A few months ago, I presented on the promotion of hydroponics as a sustainable solution for Gaza. I found myself constantly thinking, how sustainable is this? Then, a medical student asked. My latest piece on the Fair Observer.
A few weeks ago, I came across Ndaba Mandela’s book Going to the Mountain: Life Lessons from My Grandfather Nelson Mandela in the library’s “Popular Non-fiction” section. I checked out the book and started reading, only putting it down when I had to get to something else. I won’t give a synopsis of the book here, but I wanted to write about four instances to which I, a female Palestinian, related to.
i. Explaining tear gas
Ndaba Mandela mentions the first time he ever inhaled tear gas. As he described the stinging and burning of the tear gas, I imagined any person affected by conflict reading this and thinking of the first time they were ever forced to inhale and choke on the smell of tear gas. I had to close the book for a moment, with my index finger placed at the page I left off on, because I recalled a distinct moment years ago where I felt the burn of tear gas. I was walking home from my university taxi stop when an Israeli soldier shot a tear gas canister in my direction. I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. I struggled to walk down the little hill to my home with my eyes closed and trying not to inhale more tear gas but also trying to breathe.
There was a particular part in the book that spoke of how Nelson Mandela wanted his grandson, the author of this book, to know, speak, and understand the language, Afrikaans, of white South Africa. Anyone that has experienced colonialism would tell you why this piece of advice is crucial and how it is not assimilation as one had argued once. I thought of how I lived in Palestine for a really long time, but I never learned Hebrew, the language of the occupier. I thought of the occupier and how the occupier knows Arabic.
iii. Visiting his grandfather in prison
This is an interesting scene. The prison I imagined Nelson Mandela to be in wasn’t the prison he was in. Nonetheless, the author at the age of seven went to see his grandfather for the first time behind bars. I remember the time my uncle was arrested. I was five at the time, and I remember Israeli forces raiding my grandparent’s home and arresting my uncle (under false accusations, as Israel often does). I remember how odd that was, but what was even more odd is that I don’t remember feeling scared. I remember feeling that it was normal. This stuff happens I’ve heard.
iv. A last word on grandfathers
November and December are interesting months on a personal level. My paternal grandfather’s birthday is in November, and he passed away in December. My maternal grandfather’s birthday is in December, and he passed away in November. As I read this book, that is a testimony to a grandfather-grandson relationship and the wisdom that comes with the generation of our grandfathers, I thought of my own grandfathers: my paternal grandfather and his cup of Arabic coffee every afternoon, and my maternal grandfather and his daily Al-Quds newspaper every afternoon. Both grandfathers and the wisdom they carried, and left behind and took with them at the same time.
i. The Over Six Months Period
I haven’t typed in here or scribbled on pieces of tissue or written in a notebook in over six months. I’ve written words here and there, but I haven’t written a well thought out piece in over six months. There are always things to write, right?
ii. Things to Write
It isn’t like I didn’t have things I wanted to write about, words I wanted to say, feelings I wanted to process. I did. However, I found the words and ideas jumbling together in my mind and not making sense. They refused my intention to grab them and put them next to each other in sentences that made sense to me, to you. I felt like I was losing words. Blank pages remained blank pages for months. It wasn’t about perfectionism.
It was about anger. I don’t know why, but I think this feeling of anger towards writing started in December. It was around the time the Trump administration announced – and it wasn’t in the U.S.’s place to announce – that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. I felt this anger towards writing, and that anger turned into a feeling of defeat. I struggled with words, and I struggled with ideas.
iv. You Read and Write in Graduate School
One of the most spectacular professors I came across during my graduate studies would always say something along the lines of “It’s all about reading and writing.” It always is, and although, I was struggling with words and ideas, I had to write to graduate. This is how we exchange ideas. This is how we grow. I struggled in one of the last classes with this same professor, actually. My professor was probably unaware as to why I was struggling. I didn’t want to write about Palestine, but I ended up doing so because I needed to write about Palestine. It was the most painful paper I have ever written. I can’t begin to tell you why. I never put that paper in a folder with all my other materials from my program. It sits on a table in my room.
v. The End of The Pause
A few months ago, I read – or rather, I reread – the letter from Palestinian Festival of Literature, PalFest at Ten, and the questions that were asked resonated with questions I have been asking myself. When PalFest decided to take a pause after their tenth year, I imagined maybe I was taking my own pause to reevaluate, to recuperate, to be angry, to breathe. I don’t know if this is the true end to the pause I have been taking, but the first step is to try.
we speak of lemon trees
we speak of olive trees
– one of the first things I noticed in the Diaspora
was how the olives tasted different-
and how home tastes different.
the further away I am,
the more time passes,
home is different,
but I think it still welcomes me
even when it’s painful to write about
it seems like I write
about lemon trees
and olive trees
-the shade of those trees are different –
that call us,
that want us,
that remind us
where we were…and how long we’ve come
for the homes we make.
Some time around October of 2016, when I was still adjusting to moving back to New Orleans, I found myself stopping in front of a gate entrance with a “No Parking” sign on St. Louis in the French Quarter. I paused for a moment. I always passed by this, but a gust of air carried with it a familiar smell this time…a smell I could not quite put my finger on until I stood there for a moment.
I looked into the gate entrance. Beyond the gate, there was a long hallway to what seemed like an abandoned courtyard, like the ones I imagine to be a part of old Syrian or French homes. The smell was mixed of paint and wood, and it was too familiar to leave behind. I stood in place for a few moments, and my nose flared as I took it in. I can’t begin to tell you about the connection between smell and memory, but right at that moment, I saw what I was looking at.
The gate entrance led to my grandfather and father’s old antique refurnishing shop. I spent most – if not all – of my weekends there as a child growing up in New Orleans before I moved to Palestine. That hallway that led to the courtyard was where I would put one hand in my mother’s palm and one in my father’s so that they could swing me high up in the air on our way out.
The empty courtyard was where my brother and I would pick on each other or entertain ourselves with whatever toys we got from the French Market.
My grandfather and father owuld be inside working on antiques – painting, refurnishing, polishing. My grandfather would call out to my brother as “Abu Steif” and myself as “Hasheematon”, adding an Arabic grammar affect to my name. He would give us paint brushes he wasn’t using and have us paint on something him and my father didn’t need. After that, he’d give us cotton balls with a bit of alcohol to wipe the paint off our hands.
The paint stains never left his hands, and they haven’t left my father’s.
I stood there a few days ago and looked in. The smell was still there. I moved to Palestine. Hurricane Katrina happened. My father and grandfather relocated their business to a second location since. Thirteen years passed in Palestine. I moved back. A year passed. My grandfather passed away. But the smell is still there reminding me of time…where this journey began.
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.
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.
My latest on Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision and the New Orleans Palestinian community response:
“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.
“Okay. When I come to America then.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.