In A Certain Place, A Long, Long Time Ago

In the early 1980’s the late Lavell Cole, my esteemed colleague in the history department, told me the following: “Halaby, stop writing about politics. The average American doesn’t know much about foreign policy and doesn’t give a damn about the U.N. and Resolutions 242 and 338. When you write about Palestine and Palestinians, you must put a face to them and tell it like it is.” How right Lavell was. Therese and Asad, thank you for inviting me to be a part of the 2014 Olympia Arab Festival, Shuruq II (Dawn/Sunrise), a much-needed celebration that puts a bright face on Arab culture in conjunction with the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice.

In spite of the ongoing political turmoil and tragic bloodletting that affects every Arab in every region of the world, we do have rich cultural traditions that bind us, and it is thus fitting that we celebrate these traditions in Olympia, Washington, concurrent with Olympia’s Fall Arts Walk. To Rachel Corrie, a long-time hero of mine, even though I’ve never met you, Rachel, I feel as though I have known you all my life. Plucked too soon from our midst, your brief life and the legacy you left are an affirmation and testimony to everything that is perennially decent, perennially uplifting, perennially inspiring, and perennially upright, moral, and good. What an honor and humbling experience it is to stand in the shadow of a giant such as you to pay homage both, to you, and to the culture for which you so heroically gave your life.

In Arab culture Makaan (Place) and Zaman (Time) figure prominently in the ancient art of storytelling, and people are likely to use familial, communal, or national events as a means of framing personal and public narratives. Before WWI, during the great famine of the 1920’s and 1930’s, after the 1948 Naqba, after the War of 1967, before/after our hijra to America — become fixed landmarks, brackets, if you wish, within which stories are recounted, over and over again, sometimes with the reordering of facts, now and again with embellishment, and often utilizing events around which a particular person, event, or experience becomes the focal point.

Furthermore, in Arab culture The Rawi, narrator/storyteller, usually a male, commands a prominent position in his community, and there is an abundance of exemplars of storytellers that draw on local and regional lore that stretch from as far west as Al Maghreb, and as far east as Iraq and the Gulf.

Anyone familiar with Arab culture is aware of the coffee drinking ritual, a ritual performed several times during the course of the day. The ritual begins with the following query: Qahwe Hilwe willa Murra/Sada? Sweetened or unsweetened coffee? Should the occasion be a social one, the coffee drinking event usually ends with the hallmark Bassara’s “reading of the cup.” The term Bassara (usually a woman of distinction, experience, and wisdom), is derived from the root word al basar, vision, and thus becomes a colloquial eponym for one who foresees, a term infinitely more dignified than that of the western appellation fortuneteller. Unlike western style coffee, Qahwe Arabiye (Arab Coffee) leaves an abundance of kaleidoscopic monochromatic residual patterned coffee grounds in shades of burnt ochre rich in geometric and abstract designs. To enhance these designs and embellish them, the small china or porcelain cups are then inverted on their saucers, thus crafting expanded Rorschach-style designs which become the Bassara’s visual text fora delightful storytelling session.

Those wishing to have their futures foretold pivot their cups in repeated reciprocal motions and invert them on their saucers so as to enhance the creation of a richly vivid and paisley dappled tableau that will soon become the Bassara’s narrative, her plot, her setting, and her characterization; call it the road map. The expanded living room setting soon shrinks to a one-on-one session in which the Diana-like Bassara is on the hunt for clues, a kind of singular tête à tête engagement between the narrator and her ever-hopeful captive in what becomes a semi personal and intimate dialogue, a mode of solitary engagement during which the audience morphs into sidelined curious eyes and ears, responding with their occasional non-verbal assenting nods and smiles, and, should an infrequent ominous tidbit be mentioned, clearing one’s throat or a frown might be elicited to ward off and avert the referenced irritant. In response to this nonverbal emoting, the Bassara promptly assures her captive with a safe-proof solution whose substantiation is discerned at the base of the demitasse.

A great Bassara is known for her story telling abilities and her ability to weave Makan (place) and Zaman (time) into a 3-5 minute captivating narrative. The ritual usually starts as follows: Much like an archeologist sifting through layers of strata to unearth the hidden treasure troves, the Bassara meticulously studies the coffee cup for details while all the time taunting and enticing her audience with facial expressions whose intentions are to seduce them and to raise their level of anticipation. Age, gender, and marital status serve as templates for a repertoire of stock narratives. It seems as though there is always a long road signifying someone’s anticipated prolonged sojourn, a heartbreaking departure, or the opposite, the arrival of a long-gone loved one from afar. Sometimes there is someone on a long road undertaking an arduous journey, and sometimes there is a vaguely familiar person grasping what might be a letter, telegram, or telex, with, hopefully, good news. “Nada will be graduating;” “Waleed will get engaged;” “Nadia and Kareem will be expecting their first;” “Fatmeh and Ameen are looking forward to the arrival of their children and grandchildren from abroad, and their bedrooms will need to be properly refurbishing.” I suppose that emails and texting are the modern equivalent of these epistolary exchanges. And I wonder how LOL translates into Arabic?

While for the young there is always a scene in which a high school or college diploma is within grasp, for the graduates there is the prospect of employment or, better yet, there is an engagement ceremony or a big wedding in sight. For the young marrieds there is the vision of a cradle or two with future male or female occupants. Sometimes there is the promise of a Rashet Masari (a cash gift). Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of these relaxed communal bond-forming gatherings is the Bassara’s ability to captivate her audience in this evanescent make-believe realm with her frequent prodding (as an affirming technique) of one sitting next to her by stating: “Shoofy, shoofy, mish hada maktoob?” (See, see, doesn’t this look like a letter?) Or “Mish hady tariq taweele ou wahad waef ala akhir al Tareeq?” (Doesn’t this look like a long road with someone standing on the horizon?)

In the late 1800’s my paternal grandfather purchased a large tract of land in the Upper Baqa’aa neighborhood, a southwestern suburb of Jerusalem located on the Jerusalem/Bethlehem highway. Unique in its design, the house that Tanas Halaby built became a landmark in a neighborhood that grew into a thriving Jerusalem suburb in the late 1800’s. Three married daughters and one son were deeded their own tracts of land on which they built their homes, married, and raised their families in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire and would, in 1917, become the British Mandate. Uttered in absolute desperation, “Allah yill’an al Ingleeze wil Fransawiyeh; kharrabou byoutna” (May God place his curse on the Brits and the French; they ruined our lives and homes) was a frequent invocation I heard. Apparently God was not listening carefully, for a century later the Brits, the French, and their greedy Western partners in crime, in full collaboration with equally greedy regional thuggish Israeli Settlers, and Arab tyrants and theocrats, are hell-bent on destroying lives, homes, and entire countries.

Unlike most of the two story mason stone-cut houses of the time, for an entrance the house had ornate metal doors which opened onto a long submerged Ka’aa (pavilion) accented by an elaborate mosaic-tiled octagonal-shaped pool at the base of which was a goldfish-stocked collecting basin. Immediately to the left was a small room where my grandfather kept his donkeys, the period’s mode of transportation before the internal combustion engine was invented. (Please, no stereotypical camels here. In fact, the closest I first came to a camel was in 1970 at the Little Rock, AR, zoo.) Atop this stone stable and on an East-West axis extending away from the house was a large balcony that counterbalanced the fenestrated façade’s arched entryway. The genius of this architectural design lay in its making the balcony a natural extension of the second story living quarters.

A decorative concrete balustrade extended along the entire perimeter of the balcony. Simply put, the arched second floor doorway that opened laterally onto the large balcony was the equivalent of the modern day private backyard patio, and it served as the exterior domestic space in which numerous family activities were conducted, especially during the balmy spring, summer and fall days in our beloved, stolen, abused, and raped Jerusalem. This balcony therefore served as the metaphorical porthole window to the outside world and a doorway, more like a logia, overlooking the fenced backyard abundantly rich in cedar, pinion and fruit trees and a rich assortment of flower, vegetable and herb beds. This Makaan (location) was the embryonic world in which my siblings and I found security from the outside world, a neighborhood that was for a long while a zoned military no man’s land under Israeli occupation. More specifically, it was the balcony, that Makkan (locale), that hub of familial nurturing and bonding, my very own and very personal expanded playhouse and theatrical stage that served as a crucible and launching pad into a lifetime’s love affair with the richness of the oral and written traditions so abundantly opulent and revered in Arab culture.

Between our grandfather’s house and our house just down the street was a large field which served as our playground. Whether it was soccer, cricket, shooting marbles, flying kites, playing Arabs and Jews (the equivalent of cowboys and Indians), picking teen (figs), injas (pears), dureik (plums), loze (almonds) tufah (apples), roumman (pomegranates), or inab (grapes) from our aunts’ now-deserted yards, Tony and David, our two older brothers, were always in the lead. While they took advantage of their older brother status by pulling pranks on Ramzy, my twin brother, and on me, they would jealously protect us from the bullying of the older neighborhood bullies, the children of newly arrived Jewish immigrants seeking refuge from Europe. And there were many of these toughs. I shall never forget how Tony and David conspired to convince Ramzy and me that a German World War II Luftwaffe plane crashed on the flat roof of our house. It was only after they left for boarding school that Ramzy and I, now old enough to climb the roof on our own, discovered the bluff these two characters had pulled on us. (See “Old Enough To Climb the Roof,” The Home Forum, The Christian Science Monitor, November 21, 1989.)

After Israel declared itself a state in May of 1948, what was once a peaceful, thriving and vibrant Palestinian neighborhood would become, for a long while, a deserted and desolate neighborhood. The mass evacuation spurred by the massacre of Deir Yasseen, one of numerous Zionist massacres, left our neighborhood, and much of Jerusalem, looking like a ghost town. In Oliver Goldsmith’s words, “Ill fare[d] the land.” (The Deserted Village.) With no place to go and with large holdings in real estate and entrepreneurial ventures, my mother, by then a widow with five children, decided to bring her family back from Jericho to stay put in our Upper Baqaa’a home. We were the only Palestinian family left in the entire neighborhood. Within days the Israel Defense Forces installed concertina wire around the perimeter of our neighborhood, much like what the Nazis did to ghettoize Europe’s Jewish neighborhoods.

To ward off attacks by marauding and looting Zionist zealots, my grandmother’s large Greek flag was placed on the façade of the house.

Zoned in, my uncle went into hiding. What I remember most about these days was the deafening silence in the neighborhood, a silence that would occasionally be broken by our playful taunting of the Israeli soldiers stationed at the top of the street to keep an eye on us. Get this, a detail of Bren machinegun-toting, holocaust-surviving, just-off-the-boat foreigners to watch over 5 women, 2 of them elderly, 5 children, and an adult male holed up in cowering fear behind floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall stacked furniture in the farthest corner of the basement of my grandfather’s house. Because all 15-65 year-old Palestinian males who did not flee West Jerusalem were rounded up and hauled off to concentration camps, my uncle hid in the basement for several months. How could the survivors of Germany’s death camps forget so very soon and do unto others as was done unto them???

My first recollection of Naim Halaby coincides with his emergence from confinement. Barely 43 years of age, his hair had turned into a beautiful silvery white that was matched by an equally massive Howard Hughes-style silvery white beard. I distinctly remember sitting in his lap, staring into his beautiful blue yes, skin as fair as a Nordic’s (credit the Crusader blood for this), a face so serene and gentle, and a face I encountered in many a mystical Caravaggio, Murillo and Rembrandt portrait paintings. And I so distinctly remember my tugging at his grey beard and running my hands up the sides of his temples to ascertain that “he” and “him” and “his,” heretofore referred to in hushed and muted voices, was a reality and not an apparition. It would be years later that I began to understand why the adults in the family frequently spoke in hushed voices, voices that trembled and crackled with fear lest the Israeli authorities heard our family secrets — this spying that’s been going, unabated, now in its 66th year. Thus, to protect the only adult male’s life, he was relegated to a third person status; he was an abstract third person Hamlet-like ghost in a Kafkaesque world of constricted spaces known for their somber and tenebrous tones . This surreal emasculation of the only adult male/protector would have a life-long impact on my life. He would emerge from his confinement a man of courage, dignity, character, vision, and boundless love. He would be the only father I had ever known, and a hero without parallel.

These would be my initial impressions of the first Israeli settlers, and hundreds of thousands would soon flood the beautiful Palestinian country side, taking possession of what was not theirs by brute force, intimidation and chicanery. Imagine, if you will, that your hometown is forcibly terrorized and depopulated and you are forced to flee with only the clothes on your backs. Then, within a few short weeks, foreigners flood in in great numbers to not only move into your ancestral homes, but to steal your every possession, your furniture, your children’s toys, your heirlooms, your mementos, your Bibles and Korans, your cooking utensils, your dignity, your essence, and your identity. Other memories that flash back have to do with the worry reflected on my mother’s face as she watched the food supply, stocked there immediately before the war in the large family pantry, begin to dwindle. Even in its doling out food ration cards, the Israeli government practiced Juden uber alles — the indigenous Palestinians. In spite of these difficulties, some of the best childhood memories have to do with our daily play activities, specifically, the storytelling sessions.

To keep us occupied, Tata Maria, my widowed paternal grandmother’s sister, would entice us to the large veranda, that hub of the Halaby family activities at our grandfather’s house. Little did I know that this daughter of Greek immigrants to Palestine would have such a profound impact on my future avocation, namely, the opportunity to teach the humanities at a liberal arts university thousands of miles from the native soil of my Palestinian childhood. The minute she announced that she was ready to treat us to a session of storytelling, my brothers and I would sit at her feet in awe, wonder and anticipation at what was about to unravel.

First, however, the portable primus cooking stove was filled and primed with precious kerosene (a task assigned to one of her young audience); several dried orange peelings (the kindling chips) were placed atop the burner’s head; a match was struck, thus bringing bright orange flames to life. Once the hissing noise persisted (signifying that the kerosene’s full combustion had taken hold), a special needle-like contraption was utilized to clear the tiny jet hole through which the pressurized kerosene was converted into radiant heat, ejecting itself in a ceaseless and noisy cobalt blue flame. This task was entrusted to the older sibling’s steady hands only because Tata’s sight was not as sharp as it had been. Only after an evenly globular rich and unremitting blue blaze ensued from the burner’s tiara was the primus crowned with a large iron skillet into which shelled peanuts, chick peas, water melon, pumpkin, and sun flower seeds were poured in a ritual in which Tata Maria, dressed in her full length black mourning attire, and seated on a stool, held court with her young admirers, who sat, transfixed, at her feet, on the hard marble tiles, latching on to her every word and movement, and eagerly anticipating to be transposed to realms beyond their physical reach. Having been widowed and losing her only son (a young dentist with much promise) at a young age, Tata Maria Chaghourieh wore her full-length black mourning dress until the day she died, in diaspora, into her early nineties. In spite of these setbacks, she had to have been one of the most jovial and optimistic people I’d ever met.

And what a scene it made? Imagine, if you will, a dignified elderly left-handed Scheherazade seated, like a queen, on her majestic stool, her right hand holding onto the skillet’s handle, while with a spatula in her left hand, she would stir the seeds and peanuts, occasionally pouring measured lemon-tinged salted water, while all the time narrating our favorite stories. Tata’s emoting and gesticulating with her face and her hands, and her onomatopoeic articulations was such a concert of unforgettable visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory experiences.

Indeed, that “Kan Ya Maka’an, fee Adeem al Zaman (In a Certain Distant Place, A Long Long Time Ago) was all it took to hook us into the make-believe world of storytelling. In mesmerizing fashion Tata Maria’s storytelling propelled us onto a narrative magic flying carpet and into a world that transformed the Zaman (Time) and Makan (Place) into a variegated collection of heroes and heroines who transcended makan and zaman in make-believe worlds of fantasy, entertainment and didacticism. The numerous tales of Juha, the prototypical picaresque figure of Arabic literature after which Spanish literature fashioned its “El Conde de Lucanor,” the tales of Ali Baba, Ala’ el Deen, Sindibad al Bahri, the Flying Carpet, and the fables of Ibn al Muqafah unfolded in a dramatic repertoire that was rivaled only by Scheherazade herself.

This childhood heroine of mine, this storyteller par excellence, compressed into a composite Scheherazade, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and an O Henry, possessed the uncanny ability to narrate and weave stories for hours on end. While the content and scope of her narratives, which made her a legend in her own right, were the stepping stones which set me on a path punctuated with linguistic skills, literature, history, art and everything creative between book covers, it was her dramatic eloquence which helped develop in me a deep passion for the spoken and written words, a kind of all-over-the-map lust for learning that proliferated like magic through my whole being. Indeed, it was Tata’s unique style and the fervor of her deliveries that was the first match struck in my juvenescent frontal lobe to ignite, entice, and instill in me the desire to make my classroom presentations come alive with that wonderful and ancient art – that art of storytelling, that magical world of Makaan and Zamaan.

And for a finale, she would take a piece of pre-cut newspaper, fashion it into a cone, and serve us delectable roasted peanuts and seeds as delicious and adventuresome as the stories that served to expand our minds and imaginations.

The ancient Arab tradition and skill of utilizing storytelling to delight and to instruct is an important cultural legacy. These ancient storytellers fully comprehended that didacticism is best accomplished when it is disguised as delightful narration. There is no doubt in my mind that it was Tata Maria’s mastery of this ancient art of storytelling that inspired me to embark on a career that has afforded me the luxury of pursuing my passion for reading, writing and the visual arts. These popular stories, rich in Arabic vernacular and local color, were the initial trade winds that have filled the sails of my personal and (especially) professional Odyssey, an Odyssey on which I have been circumnavigating the world, both literally and metaphorically, for the past 68 years.

Each one of you present here has a personal story to tell. Please go tell it by committing it to a journal or to a family history.

Postscript: Except for the façade, my grandfather’s two-story house has been gutted. In its place, Some Israeli Settler is building a high rise. And what an apt metaphor(about Palestine) this house is. The Israelis have appropriated Palestinian stone, mason-cut architectural designs for their newly built structures; Arabic bread is now called Israeli Pita Bread; the delicious Falafel vegetable sandwich, the Palestinian equivalent of the hamburger (sans the grease), is now the Israeli Falafel sandwich; and the basic Palestinian dishes hummos, baba ghannouj and fool imdammas are now Israeli staples; the dabke dance, the beautiful Bedouin jewelry and intricate Palestinian embroidery so rich in color and designs have also been appropriated and are sold to ignorant tourists and duped born-again Christians as Israeli/biblical cultural and artistic expressions. And, ironically, just as Tanas Halaby took pride in designing and building the beautiful façade of his house in the late 1800’s to welcome his family and friends, the new Jewish owners have appropriated and preserved that same façade over whose entire surface the word Palestine is inscribed in bold letters – forever. For truly I say unto you, this new high rise is as Palestinian as it gets. Which leads to the following: No matter how hard the Israeli interlopers try to erase Palestinian presence from their ancestral terra sancta, they have been, and will continue to persist as an integral part of the DNA of that coveted land, a land that has been violated by foreign invaders for millennia.

The story of Palestine is a unique blend of Greek and Shakespearean drama that blends the heroism of a dispossessed people forgotten by the world, and a celebration of their rich cultural traditions onto which they are holding to remind the world that they exist, that they are human, and that they, too, have a right to live in freedom and dignity in a state of their own, a state called Falasteen. Palestine and her children’s story must told, over, and over, and over again, and again, and again.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a writer, sculptor, photographer, avid gardener, and a peace activist.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.