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Some Personal Recollections: Sixty Years Since 1948

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 06.06.2008:

Dr. Bernard Sabella

From: mailing DSPR, Dr Sabella


June 5th 2008

Often visitors to Palestine from abroad ask about personal stories to reflect on the realities and experiences of Palestinians living amidst an apparently interminable conflict. I usually hesitate to refer to my personal story, the story of my family because it carries such emotions and brings back memories that are better kept in the heart. These days, commemorations are taking place: today, 5th of June, marks the 41st anniversary of the June War of 1967. A couple of weeks back, we commemorated the loss of Palestine and the disintegration of our Palestinian society sixty years ago. For me as a young boy living in the fifties in a single room in the Old City of Jerusalem with eight other members of my extended family, dispossession meant that my parents were forced to leave their small home in Qatamon, West Jerusalem, in order to move to safety first in Lebanon where they stayed for a year and onwards to Bethlehem and eventually to the Old City of Jerusalem within a span of two years after 1948. Conditions in Old Jerusalem during the early fifties, the years of our refuge, were a reflection of the times: no electricity, no running water, no in-house toilet, a zinc metallic roof on which the rain kept tapping during wintry nights and made it difficult for me and my brothers and sisters to sleep soundly and be ready for school the following day. I recall vividly how my dear mother used to cook, wash and do all the daily chores of household in the one single room. The kerosene lit lamps helped us study, read and often gather to tell stories and to review the toil of each at the end of the day. A most memorable experience has been how we all gathered together every night to eat a light meal of thyme, olive oil and home made cottage cheese with cucumbers, tomatoes and a hot cup of tea. This was the occasion to relate to each other what went on during the day and the experiences each had at school, work or simply in the streets of the city.

My earliest remembrance of how my father and mother took the predicament of their newly acquired refugee status was made through listening to their conversation in the early hours of the morning when they were drinking their first cup of coffee. They would talk about their small home in Qatamon with love and cherish and they would reminisce about people and items associated with the house. The pine tree that stood in front of the house; the water plant nearby that used to produce ice; the backyard where they would entertain friends; the Jewish Irgun paramilitary camp that stood on one side of the house and the British army camp that stood on the other. The bombings by Jewish militant groups of Arab Palestinian homes in the neighborhood and how these together with the King David Hotel bombing by a Jewish terrorist group affected their lives as they have lost personal friends with whom they regularly associated. Surprisingly, though, my parents never said any bad or harsh word about the Jews but they were full of criticism to Britain, then a weakened world power that was terminating its mandate over Palestine, and to the USA, an up and coming world power, post WWII, that would lend unconditional perpetual support to the newly created Jewish state. My father’s criticism of both countries was that they have not upheld Christian ethics and morality, assuming that they were Christian nations, in dealing with the tragedy of our Palestinian people as these Western powers allowed the Jewish people that suffered a great and unspeakably horrible tragedy during WWII years to inflict a tragedy of disintegration and dispersal on our Palestinian people. That what transpired in Palestine, with the creation of Israel, spelled a deep injustice to my parents and to my teachers at school was clear from what they said and how they projected their experiences and sentiments. They were simply a deeply wounded generation.

But in spite of the pain and wounds of my parents’ generation, life in Old Jerusalem during the fifties of last century breathed of communal solidarity and of the pleasures of going on with life, in spite of everything. I recall how my mother and aunt would take us, children, once a year to buy new clothes and shoes. Especially if this shopping spree would take place during winter time, mostly around Christmas time, I and my brothers and sisters would feel greatly relieved as our old shoes with so many holes in them were liberally inviting for rainwater. We were so happy to replace shoes and for us this was part of our experience of a Merry Christmas. Santa Claus also visited us and Christmas morning we would find stashed on our bed, next to our feet, some chocolates and bonbons with a 2-piastre piece that amounted to 8 US Cents at the exchange rate of those years. The colorful paper wrap and the extra cash we received made us very happy indeed as we hurried to spend our newly granted wealth.

Most of my peers at the Ecole des Freres by the New Gate were refugee children, a mixed of Christian and Muslim youngsters whose parents passed through similar experiences in 1948. As a result of these experiences, we were all taken in politically by Nasser, the emerging Arab nationalist leader of Egypt as we often debated whether Palestinian refugees would ever make it back to their homes and villages in what was now Israel. We were arguing that the only way to get back what we lost would be through force following a famous statement by Nasser: “What was taken by force can only be returned by force.” Some of us, however, were not so sure that the Arab countries and their armies were ever a match to Israel and its Western allies. But aside from the heated political discussions, we were a spirited bunch of youngsters as we mounted plays and comic presentations at our different homes. We laughed so heartily that even our parents and the older generation forgot some of the pain and wounds that resulted from the 1948 war. We were also a socially engaged group as we joined different sports, culture, arts fora and clubs and participated in a variety of summer camps and organized social events for the whole community.

The hurt that our parents lived was balanced by their insistence that we receive a first class education. The meager salary that my father touched as an employee in the Finance Department of the Arab Municipality of Jerusalem was not enough to cover our school fees. UNRWA helped by giving partial educational grants to refugee children in private schools. The UN organization in charge of Palestinian refugee affairs also provided us on daily basis with a glass of milk, given at morning breaks to all children. The taste of the milk was awful at the beginning but we grew accustomed to it. Food rations distributed by UNRWA came in handy but standing in a long line of refugees, I remember how we were kept in line with a leather belt carried by a feared evil looking guard. The De La Salle Brothers and the Churches also helped. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land offered the room where we were living while the Brothers would provide the students at school, through the generosity of local and international donors, with winter hats and other essential clothes to counter the elements. Our parents gave us the feeling of dignity as they were proud in their poverty and in spite of their refugee predicament. They always managed with their little resources. Elementary things in life were what counted: good education, minimal food, one-time yearly shopping and love, among the more essential ones. The model given or in fact lived by many of our parents in Old Jerusalem was that we have to recommence our lives and move forward. We should never be prisoners of the past, regardless of how painful and hurting it is. With the material poverty of my parents came the richness of determination not to succumb. It was not easy but, even today; this is a model that ought to be followed. The future is ours if we so determine and insist on our rights as a people, including the Right of Return for Palestinian Refugees. We should remember that as we cope with the dark side of history, there is always a compensating parallel bright side. But this bright side cannot shine through without ridding ourselves of feelings of victimhood, self pity and helplessness. Otherwise, it will be difficult to be free and in the process to ensure that gaining our rights can and will be done without infringing on the rights of others. Freedom, when gained, would thus be a tribute to the model and example set by our parents. Our parents’ generation was the one that lived firsthand the impact of 1948 and that had overcome its initial aftershocks by giving us a first rate education and instilling in us hope that the future would always be better, if we so will.

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