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The Flight Home

by RAOUF J. HALABY

Vague as it is, my first memory of Jalal dates back to late 1948. Khalo Anton and Auntie Angel and their 6 children, and Anton’s sister, the widowed Katrina Halaby, and her 5 children, resided in a house located in a Jericho Bayyara in the post 1948 Naqba (catastrophe) that was wrought on the people of Palestine. Prior to that, as narrated to me by my sister Betty and brother, Tony, we lived in Salt, Jordan. Because the two rented diaspora quarters for the two families, constituting three adults and 11 children, 5 girls and 6 boys, were too small and crammed, Khalo Anton used to take all the children for day outings. Loaded with sandwiches and refreshments Anton Halaby shepherded the young clan to Al Bateen to spend hours among the ancient ruins and to delight in mirth and quality family time.

The most vivid memory I have has to do with my siblings and cousins’ playing in the  Jericho sail, the ancient Palestinian aqueducts that meandered through the citrus and banana orchards and groves. While George and Tony, the two oldest boys, were one set of playing buddies, Jalal and David, my older brother, was the second pair of playmates. The youngest by several years, my twin brother Ramzy and I were each other’s buddies and playmates. This meant that we had our pick of older brothers to look up to, to emulate, and to pester.

Pristine water diverted from the Jordan River flowed through the narrow, hand hewn and slab layered aqueducts. And for hours we would sit in these waters, splashing and pretending that we were seamen riding and commandeering the high waves. What stands out most prominently, however, was the joyous laughter that rang out in that embryonic world away from the chaos that had engulfed and drowned Palestine and her people in a post WWII sea of apathy and colonial machinations.

Jalal’s hearty laughter still rings in my ear. And it is precisely this joyous laughter that became a Jalal Halaby trademark. While we are here to pay homage to a dear son, brother, uncle, cousin, and friend, and while we grieve for the loss of one so dear to so many, one must admit that Jalal’s laughter and beaming smile are still as vibrant today as they had ever been — and will remain so as vivid memories in our hearts and our minds — memories that will last a lifetime.

In 1963 my twin brother Ramzy travelled to Egypt to visit our uncle George in Tanta and to Alexandria to surprise Jalal who, at the time, was a university student in Alexandria.  Unbeknownst to Jalal, Ramzy was given Jalal’s Alexandria address by Uncle George and, upon arriving to Jalal’s apartment, a neighbor told him that Jalal and his roommate had gone across the seaside byway to the beach. So, 15 years after our Jericho sojourn, Ramzy proceeded to the Alexandria Corniche and began to walk on the beach, scouting for Jalal. Within the hour, a handsome,  smiling, jovial,  very well-tanned and well-sculpted god-like Adonis twenty something young man walked up to Ramzy, gave him a spontaneous hug, and stated the following:  “Inte lazem itkoon Ramzy ibn Khalti Katrina, Ana Iriftak liano inta ala lahit imak — You must be my cousin, Ramzy, the son of my aunt Katrina. I recognized you because of your resemblance to your mother.”  And for years Ramzy would remember and recount this re-connecting event as a most unique and memorable experience, an experience that left an indelible impact on his life. For a finale, Ramzy would always fondly end this narrative by saying the following: “Faz’a aa keef irifni ou abatni. Il Oloub bithin ala ba’ad  —   Unbelievable how he recognized me and hugged me. Hearts reach out for each other.”

If one were to sum up this event and use it as a metaphor for Jalal’s life, one could say that Jalal’s arms have always reached out, far and wide, to encompass and embrace family, loved ones and friends. He was one of those most unique people who thought of others before himself. The first words used by my sister Betty and brother, Tony, to describe Jalal were: “He was a jolly fellow.”  “With a very big heart,” added Tony.   That, he was — in every sense of the word, he possessed one of the biggest hearts I’d ever known. 

While he had a kind of “Hamsharieh” personality — a laid back nonchalance –about him, he also had a dignified poise and a gentlemanly disposition and demeanor.  The nomenclature J-a-l-a-l, after all, connotes dignified and regal comportment. He was truly an extroverted human being whose magnetic personality and character put one at ease, thus giving credence to the adage “he never met a stranger.”  A confirmed bachelor, he was a most gentle, loving, compassionate, and kind hearted man. A better description would be: Jalal was a life-size teddy bear fully imbued with child-like innocence.

Jalal took care of his father and mother in their old age and in their time of need as only a loyal son would. In turn, they indulged him by allowing him to keep a flock of canaries in the house. Perhaps as many as thirty to forty singing canaries were enclosed in a large cage-like enclosure in the house in Long Beach, California.  He would spend hours feeding, cleaning, whistling, and talking to the birds, and he gifted canaries to family and friends. That was his way of spreading and propagating laughter and joy to the world. And the connection he had with these beautiful birds was most unusual. They conversed with each other not as man and bird, but as soul mates. And that is also a metaphor for his life, for today his spirit is soaring freely in the blue yonder. No more pain, no more wheezing and struggling for the precious life-giving and life-sustaining breath with which he had to contend for some ten years, Jalal’s spirit is released from its physical cage to  freely fly out of the confines of his apartment to places he could not do so during these last few years of his life. Just a few days ago Jalal has been released from the earthly cage, and his free spirit is wandering back to his native Jaffa, Palestine, his place natale, to Jericho, Palestine, to Salt, Jordan, to Amman, Jordan, to Alexandria, Egypt, and to Los Angeles, where this wandering Palestinian refugee finally found refuge. Truth be known, like most Palestinians living in diaspora, Jalal yearned for the precious landscape called Palestine. His spirit now travels to the natural world and settings he loved, to tree top canopies and forests where canaries somersault and sing, to his garden to pick tomatoes, an assortment of veggies and herbs, to art studios and museums, to the market places where he so discerningly shopped for spices, meats and vegetables, to the kitchens where he reigned supreme as head chef in charge. Like his beautiful art works, his mouth watering and delectable recipes and dishes were fit for a royal feast, and he fully understood the importance and the power of the tantalizing culinary visual seduction of a well-spread polychromatic table, where color, pattern, texture, and shape at once blend and transform the organic into abstract and concrete geometric edible delights thus prompting the eyes to become the window to the stomach.

It is fair to say that artists and poets are by nature more sensitive than others, that they perceive the world more deeply, and that the perceptive powers they possess to translate the world to the rest of us is truly a God-given gift.  Jalal was a uniquely talented artist. His artistic tableaux are whimsical and expressive, and they clearly signal his ability to mix colors and convey them on a canvas, thus giving permanence to living things and to God’s beautiful creation. Much like his boisterous laughter, his impasto strokes are bold, loud, and telling, while his painterly strokes are smooth, delicate, detailed, and intimate. Jalal was well-versed in Arabic poetry, and he would recite poetic lines appropriate for the occasion. Delivered in rhythmic cadence and a very rich and resonating voice, one can say that his repertoire of poetic recitations were the words of the Qadi (judge) addressing a Majlis (court) or the recitation of a Shaer (poet) at a Diwan (literary audience).

Yes, Jalal was a devoted son, an outstanding brother, uncle, cousin and friend. He was an artist; he was a professional cook; he was a jack of all trades; he was a commoner amongst commoners, and a courtier among courtiers; he had a tremendous sense of humor; he possessed a unique joie de vivre; he delighted in the partaking of a good meal, especially when it was prepared by him, and he equally enjoyed breaking bread with loved ones and friends, toasting good health and life; he was a bon vivant and a most gracious host whose ultimate delight was to make his guests enjoy not only God’s beneficent culinary bounty, but to make sure that friends and family had a good time. And, for background music to all of the aforementioned, Jalal treated one and all to the trademark Jalal Halaby laughter that sprang from the deep well of his being, from a heart so very big and encompassing. Last week Jalal’s big heart succumbed to a cardiac arrest; and, while he’s left his family and friends with broken hearts, he has equally left us with hope, mirth, and joyous laughter.

The last time I saw Jalal was some 7 years ago at the funeral of my twin brother, Ramzy. I shall never forget how, in spite of the pain and his struggle with every single breath, Jalal made the trip from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area to honor his cousin by attending his funeral and paying homage to his life, his family, and his memory. There is only word to describe this noble and physically excruciating selfless act:  LOYALTY.

I have no doubt that just a few days ago, and somewhere in the celestial sphere, Ramzy Halaby, the consummate Palestinian nationalist,  welcomed his dear cousin, Jalal Halaby, with a big hug,  and the following words: “Marhaba, Habibi (greetings, dear) Jalal, First, let us seek audience with the Creator to prick His conscience about injustice, Palestine and her dispossessed children, and to ask Him whether it was not time for Him to redress the injustice inflicted on them by His so-called chosen. And second, let us soar and sing like canaries as we embark on our second journey — with laughter.”

Raouf J. Halaby is a naturalized US citizen from Jerusalem, Palestine. He is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. halabyr@obu.edu.

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Raouf J. Halaby has just recently been awarded a Professor Emeritus status. He taught English and art for 42 years. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at rrhalaby@suddenlink.net

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