Haifa: Wadi Al-Nisnass & Abbas Street

Emile Habibi, Sunday 14 May 2023

Special issue of Masharif Magazine, founded by Emile Habibi, commemorating the first anniversary of his death, Haifa, May 1997



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

Issue: 30 April 1998


I claim to be one of those people who cannot see the moon except for its luminous side. It is thus I justify those Jewish friends with sensitive souls who claim they do not believe it when we declare that we want a lasting peace based on a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one. I find excuses for their mistrust, telling myself and my people that perhaps their suspicion of our intentions comes from their sense of guilt at everything they have committed against us, expressed once in Moshe Diyan's phrase: "If we were in their place..."


There is no place for "if" in actual history. 


However, if one wants to argue using such logic, then I would say that if we were in your place we would not have allowed our reactionary forces to do to you what your forces of reaction have done to us. Furthermore, I would add that if you combined all the "ifs" in all the languages of the world, you would be unable to justify a single harm -- not even the minutest -- that you have wreaked on what you call "the other people"...


Umm Wadie [Habibi's mother] was unable to overcome the shock of those days [1948]. By then her life was behind her, and most of her sons and grandchildren were scattered in the diaspora. Once she came down to the premises of our old political club in Wadi Al-Nisnass to participate in a joint Arab-Jewish women's meeting. Those were days of a raging general election campaign. The Jewish speaker was emphasising our struggle for the rights of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Umm Wadie interrupted her saying: "Will my sons and daughters return?"


Taken aback, the Jewish-Hungarian speaker replied: "They will return when peace is achieved." "Lies," shouted Umm Wadie, "my son Emile never lies to me. He told me that their return -- if ever they return -- will take a long time. By then I won't be here to see them: I'll be in my grave."


Ever since that meeting, and without me knowing, it became her custom to go secretly to a corner of Abbas Garden near our house. She would lean against a stone shaded by an olive tree and bemoan her destiny -- lonely and separated from children, especially her youngest son Naim.


"Naim, where are you now? What has happened to you without me?"


Little did I know of her newly acquired habit until one day I overheard my two daughters playing at being Granny Umm Wadie bemoaning "O Naim".


That year Umm Wadie left us, crossing the Mandelbaum Gate on her way to her children who had taken refuge in Damascus. It was there, in Damascus, and not in Shafa Amre [her native village, now part of Israel] that her soul returned to its maker.


"As for you, you can stay. Your life is before you, and you can afford to wait until they return."


Those were the last words of my mother, Umm Wadie, when we parted on the Israeli side of the Mandelbaum Gate.


I remained. I returned to Haifa and wrote my very first story as a citizen of the State of Israel. It was entitled "Mandelbaum Gate".


And I remained. But, until this day, and for as long as I live, I think of my mother as having remained with me, for mothers are of the roots.



In our alley, the search for those Arab women who had smuggled themselves in along with their children never ceased. Those women of the neighbourhood who were registered used to take shifts at the top of the alley staircase to alert the rest whenever there was a search campaign.


Among the residents of the neighbourhood were two Jewish women, one Polish married to a Pole, the other from Tiberias, also married to a Pole. The latter spoke Arabic like a native -- indeed, she was a native. She was humorous and, when it was her shift, used to alert everyone in a mock-Polish accented Arabic. 


As for the Polish woman, she tried her hardest to give her Arabic the intonations of an Arab from the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed. Her name was Masha, and her husband's name was Leon. They had adaughter, the same age as my children, whom Masha used to take along to her vigil at the top of the staircase. The child would run up the stairs, alerting the hunted women so that they would run carrying their children to the Abbas Garden. 


I allow myself here to divulge the names of Masha and her husband because they couldn't bear to remain in our ill-fated alley, nor could they bear to be with us and segregated from us. They left the country and emigrated to Canada. As for the woman from Tiberias and her Polish husband, I keep their names hidden in my innermost soul. She was the one who insisted at the beginning of every raid that the hunted women and her children should hide in her house. The women would reply: "No, our good neighbour. Enough what we are suffering. Why should you and your children suffer too? At least when we hide in Mount Karmel, they won't be able to harm a tree or a stone we hid behind."


One summer evening in 1995, I returned to my house in Nazareth to find a female voice recorded on my answering machine. Masha and her husband Leon were staying with a friend in a house near Tel Aviv. She was speaking in English, and she asked me to try and phone them soon before their return to Canada. Immediately, I called the number she left on the answering machine and, giving my name, asked to speak to Masha or Leon. He came to the telephone first, and informed me, in English, that they were on their way back to Canada that same night and that they had tried to reach me several times but got no reply at my home. He insisted that I should visit them in Canada, as soon as possible, then passed Masha on to me. Her voice sounded as if she was weeping. She pleaded with me to visit them as soon as possible in Canada, before her husband's imminent death. I didn't wish to tell her that I was in the same boat as her husband, and promised that we would meet soon.


Our neighbour from Tiberias had already died, having buried her husband. Although my children and their children had grown up together, it would seem that life made them drift apart -- I, for one, would rather not think of any other reasons for the total break of communication between our offspring.


Translated by Mona Anis and Hala Halim


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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