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My Grandpa’s Right of Return

“Ramzy, I must admit it, it’s so hard being a Palestinian these days..” That’s how a friend of mine, a dedicated individual who is spending her days and years advocating justice for the Palestinian people, ended a distressing message to me a few months back. I recall her words often, and as often I recall my grandfather who died in a refugee camp’s mud home, away from his village and land.

My grandpa believed that being a Palestinian was a blessing. “You cannot be entrusted to defend a more virtuous cause than the cause of Palestine, unless Allah has blessed you greatly,” he once told me.

I often wondered what kept the old man going. He lost his home and the pride of his life, his land, and was forced at gunpoint to haul his family away and leave the village of Beit Daras where they once lived happily. He spent the rest of his life, getting old and tired in a refugee camp, for many years in a tent, then in a mud house subsidized by the United Nations. He died there, next to a transistor radio.

Grandpa’s radio was once green, yet its color faded to white somehow. It was battered, and covered with duct tape, just enough to keep it whole. The old man cared little for the look of the radio. All that mattered was that the radio managed to broadcast the news, the “Voice of London” in Arabic, the “Middle East Radio” or the “Voice of the Arabs” were constantly on. At night, he tucked the radio beside him and went to bed, to start his next morning with the latest news.

He fancied that one of these days the radio would declare that Palestinian refugees were allowed to go back home. He carried that fantasy until he died, at the age of 95, decades after he was forced out of Palestine.

We would see grandpa walking toward the radio briskly from the kitchen, or waking up abruptly from an afternoon nap, fervently asking, while pointing at the radio: “Did they just say something about refugees?”

“No grandpa, they haven’t,” one of us would reply with a juvenile smile. He would return back to his chore, carrying the weight of many years, and his unending hope.

But grandpa died, a few years before the start of the Palestinian uprising of 1987. He was too old to walk, to argue with grandma for not feeding the chickens on time, or to converse with an equally ailing neighbor. But never too old to hold his little radio, lovingly, with a final desperate hope that the long awaited news segment about his return to his village would be declared.

When grandpa gasped his last breath, all of his friends and family stood by muttering verses from the Quran as many tears were shed that day. I, too, stood close to him, frightened of confronting my first experience with death. He made it easy on me, as he had a smile on his face, and near him was a radio with the volume lowered, but never muted.

The year of his death was a year that many older refugees also passed away. They were buried in a graveyard surrounded by the graves of younger refugees, mostly martyrs who fell throughout the years.

I wish I could have managed to keep grandpa’s old radio. But when I left my refugee camp, I did manage to smuggle many memories, his undying hope, and his pride of being a Palestinian.

Very often, and now more than ever, I recall the words of my friend about how difficult it is being a Palestinian these days. I recall it with every Palestinian child killed or home demolished, with every speech that President Bush makes outlining his visionless vision of the Middle East; I recalled it when a Brussels’s court denied Palestinians the right to try Ariel Sharon for his massacres in Lebanon; I recalled it when a Dutch officer held me for a long time delaying the entire flight while investigating me for the mere fact that I was born in Gaza; I recall it when my father talks to me on the phone just to tell me that the Israelis are bombing his neighborhood; I recall it not every day, but every hour.

But I also recall my grandpa’s words: “You cannot be entrusted to defend a more virtuous cause, the cause of Palestine, unless Allah has blessed you greatly.”

I often wondered why old, dispossessed and ailing grandpa died in a mud house with a smile on his face. We will all die one day, rich and poor, citizens and stateless, Palestinians and Israelis, presidents and refugees. It’s that final and decisive moment, when grandpa gasped his last breath that counts. He lived a hard life, a refugee, with his dearest possession, a battered transistor radio. But he died a Palestinian, who never compromised on his rights. He died proud, with a smile, leaving us with nothing but a transistor and an abundance of hope.

Grandpa never returned to his village of Beit Daras, but I know that one day my children will.

RAMZY BAROUD is a veteran Arab-American journalist and the author of the upcoming volume entitled, A Force to Be Reckoned With: Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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