"I cannot visit my father's grave..."

Samia Abdennour, Monday 15 May 2023

Samia Abdennour recalls the diaspora of her family 50 years ago, its impact on her as a child and, later, as a mother

A Palestinian family in Jaffa before the Nakba
A Palestinian family in Jaffa before the Nakba


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

Issue: 26 February 1998


One bright morning in June 1947 my mother woke up and exclaimed "Children, I have been giving the matter a lot of thought. We are going to Egypt".


My father had died five years before, leaving us well taken care of financially, though not rich. My eldest sister and brother were now graduated from high school and wanted to enroll at university, and the options we had were either Cairo or Beirut.


My mother's choice was agreeable to us all. We fully intended to return back after completing our studies, and left the keys of our home with an uncle to look after the house. Early in August, we bade our adieus to family and friends and boarded the train that ran from Haifa directly to Cairo, to the land of glory and learning.


Upon arriving at Bab El-Hadid, our eager faces turned to bewilderment. It was past midnight, yet the station was buzzing with life. Crowds were bustling here and there, porters were shouting and pushing, peddlers were singing their wares and the neon lights cast a greenish glow that made people look grotesque. My aunt and uncle came to meet us and drove us by hantour to their home in Choubra. It was a memorable night.


Within less than a week, we found and rented a beautiful villa in Heliopolis. My eldest sister, Aida, and brother, Farouk, were accepted by the Faculties of Art and Pharmacy respectively. Amal, Souhail and myself were enrolled in school and all our misgivings were allayed. Many relatives, whom we children did not know, came to visit and through them we met and befriended many families with children of our own ages. Also, before long, we became friends with all our neighbours. Life was smiling at us.


Most of the cities and towns in Palestine were small, and practically everybody in town knew everybody else. We grew up in the friendly atmosphere of a large family. Moreover, both a maternal and a paternal aunt had died in childbirth, and my mother did not hesitate for a second to accept both infants to be raised with her brood. For many years, we were seven boisterous children living under the same roof.


As soon as we settled in our new premises, the entire family began an intensive correspondence with our friends in Haifa, Nablus and Jerusalem. The postman came to know us by name, and nearly every day he would smilingly call to deliver one or more letters. Even the Post Office officials at headquarters got so used to the sudden influx of letters bearing our name that they directed a letter to my sister which was simply addressed "Miss Aida Abdennour, Heliopolis, Egypt".


Though we settled down quickly to a happy normal life, yet we were apprehensive for our loved ones left behind in these disturbing times. We did not really appreciate the horrors they were living through, until the unexpected arrival of our grandmother, aunt and cousin Chibly. They described to us the nightmare they had suffered while still living in Haifa and related why they had fled to the safety of our home.


A group of well-armed Zionists raided the area where my grandmother and her two married children lived with their families. The whole family ran to the shelter of their basement. Some Arab residents, poorly armed, retaliated and incurred very heavy losses. Following this barbaric attack, the Zionists broke into the three-storey building firing left and right, smashing whatever was in sight -- furniture, windows, crockery, doors -- leaving behind only rubble.


We were horrified to hear of such barbaric monstrosity and welcomed them with open arms, relieved that they were safe. But we worried over the rest of my uncle's and aunt's families. Eventually we heard from them a couple of months later, from Lebanon and Syria. Unlike my grandmother, they had stayed behind trying to salvage some of their belongings. But when the tension grew too strong to bear, they made their escape on foot, in a small rowing boat and on the back of a donkey.


It was hard to believe that this was the country and the people we had left a few months ago. Palestinians -- Moslems, Christians and Jews - had faced no problems living together. They had lived amicably, sharing traditions, interests and experiences.


All our cities - Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth - held very dear heirlooms to all three religions. Even the Baha'is had a magnificent shrine in Haifa, surrounded by well-kept gardens. The arrival of the Zionists changed this peaceful coexistence. How could these emigrants profane this sacred land? What right did these monsters have to come from the four corners of the world and usurp our homes?


Haifa, where I was born and spent my early childhood, holds many cherished memories. It is a jewel of a city. It extends from the top of Mount Carmel, sloping gracefully to the sea, combining both mountain and sea air. Its scenery is lovely. None of the houses rose higher than three storeys, allowing everyone to enjoy the gorgeous panorama.


 Traffic was very well organised, we queued at bus stations and I remember the decorous manner with which the police officers directed the flow of the cars. There were public gardens, playgrounds, tennis courts and beaches. All were kept clean and functioning. Our school, Notre Dame de Nazareth, was built on the mountain slope, surrounded by huge trees which we used to climb mischievously to hide from the nuns and their punishments.


My father owned a plot of land on the slope of Mount Carmel, planted mainly with olive trees, with a few scattered citrus and carob trees. There was also a two-storey house and small shack for the keeper. We did not actually live there, but rented it to a Jewish family. Before coming to Egypt, we lived for a few years in Nablus owing to my father's work. However, whenever we were in Haifa, we visited our tenants and played on the swing my father had installed on the lower porch.


The climax of course was May 1948. The Zionists took over our beautiful country and in Cairo we suddenly found ourselves destitute. The regular monetary transfers that we had arranged from Haifa came abruptly to a stop. The problem of feeding nine people - six growing children with very healthy appetites - was no simple matter.


Believing this to be a temporary episode, we started by selling mother's jewelry. One by one her jewels were sold but still no silver lining appeared on the horizon. We then set about, each in his or her own way, to find a solution. My mother, who normally sewed our dresses, became a dressmaker, sewing first the uniforms for our school, then accepting clients at home. Aida left her faculty and taught in two different schools, also doing secretarial work in the evenings. Whenever his time permitted, Farok worked in a pharmacy during the day and paid home visits in the evenings to give injections.


My aunt taught kindergarten and my grandmother took over the task of housekeeping and cooking. The nuns at our school very kindly and discreetly allowed my sister and I to finish our studies without paying tuition fees. During the summer holidays, we all worked. The twins, Souhail and Amal, painted wooden toys in a toy factory, while I helped a newly-established shop with its advertising campaign.


I was given an old Remington typewriter (with the letter Q missing), a few cartons filled with envelopes, the "Who's Who in Egypt and the Middle East" book, and told to type out the names and addresses found therein. I was paid the exorbitant amount of half a piaster for every four typed envelopes. Quite a score - one Egyptian pound for every eight hundred typed envelopes!


My mother firmly believed in higher education, and she also believed in priorities. Men came foremost in this respect . She held the opinion that they are the bread winners and must be "armed with all the necessary equipment to ensure a happy and comfortable life for their families," whereas women depend on their husbands for their livelihood.


 Therefore her daughters, falling under the second category, worked, while the boys went to university. We did not feel we were making a sacrifice, nor were we envious of our brothers and cousin, but took our mother's argument for granted and did as required.


Eventually, the male members of our family graduated from university and each found a job in his field. Our financial situation eased considerably, and Amal regained her ambition to become a painter. She went to Les Beaux Arts to further her studies, got involved with a political group and landedin jail for twenty eight months. Upon her release she accepted a job with FAO in Libya and from there traveled and settled in Paris to pursue her artistic ambitions.


We all led a normal life, except for occasional jolts. One such incident concerned my brother Souhail and his residence visa. Palestinians, like all foreigners, were required to obtain an annual residence visa. One of the clauses in the application necessitated a written letter from his employer. The time for the renewal of the visa coincided with a time when Souhail was not on good terms with his superior. The latter seized the opportunity and wrote a letter to the effect that Souhail was not in the least indispensable.


This resulted in the Passport Authorities issuing an order for Souhail's deportation within a few days. It was a catastrophe! We argued our statelessness and pleaded with the authorities, but to no avail. As a last resort, Souhail sent a telegram to President Nasser outlining his case, whereupon the order was cancelled and the visa immediately granted.


Shortly afterwards, Souhail went to Lebanon in search of work. He applied and obtained Lebanese nationality, based on his argument that we were part of a Lebanese family bearing the same surname. He then accepted a job in Doha, Qatar, which he left after three months to join cousin Chibly in Kuwait. Returning to Lebanon, he got married and settled with his wife and two children, only to be ousted once again during the Lebanese civil war. He now lives in Jordan.


Farouk was quite content living in Cairo, until the emigration bug hit his family - wife and two sons. To comply with their nagging, he applied and obtained his emigration papers to Canada, but assured every body he was coming back.


He accompanied the family to Montreal, but with the exception of his younger son, Nadir, both his wife and elder son disliked life in Montreal and returned to the safety of Egypt and its people. While helping Nadir settle in his new surroundings, he discovered that he had very advanced lung cancer. He returned to Cairo for one week, straightened his finances, allotting all his material possessions to his family, bade us good-bye and returned to the hospital in Canada where he passed away.


Aida is married to an Egyptian and lives in Paris where, before retirement, she held an important position at UNESCO. Our mother passed away ten years ago and is much missed by her family and the Palestinian organisations in Cairo with which she worked. She had helped organise and supervise workshops where young girls did knitting and needlework and also acted as interpreter whenever foreign delegations visited their organisations.


Now, nearly 51 years have passed since our arrival in Egypt and I feel exceedingly happy and very lucky in many ways. Through marriage, I have acquired Egyptian nationality and Egypt has definitely become my home, so much so that, when I accompanied my husband to Nigeria in 1967, where he had accepted a temporary job for two years, I became very depressed, in spite of the fact that I lacked nothing.


I had my husband and three children with me, we lived in a mansion on the campus, life was comfortable, but I had a nagging feeling that I was living on quick sand. I felt again uprooted and made to live in a country that was not my own. Luckily the two years passed without any unpleasant incidents, and we returned to the comfort of home, family, friends and to welcome the arrival of our fourth child.


My only regret is that our family is so dispersed. I have uncles and aunts living in Lebanon, England, Switzerland, Honduras, Canada, the US, Paris, Jordan, Syria and have lost contact with most of them. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, two years ago, that the wife of the Ambassador of Honduras was my cousin, whom I had last seen in August 1947. I also feel sad that my children hardly know their uncles, aunts and cousins, which is a far cry from the happy, clannish way we were brought up.


Though, I thank my lucky stars for all the benedictions with which I have been endowed, yet I feel sad, angry and bitter at the injustice of life, the barbarity with which Palestinians were and are still treated, the wasted lives of the millions of dead youth, the grief of parents and widows, the inhuman state of the orphaned children, the oppression of the camp refugees.


I cannot go back to my homeland, I cannot retrieve our possessions, I cannot claim our land, I cannot take my children back to Palestine to share with them my happy past and I cannot visit my father's grave in Haifa.


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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