On the way to the St. James Episcopal Church of Austin Texas, the bus is happy to drop you into knee-high grasses and wildflowers along East Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, treating you to an unexpected nature walk. Yellow, white, purple, and brown blooms all smile up toward the sun which has not yet turned into the summer harshness that burns even the breeze into hiding.
Then, across the overgrown sidewalk along Webberville Road scurry creatures so tiny and fast they leave only traces behind. A magic tangle of cedar and mesquite whispers invitations to bow your head and step inside. But the caw, caw, caw of something overhead brings your eyes up to a pair of crows nipping in mid-flight at a passing hawk.
So it is a delightful revelation when you walk into the St. James sanctuary to see that two of its walls have been given over to glass, and you don’t have to leave behind the marvelous green thicket of this wild Texas oasis as you pick your seat upon a wooden pew.
Separating the converging glass walls is an altar with three crosses coming down. The highest cross is imaged upon a red tapestry, broad enough to hold an image of the world projected upon a scallop shell. Next cross down is thin, brown, and wooden, suspended by cables. And then supported from the ground up by a brass post is the third cross, in brass. Heaven to earth, global to local. Trinity applied. Three, two, one.
* * *
The hour is still a bit early for the program, so the women are testing the microphones. Rita Hamad and her mother Diana HajAli satisfy themselves that the sound will carry vibrantly through the modest sanctuary, and later the audience of 300 (way more than the “dozens” reported by the establishment press of Austin) will quickly demand that speakers use their microphone well, because nobody wants to miss a word.
“Okay, I’ll use my teacher’s voice,” is what Mark Kelly will say to the audience after he has been demanded to speak up. “I was in class the other day helping a student when a small noise caused me to look up unexpectedly. And I found myself explaining to the student: ‘I thought that was Mr. Hamad.’ I had to look back. I expected to see him there.”
From the flow of tears in this sanctuary and from the punctuations of laughter at funny memories, you can feel how the absence of Riad Hamad has been transformed into presence. “There has been some speculation about the circumstances of Riad’s death,” acknowledges Mr. Kelly. “But that’s not what we’re here for.” What we’re here for is a celebration of Riad Hamad’s life.
Retired Episcopal Priest Edward M Hartwell, for instance, recalls that when he first met Riad Hamad at a rally opposed to the occupation of Palestine, “I knew I wanted to know him better.” The audience chuckles at that. Soon enough, Rev. Hartwell and Riad Hamad were planning another rally in support of the Palestinian cause.
“Riad had a relentless commitment to the freedom of the Palestinian people, and his humanitarian work to help the children of Palestine was some of the most creative and effective work that I know of,” said Rev. Hartwell. “Day in and day out, there was always something going on.”
Two bumper stickers that Riad gave to Rev. Hartwell seemed to sum up the spirit and humor of the man. The first one said, “God loves everyone, no exceptions.” And the second one said, “When Jesus said love your enemies, I think he meant don’t kill them.” The laughter grows a little louder this time.
Riad loved gatherings like this, says Rev. Hartwell, and he would come often to places where Christian, Jewish, and Islamic peoples would join voices in prophetic support for protest against abuses of power, wherever and whenever they occur. “Wherever and whenever,” repeats Rev. Hartwell. “Wherever and whenever.”
As he reflects upon Riad Hamad’s legendary generosity and hospitality, Rev. Hartwell draws connections to the “law of hospitality” that he experienced in travels across the Arab world, whether at an oasis in the Nubian Desert, a Bedouin Camp near the Gulf of Aucuba, a community of Egyptian Christians, or among Palestinians at Ramallah, in Palestine.
“On his last visit to our home, Riad was in a hurry, as usual.” The audience chuckles. “He was practically out the door, when I called him back. I said I need hug. And I told him that we love you.”
We stand up for Rev. Hartwell’s opening prayer, to the Creator of All that Is, witnessing to Riad Hamad’s obedience to the Prophet’s call to give assistance to the oppressed, and testifying to his character, and life, and inspiration. As we sit back down, we are joined by new arrivals.
“Assalam Alaikum,” says Immam and Director of the Islamic Center of Greater Austin, Sheikh Mohammad-Umer Esmail. “Riad Hamad is here in my heart and I’m sure in the hearts of others.” Immam Mohammad thanks hosts and presents glad tidings to the audience, reminding them what the Prophet said upon news of the death of his granddaughter. “Only to God belongs what he has taken.”
For recollection of Riad Hamad’s life, Immam Mohammad turns to a testimonial posted at the website of the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund (pcwf.org), the charity that Riad founded:
“As beautiful a human being as I have ever met . . . His charisma, energy, and positive outlook were contagious. He loved the children of Palestine and worked tirelessly on their behalf. . . . He would rather sleep in his car than pay for a hotel room so that he could save the money and send it to the children of Palestine . . . It was never about him, only the children of Palestine.”
* * *
Tears are falling all around me as even grown men daub their eyes and sniff back the heartbreak that is wanting to cry out loud. Mercifully, the Immam lightens the mood.
“This one section here about sleeping in the car, never about him, only about the children of Palestine,” the Immam shuffles his papers at the lectern, looks down, looks up. “Me, I’d sleep in a hotel.” The audience seizes the chance to laugh out loud. “I can’t sleep in a car.” More laughs. “I’d be too afraid, and I’d be awake all night.” The Immam’s deadpan hits the right spot.
“The best things that a man leaves behind after his death are three,” says the Immam, paraphrasing the Prophet. “First, he leaves behind virtuous children who pray for him; second, he leaves behind the charity he gave, the reward of which reaches him; and finally, he leaves behind a knowledge which people benefited from.”
“You all know my Dad,” says Rita Hamad, the first child to speak today. “Some of you know him as RYE-ad,” she declaims in playful Texan drawl, getting everyone to laughing again. Rita called him Daddy, or Baba, occasionally Babu to remind him of the way she would baby talk, or the Bestest Daddy in the Whole Wide World, especially when she was working on asking for something special.
Nor is Rita Hamad here to apologize for manipulating her father all those years, because after all, he could be a difficult person to live with. Like the time he ended up as a substitute teacher for her class and spent the whole hour pretending that he, her father, was illiterate! Since he couldn’t read the attendance chart himself, he got a student to do that for him. And since he couldn’t write his name on the board he got another student to do that, too. Then, since he couldn’t read the lesson plan, he had to get another student to read the whole thing out loud. Ohmagod daddy, when is enough enough? Finally, he took some time to explain how he and his daughter Rita rode to school on a camel and how he was looking forward to Rita marrying her cousin, just as soon as she turned 13. Little snickers in the sanctuary had turned into full blown howls of laughter by this time, sending little creatures scurrying for ground cover all around our sun-lit oasis.
After a few more of these delightful daddy tales, Rita Hamad says that she learned from her Babu “what it truly means to be proud of being different and to reach out and help others.” And since this Harvard and Berkeley grad knows only one large and outlandish side of her father, she is requesting that memories be emailed to her for the bestest compilation in the whole wide world.
* * *
“It’s good for people to know a one-of-a-kind person in life,” said Nina Glasgow. “And Riad Hamad was larger than life.” Right from the start, Riad struck you as a character who sure talked a lot (twinkles of laughter at that), who made the best baba ghanoush in Austin, and who deployed food as a political tool. His car was plastered with end-the-occupation bumper stickers. He wore pink shirts because he said he was getting in touch with his feminine side. And he was a terrific belly dancer, the best in Austin.
Glasgow watched him with children, putting himself on an equal footing with them, encouraging them to set the pace of play, and urging them over the challenges they encountered. Then there was his commitment to the children of Palestine. “He was not a small star,” declared Glasgow. “He was a big star.”
Riad’s brother, Omar Farouk Hamad, has also dedicated his life to teaching, matching his brother’s enthusiasm for lifelong learning by also earning three Master’s degrees. After Riad’s burial, Omar visited the school where Riad used to teach. There he found students who, thanks to Riad’s influence, were dedicating their weekends to volunteer service.
Omar has been a revered family name since 1916 when the occupying Ottoman Turks hanged a Lebanese patriot by that name. Martyr’s Day is still a national holiday in Lebanon on May 6 to celebrate the courage shown by great uncle Omar and others, who were rounded up, brutally tortured and hung, because they dared to argue against occupation.
Growing up, Riad’s brother idolized Mohammad Ali as a role model. “He had a big mouth, but I loved him,” says Omar. The heavyweight fighter was an icon for freedom of speech. And since his brother was always joking about four-letter words, Omar has two of them to share with the audience today: h-e-r-o and R-i-a-d.
* * *
Fellow teacher Mark Kelly recalls entering Riad’s classroom, the one with the sign outside that reads Marhaba (the Arabic word for welcome): come on in. All Mr. Kelly heard in that classroom was the sound of students typing away at their keyboards. Well, there was another sound. The voice of Mr. Hamad: “Sit up straight. Keep typing. Young woman I told you to not to talk.” After classes changed, Mr. Hamad would bark out: “Get out of my hallway. Go to class!” Occasionally he would hand a student a dollar bill and tell him to get a haircut. Because he was a total character, the students loved the man.
“Was Riad Hamad an activist?” asked Mr. Kelly. “He got up and acted. He did something. He took action. And because he did these things he was labeled and suffered from the defamation of being called a terrorist.”
“What have I done?” Mr. Hamad would ask Mr. Kelly. “I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. What have I done?”
“What Riad did was organize a foundation to send technology and educational support to the children of Palestine. He worked with people who were sitting at home in Palestine making crafts from olive wood or mother of pearl and offered them a fair price. He would buy their crafts cheap, sell them over here, and send most of the profits back.”
One summer, Riad Hamad sent Mark Kelly to Palestine to teach. At the University of Bethlehem and at a nearby French Catholic School, Mr. Kelly made himself useful teaching whatever the students needed to learn, whether it was how to use Photoshop or how to write news reports that were less biased, more objective. At the home where he stayed, Mr. Kelly met a doctor that Riad Hamad had sent to provide medical care to the children.
“Why did Riad Hamad really send me?,” asked Mark Kelly. “I believe he just wanted a witness to come back and tell you what I saw. I don’t know how many people just said to me, tell them what you saw. What I saw was people laughing. I saw people loving one another. I saw people rejoicing. Ideas of what Arabs are like have been so skewed by the media. I saw people who sang late into the night and who danced.”
Five months ago, Riad Hamad posted a nine-minute video at You Tube featuring a Palestinian artisan making Holy Land figurines of olive wood. After cutting the rough figures, the carver sets them aside for two years to “cure” before finishing. If he tries to finish them early, he explains, they will crack. He learned his craft by watching his father carve mother-of-pearl, just as his son is learning today, standing behind his father. Another video displays the wares of embroidery stitchers. Here, too, the children get into the act.
“The reason why Riad passed out the little craft works from Palestine is that he wanted to draw attention to this cause that he was so passionate about,” explains Mr. Kelly. “And I can understand why he became so frustrated and pessimistic. He wanted to relieve the suffering that was caused by a brutal system. Weeks before his death he was agitated. I can only hope he is at peace now.” Applause follows Mr. Kelly back to his seat.
* * *
Jack Prince coordinates the Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights (icpr-austin.org). Before speaking, he pauses. The audience comes to a complete hush. Then the applause begins. He has just unfolded a Palestinian scarf. As he drapes the scarf over his shoulders, the applause grows. Then, with the house still murmuring in approval, he makes a little joke about how Presbyterians have cushions on their pews, which draws some good-natured laughter and causes people to wiggle just a little bit.
“Justice, Peace, and Prosperity” is what the ICPR wants for the Palestinian people. “In our view,” explains Jack Prince, “our fellow Americans are not well informed on the issue. Yet only with right knowledge can come right policies and right actions.” As a contribution to this path of enlightenment, a Saturday evening program has been scheduled on the topic of al Nakba, “the catastrophe that began sixty years ago this month, on May 15, 1948, with efforts by Israel to drive out Palestinians from territories allocated to Israel by the United Nations.” The evening program would include a silent auction, and the proceeds would be donated to the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund, so that the work of Riad Hamad might continue.
Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, who would be the featured speaker at the evening’s Nakba presentation is up next to speak. He is the only Palestinian on the program today and he gratefully places around his neck the scarf handed to him by Jack Prince.
By now, the experience of getting acquainted with Riad Hamad has become a thrice told tale, but it’s still interesting to hear. First there is the funny part about meeting the man and how he talks too much, he seems too good to be true, but you’d like to get to know him better. Then there is the part where you are living in Riad’s world, talking to him in the kitchen or taking his phone calls. He wants to know did you get the new batch of bumper stickers? Yes, you got them. But at last there is the sad part. You talked to him too briefly. You wish you had said more.
Dr. Qumsiyeh remembered Riad’s impatience, how he was always going and wanting to do things. He was passionate about the Palestinian cause, and since 60 percent of Palestinians are younger than 18, he dedicated his efforts to the children. In 2002, the year before Riad Hamad founded the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund, 200 Palestinian children were killed, hundreds more injured.
“He was kind of a practical in many ways. He said, ‘let’s do something, here’s something to do,’ then he’d go do it. When my father died he sent me a photo with a note that said ‘we have planted a tree in Palestine for your father.’ ”
“There is a passage from a famous sermon by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.’
“This quote epitomizes Riad. The things he did were not safe, or popular, or politic. He did them because they were right. He followed his conscience.” As Dr. Qumsiyeh thanks the Hamad family, his voice breaks momentarily. “Riad would have wanted us to intensify our efforts. Humanity is better when we expect it to be. Riad knew that. We tend to undervalue the good in most people.” Expect more. Do more. That’s the way to respond to Riad’s death.
* * *
Abdullah Hamad, Rita’s little brother “who is getting his first degree” speaks mostly through a slide show set to the music of fourteen audio tracks. The audience especially laughs to slides from the 70s with Riad and his puffed out 70s hair, popping up here and there to the tune of “Hard Day’s Night.” Grins abound also when Riad is presented acting up with his beloved babies to the tune of Randy Newman’s “Short People.” When Stevie Wonder sings “I Just Called to Say I Love You” it looks like Riad Hamad’s family life is defined by tables full of food, surrounded by smiling people. All of Riad’s emails to Abdullah ended with a line that said, “always remember Daddy loves you.”
Before presenting the slide show from his laptop, Abdullah remembered his father’s advice to “Survive against all odds.”
At this point, Lourdes Perez rises from her seat in the audience and carries her guitar to the front, where she takes a seat facing the family. In a quivering voice she jokes a little bit about how Riad Hamad complained playfully about her rendering of Arabic. And the audience laughs at that. Then without further adieu she fills the sanctuary with her ever magnificent rendering of Unadikum / Te Llamo, the 2002 single in Arabic and Spanish that she dedicated to the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund. (Note: to experience the Arabic original, search for Onadikom at You Tube.) While she sings, there is time to gaze at the green oasis outside, the three crosses inside, the banner with the world on a scallop, and the puffy red rings around a man’s eyes as he daubs another tear from his face. Then Lourdes Perez carries her guitar back into the audience and sits down.
* * *
The last scheduled speaker of the day will be Diana HajAli, “Soulmate” and mother of Riad’s children who will also recall the boundless energy that Riad Hamad took everywhere he went, and who was in April handed a small packet of Riad’s things that contained a damp wallet that she opened to find a Blue Cross insurance card and a one-dollar bill.
When Diana mentions the yellow camel tie that Riad loved so much, the audience laughs in a way that says, yes, we’ve all seen that tie. She is here today to celebrate the man of Liberality, Intellect, and Kindness who tricked her into moving to Austin two decades ago, a trick that had come to make sense in time. In Austin, Riad could until very recently exercise his rights out in the open, not like the Cadillac rights, as Riad called them, that many Americans kept parked in their garages, never taking them out to enjoy.
Like Riad, Diana was a child of Beirut, Lebanon, not Palestine. And in Beirut the young Riad was ever on the move. He once purchased a batch of cheap lipstick which he marked up a little and sold on the street. At the age of 17 he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and put himself through school, first as a dishwasher, then eventually as manager of a 7-11. Then he took work in Bahrain, but got bored. So one day he approached the Japanese embassy and made a deal with the consul. If the consul would teach him Japanese on Friday nights, Riad would cook the dinner.
At the age of 45, Riad was certified as a teacher and found a calling teaching computer technology in a middle school, challenging everyone he met, his students included, to think outside the box. Riad had an amazing hunger for knowledge. When the FBI took all his computers in that February raid, Riad was upset because the computers contained work that would cause him to miss his professors’ deadlines.
Diana HajAli first met Riad Hamad on the campus of the American University in Beirut where she offered him a serving of tabouli on a lettuce boat. She recalls the situation exactly, including the precise posture of her serving hand, which she models for us all to see. You can see in her eyes how the memory delights her still, especially when she recalls Riad’s response: “What do you think I am a rabbit serving me food on lettuce rather than on a proper plate?”
Months later, when she next saw Riad, he was bandaged up. He had thrown himself from a car. When he got into the car, he thought it was a Taxi, but it turned out to be kidnappers who wanted to take his money, so he threw himself out of the moving car.
They soon started dating, and when they went out to eat Riad loved to hand Diana the check, only to deliberately offend the male chauvinist waiter. Riad was often like that, always shattering stereotypes. On Feb. 21, 1981 they got married by a Beirut family court judge and Riad set to work at two jobs to pay back the money he owed for the six months rent that was required of newlyweds in advance.
Riad will never enjoy bouncing his grandchild on his knees or chirping like a bird to make the child smile. He will not email me at work every day to ask what I want him to cook for dinner. “In the house of the Lord I feel that my heart has been ripped out of my chest.” All the plans he made will be left undone. The cats will all miss his cat lap and the feeling of his big clumsy fingers.
“But most of all, no arbitrary or stupid rules will inhibit him from doing whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it, and all at the same time.”
We rise to give Diana HajAli a standing ovation.
* * *
During the open mike session we get to hear that the Palestine Solidarity Committee exceeded their fundraising goal and are able to present a check for $1,300 to be donated to the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund. The presenter today has known Riad Hamad since the day he made a presentation to her fifth grade class. She was, of course, overwhelmed. In 2002 when the PSC was organized, Riad became “kind of like a father, because whenever you need something you can always turn to your Dad.”
She recalls going to Riad’s home to make a quick trip to pick up 20 t-shirts but as soon as she walks in the door it’s like you’re hungry, here drink some tea. Then an hour later you’re walking out with the t-shirts and a box of flags and some bumper stickers and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, what did I just commit to?”
* * *
The final testimonial is from a friend and customer who made the mistake of going through boxes of merchandise with Riad in search of the one unique item that she had in mind. By the time she was finished with that exercise, she had bought everything she could afford. “Now it will be harder to give them away. He was an example for me. I hope to live as much as possible in his inspiration.”
After a closing prayer, we exit to the tune of James Blunt’s “Goodbye.”
* * *
After shaking a few hands in the lobby, I turn towards the door and collide with Immam Mohammed who has his hand on the shoulder of a little girl. “Excuse me,” he says. “I am just trying to gather the children.”
* * *
Back out on Webberville Road the six-lined racerunners are enjoying the sidewalk, taking turns running in front of me, apparently for their sheer amusement. One or two is missing a tail, having survived to run for at least one more sunny day.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He is a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, to be published by AK Press in June 2008. He can be reached at: email@example.com