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Stranded in No Man's Land

You Can Never Go Home Again

by RAOUF J. HALABY

People woke up on the second of January and found the whole world about them altogether changed. … For in the night it had snowed. In the dark hours after midnight the dim flakes started falling softly over the town. By dawn the ground was covered… . The snow gave the town a drawn, bleak look. The snow was not white, as Northerners  had pictured it to be; in the snow there were soft colors of blue and silver, the sky was a gentle shining gray. … People reacted to the snow in various ways. … The evening was blue, bitter, and though the snow fell no longer there was a wind from the pine trees that swept up delicate flurries from the ground.

The snow did not last. The sun came out and within two days the town was just as it had always been before.

– From The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers

On January 10, 2013, snow fell in abundance in Jerusalem, Palestine. The six inches of snow that fell in Jerusalem and environs was the heaviest snowfall in thirty years, and some parts of the Galilee and the West Bank had as much as twelve inches of snow. Several people in the West Bank and Gaza were killed as a result of subsequent flooding caused by heavy rains. Israelis and Palestinians enjoyed this blanket of white by throwing snowballs (certainly not at each other) and making snow sculptures. Images of snow-covered landscapes, historic landmarks, snowmen and a first, a Palestinian snowwoman, were posted on blogs and printed on the front pages of newspapers around the world. One of the most iconic images was the image of the radiant gilded cupola of the Dome of the Rock mosque with its brilliant ochroid golden hues boldly juxtaposed against a placid blanket of fluffy eiderdown white of repose on the Temple Mount plaza surrounding Islam’s oldest monument, and in close proximity to Judaism’s  Wailing Wall.

After viewing several images, two recollections immediately came to mind. The first, a sequence of selected quotations from Carson McCullers’ novel The Ballad of the Sad Café which describe the snow in terms that belie the placidity one usually associates with the serenity that snow scenes evoke. The last clause in the afore-quoted passage sums up the mood and its quotidian tone — a tone that, unfortunately, cries loudly for justice and peace in the land of the prophets, where wailing is an ongoing circumstance. (“… within two days the town was just as it had always been before.”)

One’s tendency to associate current events with personal past experiences prompted me to revisit my personal repertoire of memories associated with snow in the Jerusalem of my childhood, and I travelled back in time to January 1949 when my family and I were stranded in the snow at the Mandelbaum Gate Crossing, and only because the Israelis refused to allow us to go to our home in West Jerusalem.

Soon after the U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine was announced in New York on November 29, 1947, tension between the indigenous Palestinians and recently arrived mostly European Jewish immigrants increased, and attacks and counter attacks reached a crescendo in early 1948, with Jewish paramilitary groups gaining the upper hand. Organized Jewish terrorist attacks by the Irgun, Stern, and Lehi gangs struck terror in the hearts of a mostly agrarian Palestinian population the culmination of which was the massacre of Deir Yassin (Monastery of Yassin).  In a village whose population numbered some 600, over 100 women, children, and old men were brutally butchered in a massacre that has been likened to the Babi Yar Nazi massacre of Jews in Kiev, Ukraine.  Add insult to injury, survivors who did not flee the massacre were put in flat truck beds and paraded in a demeaning triumphal drive through some of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods. Albert Einstein vehemently condemned this barbarous massacre. In his monumental work The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Israeli scholar Ilan Pape documents these sordid events in detail and does an especially herculean task of linking these dastardly crimes to Plan Dalet, a plan conceived much earlier by David Ben Gurion and his cohorts, and a plan whose sole purpose was to cleanse Palestine of its native people using all means, including terror, pillaging, and forcible removal.  And some gang members were involved in gang rape.

From January 1948 through April of 1948 terror and fear spread throughout Palestine causing tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee their ancestral homes.  The April 9,  1948  Deir Yassin Massacre, only 35 days before Ben Gurion declared Israel a state, was the catalyst  that spawned mass hysteria and panic amongst the Palestinian population. This was perhaps the salient pivotal point that  propelled  the Palestinian diaspora on a large scale; over 750,000 displaced Palestinians, the vast majority of whom fled en masse and in fear,  were forced to flock to make-shift refugee tent-camps in neighboring Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The Palestinians would remember the 1948 rape of their beloved country and their forcible removal as the Naqba (Catastrophe), a term that has been recently outlawed by the Israeli government. In the aftermath  of the genocidal embers,  ashes, and ghosts of the Holocaust emerged the state of Israel, and with the creation of the State of Israel emerged  the embers and ashes of the State of Palestine, a mere ghost living in the shadows and gasping for the breath of existence.

During the 35 days post the Deir Yassin Massacre and as a result of the gruesome events, mass hysteria spread throughout Palestine and pandemonium struck; the majority of people fled with only the clothes on their backs, and the rest with whatever they could pack into suitcases and bags. Most fled on foot, and to this day, almost 65 years later, descendants of these refugees live in the disquietude of refugee camp enclosures in Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, where the welcome mats are increasingly  pulled out from under their feet, while hundreds of thousands live in diaspora around the globe in infinitely better conditions. Had it not been for a sequence of fortunate turns, my family might well have been residing in one of these camps. In most cases fathers, holding out for international mediation, initially sent their wives and children into flight, grandparents and the elderly followed, and finally, when it was obvious that the Israelis were getting the upper hand, the fathers fled, not knowing where their loved ones were. And in the process parents were separated from their children, and husbands from their wives. While some family members headed for Gaza and Jordan, others headed for Syria or Lebanon, and the search for lost family members took weeks and months, and in numerous instances years, before families would be reunified.

Caught up in the post Deir Yassin Massacre maelstrom of  violence and counter violence and fearing for his widowed sister and her five children, my childless maternal uncle and his wife advised my  mother to take her five children to Jordan “until the violence is over.”  Thus it was that, like the majority of Palestinians, my family, composed of my mother and my four siblings, the oldest of whom, an only sister, was ten years old, and the youngest, twin boys, two-and-a-half years old, left Jerusalem with several suitcases and a handful of personal belongings and drove to Salt, Jordan, in early April of 1948. When the harsh winter set in in the remote Jordanian town and because we did not have warm winter clothes (our sojourn, after all, was to have been brief), the family moved to Jericho and rented a house in the middle of a banana and citrus Bayyara (grove). Some 1,200 feet below sea level, Jericho’s temperate climate was ideal, and for a playground we had the entire bayyara with its rich canopy of lush greenery, a virtual Avatar landscape. The only vivid memories of that brief sojourn were the shallow water aqueducts that meandered through and dissected the landscape’s lush green vegetation, a serene world we appropriated and owned to our selves, and an embryonic heaven on earth world away from the eddying whirlpool that was engulfing the region. I especially remember sitting in these aqueducts for what seemed like hours at a time as well as watching my older siblings and cousins race their sail boats in the circumrotation of the pristine gushing waters diverted from the Jordan River, and what I would give to be baptized, yet again, in these waters. With tree bark for hulls and banana leaves for mainsails, the boats sailed away into the distance. The sailing exploits were reserved for the older siblings and cousins, and we, the younger kids, were accorded the privilege of serving as spectators and cheerleaders.

By late November of 1948 it became obvious that Israel had no intentions of allowing any displaced Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine, and the International Red Cross, under the auspices of the U.N., launched a Reunification of Displaced People effort to help reunite displaced family members. Utilizing radio broadcasts as a medium, radio stations in East Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Beirut began to announce daily programs that went something like this: “This is Nawal Awad, the wife of Elias Awad. Except for Fouad, the children and I are living in tent #329 at the Yarmook Refugee Camp. During the flight Fouad couldn’t keep up and my father and mother-in-law carried him and stopped to rest.  We thought that they would catch up with us. Their names are Salem and Muna Awad. If anyone hears this message, please tell Kareem Awad, my husband, from the town of Safad, and my in-laws, where they can find us. Please hurry, conditions are deplorable and we want to go back home.

Allah Maakum (God be with you)!”

With money running out and the paucity of proper schooling, Katrina Halaby took matters into her own hands. She contacted the Red Cross and requested that the following be broadcast on an East Jerusalem (by now occupied by Jordan) radio station: “This message is for my brother Naim Halabi of Upper Bakaa’ in West Jerusalem. Your sister Katrina and her children are in Jericho and wish to go back home. Anyone hearing this message please contact Naim Halabi and relay this urgent message.”  This desperate appeal, one of thousands such voices crying out from the wilderness of diaspora, resonated with someone on the other side of the Green Line (which would eventually become the Armistice Line), and somehow my uncle received the message.

Soon after my father’s death in 1947, Naim Halabi and his wife left a successful business in New York and moved to Jerusalem; he become our guardian and ran my father’s business, responsibilities he undertook with the utmost gravity.  He immediately went into action. On the Jordanian side, Abdallah al Tal, a Jordanian Colonel and the chief Jordanian negotiator in the Armistice Talks between Jordan and Israel, was asked to “allow the widow Katrina Halaby and her five children to cross the border and go back to their home in West Jerusalem.” On the Israeli side, Naim Halabi contacted two Jewish men, a Mr. Bassan and a Mr. Simon. The first was a Jewish attorney in Mandate Palestine and had served as my father’s legal counsel, and the second was a well to do business man with whom my father had numerous business dealings. If memory serves me correctly, Simon became the Military Governor of Jerusalem soon after the 1948 war.

Set in motion and by mutual agreement between Jordanian and Israeli officials, we were given permission to cross from East to West Jerusalem in January of 1949. Two small flatbed lorries, one driven by Naim Halabi, and the other by a U.N. official, a kind and gentle American citizen in his  twenties (perhaps older), left Jericho and wound their way west just past the Inn of the Good Samaritan, where, according to tradition, the Good Samaritan took the bloodied victim to an inn thus earning a name for himself for eternity. The 20 mile ascent to Mandelbaum Gate, the only official conduit between East and West Jerusalem, seemed like an eternity.

In 2010 Pultizer Prize winner Kai Bird published his book Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978. As the son of an American Consular Officer who lived in East Jerusalem, Kai and his family had the privilege of crossing the border as frequently as they wished. And when Kai would later attend the Anglican International School in West Jerusalem, the crossings became almost a daily routine. As soon as I looked at the cover of Kai’s book I saw a photograph of Mandelbaum Gate’s one-car narrow strip of road and the lateral massive concrete barriers and concertina wire. And I immediately travelled back in time to January 1949 and my family’s harrowing experience of our Awda (return).

On what must have been the coldest day in snow-covered 1949 Jerusalem, we arrived at the Jordanian side of the crossing by 9:30 a.m. and were processed rather quickly. My uncle, mother and two older brothers rode in the cab of one lorry, and my sister, my twin brother and I rode in the cab of the other lorry driven by the American U.N. official. As we proceeded to the Israeli check point, barely 200 feet away, we were stopped for what would have appeared to be a routine document and vehicle inspection. What should have taken less than an hour dragged into a seven hour delay, and, under the watchful eyes of machine gun toting Israeli guards who would emerge from their warm barrack-like structure to walk around the lorries, kick the snow and smoke cigarettes, we were stuck in the snowy  no man’s land where the “The evening was blue, bitter” and “The snow gave [this small piece of real estate] a drawn, bleak look.”

Fearing that the petrol would run out, the engines were turned on only intermittently to provide just enough heat to keep us warm until the next brief run. Stranded in no man’s land, almost at the same spot depicted on the cover of Kai Bird’s book cover, we were suspended in a Kafkaesque dark forest, a world circumscribed with monstrous cyclopean concrete barricades and an ugly spiral of circumambulatory cold, galvanized steel.  When our teeth would chatter, the kindly American gentleman would lead us in hand clapping, cheerful talk, and singing, much of which I didn’t understand. And to this day I remember his opening his heavy winter coat and placing my twin brother and me on either side of him and wrapping us for extended periods of time to ward off the brutal gelidity. And for days my sister suffered from serious frostbite

Finally, in the late evening hours, and only after Mr. Simon was contacted, were we allowed to drive the few miles to our stone home in Upper Bakaa’.

Had it not been for al Tal, Bassan,  and Simon, our lives would have undoubtedly taken a different course. And somewhere out there, if he is still alive, is an American Schindler, a man whose memory still warms my heart, and a man to whom I will forever owe a deep debt of gratitude.

Beamed through this posting and hoping to soon hear from him or his family, I am sending this message out to : “Dear Good Samaritan, if you are still alive and or if someone out there, friend or family member, knows of your whereabouts, please let me know. Sixty-four years later I would love to personally honor you and to express a deep gratitude on my family’s behalf for the magnanimous deed you rendered to a desperate family aching to go home.” In the words of ET, “ Halaby go home.”

Postscript

On January 12, 2013, the following report was published (Google: Playing in Snow is a No-No forPalestinian Youth):  “In Silwan, in occupied East Jerusalem … Israeli soldiers violently attacked and arrested several Palestinians playing in the snow, in Sheikh Jarrah, in occupied Jerusalem, amidst the current snowfall that is covering nearly every part of Palestine … extremist settlers, who gathered in the area shouted slogans against the Arabs and Palestinians.”

In Carson McCuller’s words, “The snow did not last. The sun came out and within two days the town was just as it had always been before.”

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art. He is a peace activist, a sculptor, a photographer, a gardener, and a former beekeeper. halabyr@obu.edu