In my mother's footsteps: An ordinary Palestinian
In My Mother's Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home, Mona interweaves the story of her mother's life and her own sabbatical year teaching conflict resolution in Ramallah.
In 2002, my husband, David, my three teenage sons and I traveled as a family to Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding delegation with the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a nonprofit, humanitarian aid organisation that supports children and families in Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon.
While traveling in the West Bank, I saw the effects of the Occupation with my own eyes. The most shocking reality was standing in the shade of the concrete twenty- five-foot-tall Israeli Wall that seemed to be continuously sprouting amidst ancient olive trees: destroying landscapes, creating ghettoes and barriers that separate Palestinians from their land, and Palestinians from other Palestinians.
"My mother’s strong bond with Palestine was a narrative of loss, an unyielding longing filled with melancholy"
The hardest moment for me was when in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, I was asked to translate for our delegation from Arabic into English the words of Fadwa, a mother of six young children, who had, the night before, experienced an Israeli incursion into her home. She was alone with her children when, without any warning, Israeli soldiers forced their way into her house and requisitioned it.
It would provide them with a strategic position, they said, as it was located at the top of a hill, overlooking a major road. Fadwa and her six children were forced into the bathroom and locked inside for 48 hours. When I was asked to translate, it seemed like a simple enough task since my conversational Arabic is quite good. However, what I didn’t realise then was that by translating and using the first-person narrative, I had placed myself in the middle of the traumatic experience this woman had endured and identified with her circumstances. That evening in our hotel room, I wept incessantly, feeling this mother’s fear and powerlessness.
My mother’s strong bond with Palestine was a narrative of loss, an unyielding longing filled with melancholy. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to David, who also sang the same woeful song, as he, too, was a Palestinian refugee. I was drawn to their grief-stricken yearning, like a moth is attracted to light. Even if I did not experience their nostalgia I felt their grief, and empathised with losing a home, since I, too, had lost mine as a child. I understood my mother and David’s loss, but I wanted a different relationship to Palestine, and I wanted it on my own terms.
"But the reality of living in Jerusalem also meant facing life under Israeli Occupation"
Luckily for me, a succession of fortunate events led me from 2006 to 2008, to live in Jerusalem, research my family history, and teach conflict resolution at the Ramallah Friends School.
In Jerusalem, I quickly learned how to live the life of an ordinary Palestinian, buying my hot loaves of pita bread at the bakery down the street, a bar of olive oil soap at the corner market, or half a kilo of cucumbers from farmers in their traditional embroidered dresses, sitting with their woven baskets of produce on the steps inside Damascus Gate. Living in Jerusalem meant being awakened at five in the morning by the loudspeakers atop the mosques that emitted a languid, melodious call to prayers. And on Sunday mornings, like the joyful laughter of children, the medley of church bells from the numerous churches of the Old City drowned my voice.
"The Palestinian spirit is resolute"
But the reality of living in Jerusalem also meant facing life under Israeli Occupation - crossing checkpoints, navigating the separation Wall, witnessing my people brutalised and dehumanised. My American passport was a source of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, it buffered me and gained me access to places not permitted to local Palestinians. But on the other hand, it separated me from the native population, hampering me from living as a true Palestinian.
But the Palestinian spirit is resolute. Against all odds the Palestinians have survived the Occupation, and over seventy years of displacement and dispossession. They are not thriving, for who could thrive economically and emotionally when a twenty-five- foot concrete Wall is erected outside your window, separating you from your crops and your family, let alone blocking your share of sunlight? And who could thrive when turned back from a checkpoint to enter Jerusalem for medical treatment? And who could thrive when your home is demolished in the middle of the night and you are only given a half an hour’s notice to carry your sleeping children out of bed?
Occupation and checkpoints aside, living in Jerusalem also meant reliving my mother’s past. I came to know her life story as though it were my own, as though I were the one skipping down the stone stairs in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, with the levity of her ten-year-old-self; as though I, myself, on that fateful day in May 1948, had packed her suitcase, the suitcase that would sustain her for two weeks “until things calmed down” and she could return home, but out of which she had lived her entire life. Once a refugee, always a refugee. I had appropriated her memories and had made them my own. Is that what children of refugees do?
Mona Hajjar Halaby is a Palestinian-American educator, writer and social historian, residing in California, USA. In order to preserve Palestinian culture and heritage, she has created a FaceBook page entitled “British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library.” She has also collaborated on the interactive documentary “Jerusalem, We Are Here.”
Writing has always been an important part of Mona’s life. As a child, she wrote stories and as a teenager, she kept a journal. Writing gave meaning to her life and helped her understand herself. As a young adult, she wrote essays and academic papers at university. During her career as an educator, she wrote about her students and published, "Belonging: Creating Community in the Classroom." Over the years, she’s also written academic research papers focused on the social history of Jerusalem for “The Jerusalem Quarterly.”
Since retirement, Mona has completed her book, "In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home," which interweaves the story of her mother’s life and her own sabbatical year teaching conflict resolution in Ramallah. She is currently working on her next book about growing up in Alexandria, Egypt in the 1950s.