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In my Palestinian grandfather's story, I find reasons to endure

Like all refugees, Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub left the world unmoored, his memories rent from the land that made them. But his story, like Palestine’s itself, will matter well beyond the next negotiation. No empire, no flag, or sovereign can change that.

Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub with his family. (Courtesy of Samer Badawi)

Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub with his family. (Courtesy of Samer Badawi)

The Government of Palestine’s Directorate of Education, from its Samaria branch in Nablus, informed Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub that his teaching duties had been re-assigned on December 8, 1936. The 35-year-old had 11 days to report to a new school in Deir el-Ghusoun, a village that, according to a 1931 British census, was home to some 450 households, all of them Muslim.

It was in this boys-only school that the third eldest of my five aunts learned to read and write. While the other village parents kept their young daughters at home, my Palestinian grandfather, the teacher from Samaria, sat his at the classroom’s helm, where the lords of the British Empire held no rein.

In this post-peace era, palls cast over our long negotiation with Israel, these little histories can seem too quaint. After all, with so many threats against our identity, so many of our people stripped of agency, we Palestinians must spar with an awful present. But in this fight, our family chronicles make for more than wistful conversation. They give us more reasons to endure.

I was reminded of this while scrolling through an archive of my grandfather’s papers, struggling to draw some perspective from the rush of eulogies for Oslo’s ninth life. What I discovered — in his Ottoman birth certificate, his British teaching credentials, his various letters from this or that Jordanian directorate — was evidence of a life more resolute than the three sovereigns that defined it.

A letter addressed to Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub from the Deir Ballut District British Inspector. (Courtesy of Samer Badawi)

A letter addressed to Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub from the Deir Ballut District British Inspector. (Courtesy of Samer Badawi)

Ahmad was born in 1901 to Al-Haj Mustafa Ayoub, a Sufi poet from the village of Majdal Sadeq and was a subject of the vast and waning Ottoman Empire, which had by then ruled Palestine for some four hundred years. When his son was barely out of infancy, Ayoub (Arabic for “Job”) moved his family to Shweikeh, just outside the northern Palestinian town of Tulkarem. There, Ahmad completed his early schooling before enrolling in Jerusalem’s Rashidiya School.

According to a biography written by another of his grandsons, the day of Ahmad’s departure was a festive one, with neighbors and their children gathering to see the young pupil off. Back then, it seems, it was a sight to behold: a village boy bound for Jerusalem, where only a select few attended its finest institutions.

Rashidiya counts among its alumni the Palestinian nationalist poet Ibrahim Touqan, whose signature work from the 1936 Arab Revolt, the longest sustained nationalist Palestinian uprising against British Mandatory control, eventually became the lyric to Iraq’s national anthem. Although Ahmad completed his higher-level teaching certificate there, a British administrator ordered him back to the plains of Tulkarem, where he was to open new schools in the then-distant villages of northern Palestine.

And so he did. In nearly four decades of service to the Palestine he knew, my grandfather helped rear two generations of would-be citizens. To this day, some of his pupils from that era, all septuagenarians themselves, will recall how ustaz (teacher) Ahmad used to strike fear in the hearts of this or that peer, dissuading others who might foolishly be inclined to mischief. I knew Sido (grandfather) as terse and forceful, too, but I found these qualities reassuring, like the relentless rhythms of a tightly formed qasidah (poem).

In a devastating elegy to his “suffocated generation,” the Damascene poet Nizar Qabbani counsels the children of the Arab nation: “You don’t win a war with a reed and a flute.” But my grandfather, like so many of his comrades from the time, fought a different kind of war. He outlived Britain’s reign and the Ottomans’ before it, and when he retired, his end-of-service certificate, dated June 19, 1961, came stamped by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s Directorate of Education. In Nablus.

Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub and his wife, 1981. (Courtesy of Samer Badawi)

Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub and his wife, 1981. (Courtesy of Samer Badawi)

The last time I saw Sido, he was sitting on the edge of a bed in the basement of my aunt’s home in Amman. The day marked nothing in particular — no anniversary, no celebration, no birth or death. Yet there he was, ever the school teacher, his kuffiyeh draped over a black suit jacket, now loose over an atrophied frame.

“May I enter, Sido?” I asked in my timid Arabic. He acknowledged my presence, without saying a word, and I walked in to sit beside him. There, seven decades between us, we sat shoulder to shoulder and let the silence have its say.

He would die soon after, at the age of 92, just as Bill Clinton’s “peace” ushered in a new era of displacement and loss.

Like all refugees, Ahmad Badawi Mustafa Ayoub left the world unmoored, his memories rent from the land that made them. But his story, like Palestine’s itself, will matter well beyond the next negotiation.

No empire, no flag, or sovereign can change that.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Baladi Akka 1948

      Thank you, Samer, for sharing this with us all.
      Concerning the poem “Mawtini” (my homeland) by Ibrahim Touqan, I think most Palestinians consider it our national anthem too, though the ‘authorities’ chose a new one back in the ’90.
      Here are some of my favorite Palestinian versions of this song (known all over the Arab world as a song of Palestinian resistance):
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuD35JGrXYs
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QES53TRxafI
      To the memory of your grandfather, to all of our people who died in exile.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Sam

      Why is it that somehow only the Palestinian refugees have a story that is worth telling? How many millions and millions of refugees are there from the 20th century?

      My family was forced to flee Europe, they got to America, worked hard, and have a great life. They chose NOT to live in the past and chose to move forward.

      Refugees become citizens of other countries. I don’t blame the author 100%, the Palestinian Arabs are still being used as pawns by their own brethren, but this should not shock or surprise anyone. You only have to look at Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen to see how Arabs treat each other.

      So why do the Palestinians get so much sympathy? Maybe because they have Jews to blame for all of their problems?

      Reply to Comment
      • Baladi Akka 1948

        Great comment here ! Really ! Not like some of the old hasbara-stuff, no new and refreshing hasbara-stuff.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Sam: “Why is it that somehow only the Palestinian refugees have a story that is worth telling? How many millions and millions of refugees are there from the 20th century?”

        But for citizens of the U.S. there’s a particularly poignant question that doesn’t come up when considering most of these other refugees all over the world: it’s our policies and our money that’s contributing to the separation of Palestinians and their land right now, right in the present moment.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Sam: The obvious thing you are ignoring is that the same people as these refugees, their blood relatives, members of their extended families, members of their nation-by-self-determination, are under an active, continuous, brutal, illegal military occupation and have been so for over fifty years. It is an active struggle. You cannot honestly compare it to the situation with your family. Even the Soviet occupation is over. And for long years now France and England and the US are not occupying Germany and never installed their citizens there in “settlements.” And if they were and they had, rest assured, the refugees thereby displaced would have a story.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Baladi Akka 1948

      My comment went down the gutter, maybe because of links.
      I thanked Samer for sharing the story of his late grandfather with us.
      And I said that the poem Mawtini by Ibrahim Touqan is still widely considered the Palestinian anthem too, though the PA chose a new one in the 1990’s.
      I posted two links for my favorite Palestinian versions of this song, known throughout the Arab world as a song of Palestinian resistance:
      Omar Kamal: Mawtini (with English subtitles)
      Murad Swaity: Mawtini official clip)
      To the memory of all our people who died in exile.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Lewis from Afula

      The so-called “fakestinyan narrative” gets stupider with time.
      When will these arab “refugees” actually return to their “homes” ?
      2058, 2158, 2362 ?

      Each year that passes, the number of Israelis increases by 100,000 plus while Israel’s economy keeps booming.

      Leaving out its veracity (for now), the “fakestinyan” story keeps getting more convoluted, distorted & weaker as the decades pass. In another 30 years, there will be nobody who remembers 1948. In another 130 years, there will nobody who remembers anyone who remembers 1948. All that you will have is a bunch of angry antisemites who blame Jews for a despicable historical crime.
      Rings a bell ?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Lewis: Your comments ring the Holocaust bell but what rings out is not what you thought but the opposite.

        Between Poland’s Holocaust revisionism and Israel’s Nakba denial
        Poland’s attempt to scrub clean its role in the murder of European Jewry is, at its core, no different from Israel’s attempt to erase the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians in 1948.
        By Haneen Zoabi
        https://972mag.com/between-polands-holocaust-revisionism-and-israels-nakba-denial/132744/

        Reply to Comment