Friday, 11 September 2009

The Picture-less Frame

As a child, I spend all school holidays in Dheisheh refugee camp. Neighbouring my grandparents’ house was a tiny UNRWA house: one of those tiny rooms built by the UNRWA for the Palestinians kicked out of their origi-nal homes and made refugees by the Zionists. At first the refugees lived in tents, which were later placed by small rooms when it became clear that a return to Palestine was not to happen in the near future. The small house consisted of 2 small rooms; one used as bedroom and the other as a sitting room. The front yard had a cemented floor, a ceiling and was fully walled from 1 side and half-walled from 2 sides, which would have made changing this front yard into a third room an easy task. But instead of a room, my grandmother had some flowerbeds and flower pots decorate the whole place, in addition to a grapevine that spread all over the ceiling and beyond it to my grandparents’ house. The flowers were beautiful and my grandmother would water them every day, care for them and would plant new flowers instead of those killed by us while playing. A few steps led from the front yard to a small piece of land where my grandmother had planted a couple of trees. Here, contrary to my grandmother’s garden opposite this one, there were much fewer trees, the grass grew long and it was full of all sorts of insects. There was a toilet there, one of those outside toilets which no one used, and it scared us because it was dark inside and because we feared falling in that hole in the middle. This small garden was surrounded by cactuses, which marked its borders. I remember once looking out of the sitting room of my grandparent’s house towards this piece of land and seeing my grandmother standing by the cactus wall. She was plucking its fruits while murmuring something I couldn’t hear. Remembering what grandmother told us about her original village Jrash and how cactuses were part of the Palestinian landscape, I am sure she was remembering her days there. During autumn and winter, my grandmother often went collecting mushrooms there, and I would accompany here. She knew exactly where to look, and would search for them in the strangest places and would find them there waiting for her. Once back home in Sawahreh, I searched our land looking for mushrooms, and when my mother asked what I was doing and I told her, she said that I won’t find any there. I didn’t believe her and continued looking, for at the time I couldn’t understand how in one part of Palestine you could find mushrooms but not in another part. Anyway, I found none, but whenever I am there I would keep my eyes open for mushrooms. During my last visit there and while we were picking the olive trees, I came across a few mushrooms which were huge and looked suspicious. I didn’t cook them, but was happy when I showed them to my mother. My grandmother used to fry the mushrooms we collected with some olive oil and onions, and it was such a delicious dish that till today this is one of my favourite dishes and I eat mushrooms almost with everything. I even add mushrooms to my Maqluba (upside down), which is a traditional Palestinian dish.

The little house was simply furnished with a bed, a couch, a table a few chairs. That was all. My uncles took turns living there, depending on who among them was not inside Israeli jails. Whoever among my uncles was living there at the time would often welcome his friends there, and we would play in the yard and listen to their murmuring and their laughter coming from the window. I loved that tiny house, for it always represented happiness in midst a lot of sadness: the fact that one of my uncles was free, the laughter there of these young men who spent more time in Israeli cells than in their own homes, the fact that we were mostly there during the summer holiday which meant that my aunts came from Kuwait and Jordan for a visit and we would be spending the whole summer playing with their children, and finally my grandmothers’ flowerbeds. But of all that was in and around that tiny house, only one thing always fascinated me there: on the bedroom wall there was a huge poster of mountains covered with snow and surrounding some small blue lake that reflected the blue sky. I was fascinated by the beauty of that poster and used to lean on the window and look at that poster and wonder if such a place really existed. It could have been a well-done painting or an Illusion, and since then I often thought of that place and imagines myself wandering around that lake. To me, it was a sort of untouchable place, a sacred place, a paradise, and a place so beautiful that it can never be real.

Back in Sawahreh, I would always make comparison between both places. While in Sawahreh the hills and valleys stood free and extended to the horizon, Dheisheh was tiny and overcrowded. Houses in Sawahreh had vast front yards with flowers and some vegetables and herbs. These were open areas and even with the somewhat crumbling stone borders, we could play wherever we wanted. In summer we ran up and down the hills and in winter we played hide and seek and other games in the nearby olive fields. There are lots of old stone structures that actually had no definite structure anymore, yet it was so mystical that we would imagine ourselves in another world, another time. We used to play there and when it rained we used them as shelter, where we sat telling stories till the rain stopped and we could go back home. There are lots of caves there as well, many of which had unnatural inhabitants, we were told, and many villages went inside these caves to never come out again. They were home to ghosts, monsters, murderers, tramps and imaginary heroes, fighters who would one day wake up and liberate Palestine. In Dheisheh, the trees were always a surprise, maybe because it was not expected to find trees in overcrowded places. But it was so. Whether it was my grandparents’ house or those of other relatives or friends, they all had trees in their tiny gardens or in their houses. The UNRWA had built small rooms for each family, but with time and as families expanded and grew, the houses expanded as well. One of the houses where I used to play as a kid was that of a close relative. It had a tiny door that would not prepare the visitor to what was inside. It was somewhat similar to old Syrian houses one sees in Syrian historical drama, where there is an open yard in the centre with a fountain or a tree. But, I think as far as I remember, those Syrian yards were open, while the few Palestinian yards I saw in Dheisheh and in Jerusalem were closed. With closed I mean that they had a ceiling. Back to my relative’s house, there was a huge tree in the middle, and we used to play beneath that tree. Sometimes I wonder if there was ever really a ceiling, for the tree was huge and could have covered up the sun and the sky. On one hand it felt safe playing there, knowing that the IOF soldiers were patrolling the refugee camp on an hourly basis. We were relatively safe inside, no Israeli soldiers shooting at children and no settlers attacking homes, and we could play all day long under that tree. On the other hand, it felt as if one was imprisoned in that small space. For it was nothing like playing in the open fields under the sun.

When I visited those relatives last winter, I sat in the living room and while my mother’s aunt and uncle and my aunt talked about family matters, I looked around the room which was filled with Palestinian embroidery. Despite the beautiful colours I felt sad, for this room was previously the yard where the tree stood and where we played as children. There was no more tree there and no more yard, just an everyday home like the ones you would find anywhere in the world, an ordinary two-story home with a sitting room, a kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms, but no closed yard with a tree. Outside, they had a tiny garden with all possible local herbs and flower bushes and a small UNRWA room in the corner. I told my mother’s aunt that I was looking for UNRWA rooms and she wanted to show me theirs. I had been taking photos of old UNRWA rooms because they were disappearing from the refugee camp, and to me these rooms are yet another witness to the great injustice done to Palestine: Palestinians thrown out of their beautiful homes and villas and forced to live in overcrowded 2-room ”sheds”. The tiny room was filled with old stuff, some maybe 61 years old or even older. Among several things, I remember a wooden board with blankets and mats, an ancient cupboard, an old suitcase and on the wall there was a Saj (iron sheet used for baking bread). One strange item was a picture frame that stood empty. There was no photo inside, only the frame that seemed as old as the Palestinian Nakba itself. As my great aunt went on talking, I tried to take in all that was there in that room, but my eyes kept wandering back to that picture-less frame. What did it mean and why was it empty? Where is the photo? Was it a photo of a beloved family member or of a dear place? What had happened to it? Did my aunt lose it as they were ethnically cleansed by the Zionists? If they had no use for it, why was it hanging on the wall? Many questions were filling my head and one particular question kept buzzing: where is the photo? I tried uselessly to find an explanation, to understand why she had kept that empty frame. Without success.

I didn't ask about the missing photo, and I don't know why. Maybe I feared bringing up sad memories, for I know well how much my mother’s family and others suffered and what they went through on the hands of Zionist terrorists during the Nakba of 1948.

My grandmother said once: there is no place like Jrash. My youngest aunt and two uncles are only some 5 to 6 years older than me, so whenever I was in Dheisheh as a child, they were my play companions. One of the earliest and loveliest memories I have of Dheisheh is one of us four lying on the front yard of my grandparents’ house, before the house was expanded and the yard disappeared. We lay there near each other and watched the sky. It was a summer day and I still can see the blue sky and the white beautiful clouds wandering slowly. As we watched the sky, we tried in turn to figure out what the clouds looked like or what kinds of things they reminded us of. We imagined shapes and figures that were not there, and tried to see the goat in a cloud that looked more like a ship. And as we played our guessing game, they talked about Jrash. They often did. It was part of my growing up, for as I grew up, Jrash “grew up” in my mind and developed. With every passing year and with every story, memory or sentence I heard, the picture I had of Jrash received more lines, more colour and became more distinct, until the picture of what Jrash looked like some 70 years ago was “almost” complete. I say “almost” because it can only be complete with me seeing Jrash with my own eyes. They all used to talk of a place most of them never saw, of Jrash, the home from which they or their parents were ethnically cleansed in 1948 by Zionists terror groups. The only photos I know of Jrash are 2 taken after the Nakba of 1948: one photo in black and white and one in colour. In the 2 photos some rubble is visible indicating the remains of the 44 village houses destroyed by the Zionists, otherwise nothing more is left of what was once a home to some 220 Palestinians. When I first saw that second picture and recalling everything I had heard about Jrash, I couldn’t help shed a tear. For it is one thing to hear about the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing, the killing, the wiping off of a whole village, and another to see the seemingly innocent “crime scene”; beautiful green meadows and hills. It was somehow the same beautiful Jrash of which many sing, minus its spirit: the people who own the land. The Zionists did their best to erase all traces of their crimes: the massacres that were carried out, the houses destroyed and the trees uprooted. But they failed to erase the most important evidence: our memory of what once was and what will one day once again be. When my grandmother spoke of Jrash, she saw her parents’ home, her own little home, her garden, the olive trees, the almond trees, the fig trees, the cactuses and her apple tree. When my grandfather spoke of Jrash, he saw the 44 little houses, the harvest, the goats and the sheep, the olive fields, the green meadows and hills. When they talk about Jrash, their voices are full of love, longing and with a sparkle in their eyes. They talked of happy days and of happy people, of simple people, of content people who love their home and their land. Looking at that second picture of Jrash, I saw a beautiful landscape that was deserted and that looked sad. The little houses with their flower gardens are gone, the fields are empty, the trees uprooted and the simple, happy and content people are made into refugees and scattered all over the globe. A sad photo of a sad young woman, called Jrash, in her beautiful thoub sitting on one of those hills and waiting, watching, looking out to welcome her people when they come back.

And as the case is with the parts of one body, Jrash hills extend to meet the hills of Sawahreh, spreading as far as the eye can see and connecting the western borders of Jerusalem with its eastern borders. The Palestinian landscape is one and only one continuous landscape, defying ethnic cleansing, land theft, genocide and the forgery of history. There is nothing like Sawahreh, my father often says. He was born and grew up in what is now part of the Maale Adumim illegal Jewish settlement bloc. On my last visit to Palestine, and on the way to Ramallah, as we passed Maale Adumim my father pointed to a spot and said all of a sudden: I was born there, exactly there. He said it in a light dreamy voice that I had to look at his face and I am sure he was seeing his family, his parents sitting outside in the evening and talking, his siblings playing, the goats and the horses, and his school books which he cherished so much. There is nothing like Sawahreh, he would say, and would sometimes go wandering down the hills or to our lands in the Sawahreh barrieh or the “praries” as we like to call them, and would come back as if he had just paid a visit to paradise. I don’t know why my father chose that particular day to mention that particular spot. He and my mother often told us stories about their childhood, about growing up in Palestine, about all those who were worthy of the name Palestinian and about others who sold their souls and honour. Maybe it was the realization that this time it was some Palestinians who are participating in this third Nakba of Palestine, seeing Maale Adumim grow into some sea monster with 1000 claws that are destroying Palestine, seeing all those illegal Jewish settlement built on stolen Palestinian land, seeing all those illegal Jewish settler roads dissecting Palestine and seeing Jerusalem in the far and not being able to go there, seeing all this and realizing that this is done with the approval of some Palestinians who think they have the right to determine our destiny, to give up our legitimate rights and to sell Palestine for such a cheap price as a fake title and a fake authority.

Sawahreh wasn’t ethnically cleansed. It is still there, or at least partially, for the Zionist state has confiscated much of Sawahreh’s land, including that land belonging to my family. They plan on extending the Maale Adumim bloc, building alternative roads for us so that the “Herrenrasse” wouldn't spoil its day by seeing our faces while driving on our streets and our lands. Jrash and Sawahreh are so different, yet so similar. They tell the story of Palestine: while one has been ethnically cleansed and its existence erased from the map, the other is being turned into a prison surrounded by Israeli military checkpoints and a huge wall and being eaten up by illegal Jewish settlements.

I once saw a documentary on a German TV station about one German Jewish family that had escaped Nazi Germany to the United States. On their first visit back to Germany in the Nineties, an elderly woman stood in front of a nice-looking house with a garden and said with tears in her eyes that this is her parents’ house; this is where she was born and where she grew up till they were forced to leave. She said that others have taken their home and were living in it, and the accompanying reporter asked if she would like to go inside and see the house. At that moment I turned off the TV because I couldn't watch anymore. With every single word that woman was saying I was seeing a Palestinian mother, a Palestinian father, a Palestinian child, a Palestinian grandmother, MY grandmother being kicked out of her house! I tried to find consolation in the fact that at least this victim was decent enough to go to the States and not to go and live in the house of a Palestinian, unless of course she has a second house in the Zionist state, as many European and American Zionists do. They are allowed double and triple passports and residences on our usurped land and on what they call “former home”. If they consider these countries “former home”, and demand continuously compensation for all that they lost there, accept a second citizenship from these countries and even have homes there, why don’t they just go back to these homes and allow the millions Palestinian refugees who have no home but Palestine to go back to their homes? But no, it is much more profitable to stay in the Zionist state and keep crying “old home” and demand compensation, while millions of Palestinians carry refugee papers and travel documents and are kicked out of one country after the other.

When I first went to Germany to pursue my higher studies, the first thing I did was to ask Arab students who were long before me in Germany about posters for Palestine, and when I got some I immediately filled my room in the student house with posters of Palestine, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was then and only then that I was finally able to sleep. During a trip to the Swiss Alps, the group I was with made a stop at the top of some mountain. It was full with people, mostly tourists, and everyone around me was hurrying to the left and to the right and taking pictures. I walked around to see what was attracting these people. The mountains around us were marvellous, but what was it that these people were running to see? As I reached where everyone was standing, I was speechless for a second. It was the same view on that poster in my uncle’s bedroom in Dheisheh. The blue lake surrounded by white tipped mountains. I stood there, a Palestinian who had often dreamt of this place, imagining it to be something unreal. And as the people around me took photos and spoke loudly of the beauty of the view, I stood watching. And as I stood watching, I thought of Sawahreh, I thought of Dheisheh, I thought of Haifa, Jaffa, Akka, of Bethlehem and Ramallah and Hebron, of Nablus and Jenin, of Gaza and Nazareth, I thought of Jrash and I thought of Jerusalem. I thought of that empty picture frame and I understood, I finally understood.

Pics 1 & 4:


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