Visitors to Palestine from abroad often ask about personal stories to reflect on the realities and experiences of Palestinians living amidst an apparently interminable conflict. I usually hesitate to refer to my personal story, the story of my family, because it carries such emotions and brings back memories that are better kept in the heart. These days, commemorations are taking place: Today, the 5th of June, marks the 41st anniversary of the June War of 1967. A couple of weeks back, we commemorated the loss of Palestine and the disintegration of our Palestinian society 60 years ago.
For me as a young boy in the 1950s, living in a single room in the Old City of Jerusalem with eight other members of my extended family, dispossession meant that my parents had been forced to leave their small home in Qatamon, West Jerusalem, in order to move to safety- first in Lebanon where they stayed for a year, later to Bethlehem and, eventually, to the Old City of Jerusalem within a span of two years after 1948. Conditions in Old Jerusalem during the early 1950s, the years of our refuge, were a reflection of the times: no electricity, no running water, no in-house toilet, a zinc metallic roof on which the rain kept tapping during wintry nights and made it difficult for my brothers, sisters and me to sleep soundly and be ready for school the following day. I recall vividly how my dear mother used to cook, wash and do all the daily household chores in the one single room. The light of the kerosene lamps helped for studying and reading, and often we would gather around the lamps to tell stories or, to review the day's hard work. One of the most memorable experiences for me is the way we used to all gather every night to eat a light meal of za'atar (thyme), olive oil and labaneh (homemade cottage cheese), with cucumbers, tomatoes and a hot cup of tea. This was the occasion to share with each other our experiences of the day at school, at work or simply in the streets of the city.
My earliest recollection of how my father and mother took their newly acquired predicament of refugee status was gathered through listening to their conversation in the early hours of the morning when they were drinking their first cup of coffee. They would talk about their small home in Qatamon with affection and nostalgia and reminisce about the people and items associated with it - the pine tree that stood in front of the house; the backyard where they would entertain friends; the water plant nearby that used to produce ice; the Jewish Irgun paramilitary camp that stood on one side of the house, and the British army camp that stood on the other. They talked about the bombings by Jewish militant groups of Arab Palestinian homes in the neighborhood and about the King David Hotel bombing by a Jewish terrorist group, and how all these had affected their lives as they lost personal friends with whom they used to socialize regularly. Surprisingly, though, my parents never said any bad or harsh word against the Jews, but they were very critical of Britain, then a weakened world power that was terminating its mandate over Palestine. And they were critical of the United States, a post-WWII up-and-coming world power that would lend unconditional and permanent support to the newly created Jewish state. My father's criticism of both countries resided in the fact that they had not upheld Christian ethics and morality- assuming they were Christian nations - in dealing with the tragedy of our Palestinian people, as these Western powers allowed the Jewish people that had suffered a great and unspeakably horrible tragedy during WWII to inflict a tragedy of disintegration and dispersal on our Palestinian people. That what transpired in Palestine, with the creation of Israel, spelled a deep injustice to my parents and to my teachers at school was clear from what they said and how they projected their experiences and sentiments. They were simply a deeply wounded generation.
But in spite of the pain and wounds of my parents' generation, life in Old Jerusalem during the 1950s breathed of communal solidarity and of the pleasures of going on with one's life, in spite of everything. I recall how my mother and aunt would take us children once a year to buy new clothes and shoes, especially if this shopping spree took place during winter, mostly around Christmas time. My brothers, sisters and I would then feel greatly relieved, as our old shoes had so many holes in them they were a liberal invitation for rainwater. We were so happy to replace our shoes and, for us, this was part of our experience of a merry Christmas. Santa Claus would also visit us and, on Christmas morning, we would find stashed at the foot of our bed some chocolates and candy, with a 2-piaster coin, the equivalent of 8 cents at the exchange rate of those years. The colorful wrapping paper and the extra cash we received made us very happy indeed as we hurried to spend our newly acquired wealth.
Most of my peers at the École des Frères (the De la Salle Brothers) by the New Gate were refugee children - a mix of Christian and Muslim youngsters whose parents had passed through similar experiences in 1948. As a result of these experiences, we were all taken in politically by [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, the emerging Arab nationalist leader of Egypt, as we often debated whether Palestinian refugees would ever make it back to their homes and villages in what was now Israel. We were arguing that the only way to get back what we lost would be through force, following a famous statement by Nasser: "What was taken by force can only be returned by force." Some of us, however, were not so sure that the Arab countries and their armies were ever a match for Israel and its Western allies. But aside from the heated political discussions, we were a spirited bunch of youngsters as we mounted plays and comic presentations at our different homes. We laughed so heartily that even our parents and the older generation forgot some of the pain and wounds of the 1948 War. We were also a socially engaged group as we joined different sports, culture, and arts clubs, participated in a variety of summer camps, and organized social events for the whole community.
The hurt that our parents lived was balanced by their insistence that we receive a first-class education. The meager salary that my father touched as an employee in the Finance Department of the Arab Municipality of Jerusalem was not enough to cover our school fees. UNRWA helped by giving partial education grants to refugee children in private schools. The UN organization in charge of Palestinian refugee affairs also provided us with a daily glass of milk, given at morning breaks to all the children. At the beginning, the taste of the milk was awful, but later we grew accustomed to it. Food rations distributed by UNRWA came in handy, but standing in a long line of refugees was terribly unpleasant, and I remember how we were kept in line with a leather belt wielded by a frightful looking guard. The La Salle Brothers and churches also helped. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land offered the room where we were living while, thanks to the generosity of local and international donors, the Brothers would provide the students at school with winter hats and other essential clothes to counter the elements.
Our parents gave us a sense of dignity as they were proud in their poverty and in spite of their refugee condition. They always managed with their little resources. Elementary things in life were what counted: good education, minimal food, once-yearly shopping and, the most essential, love. The model provided - or in fact lived - by many of our parents in Old Jerusalem was that we have to restart our lives and move forward. We should never be prisoners of the past, regardless of how painful it is. With the material poverty of my parents came the richness of determination not to succumb. It was not easy but, even today, this is a model that ought to be followed.
The future is ours if we so determine and insist on our rights as a people, including the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. We should remember that, as we cope with the dark side of history, there is always a compensating parallel bright side. But this bright side cannot shine through without us ridding ourselves of feelings of victimhood, of self-pity and helplessness. Otherwise, it will be difficult to be free and, in the process, to ensure the achievement of our rights can and will be done without infringing on the rights of others. Freedom when gained would, thus, be a tribute to the example set by our parents. Our parents' generation was the one that had lived first-hand the impact of 1948. It is also the one that had overcome its initial aftershocks by giving us a first-rate education and by instilling in us the hope that the future would always be better, if we will it.

June 5th 2008