This past weekend Haneen and I headed up to Haifa for the weekend. We caught a ride with some friends we made in Ramallah. As soon as we entered the ’48 territories (Israel) I told Haneen to look closely under any forests she sees to find destroyed homes that mark the presence of a destroyed Palestinian village. And before I even finished my sentence a forest appeared on our right and sure enough destroyed Palestinian homes lay at the bottom of the trees. These forests were planted by the Jewish National Fund through the 1950s after the Palestinians were ethnically cleaned and their villages destroyed to erase any trace of their existence. So in reality this was not a ecological contribution but the erasing of a people. The absurdity is how can Israelis see these houses today and continue to believe that no one lived and built this land before they dispossessed them?
When we got to Haifa we asked to be dropped off at a street near the Baha’i Temple, which is full of Arab owned restaurants and cafes. We sat down for coffee and chatted with the wait staff until a friend I made in Haifa a few weeks before came by to pick us up. He was taking us to the home of another friend I made in Haifa whose family he wanted us to meet. The father prepared an AMAZING meal and while I got into a long and heavy political and literary (Palestinian) conversation with the parents, Haneen and our five new friends sat outside talking, smoking argileh, and drinking beer. Haneen and I both felt like we had known this family for years. It was a strange yet welcome feeling and I really felt at home.
We stayed with them in Hallisa– my grandparents’ neighborhood in Haifa. Before 1948 when my grandparents lived there, Hallisa was a middle class neighborhood. Today it is a predominantly Arab neighborhood, it is poor and run down. Our friends called it a slum and it is burdened by drugs and violence. Walking to the house we were staying in we saw a car with someone’s name on it, and our friends told us that this car belonged to a young man who was shot dead outside of his home. It is rough here and the residents were facing eviction by the Israeli government a few months ago.
The following day Haneen and I woke up early to go to the beach where we spent half of our day. At the beach I sat in the water and became lost in my thoughts, particularly thinking about the dispossession of my people from this land and my grandmother’s stories about the beach and about the view of the ocean from their house. But every time I got lost in my thoughts I would be awakened suddenly by my surroundings and the realization that this is not the same Haifa. Here the Palestinians who remained are living in slums at worst and at best attending university where they are forced to study in Hebrew– not their native tongue. This while they are indigenous to this land and in a few year’s time will make up the majority of people living in this country again.
And then there was the bus incident. On our way back from the beach to Hallisa we took the bus that would drop us off walking distance from our destination. I spoke to the driver in English because he was obviously not Arab and I cannot speak Hebrew. I told him we would like to be dropped off at Hallisa. “Hallisa you say? Not Khallisa? So you are Aravim (Arab)?” Yes, we are Arab. “And you don’t speak Hebrew?” No, we only speak Arabic and English. “And you go to Hallisa of course you are Arab. Only Arabs go to Hallisa.” OK– so can you tell us when we get there? “Yes, I will tell you when I get there.”
The boys in the back of the bus got very rowdy and loud and began bothering the passengers. The same bus driver assumed that they were Arab and in a derogatory tone he started to yell at them: “Ahmad! Ahmad!” Then broken Arabic to tell them to shut up. Haneen and I were confused because the boys were Jewish, not Arab, but it was assumption he made and refused to back down. Another Jewish passenger, male in his early forties, came to the front of the bus and told the bus driver to do something about those kids. The bus driver said, again in broken Arabic, “Can you speak Arabic? Tell them in Arabic, Ahmad! Shut up!” The passenger argued with the bus driver that the kids were Jewish, not Arab, but the bus driver insisted that they were Arab. Haneen leaned over and told me that for the first time in her life she believed that the way she feels must come close to being Black on a White bus.
After the loud kids in the back got off the bus, the driver told us he was pulling up to Hallisa. He went off route (we know this because the women on the bus started to yell at him about making a wrong turn) and told us that if we got off here we are to make a quick left and quick right and we would find ourselves in Hallisa. When we got off the bus, we asked and found out that we were lied to but the bus actually goes all the way to Hallisa. It was an odd type of racism that inspired that bus driver to kick us off the bus, but the Palestinians there understood. They were appalled by the story, but they understood the situation nonetheless. The responses we heard were, “Yes, that is how it is here”. We got on another bus (incidentally the same bus route) with an Arab driver and he got us to Hallisa.
When we got to Hallisa we washed up, ate, and went back out to explore the neighborhood and see my grandparents’ house. On a hilltop in Hallisa is a mosque called the Mosque of Hajj Abdullah. Hajj Abdullah was my grandmother’s uncle– he built the mosque and it is one of the few mosques in the ’48 territories that remains a mosque. Most were either destroyed or turned into bars or animal barns. Directly behind the mosque is the house my grandmother used to live in with her family. In 1948 she would have been 14 years old. Her sister and my grandfather’s brother were married, and my great grandfather rented a room in their building and the first floor as a grocery store from them. My grandfather was 18 in 1948. My grandmother and grandfather would not get married until my grandmother was 19 and they were refugees in Damascus. I will write more about them in a later post.
That day as we were going to see the old house on the hilltop in the Hallisa neighborhood in Haifa we met two of my distant cousins: one from my grandmother’s family and one from my grandfather’s. This is the Diaspora, and I have experienced it many ways before but this face of the Diaspora I have just experienced for the first time. The Diaspora is young enough for you to see your family, but old enough for you not to know them. Some photos below: