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When heroes fall far from home

Perhaps I expected some measure of defiance, for him to rage, as Dylan Thomas begged of his father, ‘against the dying of the light.’ But in the end, there was no rage left in my father, even as the core injustice of his life — that he could never return home — remained.

My father, standing in the back row, with his parents and three of his siblings in Tulkarem.

My father, standing in the back row, with his parents and three of his siblings in Tulkarem.

When he first learned the word “Palestinian,” my younger brother used it to name all things broken or not quite right. It was an innocent association—learned, as all language is, by mapping sounds to things manifest.

But in our diaspora home, Palestine was not a tactile place. Like the horizon, it was where earth and sky met: we could never quite reach it, never taste its citrus fruit or touch its olive trees, never walk its footpaths or swim in its sea.

Bereft of these things, my brother heard in those five syllables a signifier of grieving. “Palestinian,” to him, meant television broadcasts of tear gas and stones. It meant Rabin’s broken bones. It meant the resonant melancholy of our mother’s weeping.

But to me, the most Palestinian of all was our father. For years, it seemed, he spent every evening staring, wide-eyed, at those scenes from the First Intifada. He seldom wept. He often smoked. And when the news hour wrapped, he would reach for his car keys, turn to me, and ask if I fancied a drive.

It wasn’t really a question. Even as a teen, I think, I was my father’s only friend and confidant.

As he drove around Abu Dhabi, burning cigarettes like votives, I don’t remember saying a word, only listening. I sat silently as he constructed—sometimes over the course of hours—impassioned arguments against the night’s news. These he delivered eloquently, as if prosecuting the world’s injustices before a jury of one.

I could offer no verdict, of course. Instead, I learned to nod in deference at the right times, to acknowledge his pain, to internalize the only thing that seemed real to me then—that there was nothing I could do to undo his suffering.

It wasn’t until years later, as I was recounting that routine to a friend, that I began to realize the toll those drives must have taken. It wasn’t that my father needed to talk, or that I was his captive audience. It was the feeling that, if he hadn’t spoken to me about Palestine, my father couldn’t have spoken to me at all.

And so it was that, three decades on, he and I learned to have a different kind of conversation. Before he died of cancer last month, my Palestinian father wanted to speak to me of ordinary things.

We met almost every evening at his apartment in East Amman, where his sisters and their children alternated visits after his late-stage diagnosis two springs ago. The visits, we think, helped him live longer than his doctors predicted, lifting his spirits with old family lore or the infectious laughter of my light-hearted aunt, Lamis.

But when the end approached, it did so inaudibly, his days spent sleeping or, from his wheelchair, staring through a second-story window at the neighborhood children outside. Seeing him there, eyes haggard with heft, it was hard to imagine that he was their age once, the youngest of four boys and the eighth of nine children.

My father's class picture from the Fadhiliya school in Tulkarem.

My father’s class picture from the Fadhiliya school in Tulkarem.

Born in 1944 in the northern Palestinian town of Tulkarem, it was there that the green-eyed Osama, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Omar Sharif, once skipped primary school to bring his mother a sandwich of freshly grilled liver and onions.

To hear my aunts tell it, my father bought the sandwich, with the few farthings that were his allowance, because he loved his mother so. And though the purchase may well have been a ruse—an attempt to charm his way, handily, out of school—none of that mattered anymore.

What mattered was that my aunts’ accounts brought us together, knitting stories that kept my father warm while the sun set and the children scuttled home, their mothers calling scene outside his second story—in a town that is not Tulkarem and an age that can’t seem to conjure a Palestine without pain.

Go on, I told my aunts. Tell us more stories.

At my father's mourning, ten cardamom pods and two cloves cut the bitterness of black coffee, which, along with a single date, is offered to guests of the grieving family.

At my father’s mourning, ten cardamom pods and two cloves cut the bitterness of black coffee, which, along with a single date, is offered to guests of the grieving family.

One evening, after a bowl of molokhia and rice, I grew tired of these ordinary tales. Sensing his time was short, I wanted to pry wisdom from this man, something to live and die by.

“Baba,” I asked impatiently, “when did you first realize you were Palestinian?”

His lungs rationed breath, but he answered nonetheless. “Son,” he whispered, looking down at his wrist. “My watch is broken.”

“Will you take me to fix it?”

I found this non-response infuriating. Having watched him wither for 18 long months, I was, I suspect, two-fifths along the Kübler-Ross scale, and I was in no mood for metaphor. Yet there he was—my Palestinian father—dying and dead-set on fixing his watch.

"Toward the end of his illness, my father, who could no longer dress himself, often insisted on wearing his watch. When he died, it was one of a handful of small possessions he left behind.

“Toward the end of his illness, my father, who could no longer dress himself, often insisted on wearing his watch. When he died, it was one of a handful of small possessions he left behind.

He didn’t speak much in the months after that, leaving me fumbling for meaning in those cryptic words. Perhaps I expected his final wishes to offer some measure of defiance, for him to rage, as Dylan Thomas begged of his father, “against the dying of the light.”

But the would-be prosecutor was no more. In the end, there was no rage left in my father, even as the core injustice of his life—that he could never return home—remained.

Unlike his watch, I could never fix that.

When his time finally ran out, my brother and I buried him on a hill overlooking an olive grove, his green eyes facing home. A day earlier, I had held his hand as he took his last breaths, and for a moment, he stared, wide-eyed again, at some distant horizon.

I’ll never know what he saw there. What I know is that he died upright against a rented wall in a hardscrabble town that is not Tulkarem. On it hang the framed images of a life now spent, and soon, these too will be wrapped in strips of unhemmed cloth. Like the stills of my father’s memory, they are to be boxed now, odds and ends of an imaginary estate.

For as long as he lived, I have wanted to imagine it with him. But that place—the Palestine my father knew—was always his to keep. May his final resting place be his first. And may the land he so loved remain unbroken.

My father's final resting place. We buried him on Easter Sunday, on a hill overlooking an olive grove.

My father’s final resting place. We buried him on Easter Sunday, on a hill overlooking an olive grove.

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