A Palestinian journey from homeland to exile and back

By Rabbi Danny Rich

Stranger in My Own Land Palestine, Israel and One Family’s Story of Home

By Fida Jiryis

(C.Hirst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., London, 2022)

In a submission to ‘Zionism: a Jewish Communal Response from the UK’ (Board of Deputies of British Jews, London, 2010) this reviewer wrote:

…there are two narratives, one Jewish/Israeli and the other Palestinian/Arab, and, while they may differ both in ‘fact’ and in interpretation of events, each story must be recognised in any resolution.

Histories can, of course, be collective memories, but they come to life best when they are explored through an individual and/or a family with whom the reader can empathise.

Fida Jiryis’s moving memoir of the family journey from Fassouta, its Galilean village of origin, via Lebanon, Cyprus and Canada is a long but readable story which reflects the tragic history of Palestine since the fall of the Ottoman Empire until now.

The story is of four generations, beginning with the author’s great grandparents (Jiryah and Rahjeh), her grandparents (Elias and Wardeh), her parents (Sabri and Hannah) and her brother, Mousa.

A decade of research has produced a chronicle of Fida’s search for belonging in an ‘unholy trinity’ of (the State of) Israel, (the land of) Palestine and a number of diaspora homes, although the work’s main character is the author’s father, Sabri, whom the reader meets as a child in his grandfather’s home, seeing ‘unknown to him …the Nakba’. (Jiryis: p19).

Palestinian village life is described in perhaps nostalgic but exquisite detail:

{Fassouta} was a small village of about 650 people, nestled in the mountains of the upper Galilee, just south of the border with Lebanon. It lived on agriculture, like most Palestinian villages at the time. Its peasants grew wheat, lentils and olives. The area also provided quality tobacco, and, during the British Mandate, they grew this plant for sale. Most kept their own chickens, and some raised goats, cattle or sheep. A few who were better off owned a camel or a bull for ploughing. The village was poor but self-sustaining. Much of the food came from plants in the area and from vegetables that were grown: okra, zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Some were dried in the summer for winter use. Meat was eaten on Sundays, when the butchers slaughtered a few goats. The biggest indulgence was the occasional bottle of arak or a box of Turkish delight from Lebanon. Sabri would go with his father or grandfather to nearby villages in South Lebanon for trade. The borders were seamless; there were friendships and marriages between these villages and Fassouta, and people from each side ploughed land they owned on the other. (Jiryis: p19)

The family was boiling their freshly harvested wheat to prepare bulger. This coarse grain was a staple food in various dishes: kubbeh, a pate of meat paste, bulger and spices; tabouleh, a middle eastern salad; and mjaddara, a lentil dish, amongst others. Some wheat was further boiled and ground to make flour for the family’s bread throughout the year. Sabri fidgeted impatiently. It would take all day to get to the end of the boiling, which was the bit he was waiting for. They would then take the wheat out of the cauldron and he would climb up on the roof to spread it in the sun to dry, but not before his mother began to bake oursa, a special pie with onions and peppers on the double-ringed stove. (Jiryis: p 39 and 40)

Sabri’s village life was interrupted when he was required as a 15 year old to carry a permit to go to school in Nazareth -his first direct experience of the bureaucratic and military regulations which are such an imposition on Palestinians going about their daily lives. Graduating from Terra Sancta College in Nazareth, Sabri was accepted to read law at the Hebrew University  in Jerusalem and began a life of political commitment to the Palestinian cause. Deputy Chair of the Arab Students’ Council, Sabri soon held a leading position in al Ard; the Land, both the newspaper and the organisation. Al Ard was pragmatic and moderate, being ‘the first Palestinian movement in Israel to call for self-determination and a just solution to the Palestine problem. It fought on two fronts: the lifting of repression from Palestinian citizens and the granting of equal rights, making Israel a democratic state for all its citizens; and the Palestinians’ right to their own state, as defined by the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, where they could live in peace alongside the State of Israel’. (Jiryis: p 70).

Following an MA titled ‘Military Systems and Powers’, Sabri was clearly heading for an academic or research career -writing The Arabs in Israel in Hebrew in 1966 and A History of Zionism in Arabic in 1977 -but in fact began a legal practice, specialising in defending Palestinians in land disputes with the State of Israel. As one of only a small number of Palestinian lawyers operating in the Israeli legal system, he was required to defend fedayeen – armed Palestinians who crossed the border, particularly from Jordan, to carry out operations in Israel – and, as a result, came into contact with the Palestinian resistance movement and Fatah which was the largest and best funded wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Sabri underwent house arrest, and administrative detention and, despite his  not wishing to leave, he headed to Lebanon where he joined the Palestine Research Centre, which was the PLO’s first civil institution.

The details of the Palestinian experience in Jordan (culminating in Black September in 1970) and in Lebanon in the 1980s are well known but Jiryis’s  description of such events through the eyes of her father are both illuminating and sobering.

Sabri had married his first wife, Hannah in 1968 . Fida was born in late 1973 after the family arrived in Beirut where Sabri continued his research on Israeli affairs, served as a member of the Palestine National Council, and was even nominated to the PLO Executive Committee. Following the arrival of Fida’s brother, Mousa, Hannah returned as a fellow researcher at  the Centre but with six colleagues was murdered in a bombing of the Centre on 5 February, 1983.

Sabri was now a widower with two children and had become the adviser on  Israel affairs to Yasser Arafat who had succeeded Yaha Hammuda as the PLO Chairman. The family were forced to move country again as Sabri successfully re-opened the Centre in Nicosia, Cyprus. The family acquired  a new wife and mother in Najwa, Hannah’s younger sister, and a period of physical tranquillity was experienced.

If the first nine chapters of some 250 pages centre on the author’s father, Sabri, the work now turns to the struggle represented in the title: where will our author feel at home and can a sense of home be found by a Palestinian in a land dominated by the power of the State of Israel?

In June 1994 Fida graduated from Lancaster University and returned to Cyprus. In Israel/Palestine a new hope was manifested by the signing of the Oslo Accords by Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, now the Prime Minister of Israel, engineered by American President, Bill Clinton. The televised handshake heralded an interim Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza for five years and the beginning of the end of the conflict: an independent State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel.

I well remember those heady days of travelling to an open and thriving     Bethlehem and I was merely a Jewish communal leader based in the United Kingdom. The optimistic change, however, is reflected in the account of the return of Sibri:

‘I want to go back,’ said Dad.

There was a breathless silence. ‘Back?’

‘Yes. I’m going to the Israeli Consulate to apply.’

‘But, why not with the PLO?’ my uncle asked, not quite believing what  he was hearing. He had not wanted to harbour any hope for fear of having it shattered.

‘I‘m going back as part of the PLO agreement, but I want to apply as an individual, so I can go back to Fassouta. I don’t want to be stuck in the West Bank or Gaza; I want to go home. All the accusations against me have been dropped, as per the Accords,’ Dad said.

The agreements allowed a very small number of PLO members to return to towns or villages in Israel, on a case-by case basis. My uncle did not believe it would happen. He waited, torn between possibility and doubt. It was an incredible dream – beyond a dream, too scary to even hope for.

The next day, my father went to the Israeli Consulate In Nicosia. He drove his car with diplomatic plates registered to the PLO mission in Cyprus. The guard let him in. ‘Yes, sir?’

‘I’m an Arab from Israel,’ he said in Hebrew. ‘Welcome,’ the guard said.

‘I work for the PLO office’, Dad continued ‘Welcome’, the man repeated.

They’ve given them instructions to be polite to us, Dad thought. ‘I’ve come to apply for my passport so I can go back home,’ he told him.

The man seemed excited and ushered him in. My father presented his Israeli identification card, tattered but still distinct. It had survived Beirut and 24 years of exile. (Jiryis: p261)

The Jiryis family were not alone but rare.

Although the Accords allowed for the return of several thousand PLO personnel to the Palestinian territory, only a very small number were allowed to return to their towns or villages in Israel, and only if they held Israeli citizenship. The files were given to my father to follow up. There were 47 names, the total number of Palestinians who had left as Israeli

citizens and joined the PLO. However, not all of them were as lucky as my family. As tension resumed between the PLO and Israel, only about ten were able to return, and few brought their families with them. (Jiryis p281)

Fida too returned hoping that the dream was coming true and the years of statelessness were behind her. The inevitability of practical matters took over at the beginning (p279) and these were followed by a beautifully portrayed family wedding (p283). For a number of complex reasons Fida was unsettled.   The overwhelming presence of Israeli Jews, the job opportunities available only to those who had served in the Israeli Defence Force (from which Palestinians were excluded) and the deterioration in relations between the PLO and Israel (including the destruction of Arafat’s headquarters) contributed to Fida and her husband Raji concluding that the reality of a state enforced separation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians left them no option but to leave -this time for Canada in 2003.

The strongest part of the volume is that in describing her father’s closeness to Arafat it is possible to understand better how and why Arafat took the political risks he did.

Despite the family living through the disappointment of a Palestinian history which began with the Nakba in 1948 and continues today with the election of Israel’s most right-wing government in its history, the book has numerous funny vignettes.

Fida tells of a meeting between her father and Arafat. Arafat was not always universally popular but his guile was admired by friend and enemy  alike. He allegedly never cut ties with anyone. In a meeting with Sabri he told him apparently:

‘I went on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and, as per the custom, they gave me seven stones to throw at Satan. I threw five and kept two in my pocket. One never knows when I might need to talk to Satan, so I didn’t want to cut all ties, you know what I mean?’ (Jiryis: p195)

When Fida and her brother return to Israel from Larnaca and land at Tel Aviv:

Mousa seemed to read my thoughts. He leaned over and whispered: ‘It’s full of Jews here!’ (Jiryis: p267)

Finally in an exchange with two Israeli colleagues as she is soon to depart:

For the first time I told them about my life: who my father was, what happened in Beirut, how we ended up in Israel. They listened, trying to hide their shock. ‘I’m thinking of writing a book, I finished. But Eva, whose expression had changed , looked at me and said: ‘Why do you think your life is so interesting that people will want to read about it?’

Despite the absence of an index, this volume is a well written introduction to the challenges of Palestinian history to today and more particularly to the struggle of Palestinian individuals to thrive in the current context. It should certainly be read by Jews and Israelis because not only might they learn what they have in common with their Palestinian neighbours but it might just make possible a solution which appreciates both the Jewish /Israeli and the Palestinian/Arab narratives—a solution which rejects violence and extremism, which resists the tendency of both peoples to claim victimhood, and which understands that a just solution lies within the power of millions of Israelis and Palestinians who only wish to go about their daily lives without  causing    harm to one another and with a sense of their own wholeness.

Danny Rich is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Barnet. He was, until 2020, the Senior Rabbi and Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism in the United Kingdom. He is a Patron of the Balfour Project.

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