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My Palestinian sitty embodies the humanity Israel tries to deny us

My grandmother is not just a beacon of warmth and love. Not just my first best friend. She is a survivor. She is the compass that points to justice.

By Nooran Alhamdan

A photo of my Palestinian grandmother, Najwa Qattan. (Courtesy of Nooran Alhamdan)

A photo of my Palestinian grandmother, Najwa Qattan, with Jerusalem in the background. (Nooran Alhamdan)

My grandmother was my first best friend. As soon as I’d be dropped off at her house, almost daily, the hotheaded and spoiled four-year-old me would change to well behaved and bubbly.

My teta, grandmother in Arabic, would sit me by her side while she meticulously rolled tiny stuffed grape leaves on the large dining room table. She would turn on the Arabic pop channel for me – a special treat, as I was only allowed to watch cartoons – and I would clap along with a scantily clad Nancy Ajram.

What I remember more than anything, though, is our ritual mid-day nap. It is only within the past few years that my grandmother’s hair had lost its color and length. When I was a little girl, it was long, black and silky smooth. She always kept it in a knot on top of her head while working around the house. But when it came time for her nap, she would let it tumble down her back. Laid down in bed, it would fan out across her pillow and push me almost to the opposite end of the mattress.

I can remember that hour nap so vividly. Her room always smelled sweet, like perfume and flowers. The shades would be shut, but a fraction at the top never fully closed, so dusty light would fall through the air. Teta would sleep on her side, facing away from me. Using a delicate comb, whose teeth were so fine that you couldn’t see the spaces between them, I would brush through her hair, from root to tip, repeatedly, until my eyes could no longer stay open.

When we woke up, there would only be a few hours before my entire family would gather for dinner. As the family matriarch, my grandmother’s home was the epicenter of gathering. My childhood is defined by the living room of my grandmother’s house, filled with my mother and aunts and uncles. The small guest bedrooms would be crammed with all my cousins and me, giggling and scheming, the air smelling like the warmth of hearty food and bitter coffee.

In a small house in New Jersey lived an entire legacy of homeland and dispossession, of Jaffa and Alexandria and Cairo.

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When I was six years old, my parents picked up and moved my brother and me from New Jersey to New Hampshire. It was a new place, very cold, but most notably, missing Teta. I remember how my mother would find me crying because of how much I missed her. The daily visits turned into a visit every few months.

It was only when I was older that I began to understand the stories my grandmother used to absent-mindedly tell me. When she would grate lemons into finely chopped salads and mention how the lemons in Jaffa tasted better than any other lemon in the world. How the sea there can be heard at all times. How the salt leaves a permanent kiss on your lips.

Thanks to my grandmother, I became infatuated with the love of Jaffa. There wasn’t a history book I didn’t read or film I didn’t watch. I scoured the internet for clues about her family’s house. I looked endlessly for connections on Facebook with long lost relatives of hers, trying to piece together who their parents were in relation to Teta. I memorized the names of the streets and neighborhoods: Nuzha, Manshiyya, Ajami.

On August 3, 2017 I got to live my grandmother’s dream. A rickety van drove my parents, siblings and me from Jerusalem to Jaffa. As we got nearer, I could smell the salt in the air, just like Teta told me I would. We dismounted right by the shore. The waves spread out across the sand, desperately reaching to embrace and welcome us. The clock tower stood in the center of town and I could see Teta as a child, holding her mother and sisters’ hands as they walked by it.

I couldn’t understand the seeming normalcy around me. I wanted to grab every person walking by, shake them by their shoulders and tell them: Najwa Qattan, my grandmother, was born here. She played on this beach with her sisters and brothers. She prayed in that mosque. She skipped through these streets. Can’t you see her name etched into every stone? Can’t you hear the wind whispering it?

I baptized myself in the warm water of the Mediterranean Sea. My eyes closed, and for some seconds I forgot whether I was in Jaffa or my grandmother’s house. Was the smooth sand her soft living room carpet? Perhaps the cascading waves, her hair?

I couldn’t leave Jaffa without trying to find Teta’s house – her real house. The house she was born in. The house her parents got married in. The stone house, overlooking the sea, near enough to the mosque that you could hear the athan (the call to prayer) every morning, but far enough for the sound of the sea to compete with it every dawn.

In my descent to Ajami, I witnessed the houses grow older, the people turn darker. The language of the stones, of the streets, and of its residents switched from Hebrew to Arabic.

I asked every passerby if they knew where I could find the Qattan house. You are going in the right direction, they all told me; down, down, down. I turned blindly, ran my hands over the hanging citrus, listening closely for the sound of the sea.

I reached a dead end. What looked like an abandoned mosque, fenced by wild vegetation, offered a clear view of the sea.

I didn’t find my teta’s house in Jaffa. But Jaffa has been in her small New Jersey home my entire life. She, too, has unknowingly been in Jaffa this entire time.

Palestinians celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on the beach in Jaffa, August 15, 2019. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinians celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha on the beach in Jaffa, August 15, 2019. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Upon returning to the United States, I told her in detail about the visit. She simply smiled, not saying a word, nodding her head. She knew – she had always known.

My grandmother is not just a beacon of warmth and love. Not just my first best friend. Not just an old woman with a lot of stories. She is a survivor. She is a living preservation of her city. She is the compass that points to justice. She embodies the humanity that so many wish to deny us, Palestinians.

We are a people who cherish family, who pour our hearts into everything we do, who celebrate life with vigor, despite the hardships and ugly dehumanization we constantly and consistently face. Our grandmothers are a living testament to that.

Nooran Alhamdan is a Palestinian-American student of economics and political science at the University of New Hampshire. 

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      Gee, I wonder whether any young Germans will tell us about their Grandparents’ fond memories of Koningsberg just before they left it 70 years ago ?
      Somehow, I suspect 972 mag will never tell that tale.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I recommend you satisfy your longing for this information by starting here with this journal article.

        You should work with a librarian to redirect you from your tendency to look in the wrong place for the wrong things for the wrong reasons. I thought this article was especially apt for you because the author reflects on how “Bobrowski resists convenient forms of political forgetting and simplistic interpretations of cultural history”– which are your principal intellectual weaknesses. (We won’t go into your moral weaknesses here.) But you can work on these and overcome them. Then you might search for articles on convenient Israeli forms of political forgetting and simplistic interpretations of the history of the Nakba. Good sources (in order of ease of convenience and access): +972 Magazine, Haaretz, the Israeli New Historians and post-Zionist scholarship efforts.
        Simplemindedness is bad. Intelligence is good.
        Good luck!

        Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            Ok, let’s do Morris: https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-israel-will-decline-and-jews-will-be-persecuted-those-who-can-will-flee-1.6848498

            Another point on which the historian is critical of Netanyahu sounds surprising coming from someone who argues that there is no chance for peace with the Palestinians: “his unwillingness to talk to the Palestinians about a territorial compromise. He doesn’t put anything on the table that will draw them into discussions.” ….“I don’t see how we get out of it,” he says in reference to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. “Already today there are more Arabs than Jews between the [Mediterranean] sea and the Jordan. The whole territory is unavoidably becoming one state with an Arab majority. Israel still calls itself a Jewish state, but a situation in which we rule an occupied people that has no rights cannot persist in the 21st century, in the modern world. And as soon as they do have rights, the state will no longer be Jewish.”

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Morris is a leftist back to reality. This article was written a few years ago. And in that time, many things have changed. The collapse of the Arab birthrate and the explosion of that of the Jews. In the pre-1967 borders, the birth rates of the two communities are now equivalent. In Judea-Samaria, the Jewish birth rate is infinitely higher than that of the Arabs. In about thirty years the Jews will be the majority in these provinces. Israel has the highest fertility rate of all OECD countries, which seems to be an anomaly because it is a Western-style ultra-modern state. This high birth rate is not only religious, but also secular. Israel’s birth rate is now higher than that of its Egyptian, Lebanese and Jordanian neighbors. Added to this is high-quality Jewish immigration in a context of economic prosperity and an increasing number of Arabs from Judea and Samaria who wish to make a better living abroad.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Bruce Gould: By juxtaposing the Haaretz article with the Atlantic article, as you have, you have exposed Benny Morris’ strange, strident incoherence.

            I’d like to point readers now to a direct dismantling of Morris’ Atlantic Mag argument—it makes clear Morris’ dishonesty and/or incoherence (and in passing takes a look at the similar but cruder smears by opportunists like the egregious Liz Cheney):
            How Benny Morris got it wrong on Rashida Tlaib and Palestine
            Marco Carnelos

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            Strange: When we do not agree with you we are called dishonest. Morris suffered a lot for telling the truth about Rachida and the Palestinian Authority. This leftist suddenly had a flash of lucidity that allowed him to write truths about “Palestinian” leaders and their politics that bothered the self-proclaimed leftist elites.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine: Now go back and actually read Carnelos on Morris. Carnelos makes it very clear how Benny Morris is playing fast and loose and how the way Morris frames things is in fact dishonest. Go ahead, take on Carnelos and tell me how Carnelos gets it wrong. Be specific. Otherwise, your response here to me is without substance.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordine

            The negationist Mahmoud Abbas said at the beginning of August near Nablus that the Jews had no rights over the Land of Israel. He also said that one million Muslims will release Jerusalem. All this to confirm that Morris was right to change his mind. He understood before the other leftists that the “Palestinian” cause was an invention.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            So says the Kahanist, the Otzma Yehudit apologist. LoL. Surely Itshak Gordine Halevy must have meant Netanyahu the negationist: “We will never withdraw one settlement or one outpost.” We’ve seen 10 years of non-stop Netanyahu negationism. Nothing could be clearer. Netanyahu is staking his whole campaign on negationism. The Likud gets agitated anytime Netanyahu softens his negationism in the tiniest way. Any number of Israeli politicians speak the same negationist way or worse than Netanyahu. And not just the Likud. When Ayman Odeh courageously said he would sit in a Center-Left government, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid fell all over themselves rushing to reject him and declare Kahol Lavan would not sit with any Arab parties. Kahol Lavan lining up with Likud and Kahanism. Shouting that all “the Arabs” are the same, they should all be out. All the main Israeli Jewish parties are negationist and rejectionist. The entire occupation itself is an exercise per excellence in negationism. Halevy knows all this very well.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine (Halevy):
            I appreciate Halevy for putting the fanatic’s mindset on display. Halevy is the warrior of the Jewish womb-weapon. You see the implacable fanaticism and the impossible self-righteousness. And the true aim: ethnic cleansing to the degree possible, and apartheid for the rest. We see admitted here the ethnic cleansing designs, using a brutal occupation to wear down and chase out non-Jewish indigenous inhabitants. Note the breathless, extremist language: “collapse…explosion… infinitely higher….” The brainwashed wild-eyed tone. A study in fanaticism and tenacious refusal to compromise or seek common ground. You see the implacable zero sum mentality, the implacable hate, the implacable, short-sighted gotta-have-it-all mentality. It’s not like there is any reasoning you can do with a person like this. (It will take force.)

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Itshak Gordine (Halevy): The words of Haifa University geography professor Arnon Soffer apply to you and your fellow travelers:

            “[Ettinger] and his team invent things to enable the annexation of the territories. It is undignified to even debate these jokers, who include no demographers and all belong to the extreme right.”

            But even to argue about numbers is to miss a more fundamental point. What if the proportion of Jews between the river and the sea does reach 51%? What then? Or whatever number? The other 49% suddenly disappear? Their rights disappear? It makes no sense. To a non wild-eyed fanatic.

            See the following for a non-hysterical, non-wild-eyed look at the demographic numbers, their true context and meaning, and the politics of Halevy’s ethnic cleansing and apartheid dreams:

            The Politics of Demography in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
            APR 27, 2018

            Reply to Comment
      • duh

        Herzl attempted to score a German protectorate over Palestine in 1898 (see “Germany, Turkey and Zionism”) and has been recorded twice on paper wishing he could invade Palestine (Herzl Diaries vol. III 1023 and “A Man Alone: The Life of Theodore Herzl”, 244). If Britain hadn’t allowed the infiltration of future Zionist soldiers into Palestine, the movement would’ve been dead after WWI without some means of invading the fmr. Ottoman territory.

        So to hold the Palestinians responsible for their own expulsion as the National-Socialist regime was for the expulsion of Germans from Soviet-held territory post-WWII is sleazy logic. Zionism was a legitimate threat to the non-Jews of the hypothetical state.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          There were no “fakestinyans” in 1898.
          They were only invented in the early 1970s by an ugly Egyptian terrorist.
          Before then, they simply did NOT exist………………………DUH !

          Reply to Comment
          • duh

            So you agree the Zionist movement was a threat to non-Jews in their future state. Because you sure aren’t disputing that.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            No, I do not.

            Reply to Comment
      • David

        Lewis. You are truly messed up. You are probably just grasping the fact that Zionism and its spawn, Israel, are headed for the dumpster. All so predictable.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Israel’s GDP is $380 Billion & growing
          Unemployment is lowest its ever been (without any manipulations)
          Stores are full with customers
          Israelis reported to be 11th happiest people in the World in a recent survey.
          Birth rate is highest in the Developed World
          Life expectancy is 8th in the World – higher than UK, US, Canada or Germany.

          What were you saying about a dumpster ?

          Reply to Comment
    2. Fran Stanfield

      Thank you to all those dignified and resilient Palestinian grandmothers. Being a grandma myself and seeing my pre school grand children weekly has been such a joy and a privilege. Let’s hope dignity and resilience are a gift to all grandchildren, from their grandma’s.

      Reply to Comment