A legacy of remembrance

Amira Howeidy , Sunday 14 May 2023

Remembering little, but aware of his father's legendary status, the son of Palestine war hero Ahmed Abdel-Aziz talks to Amira Howeidy about his father's legacy

Khaled Ahmed Abdel-Aziz
Khaled Ahmed Abdel-Aziz

 

 

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


Issue: 20 August 1998


 

The brass plaque on the right of the entrance to the chic Zamalek flat reads: "The widow of the late Qa'immaqam (Colonel) Ahmed Abdel-Aziz". Inside, a display cabinet full of trophies and red-ribboned gold medals, positioned in the centre of the elegant reception area, is yet another reminder that Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, a near mythical figure of the 1948 Palestine War, once lived here. Abdel-Aziz left behind a young wife and two sons. 

At 57, the features of the eldest son, Khaled, despite his white beard and bald head, are not unlike those of his father.

But Khaled, who was only six when his father died 50 years ago, lives in a completely different world. He isn't a political activist, and is only modestly acquainted with the 50-year-old Palestinian struggle. Throughout his youth, he cannot remember even once being recognised as the son of Ahmed Abdel-Aziz. Khaled shrugs. "We were kept away from this [environment] after my father died so that we wouldn't be affected by the grief that surrounded us."

Khaled recalls that when his father told his half-Turkish mother, Horom, that he had resigned from the Egyptian army to go to Palestine to fight as a volunteer, she broke down in tears, "probably as any other wife and mother would in such circumstances.

"On the day he died, she was expecting his return. She was very excited, went out shopping and bought new clothes and ran to my grandmother, who was living with us, to show her what she had bought. My mother kept asking her which dress she should wear. By that time, my grandmother knew that my father had been killed. My mother knew something was wrong when my grandmother didn't respond. Then she realised. It was terrible. She collapsed."

The tragedy did not end there. Two weeks later his grandmother's dress got caught in a heater. She was burnt to death. "That doubled our sadness, which was too much for my mother," Khaled recalls. His mother took him and his younger brother to Istanbul, where they resumed their education. The family visited Egypt every summer until the Tripartite Aggression of 1956.

Khaled went away to Switzerland to study hotel administration. "Because we were gone for so long, I wasn't in an environment that knew anything about me. So, no, it didn't really feel special that I was the son of a war hero in the sense you mean."

What does he know about the most famous Egyptian veteran in the 1948 war, the father he hardly knew? "He was married to a woman from a very good family, the granddaughter of Ali Pasha Mubarak, had two beautiful sons and held a prestigious post in the cavalry. He had everything. To give all that up and jeopardise his life... definitely that wasn't easy. He was a real believer. These are not just words, he really did believe in the [Palestinian] cause." 

Surprisingly, Abdel-Aziz's personal documents are not in his family's possession. Says Khaled: "When we went to Istanbul, I remember that my uncle collected my father's papers and notes, probably because someone was writing a book about him. I don't think any of this was retrieved, expect for the letters my father sent my mother. No one got close to those." But didn't anyone try to look for the material? "All the period spanning the war is missing. You can find some of this information only in books. Perhaps they were deliberately stored away because they contained anti-government material, for example... I don't know... maybe my uncle destroyed it on purpose. I don't know. I was only six then."

Khaled is very proud of his father, though. "I am really convinced that he was an idol. I am convinced of what he did and I believe that it is in the interest of young people today to know that such people existed."

"There was heroism in everything he did throughout his life," adds Khaled. "He was a champion horse-rider. He won these in championships," he adds, pointing to the shiny silver trophies in the cabinet behind him. "He was a great writer who won awards, especially in military history. And he was a hero on the battlefield. He was also an ideal father and husband and the fact that my mother loved him so much proves it. I remember her once describing their relationship this way: 'I loved, respected and feared him very much'."

Although Khaled admits knowing little about his father, he wants to instil in his three children the kind of respect Ahmed Abdel-Aziz embodied. "My father left everything at a young age. He gave everything, and he died, not for his country, but for Palestine. My children, too, must know that they have to give." 

According to Khaled, his father was driven to Palestine by patriotism and religion, centred on Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is a big thing. I wish I could also die for its liberation... It feels like fire inside me, seeing what is happening now. Fifty years after the sacrifices, they [the Israelis] are still stronger.

"My mother told me that my father once said that if the Palestine problem was not resolved [when it began] in 1948, it would never be resolved. He was right."

Contrary to widespread belief, Abdel-Aziz did not join the Muslim Brotherhood, says Khaled. "He was influenced by them, became more religious as a result of direct day-to-day contact at the front, but he never joined the group."

Khaled is satisfied with the Egyptian government's acknowledgment of his father's place in history. But he has one unfulfilled wish. "I was hoping that they would issue stamps with his picture on them marking the 50th anniversary [of his death], as they do for singers and other celebrities."

 

 

The last entry in Ahmed Abdel-Aziz's diary

 

"I sighed and touched the gun hanging from my belt. I asked myself: 'What if the Jews advance on this area?' The answer surfaced in my mind: 'I'd fight, even if I had nothing left but my gun. I'd leave the last bullet for myself.' I looked around. The beautiful, ancient Monastery of Mar Elias stood ahead of me at the end of the road. At the top of the mountain on which it stands is the village of Beit Jala. The river-bed was beneath our feet. Wild flowers exuded a magnificent fragrance. Their colours seemed to be swimming on liquid waves of sunlight.

"My hand tightened on the gun. I thought: 'These are our most critical moments.' I recalled the people back home. 'What are they doing now? I wonder if they know?' Another minute passed. I muttered something to myself. A checkpoint officer heard me and said, 'At your service, sir.' I returned to my thoughts. 'No. I know that they will remember this day. They will commemorate us as martyrs and say, 'Those were the finest moments of their lives.'

"I asked myself, 'Are we going to die?' A tape recording was running at top speed inside my head. I imagined what would happen when the officer beside me called the next checkpoint on the radio and said: 'The major has died, sir.' What would happen to my officers and soldiers? How would the people back home react? And my family? How would they take the news? I asked myself the strangest question: 'And me... what will I say when I die?' I laughed. 'You won't be saying a word, son. You'll be dead. You'll be in another world where you won't be able to say a thing.' A voice inside my head demanded: 'How is it that I won't even know how the battle plays itself out? I have to know!'

"I took another look around me and thought, 'What a beautiful place for fate to seal the play that was my life.' I noticed a stone bench next to the road. It was there for people to sit on in times of peace. They could rest their feet when they got tired of walking in the late afternoon on this idyllic road between the river-bed and the mountain. I thought: 'Good, people who want to visit my grave will be able to sit there. They'll be able to take a rest after climbing the mountain. From that bench they will look at my statue.

"My statue? Of course, they will have to make a statue of me. Right here. Or at least they will put up a plaque with my name and the date of my death written on it. Yes, a simple plaque will do; no need for a statue. There will be many visitors.

"My son, Khaled, will come. He will be a man by then. He won't sit down, because the climb to my grave will not have tired him out. He'll stand with his head bowed and say proudly, 'This is where my father died. He died a hero.' And he won't cry.'

"The word, hero, reverberated in my mind. I recalled Nietzsche's words: 'The hero is the man who knows how to die, when to die and where to die.' I looked around me again. I took in the river-bed, redolent with the fragrance of wild flowers with their radiant colours, the scenic mountain road bordered by olive trees, the lofty mountain peak. Mar Elias was ahead of me. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, was behind me. Behind that was Al-Khalil -- the tomb of Abraham, surrounded by so many prophets. I thought, 'Yes, Nietzsche would like this spot'."


 

 


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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