By Xavier Abu Eid
“Next week we’ll start the apricot season and we wish you were with us…” he read with a nostalgic smile. “Sido (grandfather), Sido, please keep reading,” said the eight-year-old grandson when Judeh stopped with a nostalgic look at a horizon that at this stage didn’t exist, as if his deep eyes could penetrate the Andes Mountains, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and arrive at the Jaffa port, buy a box of oranges, and keep going through Al-Lydd, Lifta, Al-Malha, and Al-Wallajeh, in order to surprise the family gathering in Al-Makhrour, spend a few days sleeping on the roof of the two-story house he built as a teenager, and later on go to the town in order to pray at Saint Nicholas Church and look at the quarry on the other side of the valley, in Al-Slayeb, where he would surely go to work with his friends Mahain, Yacoub, and Emcula. The group would go on to build luxurious villas in Talbiyeh and Qatamon, enjoying a light meal of hummus, white cheese, olive oil and za’atar and, if lucky, Judeh’s favorite: a piece of halawe (halva).
“Yallah (let’s go), Sido. Please keep reading. How’re things in our country? Did anyone ask about me?” asked the grandson, trying to get his grandfather’s attention. Judeh was under an image of Saint George, a Palestinian saint, that he had brought with him for the three months that the journey Beit Jala – Jerusalem – Amman – Damascus – Beirut – Sicily – Rio De Janeiro – Buenos Aires – Santiago de Chile had taken him. What was Judeh thinking about that made him stop reading?
Perhaps he realized that this simple Palestine he was dreaming about was no longer there. Perhaps by then he remembered the refugees he saw arriving in Bethlehem, desperate and scared, repeating the name of “Deir Yassin”. In this Palestine, he was remembering that Jaffa was still the “bride of the sea,” before sixty thousand of its inhabitants were pushed away, and the orange groves were confiscated and destroyed for the benefit of a growing Tel Aviv. In this Palestine, Al-Lydd was in its glory, and he would pray at Saint George’s Church, before Yitzhak Rabin, under David Ben Gurion’s orders, provoked the largest expulsion that took place during the Nakba.
“Sido, yallah. If you don’t want to read, at least tell me a story, like when you took a barrel of homemade arak to Ramallah, hiding it from the Brits because they had raised the taxes”. He smiled, but didn’t say much. In that Palestine, there would still be a flourishing Lifta that even hosted Armenian refugee families at the entrance of Jerusalem, and when reaching Al-Malha, he could see, between agricultural terraces, the Salesian Cremisan Monastery opposite his beloved quarry. The same Malha that was ethnically cleansed and whose inhabitants ended up living under the olive trees of our family neighborhood, later on renamed Aida Refugee Camp. Al-Wallajeh was also destroyed; a new village was built on the land left for them, which, in the decades after 1967, was encircled by walls, fences, and an illegal colonial settlement called Har Gilo.
Perhaps Judeh was silent because Al-Slayeb had been turned into the illegal colonial settlement of Gilo; because the villas he built in Talbiyeh and Qatamon were occupied and looted, and by then were no longer inhabited by the people that had hired him and his friends. He was also lonely: his friends had all passed away in Palestine without him being able to attend any of their funerals.
For some reason, Judeh stopped reading, but his look was no longer lost; he was looking at his grandson. “Who is Sido’s love?” “Meeeeeeeee!” would respond his grandson. “Now, can you please continue reading the letter and tell me if ammo (paternal uncle) Nakhleh is asking about me?” Oldest grandchild and male, the spoiled kid knew exactly that he was the center of attention in that traditional mindset. “Yes, he remembers well your first day of school, when you didn’t let anyone accompany you, but the two of us”.
The grandson realized that Judeh had become nostalgic. “Ok, Sido, time to leave the (grocery) store and close. We can go sit under the vines and eat something you like. What about some zeit w za’atar left in the kitchen? You make a fresh salad; I love how small you cut the tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Add a lot of olive oil, but please leave part of it without garlic and hot peppers so I can eat with you.”
That dialog was taking place in the heart of one of Santiago’s most important neighborhoods, Los Leones, where that house had been turned into a small Beit Jala. In contrast to the neighborhood villas, surrounded by fine pines and other European trees, Judeh’s house had apricots, lemons, vines, and a fig tree, mixed with the smell of oregano, jasmine, and roses. He would enjoy a nearby mulberry (toot) tree and the neighbor’s olive tree which he would be allowed to harvest. A few years later, when the grandson realized that the trees were honoring Palestine, he brought an orange tree. “You see, Sido, we only had Beit Jala; now I’m bringing Jaffa.”
Growing up with his grandparents, this grandchild could never fully enjoy life in Chile. “Darling, the British sold us out; Ben Gurion expelled us; we lost Palestine,” Judeh would say with a sad voice, just provoking a strong reaction. “No, Sido! We didn’t, and, if anything, we’ll get it back!” – recreating a dialog repeated in thousands of Palestinian homes between Nakba survivors and younger generations. The grandchild didn’t know what Judeh’s expression was when an Israeli officer told him at the Israeli consulate that he was no longer a “resident of the territories” but they could “think about” giving him a tourist visa to go to his birthplace. And so, he repeated the trip back home as a “Chilean tourist” on several occasions, the last one with his grandson. “Now you’ll know how real laban (yogurt) tastes like,” Judeh told his oldest grandson.
The kid was finally going to understand the years of his grandfather dismissing the high-quality Chilean produce. “Yes, this watermelon is good, but you didn’t try those we had in the homeland,” was recurrent, just like with tomatoes, cucumbers, and even almonds. But the most important was certainly the quality of the apricots that sounded incomparable.
“Mishmish, Sido! Are we going to eat mishmish?” sounded like the most important question. “You’ll have bread taboon. That’s real bread!” Nameh, the grandmother, would add. An orphan, Nameh was largely responsible for keeping the home like a Palestinian island in the middle of one of Santiago’s most prominent neighborhoods. “Come, darling. You have to learn how to roll vine leaves. I know you love them, and people no longer make them often, so you have to learn yourself,” she once told her grandson. Food at this stage was a way of keeping Palestine alive, and most of the family, knowingly or not, shared the centrality of each meal that would often be shared with others who were greatly impressed, not just with Palestinian culinary recipes, but overall with Palestinian hospitality.
Years passed and that grandson grew older. Judeh kept the same simplicity of his years building villas in Talbiyeh and Qatamon, but became older and sick. Doctors would no longer recommend a trip over the Atlantic Ocean, and the Second Intifada had already started. Judeh’s Beit Jala was bombarded, and his grandson couldn’t but cry, looking at the images of destruction in the same streets he had walked for the first time only a few months before. After years of listening about Palestine, the grandson had been able to visit it with Judeh, finally being proud to be in his country.
At that stage, when the Talbiyeh and Qatamon houses were inhabited by Israelis, and Al-Slayeb had been turned into a cold colonial settlement, Palestine for the grandson was still Palestine. Judeh and Nameh had managed to keep Palestine alive 13,000 kilometers away from home. It didn’t die like Balfour, Herzl, or Golda Meir would have predicted.
One day the grandson left that home. “How are you going to leave me? Who will talk to me about the homeland now? Who will sing with me?” Judeh said, keeping that nostalgic look, making his grandson remember how they would sing Judeh’s favorite songs, from Abdel Halim Hafez to Abdel Wahab, Um Kalthoum, and the eternal hit Wein a Ramallah. “I’m going back to Palestine, Sido. I’ll try to do what you couldn’t do,” said the grandchild, with the inspiration of someone that only a few days before had received his bachelor’s degree. The grandchild then remembered that his grandfather was forced to leave school at the age of eleven in order to help his family. That grandson graduated thanks to Judeh’s efforts, and both knew that well when, at that moment of no return, they hugged each other.
There was silence. The grandson remembered how every Saturday afternoon Judeh spent hours writing letters to his family that perhaps never reached Palestine; letters received by a postman who at this stage already knew by name members of the family in Palestine. He was going to try to do what the letters couldn’t.
The day came. The grandson was ready to leave for the airport on his way to settle down in Palestine, and Judeh looked sad yet proud. “Please wait,” he said, going to his grocery shop and coming back with a few chocolates. “Take them for the road,” he said, trying to remind his grandson that the simplicity that a stonecutter brought from far away was also part of being Palestinian.
Judeh, my grandfather, passed away almost a year later in Chile. The church was full of people, and many of my friends said that they were attending because he reminded them of Palestine. He managed to keep Palestine alive just like thousands of others did, no matter where they ended up.
Judeh, a simple man, ended up defeating Balfour, Ben Gurion, and others. Perhaps he died without knowing that, but he did.