'Our house'

Mariz Tadros, Sunday 14 May 2023

For three decades Gabriel Baramki was vice-president of Bir Zeit University. Now he plays a leading role in raising international awareness about the dispossession of the Palestinians but, as Mariz Tadros found out, his conversations often lead him back to

Students go about their studies in the shadow of the memorial to the dead of the intifada on the cam
Students go about their studies in the shadow of the memorial to the dead of the intifada on the campus of Bir Zeit University Photo: Randa Shaath


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998

Issue: 3 December 1998

When, at the age of 18, Gabriel Baramki set off to study chemistry at the American University in Beirut, it never crossed his mind for a second that he would not be returning home to Jerusalem for the summer holidays. But this was 1948. By May, Baramki was cut off from his family. Summer came, university closed and he was still stuck in Beirut.

His parents, for their part, were at first adamant on staying put. They wouldn't leave Jerusalem, never, they told themselves. But as the fighting intensified, they began to realise they would have to let go. "One day the family was sitting in the living room, when a bullet passed over my mother's head and just missed her. My father sprang up: 'That's it', he said, 'we're not going to wait a minute longer'." Straight away they packed their suitcases and fled, leaving everything just as it was.


"That day, my mother had just baked a cake. They were in a rush, and the cake was still in its baking tin, so she grabbed a knife to take with it -- that was all we took from our house. Our only possession from our past," Baramki whispers.

The family moved from one house to another, still hoping that they wouldn't have to leave the city. "There were Jewish cars parading through Jerusalem with loud speakers proclaiming that the Arabs would be given safe passage, if they left straight away. The Jewish army was also parading their prisoners -- women and old people -- most of whom had been captured at Deir Yassin after the massacre, to remind people of their fate if they stayed. Many just couldn't take it. They left."

The Baramkis left for Bir Zeit where they spent the summer with an aunt. Then they moved to Gaza, where they remained for three years. Gaby was reunited with his family in 1949. When they told him they had left everything back home, he looked them steadily in the eye and asked if that included the family albums. "Of course, there were many things that I loved and cherished back home, but what affected me most was that suddenly I felt I had lost my childhood, my school days and my teenage memories. It was almost as if without the family album, there was no proof of our past."

After visiting his parents in Gaza, Gaby returned to Beirut to finish his studies. When the Israelis invaded Jaffa, he and other AUB students learned that boatloads of Palestinian refugees had begun to arrive, swamping the port. "We decided to go and see how we could help these people, and there were my uncle and aunt. It never occurred to me that I might see them. We cried a lot. It was a very emotional ordeal." Even more painful was the sight of all those stepping out onto the shore with no clue where to go. Yet even they were not the worst off.

"The most devastating experience for me was receiving the refugees who had walked from the north of Palestine into southern Lebanon. Some of them ended up in Beirut. These were people who had nothing at all, who had lost everything." They were farmers, who though poor, had previously been able to live off the land. Now they had been stripped of their only means of support. "The Palestinian resistance had urged them not to abandon their homes, but they too had found themselves surrounded."

Camps were set up on the beaches of Beirut. At the very least, Gaby thought, thank God it was summer. He never imagined how many times the seasons were to succeed one another while the tent poles were still deeply entrenched in the sands. Soon he was working with the Red Cross, moving from tent to tent, distributing milk for the children, and trying to alleviate the appalling "unconditions" in which they lived.

In 1953, after completing his graduate studies, he returned to Ramallah where he joined the staff of what was then the Bir Zeit college. This was where he was to spend the next four decades of his life.

"We were just a junior college at that time, so we announced in the papers that we would be expanding very shortly. We got a visit from the military governor who asked us what we were doing. 'We're just expanding, it's quite normal', we replied. 'You must have a permit', he said. We didn't want to apply for the permit. In the end, we just informed them that we had started expanding. Then they wanted us to renew the permit annually, which we refused to do. We told them we were not a liquor store. University students were coming here on a long-term basis, not just for one year, and they didn't expect to be thrown out suddenly in the middle of their studies because the license had not been renewed. After four years of expansion, we just wrote to the military governor, saying we considered ourselves to have permanent authorisation. We had buildings made of stone and our programmes lasted for four years. We never received a reply."

In 1974, Bir Zeit University president, Hanna Nasir, was deported. By then, Gaby was already acting president, a position which he was to occupy for the next three decades. "I refused to be called president. I kept the name of acting president for political reasons."

Bir Zeit University was already perceived as the main centre of Palestinian nationalism and anti-Israeli resistance. "They always portrayed us negatively on the radio and TV. They would always say to us, 'Your centre reflects an anti-Israeli sentiment in the West Bank'. 'You mean there are centres in the West Bank that are pro-Israeli?' I would reply. You see, we wanted to develop education for Palestinians. We didn't want even to think about Israel, we wanted to think only of our own people."

But despite everything, there is no spite in Gaby's voice. What he wants, he says plainly -- educated leaders for his community, who do not see themselves as the Israelis' inferiors, but as their equals.

"We told them we do not want our people to continue to be cutters of wood and carriers of water. The Israelis, of course, hated us because we did not submit to their orders. We had many confrontations with them. Students would demonstrate, the army would come and surround the university. Stones and gas would be thrown. One time, people rushed to tell me one of our students had been shot. We were not allowed to take him to hospital and he was left to bleed to death at an army post. He could have been saved."

Gaby's life has been a constant struggle against an almost overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Despite his efforts to keep his immediate and extended family united in his homeland, he met with one disappointment after another. His three children have long since emigrated, although they were born in Palestine and were raised, Gaby insisted, "in the love of the land".

Now, his daughter is too traumatised even to come and visit. At fourteen, she was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier. "It has left a great scar. To this day, she won't come home. She can't cope with the sight of an Israeli soldier or with the violence on TV or anything," he laments. Now she lives in Budapest.

Yet despite such odds, Gaby has fought all his life against his family's fragmentation, as they were struck by one nakba after another. "In 1948, we were dispersed all over the globe. I remember my cousin came to Beirut to visit and we would be sitting together writing letters to people in Cairo, in the States, in Amman, in Europe. We were totally scattered. It really was uprootedness. You felt you had absolutely no hold on reality. Before the Nakba, we were such a tightly knit community. We never imagined the time would come when we wouldn't know where we would be."

Now, his family is divided between 18 different countries stretching from Australia to South Africa and the US. The list seems endless. In 1984, for the first time ever, three generations of Baramki decided to organise a reunion. They could not meet in Palestine, of course, so they chose Cyprus. There, they were surprised to find themselves speaking eight different languages. And you talked about the nakba? Gaby smiles mischievously, "Which nakba are you talking about? There's been quite a few..."

His father was not with them in Cyprus. He had died, broken-hearted, twelve years earlier. When an armistice was declared after 1948, many of the Palestinians who went back to reclaim their belongings found nothing. Yet Gaby's father kept the faith, not doubting for a moment that he would one day return to his home. "When he went back in 1953, he kept on trying continuously, but to no avail. The house had been turned into an Israeli army post. When the army left, he still wasn't allowed to set foot inside. In 1967, he appealed again, and they told him straight to his face: 'You can't have your house because you're absent'. 'But how can I be absent if I am standing here right in front of you?', he said. 'You're absent', they repeated. What they really meant was, 'You don't exist'.

"We took them to court to get the house back and they told us, you will get it back when there is peace between Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. My father died in 1972. Between 1967 and 1972, almost every day he would catch a cab to his old address. He would just stand there, gazing at it. He was not allowed to set foot inside. People would come and tell me, your father is there again. He has been standing there for ages. They used to sigh and say, 'He is like Romeo, waiting for Juliet'. He was so close and yet so far."

The injustice that such families felt is almost impossible for others to understand. "They can't grasp what it means to see your own property so near and yet completely unattainable. When you are in Ramallah, you can see Jaffa and Tel Aviv, your own land, and the longing wells up in you. You want to go back to your orange groves, even just a shack that you call your own. Our house was right on the border. You could stand on a roof on the other side and see it, and the pain would come back. You see, it had become part of you, part of what you understand yourself to be."

Gaby lapsed into silence, as if his energy had faded, worn out by the memories of the past. "It is difficult to explain how suddenly you become a nobody. How suddenly you no longer have a home you can call your own, and no country to belong to. I don't think people grasp that before 1948, Palestine was predominantly Arab, and suddenly we are talking about a Palestinian state in less than 25 per cent of Palestine, and even that we cannot have now."

In the years before 1948, Gaby's family, like many others, had viewed the rising tide of Jewish immigrants with a certain anxiety, until in the end, they began to boycott Jewish shops in protest. This feeling too it is difficult to convey to those who did not experience it. Imagine he says, you are living in a house. A newcomer arrives. He is homeless. You allow him to come and take a room in your house, because you feel for him. But then this person brings in many more people, and before you know it, they are deciding between them how to divide up the property. You watch in disbelief -- after all, this is your house they are sharing out. And, the next thing you know, you've been thrown out -- of your own house.



This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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