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Illustration: Ali Al Boriny
Illustration: Ali Al Boriny

The Sunday EssayMay 15, 2022

The Sunday Essay: A Palestinian catastrophe

Illustration: Ali Al Boriny
Illustration: Ali Al Boriny

I thought a similar tragedy must have happened to every other kid in the world. I was mistaken.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustration by Ali Al Boriny.

I don’t recall when I first heard about the death march, which was part of what came to be known as Nakba; the Palestinian Catastrophe. All I know is I have always known about it. It was part of our childhood. I saw it every time I saw my grandparents on our usual weekend stroll to see them. It wasn’t a “thing” that we talked about all the time; it was our life.

I was aware that I hadn’t even been born when it happened, but because it was so intertwined with our life, I always felt that it happened to me. It felt like a distant sad memory in my head, but strangely enough I don’t recall feeling mad or angry about it. It was so normalised; almost every single child friend I had back in Jordan had a relatively similar experience. At school we could recite the name of the Palestinian village or town every single kid’s family came from – we used to introduce ourselves by saying our name, the name of the Palestinian place our family came from and the year they were dispossessed (i.e. 1948 or 1967).

It wasn’t an exceptional story to us. I thought a similar tragedy must have happened to every other kid in the world. I was mistaken.

This is a relatively recent photo of my grandmother Salma (d. 1998), and grandfather Suleiman (d. 2008). They were both expelled, along with their three children, from their hometown al-Lidd, southeast of Tel Aviv in post Mandatory Palestine. It was 1948.

Until 1948, al-Lidd was a town with a population of around 20,000, predominantly Arabs. In 1947, the United Nations proposed dividing Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab; al-Lidd was to form part of the proposed Arab state. In the 1948 War, Israel captured Arab towns outside the area the UN had allotted it, including al-Lidd.

Operation Danny was the codename for the Israeli attack on al-Lidd. At first, al-Lidd was bombarded from the air. This was followed by a direct attack on the city centre. The few men of al-Lidd, armed with old rifles to defend the town, took shelter in a Mosque. After a few hours of fighting, they ran out of ammunition and stopped resisting, only to be massacred inside the mosque by the Israeli forces. Palestinian sources recount that in the mosque and in the streets nearby, Israeli troops went on a rampage of murder and pillage. 426 men, women and children were killed (176 bodies were found in the mosque). The following day, the Israeli soldiers went from house to house, taking people outside and marching about 50,000 of them (al-Lidd’s population doubled with the influx of refugees during the war), out of the city towards West Bank. Houses, every single one of them, were looted and the refugees robbed before being told to start walking.

The occupying soldiers set up roadblocks on the roads leading east and were searching the refugees, particularly women, stealing their gold jewellery from their necks, wrists, and fingers and whatever was hidden in their clothes. They took their money, along with everything else that was precious and light enough to carry.

On July 13, 1948, in the height of the Middle East summer, my grandparents and every other Palestinian Arab in the town, were ordered by the Israeli occupation rulers to walk into a death march.

Around 50,000 people walked for three days, in 30-35 degree temperature. Up to 350 people died from the heat, thirst, and exhaustion.

Palestine refugees on the death march, 1948 (Photo: Fred Csasznik / Public Domain)

My grandparents survived the death march and reached West Bank. From West Bank, they walked again to Gaza, where my father was born in 1950. The work and living prospects in Gaza were bad, and word came from Jordan that Palestinian refugees were welcome to settle there, so my grandparents decided shortly after my father’s birth to move to Jordan with their four children.

The walk from Gaza to Jordan proved to be very challenging. It meant sneaking through then-Israel in a hostile atmosphere. Emergency martial laws in Israel were applied which put all Arabs into lockdown. Movements of Arabs were very risky, even more so if it was considered “trespassing”. There was a strong belief that if they were detected they would be killed on the spot, the same fate that met Kafr Qasim villagers few years later.

My grandparents left Gaza on foot, and kept walking east at night only, to stay under the cover of darkness as much as possible. The fear was astronomical.

There were 50 people in the group, most of them children, including my father who was seven months old.

My grandfather was extremely worried that his son’s incessant crying would compromise the safety of the entire group. Eventually he became scared and desperate enough to abandon his son. A few men who were following behind saw a baby on the ground and brought him back. My grandmother almost lost her mind when she realised what happened.

This incident developed a strange and special bond between my father and his father. My grandfather’s trauma was complex, and he responded by acting tough. He never carried his baby again. I think he felt remorse and that he was not a good parent. A year or so later, my grandmother was in the kitchen when she heard her son crying in their bedroom. She hurried to tend to him but he soon stopped. When she peeked into the bedroom, she saw my grandfather was holding and soothing Dad. She burst into tears and ran to the bedroom to celebrate the moment, but when my grandfather heard the clattering he almost dropped my dad. He wasn’t prepared to be seen emotional and “weak”.

As a child, the story of my dad’s abandonment was just that. It was void of emotions. Actually, it gave us kids the giggles. It felt like a joke, and we were teasing Dad for it as if it was his fault. I never asked Dad how he felt about the story and what his memories were. That question didn’t fit with the acting tough attitude had all developed. Now I wish I had asked.

The iconic “Where to ..?” by the Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout, who was on the same death march as my grandparents.

A few nights after walking out of Gaza, my grandparents crossed the border into Jordan. Jordan was a new place to them and they had no money or possessions to start a new life. But everything considered, they were safe.

From that time on, their living conditions kept improving but the scars never healed. They never saw their home in al-Lidd again; Israel never accepted the Palestinian refugees’ right to return. I don’t remember ever seeing my grandfather smiling.

My grandparents kept the key to their house in al-Lidd, in anticipation of an imminent return to home. As days and years went by, the key became to us a symbol of hope and steadfastness. It’s now not uncommon to see picture frames of a house key or even an original key itself framed on a wall in an exiled Palestinian’s family house.

“Home” is a concept I struggled with. Throughout my childhood in exile, home experience was confusing. The direct and natural answer to the where-are-you-from question was Palestine. Although I was born and bred in Jordan, the exile feelings were powerful. It was akin to an out-of-body experience, where my body was in Jordan but mentally I was elsewhere. References to Palestine were in literature, schools, places of worship, TV news and drama, shop names, arts and music, sports, food, and every single aspect of my life. Other than the attachment to Palestine, there was an overwhelming feeling of insecurity: everything felt fragile and temporary. It was not uncommon to see people holding their passports in their shirt pocket, in anticipation of a sudden need to get moving, or more likely to prove who they were if they were to be made stateless.

Statelessness was something I didn’t quite understand when I was a child. I learned it was a bad thing and I had a fear of it. Statelessness was, and still is, one of the biggest issues for the Palestinians. Although my family were granted Jordanian citizenship, along with the majority of Palestinians in Jordan, we were treated as second-class citizens, a fact I was reminded of every time I dealt with even the smallest ranking public servant at a government department. Still, I thought I was among the lucky ones, compared to the tragic situation of Palestinian refugees in nearby Syria and Lebanon, or still in besieged Gaza and occupied West Bank.

The scenes on TV of sufferings and killing of Palestinian children in particular was something I could never erase from my memory. Sheer chance put me on a different path, but that didn’t matter. As a child, my mind couldn’t distance itself from the collective experience of Palestinian children everywhere. I felt I like was that kid separated from their parents who were either killed or detained in Israeli prisons; that arrested kid; that kid sitting next to a sewage gutter in a refugee camp. It was definitely me, and it felt more real than my shadowy physical experience.

A few years back, I decided I was not going to tell my children about the death march story. There was no point in passing on that memory. I knew sooner or later they would know about it, but at least I could  delay it a few years. Now I am sharing this story with you, dear reader, and my children for the first time.

.شكرًا جزيلًا على قراءة قصتي، و أتمنى لكم السعادة و العدالة

Thank you for listening to my story, and I wish you happiness and justice.


Editor’s note: Nakba Day is today, May 15.

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