Three times the Civil Administration razed the house of the Shuwamri family in `Anata. Three times Salim rebuilt it. Ashraf, 17; Lina, 16; Lima, 14; Linda, 13; Wafa, 10; Mohammed, 9 ... they watched, saying nothing.
31 May 2002
Abdullah Muhsin and his wife Amama: "Young people these days do the opposite of what their parents tell them."
(Photo: Miki Kratsman)
A package had arrived from Gaza. Foreigners brought it. It contained an envelope with pictures and a cellular phone in a box. The envelope, which had a Bagel Toast logo on it, contained pictures sent by the exiled Iyad to his elderly parents in the Deheisheh refugee camp. The photos show a young man with a neat beard and haircut, surrounded by friends - new exiles like himself - on the Gaza shore. In the cardboard box promising "easy access to the wider world," was a Swedish-made cell phone from the Palestinian cellular phone company.
Iyad had sent his parents the telephone so that they could call him at his new residence in Gaza, but the elderly couple has no idea how to use the thing. They'll go to the neighbors and have them dial for them, just as, 60 years ago in Zakariya, the father, Abdullah Muhsin, had his neighbor who knew how to read and write fill out the record of his grocery store. He still has the old ledger. His mind still sharp as a tack, Muhsin hasn't forgotten anything. When he finds the photos of Iyad, his youngest child (the son of his third wife Amana and 40 years younger than his eldest son) his face reddens and contorts and he seems on the verge of tears.
"Here is my son. Here is Iyad," he says. He knows that the chances of seeing his son again are slim. Iyad was one of the Palestinians who were holed up in the Church of the Nativity. His father had warned him not to leave the house. He was eventually exiled to Gaza - only an hour's drive away if such a trip were possible. Now the brand-new Swedish telephone is the only way to bridge the gap between father and son. It's a new generation, the father says sadly. A generation that doesn't know where Zakariya is.
But this elderly grocer, who remembers every stone and tree in the village he fled from, is prepared to give up the dream of returning there, if that can't be accomplished peacefully. He pleaded with Iyad not to go out that day, but young people these days do the opposite of what their parents tell them, he says, and look what happened. After all the days of occupation and curfew, a strong stench envelops Deheisheh. The squalid narrow alleyways here have spawned quite a number of suicide bombers and their helpers, like suspected car thief Ibrahim Sarahna and his wife, former prostitute Irena Polichuk.
Abdullah Muhsin arrived here 52 years ago, about a year and a half after he fled from his village. He has blue-gray eyes. Amana is 30 years his junior and still very attractive. He says that he is 88. His children say that he's older than that. "I hear people being interviewed on the radio saying that Zakariya had 12,000 people. That's a lie. All together, we were 850 people there."
According to historian Walid Khalidi's book, "All That Remains," the population of Zakariya was 1,180 in 1944-45. But everything else that Muhsin says about his village coincides very closely with Khalidi's version. They fled on October 17, 1948, Muhsin says. He suddenly stops talking for a moment, as if choked up. But then he continues. Seventeen villages in the area were abandoned within two days, for fear of the Jews. The village mosque still stands on the land of Moshav Zekharia, near Beit Shemesh, which was built on the ruins. Muhsin saved the ledger and the scale from his store.
The ancient scale now sits rusting in a storeroom. He also managed to get a truck and load it with sacks of barley and corn that he had in the store. He took the scale, the key, the sacks and his wife and children and fled to Hebron. Two days later, he came back with the truck to try to save some more merchandise from the store, but as he approached Zakariya, he heard that the Jews had already entered the place, so he told the truck driver to turn around and get away quickly. The next time he went back was in the early 1970s, when he saw that "everything was leveled."
The family wandered from place to place, including three refugee camps, before settling in Deheisheh. Two daughters from his first wife died as infants in the 1940s. He now has five children, the eldest of whom is 64. Three of them live in Jordan. Ziyad, one of his two sons from his third wife Amana, lives in Deheisheh and has six children. His other son Iyad lived in Deheisheh, too, but has now been exiled to Gaza. Muhsin has lived with Amana since 1971 and his frequent angry outbursts at her are sometimes so fierce that his family worries for his health. She smiles submissively; he threatens to curse God.
During the siege in Bethlehem, Iyad would call his brother Ziyad from the church and Ziyad would then run with the cell phone to his parents, so they could speak to their younger son. The father: "I felt sick when I heard about those men in the church. I had no idea that Iyad was there. When I found out, I stopped seeing for three weeks. I went blind. Because of my anger and fury over my son. I'd been going crazy about the men in the church even before I knew about Iyad. So you can imagine how I felt when I was told that he was there, too. I couldn't speak to him on the phone. I always started to cry when he called. His mother spoke to him. He told her about the filth and the lack of food. I think that I have the heart of a woman, more than the heart of a father. Whom can you love more than a son? Whatever you save in life, you pass on to your son, and when you tell him, do this - he goes and does the opposite.
"They wouldn't let us say goodbye to Iyad. I couldn't see anything then and his mother saw him on television and started to cry. He looked awful. He was thin and unshaven. He spent 45 days in the same shirt and pants. But in the last phone call, from Gaza, he said: `Take care of Dad.' Even though I'm angry at him, he's still my son."
Now Abdullah Muhsin wipes his eyes with a towel and his wife straightens his kaffiyeh.
Will there be peace?
Abdullah: "I hope there will be peace. We want peace. What the Saudi prince offered to Israel is peace. What more does Israel want? Peace with all the Arab countries, normalization - What more does Israel want? We're asking for the `67 borders, no more than that."
"Whoever wants to go back should go back. If I have a chance to go back, I'll go back. But it's not a condition. If God wants me to return to Zakariya, I'll return, and if not, not. If they give us compensation, that would be good, too. If we have the choice - I promise you that I'll give this house to somebody. But if there's no way to return to Zakariya, I'll forgo it. I've never given up the dream of returning there, but if there's no other way, I'll give it up. If there's no way to go back, it's fine for me here, too. I want to go back, but only through peace, not by means of war.
"The Israelis are after us here, too. Zakariya wasn't enough for them. Do you think that all those who left will want to return? Definitely not. They just want to be compensated. I assure you that if they offer me compensation, I won't take it. But the young people don't know where Zakariya is. They'll take it. If my son were to tell me that he had a weapon and was going to fight - I wouldn't like it. All of our leaders, aside from Abu Amar, are dogs. I think they plotted against us. Our leaders said that all the Jews must be thrown into the sea, but they haven't thrown so much as a dog into the sea. We should have accepted the offer of a Palestinian-Jewish state, like they have in Lebanon with the Muslims and Christians. But all we could think about was throwing the Jews into the sea. It was an opportunity that we missed.
"The Jews just talk about peace, but they don't believe in peace. The only strong Palestinian leader is Abu Amar. When he declared peace, it was as if he launched an atom bomb, because he showed that the Israelis only talk about peace, but have no room for peace in their hearts. I laugh when Bush calls Arafat - the one who is trying to protect his people - a terrorist, and calls Sharon, the one who is attacking us, a man of peace. The Israelis kill us every day and we have no plane to bomb Tel Aviv the way they bomb Nablus and we have no soldiers to attack and occupy. We're attacked from land, sea and air, they're killing and assassinating us - so what are the suicide bombers? That's a small thing. Leave (the territories) and we'll be friends."
Then he led us out, proudly showing us his well-tended garden, and said that this whole refugee camp was not worth a single house in Zakariya. Then he asked if we could maybe arrange for him to visit his son in Gaza, and tears welled in his eyes once more.