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Jaffa’s Palestinian Exiles

Let’s start with a confession. At my Jewish school in north London we did not much like the Israeli pupils. They wore dubonim (padded khaki army jackets) and sand-colored canvas boots. They strutted around and spoke to each other in … Read More

By / November 26, 2007

Let’s start with a confession. At my Jewish school in north London we did not much like the Israeli pupils. They wore dubonim (padded khaki army jackets) and sand-colored canvas boots. They strutted around and spoke to each other in loud Hebrew. They could drive—cars at least, and for all we knew, tanks. They appropriated without asking—as Israelis do—a space they liked the look of, a comfortable corner of the sixth-form common room. There they sat, or rather slouched, in their dubonim, with their canvas boots on the table. Worst of all, the prettiest girls were fascinated by these tanned shtarkers. They sat in their laps. We suspected—knew—that these Israelis were actually doing it. So we fought back in the traditional Diaspora manner: with words. The cleverest boy in the school added a speech bubble to a poster of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (this was the late 1970s). It said: “I am a Palestinian”. This caused a satisfying fury. Eventually, I too found a girlfriend, and my annoyance abated. And I began to wonder about these Israelis. Who were they? How could they be Jews, but so utterly different to us? I even became friendly with several. They were interesting. They said what they thought. They did not use the conditional, passive circumlocutions that shape British social intercourse. They had a certain piquancy, not just because they ate different foods. They were pushy and pre-emptive, I realized, because otherwise they, and their country, would not exist. I was going to university. The Israelis were headed for the army, and would eventually go to war. It was, I decided, time to find out more myself. I took a year out and spent six months on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet, just south of Haifa. We worked half the day and studied Hebrew the rest. Ramat Hashofet was a leftist kibbutz, the kind of place whose founders had dreamed that one day Stalin would visit. He would say, ‘Comrades, I admit I made some administrative errors, but you, you got it right.’
Stalin never made it to Ramat Hashofet. But I was there. I had dreamed of making the desert bloom and bringing forth the fruits of the earth with my bare hands. I worked in a wood factory, making ammunition boxes. It was boring, dusty and messed up my contact lenses. Even so, I could see that every day a separate group of workers arrived to feed the wood into the machines. They did not live on the kibbutz. They spoke Arabic. They were day laborers from nearby villages. I asked why they could not join the kibbutz if they worked there. Because they are not Jewish, came the reply. This did not seem very socialist to me, but Zionist socialism has different rules to the everyday variety, the kibbutzniks explained. It all seemed to just about make sense there on Ramat Hashofet, but back in Britain, at university I still wondered. I decided to study Arabic, including a summer course in the colloquial Palestinian dialect, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And now, looking back, I realize that it was in that classroom that my book City of Oranges, which recounts the lives of three Jewish and three Arabs families in Jaffa, was born. One day a fellow student, an American immigrant in his early sixties, was recounting the beauties of his Arab house. He was a nice guy, liberal, intelligent—learning Arabic, after all. His house was built from Jerusalem stone, he said. It had a terrace, high ceilings to let the breeze flow through, was spacious and airy. But his enthusiasm was tempered by regret. For he knew that his lovely house of Jerusalem stone was haunted. Not by ghosts, but by its previous owners. And one day, someone might come and knock on the door. Fast forward more than twenty years. I am standing at the door of a large stone villa on the southern end of Jaffa with Fadwa Hasna, and her niece, Rema Hammami. Now an elegant grandmother, Fadwa grew up in this house. Rema is a feisty woman in her early forties who teaches at Bir Zeit university near Ramallah. Both are Palestinians and live in East Jerusalem.
The house was built by Fadwa’s father Ahmad Hammami in the 1930s. Ahmad was the scion of an old Jaffa family and worked in the fruit and vegetable business. Another branch of the Hammami family lived next door, and the two houses shared a lush garden, filled with fruit trees, from which Fadwa's mother, Nafise, would make jam. That house is gone and the garden is a rubble-strewn lot. The Hammami villa is now an Israeli home for the elderly, with bits added, chopped off and covered in concrete. Before 1948 this quarter was called Jebbaliyyeh and was home to Jaffa’s prospering Arab middle class. It has since been renamed Givat Aliyah, meaning “Hill of Aliyah,” and the only people prospering are the local drug dealers. Palestinians who worked with Israel in Gaza are also moved here, to be ostracized by their neighbors. Fadwa remembers the fighting between Jaffa and neighboring Tel Aviv. It erupted in November 1947 immediately after the UN resolution to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs. First school stopped, then her father Ahmad spent nights at the barricades. By spring 1948 the right-wing Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, was determined to capture the city. Taking Jaffa, the cultural capital of Palestine, would be useful political capital in the coming intra-Zionist struggle with Ben Gurion's labor Zionists. At the end of Pesach in April Begin ordered a ferocious mortar bombardment on Jaffa. The shells rained down and tens of thousands of fled in terror. The Hammamis took a taxi to the port and a boat to Lebanon. There the family dispersed. Fadwa later married Suleyman Hasna, a scion of an old East Jerusalem family and moved to Jerusalem, then part of Jordan. After the Six Day War the borders between Israel and the West Bank were open. Fadwa was the first Hammami to return to the family home. She came with her mother Nafise. Nafise refused to get out of the taxi when they arrived, but Fadwa talked her way inside. It’s a difficult journey to make, but Fadwa keeps coming back. And each time her children have a new baby, after a while they bring the child here, to show the house that their great-grandfather Ahmad Hammami built.
The old people's home manager is quite fed up with Fadwa. “You come and you come," he asks. "When will you stop?" Never, she replies. Sometimes he does not want to let her in. But I remember enough Hebrew from my ulpan. “Shalom,” I say as we walk inside. “I am a British journalist. Can we see the house?” So we go in, and Fadwa gives me a guided tour. An institutional smell pervades the place, and many of the residents are clearly in their last days. Cheap aluminium walls and partitions divide the house. But the architecture is still gracious, and I marvel at the windows, the thick stone walls, the spacious lay-out, with a large space for family meals, and the bedrooms off to the side. Fadwa shows me the family kitchen, her old room, where she used to play with her brothers and sisters. The old people watch us bemusedly as we wander around. Had Ahmad Hammami stayed, and sat out the mortar bombardment in his cellar with his family, Fadwa might still be living there. The mortars stopped after three days when Britain, still the mandatory power, threatened to bomb Tel Aviv. But Ahmad, fearful for his family, could not have known that. Once the British left in mid-May, the new Israeli army did not have to fight their way into Jaffa. Its soldiers walked into an abandoned city. Just three or four thousand stayed: over ninety thousand had fled. “I couldn’t understand,” wrote David Ben-Gurion in his diary. “Why did the inhabitants leave?” Perhaps he should have asked Menachem Begin. I learned a lot that day with Fadwa and Rema. About the human cost of exile and disposession, of the 1948 Israeli war of independence, which the Palestinians call Al-Nakba, the catastrophe. About the nervousness too, that underpins modern Israeli society. The fear that one day, someone will knock on the door, with a legal—or worse, a moral—claim. Perhaps that’s why Israelis, even in my school common room, feel they must mark out their territory. Will Fadwa ever get her house back? Probably not. But never say never. Perhaps in the distant future, Israel and her neighbors will eventually make peace. The Palestinians and the Jews will all be compensated, or have their properties returned. It’s a comforting, if unlikely vision. Maybe Rema or Fadwa’s children will day settle here, with their families. For isn’t that what everybody really wants, Israeli or Palestinian, just to go home?

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