The most basic of rights
He sat on the arm chair quietly, holding his cane in front of him with both hands. He had received a call from son in Dubai half an hour earlier. People around him were asking what kept him so quiet, so distressed all of the sudden. Was it the call? What was on the mind of the usually cheerful man?
On the way home in the taxi, he kept to himself, quiet. His daughters were wondering what was wrong, but the man preferred to keep it to himself. When the family made their way home the man reminisced on the evening he had just spent, indirectly opening up to the reason he was so quiet.
Going back an hour earlier, I was sitting with the elderly man on a balcony overlooking Damascus along with his brother in law, Ziad. During the conversation Ziad asked the man if had seen pictures of “di3itna” (our village), knowing that the mentioning of such pictures would rouse great eagerness in the man. The man got excited and inquired on how he could see the pictures. Ziad let us into the computer room and took us to a popular Palestinian website dedicated to the Nakba. The site had pictures of the ruins of a village, ruins that meant nothing to a passerby, but meant the world to the man looking at them. The simple digital pictures gave my grandfather the opportunity to see his home after a 60 year absence. Memories were awakened with every picture. He asked me to call my grandmother over to the computer to share with her the little treasure he had just found. Together they sat for about an hour looking at the few pictures available on the site. The pictures were all they had of their home, the pictures were their window to a land they often speak of, vividly recall memories from, and often dream of returning to. They worked off of each others’ memory, slowly putting the pieces together. They recognized to whom one of the houses belonged, and started recalling the trips they used to make to village spring as kids.
Al Shajara (the village) was ethnically cleansed on May 6th 1948, by the Golani brigade. My grandfather was 17 at the time, and my grandmother a few years younger. Most of the villagers walked on foot to Lebanon, eventually settling in refugee camps in Syria. At the time of the expulsion my paternal grandmother was pregnant and had to walk on foot with 5 of her children by her side. She gave birth to my aunt along the way to Lebanon in a cave, symbolically naming her Raheel (Departure/Vamoose). My paternal grandfather was 40 at the time of the invasion. He was away from the village fighting with the Arab Liberation Army. At the time of expulsion my grandmother left on her own thinking that my grandfather had died in battle. About a year later my grandfather was able to retrace her steps and met her in Syria. Both paternal grandparents passed away without having the chance to even see pictures of their destroyed village.
The story of my grandparents is by no means unique. Hundreds of thousands of villagers were forced out of their homes in 1948, never to return. The ruins that remain from their villages stand as a stark reminder of the atrocities that took place.
Sadly the story is not over. Palestinians still live under occupation in the West Bank, with more and more of their land and houses getting confiscated. Meanwhile a growing diaspora population is watching the developments closely, hoping one day they can return to a land that exists in the memory of some, and the imagination of others.