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Bal'a - بلعا : Sycamore "Jummez Tree" - by Rana Abdulla

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Posted by Rana Abdulla on March 22, 2010
Sycamore "Jummez Tree" - by Rana Abdulla

In 2000, my mother Fatima, accompanied my daughters, Rania and Danah, visited her home in Um-Khalid for the first time in years. Most of the houses had been bulldozed over but some traces of familiar landmarks remained. When she walked through what was left of her village, she recognized some of the houses and spoke of the families that had lived there.

Bending, she scooped soil into her hand; kissing it she turned her eyes skyward only to rest her gaze upon the lemon and jummez trees of her family farm. Overcome with grief she burst into tears. My daughters tried to calm her but the sobbing was out of control. This was her home. Jewish Moroccan immigrants now lived on her family's land. The pain was unbearable.

When the Moroccan Jewish immigrants noticed my mother's shaken state they fetched water for her to drink. To their inquiries about what was bothering her she answered, "This is my land! This is my home! "We had no choice", they answered, "We are sorry, the government brought us here?"

The apology, although heartfelt, could not change the fact that my mother was still a refugee and that unwanted strangers were living on our family land. Reality is that of the heart. The loss of the Palestine homeland is a wound that time will not heal. Love of the fatherland is a chronic condition and not a passing illness. Sixty years have passed and the events of the expulsion of 1948 remain fresh in my mother's memory. The story that follows is my mother's story, the story of a young girl evicted with her family from her peaceful farm life and thrown into the turbulent life as a refugee.

Life in Um-Khalid

Life in Um-Khalid was so beautiful and stable before the fighting began and drove us from our homeland. The residents of Um-Khalid and the Jews of Netanya coexisted with relatively peaceful relations until 1948. We were friends and neighbours and there were no problems between us. We called the Jews "People of the Book" and had great respect for their religious beliefs. My sister Amina used to do their light for their Sabbath; they called at sundown and she would run to help.

The Jewish and Arabic neighbours sometimes even attended festivals together. Palestinians used to build tents and put flags on them to celebrate the forty day festival of Prophet Robin. My mother Yusra told me she visited Yafa with her neighbors to Prophet Robin and some of her Jewish neighbours went with her. I went on this occasion many times. We rode on camels and watched camel races. It was such a feast with many sweets for the children to eat.

Our relationship with the Jews was normal and on good terms. The Jews attended our circumcision parties and we attended theirs; they attended our weddings and we attended theirs; they slept in our homes and we slept in theirs. We played together at the beaches... we cooked together, played football, danced "dabkeh" and we exchanged gifts at child birth and weddings. We had so much respect for the Jews. "Why couldn't we have lived in peace?" "Why did they occupy our land?" were questions I always asked.

Our house in Um-Khalid was a stone house of four bedrooms close to the sea. We had lots of land, cows, sheep, olives, and orange groves. We were farmers and our relationship with the land was very close.

The Partition Decree

One evening in 1948, my father Ahmad Hamshari returned from Tel-Aviv and said, "The Jews are going to divide Palestine and they are celebrating, singing and dancing in the streets." We did not know what was happening. We asked our Jewish neighbour who came and sat with us. In a harsh tone that we had never heard her use before, she said, "You Arabs know nothing, we will take Palestine and you will have nothing." We told her that she was lying but she responded, "You will see tomorrow." After two or three days, the partition plan was issued and celebrations were held in the streets of Tel-Aviv.

Another Jewish neighbour apologized to my cousin Ahmad, who was deaf and was working on his cariole selling produce. The owner as a Jewish man. The Jewish owner apologized told him that they could no longer work with each other as a war had broken out. He protected him and peacefully returned him to the way out of Netanya. Very determined and a survivor, Ahmad was able to buy another cariole and sell fruits and vegetables in Tulkarem market.

The Departure

Before the departure from Um-Khalid, my mother told her mother Yusra, "Lets take our tins of cheese with us." My grandfather replied, "We will return soon, so why carry this heavy burden with us? Let us have some food in the house when we return." We left taking no possessions. Our house was appropriated by the "Absent, we are not absent!" my mother said.

They heard from other groups that in Yafa a dead barber was dead with his arms on the head of his dead client, still sitting on the chair. This news frightened everyone and they left. Grandfather didn't want to leave; he wanted to die for his land. My grandfather resisted being removed; he clung to the lemon tree in our backyard. "I am not leaving my house, my land and my cow." "I am not going to Tulkarem," he said. The British army assured him that he would be coming back within weeks. They told him that they just want to ensure the civilians' safety. "How can I leave my wheat harvest?" my father said. "I will stay, I am not afraid to face death." Nevertheless, the British army broke into the home and forced my grandfather to evacuate. Afraid for his life and honour of his daughters, my grandfather had to leave, the entire village left. As we left, my grandfather nailed two pieces of wood on the door like a cross to prevent people from coming into the house. My grandfather left the front gate open. The key was tight in his hand until he died in 1980.

The Road to Tulkarem

The villagers left together en masse. On the road to Tulkarem, they walked and walked for days. Some people carried a few possessions on their heads. Many people had brought their gold and money when they fled, but the Jews stopped some people and took their gold from them. The journey was difficult. My grandmother Yusra told me "I will never forget the sight of a dead woman hugging her live, newly orphaned, baby." On the road, my grandfather was hit with shrapnel and he lost his eye. As we walked, the Jewish militias were shouting, "Go to Jordan". People didn't immigrate quickly. It was a long and painful journey with tense security conditions on the borders.

On the way to Tulkarem, my mother's family joined children and elderly who were hungry, thirsty and overwhelmed with panic and fear. People slept under olive trees. They made hasty shelters from rags, blankets and bushes to protect them from the heat and to give them some sort of privacy. These people were desperately in fear for their lives and away from the warmth of their homes.

My grandmother told me "other mothers could not feed their children. One woman's breasts could not produce enough milk to feed their twin babies. She was looking, trying to find another nursing mother who could feed them. Her husband sits next to her, his hands shake as he stares at the organs scattered across the sand, left to rot".

My mother told me "I will never forget one incident that happened to us while we were escaping for woman running from a village beside Haifa, a story that seems like fiction but is true; I saw it with my own eyes. A woman was crying and screaming because she realized she was carrying a cushion instead of her baby when she had to flee. This show how scared we were of the Jews' massacres. Later on, this woman settled in Tulkarem refugee camp, her name was "Im-Saber". Saber was left in his bed to a Jewish family; until her death, the fate of Saber was unknown in Israel, Im-Saber was insane all her life, lost her brain and carried a pillow kissing it thinking it was her son. People from the camp washed the dirty pillow from time to time for her, and this was only when she was sleeping as she wouldn't give the pillow to anybody, accusing them of stealing Saber from her."

Many people took their gold and money when they fled, but the Jews stopped some people and took their gold from them. At many points soldiers stopped us and ordered everyone to throw all valuables onto a blanket. One young man and his wife of six weeks, friends of our family, stood near me. He refused to give up his money. Almost casually, the soldier pulled up his rifle and shot the man. He fell, bleeding and dying while his bride screamed and cried. I felt nauseated and sick, my whole body numbed by shock waves. That night I cried, too, as I tried to sleep alongside thousands on the ground. I asked myself "Would I ever see my home again? Would the soldiers kill my loved ones, too?"

My mother remembered the scene well, thousands of frightened people being herded like cattle through the narrow roads by armed soldiers, firing overhead. In front of her a cart wobbled toward the crowd. Alongside, a lady struggled, carrying her baby, pressed by the crowd. Suddenly, in the jostling of the throngs, the child fell. The mother shrieked in agony as the cart's metal-rimmed wheel ran over her baby's neck. That infant's death was the most awful sight I had ever seen.

Every day is a horror, my mother said, one day a bullet just missed my brother and killed a donkey nearby. Everybody started running as a stampede. I was terror-stricken when I lost sight of my family and I frantically searched all day as the crowd moved along.

That second night, after the soldiers let us stop, I wandered among the masses of people, desperately searching and calling. Suddenly in the darkness I heard my father's voice. I shouted out to him. What joy was in me! I had thought I would never see him again. As he and my mother held me close, I knew I could face whatever was necessary. The next day brought more dreadful experiences. Still branded on my memory is a small child beside the road, sucking the breast of its dead mother. Along the way I saw many stagger and fall. Others lay dead or dying in the scorching midsummer heat. Scores of pregnant women miscarried, and their babies died along the wayside. A lady was crying for water, she was very thirsty. After a long while she said she could not continue. Soon she slumped down and was dead.

Since her family could not carry her they wrapped her in cloth, and after praying, just left her beside a tree. God knows what happened to her body.

We trudged nearly twenty miles up rocky hills, then down into deep valleys, then up again, gradually higher and higher.

Made Refugees

On the way to Tulkarem, I walked bare foot, stepping on sharp stones or some times thorns. The pains unnoticed. Men were crying. Through my haze of tears it was very hard to see but I knew that villages were falling under Israel's cruel hands one after the other. I also knew we were now homeless.

One of the refugees' persistent worries was that the return would find them unprepared, that it would be as hurried and chaotic as the war and the flight. They therefore prepared for it meticulously, down to the last detail. My father hung the key of our Um-Khalid house near at hand; beside the Quran. He bought a new Qumbaz, new shoes, prayer rosary and a new blanket none of which he used, reserving them for after the returns.

Vociferous debates were held, such as which was the shortest route to Um-Khalid, the paved one or the dirt road? How many sheep would be slaughtered and of which kind? On which tree would the sacrifices be hung and who would invite whom to the celebration? I imagined the caravan of refugees returning to Um-Khalid.

Dhahabieh Al-Abdallah was our "dayeh" midwife, who delivered all the children of Um-Khalid; she delivered me, my brothers and sisters. She told me that Um-Khalid was infested with Jinnis, but they were all good ones. I thought about what she said on the way as we walked and realized that may be the Jinnis made this happen to us. As children we were especially entranced by the midwife's stories.

My grandmother Yusra was always singing her wounds. She used to say that the expressions in songs would fortify and rejuvenate the spirit. She said that "this is how my stories are told". Yusra believed that those songs would transport people across the gaps beyond tribal borders, that they told the truth about political pollution. To me this was my treasure of memories; my grandmother's songs and poems. They undid the Zionist lies about the Palestinians.

My future father in law, was working in port Yafa with the police when the 1948 disaster happened. He was in a small boat "jirrim" waiting to be taken out to a ship that was anchored in the Mediterranean Sea. He later said that the people panicked and rushed to dock their small boats. Despite the fact that the Palestinians were fleeing from the violence, Zionist militia were still firing at them as they floated in the water.

These tiny jirrims could only hold so many people which left many stranded on shore. The boat he was in was too heavy so they asked people to drop their belongings into the sea. A terrified mother accidentally dropped her bundle of belongings "bokjeh" into the sea and screamed, "Oh my God, that's my son in the bokjeh?" She became extremely hysterical. Another man who tried to challenge a soldier was slashed from head to toe.

My grandmother Yusra later told me that she witnessed a small crying baby trying to feed from the breast of its dead mother who was surrounded by a pool of blood. A couple approached the baby trying to comfort him but a soldier ordered them to leave it alone. They begged and pleaded so the soldier shot the baby dead. Grandmother Yusra watched the baby's blood seep into the soil. "If I live for one thousand years, I will never forget," she said.

Those wretched days and nights, in mid May of 1948, continue as a lifelong nightmare because Zionists took away our home of many centuries. For me and a million other Palestinian Arabs, tragedy had marred our lives forever.

Tulkarem Refugee Camp

We walked together to Tularem where United Nations troops counted heads and handed out tents to families. There was nothing to sleep on, there were not enough supplies and there was nothing the refugees could do. Many more people now arrived in Tulkarem on foot. Many were allowed to stay in the mosques, schools or the refugee camps. In 1949 the UNRWA was established to assist Palestinian refugees.

Circumstances in the camp at Tulkarem were abnormal, inhumane and intolerable but, despite their poverty, people did their best to help each other. The shared bread and cheese; they cooked on the floor; they shared a bathroom with their neighbour. There were not enough pillows or blankets for everyone; they slept on dirt encrusted, vermin-filled old mattresses, weeping, praying or gazing off into space. Life was unbearable....

At the time of the departure, my aunt Halima was two months old. When fatigue, hunger and dehydration dried up our mother's milk, grandmother held Halima and patiently fed her water and flour. My mother's family spent one winter in Tulkarem Refugee Camp. Life was unbearable in the muddy tent.

The Room in Tulkarem

A year later they were invited by family members to move to the city. They stayed in an relative's in theEastern part of Tulkarem. They lived there with other Hamshari family members. There were seven of us plus them the same room and we had no bed, no chairs or wardrobe. They went to borrow some bed sheets from the house their relative was staying at but they only had one blanket and his family was already using it.

When they had departed from Um-Khalid, they had left all our furniture behind. Therefore my uncle's Mohammad and Mahmoud decided they would sneak back to the house to retrieve some belongings. They would bring with them one piece of furniture each time they went. Bit by bit they bought furniture for our one room where they lived for their first few years in Tulkarem. They managed to eat there, clean their clothes and even turn part of it into a small bathroom.

There was no electricity so they used to have lamps with them. When radios became available, they used to listen to plays that would be broadcast. There were many of the family members who would all sit around and listen to the radio. Despite the difficulties we accepted our life slowly. However, we never lost hope of returning to Um-Khalid.

The House in Tulkarem

Gradually my grandparents moved to their own house in Eastern Tulkarem "el-hara el-sharkieh". The first years were very difficult. Grandmother still did not smile, my mother always cried silently every day and my grandfather was still hanging on to his keys. My grandfather had become blinded in one eye after he had been hit by shrapnel on the road to Tulkarem. When his son Mahmoud was killed in Paris In 1973, he lost his sight entirely. Unable to work, he spent his days either sitting on his "janbieh", a small thin mattress stuffed with old clothes, planting and tending pot flowers and herbs or caring for his flocks of hens and pigeons. He never lost his intimate love for the land; he left the hard work of feeding bread to the six children to my grandmother Yusra . It was a hard and bitter battle... the pain of losing the land and the struggle to save the six children, three boys and three girls. On Christmas day of 1952, a seventh child, Amin was born. The 1,500 Christian families in Tulkarem did not celebrate Christmas then, in fear of what happened to the Christian village of Ikret, when the Israeli army made it a point to destroy every house on Christmas Day, 1951 in the Christmas land.

Back to the Land as Labourers

After the 1967 war, my brothers used to work for the colonizers of the land at Um-Khalid. Women also went to work on the farms, in what had become known as Israel. We worked on our lands as labourers, not as owners. My mother told her Jewish master, "This land is ours," and he replied, very harshly, "you come here only to work and you take nothing except your salary or you leave."

My mother Yusra returned home from work in tears. I also remember accompanying my mother during her daily trek to work in the fields or to take produce or fruits, which she carried in a wide basket on top of her head and walked the few kilometers to Netanya. We shared it with our Jewish neighbors. Why they did this to US, was beyond my comprehension.


In 1973, I visited Netanya with my mother Fatima. As she stood by the sea saying a prayer, a Jew who was full of hatred told her, "This is not your sea, this is not your land, forget your memories, go to Jordan where you have your land."

My mother's passage was as difficult as her eventful and harsh childhood. As a child, she began to awaken and discover the beauty of the world and to make connections with the land and trees, home and hearth and bread kiln in her home. She had an invisible connection with everything she saw and all things surrounding her. Whoever said that the land and trees are not sentient is not connected to a specific land.

She was connected to all these things and the occupation of 1948 severed this connection and cruelly uprooted her. She rushed off with her family and she took refuge in the mountains by using the land as her bedroll and the sky as her blanket. She drank the rainwater and foraged the land. She found herself traveling through many different lands ... traveling still after 60 years. Even 60 years didn't diminish her love and desire to reclaim her roots. Longing for her childhood home still burns in my mother's heart.

The preponderance of Palestinian tradition is made of up of customs, arts and values of the "fellah", the hardworking teller of the soil governed by the rhythms of crops and looking for support from God and the extended family. The "fellah" has imbued Palestinian folklore and folk songs with the presence of nature, the importance of family, clan, devoutness and the veneration of the prophets and saints who passed by the holy land.

Every occasion is elaborate like a wedding, the building of a house, a pilgrimage, school success, or circumcision; the whole village would take part in preparing festive food.

Her mother Yusra, was chanting and singing her wounds all the time and she carried this to her daughters. She chanted and sang and punctuated every phase in Palestinian life. She expressed her joy, her sadness, her sorrow, her hope and challenges and she memorized all of them in her intelligent mind.

She was the matriarch of the family. Her husband played a peripheral role although he was granted the respect that a dignified elder was entitled to. But he was disabled, blind and could not carry his share of the burden. Therefore, he often deferred to her in matters of consequence. But she never made him feel that she was the one who made these fateful decisions and she never let on to the outside world that she was the one who ran the show. She was feared and respected in Tulkarem because of her no-nonsense approach, her candor and her outspokenness about various issues.

Their exile from their homes was supposed to be for a short duration. People thought that they would be going back to their homes and land in a matter of weeks. Surely the Arab armies would enter Palestine and stop the Jews.

Shortly afterwards, however, as the exile began to get longer and longer, new stories began to emerge. They all focused on great conspiracies being hatched against the Palestinians. The Jordanian Arab Legion, we were told, did not fight at all. King Abdullah and his British commander Glubb Pasha handed Palestine over to the Jews. The Egyptian Army fought with empty bullets. Only the Iraqis and some volunteers from various Arab countries did any worthwhile fighting. But the Arab armies were no match against the superior firepower of the Jews and their generous British supporters. The British had for years clamped an iron fist over the Palestinians, severely punishing anyone who was caught with a gun or a bullet.

I, Fatima Hamshari, the girl of 6 years old, cannot easily describe the feelings of hurt and bitterness among the people whom I knew who weathered the first harsh winter in the Tulkarem refugee camp. But they made it, somehow, with the minimum necessities of life provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees. Tents and blankets were provided along with some basic foodstuffs. What sticks in my mind from those days is a bitter feeling of a cold chill that never went away and the mud that surrounded us after the rain.

I cannot forget Im-Saber, the lady who grabbed a pillow instead of her son and running for her life in fear and once she discovered it was a pillow, she became insane, crazy, running in the camp's streets with bare feet, calling for Saber and holding onto her dirty pillow.

The "Catastrophe" was the name given to the events of 1948 but in the long term, the loss of the fertile land and the Palestinian way of life is what makes "Al-"Nabka"" seem like a tidal wave has hit with constant and unchanging waves. The sound of wailing women mixed with the prayers of the elderly all can still be heard.

The cataclysm in 1948 Palestine fragmented the land, the people and their minds. It is about generations of longing, hope and resilience. What happened to the boy, Saber, who was left behind when his mother grabbed a pillow by mistake during the bombing? Their stories represent thousands of people. Perhaps their stories can be hard in the waves that touch the shores where people slept inside tents or they ran for their lives.

For the Palestinian refugees the world does not go on. Time is frozen within the defining moment of being forced out of Palestine. Yet Palestinians had every hope of returning and carried with them keys to their homes as well as the title deeds.

The whole country was taken. It's not an economic problem. It's not a refugee problem. It's a problem of national and cultural existence. The "Nabka" was intended to uproot and completely demolish Palestinian nationhood.

I made my will leaving my key of return to my grandchildren. The key symbolizes the right of return for them and for all refugees worldwide.

I, Rana Abdulla, granddaughter of Yusra and daughter of Fatima, cannot hold a gun and fight. I can do nothing but carry on the message in a way in which perhaps, people will understand the truth about the refugee camps. I represent mthe nameless who have witnessed unspeakable horrors and whom the world is afraid to acknowledge. I pass it on to YOU!

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