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[This is Part 1 of a translated transcription of a series of interviews conducted by the author with Leila Khaled during the summer of 2007. Click here to read the Introduction to the interview.]
As the question of the “statehood bid”—or rather UN membership—dominates discussions of Palestinian politics, Leila Khaled’s recollection of her experience of the nakba and its aftermath highlight how the deeply rooted questions of destitution, salvation, and return are central to the Question of Palestine. Palestinian refugees throughout the Arab world are six decades after the event still mired in a state of exception. On the one hand, the Israeli government has sought to consolidate its denial of Palestinian return by shifting the goal posts of negotiations from a recognition of “Israel’s right to exist” to one of “Israel as a Jewish state.” On the other, Arab regimes persist in their denial of equal rights for Palestinian refugees residing within their borders, allegedly for the sake of preserving their right of return while at the same time normalizing the condition of their exile. What the statehood discussion completely misses is that the bid itself perpetuates the decades-long Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) abandonment of Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Occupation is terrorism, to be a refugee is hell.
Having your homeland taken is a crime.
To be a freedom fighter is liberation.
I began with these sentences because I want to focus on a few points in a story about a Palestinian refugee. I was born in Haifa in 1944. However, in 1948 we were driven out by force from our home like all other Palestinians who were evicted from their homeland. We left without my father. We were eight siblings, two brothers and six sisters, including myself. My father was with the resistance fighters at that time and so we had not known where he was since the clashes first broke out in 1947.
My mother decided to take us to her family in Tyre in the south of Lebanon until it was safe for us to return. I was first to be put into the car. I remember all the children crying for the duration of the trip. We did not know where our father was and we were leaving everything behind. My mother asked me why I was crying. I was thinking of my friend Tamara, a girl of my age who was Jewish, a Palestinian Jew. I told my mother that I wanted to be with Tamara. Her mother had opened her home to our family and told my mother that no one could hurt us in her house. She made this gesture immediately after the Deir Yassin massacre. Despite this, the intensification of the clashes and ongoing Zionist operations meant that we had to leave. This is something that has left a deep impression on my psyche until this very day. I remember very clearly the image of people going out into the streets and fleeing. We were going by car while others were walking. We saw them: the elderly, the women, and the children. The weather was not yet hot.
We reached Tyre, and my mother took us to her uncle’s house. The building was surrounded by a big garden with orange trees. The children saw the oranges on the trees and wanted to pick them. My mother slapped us on our hands and said, “These are not your oranges, your oranges are in Palestine.” Sure enough, we had several orange trees on our land in Haifa. I hated oranges for a long time after that. It was not until the 1980s that I began to eat them again. Nevertheless, the sight of oranges takes me back to that day and those words.
My mother refused her uncle’s offer for us all to live in the house with him. Instead, we all lived in the basement, a place that was never meant to be inhabited. All the siblings heard her during the conversation. She was crying the entire time as she repeatedly said that our home was back in Haifa. When asked about the whereabouts of my father, she said she did not know and that he had been working with the revolutionaries. Six months after our arrival in Tyre, our father finally joined us. He had made his way to the Gaza Strip with his fellow fighters. Once in Rafah, he was arrested by the Egyptian authorities and placed in a prison camp. While there, he had suffered a heart attack that left him severely ill. He came to Lebanon with a group of German doctors that had smuggled him out of the camp. He constantly exclaimed: “We lost our country, I lost my family.” The first thing he told my mother when he saw her was that we were not going back. He had realized that our journey would be longer than we all first thought. We did not pay much attention to what he said. Everyday, our siblings would ask our mother about the day of our return.
The first school I attended after arriving in Lebanon was a traditional khuttab school, one where the children would be gathered in the homes of a particular woman who would teach the children how to read the Quran. I changed schools once the Anglican school in Tyre was established in 1950. It was close to our basement home and was basically a giant tent divided into four classes in which students would sit on the ground and listen to a teacher who would teach us from a blackboard propped up by an easel. While there, I approached the headmaster and told him that I knew how to read Arabic. When he asked me to prove it, I read from different chapters of a book. He then wrote a few English letters on the board and asked me to read them. When I was unable to do so, he informed me that I would have to start at the first grade because I did not know English. I was about seven years old at the time. We stayed in that tent and one day during the winter it collapsed over our heads. I went home crying and told my mother that I did not want to go to school. My mother said that I had to and that once I was back in Haifa my school would not collapse on me.
Up to this point in my life, the message was clear. The oranges did not belong to us; ours were in Haifa. The school was not our permanent school; ours was in Haifa. Whenever we asked for new clothes during the holidays, the reply was that our new clothes were to be found in Haifa. All our deprivation was connected to the nakba and all our salvation was connected to our return to Haifa. This was the first thing that was embedded in our conscience: that we must return to Haifa, and that this was our right. For all of us, our future was in Haifa and nowhere else. This was the beginning of the idea of return for our family. Most Palestinian families comprehended their realities in this way. So when children asked about the reason behind their current situation, the answer was that the Zionists had expelled them, occupied their lands, and that there would be a time when we would return to our homes.
Click here to read the Introduction to the interview series.
Click here to read Part 2 of this interview.
Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.
Click here to read Part 4 of this interview.
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