Have you ever felt suspended between two worlds? Felt that you are neither in both, nor in only one? Felt as if being outside of oneself? Or had the strange sense of being a distant participant and a spectator in events that involve you and your place with real time taking a totally different rhythm? I don't mean metaphorically, I mean literally physically and emotionally suspended? These were my feelings on July 12, 2008 in Qula; while--together with very special people-- unraveling a memory, a type of sacredness, a place that was--and remains--connected to my heart and history. A place that is no more; or so I thought until that day. And that day, by visiting Palestine and Israel, and by finding Qula, I found part of myself.
Remembering and writing about this experience has been difficult, complex, emotional, and unnerving. It is a simple account, but also filled with paradoxes. This is apersonal account that reveals a deep raw emotional encounter, and in sharing it I feel vulnerable and exposed; it is a story that could alienate, but one that must be remembered and told.
The multi layered complexity of being in Qula begins with my participation with 12 other educators and students from the U.S. on a Fulbright-Hays funded project looking at Peace Education and Conditions on the ground in Palestine and Israel. Being in Palestine and Israel was a dream that I did not even dare dream or allow myself to hope for, until we actually arrived there! "When we return" is a common phrase and image held in Palestinians'' memory, but how real and tangible do we allow that memory to be? I try to go past it quickly, barely but dearly, holding it in the present, an act of self censorship for fear that the sentiment itself may become compromised. An added layer of depth and complexity was our encounter with Zochrot. One of the objectives of our one month journey was to visit and learn about programs and people working on reconciliation efforts; among the planned visits was one to Zochrot, which would turn into a life changing event for me.
Our team attended a presentation by Eitan Bronstein, co-founder and director of Zochrot on a somewhat lazy day, following a day of travel and some other meetings. That particular morning was left for personal explorations; and I am so grateful that our scheduled meeting was not somehow overtaken or changed by other plans. The team took three taxis to Zochrot; once there we were welcomed into an interesting gallery and sitting space. During the time it took to get our U.S. crowd organized and settled; I observed the exhibit "The (In)Human Spatial Condition" about checkpoints, walls, and Palestinian life. I was astonished and moved to see that particular harsh reality acknowledged and portrayed at this facility in Tel Aviv; and the unsettled encounter of where we were and what we were seeing began to unfold.
Deep astonishment, anguish, shocking realizations, camaraderie, and glimmers of hope swept over me as I listened to Eitan speak of Zochrot's mission, activities, determination, and heard the persisting power of conviction and commitment in his voice. Taking copious notes, even asking a question, and listening to the many questions and comments afterwards, my interest was piqued even more. By far, this was one of the most moving and reassuring meetings I had participated in. That moment brought so much potential to truly empowering futures and at the same time so carefully unlocked a deep fear and sense of self preservation. It allowed me to speak these words to Eitan: "My mom was born in a small demolished village, by the name of Qula."
Is there any wonder I was shocked when Eitan, in a matter of fact tone, asked "are you going to visit it?" I did not understand... yes, I just heard him speak about posting physical signs with names of dispossessed villages in Arabic and Hebrew and taking refugees to their homes, but "Doesn't he know that Qula has been wiped out... erased..." I thought to myself. Seeing my questioning look (or perhaps reading my mind?) he said that he might be able to help me find Qula, and with those words went on searching for information in his office. I can see that exact moment, I can touch it, hear it, feel it! I was excited, I was floating on air; but all of a sudden I was also again afraid. Afraid of all that could go wrong and interfere with the possible visit to Qula, my thoughts raced: "Well, this will be a new item on the group's schedule... ..... we are scheduled to leave for Jerusalem the next morning, ..... how can I do this, I do not know the city, and I do not feel comfortable navigating on my own in Tel Aviv" and many more doubting questions and inner thoughts. Though those thoughts lasted just a few moments, it felt like a million years.... While pondering all these fears and sharing some with colleagues, Eitan brought an Atlas of "1948 Palestine" by Abu Sitta, and I and two colleagues began to search for Qula. Fears began to subside as a few more colleagues joined in the excitement, and Mike Hays, a PI on the grant, volunteered to stay the next day and go to Qula, too. But the highlight was actually locating Qula on the map. All at once this was not just a place of dreams and stories for me and it was now of interest to several in the group.
The journey to Qula was not just a matter of logistics; finding a place on a map does not immediately translate into actually knowing how to get there. There was also a great deal of time, energy, dedication and passion invested.. Eitan still had to find out how to get there, so he planned to call the next day by 2:00 pm or earlier.
That evening I visited my dear friend Moran's parents in Old Jaffa. Although being with them was very special and important for me, my mind was on the next day, though I was still unable to bring myself to really think about actually seeing Qula. That evening, I spoke about being able to see the map of old Jaffa connecting with the sea. , Aviva, Moran's mother, poetically said "Your body remembers." Aviva's words reverberated deep into my body, heart, and mind and I would soon realize their true meaning the next day in Qula.
That evening, and again next morning, I called my parents who now live in Amman, Jordan, to tell them about the upcoming visit. My parents were unsure, perhaps sharing my fears, , they probably could not really believe that I would actually be able to go to Qula. They shared my excitement, though; my father spoke of a water well, of orchards about 5 KM from the village, of family members and relations; and the general location of the village. Although my father was not born in Qula (he was born in Tulkarem, like me), he did visit Qula frequently to see his aunt and other extended family relations. He was only 10 years old in 1948 when the Nakba happened.
By 10:00 a.m. and after checking the telephone perhaps a hundred times (of course I did not want to have missed the call confirming--I certainly did not want to consider the possibility of canceling our plans!) I called Eitan. He was spending the day with his children at the Children Museum and said he was able to find out how to get to Qula, and said that he would call at 2:00 pm so we could agree on a place to meet. Waiting is not one of my strongest suits, but the time finally passed, and Eitan called and asked that we –Mike Hays and I-- meet him at Azreili Towers.
Mike and I took a taxi to the towers and tried to locate where we were meeting Eitan. Though we made some small talk, I could tell that we both were very preoccupied with the upcoming journey. We finally met Eitan after more calls for directions and we started our journey. It was becoming real; every minute was making it more so. Eitan had consulted with a friend of his (Noga Kadman) on how to get to Qula. On the way we saw a sign that he explained said "Qula Forest", though the sign was only in Hebrew. We drove past an abandoned military training range, and saw a park with BBQ areas and benches, further down we began to see the cactus plants. There was a sense of anticipation by all of us in the car as we looked at the cactus plants, demolished buildings' remains, and drove on uneven dirt road. We were told that cactus plants were used to fence property, that the practice was imported from Mexico in the 1800s and had apparently grown and prospered. We took a few turns and finally parked the small car, and immediately encountering a young man carrying a bucket full of cactus fruit picked from those live fences. Eitan, Mike and I began to walk. I called my parents, announcing that I was walking on the earth of Qula. They asked what I could see, my mother's voice quivering, and they told me that my brother had just that minute arrived from Italy, the coincidence of both of us arriving home was too much to let go. Too much to put together, but in my heart it all connects and makes sense.
We are introduced to Umar Ighbarieh, from Zochrot, Neve Shalom and Um El Fahem, who met us in Qula. Umar, through his work with Zochrot, organizes tours to destroyed Palestinian villages and his presence there was organized by Eitan. Throughout the visit he asked great questions that helped me focus and find more information. Even now, I still feel that I am walking and am also observing this scene. I call my father again and ask about the water well, he said "sabeel" and I ask what does that word really mean? a creek? Or is it a spring or a well? Usually the word denotes " a spring, free for the passing by"... Umar observes a stack of rocks and announces "that may be the well". We gather and move the rocks, yes, it is a well. A rock then another falls, water splashes high, it splashes on my face. It is fresh ...it was deep fresh water ... it smelled good and when it touched my face it felt fresh.... And I thought this means life, this means welcome, this is rebirth. This is special water, I felt that I needed to take deeper gulps of air, fill my lungs with that air...I did not want that moment to end; the water, the air, the earth, they all carry the stories with them, and here the four of us were, part of that landscape. We stacked the rocks back and once again called my parents. There would be numerous calls, some would have answers, laughs, and some would bring tears, memories, and hopes. My mother cried on the phone, she was proud that I, her eldest, was the first of the family to go back to Qula, as she was the last to be born there.
More questions about where my grandparents' home was located? What other landmarks were there? Both Eitan and Umar prompted me to ask about large structures, trees, and directions while Mike videotaped our visit. From the water well we walked up a path, and located the remains of a large structure that appeared to be the only remaining wall from a castle. My father confirmed that it was an Ottoman or a Crusaders castle, and from there we could see other remains. At that point, my father told me of a massacre that I had not heard of until that moment. I grew up knowing the story of my mother as an infant in 1948; that when people fled Qula, her father and mother (my grandfather and grandmother) left her in the courtyard. My grandfather said that no one can hurt a child and he did not believe that she could survive the long trek that awaited them as they fled for fear of life. However, her father could not leave her so he went back for her and carried her with them.
I mention this story, this reality, because I always thought that depending on what my grandfather did that day; I may have been raised under a totally different identity. But the added new story my father told on July 12, 2008 made me realize that there was another possibility to the story of me and my mother's existence: that I may have never been. My father said that the village was attacked severely because it was a site of resistance; it was the Palestinian 1948 commander Hassan Salama's (or Hassan Salameh) home place and thus received severe punishment and devastation. As people fled, a number of elderly who could not walk or leave stayed behind. When some villagers came back a few days later they found their burnt bodies. My dad's voice changed, and he said "that is enough; I do not want to talk anymore". My father is a stoic man, but the emotions and tears in his voice were unmistakable. When I told what he shared with me to Eitan, Umar, and Mike there was silence, then some talk back and forth about "burnt", ... Someone said that it was necessary for me to be there in Qula that day for my dad to share this painful memory, and it really was.
Despite his request to not "talk about this anymore", I had to call my father again when we found the remains of the mosque. It had blue color on its inside walls and I could only see the tops of the walls and the mihrab. The remains echoed the appearance of a large structure, two mihrabs actually. Close to that there was a diwan. What struck me about the demolished remains is that it definitely looked deliberate and human-caused, it did not look natural at all and it evoked so much pain.
One more call to Abu Eyas (that is my father), he had consulted with an uncle who is older than my mother, and now had more information about the house. He directed us in a south easterly direction to look for concrete remains, a special tree, and more cactus fencing. My grandparents' house was perhaps either the last or the second to last home in that direction, we were told. We encountered a rock hewn structure that looked truly ancient. It was carved into the ground, and looked like a place to store wheat and such. I called dad again and he became excited; he said that my grandparents' home is just 10 meters from there, and that they used this rock hewn structure to store meats and grains. Looking to the right there was a pile of remains of a house that, like everything else in Qula, had been demolished.
I am not sure what happened exactly after that but I looked at Eitan and told him exactly what my father said about the rock structure and the house, As if from a distance I hear Eitan's voice distinctly saying "your mother was born here, this is the house where she was born." And then I see it. I know that everyone is emotional; my heart fills with affection and at the same time break into many pieces. I want to just touch every piece of those remains.
I do busy myself with picking at the stones and dirt, tears?... I can't remember.... we sit still, Mike walks away, Umar looks in the adjacent site, and I look into the dirt. I find a carved piece of a window stone, and collect some leaves and dirt. I do feel indebted to Eitan, from the moment when his words afforded me a safe place to say that my mother is from Qula, to this moment where he sits by the remains of her home. He made this visit possible and without his help, Qula would still be a forbidden dream. , I give him a hug and tell him so, and he says "I am afraid that I owe you much more." His words did and still do make me cry... they will be forever imprinted in my memory because if we persist in any existence that marginalizes the other then we will always be paying back those debts, or living those debts, And neither is a good way to live or be... My history and pain have been recognized, this is truly an emotional overload.
I think of my grandfather who had a dream of being buried in Qula, but of course that was not to be, I say a prayer for him, ...Eitan and Umar ask if I want to write my mother's or grandparents' names. I did not come prepared, (but how does one prepare for something like this?) all I had was a pen, and so on a rock that remained from their home I write, in Arabic, my grandparents' names.
I walk around, I carry some dirt between my fingers, some rocks, smell the air again, it does have a fragrant smell of living greens, cactus, rocks, and dirt there, I gulped the air, could not have enough of the smell of the air, the smell of the earth, and so I breathed and breathed...
My father's memories as a 10 year old amaze me; it was like he had the map of the village imprinted in his brain, memories, and being. But then he had the memories of that 10 year old child who lived through the Nakba, and those can be powerful memories!
We had to leave, we walked looking and taking the remains of the village in, witnessing how many of the stones from the demolished houses were in places used as markers honoring JNF donors. Umar picked some Palestinian Kharūb (Carob) from the trees there; we each tasted them, and we walked back to the vehicle, knowing that there was a part of each of us that stayed behind.
Eitan dropped Mike and I at the central transportation/service area for our trip back to Jerusalem. Our trip back was sedate; we were clearly both pre-occupied with our own thoughts and experiences. All I wanted when we returned was to be alone. When we saw Melissa, she gave me a hug, Mike shared the story with her as I retreated to my room. Later; I heard that he also cried. We all Retreat into our own rooms; the next day is a busy day. That night sleep was rare and strange, between dream and wakefulness, it felt like I walked all night long; it felt like I walked in the shoes of each person who fled Qula on that fateful day, and walked for each one of them miles and miles. I am choked with tears when I remember that feeling. Next morning I was tired and thirsty, but it was not for lack of sleep, for part of me did truly partake in that walk.
Sharing the story took time; there was a personal part that I did not think others will understand, or really want to know. Eitan arranged for two journalists to call, one in Aljazera.net (Wade' Awawdeh) and one in Ma'ariv (Itamar Inbari). Wade' Awawdeh (Aljazeer.net), wrote a moving description of the visit and is interested in writing more about Qula. I needed and still am trying to find more people who remember the terraces and the life, I found an older cousin who spoke of a particular visit to Qula and hospitality there; I asked my parents to remember the map, I want to connect my brother with Zochrot, so many thoughts....... I read the comments back in Aljazera.net in Arabic and am moved, it appears that the story did strike a deep nerve with the many Palestinians in the Diaspora, and I try to translate into English for colleagues.
During the Ma'arive NRG phone interview, Itimar Inbari asked me: "Were you surprised that an Israeli Jew helped you find your mother's village?" This is a powerful question. I call Eitan after getting back to the states and he translates the comments in Ma'ariv NRG from Hebrew. I was –with hesitation and some fear--interested in hearing what the Hebrew-speaking audience would say, because it meant once again coming face to face with what someone felt in response to my narrative; a possibility of once again having to hide a truth, or perhaps just live it on the inside. I was sad that there were more negative tones there, but then yes, that is why it is so necessary the work that Zochrot does. When I think about it, perhaps that day I also called Eitan because I wanted to keep the Qula visit alive.
In a follow up conversation, Eitan and I discuss his first question to me "Are you going to visit it?" meaning Qula, and learn even more of the power embedded in that particular moment. He remembers his question and my reaction clearly, and even as we talked about it we both became more aware of the depth of this experience. According to Eitan, when I said that my mother was born in Qula, it was at that moment obvious and a given that I will try and go there. For me, it was not as approachable or tangible of a vision at all. Making the connection between a dream and a reality, especially coming face to face with this particular reality was difficult, if almost impossible at that time, simply because of how we come to live our situation. Although there has always been this "forbidden desire" and unconscious need to be there, to see it and visit it, but then again there is the self censorship that occurs in an effort to just make sense of the world.
Yes, I am feeling displaced and homesick all over again! So in a very special way, Qula and the visit to Qula remain with me, on a daily basis, just below the surface of everyday normalcy and routine; it does inspire and motivate me, and I do still find myself back there by the water well, by the cactus, and by my grandparents and mother's home; hearing the sounds and just trying to be there..... and how I wish so dearly to breath the air there and touch those stones again.
When reading comments from the Aljazeera.net article, I was struck by how this personal experience was seen by many Palestinians as responding to their own dreams and memories too, and how it connected to them on a deeper level of consciousness. Similarly, connecting on the subconscious level with sense of home, its sacredness, roots, and place of being has no ethnic or other boundaries. The memories of my ancestors, are connected to mine, just as I read about them in the comments from across the globe by others displaced like me. Or perhaps just as my close friend Debbie speaks of sagebrush, and her emotional longing and connection to the landscape of her childhood, the air, water, trees, and dirt of Qula call to me. Hearing about my next day visit to Qula, a friend form the US made a special request: to bring a pressed tree leaf back from Qula, not as a memento, but as a spiritually rich embodiment of the place and its history.
Back in the United States, I call my friend Moran, a close friend in the US who is Jewish Israeli, whose parents I met the evening before my Qula visit, to share with her my feelings and thoughts. I sent her the online reports, and a few pictures. We speak of our paths crossing and the meaning of our encounters. I wish that together we can go back and visit Qula...Moran and I worked together on peace and social justice issues before she left Idaho, one of the last projects we did was to invite a member of Rabbis for Human Rights to speak in a symposium in Idaho. I mention to her that in my last day in Jerusalem I met someone who works with our speaker, and shared with them my Qula visit. As we speak we know that our work together has not ended, that there is another chapter there for us to work on... I promise to send her the spelling for her daughter's name in Arabic, and know that we will be talking about Qula again...
Back in the US this fall, I run into Melissa and Mike at our local farmers market, we talk about the documentary of our month in Palestine and Israel, they both talk about Qula, work on all the information we gathered is moving on. We will soon highlight some of the peace and reconciliation efforts we saw at a couple of conferences, and will share our experiences widely with our local communities here, to inspire, advocate, teach, and to remember. But for me, personally, there is much more. Deep in my heart there is a place that I know I have to go back to and do something more there, and right beside that, there are special people there that have become lifelong friends. Now I know that this story, this promise, and this path does not, and should not/will not end here...
Edits: Debbie Gray