I met Yakub in a very modern way. He had read an article of mine (this one) that had been reprinted — unbeknownst to me — in the Jordanian leftist newspaper Al Ghad (“Tomorrow”). Yakub emailed me that he liked the article, and when he learned that I was coming for a visit to the region he offered – in a typical gesture of Arab hospitality – to meet me at the airport in Amman and invited me to stay for a few days with him in the city of Irbid in northern Jordan.
Yakub (“Jacob”) was born in 1929 in the Palestinian village of Tal es-Safi, which is (was) about 25 miles northwest of Al-Khalil (“Hebron”) and in the then British Mandate administration district of Gaza. At that time, Tal as-Safi had a population of about 1000.
Yakub’s father Ahmad had been drafted into the Ottoman army in 1917 and eventually made it home alive after the end of the war. He became a carpenter and furniture maker who worked at various times in Jaffa and earned enough – unusually in that village – to send his only child to primary school in the city and later to high school in Jerusalem.
Yakub graduated with good grades in 1948, but instead of being able to use the college scholarship he earned, he became, with his parents, a refugee. On July 7, 1948 Tal es-Safi was attacked by the Givati Brigade of the new Israeli army and was occupied after meager local resistance. A couple of days later the surviving residents were pushed out of the village under orders from the new Israeli authorities and most of them – including Yakub’s parents, Ahmad and Sara – made their way on foot to Khalil. They lived out the rest of their lives as refugees in Bethlehem.
Yakub worked for the Red Cross in the West Bank for a few years and was eventually able to attend university in the US, where he earned a degree in geology. He was married in the US and in typical fashion for educated Palestinians later moved around with his family to jobs in Libya, Abu Dhabiand Dubai. Divorced, he lives alone now on his retirement savings now in the city of Irbid in in northern Jordan. His children are far away in the US and he very rarely gets to see them.
One day, while I was staying with Yakub, we went to visit the ruins of Umm Qais, ancient Gadara, on a hilltop in the very northwest corner of Jordan (above). From there you can see the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights just across the Yarmouk River, and in the distance beyond Israeli Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, where Yakub has never been.
Tal es-Safi lies many miles to the south, also in today’s Israel. Yakub has never seen his birthplace since becoming a refugee. The village is now a famous archaeological site, thought to be the ancient Philistine city of Gath. It’s remains go back to before the Bronze Age, being continuously settled since the fifth millennium BC. But Tal es-Safi’s living history came to an end in 1948, when it became just another of the 400 or so Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed by the new Israeli state. It is uninhabited now, except for bitter memories, and its children scattered to the four corners of the earth.
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Hussein is an old friend of mine in Ramallah, in the West Bank. He came of age in an Israeli occupation that began in 1967, not 1948. After studying in Beirut he returned home to become trade union organizer and became active in the National Front of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Like nearly all the Palestinian men I know, Hussein spent years in Israeli prisons, though he was never charged with any violent crime. In the meantime, he was able to raise a family and was especially proud of his oldest son Dhia, who studied engineering at Bir Zeit university.
But Dhia (or Zia, “Light”) never graduated. In 2001, near the start of the Second Intifada, he was killed by Israeli security forces while he was participating In an armed attack on one of the Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. He was just 19.
I had dinner at Hussein’s house during this visit. In his living room, there is this painting of his son with al-Aqsa, the symbol of Palestinian resistance and endurance. It includes a line from the famous Arab poet Abu Feras al-Hamdani: “In the darkness of night, look for the full moon.”