Tuesday, June 25, 2013
In Search of Jaffa
by Amal Salem, Health and Human Rights Project Delegate
As I was waiting to board the plane to Tel Aviv , the flight attendant spoke in English then in Hebrew announcing that our flight was delayed. I sat next to a young woman who asked me if I spoke Hebrew. I said no but told her I planned on learning, to which she replied, if you speak Arabic , it would be very easy to learn Hebrew. Our conversations continued and I soon learned she lived in New York City and was going to visit her parents in Jaffa. By now, the young woman knew I was Palestinian and was traveling to visit my family in Palestine. I knew she could relate very little to the hassles I was bound to face on my trip just by virtue of my Palestinian background. She may never have thought about the fact that Palestinians do not have their own airport and have to fly through Telaviv, to be subjected to unwarranted interrogations, bodily searches, only to consider themselves lucky if they get to leave the airport. If they make it through the airport, they then may find themselves on a bus to Jerusalem and then on to Nablus or Ramallah, not without going through one check point after another. I know she probably did not know that the average travel time is close to 30 hours for a Palestinian comparing to 15 hours to the Israeli. As our conversation continued, I asked her where in Jaffa her parents lived. She told me they live in a flat on the second floor on Salemeh street. I could not help but feel a chill creep through my spine. Salemeh is the town where my husband was born. What a coincidence. Here I was, having a casual conversation with a young lady, the daughter of Jewish parents who emigrated to Palestine, who could possibly be living in my husband's house or next door to it. I told her my husband was born in Salameh which was just 4 miles away from Jaffa. I told her about my trip to Salameh last year when my husband, son and I went looking for my husband's house. I told her we couldn't find anything that remotely resembled his home in Salameh except for the street named Salameh. The same street where her parents lived. The same street where my husband lived until he was driven from his home in 1948.
The young lady's face turned red and was speechless for a moment. She quickly changed the subject and said she never had time on her visits to get to know Jaffa to find out who is living where. Soon after she told me this, the young girl's group number was called and she said good-bye, wishing me safe travels. Her face remained red, her anxiety seemed to be somewhat relieved by being able to part ways from me. I could not help but be reminded of a young Jewish man who stopped us in Jaffa last year, during the trip we took to find my husband's home. He saw the group of us wandering aimlessly and kindly asked if he could help us find something. I sadly told him we didn't have an address, what we were looking for no longer seemed to exist. Silence ensued which my son broke by saying "The thing is, my father was born here a long time ago and he has not been here since 1948. We were hoping to find his house and the cafe that was on the corner of his street in Salameh". The young man hardly mumbled a few inaudible words and quickly scurried off. The young lady from New York's reaction reminded me very much of that young man's red face and anxious reaction.
My brain flooded with thoughts and I felt a deeply aching pain. Pain for my husband, for my family, for the numerous Palestinians who have similar stories to share. I boarded the plane feeling an overwhelming sickness and nostalgia. I know the young lady from the plane and the young man who asked to give us directions did not know, and perhaps did not want to know, what he, my husband, and we, the Palestinian people have endured. They did not know, and perhaps did not want to know, what happened the day my husband and his family left their home. I recalled conversations I had with my husband's sister, who described the excruciating details from the day they were forced to leave Salameh. My husband was only 4 years old at the time. After a while, as they walked away from their home, my husband could not carry on walking. His 13 year old brother carried him on his shoulders. Somehow, during this process, he and his brother were separated from the rest of the family and ended up in another town. His family frantically looked for he and his brother in every town they passed by. In the process of trying to find the two brothers, their third son, who was 18 at the time, was killed. The family temporarily forgot about the two lost brothers as they mourned the death of their third son, who had just been accepted at the American University in Beirut. Later, by chance, the brothers were reunited with their family. My husband's sister described the vivid details of that day on several occasions...the sights and smells of the towns they passed by, the fear as they ran away from the firing guns over their heads, the tragic death of her brother, the blood on his white shirt and his mother holding him tight to her chest as she let out a blood-curling scream. I often wonder what the young man in Jaffa and the young lady from New York really were thinking and feeling when they learned more about my husband's displacement. I wonder if they ever think about the people who built and lived in the homes they moved in. Did they ever think of the children who lived there and what kind of life and memories they had in those homes? Did they think about many of those children who never made it as they tried to flee their homes? But, more importantly, did they want to know?
I wonder if their red faces and the anxiety they projected was a result of them feeling guilty or simply an expression of their discomfort with the conversation. Maybe I will never know. But I know it inspired me to continue my struggle to raise awareness around the injustices that was done and continues to be done to my people.