They carried the place and emigrated, they carried time and emigrated.
They lifted their fragrances from their bowls.
They took their bleak pastures and emigrated.”
- Mahmoud Darwish
The narratives of Palestinian refugees before and after the 1948 Nakba have transformed from tales about paradise and the good old days to stories about flour, dough, and bread. In this article, we recall the memories of Siham Sakkab, one of the Palestinian women who lived through the Nakba and experienced the bitterness of an absent home and an unattainable loaf of bread. Bread is strongly present in Siham's stories and the chapters of her life following her forced displacement. Siham dropped out of school after arriving late from baking dough for her family. She broke the curfew because she went out looking for flour. She used to pass through three cemeteries every day at dawn on her way to the oven bakery while she was still around twelve or thirteen years old. Siham narrates her memories of the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) of 1948, the Naksa (setback) of 1967, and the Kharabeesh (jumble) that followed, as she described it. She tells the tale of diaspora and exodus that overshadowed her family’s life. From their house in the suburbs of Jerusalem to Birzeit, Ramallah, Jericho, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, and the United States, the members of the same family dispersed in an effort to reunite.
Siham's family consisted of eight people, Nadira, Najwa, Yusra, Joseph, Elias, Fuad, and her parents. They all lived together in their house in the Ma'man Allah neighborhood in Jerusalem until they were expelled from it during the Nakba. Yamen Hawit, Siham’s grandson, filmed her and provided us with a copy of the interview.
The Basement: “The Bread Is on the Babour (Burner) While the Bullets Are All Over the Walls”
Siham's parents took shelter with their children in the basement when the attack on the city intensified. Grandma Siham recalls that period: “Oh, people were tormented during the migration. My mother was terrified to death when we were in the basement. I am disturbed remembering these days. We sat there for fifteen days eating jam. My mother would cook rice and bake the dough in a frying pan on the babour (kerosene burner stove). When things got calmer and the shooting ceased, my mother went upstairs to find the bullets all over the place. If we were not on the basement floor, we would have been goners.” The family came out of the basement to find that the city had been occupied by the European-Zionist gangs who had taken control of the Ma'man Allah neighborhood. The invaders of the city roamed the neighborhood and captured many people from their homes. Siham recalls: “We left the house with only the clothes we were wearing. My mother told the soldiers ‘I just want to get some clothes for my children,’ but they did not let us take anything... and when they arrested my father and Elias along with other people; my mother went crazy—where did they take them... and where did they go with them... We had no idea!”
Siham’s father and older siblings, Fuad, Elias, and Yusra, were arrested. As for the mother and children at the time, Siham, Najwa, Joseph, and Nadira, they were deported to the International Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), in an exceptional procedure that some Jerusalem families experienced who were captured in their homes.
Yamen: “What happened to your house in Jerusalem?”
Grandma: “We did not see it again. We never stepped foot in it again, never returned.”
Yamen: “Does the house still exist?”
Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone
The YMCA building opened in 1933 with the slogan “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity fostered and developed.” Siham and her mother never noticed these words as they were displayed inside the building. Their hearts burned with anxiety as the rest of the family had been arrested by the Zionists. The experience of the family members who were moved to the YMCA building is unusual compared to what happened to the vast majority of Palestinian refugees.
Siham describes her astonishment at the time, “In the basement, we were making bread by putting the dough in a frying pan on the babour. We got to the YMCA and, suddenly, we are in paradise! There were swimming pools, orchards, trees, pink flowers, swings for playing, and three meals a day. Kings used to stay there. It was a fancy place; even Queen Nazli stayed there.” Queen Nazli is the mother of King Fuad, King of Egypt and Sudan. She visited Jerusalem in December of 1942 and her visit was so long that her son, King Fuad, had to ask El Nahas Pasha, his opponent and the leader of the Wafd Party at the time, to travel to Jerusalem to persuade Queen Nazli to return. During her visit, Nazli stayed at the King David Hotel and may have visited the YMCA. In any case, Siham believed that she experienced the life of kings and queens in those three months she spent at the YMCA. She had no idea at the time that Queen Nazli would end up homeless in the slums of Los Angeles.
“One day as we were playing outside at the YMCA, we were shocked to see bombs and rockets shooting around and passing over our heads before exploding. That day, we gathered around a bomb and started cutting and messing with the wires. We were stupid children; what if it blew up! I don’t know what we were thinking.”
Siham was thirteen years old when she and her family were displaced from their home in Jerusalem. She spent at least three months at the YMCA. After that, the newspapers announced that the residents of the YMCA would be transferred to Souq al-Dibagha (literally, the tanning market) in Jerusalem. Many of the residents' relatives were waiting at the Souq to take them to their new place of displacement. As for Siham's family, they had only an old uncle who lived in the town of Birzeit, and he was unable to come. Some people at Souq al-Dibagha spoke to her mother and gave her five Jordanian pounds with which she paid the transportation cost to get to the Birzeit—where the suffering of migration began to intensify more and more.
Yamen: “What was the best time for you?
Grandma: “What do you mean?”
Yamen: “What was the best time of your life?”
Grandma: “My life?”
Grandma: “It's all the same... wars, problems, and fear.”
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
Siham arrived at Birzeit with her family and saw that people had come from Lod, Ramleh, Beit Nabala, and other depopulated Palestinian towns and villages. The number of displaced people was far beyond the capacity of the village and it was difficult to provide a place to stay for everyone. According to Siham, families slept under olive trees and other trees at night and looked for a room to stay in during the day. Birzeit was the second stop after the family was expelled from their home. The families that arrived there were poor after they were robbed of all their belongings. In the beginning, ten people slept in one room. Siham used to go to Ain al-Hammam in Birzeit and line up with dozens of people to fill one jar of water. After the Zionists looted all of their property in Jerusalem, Siham's family had no choice but to rely on the food supplies that were distributed. The food supplies consisted mostly of flour, sugar, ajwa (dates), beans, etc. Occasionally, one cow was slaughtered and an ounce of meat was sold to the families for three piasters. Siham says: "There were ten to fifteen mattresses in our house in Jerusalem, all made of sheep's wool. The price of one pound of wool reached three or four dinars. People used to take the wool and spin it to make clothes. If we could take the mattresses with us, we would have been able to sell it at a good price.”
In Birzeit, Siham's older brother, Fuad, worked as an electrician. Elias entered Birzeit University while their father found a job in a bakery in Qalandia. Siham’s mother relied on her to take care of the housework. Siham says: "We would wake up at dawn. My mother would make a large tray of dough and I would carry it on my head and walk to the oven bakery to bake it. I was very young and had to pass through three cemeteries on my way. One day, I got to the oven bakery at dawn but the bakers were still lighting the oven’s fire. I baked the bread and hurried back home to give my mother the bread and go to school. I got to school late and the teacher was upset because I missed the prayer. She wrote down my name and ordered me to kneel in the middle of the hall as a punishment. I refused! I told her that I did not do anything wrong and that I was late because my mother sent me to bake the dough. The teacher dismissed me from class because I refused her punishment. I went back to my mother and told her what happened. My mother came with me to talk to the nuns, however, they refused to see her, which made her angry. She decided ‘No need for school.’ Although I was happy about it at the time, I wish that my mother did not let me drop out of school. She was not upset because the nuns treated me unfairly, but because they refused to see her. Anyway, these things happen...”
Back then, the occupation authorities would publish the date of release of the prisoners they had detained in the newspapers. The fiancé of Yusra, Siham’s sister who was detained, had come from Madaba in Jordan to try in vain to inquire about her conditions in captivity. “Her fiancé went crazy. He climbed the prison fence to see her. When he found out that she was about to be released, he married her and took her to Madaba.” This is how Siham described the story of Yusra’s fiancé after he learned about the news of his fiancée’s arrest.
Each of the family members was released one after the other. Elias was the last to be free. He spent about seven months until the family found his name in the newspaper among the list of people to be released. Siham remembers: "When the name of Elias came out, people said that a prisoner was released. We went to meet him at the Manara square. The prisoners arrived and people gathered as if it was a demonstration. Everyone came to see the released prisoners. One person asked about his son, another about his brother, and so on.” Siham explains in the interview that these people were families of prisoners and missing persons who were there to ask the released prisoners whether they had met any of their sons and daughters inside.
Grandma: “Your mother does not know any of these stories, we’ve never talked about the displacement.”
Yamen: “Why did you not tell her?
Grandma: “It was never brought up.”
“We Never Grew Up but We Survived”
Later, Fuad moved to Kuwait and Joseph to Libya for work. Elias worked as a teacher in Jericho, and Nadira worked as a nurse at al-Mutala Hospital in Jerusalem. As the family's financial situation improved, they rented a house in Ramallah and moved to live there. In Ramallah, Siham witnessed the 1967 war and talked about the stories she heard about the Palestinians who were killed on the road and other stories of the second exodus to the east. “The women were carrying their dough and food while fleeing from their homes. People went to Jericho on foot.”
After the Jordanian army retreated in 1967, the Israeli army occupied the city and imposed a curfew. Only a few days afterward, the family ran out of flour. And so Siham decided to take a risk and leave the house to look for bread. A gang of Zionist soldiers stopped her, and one of them shouted at her: "Remain in your homes!" Siham replied: “We need bread.” He responded: “Remain in your homes; the army will inform you of when you can buy bread!”
Grandma: “How about a sweet pot of coffee?”
[This article was translated from Arabic into English by Bisan Samamreh.]
1. This expression was first used by the Palestinian Jordanian writer Mohammad Tomaliah