My Grandfather: A Story About His Birthday

A few months ago, I saw my father flipping through an old notebook filled with pages of Arabic handwriting. It was a notebook of poems my grandfather, Mustafa Afaneh, had written – some poems dated back to the 1970s. I took it from my father and put it on my desk. We needed to make copies of this in case it ever got lost, I thought. It’s still sitting on my desk.

A couple of months later, right before the new year rolled up, my grandfather passed away. He was eighty-two years old – half of those years spent in the Middle East and half spent in New Orleans.

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Mustafa Afaneh, Sr.

Some years ago, when it was olive picking season in Palestine, the subject of my grandfather’s birthday, which is on November 4th, came up.

“You know, I’m not quite sure if November 4th is actually my birthday,” my grandfather said in Arabic. We were sitting on the baranda of his home in Palestine that faces an Israeli settlement. He was holding prayer beads and sat across from me, staring into space and smiling.

“How so? Your passport says your birthday is the 4th of November,” I replied, breaking into a laugh. I knew a story was coming along. He always had a story.

“Well, at the time, they [the British] put November 4th on my birth certificate, but my mother said that I was born between mawsem el teen wel zaytoon, the season of figs and olives, which is anywhere between April and November,” he told me.

I was fascinated by the idea that at one point in time, birth dates revolved around the present season in which the event took place. In a way, they still do. I smiled at my grandfather, and he smiled back.

“That’s how November 4th is my birthday, but we’ll never really know.” He laughed. I can hear his laugh as I write this.

“Then, we’ll have to celebrate your birthday at least once a month from April to November,” I replied.

I think back to his life some times and the lives and places he’s touched, especially when I walk around the French Quarter. He worked with antiques, created some of the most beautiful work, and taught my father the craft. He, along with his brothers, also wrote and sang Palestinian folklore. He was a beloved grandfather with a sense of humor like no other.

We could make copies of poetry books – even of antiques –  but we can never copy or replace the people we love and lost.

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From New Orleans to Palestine: Whose House is This?

My latest on Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision and the New Orleans Palestinian community response:

https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/palestine-israel-jerusalem-trump-arab-world-news-headlines-34406/

 

 

 

“Where’s the sea?”: Conversations with the Little One

“Where’s the sea?” My youngest sibling asked.

I’m sitting in a small coffee shop three blocks away from a river.

“Do we even have one?” She continues.

“Yes,” I sigh. “We have one.”

“Well, I want to see it.”

I remember the trips my high school used to take me on. We were next to the sea. The sea from “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“When you come to America, I’ll take you to the beach.”

“We can’t go to the one here?”

It’s not complicated. We can’t. 

“Because it’s in Israel,” she continues.

“Yes.”

“Okay. When I come to America then.”

“Okay.”

 

 

My friend’s a refugee: Conversations with The Little One

“My friend is from the Jalazone refugee camp,” my youngest sibling told me, in Arabic, one day as I picked her up from her last day of school this past May.

I remember a performer from Sard’s* August Open Mic Night, who was also from the Jalazone refugee camp. Before he started rapping with a friend, he told the audience, “No one is born a refugee.”

“Oh, yeah? She comes all the way here from there?” I asked.

“Yes. One of my friend’s is from Bethlehem, too. But sometimes, they don’t come. There are problems.”

I know the problems very well. During my undergraduate years, I have had professors, colleagues and friends who weren’t able to come to university because of “problems.” These problems manifest in blocked roads, sealed refugee camps, or closed checkpoints.

“What’s a refugee camp, anyway?” She asked.

“Well…” I sigh. “A refugee camp is a place people live in because they were…” I search for the right words. There are no right words.

“Because they were kicked out of their homes.”

“Why was my friend kicked out?” She asked.

“No, not your friend. Her grandparents…or her parents were probably kicked out.”

“Why?”

“Well, you know how there’s an occupation? A lot of people were kicked out from their homes. They can’t go back, so they now live in refugee camps.”

“I see. Do they go back?”

I sigh. “They can’t. Not now.”

“Then when?” I wonder if I was that curious when I was her age.

“Well, one day.”

I’m not sure how to move beyond that answer.

 

 

One Thousand Questions: Conversations with The Little One

“I have one thousand questions to ask you,” my youngest sibling says over the phone.

I sigh. I am in the middle of midterms – most of which are papers. She has a thousand questions. I feel a bit of guilt, take back my sigh, and respond with enthusiasm.

“One thousand? Want to ask some of them now and the rest later?”

“Sure,” she says.

“Okay, what’s your first question?” I asked, a grin on my face.

I did not expect her first question.

“When did the Jews take Palestine?” She asked.

I correct her. “The Israelis.”

“When did the Israelis take Palestine?”

I explain to her that it happened over seventy years ago.

She asks, “Well, were you alive?”

I laugh. “No, I wasn’t, but Siti [Grandma] Rahma, was alive.” Siti Rahma was our great grandmother. That put things into perspective for her.

“I see. Well, not all of them hate us, right?” She asks.

I sigh. “No. Not all of them. We shouldn’t hate anyone either, right?”

“Right. What does occupation mean?”

I try to search for a word that a second-grader would know. “It means…it means…taken. It means ‘taken.'”

“Okay. I’ll ask the rest later.”

“Okay.”

That was the end of that conversation a few months ago, but I know it isn’t the end of her questions. I still have questions of my own that I search for an adult to answer. No one can seem to give me one.

The Independence of Nothing

“Our future children are going to be so confused at our concept of ‘Independence Day,'” I tell one of my dear friends.

“Girl, we’re still confused at our concept of ‘Independence Day,” she replied.

We laughed. We laughed because it is true. Some of the breaths taken between every chuckle were filled with a moment – extremely brief moment – of reflection and a subtle sadness at the possibility that we may never know this independence we desperately seek in Palestine and that our future children – the future generation of Palestinians – will enter the world of chaos and identity crises that we are in.

I remember it was in my fifth grade elementary school that I heard of the Palestinian “Independence Day.” How could that be?  I lived next to an Israeli settlement. I saw IOF military jeeps every now and then. I heard of fellow Palestinians being killed and imprisoned. What’s independence? 

The independence of nothing…for now.

On Literary Evenings: Conversations With The Little One

The evening of May 18th was a calm spring evening in Palestine. A few days earlier, I had just arrived to the country after nine months of being away, and I had it in my mind to make this a very enriching, adventurous, productive and active summer – not only for my resume but also for my soul.

With that in mind, I was coming to Palestine right around the time that the tenth Palestine Festival of Literature, or PalFest, was happening. I clicked on the “Going” icon on the Facebook event and tagged a couple of friends and my cousin to tag along with me. I scanned the schedule for the event that would take place in Ramallah and took a mental note.

Earlier on May 18th, I met my dear friends and cousin for a little lunch. My youngest sibling tagged along also.

“Let’s go the PalFest? It’s the last day.”

“Sure,” we agreed. It wasn’t far from where we were sitting.

We got to Khalil El-Sakakini Cultural Center, and the performances were happening right in the garden. We sat and listened.

We listened to Ahdaf Soueif, Nathalie Handal, Jehan Bseiso (I even formally met her), and others. We listened, laughed, cried, and hoped. There was so much hoping and smiling.

When one of my friends was crying, my youngest sibling turned to me and said, “Why’s she crying?”

The words. The words.

One of the performances were for Nathalie Handal, and she sang to us. She sang something along the lines of “Dance. Let’s just dance.” It was so soothing, so magical, and as I observed my youngest sibling, with her head in her hands, watching and listening closely, I was overcome with such calmness for her.

After the performance was over, my youngest sibling turned to me and said, “That was really nice,” in Arabic.

I smiled. It was. She went home and told my mother about the performance.

When she’s old enough, I want to remember to ask her if this was a pivotal moment for her wanting to attend such events, even though the language is very complicated. After that evening, my youngest sibling wanted to tag along for other literary or spoken word events. At times, she did, and at other times, she wanted to ride her bike with cousins her age.

Sometimes, when we are sitting together, her and I, we remember Nathalie Handal and those words to that song, and we sing them over and over. I still hear her singing, “Dance. Let’s just dance.”

Podcast Episode

I got to speaking with Nadia Abuelezam, host of the Palestinians Podcast, close to a year ago, after indulging in many episodes regarding her podcast. We talked over the months, and she asked if I’d be interested in being interviewed. I’m just an ordinary person, but I thought to myself, why not?

As a result, my feature made it to the podcast’s 20th episode. Happy listening!

http://www.palestinianspodcast.com/palestinians-podcast—blog.html

 

 

On Growing Up: Conversations with The Little One

“I want to grow up, but I don’t know how,” my youngest sibling told me, as she sat across of me in a small dessert shop in Ramallah, scribbling in her notebook.

She informed me a few weeks ago that she wants to be a writer. She’s in elementary school.

I am at that age where it seems that you are pressured to have your life figured out – or at least, have someone figure it out for you according to their terms (but that’s another story). I often feel myself stuck in the same time, still trying to test out roads not taken, but not knowing when to take the plunge.

A week ago, I attended Sard, a spoken word event in Ramallah. This month’s guest was Suad Amiry, architect and writer. She spoke of a “ten-year itch” she has – she tends to change the course of her life every ten years. Listening to her speak, with her charisma and liveliness, I thought, All is well. There is nothing wrong with changing and trying new things…things that are out of our comfort zone. Here’s Suad. Fearless Suad. 

I don’t know how to grow up, either, but I think it goes something like this: it’s not about the money, the houses, cars, and all that. It is about growing. It’s about being okay with changing courses in your life. It’s about reading something you have written and wondering, Ten years from now, where will I be? How will I look at this differently? What have I learned since then? 

I don’t know how to grow up, either, I want to tell her. We’ll learn and help each other along the way.

Conversations Over A Magazine

When I first moved to Palestine, over a decade ago (though it seems like only a year or so ago), I desperately searched for something to read in English. I didn’t bring any books back with me from the United States save for a copy of Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban. Although I was fresh out of a fourth grade classroom from an American elementary school, I knew how to read and write Arabic. After all, my first language – the language my parents taught me and spoke to me with – was Arabic. Attending an American elementary school, however, equipped me with better English reading/writing skills, and often times confused my answer to the question: “What is your first language?”

Hence, the reason I searched for something to read in English when I first moved to Palestine.

My family members in Palestine knew where to find books in Arabic, and my new school had a library with English books, but none of them were quite the read I was looking for. I managed, regardless.

It was in the seventh grade, at Angelo’s Restaurant in Ramallah, that I noticed copies of a small magazine on a stand there. I don’t recall what the issue was about, but I do remember that I was always on the lookout for the magazine, which was This Week in Palestine, hoping one day, I’d even write in it. The rest, as they say, is history.

I thought back to this memory a few days ago, when I was eating breakfast with my mother at Zeit o Zaatar, another restaurant in Ramallah. There were copies of the August issue of This Week in Palestine – the 232 issue. I grabbed one, and as we waited on our food, I began skimming through the articles. I read some passages aloud to my mother, with many “Did you know?”‘s. We then flipped to the pictures of the Palestinian traditional dress and marveled at the beautiful attire, discussing which kind my grandmother and my mother, herself, owned.

It is magazines like these that keep conversations going, even for people that are from the same place the magazine revolves around. After all these years, this specific magazine introduces me to people, voices, ideas, information, and images that I like to pass on. It has become a sort of “family gathering” muse, and I am glad the journey started in the seventh grade.