by Antoine Raffoul
This narrative is being written today Thursday, the 8th of April 2009, here in London (the city that gave the world The Balfour Declaration which offered Palestine as a national home for the Jews). On the very same day in 2009, a photo was taken in USA, (the country which offered Israel its ‘eternal’ friendship) of these Palestinian brothers and sister who are the subject of this narrative. The same day, but 60 years earlier, in 1949, in Al-Mina (the Lebanese fishing port of Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli), a Palestinian father had gathered the same children for a photo shoot to commemorate one year since their expulsion from Haifa on the morning of 8 April 1948, also a Thursday, like today.
More anniversaries will follow until they all return to the Homeland.
This is a Palestinian odyssey spanning over 62 years since these five brothers and one sister (they would have been seven except for the premature death of the first born, Alice, nicknamed Therese, in Haifa at the age of 6 – the sister in the photo, the youngest, was named after her). These children were expelled with their parents and grandparents from Haifa, Palestine by the zionist underground forces as they swept the country looking for more people to kill, more booty to steal and more land to conquer. The family boarded a truck heading north to the Lebanese border.
In this narrative, international politics, zionist lies and Palestinian tragedies are set aside (since much has been written about them) and work as a backdrop to this personal story of triumph against all odds.
These two photos are put side by side to show one fact: time is of no essence; that a united Palestinian family is the Palestinian response to Israel’s attempts to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian Nation. None of the brothers or the sister in the photos fought in a war. None carried a gun. None of them, except the eldest (who visited home in 2006), managed to return to the homeland since 1948. The two parents have since passed away in the United States.
The mere survival of the six children for over six decades in Tashteet (Arabic for Diaspora) is proof that the Palestinian story remains alive in its Palestinian people, and that their attachment to the land of Palestine remains truly eternal. Despite their expulsion, their achievements in various fields remain a thorn in the side of the zionist usurpers.
The six members of this family (including this writer), represent six different achievements. Joining the faces to the stories in this narrative is left to the reader. This challenge is not intentional.
All the children were born in Haifa like their parents (hence they are called Haifawis), except for the writer who was born in Nazareth (hence a Nasrawi).
The eldest son Joseph was born in 1934, and now heads the family. He has always had a love for the good life and was blessed with Palestinian good looks, since compromised by the loss of hair. He was this writer’s idol and the source of emulation. Joseph was always destined to carry the banner of responsibility when the call for sacrifice beckoned, as is the tradition in any Palestinian family. He managed his way through some of the best private schools in Haifa until the expulsion in 1948. Tripoli in Lebanon was the family’s destination then where Joseph completed his Baccalaureate education. Further studies were cut short as the financial burden to educate all the children bore heavily on the father. Joseph was called upon to seek early employment and this took him to the Gulf when, in the 1950′s, that region was still desert full of oil wells and workers’ camps. For 7 years, Joseph struggled to help the family and to keep the father’s promise to his children that education is the only way forward. After his return from the Gulf, Joseph went on to work in films in Lebanon, something he passionately loved and still craves for today. The attainment of a lucrative career in movie making eluded him when he arrived in London, but he married an English rose instead and turned to computer technology as a career. This secured him steady employment with British Petroleum until his retirement in the late 1990′s. His rose died in 2004 but his marriage was blessed with two sons who think the world of him, despite his receding hair.
John, the second oldest, born in 1938, has always been the most academic of all – also the quietest. He was considered to be ‘the academic brain’ of the family. He studied hard and always looked neat. He achieved scholastic excellence in high school and was considered by the parents to be an excellent candidate to study abroad – and specially in the United States. Except for our grandfather’s brother, who in the 1940′s sailed to Argentina, no member of the family had been on anything other than a fishing boat in Tripoli. So, John was the first to sail across the ocean to the United States in 1958. This broke our mother’s heart but she knew that it was a price worth paying to achieve a secure future for her children. Despite the father’s wish for John to study medicine (an exceptionally costly undertaking) John went on to secure a degree in electrical engineering from Indiana University. After a short spell of employment in Indiana, John secured a lucrative career with Ford Motor Company a professional marriage which lasted nearly four decades until retirement two years ago. His other marriage was blessed with 3 children one of whom became a doctor (our father’s dream). Without Joseph’s sacrifice in the Gulf, John would not be where he is today.
Rafleh, the third oldest, is known as the family encyclopedia. He was born in 1939 and seemed always to be the shy, reclusive and pensive child. His short temper did not earn him many family rewards, but he was always right. Like all his brothers, he attended a private school in Haifa with the other older brothers until the Nakba hit. In Tripoli his academic studies were temporarily interrupted due to an eye operation to correct a defect. That set him back academically but later managed to catch up through hard work and endless sessions of memorising history books from cover to cover. He loved Arabic literature and history and had a rare ability to remember the things most of us would forget once the exams were over. He had a deep fascination for how things worked. Like our father, who was an electronics engineer, Rafleh would take things apart and put them back together correctly. After earning his Baccalaureate diploma, he left for the United States to pursue his academic degree in Aeronautical Engineering from St Louis University in 1968. His love for aeroplanes landed him a career with Delta Airlines which lasted over three decades until his retirement. His encyclopedic mind remains as clear as his vision. It is worth noting here that without Joseph’s sacrifice in the Gulf, and crucially later in the 1960′s without John’s help, Rafleh would not be where he is today.
Antoine: In September 1941 Haifa was becoming too dangerous for our mother Mary to undertake a peaceful delivery, and so our grandfather and the eldest brother Joseph (no relation to Biblical figures) transported her to a convent in Nazareth to give birth to a Nasrawi. I remember precious little of the Haifa years leading up to the Nakba. But the precious memories I have do paint a picture of cheekiness, naughtiness, restlessness and being my mother’s boy (she told me that). At that young age, my favourite memories used to take me up Mount Carmel above Haifa for the regular family picnic where we would listen to the radio blasting songs by Um Kulthum, Asmaham, and Sayed Darwish. These singers are still the pillars of Arabic music today. After the Nakba, Tripoli became my playground and school life shaped my world in which I met some of my best friends. They remain the keepers of private secrets about our growing up together in a world of flirtatious urges and innocent emotions. But these side kicks did not prevent me from successfully earning my Baccalaureate diploma. My passion was painting and drawing and our house was full of my artwork. But, enter my father, painting was not to be my future career. He chose architecture for me, and, yes, he sent me off to the United States to begin the hardest 5 years of my life in the Midwest at the University of Illinois. There I earned my degree in Architecture in 1968 at the height of the world-wide popular demonstrations against the Vietnam war. I was called to the Draft in New York City but was eventually saved by the date of my birth. In that great city I started my political activities for Palestine with a young group of architects, artists and planners. As early as 1968, we were calling for a one-state solution but when that did not attract any listeners, I left for London in 1971. Soon after, I took a 7-month sabbatical leave to travel through the Algerian Sahara. This fundamentally changed the way I think and look at life. To this day, my architectural work carried with it a bit of the Sahara. Again, without Joseph’s sacrifice in the Gulf, and crucially later in the 1960′s without John’s help, I would not be where I am today.
Nabil, the youngest brother, was born in 1943 and grew up hating academic life. He was self-taught and short tempered. No force in the world would keep him in school beyond the sixth grade. He did all the things the rest of us missed at his age: less school and more play. But, like Rafleh, he had a love for mechanical gadgets which, whenever given the chance, he would take apart and re-assemble in no time. He would buy new things only to take them apart. He would invade the house, take things apart and then put them together. Even our little Opel car could not escape his handywork. When we all went abroad to study, Nabil was attracted at the time by an Australian government campaign to recruit young foreigner workers to work in their mines, so off he went, making a good life for himself. He married and raised two great kids. But, like the rest of us, he could not resist the appeal of United States and ended up in Michigan working for United Airlines. He became a grandfather twice and despite his advanced age, he still takes things apart and puts them back together. Nabil truly made it on his own.
Finally, Therese, born in 1945, is the great sister and the beating heart of the family. She is so close to everyone that she is part of all of us. Being the only girl in the family, and coming at the end of the production line, she would become, at least for a short period, the subject of her brothers’ teasing campaign. Despite her ’petite size’, she took it all with grace and indifference because she had the support of our parents. She was so close to them that when they immigrated to the United States in the early 1970′s as the civil war in Lebanon was erupting, she never let them out of her sight – even after she married. Now the mother of two wonderful children, she is also considered to be ‘the mother’ of a whole class of foreign students in a special school in Michigan.
On 8 April 2011, the story will continue and another photo will be taken of the same brothers and sister. Except this time in 2011, it will be infront of our house in Haifa, Palestine (even though it was demolished by the Zionists). It is simply the persistent urge of a persistent family.