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My first recollection of him dates back to either 1948 or 1949. I sat in his lap and tugged at his silvery grey beard; I must have been three or three and-a-half years old. His sparkling deep blue eyes (credit Crusader blood from eons back) and gentle voice provided me with the genuine assurance and affection that only a father lavishes on his children. And there were four others besides me; I had to share him with a sister and three other brothers. He was very generous with his love, and he found enough time to love his five children, his wife, his widowed sister, his sisters-in-law and their children, the widows, the elderly, and the bedridden in the West Jerusalem, Palestine community post the 1948 Naqba.
Even though he is not my biological father, Naim Halabi was, and continued to be, until his death, the only father that I have ever known. During a 1990 trip to San Mateo, CA, he and his wife, both of whom were almost ninety years of age at the time, gifted me the following mementos: books, two beautiful oil paintings, a variety of brick bracks, his walking stick, and a Bible whose cover is encrusted with mother of pearl inlay, a 1930’s product of a Bethlehem, Palestine craftsman. An old suitcase was reluctantly offered; its purpose, I was told, was to help me carry these items back home to Arkadelphia, AR.
In April of 1937 Naim Halaby and his wife emigrated to the United States. Two years later their two-year sojourn in New York City came to an abrupt end. In April of 1947 this maternal uncle and his wife, my paternal aunt, traveled yet again to New York City to meet with a group of investors and technicians so as to put the final touches on the manufacturing and marketing of the newly designed Arabic typewriter system that was adapted from the English typewriter carriage and key systems. The project was underwritten by my late father and a handful of other investors.
Arabic script, specifically individual letters, even in their printed form, is predicated on whether each of the 28 Arabic alphabet letters appear in an initial, medial, or final position; the long and short vowels and the dipthongs generally appear as diacritic symbols. This means that at least eight additional keys are needed to type and print a document.
In a letter dated 4/10/1947 sent from Jerusalem, Palestine, and addressed to Naim Halaby in New York City, my father wrote the following:
… The matter fact [sic.] they are very interesting articles, specially [sic.] the Arabic typewriter which I believe there will be great demand for it in the Government [Palestine] and private companies. I expect to receive from you soon every information possible with pamphlets and catalogues prices etc [sic.] on this machine, also do not forget to send me a proforma [sic.] invoice for say 200 machines to enable me to obtain the necessary license from the authorities [damn, bloody Brits], here although it is difficult but I shall do my best to obtain one. …
Upon receiving the news of my father’s death in December of the same year, my uncle and aunt flew back to Jerusalem, Palestine. He and my mother were appointed joint guardians in charge of all legal and business matters pertaining to dad’s many entrepreneurial ventures.
In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the small Palestinian community of West Jerusalem, living in zoned areas behind concertina wire, found itself subject to the laws of the newly formed Israeli Apartheid government. Within days of the Fall of Jerusalem, Mr. Joshua Simon, a Palestinian Jew whose friendship with the family was as old as it was strong, informed my uncle that the Israel Defense Forces were arresting all Palestinian males fifteen years and older for confinement in prison camps. Ironic, is it not, especially since many of these same Jews just got out of concentration camps? My uncle immediately went into hiding in my grandfather’s basement; after four months Mr. Simon, formerly my father’s legal counsel and by now an Israeli Assistant Military Governor for the Southern district, provided my uncle with an ID card.
My first recollection of this man, therefore, coincides with his emergence from confinement. Barely forty years of age, his hair and beard had turned into a beautiful silvery white. I had often heard him state, even when Israeli authorities delighted in humiliating and demeaning him: “Those were difficult days for us. God was, and continues to be with us.”
From 1949, through 1955 Naim Halabi did much for his family and the very small Palestinian community that resided in occupied West Jerusalem. Even though my uncle and aunt were not blessed with children of their own, they dedicated their entire lives to their nephews and nieces. I remember how, as a youngster, I used to hang around his small department store. He served as a model of courtesy, honesty and benevolence. Frequently, in the slow post lunch hours of the early hot afternoons, the youngest of the children were deposited in his lap for the reading of or the narration of a story. This demonstrative nurturing did much to provide me with a curiosity about the world and the creative spellbinding magic derived from the written word; more important, however, his lap and arms were the protective bedrock of the emotional support that counterbalanced the political and social ostracism that we Palestinian children experienced in a racist and hostile society.
In the early days of Israel’s statehood food was very scarce. As a result, we were forced to raise some of our foodstuff; while the fruit trees provided one form of sustenance, a vegetable garden and the raising of rabbits supplemented what little food we were permitted to buy on our ration cards.
I distinctly remember how Saturday mornings were designated as rabbit food harvest mornings. At the break of dawn my uncle, three brothers and I would set out to locate a special thistle-like weed that is native to the Judean Hills. This ‘hulebe’, as we called it, was harvested, tied in bundles to fit the size of the individual, hoisted on to the shoulders, and hauled home. It seemed as though we were always in a hurry; Saturdays, after all, are the Jewish Sabbath, and Orthodox Jews frowned on and often demeaned, both verbally and physically, people who worked on the Sabbath. Furthermore, since rabbits are considered a non-kosher food, we kept, inasmuch as possible, our rabbit raising venture a secret. This meant that we had to be back home before any of the early Sabbath worshippers left home for their synagogues.
It was during these excursions that my uncle taught us a chant he had learned from his father and older brothers when he was a child in his native Jaffa, Palestine. The chant, set to a rhythm, went something like this: “We are the Halaby children, we will not let anything or anyone stop us. Pull, Oh pull, ye lads! Pull, Oh pull, ye lads! Oh pull in the Halaby tradition! Come on, come on, O ye lads, pull strongly, O lads!”
I shall never forget a particular Saturday morning encounter with an Orthodox rabbi. Curios at the sight of this Thespian-styled middle-aged chanter and his chorus of four young boys ranging in age from seven to twelve, loaded with wild thistles no less, the rabbi wanted to know what purpose we had chasing off dusk into early dawn on that peaceful Sabbath morning. Without lying about our objective and with no intention of divulging the purpose of our mission, my uncle informed him that we were collecting herbs that served as food supplements. I can only imagine that the rabbi thought that these Aravim (Arabs) had a fetish for vegan foodstuff.
Even though our rabbit hutches were concealed and safeguarded in a fenced enclosure just below the back porch, word soon got out that the Filishteen (Palestinians) were defiling the neighborhood by keeping un-kosher beasts. And thus it was that late one summer we witnessed a skull-capped Jew set fire to the knee-high, bone dry grass in the large vacant field behind our house. Typical of the summer Palestinian landscape, the fire, fueled by its own sudden swift updrafts, engulfed the entire half-acre field. Fortunately the rabbit hutches, doused with plenty of water, were spared. Our hush hush secretive world of rabbits was finally exposed. Feeling sorry for the Filishteena widow and her five orphaned children, some of the Jewish neighbors who helped extinguish the fire came to our defense. And for a few more years rabbits were our primary source of protein.
In 1955 my uncle and aunt, along with my sister and two older brothers, moved across the border to East Jerusalem whereupon my older siblings were enrolled at the Beirut College for Women and the Friends Quaker school in Ramallah, Palestine. This long separation came to an end when the whole family was reunited in Beirut, Lebanon in April of 1959.
Up till the time that I departed for the US in 1965, this man continued to serve as a father. He provided me with all the love and guidance during my adolescent and teenage years. Sundayafternoons were spent on family outings to the beach, the mountains or historical ruins and sites, and it was in Beirut that I saw this man’s inexhaustible propensity to give of himself in so many ways. He looked after and helped those in need; he ministered to the aged and bedridden; and it seemed that his heart and pocket book were open to all who asked.
It was during those years that he helped me develop an appreciation for cultural expressions including attending dramatic, musical and other performing and visual arts venues. His love for nature and her diverse seasonal and panoramic manifestations left an indelible mark on my life. The foundations upon which my appreciations for all the arts were laid (especially for painting and sculpture) took hold during the numerous family excursions. Above all, he taught me to see the inner beauty of human nature.
In 1965 I was the last of the boys to come to the US for my education. And in in 1978 my mother, sister, uncle and aunt moved to the San Francisco Bay area. Naim and Nadimeh’s immigrant endeavors that began in 1937 were finally realized in 1986 when they both took the oath of allegiance to become US citizens.
I distinctly recall what I did upon my1990 return home to Arkansas. I opened the suitcase and presented to my wife the tokens of love given to us by my uncle and aunt. The walking stick onto which I held and from which I swung as a child is displayed right by the foyer hall tree — and will no doubt one day be used by me with nostalgic pride and joy. Its knotted hardwood grain and smooth texture will always be reminders of the trees of my native land. The books are a treasured addition to the family library; the brick bracks have found a place on book shelves and the like; the two paintings, one a scene of the Mount of Temptation and the Jordan River resembling the style of Watteau and the other, a serene scene depicting graceful ballerinas in the style of Degas, have found a special place on our walls. The old suitcase, I discovered, first came to America in 1937. Out of style yet extremely sturdy, the suitcase will be a cherished item in our house that will be passed down from generation to generation as a reminder of my immigrant roots.
I also distinctly remember opening the last item and reading the dedication: “To our Beloved Son Raouf and Precious Family, With our warmest love and Christ’s bountiful blessings. From our aged and withering home to your youthful and blessed home. Ever loving you, Nadimeh and Naim Halabi. May 1990.”
On occasion I read and re-read the dedication inscribed in the beautiful Bible. I cannot help but think that the precious objects bequeathed to my family and to me are symbols of greater truths in life. The Bible, the paintings, the books, the walking stick and the brick bracks are merely constant reminders of the great impact my uncle had on my life. His whole life has been very much like a magician’s old suitcase from whence springs a euphoric concert of love, compassion, honesty, courage, commitment, and, above all, a deep faith in a compassionate and Almighty God.
As I celebrate this year’s Father’s Day celebration, I shall recount to my two sons the many wonderful stories about the only father I had ever known. I shall also recount to my children how, as a child, I used to hold on to my uncle’s walking stick as well as the times that I followed in his path, noting with fascination the imprints made by the iron tip of what has become to me a symbolic shepherd’s staff. Naim and Nadimeh’s home was hardly a “withering home.” Rather, it was the home from whence a bounty of selfless love flowed to nourish the many lucky ones. The examples set for me and for my siblings by Naim Halabi , our father, will live on for generations.
I only hope that I can be half the man and father to my sons that this father had been to me.
At age 99 and alone, on Christmas Eve 2003, my sister called him up and asked whether he would like to spend the night at her house. “Yes, I would love to come home,” he responded. Something was summoning him not spend the night by himself. Something was beckoning him to familiar turf where abundant love would be given its due. Even before the crack of dawn, Naim Halaby’s spirit, and by way of the beautiful Palestinian panoramic landscape where the Hulebe thistles and thyme grow to give character to a rocky and uneven terrain, departed from this world to find its way home in the blue yonder.
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 email@example.com