Dispossessed all over again
29 October 2004
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation.
It has been shocking to witness what Israeli colonialism has done to the land of the West Bank, yet inspiring to see what it has not been able to do to the people. The land: divided, exploited, exhausted, tortured. The people: imprisoned and controlled, yet united, defiant and beyond control.
What has to a large degree been more shocking and difficult to witness is the occupation of Palestine. The Arab character of Palestine 1948 has been completley erased, replaced. The streets, buildings, people and lifestyle are mostly European. In some areas there was not one trace of a Palestinian people or their history very similar to Sydney and the sacred Aboriginal land that lies just beneath the concrete paths and buildings there. Everywhere I looked there were basketball courts, soccer fields, McDonalds, Burger King, skyscrapers everything but Palestine.
And then we reached Yaffa. Beautiful, ancient, Yaffa, on the coast of Palestine. The old Palestinian homes there are used as Israeli cafes, restaurants or nightclubs. The fliers advertising these places don't even hide the fact that these homes are occupied.
"[an] old Arab [never, 'Palestinian'] home has been converted into one of Jaffa's finest restaurants."
I stood on the beach and thought about all of my friends from Yaffa who mostly live in refugee camps and I prayed for their return. I cried and screamed inside that they couldn't be here watching the sun set behind the sea on this first day of Ramadan. Israelis swim and shop while Palestinians are trapped behind concrete camp walls. I felt like exploding.
From Yaffa we drove up to Acre where we spent one night. Acre has a large Palestinian population but it is still scarred by European-Jewish colonialism. The area is beautiful but it is dressed up with the bright colours and neon lights of commercialism. When Jewish Israel was created, most of Palestine '48 was razed to the ground except for the large, strong and attractive buildings. The newly arrived colonialists were quick to use them for profit or leisure. For me to stand there and watch how they have been exploited was to feel dispossessed all over again.
In the morning we made our way up towards the north of Palestine to visit my village and the nearby town of Safad, the town of a sister, Salwa, living in Australia who also has been dispossessed. The drive up was the most breathtaking experience I have ever had. The untouched nature was beyond anything I had imagined. I didn't realise that I came from such a beautiful part of the world. It somehow hurt more because it was so beautiful. In Safad I stood on a hilltop and thought about Salwa. I thought about her family and filled a bottle with soil for a Palestinian father buried far from home.
From Safad we began making our way to Safsaf. It was in the refugee camps in Lebanon, before even coming to Palestine, that I realised that I had already seen the most important part of my village its people. Most of the people from Safsaf live in Ain El Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon where the camps are divided up into areas that get their name from the people who live there. When I walked through the alleys of Safsaf in Ain El Helweh I knew that a very big part of me and my history lives within those walls. My cousins and other people from Safsaf asked me to bring them some soil from the village and to film the village so that we can view it together during a Safsaf gathering when I returned to Lebanon.
I felt angry and somehow guilty that I was able to visit Safsaf and they were not. Safsaf can actually be seen from the Lebanese border. I remembered photos that my relatives showed me of themselves at the Lebanon/Palestine border standing there with Palestine behind them the closest they can get.
During the drive up I began to recall stories that my father had told me about the day they fled Safsaf. In October 1948 the men of the village fought to protect the lands and people of Safsaf. My father, who was nine at the time, remembered the day when his father returned home after weeks of fighting. His gun had melted and he no longer had the means to fight. The men of the village were insufficiently armed and outnumbered so they decided to gather their families and seek refuge in Lebanon until the situation calmed and they could return after what they believed would only be a few months.
On the 29th of October 1948, Safsaf fell. On that day almost half of the 250 villagers were massacred, ten of them were from my family. Many of the young men were lined up against the wall and shot down in front of their mothers. Those that were able to get away fled to Lebanon and have been dispossessed ever since, living in a refugee camp that is only three hours drive away. Safsaf is one of over 500 localities that were ethnically cleansed and destroyed in 1948-49, each with a history and a story that has been buried for more than half a century.
To find Safsaf the only reference point that we had was an Israeli area called Sifsufa (its not only the lands that were stolen, but even the names) which was built by the Jewish Agency in 1949 beside the location of Safsaf. The only way to find Sifsufa was by using an Israeli map which had all the names of the Jewish areas that had replaced Palestinian ones.
When we arrived to Safsaf I felt a rush through my body. The village is surrounded by beautiful green hills with tall Safsaf trees the trees that give the village its name. Only three buildings still stand there, half demolished from the attack in 1948 which destroyed everything else in the village.
Humbled by the beauty, history and sacrifice of the place I got down on my knees and cried into the earth and into the stones of the buildings. One of them was being used as a change room and bath for a sports team. Dirty clothes were thrown on the floor of one room and there was a dirty bath in another. Each of the buildings had been spray-painted with hebrew words that I cared not to understand. While standing there a few Israelis walked over to the area and began walking through the unused building.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"What are you doing here?" they asked me.
"What am I doing here? I come from here. This is my village!
What they were doing there was turning one of the buildings into a restaurant.
"But these are Palestinian homes."
"No definitely. My father was born here, my grandfather and great-grandfather, all born here. These are our homes.
"Maybe." And with that he walked away to examine the building.
I felt so frustrated and powerless at the same time. They walked around the building right before my eyes in total disregard for what I had just told them. I shouldn't have been shocked. Theyve been doing this since 1948 taking what's not theirs with full knowledge of who it belongs to.
I wanted to speak to my father and let him know where I was. I called him and heard his loud voice turn soft. When I heard that he was holding back tears I began to cry. He told me, "Baba why are you crying? Haven't I always told you that we will back one day? That it's not over.
"Of course you did Baba, of course you did."
Posted 1 November 2004
© Rihab Charida 2004
Also by Rihab Charida: An incident in Ramallah
For more pictures of pre-1948 Palestine and present day Occupied Palestine as well as information on Palestinian history visit Palestine Remembered.