War of night and day

Faysal Hourani, Sunday 14 May 2023

Down the long roads of exile, memory becomes a nation peopled by the ghosts of fear, sacrifice, loss and generosity. Faysal Hourani remembers 1948, and the long flight into Gaza

Gaza 1967
From 1948 until 1967, the Gaza Strip was administered by Egypt. The residence there were linked with the outside world by one narrow road through the 200 miles of Sinai desert to Cairo. Another exit was the Mediterranean Sea. Both links were cut off by the 1967 war.



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

Issue: 3 September 1998


The child was me, a nine-year-old in his third year of primary school from the small village of Al-Musammiya, halfway between Jaffa and Al-Majdal, near the road to Jerusalem.

Was I really just a child? What could have remained of the childhood of a boy who grew up in the thick of the battle, and whose soul had been burdened by the successive cares that buffet the hearts of the young as much as they do the old?

Is that repository guarded by memory for 50 years truly the property of a child of nine? Is it an accretion formulated and honed over time by the stories of my elders, my mother, my father, my grandparents? Or is it the assemblage collated by the refugee from replaying, over and over again, in his mind, the events of the crucial days, as he is pursued down the roads of exile?

Why should I not say that the Palestinian's memory is the treasure of his soul and that, like any treasure, it has become richer and more resplendent with every passing day? Why should I not also say that memory is the nation which shelters the person who has been driven from his home? If so, is it odd that one should watch over one's memory, perfect it and cherish it?

* * * * *

We took the rugged back trails because the paved roads were too dangerous. As we walked, we split up into groups, each group heading towards one village or another. Our group, which my grandmother was leading, had chosen Deir Al-Dabban. The mukhtar (mayor) of this village was a young man from Hebron and a relative of ours -- my grandmother was his aunt. He welcomed us warmly and showed us the greatest hospitality. It was not long before other surviving relatives joined us -- my grandfathers and their older children. 

Following in their wake were many other survivors from our village and other villages which had suffered invasion and devastation. I am unable to recall how many days exactly we stayed in Deir Al-Dabban. But every day, it received more refugees. Soon people's homes became so crowded that the refugees had to be sheltered in the village mosque. When the mosque could accommodate no more, refugees had to camp in the village square and in the small garden patches around the houses.

Soon Deir Al-Dabban's turn came. The invaders attacked, forcing residents and refugees into the open countryside. The countryside between Deir Al-Dabban and Beit Jubrein was very rugged and inhospitable. We wandered in this hostile stretch of land, without the most basic necessities, on the point of starvation, and enduring the various indignities that are visited upon a proud people when they are brought to the extremes of degradation.

I recall the days in that harsh terrain, scorched by the blazing August sun. They have been so etched into my memory that nothing could efface them. Hungry children would roam languidly from one circle of people to the next in the hope of finding a scrap to eat. Their eyes would search the faces in the circle, pleading for anything that might soothe their pangs of hunger.

Once, we were gathered around a small meal that my grandmother had prepared. Children from a family nearby approached, beseeching us with their weary eyes. One child -- the youngest -- drew up to our circle and stood right behind me. Our own hunger pangs and the small quantities of food we had to appease them combined to enforce the needy person's propensity to selfishness. 

Our eyes remained glued to the bowl that stood in the centre of our circle. In our minds, the situation was clear. If we let that child have some of our food, his brothers and sisters would follow, and we would be left without anything to quell the pain. Each of us had to decide, consciously or unconsciously, whether to sharpen his selfishness or to release the human being pent up inside him and take the risk. I could feel the child's burning gaze of hunger pierce me even though my back was turned to him. I could sense the perplexing question making its rounds in the minds of the people in the circle: should we feed that starving child?

I could not hold out any longer. I voiced the question. No one answered. I would have thought that no one had heard me were it not for the sudden silence that gripped us. In the midst of this silence, I reached out to the bowl and dipped in a piece of bread. I was going to eat it, but an indescribable urge made me turn my head. The child had his eyes glued to the piece of bread in my hand. He would not take his eyes off it.

I made up my mind. I got up, gave the bit of food to the child and sat him down in the place I had occupied. I stood slightly apart from my group, staring at them accusingly. Later, I would realise that my initiative at that moment marked the turning point in the development of my personality. That was when my childish egotism ended; indeed, my childhood itself. It was when I began to formulate a sense of responsibility toward others.

I would remember that moment whenever I decided to share my belongings with my peers: as teenagers, young men and old men. In that barren place, my act initiated in others a torrent of human feelings which they had felt forced to repress. My aunt, who was still very young at the time, pierced the air with a scream: "My God! What have we come to?" My elder uncle, Nafiz, stopped eating and left the circle. My uncle Omar, who only a few days earlier had been bursting with pride at the duty assigned to him, broke down in tears. 

I could see the muscles in the faces of my other uncles quiver and they, too, stopped eating. My grandfather did not utter a word as his wife called over the child's brothers and sisters to eat what remained in the bowl. Only my grandmother's face remained steady. When the bowl was empty, she got up, extracted a handful from the sack of cracked wheat which she was saving for harder times, filled a jar with goat's milk and returned to where we had been sitting. Her face remained composed as she gave the children what she had brought and said, "Tell your mother to feed this to your baby brother."

People got tired of staying out in the hills without a purpose and without hope. A group of men, among them my grandfather, set out to Beit Jubrein to find out what was happening there. That evening, my grandfather returned with good news: the Egyptian army was in the village, so it had been decided that we would go there. My grandfather also brought back for the children as much as he could carry of the fruit grown in the village. We filled our stomachs with fresh grapes. Our spirits rose.

With the first rays of morning light, the noise of our preparations for departure spread through the vastness of the craggy terrain around us. Even before the sun rose, we set out. Nobody came forward to organise the movement; nor was there a specific system to follow. Yet it seemed as though some subtle authority had given instructions and people moved along the rugged tracks as water flows between the furrows of the field, smoothly and ceaselessly. Matters were made easier this time because there was a specific objective -- Beit Jubrein -- and winning our long sought-after safety.

I walked next to my grandmother. My feet had grown accustomed to walking barefoot long distances on the rugged roads. The goat trotted alongside me. She had been my companion during the long days and we had developed a special friendship. She walked calmly, as though she understood. Frequently, she would look up at me with a certain gratitude and affection in her eyes. My grandmother was in high spirits. Beit Jubrein offered the prospect of stocking up on provisions. She had decided to dig into her savings in order to buy them. Therefore, she splurged and allowed us an enormous breakfast. We had bunches of grapes and a lot of bread, and the older people got coffee into which they poured milk without restraint. My grandmother was very indulgent, even towards those who violated her explicit instructions.

Everything went so smoothly that it almost seemed we were out on a picnic. It did not last, however. As the sun rose in the sky, we began to grow faint from the heat. Then the war planes came, and we were overcome with fear. Three planes were approaching from behind us, coming from the occupied territories. This was the first time many of us, including me, had seen an airplane.

The planes disappeared in the direction towards which we were heading. But then they turned around and headed straight for us. Soon I saw pot-shaped objects plummeting towards the ground. Within seconds, explosions shook the world around us, followed by screams and wailing. The bombing continued, claiming more and more victims. We were forced several times to stop in order to bury the dead and console the bereaved. When the grownups had to bury people, my grandmother made sure to keep us, the children, away from the scene in order to spare us the sight of blood. We overcame our curiosity so as not to anger her.

The bombers kept up their vicious pursuit. We asked ourselves, "What do the invaders hope to gain by bombing defenseless people who are fleeing their homeland anyway?" We would hear answers from the grownups while our march, or rather flight, turned into a run. Suddenly my uncle Nafiz shouted, "They want to turn us away and make us head east, towards Jordan!" My uncle, always fond of debate, felt he had to back up this inspiration and said, "They don't want the people of Palestine to seek refuge in other villages in Palestine."

The attacks only let up when night began to fall. By that time, we were in the vicinity of Beit Jubrein and we thought our tribulations were almost over. However, we had a surprise in store. While the groups who were ahead of us had made it into the village, we were stopped on the outskirts by a battle between the Egyptian forces and the Zionists. The noise and flare of gunfire were at their most intense. It was difficult for us to make out where the missiles were coming from and where they landed. We had to be extremely cautious and stop in a place overlooking the village. There was no way we could risk breaking through the barrier of artillery fire.

When the fighting began to subside into intermittent exchanges of gunfire, some people took advantage of the intervening silent periods to make a dash towards the village. Our group was very large and there were too many children among us to take the risk. Once again, the grownups gathered around to deliberate. My grandfather suggested that we, too, should run for it. Others said we should stay where we were until we could get a clearer picture of the situation, or until sunrise. The women, too, voiced different opinions. One said, "I'll die here before I move." My uncle Mahmoud's wife said, "Let's do what the men say." My great-aunt muttered a prayer without offering an opinion while my grandmother kept silent. During one of the successive rounds of fighting, large flares soared into the night sky, lighting up the scene in front of us.

We spotted a passageway beneath a bridge spanning the gully outside the village. My grandmother said, "It's safer to enter the village that way once this hubbub has died down." In one of the silent intervals we moved. The goat, which had calmed down after the guns fell silent, trotted alongside me obediently. Suddenly, as we were descending the slope of the gully, the goat slipped and tumbled downhill. The leash slipped from my hand and the goat ran off. I was terrified that, if I lost the goat, I would be scolded by my grandmother who had been so proud of my behaviour throughout the journey. So strong was the fear of her wrath that it prevailed over my anticipation of the terror ahead of us. All my energies were focused on finding the leash again.

I fell behind the group. No one had sensed my absence as they crossed to the other side while I continued my frenzied search. A flare lit up the sky and I found the goat and grabbed the leash. Suddenly, fighting broke out again and I froze in my place. I cannot find the words to describe the terror I felt as I lay sprawled on the ground at the base of the gully, alone and isolated from my family. The only reason I held on to the leash was because my hand, with a will of its own, was frozen. When silence fell again, the mind of that nine-year-old boy began to move again. I thought it would be safer to turn back. But then where would I turn back to? I knew I had to go forward, but another thought paralysed me: what if the bombing started up again before I could make it across? Once on the other side, which way should I turn? Should I go to the right or to the left? I had seen my family split up and go in both directions, but how could I be sure that I would find any of them?

It was the goat that spurred me into action. As soon as the fighting broke out again, it bolted towards the crossing point, dragging me behind it. My only thought was the fear of losing it again. Once on the other side, the goat decided my fate and headed right. Then it was my turn to slip. I fell face down on the ground, which is where I was found by those members of my family who had headed to the right. As for the goat, its leash slipped from my hand when I fell, and it ran off and was lost.

Ultimately, after repeated tragedies, the people who headed to the right on the other side of that gully ended up in the Gaza Strip while those who had headed to the left ended up in what became the West Bank. My family had spread itself over both sides. I continued my voyage through exile until I reached Gaza.



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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