Jean Said Makdisi: The Palestinian cause will not die

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 14 Jan 2017

In interview with Ahram Online, renowned Palestinian Lebanese writer Jean Said Makdisi reflects on 'a century of resilience' in a cause that will never be silenced

Teta, Mother and Me
Teta, Mother and Me

Prominent Palestinian Lebanese intellectual and writer Jean Said Makdisi has been instrumental to keeping the "memory of Palestine" alive. Her writings, which venture between the memoires of her family and readings of history, are both passionate and convincing.

Among Makdisi’s contributions is her role in collecting the oral history of outgoing Palestinian generations who lived in historic Palestine.

Her widely read book “Teta, Mother and Me – An Arab Woman’s Memoir,” published over 10 years ago, offers a documented narrative of three generations that lived through early phases of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948 until today.

With an upcoming peace conference scheduled to take place in Paris, Makdisi is unmoved.

There have been so many conferences during the past 20 years, but hardly been any serious progress in bringing justice for the Palestinians, Makdisi told Ahram Online in a telephone interview from Beirut, where she resides.

Today, almost 100 years from the day the Balfour Declaration was issued, on 2 November 1917, when her grandmother Teta was a joyful mother of a growing family at the age of 27, Makdisi is certain that the story of successive Palestinian generations is well kept. This was possible through the writings and photos of many families who were forced, through violence and terror, in successive intervals to leave their homeland and piece together lives in the Diaspora.

“The notion of justice does not go away," Makdisi told Ahram Online.

"The Palestinian cause has lived for 100 years and while the challenge was getting harder it still survived,” she said.

“You could look back at the past 100 years and think that they have been years of great unfairness to the Palestinians. But you could also look at them and see a century of Palestinian resilience that seems impossible to break,” she added.

A great part of this "resilience" is cultural, Makdisi argues. Palestinians, she said, might not always have been able to hold on to their land, but they do hold on to their culture, and to their identity and to their memories, despite the wars, the displacement, and many forms of cruelty they have suffered.

Makdisi’s “Teta, Mother and Me” is an incredible testimony to this will of resilience of a grandmother who was a subject of the Ottoman Empire in Homs (in what was once called Bilad Al-Sham and later Syria, Palestine and Lebanon).

Makdisi's grandmother married her grandfather in 1905 from Safad in northern Palestine; Her own mother was born in 1914, in Nazareth and married the Jerusalem born William Said, father of Jean Said Makdisi and Edward Said.

Jean was born in Palestine in 1940; she lived in Cairo and Beirut before moving to Washington where she followed, with her husband, from a distance, the 1967 war that left her with a "confirmed sense of loss" but not despair or final defeat.

As far as Makdisi is concerned, wars became layered with various phases of lives, and with memories: walks  through the eastern part of Jerusalem, during two visits back in the 1950s and 1960s, prior to the full occupation of the city by Israel in 1967; the recollection of the voice of her aunt Nabiha speaking in a soft and almost agonised voice of Palestinian geography, "Bait Lahem, Ramallah, Al-Khalil"; family photos in the Jerusalem house during the wedding of a cousin; the lives of Palestinians in Lebanon during the years of the Lebanese civil war that started in the mid-1970s; and her stay in Egypt following the Camp David Accords in the late 1970s, and the impact of both on the path of the Palestinian cause.

There have been so many challenges, but our cause did not die and it won’t. I have no idea how or when it would be resolved, but I am sure as I am telling you that if it lived for the last 100 years it would continue to live for another 100 years, even if it stays unresolved,” she said.

Is this because war, as she wrote in “Teta, Mother and Me”, touched the life and sensibility of Makdisi or is it because, like Makdisi, many Palestinians sought to collect the memories of ailing and departing generations and to keep them intact, like her grandmother used to do, keeping everything in sealed bags?

Makdisi does not claim a single answer.

“Palestinians have not accepted” that they have no fate but one of endless exile with no home to go back to“You could look at it in so many ways, but in the final analysis it is not going to go away,” she said. “History does not go away, after all,” she added.

Today, Makdisi argues, with the incredible tools of communication available, there is a better opportunity for Palestinian history to be preserved, “sometimes in the incredible collective efforts of Palestinians who live continents apart through social media.

And the word, Makdisi said, is being heard by the world over, no matter the attempts of Israel to hide the Palestinian story.

She added that collective international movements, still nascent in a sense, particularly encouraged her to believe that “things are moving generally to the better,” because the world is getting to learn better and more about the Palestinian cause, and is getting to better place this cause in the legitimate context of missing justice, as was the case with South Africa under apartheid.

Today, in her house in Beirut, Makdisi is embarking on yet another writing endeavour that would complement her recollections in “Teta, Mother and Me” and those collated in her “Beirut Fragments.

She would not reveal, when she spoke to Ahram Online, what or how much this new project would say.

She could only confirm that it would be about the unending saga of Palestine.

"Justice denied is never silent".

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