I was afraid. Why should I be? But once I stood in front of the young women in the white and blue-striped shirt I was reduced to shivering with a tongue as dry as the Negev. She asked me insistently, “Why are you here?” I had earlier thought of two or three convincing answers, but suddenly I could not decide on any of them and I stood there looking at her with empty eyes, trying to control my sweating hand.
It was a Wednesday, very early in the day, at the Ben Gurion Airport. I’m where I never thought I would be, in Israel, among those whom I have feared, hated, fought against and utterly refused to recognize since I was born. I’m among those who systematically denied my existence, who decided my fate and who were my obsession during the 46 years of my life, the 46 years that correspond with the history of their state.
She handed me back my Danish passport and a green piece of paper. This innocent color meant that I should collect my luggage and go to the interrogation office. All sorts of Palestinians, equipped with all sorts of passports, were there. Some were trying, vulgarly I thought, to charm their way through. Others were nervously waiting. There was a vague sense of solidarity among us, yet each was keeping a physical and mental distance from the others, hoping not to be identified with “the rest.” I had never thought that I would confront my country in such an uncelebrated and undignified manner.
I’m here to find out what dreams or nightmares are all about, to touch a country woven from memories, from songs, from stories of elders, from pictures, from old coins and stamps, from dreams that refuse to come to terms with an unfair reality. Never mind how and why, never mind justice and rights. Palestine is about to transform from the visionary to the concrete. Oh, if my father was with me. I have no memories to come back to, only his memories. No properties to look for, only his properties. But I have a homeland to find.
There was nothing special in the smell. I always thought that a homeland smelled differently. Nor did I feel the landscape as part of my body, though I thought it would be. It is not like any other landscape, yet I do not feel at one with it.
How can one experience his country for the first time? I didn’t see what there is, but what there was. Who said that finding a dream is an easy matter? You abstract all that is not supposed to be there. You see the majestic stone houses in Qatamoun, but not their inhabitants. You see the beautiful streets in old Jerusalem, but not the settlers with their guns and guards, the arid mountains around Nablus, but not the ugly settlements on their tops. You see the land and try to forget that you have lost it. And that you are helpless and lonely.
That weekend I rented a car and drove directly home, to ‘Akka. I did not tell anybody of my plan, nor had I addresses or names of people there. You aren’t supposed to need addresses when you go home. ‘Akka is the city my family never tired of talking about since they went into exile in 1948, the city with the best fish, the most beautiful sunsets, the best beaches, the easy life, the faithful friends, the good neighbors, the meaningful and enjoyable work, the wonderful fruit gardens, the sweetest olives.
Our house was left there one afternoon with everything in it. My mother insisted on cleaning it before leaving because she didn’t want to come back from what she considered would be a short stay away to a dirty house. She never saw it again.
Soon I realized that one can also get lonely and lost in “his” city. One may have to ask others how to find his house. At first I thought I would find it by myself if I only passed near it. I know its architecture, the color and shape of its stones. I know exactly where my sister’s toys stand in it and what could be seen from each window.
Once I admitted defeat, I declared myself the lost son of the city to the first passerby. Immediately the city opened its arms to me and my distant relatives were amazingly easily found. Parties were hastily arranged, friends were called. Many volunteered to show me around. Such an overwhelming feeling: I came humbly to find my city but the people made me feel that the city had found me.
Before going to bed late that night, Abu Yusuf suddenly realized that I had not yet eaten Indian figs from al-Ghabsiyya. “Indian figs should be eaten fresh and they must be picked before sunrise. We shall do that tomorrow,” he stated.
Abu Yusuf, the cousin of my mother and the only one of my family who stayed in Palestine, is a very decisive man. He still lives in my grandfather’s house. His detailed knowledge of families living in ‘Akka, of who owned what and who left what, who lived where and how things went since the nakba (disaster) gave him undisputable authority. He must be in his late sixties, but he looks much younger, and he thinks of himself as far younger than he looks. When I saw his deformed hand and defective eye, I remembered that we were told as children of a hero in our family who was wounded in battle. But he brushed this away. He asked me to appreciate the cool air which suddenly had blown, as if it was something he had ordered especially for me, and told me about his old habit of fishing with dynamite.
I don’t particularly like Indian figs, but who dares to dislike anything from al-Ghabsiyya, a small village near ‘Akka where my family had its vast property. One day in February 1949, the Israeli army ordered those remaining to evacuate and gave them only a few hours to leave. Two persons were shot dead because they failed to do so. The village, along with all its surrounding land, was confiscated. We spent that night looking at all the documents which Abu Yusuf had collected over the past four decades to reverse the history of al-Ghabsiyya. He was sure he would win the case in the Israeli Supreme Court, aware that although a number of other villages had won similar cases, the villagers were neither allowed to come back nor was land returned.
“The house! Is it far away from here?” “I know where it was, a high complex is built on its site.” I felt disappointed. Was it really not worth keeping? Yet I also felt relieved of the frightening experience of seeing it and of leaving it again, of seeing how exaggeration and longing can turn a cottage into a castle.
“Nonsense, the house is still there. That which was demolished was your uncle’s house. If you dare to see it, we can go now,” said Abu Yusuf.
So we did. After a five minute drive we left the car at the foot of a narrow path. To the left was an empty fenced plot of land with trees and bushes. This must be the municipal park my mother always talked about. She often regretted that the park could only be seen from the windows of the guest room and the kitchen but not from the sitting room. The old trees were still there, but the park had since become a naval academy. There was a row of houses to the right and Abu Yusuf stopped at one of them and greeted a group of men sitting and playing cards in the garden.
“I have a guest with me. He would like to see the house, I mean to visit you. He is Kanafani, you know.”
I didn’t recognize to whom Abu Yusuf was talking, but suddenly the four men at a card table stood up. A short, dark, middle-aged man rushed to us. He shook our hands once, and again, and then hugged me. I felt his sweat and tears through my shirt. I felt that he had always expected this to happen, that he had heard so many similar events with his neighbors and that he had planned exactly what to do when his turn came. But somehow he had forgotten it all once I stood in front of him.
Our house was the last one on the row. Before we reached the front door, his wife and two little daughters joined us. “The door is new,” she said, even before we were introduced to each other. “It was impossible to find a carpenter skilled enough to repair the old one.”
I went around the six rooms which open directly to the central hall in the middle. I wished to be alone. I touched the cool, colored tile on the floor, felt the carved stones, the doors’ hands and panels, and opened the windows and saw what my mother and brothers saw once from the same position. I was touching, seeing and feeling places for the first time, yet they were so familiar that they provoked memories and tears. Until now I have been unable to comprehend this feeling: not happiness, not sadness, not surprise, not disappointment, not astonishment, regret or envy. This feeling combined all of these. “How did you feel when you were in ‘Akka?” they ask. Oh, if only words could come to my aid.
The two little girls wanted me to come and see the initials which my brothers had carved on the walls, but their mother was busy explaining how happy she is to live in the house: high ceilings, cool in the summer and balconies and windows on the four sides.
“Your mother was a woman ahead of her time. It must have been her idea to have such a big bathroom. Men never think of such things. Come and look.”
Yes, it was a big bathroom, quite empty though. My mother was ahead of her time. A small window with thick iron bars attracted my attention. I thought that the bars must have been my father’s idea. He was afraid that the house would be stolen from a small window in the bathroom. He was not ahead of his time!
“We first rented a part of it from Amidar [the Israeli agency which confiscated property of so-called absentees]. Then we started buying up the shares of other tenants until we managed to rent the whole first floor for ourselves. The ground floor is divided between two families, one Palestinian and the other Jewish. We do our best to keep the house as it was.”
I could detect a hint of guilt in her talk. We sat to drink coffee. There was a tacit consensus among us, a deep implicit feeling that we are all victims and that we should be somewhat satisfied that the house is occupied mainly by Palestinian rather than by Jewish families.
While on the stairs on my way out, the small dark man, still not totally relaxed, handed me the keys of his house: “It’s yours, take it!” Did I tell him that we still have the old keys? Just before reaching the car I heard him shouting: “When are you returning?”