On Israeli Independence Day or, for those of us who have a heart and are not ignorant, Nakba day, I spent the day researching my background. For some reason I have never got round to properly finding out about my family background. Both sets of my grandparents happen to be refugees who were directly expelled by Zionist ethnic cleansing operations in their small villages. This fact, and the names of the villages they came from were about all I ever knew. Oh, and once when we were on the road to Gaza back in 1997 my mother pointed out the remains of my dad’s village. Other than that, I never really knew anything. So what better way to commemorate the day when exam revision prevents me from attending any protests, than to learn my family’s history.
Luckily my older sister had borrowed a copy of Walid Khalidi’s All that Remains, a detailed account of all the de-populated villages during the Nakba. So that is what I did. I started by looking through for my dad’s village Beit Jirja, a village just outside of the Gaza strip, and to my disappointment it wasn’t the most dynamic little place. Aside from a shrine for a supposed Prophet called Jirja, the only big event was the village’s demise.
On to my mother’s village then, and things start to turn quite juicy. Beit I’tab is a small village of a few hundred people on the west side of Jerusalem. It has two distinct features. The first is a tunnel (pictured above) that dates from biblical times and is said to have been used by Samson. Yes THAT Samson. My excitement begins to bubble when I realise that mama’s village is actually somewhat important. The second feature was a crusader castle. It turns out the village was named after the fact that it had this castle in the centre of it. During the crusader period the village became a fief for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
As I carry on reading things only get better. I spot the name of a man who bears my mother’s surname. He is called Sheikh Uthman Al-Laham. He is also no ordinary peasant. He happens to control all 24 villages in the district which makes him something of a warlord (at least that is how my imagination likes to think of it as). In the 1850s he happens to have something of a dispute with a family known as the Abu Ghosh family. At this point all hell break looses. There are battles, treachery and mutilation involved before the Ottomans step in and diminish the power of both families when they decide to centralise their state. Wait, mutilation?! Well yes, according to a British consul called James Finn one of the villages this man attacked had 21 mutilated bodies. At this point it becomes clear that they called this man Al-Laham, not because he was a butcher by profession, but because he was a butcher in his behaviour. When I ask my mother about this man she desperately tries to deny this, it turns out he would happen to be her great grand-father.
What starts off however as a really exciting series of revelations soon turns sour when I inevitably read the very systematic details of the villages depopulation. There is actually an interesting twist in this tale. This family is said to trace its lineage from Spanish Arabs who were of course forcefully ejected from the Iberian Peninsula in the early 16th century. 500 years after being removed from home they would be forced to leave home, this time settling not too far away, in refugee camps in and around Bethlehem. The entry in Khalidi’s book ends with a line on the south of the village now being grazed by Israeli farmers and I all of a sudden feel a burst of anger and my eyes start watering.
I have never been particularly militant or a very angry person. In fact my, at times, apathetic attitude to the situation and conflict has very often infuriated friends and family alike. But one thought occupies my mind. I might not be going back to the south of Spain anytime soon to reclaim any heritage, but that village on a west Jerusalem hilltop; God-willing I WILL have that land back, the fact that I have never seen it in person being an irrelevant footnote in this story.
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