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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“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.”

 

 

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.

 

Generations Past and Pass: On Change

Donald J. Trump came to visit Palestine a week after I flew in. I turned on the television and sat across, watching Trump’s every move and hearing his every word. On the issue of Palestine, he was not going to be any different than his predecessors. Palestinians know this even before he utters a single word…even before he was sworn into office. Again, on the issue of Palestine, he was not going to be any different than his predecessors.

“That’s Donald Trump.” My youngest sibling walked into the room and sat next to me.

“The very one,” I replied.

“What’s he doing here?” She asked.

I didn’t know how to answer that. I silently hoped that when she was my age, a different, better story would be told.

I watched him speak and glorify the state of Israel and ignore the facts on the ground. I watched him meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and not utter a word about Palestine, the hunger strikers at the time, or anything he should have said. It was all about him wanting to combat terrorism and make the world great again.

As he shook hands with Abbas and left the podium, I thought to myself. How many generations have passed watching different United States presidents stand on a podium, preaching the same thing with no tangible….with no acknowledgement of the facts on the ground?

I thought of my grandparents, parents, myself, and my youngest sibling. We have all seen this two-podium-scenario with different presidents.

Today, there was a gathering in Ramallah in protest of the heinous measures Israel is taking against Palestinians in Jerusalem, especially in regards to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The protest was made up of a gathering of no more than 40 people.

“If this were to happen back in the day, everyone would have taken to the street,” my aunt, in her 40s, noted.

I nodded.

We rode a taxi, and as the taxi driver dropped us off, he said, “God help this generation. Darker times are yet to come.”

Darker times are yet to come. I wondered across how many generations this sentence has been uttered. 

The Two Sides of Qalandia Part 16: My Grandfather’s Request

“Grandpa, what do you want me to bring you back from Jerusalem?” I asked my paternal grandfather a day before I would go visit Jerusalem for the second time in the month.

I watched my grandfather, who turned eighty last November, as he slowly walked to his spot on the couch. I was waiting for him to say something like, “Thank you, sidi – Grandpa” or “Just go have fun.”

“Bring back Jerusalem,” he replied.

June of this year marked fifty years since the 1967 six-day war, or Al-Naksa, when Jerusalem, as well as the rest of Palestine, was occupied by Israel. Jerusalem is separated into East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is what is proposed as the capital of the State of Palestine on paper. It is where the Old City of Jerusalem, rich with history, exists. For people with a green identity card or with a Gaza identity card, entering Jerusalem is simply difficult.

As I thought of what my grandfather was saying, I remembered my maternal grandfather. He passed away in the United States a little over two years ago, but he always told my grandmother that when his legs were strong again, he wanted to go to Jerusalem. It is that kind of city.

“Bring back Jerusalem,” he replied.

One day, sidi. One day we will bring back Jerusalem. We will be able to get there and make more beautiful history between the gates and walls of one of the holiest cities in the world.

The Trip Home: Anniversary June Part 2

The trip home does not end when the airplane lands in Jordan. It begins.

The taxi radio was on. The radio talk show host was talking about how the next day marks 69 years since the occupation of Palestine. She began talking about the problems in Palestine, the negotiations that died long ago but politicians keep bringing up – as if there is a hidden message we have failed to catch – , the prisoner hunger strike, the, the, the…the list went on.

I was still in Jordan. I would be for a while. I wondered how, for the past 69 years on May 15th, things have not changed…not for the better. I wondered how many more generations will come and hear that for so and so years, things have not changed…not for the better. I will wonder this again, around a week later, when President Donald Trump comes to Palestine.

The next day, I get a message from a dear friend:

“How ironic you arrive on the day we were displaced.”

And my thoughts continued to struggle between the past and the future…when Palestinians were displaced and when they…if they will come back.

Mawtini: On singing and grandparents

I don’t remember when I first heard Mawtini , a poem written by the late Palestinian poet Ibrahim Tuqan, but I do remember a beautiful memory associated with it.

It was May 2014 at my brother’s high school graduation. I was sitting next to my maternal grandfather who was sitting next to my grandmother. As it goes during graduation ceremonies, we were whispering and looking around and ahead at the graduates. Then, the national anthem began playing on the loud speakers, and we all stood up. Immediately after, Mawtini began playing.

At that moment, I heard my grandfather singing along. I turned to look at him and smiled. He was happy. He was looking ahead and singing along. I never before had heard or seen my grandfather sing. I have heard and seen my paternal grandfather sing but never my maternal grandfather.

I wasn’t the only one that turned to look at him. My grandmother also looked at him and expressed her astonishment over the sound of the music. “Ye, Mohammad – Oh, Mohammad! – I never knew you knew how to sing this.” My grandfather kept looking ahead, singing along, and smiled playfully at my grandmother’s comment. The song finished, and we took our seats to watch the ceremony commence.

I have started singing along to Mawtini whenever it plays. I still feel nostalgic, for Palestine, for my grandfather, and for beautiful moments that turn into memories.

May his soul rest in peace. We miss you over another Ramadan, Sido.