Adonis Diaries

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How my Grandmother Was Made Homeless: The dispossessed

Every year, on May 15, I ask my grandmother to tell me the story of how she was made homeless.

It happened 67 years ago. She was 14, the youngest of 11 siblings from a middle-class Christian family.

They had moved to Haifa from Nazareth when my grandmother was a little girl and lived on Garden Street in the German Colony, which used to be a colony for German Templars, later becoming a cosmopolitan center of Arab culture during the British Mandate.

When I ask her to recall what life in Haifa was like back then, her eyes fix on the middle distance.

“It was the most beautiful city I have ever seen. The greenery … the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean Sea,” she says, as her voice trails off.

My grandmother remembers clearly the night her family left.

They were woken up in the middle of the night by loud banging on the front door. My grandmother’s cousins, who lived in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa, had arrived to tell them that Haifa was falling.

The British had announced they were withdrawing, and there were rumors that the country was being handed over to the Zionists.

At the time, the German Colony had been relatively insulated from the incidents of violence in the rest of the country, which included raids and massacres of Palestinian villages by Zionist paramilitary groups.

Yet the Haganah, a paramilitary organization that later formed the core of the Israel Defense Forces, saw the British withdrawal from Haifa as an opportunity and carried out a series of attacks on key Arab neighborhoods where my grandmother’s aunts and cousins were living.

“That night our Jewish neighbors told us not to leave,” my grandmother remembers.

“And my father wanted to stay, to wait it out. But my mother … well she had 11 children, and of course she wanted us to be safe. And her sisters were leaving because of the attacks in their neighborhoods.”

The Bathish family. The author’s grandmother, the youngest of 11 children, is second from left in the front row. Taken around 1936–37.
The Bathish family. The author’s grandmother, the youngest of 11 children, is second from left in the front row. Circa 1936–37.

Courtesy of Saleem Haddad

The family debated all night. In the morning, they reached a decision.

They each quickly packed a small suitcase and left the rest of their belongings. “We hid the most valuable things we couldn’t take in a locked room in our house, thinking it would be safe until we came back,” she tells me, chuckling.

As the women of the family packed, my grandmother’s older brother, who had once been employed by the British forces, struck a deal, allowing them to leave on one of the last British vehicles withdrawing from Haifa. With what little they could carry, my grandmother’s family travelled to the Lebanese border, hiding in a British army vehicle.

When they arrived to Na’oura, on the border between Palestine and Lebanon, they were shocked to see so many other people from across the country.

“It felt like the world had ended. The borders were overcrowded with cars and trucks full of people and belongings fleeing the violence. Others were leaving by sea.”

At the border they were ordered into a car, which drove through Lebanon for a few more hours. They were dropped later that night in Damour, a coastal town just south of Beirut.

It was dark, they didn’t know anyone, and with no place to rest, the family of 13 slept on the streets in front of a supermarket, the dirty ground littered with rotting fruits and vegetables.

As the sun rose the next day, they walked the streets of the unfamiliar town, recognizing friends and neighbors from Haifa who were also wandering the streets aimlessly. After hearing that Beirut was too crowded with refugees, they headed to Jezzine, in south Lebanon, where friends helped set them up in a tiny room in the home of some family friends. (The same process is happening to the Syrian and Iraqi refugees)

“All summer we waited for news that we could go back,” my grandmother says. “By September, we realized there was little hope, and made plans to move to Beirut.”

For the next few years my grandmother’s family survived through the goodwill of friends and strangers, as well as through food parcels, given to them by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which contained, among other things, powdered eggs, much to my grandmother’s fascination.

Her older brothers eventually took up jobs in Beirut to support the family. My grandmother’s family was lucky on balance: As wealthier and Christian refugees, they were given Lebanese citizenship. However, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees were never naturalized, instead placed in one of the dozen UNRWA-operated camps in Lebanon, where they continue to live to this day.

My grandmother’s story is not a unique one.

In 1948 Zionist militias depopulated and destroyed more than 530 Palestinian towns and villages.

An estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, and many who were unable to flee were massacred.

By the end of July 1948, hundreds of thousands of  Jewish immigrants from outside Palestine, many of whom were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, had been housed in homes formerly belonging to Palestinian families like my grandmother’s.

In December, the new Israeli state implemented a series of laws commonly referred to as the Absentees’ Property Law.

These laws created a legal definition for non-Jews who, like my grandmother, had left or been forced to flee from Palestine. The laws allowed the newly created Israeli state to confiscate 2 million dunams (about 500,000 acres) of land from Palestinian families, including my own.

In April 2015 the law was extended to cover land in the West Bank, thereby legalizing the continued expulsion of Palestinians and the confiscation of their land and property in order to house new Israeli citizens coming from abroad.

The uniqueness of what has become known as the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, is partly the timing: It occurred at the dawn of state formation throughout much of Asia and Africa, which meant that hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Palestinians found themselves stateless, unrecognized in the new world of postcolonial nation-states.

Perhaps as a result, there is a joke that Palestinians collect passports obsessively, fearful that we might be stripped of one or the other.

But is that really surprising given our history, that moment where the door was shut, leaving us on the outside, unrecognized—not just homeless, but stateless as well?

Photograph of the author's grandmother's passports over the years.
Photograph of the author’€™s grandmother’€™s passports over the years.

Courtesy of Saleem Haddad

In 1948, upon Israel’s creation, David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of Israel, remarked that “the old will die, and the young will forget.” Given the centrality the Jewish tradition places on memory and the commemoration of struggle and suffering, Ben-Gurion should have known better.

For the past 67 years, Palestinians have resisted the Israeli government’s continued efforts to erase the memories of trauma and resistance that began with the Nakba.

To this day, Palestinians of my grandmother’s generation often wear the keys to their old houses around their necks, a sign that despite the dispossession of their land, their memories refuse to dim.

Every time my grandmother recounts her experience, a new memory emerges, and I add it to the story, embellishing it with new details and anecdotes.

But as her memories made their way onto the page, I had a moment of self-doubt: In my grandmother’s recollection, she was clear that her family had made a decision to leave.

Might this play into one of the myths used to justify the establishment of modern-day Israel on Palestinian land—the myth that, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, Palestinians left on their own free will?

“Are you sure you left voluntarily?” I ask my grandmother. “There was a war,” she replies.

“But no one kicked you out, yes? No one was directly attacking you?” I continue.

The author's grandmother and grandfather as newlyweds, Beirut, 1952.
The author’€™s grandmother and grandfather as newlyweds, Beirut, 1952.

Courtesy of Saleem Haddad

“Not us personally, but my mother was worried by the reports. We thought we would be gone for a few weeks at most.”

Could my grandmother’s memory of the Nakba bolster the false narrative that Palestinians voluntarily left, given that her family had not been physically removed form their home?

As I considered this, my thoughts began to coalesce around two points.

The first point—which seems particularly poignant in 2015, as boats of Arab and African migrants sink off European shores—is a question: What constitutes voluntary displacement?

On May 15, 1948, in the face of growing hostilities and the threat of a regional war, my great-grandmother did the only thing she knew to protect her children: She left. Does running away from an imminent war, with a small suitcase and plans to return, constitute a voluntary departure?

And if so, is the departed then unentitled to the land and belongings they left behind, and forbidden from ever returning?

My second thought centered on the politics of memory in war.

In his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Israeli politicians hope that, given enough time and pressure, Palestinians will forget and accommodate themselves to their loss.

This remains true to this day, as the Israeli state consolidates its occupation, constricting the remaining Palestinians into ever-shrinking ghettos.

Meanwhile, the collective Israeli memory of the Nakba continues to ignore the bloody events that led to the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinian Arab population.

In textbooks, the events of May 15, 1948, make no mention of how Palestinians experienced the Nakba and instead represent Israel as a heroic David defeating the many enemies arrayed against it.

Since 2011, the refusal to acknowledge the Palestinian Nakba is enshrined in Israeli law, with organizations facing fines if they commemorate the day.

In the face of a powerful Israel that seeks to wipe away remnants of Palestinian life and culture, there is an instinct to close ranks and develop a single story.

Nuance and contradiction are luxuries that a people under threat cannot afford.

Yet to remember the events of 1948 and to recount them, with their nuances and diversities, is a form of resistance: resistance against forgetting. The collective memory of the Nakba is made up of 750,000 stories, one for each of those who left their homes and were never able to return.

Taken together, the stories offer a nuanced, real, and humane look at a community’s reaction to what is now widely accepted as an act of ethnic cleansing. My grandmother’s story, unique to her, is but one part of a collective memory of this trauma that must be told in all its shades of gray.

To recount the unique personal stories of those who lived through the Nakba is to commemorate the struggle and suffering of Palestinians who lost their land and lives at a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side on the land of historic Palestine.

It is to inscribe individual fates onto the canvas of history, which the victors painted in large, ugly blocks. It is personal stories like my grandmother’s, and their ability to be passed down to future generations, that serve as a reminder that peace and coexistence are possible, so long as the memories of all are acknowledged.

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Does your Grandmother fall within one of these types?

What reminds you of a raisin and death simultaneously? That’s right, a grandmother.

There are many types of grandmothers; some of them kind, some mean, some warm and fuzzy – and by fuzzy I’m referring to their facial hair.

We’re obliged to love them all because they’re wrinkly and smell like bay leaves and medicine. Here are four common types of Lebanese grandmothers.

Mrs. Clause

(Image via Brinkie Bunch)

Spoiling and over-stuffing you are her specialties. She’s most likely plump herself, and has made it her life’s mission to make sure you gain a solid kilo every time you set foot in her house.

If you don’t come over to her house in order to avoid the caloric attack, she will sneakily send food to your house along with dessert.

She gets genuinely offended when you tell her you’ve just eaten and considers it a personal attack on her cooking.

Do you think she cares that you’d much rather not eat four servings of lasagna followed by an entire cake?

It is best to just shut up and embrace the added weight.

The Guilt-Tripper

(Image via Ignorant Fucks)

She will convince you that she’s dying within a matter of days and that this may very well be your last chance to enjoy her company.

You immediately start envisioning years of regret for not visiting her more often.

You imagine yourself weeping uncontrollably at her funeral, only to watch her live until you’re well into your late 50’s.

Glam-Gran

(Image via Mata Traders)

She refuses to believe that not only does she have children, but her children have children of their own.

She has probably concocted a fun nickname for herself instead of grandma (what’s a tati?) in order to further live in denial that she’s no longer in her thirties, or forties, or fifties.

She tries to remain young and hip, her wardrobe consisting mostly of jeans that are way too tight and tops made of gold-lamé, and she does a good job of criticizing your outfits, relationship and breeding status on the regular.

The Meddler

(Image via Cinema Blend)

Good luck trying to do anything without consulting this one first.

Her fury will rain down on you much like her breasts rain down on her knees.

She wants to marry her granddaughter off to an engineer, on the sole condition that he is from the family’s village.

She does everything short of make a ticking noise while pointing at your ovaries to remind you that your baby-making days are swiftly running out.

She wants the most gorgeous and wonderful girl for her grandson, who most likely sucks at life and is a spoiled brat.

March 21, 2014 (selected as one of the top posts)
Everyone in India barks about tradition

“Don’t marry a Muslim”

My grandmother slit her wrists today.

To assure the inquisitive and prying world, it had nothing to do with the inner politics of the family.

And I was asked to stick to the discussed story that she found out she had an incurable injury.

The truth is she couldn’t handle the apparent shame my actions in the past two months had brought our prestigious family name.

Everyone in India barks about tradition. They say our country stands tall on an intellectual platform because we’ve been following a social structure that’s been untouched for centuries.

One of the core ideas behind this structure is absolute obedience towards elders. The logic is easy enough to understand.

They have more experience.

The possibility of them making the right decision in a dilemma is higher. Tradition, I have been told is the platform for a good family life.

Except that I flouted this rule.

I fell in love and married a girl whose ancestors had a different idea of a creator than mine. They followed a set of beliefs called Islam.

As it unfortunately stands, everyone in my family believes that Islam is an absolute abomination. They don’t believe this out of a sense of logical progression or reasoning. They just believe it.

Except that I flouted this rule.

I had lost any sort of a connection with my family the day I married Shazia. Yet, if you’ve drawn the conclusion that my grandmother lost her will to live because of my choice of life partner, you’re mistaken. My grandmother killed herself because she realised that it was Shazia who saved her life.

Granny had had a small accident on her daily route to the marketplace. She needed blood during the surgery to save her life. It took me a massive amount of courage to tell her that due to the fact that no donors had been available during the emergency, Shazia was forced to donate blood to keep her alive.

At first granny, who for me has always been a symbol of calm my entire life, heard the news like I thought she would. She nodded and kept nodding, mostly to herself. After a minute she burst into a hysterical rage, cursing at mortals and her Gods, begging to know how elaborately she had sinned to deserve a fate so bad.

I had been prepared for a certain amount of chaos, but granny’s outburst shook me to the core. Is it that bad, following another religion?

After living on this planet for 8 decades, do you not understand granny that life is way more precious than a doctrine that’s been created to help us live well. What kind of tradition objectifies blood! Is it not the same source of life that flows inside you and me?

I went home deeply disturbed about her behaviour. I had informed someone that my wife had been instrumental in keeping her alive. Gratitude goes a long way off, but acceptance is the least I had expected.

Flashes of my childhood came back, where my family would be praying in Sanskrit. No one understood a single word of what was being said. We were all singing in a language that had been used for centuries to appease our Gods.

We’re Brahmins.

It means, a couple of thousand years back – people paid us buckets of money to act as a connect between them and the Gods.

For some reason, it was only us who God listened to.

It was because of this unique talent that we asserted our right to be educated. It was almost like a feeling of sexual triumph, the way my father would drunkenly tell anyone who listened that our blood has been pure for the past 16 generations.

I would ask him why he still prayed in Sanskrit if he himself didn’t understand what was being said? It was elitist. A language only we were entitled to understand.

Father died when I was young, and I travelled. I read. I reasoned. I realised with time that I was following a set of beliefs that I had never questioned. I slowly divided myself from the lot. It was hard, but I willed myself to be away from a system that does not make me feel happy.

I stopped laughing at jokes I found hurtful to other religious ideologies.

We had been watching a cricket match, where my cousins made a crude joke at the circumcised penis of the opening batsman of the opposing team. I walked away.

I was sent a joke about Jesus not being able to sexually arouse himself while on the cross. I asked the sender if he would have tolerated a joke of a similar nature about one of our Gods who legend swears, carries a snake on his neck. I was met with silence.

I distanced myself from my family as I could no longer be happy in their culture.

I am sure the problems I see are problems that are faced by reasoning individuals of any religious background.

I was asked by a kid who God is. I told him the truth. “We don’t know”. I told him no one knows. But if he finds peace or salvation believing any theory that gives him happiness, he shouldn’t bother with the opinions of anyone else, provided he doesn’t harm them or maim them in an effort to convince them about the validity of his beliefs.
Being agnostic was the best thing that happened to me, till I met Shazia.

Shazia and I fell in love.

She had lost her parents early, and her guardians were atheist. My family told me that expecting any sort of support in mixing bloodlines was a futile effort. I couldn’t care less.

We wed in a quiet ceremony where people who love us and not our expectations were called. We joked that the devil would be quite dumbfounded about our fate, as he’d have creators of two opposing faiths hurling instructions about our fate. We were together, that’s all that mattered.

My grandmother had begged me to consider breaking the wedding. She followed a well written script that targeted the listener using an elaborate combination of emotional blackmail, threats and monetary rewards.

I smiled at the end of it and asked Shazia to make us tea and coolly answered with a negative. She had been living with me at my apartment. Granny spat and left. I didn’t blame her. She was guided by dogma.

If there are two communities my family would not tolerate, it is the blacks and the Muslims.

This bewilders me. Most Hindus, including myself have a skin tone that’s darker than the night.

Islam, I have warned, has rituals that ‘make no sense’. If I start to make a list of customs which we follow without any idea, it would take me a painstakingly long time. Worshiping a phallus and feeding milk to snakes are glazed cherries on the top

But why am I writing all this? This is a confession.

I want to make it clear that I would have asked Shazia to donate her blood only for the most selfless reasons, to save a life. I hoped that for one moment, my family would gain how futile quarreling over imagination is.

Like Sagan said, the world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there is little good evidence. It’s far better to look death in the eye, for the brief but utterly magnificent journey life provides us.

I wanted to really tell granny that, the blood that spilled out of her veins when she slit her wrists, in an effort to cleanse herself, was never really Shazia’s. It was mine.

The one time when it mattered most, I had lied.

And I was happy…

____________________________________________________________________________________

Image

Artwork: Gavin Aung Than’s Zen Pencils, arguably the best inspirational blog on the internet I know of.

http://zenpencils.com/comic/carl-sagan-make-the-most-of-this-life/

Note: I wouldn’t marry with a person who can believe that any written word emanate from a God. Period.

Note 2: KING RAJA YOGA? https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/three-days-in-king-raja-yoga-retreat/
 


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