By Reham Alhelsi
As Palestinians all over the world commemorate the Nakba and 60 years of on-going zionist ethnic cleansing, murder and apartheid, there is one aspect of our Palestinian identity that survived despite all zionist attempts of elimination: our cultural heritage. The Palestinian cultural heritage is full of popular songs, poetry, sayings, stories handicrafts and other forms of folklore. They are the bridges that connect generations and unite Palestinians all over the world, binding us together and forming our cultural identity.
Looking back, I think of both of my grandmothers (God rest their souls). They both survived the Nakba and were witnesses to it in their own way. My grandmother from my father’s side came from a Bedouin family and lived in the outskirts of Jerusalem. When they heard about the zionist attacks in other parts of Palestine, the men went to defend their homes while the women gathered the children and sought refuge in the nearby caves. Years later, my father, who was a kid himself at the time of the Nakba, took us kids to see these caves and told us about their daily life at that time. I remember how I looked around investigating these holes, and thinking that if we had our own state, this place would have been made into a museum. The traces of the people who lived there and traces of their daily lives were still visible at the time of our visit. I ought to mention that the caves were located in an area designated for olive fields. No houses were nearby and we had to walk a long distance to reach them. Years later, and before leaving Palestine, one of the things I wanted to do before leaving was to see this place again. We went there but only for a short visit. We stayed in the olive groves and didn’t go any further in the direction of the caves. Illegal zionist settlements were nearby and we knew that we were being watched and would be shot at if we got closer. A couple of years ago, when I went home for a visit, I wanted so much to see these fields again. The fields aren’t there anymore. The land and the olive fields had been confiscated. I wonder if the caves are still there…
Many years ago, my grandmother used to tell us stories she herself heard as a kid. Stories of a witch or a monster (ghuleh in Arabic) who used to torment good people. These were simple people, going on with their daily lives, working hard to earn their daily bread. Their kids would be playing outside in the fields under the sun. This ghuleh would come and kidnap their kids and they would never be seen again. I don’t remember the exact details, but one fact I still do remember which is: if one ever meets that ghuleh, the best thing to do is to climb a tree and one is safe. As I write this I have a visual photo of that tree before me. It is a tree in the fields near my home, one close to a cave. We used to play there as kids and the cave was so well hidden, it had to be the ghuleh’s house. And the tree was just near by, so it must be it! The thing is, the ghuleh accompanied us all those 60 years, haunting us, making us suffer and killing our children. But my grandmother was a clever old lady, she always ended her story by telling us that one day, the remaining kids stood up as one, looked their fear in the eye and decided it was time to act. They went to the cave and kept throwing stones at the ghuleh till she fell dead! So in the end it was the kids who held the key to the salvation of their families and homes.
My other grandmother came from a family of simple but proud farmers. They had lots of land in a small village called Jrash. I have never been to Jrash and most of what I know I heard from my grandmother. Jrash was completely defaced by the Israeli Sixth Battalion of the Har’el Brigade in Operation ha-Har and its inhabitants were completely ethnically cleansed. They were forced to leave and wandered for some time on the hills. Then they moved on to an area close to Bethlehem where the UN established the basis for a refugee camp: Dheisheh refugee camp. My grandmother used to describe Jrash as a village with green meadows and hills that extended as far as the eye can see, with fruit trees, mostly almonds, figs, olive trees and carob, and cactuses growing everywhere. Together with the stone walls these cactuses formed a sort of border that indicated the lands belonging to each family. She often talked about the harvest months, “Our family had vast areas of land,” she would say sadly, as she would describe the meadows reaching to the sun, men and women working side by side, talking and laughing, how hard they worked and how happy they were. “We were very happy”. She often repeated that sentence and was so sincere but at the same time calm. She kept the key to her house till she died and she often took the time to talk to us about Jrash. Today this paradise is depopulated, and stands as ruins on empty hills, but the “Jrashis” never forgot Jrash and they carry its name in their minds and hearts.
I remember how my grandmother used to sing every now and then, I suppose in an effort to forget that her sons are each sitting in a rotten cell in one of the israeli prisons. Visit times were the most terrible. It often happened that the visit fell on the same day for more than one uncle, so the whole family had to distribute itself so each of my uncles got a visit. I believe my grandmother would have wished she could visit them all on the same day, but it was impossible, since they were never put in the same prisons. As I said, on rare occasions she used to sing some songs about a newly married couple, the wife had to sell her jewelry so her husband can buy a gun and fight the zionists. Later on in life I realized what songs these were and on some occasions, when my grandmother was resting in the sitting room and seemed sad or far away in thought, I used to play the Ashiqeen cassette: a Palestinian band that sang folklore songs. Whenever we used to play other cassettes, she would tell us to turn off that nonsense. But whenever the Ashiqeen or other folklore group was playing, she would just sit and listen. I used to watch her and then take a seat myself and listen and try to imagine the beautiful sad woman sitting in front of her little house and waiting for her brave husband to come back home bringing victory with him. Then, I would watch my grandmother and try to imagine her as a young woman, working in the fields, or sitting at the water spring with her friends laughing and gossiping or sitting with grandfather in the evening under the fig tree in the backyard and sharing bread, zaatar, olive oil and olives. I would wonder if she’d gone through the same situation during the Nakba. I know from her that the men of Jrash fought courageously defending the village against the zionist troops and that close members of her family died while defending the village. Did she sit with the other women and kids and wait for the good news of victory to come? Did she keep hoping, even after they were forced out of their homes? Did she ever stop hoping decades after the Nakba? I never asked her, but one thing I know for sure: she never lost hope of returning one day to her home in Jrash because she kept the house key right till the end.
Our daily life and our daily struggle is engraved in our folklore, it gives us the strength to go on and to never lose hope. Our cultural heritage is part of every one of us, something they can’t take away, no matter how hard they try. And despite their continuous theft and attempts to imitate our cultural heritage, the original remains sovereign, it remains Palestinian!
– Reham Alhelsi is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian. She has worked extensively in the Palestinian Broadcasting Company and since 2000, when she moved to Germany, has trained at various radio and TV networks including Deutsche Welle, SWR and WDR. She is currently writing her PhD in Regional Planning with a focus on Palestinian Land Management and local government.