The Car Downstairs

(In commemoration of the third anniversary of the Israeli war on Gaza, the Palestine Chronicle publishes excerpts from Ramzy Baroud’s book, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. The book, published soon after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which killed and wounded thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, is a ‘people’s history’ of Palestine, and the Gaza Strip, as it narrates the lives of ordinary individuals who made Gaza the extraordinary place that it is today. The book is available at Amazon, through the publisher, and via many online and other bookstores. An Arabic version of the book is available from the Arabic publisher in Lebanon. Gaza’s Untold Story will also be available in other languages in 2012.) 

By Ramzy Baroud

(This short section is a part of Chapter 7 of the book right at the time of the 1967 war, a description of what the author’s parents were facing during that time.)

Running

Mohammed coughed uncontrollably in a concerted effort for every breath he took, as an army truck hauled him across the Sinai desert. The numbers of surviving soldiers accompanying Mohammed on his journey to the other side of the Suez Canal was dwindling. Israeli warplanes circulated overhead and scrupulously picked off one moving vehicle after another. The truck driver maneuvered, driving in circles at times, and then bringing his truck to a complete halt at others, then resumed the journey again, all in a desperate effort to escape the bombs that fell like rain in the desert. Mohammed could not remember how or when the truck reached the Suez Canal. But he could recall running into the water, dragging a friend long dead, a fellow fighter from Gaza, as if crossing the Canal to a point of imaginary safety would bring his comrade back to life. A makeshift ferry, perhaps a piece of a blown up mobile army bridge, hauled him into the other side with other soldiers, who gazed anxiously at the sky, hoping to cross over before the warplanes returned. Once they crossed, they resumed running, for the bombs knew no bounds. Soon after, Mohammed was united with a few surviving soldiers from his Gaza unit. They were shipped to Cairo, and Mohammed, eventually, to a military hospital.

Zarefah, on the other hand, waited among the trees. She could only hear the sounds of bombs and bullets, near and far. She convinced herself that it was just a matter of time before Mohammed would arrive and take her home, but not before a quick stop at her mother’s home to fetch little Suma. On the way, she planned to tell Mohammed all about the most frightening day and night of her life, after chastising him, of course, for not coming to her rescue sooner; and he was going to tell her how the Israeli army took them by surprise, but were ultimately routed out. But what Zarefah didn’t know is that Mohammed was far, far away, in an Egyptian hospital, and that the nightmare of occupation was just commencing, and that thousands were already slaughtered on many fronts, and that dozens of Gazan men were being executed, and that Gaza was under the mercy of an army that lacked any such understanding of the notion of mercy. Worse, she didn’t realize that she was pregnant. She slept under a tree, resting against its sturdy trunk, with her legs curled up and her head resting on her knees. She was all alone and she was afraid. She woke up to a violent commotion, noises, partly made in a foreign language with which she was not familiar. The voices drew near; they were abrasive and commanding, interrupted or joined by screams, submissive words pleading in Arabic, “for God’s sake, don’t take him, he is only a child,” “I swear by Allah, soldier, my son has never hurt anyone,” “please spare him, and may you return safe and sound to your own mother.” Such exchanges would soon end with a hail of bullets, then silence, then more screams, and shouts in a language with which Zarefah was hardly familiar. But soon after, the commands were loud and clear, barking in a strange, but comprehensible Arabic accent through a loud speaker: “To all of those hiding in the orchard, come out with your hands on your heads. Those who violate the army’s order will be shot at once.” As Zarefah walked slowly forward, she discovered that she was not alone in that terrible place. Hundreds like her, mothers with their children, old men and women, all began moving in one direction, some quietly whimpering, others in complete silence. Once the crowd emerged from behind the trees, Zarefah came face to face with the Israeli soldiers. They were positioned around their tanks and behind their jeeps; they blocked all directions to the orchard and gave orders using loud speakers. The frightened refugees were eventually rounded up in a circle. Men and women were separated. Men were shackled, and women were ordered to run, as bullets were fired at and around their feet. Zarefah ran. All she could think of was Suma and what her little girl would do without her. She ran in the direction of her mother’s house, forced to take back routes when Israeli tanks emerged, seemingly from everywhere. She would hide in alleyways and wait for the tanks to pass, then she would resume running, oblivious to the fact that was running closer and closer to the menace. She saw small groups of men dashing from one street corner to another, some clutching onto old rifles, others with bloodied PLA uniforms. It was the resistance, and it hardly looked promising. She thought of Mohammed and felt overwhelmed by the mere thought. What were the chances that he was not killed or captured? She reached her mother’s house and hysterically pounded on the door, “mother, open the door, the tanks are coming!” Her mother opened the door following a brief moment of excitement and panic. Mariam was tired, her eyes bloodshot. Zarefah hardly noticed her. She flew past her mother and ran frantically around the house, looking for Suma. The child was in her cradle, sleeping soundly and clutching a homemade ragdoll that Zarefah had made for her. Only then could Zarefah feel the weight of the world coming down on her shoulders, all at once. “I think Mohammed is dead,” she wailed, before falling into her mother’s arms.

(The following is a short piece from Chapter 10, in the midst of the 1987 Intifada, a humorous account of the antics the author’s father carried out to protect  his sons from the Israeli army during the many invasions of their house.)

In our sitting room also sat a basket overflowing with miscellaneous pairs of spectacles, in an array of styles and many of them taped together and missing lenses. Beside the basket sat a large stack of books, all classics, from Homer to Hugo, Aristotle to Zola, ready for an impromptu read at a moment’s notice. My father was one of the most ingenious men I have ever met; when you looked at him, you could see the wheels turning in his brain, spinning to soup up a crazy and cockamamie business deal that only he could pull off, or some new and creative way to keep the ever present Israeli forces at bay.

My father had a challenging task, for he had five sons all entering or in the midst of their teen years, and he lived in close proximity to swaths of soldiers, who often seemed to torment us for no other reason than boredom or for sheer pleasure. It was customary when they pounded on our door for us all to dart into the sitting room, grab one of Homer or Hugo’s beloved volumes, adorn ourselves with one of the many pairs of spectacles in the basket and “pose” as studious intellectuals before the soldiers when they entered the house.

I particularly remember an episode on a sunny curfew afternoon when we had little time to “set the stage” before the door was kicked in. I grabbed a copy of Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” and buried my face in its pages, afraid to look up or make eye-contact with those who broke the door down and announced themselves as “Jews” when they stormed into our home. My father would put on the most amazing performance. He would grab the old cane that leaned against the wall beside the door for these very instances, and would limp so convincingly to the sitting room where he would explain in his impeccable Hebrew that his sons were not trouble-makers, but scholars. As my father pointed out the fact that we all were enthusiasts of “higher literature”, I braved out of the pages of my book to find that my younger brother Muneer, who sat across the room from me, wore a pair of glasses that had no lenses at all. He was reflectively taking in Hugo’s “Les Miserables” but hadn’t noticed that he was holding the book upside down. Although these moments were terrifying, I had to bite down on my tongue to keep myself from bursting into laughter, God knows what might have happened if Muneer or I would have blown our cover.

(The following is another episode when Israeli forces raided the author’s home in Gaza when he was a teenage; it is also the account of the ultimate sacrifice made by his mother, Zarefah.)

Which Hand Do You Write With?

Schools in our refugee camp were closed for extended periods, as were schools throughout the Gaza Strip. On one such typical school-free morning, my brothers and I were sleeping late. My mother was ready to watch an early morning re-run of “MacGyver”, an American TV show that was aired on Jordanian television. Sometimes she asked me to read the subtitles, but on that morning, she was content to watch MacGyver without my commentary, as he turned negligible everyday items into impressive devises that bewildered his adversaries. My father was locating the channel as my mother went to prepare the morning tea.

Unexpectedly, I was awakened by a large boot pressing against my face. My older brothers were particularly bothersome, but stepping on my face while sleeping was even too cruel for them. I woke up to find a swarm of soldiers inside the house and standing over me. They pushed the main door open, walked in quietly, and found their way into the main bedroom where my brothers and I were sleeping. Anwar was a heavy sleeper, and only woke up after two soldiers began violently kicking him and his mattress.

My mother came running from the kitchen, thinking the chaos was the result of a morning scuffle between her five sons, only to find an Israeli army unit handcuffing her children and dragging them out into the street. The event was customary. Soldiers often stormed into people’s homes and broke the arms and legs of men and boys so as to send a stern message to the rest of the neighborhood that they would receive the same fate if they continued with their Intifada.

My father spoke good Hebrew, which he learned during his years of business dealings in Israel. My mother spoke none, but even if she did, she would not have been able to articulate one legible sentence. After a brief pause, she let out a howl, and cried out to one of them, “I beg you soldier. My sons were sleeping. They have done nothing wrong. I kiss your hand, don’t break their arms. I beg you, may Allah return you safe and sound to your family. How would your mother feel if someone came to break her children’s arms? Oh Allah, come to my rescue. My children are the only thing I have in this life. Oh Allah I was raised poor and orphaned, and I don’t deserve this.”

At first, the soldiers paid no heed to my mothers’ pleas, and merely responded with “shut up and go inside”, but her crying alerted the women in the neighborhood, who served as a first line of defense under such circumstances. Neighborhood women gathered outside their homes, screaming and shouting, as soldiers lined us against the wall and brought in their club. The custom was for the soldier to ask a person singled out for a beating, “Which hand do you write with?” before the club would break it, followed by the other arm, and then the legs.

When the soldier asked one of my brothers the same ominous question, my mother’s pleas turned into unintelligible cries as she dropped to the floor and held onto one of the soldier’s legs with a death grip. The soldier tried to free himself, as two others came to his rescue, pounding the frail woman over and over again in the chest with the butts of their machine guns, and as my father forced his body between the angry solider and the desperate mother.

Made more courageous by the violent scene, especially as my mother seemed to be drowning in the gush of blood flowing from her mouth, neighborhood women drew closer, throwing rocks and sand at the soldiers. What was meant as an orderly beating of several boys, turned into a chaotic scene where women braved guns and tear gas and verbal abuse by Israeli soldiers, who eventually retreated into their military vehicles and out of the area.

Thanks to my mother, our bones were left intact that day, but at a price. She was left bruised and bleeding. Her chest was battered and several ribs were broken. She was rushed to a local hospital and was incapacitated for days. Her health deteriorated to the bewilderment of Ahli hospital doctors who hoped for an eventual recovery. Days later, doctors discovered that my mother had multiple myeloma. Apparently she had been sick for some time, but her illness was exacerbated by the violent encounter, which made her prognosis bleak.

With this, she announced to the family that she wished to die at home, for there was nothing that under-equipped local hospitals could do to help. My father would not even entertain such a notion. But how do you treat a cancer patient, with broken ribs, without health insurance, with little money and in an area that is paralyzed by strikes, curfews and daily violence?

Odyssey

My father used what remained of the family savings to treat my mother’s aggressive illness. He hired a taxi that accompanied them to clinics, hospitals and pharmacies. On days when general strikes were announced, they had to walk, at times for hours. They were frequently absent, and when they returned, they were exhausted. My mother would throw herself on her bed, and my father would sit for prolonged periods dividing his time between coughing and crying.

But my mother got even weaker, and as time passed she was unable to move without suffering severe pain. My parents resolved that they could no longer leave us alone in our neighborhood, which had become a very dangerous area, thus we were dispatched to ‘safer’ places; the home of relatives, friends and, at one point, a little shack in the middle of an orchard, with no running water, no electricity and the constant fear of being discovered and maybe killed by Israeli soldiers.

My two older brothers were sent to stay at a friend’s house, near Gaza City, while I and my two younger brothers were left in the hut in the Gaza orchard. My mother was hospitalized in Gaza City, and my father divided his time between us and her. Whenever he arrived, carrying bags of bread, apples, bananas and water, we ran to greet him. His news was increasingly grim. “Your mother’s fate is in God’s hands,” was his oft-repeated medical assessment. Finally, he decided to take her to Egypt to be treated at the Palestine Hospital in Cairo. Zarefah resisted. She told him that she would rather die in her house in the refugee camp, but he maintained that there was still hope and that he would not give up until his last breath. They went to Egypt, along with my younger brothers. My older brothers and I were relocated to a small room atop the roof of a building in Deir al-Balah. We had no telephone, and soon ran out of money. Two months later, my parents returned.

The Car Downstairs

I was awakened by a friend who told me in a somber voice that my parents were home. He wanted to elaborate, but I gave him no chance, throwing the cover to the side and running to wave to them from the roof. My father was being embraced by neighbors, as he stood by a truck with an open flat-bed. Inside the truck was a coffin draped with a Palestinian flag. It was my mother. My father soon came upstairs. He hugged us and we all cried. He gave be a small plastic bag, filled with knickknacks that my mother had bought me in Egypt. “She sent you her love and many kisses,” my father said. I hid her gifts under my mattress, and joined the rest to the refugee camp to bury her.

Nuseirat was under a curfew, and the Israeli army agreed to allow her burial on the condition that only the immediate family was to be present under the monitoring of Israeli soldiers. We arrived at the graveyard, carrying the coffin and were soon joined by Mariam, Zarefah’s mother, who came running into the graveyard calling out her daughter’s name. We began digging, but neighbors peeking through their windows quickly concluded that Zarefah has died and was being buried. My mother was a beloved neighbor. She was particularly adored among the older women of the camp, whom Zarefah treated with untold kindness. “Allahu Akbar,” resonated a voice, coming from one of the refugee homes. “Um Anwar has died” cried another. Within minutes, shouts of “God is Great” echoed throughout the camp. People appeared from everywhere, carrying Palestinian flags; women, children, old men and women, and youth, all descending onto the graveyard. Refugees were outraged that the poor woman was to be buried based on military instruction, and was followed, even to her grave, under the watchful eyes of the occupiers, their guns, tanks and a hovering army helicopter. Youth began throwing stones, and soldiers responded with bullets and teargas. But the people were not to disperse easily this time. Thousands of them ensured that Zarefah would depart the earth and enter Paradise in the company of friends, treated as a martyr should be treated. As an ambulance hauled some of the wounded to the local clinic, Zarefah was lowered in the ground amidst chants and Quranic verses, recited en mass. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” were intermingled with the whimpers and prayers of the crowd, the sound bombs, the teargas, and the hovering helicopter. My mother was 42-years-old when she died.

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