St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church
“Jesus Christ walked by right outside my house,” says Ibrahim Al-Nashashibi. He points at a painting. “Here, where I was born.” The painting depicts a rather grand old stone building on a narrow street of what looks like a Biblical town. “I spent my boyhood there,” he says. “In Jerusalem. On the Via Dolorosa. Between the Fifth and the Sixth Stations of the Cross.”
“Christ walked by outside your bedroom?”
“He carried the cross right below my window.”
I look at this man. This refugee. This lawyer from “some troubled country far away” who has become a restaurateur and a painter here in his chosen exile, San Diego.
He takes a sip of his Turkish coffee and a drag from his long American cigarette. “Probably some of the present house was there, but of course the Nashashibi family wasn’t living there at the time. We have only been living in Jerusalem — Oh, let’s see...650 years.”
Ibrahim Al-Nashashibi has filled his Midway Drive restaurant, Fairouz Cafe and Gallery, with his own paintings. They are of mosques, churches, synagogues, streets, people, markets—joyous, multicolored abstractions in an Arabic form of colors and shapes, wildly differing in styles. But the subject matter is the same: The place he clearly yearns for more than any on earth. Jerusalem. The place that, ironically, he can only return to if he uses an American passport. “As a Palestinian, as a person born there, a native of Jerusalem, I have no rights to [live there].”
Al-Nashashibi is one of 6000 Palestinian-Americans living in San Diego. Each has come here in some family drama, whether it was being caught up in the wars of 1948, 1967, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Tonight, a number of them are gathering at his restaurant, each with a different story. And despite the recent political breakthroughs in the Middle East, it’s apparent that there is much frustration to vent.
“We were part of a great dispersal—diaspora—of our people that had actually started back 150 years ago, when the Macedonians massacred a whole segment of the Palestinian population,” Al-Nashashibi says. “Many Palestinians came over to America then. North and South America. We are a people used to being invaded. To uninvited guests. We have had the Macedonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, the British. Then the Zionists. In 1948 they took over the richest part of my city. My grandfather had been a municipal judge of Jerusalem, my father a teacher. But the Israeli soldiers ordered them out of their lands and houses, and from then on my father had no job. Every day my grandfather would put me on his lap and look through binoculars the five, six hundred feet to the old lands we had. ‘This is your property,’ he’d tell me. But he died in 1963 before he could ever visit them again.
“All of us have had this experience. I still don’t understand what’s going on. The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem was an illegal occupation by an army, like Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Except this one has not gone away. Even now when the Israelis have recognition and treaties by the Palestinians and Arabs—why is there no withdrawal?” We’re sitting around a white plastic table outside Al-Nashashibi’s restaurant not far from where Midway crosses Rosecrans. “I say to my kids, growing up in freedom in San Diego, you are so lucky. I had a frightening childhood, my parents were living lives of heartbreak,” he says. “Like that day in 1948, two years before I was born, when they were told to leave. Without anything. They left every single thing as it was in their house, thinking they’d be able to come back the next day and carry on with their lives. They were never allowed to see their homes again. The Israelis just took them, blew them up, or moved in. We were fortunate that we had this other house in the Old City in Jerusalem, where I was born. We lived there, where members of our family had been ever since the King of Egypt sent my great-great — many greats — grandfather, Prince Nasser El Din Al-Nashashibi over there to be supervisor of the Holy Land. That was about 1340. We have been there ever since; his seal is still on the gates of the Dome of the Rock.
“And yet they say we have no right to live there! I could be there fighting them. My uncle is a member of the PLO. He is one of Arafat’s ministers of finance. Mohammed Zuhdi. As a matter of fact, our family was the power behind one of the two main political parties in Palestine in the ’30s, when we advocated agreeing to the dividing of Palestine into two states, one Palestinian, one Jewish. Think what bloodshed and hatred would have been saved if they had agreed. And we would have had half of Palestine, not just the two enclaves Arafat has got. But I have decided that I can do best, most, by showing my Jerusalem to the people of the world with paintings. Not paintings of bitterness, but of beauty, to show the love we feel for this place.”
Ibrahim Al- Nashashibi
There are people gathering about us. Shaking hands. Kissing two, three times on the cheek. Soon chairs are squeaking, the table’s circle is expanding as the western sky turns maroon and the lights of San Diego start turning on.
Marhaba (Good day).
Marhabtain — KeefHallak? (Good day to you — How are you?)
These friends are gathering here at Fairouz Cafe perhaps as they would at a streetside coffee shop in Jerusalem, to talk together in the cool hours. But tonight it’s to talk about being Palestinian, and being Palestinian in San Diego.
“You know why I love San Diego?” says George Khoury, an environmental engineer who lives in Rancho Bernardo. “Because it is so like Palestine! In ’86 I had to meet a cousin in San Diego. I fell in love with the city. Later that week I telephoned my wife and kids and told them to come and visit. The spell worked on them, too. I think it is because San Diego is so like Palestine. It is about latitude 32 degrees north, same as Palestine. It has temperatures just like Palestine. Coast about 70s. Sloping back to mountains behind, with boulder-strewn sides. Ramona looks just like Ramallah. And behind that range of mountains we have hot deserts! Differences? The main difference is that here in San Diego we Palestinians can live without harassment. We move about here as we like. We can talk without fear about being heard. We can study, get jobs, vote.”
Khoury is taking full advantage of the system. “I had been studying at the American University in Beirut when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. I was cut off. I couldn't go back home. I have been out ever since, just like thousands of other Palestinians. My family was back there, and there was no way I could get home. So over the years we have met in Europe, in Spain, in Italy. We’re adaptable. That’s one thing you can say about Palestinians. Take any Palestinian, throw him anywhere, he’ll land on his feet.
“After losing our country, those of us who could went straight into the professions. Lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers. Why? Because the professions are needed everywhere in the world. My oldest sister is a lawyer. The next sister is a teacher, my brother is a general surgeon, I have another sister who’s a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins, and me, I’m an engineer. I got my master’s at Berkeley in nine months. That’s how motivated I was. I was living on borrowed money. I couldn’t take any more time. Now I have three children. The first has promised me she will earn her Ph.D. in psychology. No less. Being a first-generation immigrant in this society, I cannot accept less. It’s not just the money, it’s in our blood. Even when her mother was giving milk she was feeding her ambition. The ambition to strive to be better. All her young life she has known we are a family of achievers. My son has just graduated with a 4.0 average from high school. He’s opted for UCSD Medical School. The youngest wants to be a veterinary surgeon. But that’s what we believe: hard work pays back. And being Palestinians, thrown out of our homeland, making our way in new lands, we have to work twice as hard — and if possible, in the professions.”
He laughs and does a high-five hand-slap with Al-Nashashibi. But what does he think of this compatriot who has dropped his legal profession and become an artist?
Fairouz Cafe staff (left to right): Mohammed Ramadan, Samer Murad, Shafiq Nashashibi, Yazan Kayyali, Miral Nashashibi, Tamara Nashashibi
“We don’t all carry the same weapons,” says Khoury. “I respect Ibrahim so much because he is showing the world the Palestine we love through his art. He needed to express what many of us feel. I am so proud that he should speak for us like this. He has paintings at the United Nations, you know.”
“I wanted to transfer from law to something to explain our cause as Palestinians, who we are,” says Al-Nashashibi. “My paintings were a creation. A decision. I didn’t sleep and wake up one morning and start painting. This is something I deliberately decided to do for my people. And for me.”
Al-Nashashibi offers us beers or soft drinks. “Yes, I am Muslim, but we are fairly relaxed in our family. I have the occasional beer,” he says. He brings out a tray of Al Maza beers — “Lebanon’s most popular beer” — and invites everybody to take food from the food bar inside.
Somebody drinks to the “coming peace.”
“Peace — what peace?” says Khoury. “I think this is going to be a major fiasco. Arafat — he gave all and got nothing. He trusts the Israelis. Me, I don’t trust the Israelis. I’m 46. Forty-six years of mistrust, you can’t erase that. Look at the fuss over two square miles around Jericho! What’ll happen when Jerusalem comes up? Arafat should go. Or become just ceremonial, like Queen Elizabeth or something. Give him money and let him retire. Jericho and the Gaza Strip? He’s given us a belladi—a municipality, not a state.”
“Arafats come and go,” says Ibrahim Dayeh, who owns two grocery stores — one in Golden Hill and one in Mission Beach. “I’m not a politician. Let Arafat play politics. The Israelis have desolated our land. What we need is building development, contractors over there, construction.”
“The Palestinians built Kuwait,” says Khoury. “They built Saudi Arabia — I was there nine years; there was no Jordan until the Palestinians made it. Same with Lebanon. And look at the civil services of these countries. Their professionals, their police. We are a backbone of the entire Middle East. Yet the only country we haven’t been able to build is our own. I couldn’t even get back in to my country until I could show an American passport. My family has been there for seven generations. Seven generations! It’s all there, in my names — George, Majeed, Afif, Salim, Nicola, Samaan, Daoud, Khoury. Each name is a generation, father’s father’s father, all buried in Jerusalem. And they tell me it is not my city! Yet Mayor Golding, because she is Jewish, can go and live there tomorrow! Become an automatic citizen. Even though she has no ties to Jerusalem, to the land. This is not a criticism of her — just the apartheid system that excludes us, the people of Palestine, of Jerusalem. We are shut out!”
“I’m 71 years old,” says Helen Handal, who came to San Diego with her daughter Muna, who is married to Ibrahim Dayeh. “I have lived 37 years in the U.S., but I still dream of going back to the house in Bethlehem where I was born, before I die. I want to see my father’s grave. I want to smell the sweet scent of the pears with the perfumed taste and the grapes and figs and almonds we used to grow. I can still see our house, on Shara Al-Najma, the Street of the Star, just a little way from the Field of the Shepherds and the Cave of Milk and the Church of the Nativity. Back then we were friends with Muslims, Christians, Jewish people—many intermarriages happened—there wasn’t the hatred there is today. Some of us here today have Jewish relatives. But then it was so beautiful, despite the British occupation.
“Our house was a thousand years old. We had the same neighbors for hundreds of years, many generations. Life was easier. Back there I had a baby sitter, a maid to clean house, a woman to come once a week and wash clothes, a boy my mother-in-law raised — he did chores — and I cooked. Every day, women, neighbors, and relatives, would come and chat, sitting together, knitting. When we heard my father coming, all the women would run and we’d make coffee and prepare father’s hubble-bubble [water pipe] and meet on the roof as the sun set over Bethlehem. My father was a civil engineer. He didn’t read. So my mother would read the newspaper to him. But he was a marvelous man. His father and all his brothers were civil engineers even though none went to engineering schools. There are still bridges Grandfather built near Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, standing and taking heavy traffic to this day.”
Everyone holds their conversation as Helen evokes the scenes they ache to see. “Then in May, as summer began, we’d go and spend six months at the vineyard, at Dehaisha — it was on the road to Hebron. And big. Seven dunams [about six acres]. They were glorious times. Everybody would come and visit us. And there was that smell of the pears. My brother used to make kites from wood. He was very against the English. He would send his kites up on the night breeze, lit with candles showing messages like ‘Down With Colonialism!’ We were always having problems with the British. They used to come and search our house. They put my brother in jail for 67 days. He was an avowed Communist by then.
“So when World War II started, and the British were official allies of the Russians, they actually came and offered friendship and help! But the British are bad. You can’t have British friends. They are only friends for as long as they need something from you. But the British occupation was better than the Israelis. When the Israelis came, they took everything. Rugs, silver, lights. They would steal everything! I think they are like people who have had an abused childhood. They were treated so terribly in Europe they came to Palestine and treated us badly in some kind of revenge. But what had we done to them? You know what became of Dehaisha, our summer vineyard? It’s now part of a camp with 10,000 people in it.”
Helen, who looks so calm and benign in the evening of her life; has a gutsiness about her. A fire still smoldering inside from a life that started kind and then became mean.
“My grandson keeps saying, ‘Teta [Grandma], when are you going to take me to see the house where you lived, in Bethlehem?’ I say, ‘Soon.’ And maybe I will take him, though Tony, his father, my son, is afraid for us to go. And I too have bad memories. I used to be a social worker in the Bethlehem-Jerusalem area. One day in 1948, seven of us were traveling in a car on the road to Bethlehem. Suddenly Jewish snipers shot at us. I got hit in the leg. My sister was shot in the chest. The driver got three bullets. Of the seven, only my brother was not shot. That week, when I was in bed recovering, my English supervisor, a woman, a nurse, insisted on coming to see how I was. On the way, on that same road, they shot her in the head. Killed her. If I hear a bullet today, I shiver. Maybe it is too risky for me to go back It’s so crazy! Back then we were friends with Jewish people! Amongst Palestinians, religion was never a problem. Look at us here. I am Christian, Ibrahim is Muslim. My godson’s cousin’s mother is a Jew. There are Jewish Palestinians.”
She throws her hands up in despair, then laughs the laugh of the resigned.
We are well into our second round of food. It is basically Palestinian-Lebanese and not easy for an outsider to distinguish from Greek — no surprise perhaps, since the Palestinians are thought to have originally come from the Aegean island of Crete. The table is spread with lamb riblets, yellow squash stuffed with rice and meat, eggplant, and wonderful flat bread.
Is there discrimination against Palestinians here?
“It is definitely not as bad as in Jaffa, where I come from,” says Dayeh. “We are the what the press calls ‘Israeli Arabs.' But we're not Israeli! We are Palestinian. We were just born in what has become Israel. We are the Chicanos of Israel! The way they make it difficult for you to get jobs there is they never ask, ‘Are you an Arab?' They say, ‘Can we see your military record?’ Arabs can't join the Israeli forces, even if they wanted to. So as soon as you say you have no military record, they find some way not to give you the job.
“Here it is wonderful, as a Palestinian you can live anywhere you want. But it is difficult making your way. When I came, I had qualifications as an aircraft mechanic, but here I couldn't get anything better than fixing TVs. So I have gone into the grocery store business. I have two tiendas in San Diego now.”
“America is very different for us,” says Helen. “I still disagree with many things. My husband was an aircraft engineer, and he got a job in West Bend, Wisconsin. When we arrived in Chicago, I was so shocked. Girls of 12 smoking cigarettes and wearing lipstick; young men and women kissing and wearing almost nothing on the beaches by the lake there! I said, ‘I can’t raise my kids here!' I still feel the same. There is too much freedom! We like kids to respect their parents. We like them to stay with us until they get married, not just turn 18 and say, ‘Thanks! Goodbye!' And I was afraid for all the trouble they could get into on the streets.”
“In Bethlehem and Ramallah,” says Dayeh, “you were safe and you couldn't do anything really bad. As a schoolboy I'd walk five kilometers to home, past the coffeehouses where everybody knew who I was — ‘Ah, that’s the son of...' — so I didn't dare do bad things, because my family’s reputation would be ruined. Here, people don't know you. There isn't so much community. You can do bad things and get away with it. And most people don't worry about ‘family reputation.' ”
“Yes, there has been prejudice here,” says Helen. “When people ask, ‘Where are you from?' and you say, ‘Palestine,’ they immediately drop the subject. Yet, Palestinian people are the best people in the world! They are educated more than most people. They behave themselves. But there is prejudice. I know. At West Bend, my husband was too good. The other workers didn't like the fact that ‘an Arab’ was showing them up. They went to the boss and said, ‘It’s him or us’ The boss told my husband, ‘I can’t afford to let all these people go. I’ll have to let you go,’ and suddenly my husband didn’t have a job. Suddenly there was no income. I’ll never forget it. He became sick and had a hemorrhage. I said to him, ‘We used to give food to poor people in Palestine. Now look at us!’ I wanted to go back. For years I wanted to go back.”
“My children at school get called names,” says Al-Nashashibi. “Even though they are always top of their class. My oldest son was accused of a hate crime because he responded to a kid who told him, ‘Go home — you don’t belong here.’ I offered to go to the classroom and explain about Palestinian people and Arab custom. The teacher refused. He said, ‘I’m not interested in your history or your culture. Arabs are barbarians.’ ”
Muna, Helen’s daughter, who has been listening all this time, sits up. It turns out she is the president of the San Diego branch of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). “I don’t condone violence, nor does the ADC. But at the same time, you can’t paint us all with a broad brush — ‘all Palestinians are terrorists.’ ”
Last year the ADC had a bout with the San Diego Unified School District on a world-history textbook for eighth and ninth graders. “A book co-authored by an Arab professor had gotten the highest rating,” Muna continues. “The ADL [the Jewish Anti-Discrimination League] protested the use of the book in schools here, saying it was biased against Jews, that it gave a ‘flattering image of Islam.’ So we went to the school district and persuaded them to talk with experts. We brought in many experts. They backed the book as it was, but the publishers bowed somewhat to the ADL’s pressure. They added material about Kristalnacht, which was fine, but they took out one paragraph, which talked about the destructiveness of the Israelis with our houses, the blowing up of villages, ‘collective punishment/ the gratuitous uprooting of our olive trees.”
“Actually,” says Dayeh, “the worst effect of the ’67 invasion was what it did to small Palestinian farmers. The Israelis brought in factory farming. The traditional farmers suddenly couldn’t compete. Plus they couldn’t send their dates, citrus, fish beyond three miles from their area, whereas the Israelis can go anywhere with their wares, even Lebanon. They could also confiscate land because it ‘belonged to terrorists’ or was not being made ‘full use of.’ ”
“And there used to be cold water running in channels through the middle of our streets,” says Al-Nashashibi. “The Israelis changed that. They took the water so they could sell it to the people.”
“I don’t see how this peace can come,” says Helen. “When the Zionists leave, then it’s peace. Can you imagine our frustration as Palestinian-Americans seeing all the tax money we pay Washington going to the Israelis to help them subdue our people?”
“So we get involved,” says Muna. “We use the system here, just as the Jews used it. And we’re even having some successes. Just look at the Arab-Americans who have ‘come out’: Casey Kasem, John Sununu, Senator George Mitchell. There has been a real increase in the number of Arab-Americans who are running for public office. And all of us are fighting the racist stereotypes of Arabs that you get out of the press and Hollywood, the ‘camel jockey,’ the fanatical terrorist, the corrupt sheik with too much oil money. But it’s constant work. A lot of us suffer from burnout.”
“Believe me, it’s much easier not to be active,” says Dayeh. “To have to go to meeting after meeting, night after night, after you’ve finished work — there are some Palestinians who just fade into the woodwork and accept these things because now they’re ‘American’ and the past is behind them. But not Muna, and not me. I couldn’t have married her if she hadn’t cared, passionately, as I do, about our people and the life they deserve.”
“If I had been raised on the West Bank,” Muna says, “I would have been what they call ‘an extremist,’ active in the underground, but the turn of events is that I am here, and I am determined to be vocal about who I am and what I want to see done for my people.”
“Yes!” says Helen, proud of her daughter’s spunk. “And I’ll go out to throw stones if they won’t give us freedom. Besides, my family has always been in politics. We were mayors of Bethlehem. In ’36 we used to get those fighters, the revolutionaries, into the house and feed them at night, because they were fighting for us!”
“These were the ‘minutemen’ of Palestine,” says Muna. “Fighting the British just like you. If you were British 200 years ago, what would you have called Paul Revere? Or Patrick Henry? ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ Terrorists! Who’s the terrorist? Depends on whose side you are on.”
“Of course, life is better here than in Palestine, no question,” says Dayeh, her husband. “When I went back to Jaffa recently, people I had known before had gotten to look so old so young, so depressed. They had sort of given up on ever seeing themselves free from being harassed by the soldiers, the hopeless job situation, being second-class citizens in their own land.”
“My cousin, he’s 46,” says Al-Nashashibi. “He looks 65.” But Muna sees hope for the future, and not just in the U.S. “Things are starting to happen,” she says, “here, and with the peace process back there. What we want, of course, is Palestine back. But if it’s sharing, we’ll willingly share Palestine and Israel as one country, where every citizen has the right to vote, equal rights before the law. No more apartheid. Muslims, Jews, Christians, all equal in a single, democratic state. Like the United States. If this could happen, it would be wonderful to see,” she takes a sip of coffee. “But, of course, we’re not holding our breaths. Realistically, it is probably going to have to be a two-state solution. People don’t change overnight.”
Helen has lived too long to be so hopeful.
“There may be more freedom there, and it may be quieter, but just in Jericho, not in my Bethlehem,” says Helen. “Everybody says ‘hope’ these days, but I’m afraid they’ll kill Arafat. What then? Still, I keep saying I hope I can live long enough to go back home to the Palestine I knew.”
Ibrahim Al-Nashashibi is back with cigarette in mouth, pen and sketchpad in hand — a kind of comfort habit when he’s thinking. “What we go through in our life sometimes kills the child. The child of me was left in Jerusalem. That’s why I keep painting it. I still feel the child is there. It comes back to me sometimes. I’m there suddenly, walking through the streets of Jerusalem as a boy, living my childhood somewhere between the Fifth and Sixth Station of the Cross. The next day I’m happy and relaxed.”
A few nights later, a Thursday, the night the family usually comes to visit grandma, we are at Helen's house in Del Cerro, eating the full array of Palestinian hospitality. Mahashy, stuffed grape leaves (the leaves of which Helen herself grew from grapevines); a big flat bread (khobiz) she cooked in the oven; yellow crookneck squash, stuffed with rice and meat (after being hollowed out with a long metal carving tool that had belonged to Helen's mother, which Helen brought with her from Bethlehem); lamb riblets, hummus; a homemade yogurt as a dip called laban; and a supply of tea to wash it all down. The grandchildren have already eaten and are playing in front of the cartoons on television. Helen’s lawyer son Tony is at the table with two colleagues from his legal office. They are talking earnest Americana: baseball, basketball, and soccer — and getting tickets to the weekend’s ball game. Newlyweds Muna and Ibrahim are snuggling in the dining room.
“Tony’s my oldest,” says Helen. “A good boy. Never stayed out late when he was a kid, except one time he came home at 12 o’clock. Seventeen years old. I smelled — drinking! But that was the only time. He is not committed like Muna to the Palestinian cause. He wants more to be a good American. And he is. So are his kids, my grandchildren — they’re already little Americans. But I tell them all about where we are from, and I want them to remember their grandmother as a Palestinian who was proud to be Palestinian.”
She brings out an old black-and-white photo. “This is my brother Abdullah at 23. He had been a carpenter in Bethlehem like his brothers, except he was teaching carving and design in a school. He invented a new kind of loom for weaving. The British authorities saw his work and sent him to London to study carving for six months. He later carved a table, which he gave to JFK. But this was 1933, on the ship. See? That’s Gandhi with him. On the same boat as Abdullah; Mahatma Gandhi on his way to persuade the British to give India independence. Pity he didn’t persuade them about Palestine.” In the photos, Gandhi is looking out to sea or lying curled up on a deck bench, his goat not far away.
“I was brought up pretty much in this atmosphere,” says Muna. “Mom wouldn’t let me date, so it was easier for me to hang around Arab kids. I was always a worker bee. We used to learn Palestinian dances and take them to cultural shows. That really helped me be proud of my identity. Then the big thing happened that really threw me into activism: the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That really lit a fire in a lot of people who had never been active before. We all worked at 110 percent, trying to get media attention to the genocide of our people. Places like the refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila. I’d get up at 5:00 a.m. and watch TV till 2:00 a.m., watching the destruction. Other Palestinians here were living in denial, but not me. They were calling Palestinians the scum of the earth, with no rights. There were massacres in the name of Jews, but if you said anything you were called anti-Semitic. I couldn’t see why the Palestinians were being made to pay for the Holocaust. I never attack Jews for being Jews. It’s just the Zionist movement that we have been the victims of. I believe President Bush paid the price for standing up against Israel when he said enough is enough and wanted some influence for the billions of dollars’ aid he was providing. I think that’s how come he lost the election. All that crucial lobby’s support wasn’t there for him.
“Then the second thing that has really fired me up is the Intifada. Kids with stones fighting that powerful military machine. It’s David and Goliath reversed. A lot of people here say, ‘It’s not our business anymore. We’re in a different country,’ but I believe it’s important for us Palestinians here to support them. Every day. It’s in my blood. Part of who I am. I’ll always be doing something.”
“I sometimes wonder,” says Dayeh, “why I’m involved every day, trying to raise consciousness about this issue. Is it because I am feeling guilty that I ran away from the situation there and am living here? I don’t think my friends would resent me if I went back, but I’m sure that’s why we try so hard at persuading Americans to give us a fair chance at the same freedom and independence they fought for.”
“Mom’s got us organized for Sunday, too,” says Muna as she boils the Arabic-style coffee (powdered coffee with cardamom in it, plus sugar). “She wants us to go to church. There’s an icon being brought from back east. There are more of us here than you realize.”
The next couple of days show that indeed Palestinians are successfully mainstreaming in San Diego in many fields. After building up the Star Carpet Company in Normal Heights for 18 years, Adnan Salah has just returned from his first trip back to the West Bank. “You take freedom here for granted until you go back like I did. At the airport they treated me like a criminal. Two hours’ interrogation. Complete body search. Being stopped by soldiers every time in the street. I feel angry, frustrated. Still, my wife, who’s Costa Rican, didn’t want to leave after a month with my relatives. ‘They were so poor,’ she said. ‘But they were so warm, loving, and generous with the little they had. The people back here are so much less feeling. There the poor are oppressed but they stick together.’ ”
Adan Salah holds the key to his childhood house (with children Omar and Aida)
Adnan supports Arafat’s peace process, though he doesn’t think it will come to much. “I’m not optimistic for a better life for Palestinians. They still have apartheid there. My village is Abu Deez, three miles outside Jerusalem, yet restrictions are so tough now only two to three hundred can travel to Jerusalem in any one month— out of 20,000. That’s like if you lived in Mira Mesa and weren’t allowed to travel to Clairemont. It’s impossible! And yet, when Yassir Arafat landed in Gaza I felt very excited. It was a special moment. I felt I had woken up in a different era.”
Adnan took his nine-year-old son Omar back with him. “It was weird,” says Omar. “Wherever we walked, we’d see soldiers. The soldiers were really in your face. Sometimes when they came, people would start throwing rocks. But most of the time we’d play soccer and go up into the hills. Some kids had sheep to watch. Kids back here ask if it was dangerous. I told them about this one helicopter that flew low over us. You could see the soldiers. We tried throwing rocks at it. We’d put a string around the rock to send it further. But then our parents came out and hauled us inside in case they shot at us. But Dad says there’s hope for Palestine now. He says peace is developing.”
Nader Abul Jabein was a victim of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The City of San Diego’s associate civil engineer was the first Palestinian born in Kuwait. “My parents had to flee Palestine in 1948. They escaped to Egypt with my grandparents. Then found work in Kuwait, as teachers. They left their parents in Egypt because they couldn’t take Kuwait’s heat. Fortunately, my oldest boy was born in the U.S. while I was getting my engineering degree at the University of Texas. So when the war looked like it was about to explode, the U.S. embassy warned us, and we left. We abandoned everything except a couple of bags. We came to Washington, D.C., were on welfare for six weeks until my wife got a job, then I got this position in San Diego, after sending out about 1100 resumes and applications.”
Nader misses the freewheeling work environment of Kuwait, where “any new idea would be tried. Here, things are a lot more conservative on the engineering front. But what I am reveling in is the ability to participate in society. To be able to exercise my voice. Here, I practice my freedom. You might not approve of the U.S.’s foreign policy, but the way it treats its citizens in domestic politics is wonderful.”
Already Nader has formed the San Diego Association of Arab-Americans Municipal Employees, a lobbying forum for recognition of Arab-American employees, and a body that can educate fellow workers on the reality of being Arab-American. “At first a lot of us were afraid to do this sort of thing because where we came from, if you talked, you risked prison, and many felt they just had to concentrate on making money. But I’m saying, think first as Americans, and be up-front about who you are. We’re holding seminars and responding on issues, and finally people are looking at us and perhaps appreciating us more — and learning something of the troubles we have survived. Plus, we got the authorities to agree to October 25 as the officially recognized ‘Arab-American Day.’
“I made more money in Kuwait before the war, but to have the freedom to say whatever you want, if you can substantiate it, is worth far, far more. We’re really coming out of our shells here. I love it.”
Nader too is skeptical of Arafat’s peace agreement. “Although I say ‘sellout,’ I can’t call him a traitor, because he is doing what he thinks is good for the country. And when I saw the Palestinian flag rise after Arafat arrived in Gaza, I cried.”
It’s Sunday on Poplar Avenue in City Heights. In the late morning heat, Helen and Muna Handal, and her husband Ibrahim, and a hundred others are flicking their blue service programs up and down to cool their scarf-covered faces. Outside, through the arched windows a copse of olive trees shimmers in a courtyard, silhouetting a black-hatted monk in the arched doorway. It could be a piece of Nazareth today, or Jerusalem in Christ’s time.
But this is St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, spiritual home for many of San Diego’s Christian Palestinians.
Damask gold drapes cover the doors into the nave. Across the altar, a row of hanging candles are set inside luminous, Palestinian-style, turquoise-blue glass holders. In a great, gold-framed wall painting, St. George the Victorious rides with his spear about to kill a scarlet-winged dragon in front of a golden castle, while a suffering St. Katherine looms out from the painting next door.
Nader Abul Jabein
Chants echo back and forth from the men up front to the women at the back. From out of the blue smoke of the incense burner, the loud basso voice of Father Malatius Hussney sings in rich Arabic tones. The group of men up front respond with sonorous, sad songs, led by the black-robed, bearded Orthodox monk dressed, in his black hat and veil, like Cyprus’s famous Archbishop Makarios. The heavy mist of clove-laden incense and the altar boys’ ringing of bells must give this service the precise feeling its Orthodox congregation has come for: the feeling that this could be a service anywhere in the Middle East, the Levant. What’s more, you could have walked in and witnessed almost the same ceremony any time in the last 1600 years; you wouldn’t see, and more importantly, you wouldn’t feel much difference.
Hussney’s chanting is joined by the congregation—especially the male congregation. From time to time the chanting increases in fervor, ricocheting back and forth in a dialogue. You can see men picking up words and lines lost in the long-unused strands of their memories. Hussney, just arrived from Ohio, has revived in this service chants not heard since the homeland. Once again, the men are children, chanting in the nave of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher back in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. When they finally sing “Amen,” it is in the Arabic fashion A-meen, and there is a palpable feeling of stirred emotions.
Hussney is Lebanese, but 70 percent here are Palestinian. For them, this service is special. The monk has brought with him an icon of the Virgin Mary. “This icon is miraculous,” he declares, holding up a framed picture of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. “The tears of the Virgin Mary have fallen from this icon, have been collected and mixed with olive oil, and will be anointed on your foreheads. Come up, even if you are a skeptic, for this icon is truly miraculous, and prayers may be answered.”
Hand-carved crucifix brought from Bethlehem
You can almost hear what the prayer of most is. For a homeland. For a return. Before it is too late. Helen, Muna, and Ibrahim join the shuffle in the slow line up to where the priests have brought out large trays of Communion bread and offer wine from a long brass spoon, which they wipe on a scarlet cloth. “When you come up to kiss the icon, would any ladies with lipstick on please wipe it off first,” says the monk.
The smoke, the chanting, the clothes, the language, the ancient ceremony, the felt desires of the supplicants, all leave a visitor feeling he has intruded on something too personal, too spiritually intense for an outsider. Then Ibrahim Dayeh returns down the aisle after taking Communion, kissing the icon of the Virgin, and receiving a tear-and-oil cross on his forehead. He still has some of the bread in his hand. He breaks off a piece of the bread and hands it to me.
Even when the priest announces that they will soon be adding English-only services — a sure sign of the gradual Americanization, the need to accommodate a growing new generation — the feeling that you have just “been there” remains.
“This is a cultural anchor for Palestinians here,” says Father Hussney afterwards, sitting under the olives. “They came here as homeless, stateless people. They have had to define themselves in this new land. But the two things that still unite them are language and religion: Arabic, and Muslim, or Christian. So they’ll come here partly to find the old world they had to leave and partly to reconnect with the social cohesion that has always been an important part of their lives. And in their great frustrations at their uprooted life and their inability to return to the land they love, this place provides the group therapy that keeps them sane.
Father Malatius Hussney
“In their culture, people don’t live alone. Here you can become very lonely very quickly. The Palestinian coming here knows that if he lets go of this anchor he’ll get lost at sea. Become a wanderer. And that is a terrible thing. These people have a historical connection to their soil we don’t begin to understand. They have been coerced out of it. And this service today, except for the English bits, was exactly what you would hear in the archdiocese of Jerusalem. Like there, the chanting by the men here was spontaneous. For a short time they are back where they live, in the land of Jesus and all the other holy giants they left behind.”
We sit in the flickering shade of the olive trees. The faithful walk by to kiss the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary that has cried tears for them this day. And to make a wish.