, whose husband was in Saudi Arabia, was living there with her three children. She opened the little window in the door and saw the top of the rifle in her face. She screamed but the soldiers asked her about the people who were living near. They were looking for young men. She said that there was an old man with his seven girls and his little boy. She lied; her neighbor’s son was 17 years old, but she was concerned that they would arrest him while he hadn’t done anything.”
People needed money to survive. At the end my father went to work without a permit. He said: “We went through the by-pass road of Wadi Al-Nar [Valley of Fire]. After the village of Abu Dis the road to Jerusalem was full of checkpoints. We took another by-pass road and drove until we saw a jeep full of soldiers at the end of the road. The passengers went off the bus and we agreed with the bus driver that we would walk between the houses and meet him at another crossroad. However, the jeep approached and there were less than eight meters between us. The soldier took his rifle, shot at us and shouted: ‘Stop, where are you going?’ We ran for nearly 15 minutes until we were far away. I went back home because of the closure. I phoned my boss and explained the situation. I stayed at home. Now I face the same problem.”
In 1987, the first martyr was from Bethlehem University. He died while putting out the flag of Palestine. On that day, my mum came home from the hospital after giving birth to my sister.
When the Gulf War took place, the Israelis handed out masks to people but did not include the children. The people insisted getting masks for their children as well. When it was finally decided that they would receive them, everybody was sent into buses escorted by Israeli soldiers because Bethlehem was under curfew. People were standing in line to get them, but when that happened, Saddam withdrew from Kuwait. It was the end of the war.
“Are you still a refugee?” That’s what people still ask me up until now. Lately I met an old man who is a refugee from Jaffa. I noticed that he was waiting for someone to express his feelings and that person happened to be me. I was ready to listen to his stories. On 5 December 2000 I visited this old man with my father.
“My name is Wadih Saliba Mousa Salman. I was born in Jaffa on 1 July 1929. At the time Britain occupied Palestine. I studied at Terra Sancta School in Jaffa. I finished school until the seventh class; then I worked with my father in his business. We had a bakery called Alroumy. We were living a normal life and had properties in a place beside the Jewish area. Every day nearly 120,000 people used to come to Jaffa to work. There was more work during the orange season. People also worked in olive wood and mother-of-pearl, and there were fishermen, too. Jaffa was the only place where you could fish well.”
“Life was very simple and we used the Palestinian guinea or pound as currency [equals the Jordanian dinar now]. The employee used to take six pounds. The United Nations divided Palestine. Jaffa was conjoined to Tel-Aviv, which meant that it was on the Israeli side. The 1936 strike damaged the Palestinian economy. There was no transportation. For instance, going to the Holy Sepulcher was very difficult. They used horses. I used to live in the Manshia quarter between Jaffa and Tel-Aviv. Christians and Muslims lived in that same small area. There was love and neighborliness. Jewish people were living with us as well. Jerusalem was a town for tourists and pilgrims; Jaffa was industrial but also hospitable and famous; it was called ‘the mother of the strangers’.”
“The Arabs refused the division of their land. At the end of the day, people lived under closure. Many clashes and shootings happened. The situation got worse and there was no work. People started to leave their houses. They told us to go to Nablus just for six days. It has been 50 years now. We lived in Rafidia for six months, then left for Jericho. We slept in a tent where we had a small room. We were with five boys, six girls and my father, mother, grandmother and my aunt. There was no difference between rich and poor; all were in the same situation. After that we went to Bethlehem. My children got married and they live happily now. It is true that I have property here and my work is good but I’m still a refugee. I still feel tired, even now. We still keep the documents to show that we are refugees.”
Every now and then he took a cigarette. He was ill at ease and tried to feel better by speaking with me. He left his house for six days and those six became 50 years. Is there anybody who cares about the Palestinians? Please stop these massacres conducted against the innocent people of Palestine. They have suffered enough and the children are not living their childhood… Please, I want to live and feel peace and security. When I see children suffer and lose their eyes, legs or arms, I don’t feel secure. Please help us because our days have become full of fear and despair and our nights have become full of nightmares. Please save us from humiliation and our enemies’ oppression. Give us back our freedom.
From: Your Stories Are My Stories: A Palestinian oral history project. Saint Joseph School for Girls, Bethlehem, Wi’am – Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows. Culture and Palestine series AEI-Open Windows 2001. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com