I looked with wonder at the visitor and then at my mother-in-law, trying to get to the bottom of the matter. Why this ear-shattering scream? Having collected myself, I asked our guest for an explanation and why he had upset my mother-in-law so much. He stressed his innocence and good intentions. All that he had told her was that he worked at a mental health hospital in Giv'at Shaul, built on the lands of the famous Palestinian village, Deir Yassin, destroyed by Zionist forces in the 1948 war. In the hospital was a very old man who had lost his mind and who called himself Sheikh Hassan Al-Labadi. That was all.
My mother-in-law insisted on going immediately to the hospital to see Sheikh Hassan. I went along on condition I learn the whole story.
"I do not know when it happened, was it 1939 or 1940? Sheikh Hassan, my husband's brother, was the imam at the Abu Dis mosque. Of a very religious bent, he would go quite frequently to the Aqsa Mosque to spend most of his free time in recollection. On one such occasion, some British soldiers invaded the mosque in search of rebels. Sheikh Hassan tried to defend the mosque against the heavily armed soldiers. They hit him with their rifle butts and swore at him in language highly inappropriate for such a holy place. In a moment of rage, he took his dagger out and stabbed a British soldier to death. He was caught, sentenced to death and dispatched to Acre prison where he awaited the execution of the sentence, leaving behind his wife and son, Ghazi. A local movement was organized to save Sheikh Hassan, seeing that he defended the mosque and because he was a man of God. To curtail the resistance movement, the sentence was commuted to life. The family kept on visiting Acre prison until 1948 when the town of Acre fell into the hands of the Israelis. After that, the family tried to contact the sheikh via the Red Cross, but in vain. With the passage of time, all hope was lost.
"The family gave up, like thousands of other Palestinian families that were torn apart and dispersed in the four corners of the world and finally despaired of ever seeing their loved ones again. Nobody knew of the fate of Sheikh Hassan. The family thought that he must have finally died in prison. As for his son, he was raised by my husband and myself, and later went to work in Amman. Now this man informs me that Sheikh Hassan is alive."
We did not believe what we had heard. Was it possible? Sheikh Hassan was the embodiment of the Palestinian tragedy, the epitome of heroism, of collective memory, of struggle and sacrifice, of prison and humiliation, indeed of the Nakba. Was he really alive?
We set off hurriedly with my mother-in-law to Deir Yassin (Giv'at Shaul), unsure of what was awaiting us. Fact or fantasy? We may have inwardly wished that the story be untrue for fear of confronting the past and unearthing questions that had no answers. But curiosity and longing had the better of us. We reached the hospital which was a refurbished and expanded old building, probably a remnant of the village of Deir Yassin. And why in Deir Yassin? Was it a coincidence or was fate mocking us, making the disaster complete?
I rang the bell. A male nurse came out. In the modest Hebrew I learned in jail (like many of my compatriots), I said very simply we had come to visit Sheikh Hassan Al-Labadi. The nurse hesitated a few moments before he answered, as if he was not prepared for such a request. I interrupted his internal monologue and explained that we were relatives and that we had heard that he was there and we had come to pay him a visit. He motioned us to wait outside and came back with an old man dressed in civilian clothes who introduced himself as the director of the hospital. He ascertained himself of our identities, especially that of my mother-in-law who allegedly knew personally the man who claimed to be Sheikh Hassan Al-Labadi. He told us that the sheikh was indeed there, but he wasn't too sure of his identity, and that we had to decide for ourselves whether he was our man or not.
A few minutes later, the door opened and in entered a ghost, a tall, angelic, unassuming figure, in his eighties. He had small, sunken eyes that seemed to be blue; his white beard hung over his emaciated chest and reached his stomach; a white rag was tied around his head. In spite of the years and harsh times, he was straight as an arrow inside a white qumbaz (robe). Between his white fingers danced the black beads of a long rosary. He mumbled incomprehensibly, except for the word "Allah."
After I got over the shock, I looked at my mother-in-law. She was crying and nodding to me that it was he, Sheikh Hassan Al-Labadi, who had gone missing for over 40 years and who now has come back from the dead. He is, indeed, Sheikh Hassan standing in front of us, mocking history and all the powers of occupation. Who can believe that he was still alive while everything else has changed. The British occupation turned into the Israeli occupation, but Sheikh Hassan is still the same man; he has not changed.
* * *
We learned from the hospital director that Sheikh Hassan had been "freed" from his prison in Acre, but he was very old even then and nobody was sure who he was. Inquisitiveness pushed me to investigate the story of Sheikh Hassan. I started with the prison of Acre, but found nothing. I then turned to the general Israeli administration of prisons, again nothing. Then the Ministry of Health. Nothing. I found nothing that would lead me to clues about Sheikh Hassan and what had happened to him.
He had lost his memory; we do not know when or how, possibly as a result of torture or separation or longing for his child. Nonetheless, I did not give up. Sheikh Hassan still held his dark secret.
We went home in the company of the sheikh. We felt we were coming back from a Quixotic adventure, having freed the oldest prisoner in the history of the Palestinian question. Nobody met us as liberators; nobody noticed us, but my feelings were bigger than victory itself, bigger than the dream.
"This is the village of Abu Dis and this is the mosque where you used to call people to prayer before you got arrested." The Sheikh did not believe us. "Abu Dis is a small village, where have all these buildings come from? Do not make fun of me. I know each house in Abu Dis; I know every man, woman and child; was I not the sheikh of the village? Did I not use to read people their letters and to write their testaments and notarize them?" "This is your brother Abdallah's wife and these are his children," we pursued. "Do not mock me," he reiterated. "I left my brother a bridegroom, without any children. But where is my brother Abdallah?" "He passed away 15 years ago." "Take me back to where you found me, I do not want to listen anymore to your lies. I was quite content; do not complicate my life. I am a sheikh; it is forbidden to lie to a sheikh."
* * *
If Jerusalem had changed so drastically, Kufr Libbed was still the same. Once they finished school, its people left the village to go work in other Palestinian towns as teachers or sheikhs, or they would go to the Arabian Gulf. So the village stayed unchanged, undeveloped, with its old Arab houses. I decided it was necessary to take Sheikh Hassan there, in the hope that the sight of his village would jog his memory. As soon as we left Anabta and started the ascent towards Kufr Libbed, he got all flushed and his eyes popped out. He cried, "Let me off here." He got off and started wailing and rolling over the ground; he took handfuls of earth and sprinkled it over his head, praying. Then he got up and started running like a young man, like someone who got a new lease on life. "This is my mother's land, and this is my uncle's and this is mine," he pointed. Did this mean the sheikh had recovered his memory? And were we any closer to cracking the mystery?
In Kufr Libbed we had a royal reception. All the people of the village came - the inquisitive, the astonished, the believers, the non-believers, the aged, his contemporaries and their children who had heard of him. But the sheikh denied everybody: "This is my hometown, but these are foreigners." It was only the land that Sheikh Hassan had recognized.
Later, his son came from Amman to see his father. Again the sheikh had difficulty recognizing him. Nonetheless, he left with him to Amman, for the son wanted to take care of his father. But the sheikh lived his last days beset by perplexity. He used to go out to the Amman heights looking for something that we couldn't fathom, followed by one of his grandchildren. He did not live long; he died two months after his "liberation."
Was it freedom that killed him? Had we committed a mistake in freeing him from his prison? Had the sheikh recognized things subconsciously and denied them consciously? He surrendered to death and in his surrender was maybe a rejection of reality, defeat, the Nakba, development, civilization, Westernization? Who can tell what the memory of Sheikh Hassan Al-Labadi held?
Note: All names of people and places are real.