My father, Jamil Halaby, passed away in Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1947. Fifty years later and until her death on March 16, 1997, Katrina Halaby, my late mother, was never able to visit her husband’s grave to say the kaddish or lay flowers.
And because of the turbulent 1948 political climate in Palestine, no tombstone was erected until the 1970s.
After years of a diasporic life in Lebanon and Europe, the family was finally united in 1987 in the Bay Area, South of San Francisco.
And after a two-year period of hospice at home, mother passed away in diaspora in Redwood Shores, CA, some 7,500 miles from her native Palestine.
If a mother daughter relationship “is the purest form of love, care and affection,” then my sister Beatrice exemplifies this special maternal bond.
After mother’s experiencing several strokes, Betty refused to place her in a nursing home.
Not only did she refuse to place mother in nursing home hospice care, but she also quit her job as office manager at an architectural firm to spend two years of her life tending to mother’s every need. With help from home healthcare staff, she patiently and lovingly performed all the necessary tasks to help mother stay alive and to help her maintain her dignity.
And on more than one occasion the attending nurse would suggest the cessation of life-prolonging meds, which Betty adamantly refused to do.
When father died in 1947, he was buried in Jerusalem’s Orthodox cemetery on Mt. Zion’s southwestern corner, and adjacent to Jerusalem’s old city walls.
That area became a no man’s land strip (part of what was referred to as the Green Line) and was off limits to Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians.
While standing on the parapet of Jerusalem’s St. Andrews Church, one 1956 Sunday morning mother motioned in the direction of the Orthodox cemetery and said: “Awladi (my children), your father is buried across this valley, and right behind that church [Church of Dormition].”
Aside from father’s portrait in the family living room, my twin brother and I have no memories of what my father looked like, what his voice sounded like, or how tall or short he was.
At age 37 Katrina Halaby was widowed and left to care for 5 children, the oldest of whom was a daughter, nine years old, and the youngest, twin boys, barely one-and-a-half years old, with two boys in between.
In 1948 war broke out in Palestine. Father had real estate holdings, including a five-story mason-cut stone commercial building on Jerusalem’s King George St. – as well as several businesses in Jerusalem’s commercial Mamila district. Unlike other Palestinians, and after a brief sojourn in Jericho, we stayed put in our Jerusalem home.
Drawing on her strength and resilience, mother took the challenge of raising her five children and fighting a hostile government that was intent on stealing everything we had and forcing us to leave in their grand design of ethnic cleansing Palestine of its indigenous citizens and to create an exclusively Jewish state.
Matriculated at the Beirut College for Women (B.A.), mother was eminently qualified to teach. Her first teaching position was at the Ramallah Girls Friend’s School, where she also coached the girl’s tennist team. After the 1948 Nakba, and sometime in the very early 1950’s she taught at the Palestinian village’s Beit Safafa school. Eventually she was hired to teach at another Palestinian school in Abu Ghosh, a Palestinian village located west of Jerusalem. Because she had to take two bus lines to the latter, she inevitably sat next to Olem Hadasheem, newly arrived Jewish immigrants – mostly from Europe. Not one to waste precious time, and in her desire to help my twin brother and me with our Hebrew lessons, she took our Hebrew reader with her and employed the assistance of fellow bus riders to help her learn Hebrew.
Little did the many bus tutors know that this fair-skinned, greyish-blue eyed Nordic-looking woman was a Palestinian mother attempting to learn Hebrew not only to help her children with their Hebrew language lessons, but also to learn the language of the occupiers so as to negotiate the many daily challenges Palestinians had to (and still do) face in a hostile and racist environment. In fact, many assumed that she was a newly arrived Northern European immigrant immersing herself in Hebrew and plied her with questions about her former homeland.
Sometime in either 1957 or 1958 Mother became the neighborhood heroine.
When the Israeli Haganah took over our neighborhood, they zoned an entire two-block area with razor-sharp concertina wire. Soon after newly arrived immigrants (Europeans Jews only, please) started breaking into and taking over fully-furnished Palestinian homes, the concertina wire was taken down and left at the top of the street.
Thus it was that one afternoon a young Moroccan Jew (Sephardic Moroccan Jews -looked down upon by Ashkenazi European Jews – lived way down the street and literally on the other side of the railroad tracks) was riding his homemade flat cart down the street and pulling a portion of the concertina wire behind him. Using skate wheels for his contraption, the lad’s homemade device made an audible grinding and hissing sound. Unbeknownst to the young lad, for some reason the unattended green, convertible MGB roadster parked up the street, much like a predatory puma, started rolling down the street, picking up momentum as the sloping gravitational thrust launched it forward; the car quietly and menacingly rolled right behind the young lad, caught up with him, rolled right over the concertina wire, the cart, and the by-now bloodied victim. The sudden impact of front wheels on torso brought the car to a standstill, wedging the frightened lad under the chassis. As panic hit the neighborhood, several men gathered around the vehicle, screaming, and wailing. My twin brother and I rushed to our front door and yelled: “Mama, Mama, there is a boy under a car, please come and help!”
When mother strode up to the scene of chaos right in front of our house, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Russian and Lithuanian lamentations and pleas were shrieked in a cacophony of frenzied fear. She immediately clapped her hands some two or three times, raised her voice in the manner a teacher or coach would, and admonished the by-now frightful crowd of over 35 people to be quiet. “You, and you men,” she uttered in English, “come here, and you and you, stand there, you men go to the front, and you two go to the back.” Positioned in a circle of adult males around the predatory machine, she knelt on the street, advised the boy to be still, and ever so tenderly held his head in her hands, then her arms, and gently assured him that he would be fine.
In the old Yo-Heave-Ho manner of a collaborative effort, she urged the men to lift the roadster off the street. Someone provided wire cutters, another cut a few strands to free the wedged lad, and Katrina Halaby pulled the Moroccan teenager ever so slowly, assuring him in Arabic (a language Moroccan Jews understand) that he was going to be alright.
Freed from the vise-like grip of the concertina wire mother pulled the lad from under the car, placed him in her lap, tended to the cuts, and held on to him until the ambulance arrived.
That day widowed Katrina Halaby, the only Palestinian woman in an amalgamated Ashkenazi Jewish neighborhood was cheered and hailed as a heroine for helping save the life of a Sephardic Jew. And at her funeral in Foster City, CA, Father Sakkab, our former Orthodox Beirut, Lebanon priest would weave a legendary story about the Palestinian woman who saved a Jewish child, embellishing the narrative with his inspiring words served as an exemplum for the living.
Three things about this momentous nostalgic event in my life: 1. Up till April 1959, the day we moved to Beirut, Lebanon, the Moroccan lad would stand at the top of the street, waiting for my mother to disembark from the bus, to help her carry the groceries home, should she have any. 2. Ironically the concertina wire was intended to zone a family of ten, half of who were children, restricting us to a very tight perimeter so as the couple of Uzi-toting Israeli soldiers up the street could keep an eye on a widow, five children, two aunts, an uncle, and my grandmother’s sister. 3. Mother’s saving and tending to a Moroccan child’s calamitous unfortunate calamity is a memory that flashed through my mind when, years later and for the very first time, I would see Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. On my numerous subsequent trips to Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica was always of paramount interest. The Basilica is a gargantuan domicile of serenity (when fewer tourists are there), hope, faith, and human ingenuity. Once past the massive colonnade, I would always make a beeline for the Pieta and relive that almost fatal accident that unfolded on Reuven St # 9, Upper Baka’a, Jerusalem, Occupied Palestine.
George T. is one of my Jerusalem childhood friends and elementary school classmates whose family left Palestine for Lebanon when we were still in grade school. When, in 1959, my family moved to Lebanon, George and I would renew our friendship and become high school classmates, yet again, graduating from the National Protestant School in 1964. George enrolled at AUB (American University of Beirut) and was awarded his M.D. from same. Penniless and stateless, I would wander to the America South in pursuit of a college education. Today George is a prominent urologist whose years of acclaimed practice in D.C. and Virginia is well established.
In 1993 I attended the White House lawn ceremonies and watched Bill Clinton, Arafat, Rabin, and a whole bunch of other egotistical clowns on the stage, a stage whose denouement was the orchestrated Oslo Agreement which wiped the state of Palestine – permanently – off the map. After the day’s ceremony, George drove me to the airport. Upon my arrival home, and upon unpacking my bag, I discovered a bookmark in the form of a Palestinian flag in a side bag – no doubt placed there by my childhood friend.
On February 4, 2021 George sent me an email from Beirut, Lebanon:
I have failed to mention that at present I am in Beirut, checking on my ailing mother, who in May will turn 96. I found an ailing nation, poverty, beggars, and shuttered stores. Those of us who knew Beirut of yesteryears cannot but cry in despair. And yet it keeps a hold on us, and we keep coming back, maybe it’s the romantic memories.
I read and reread your article [Bittersweet Memories of Another Beirut, September 28, 1989, Home Forum, Christian Science Monitor] and memories came tumbling like sweets from a jar (a Joan Baez song about Bob Dylan).
To which I responded:
I don’t know why I get emotional; happened after I read your last two emails. If you have the chance, please go to the falafel place, up the street from AUB, and eat one for me. And, if the shawarma place is still open, further down Bliss St, please eat a whole serving for me. At my age Nostalgia sustains.
Please give my warmest to your mother. I always think of her as a pillar of strength and resilience. Safe trip back.
George’s response was swift:
Do get emotional, these were the best years of our lives and shaped us to what we are now.
Your mother, my mother, every Palestinian mother that was rendered homeless and had to start from scratch should be viewed with awe. We are what we are because of their tenacity.
For reasons unknown to me, as I watch my mother’s frail body , I remember your uncle Naim with his strong back, firm grip and rapid talk. They just don’t make people like that anymore. Best, George
For over 25 years my mother taught at UNRWA Palestinian Refugee schools in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the sights of horrible genocidal killings orchestrated by Israel and her proxy Lebanese Phalange. And she became the first female school principal in Lebanon’s UNRWA school system.
And even though Israel’s crimes followed her to Lebanon, she was fully cognizant of the following: Dedicating her life to teaching Palestinian children of all ages was vital. For her, education, a portable treasure (like no other) is a treasure that no one can steal or hijack. Yes, education is the most cherished treasure one possesses.
Of her five children, the first has an M.A. from the University of San Francisco, one was an airline executive, one was a chemical engineer, another a civil engineer, and all three would become successful entrepreneurs in a family venture, and one a retired university professor.
George is right on target when he stated: “Your mother, my mother, every Palestinian mother that was rendered homeless and had to start from scratch should be viewed with awe. We are what we are because of their tenacity.”
Those early Jerusalem years post the 1948 war were years of turmoil, uprooting, dispossession, and hardships. Israeli food ration cards favored Israeli Jews, a fact that forced us to plant vegetable gardens, raise rabbits, eat fruit form the fruit trees planted by previous generations, and to depend on the well-stocked cellar provisions of flour sugar, rice, olive oil, and other foodstuffs stocked while my father was still live.
I distinctly remember the times when my mother would pretend that she was not hungry, only to make sure that each child had her/his portion of food. And what an altruistic demonstration of love it was, a demonstration that assured us that this Palestinian mother was the glue that bonded our family.
So, on this Sunday, May 9, 2021, every Palestinian mother, no matter where you are on this planet, please celebrate your culture and heritage with all the pride and dignity you can muster. You’ve taught your children Sumud (patience, resilience, grace under fire), a strength and resistance that will continue to sustain Palestine and her children under a brutal Israeli occupation, in refugee camps, and in diaspora in cities and hamlets across this globe.
You, Palestinian mothers, have been, and will continue to be the glue that bonds your children, families, and communities.