I lived in a house on a hill overlooking the sea. And I used to wonder in secret if the land we lived on was the same Paradise we heard about in our Anglican church and school. Not always, but on certain days when the humidity was low and our garden came alive with the fragrance and colours of fruit trees in bloom, when I could breathe in the delicious scent of fig trees everywhere I went, when the sea was a calm, shimmering blue that made me wish I could live in its depths and let its quiet currents envelop me, and when the sky was so clear I could see all the way to Acca. Had Adam and Eve once stood where I stood? Or was that some other Paradise. And if this was it, how could they ever bear to leave?
Our house was made of stone, big old thick stones that kept the house cool even on the hottest summer days. My bedroom window overlooked the garden in the back of the house. We had two olive trees in the garden, a lemon tree, an orange tree and two or three apple trees. I don’t think we had fig trees, but fig trees grew everywhere and there must have been several nearby for, to this day, no smell takes me back to that land that was my Paradise for a while like the smell of a fig tree. The olive trees were very old and one of them reached our bedroom window on the second floor. I remember climbing up and down the tree and sneaking into and out of the house through my bedroom window. I never went past our garden, but it was a thrill to get there without anyone knowing.
To get to our house by car, you had to travel on an endless, winding road all the way up the mountain. But we did not have a car so I almost never took that road. The other, quicker and shorter way you could get to our house was by the big, very long public stone staircase just a short distance down the hill from our house. The staircase led to a road beneath our house where there was a bus stop that took us to most places we couldn’t get to by foot. I remember a Baha’i temple nearby that was surrounded by vast and beautifully landscaped property, full of gardenia trees and jasmine trees. I loved going there for the trees’ fragrance; my brothers and cousins and I used to sneak onto their grounds to play hide and seek among the many trees and shrubs.
This is not to say that all was always well in my Paradise. I was born in 1939, the youngest of three boys. As my mother would recount years later, I was born in our house with the help of a mid-wife, not by choice, but because the German hospital where my mother had gone had, for security reasons, evacuated everyone the night I was born. Although no major World War II battles were fought in Haifa, the whole world was affected by the war; and I remember certain instabilities in my paradise. I remember occasionally having to run home from school, hearing planes by day and night and watching from our balcony in the evenings the raging fires by the sea where fuel tanks had been hit.
Sometimes when the troubles were more serious, there would be no school for a few days, usually because of a civil strike. The Arabs were very good at strikes back then. Every time there was a problem, they would strike. The British tried to keep law and order, but the Arabs felt the British were biased toward the Jews and they resented it. But these are all things I would learn later. Back then these isolated incidents seemed to me no more than minor interruptions in an otherwise idyllic world, like a bad dream interrupting a delicious deep sleep.
My parents were very religious. They almost never answered a question with an affirmative Yes. Instead, they would say “God willing.”
“Is it going to rain soon, Dad?”
“God willing, son.”
“Are we going to Lebanon this summer?”
“God willing, son.”
This only bolstered my secret suspicion that I was living in Paradise. For, according to my parents, it seemed that nothing could happen there unless God willed it. And on those days I felt certain this was Paradise, I would be on my best behaviour lest I too should suffer Adam and Eve’s fate.
On the weekends we sometimes visited my uncle Hakeem. He was my father’s older brother and he lived in Jerusalem. Going to Jerusalem felt like going to a different country. There were more sights and sounds and smells there than I thought possible. And after every visit and for the next several weeks before the next visit, I was convinced that I was exaggerating the memory of it all in my mind. But every time we went back it was even more than I had imagined or remembered.
My uncle lived in the Old City, in the Christian quarter. I loved running up and down the maze of sidewalks and getting lost without getting scared. All I had to do when I was ready to make my way back to my uncle’s house was ask someone to point me in the direction of Hakeem Haddad’s house – al-Hakeem was all I usually had to say. Along the way, I would stop for falafel or shawarma with my brothers and we would linger to watch old men play backgammon and drink Turkish coffee or glasses of arak outside their small shops. Sometimes they invited us in and when they learned we were related to al-Hakeem, they would give us small treats or knickknacks. Tell the good doctor they’re from so and so, they would say. It seemed that everyone knew and loved my uncle. I did too. He was one of those people who seemed even larger than he was; when he entered a room, it felt full. He was even taller and bigger than my father was and had a great thick moustache that accentuated his big round face. He had a deep, infectious laugh that sounded like it came from the depths of his stomach. And unlike my father who even laughed quietly, my uncle had a very big voice.
Maybe because he was big and loud or maybe because he was a respected doctor, my uncle had gradually become an unofficial Mukhtar of sorts in the Old City, one who settled disputes among neighbours in the quarter. They came to him every night with all kinds of problems. He kept a journal describing each dispute and when we would come to visit, he would skim his journal and choose the most entertaining, funniest, or saddest dispute and recount it vividly for my brothers and me as we listened with rapt attention, relishing his every word.
My favourite was the one about two married brothers who had inherited a two-story building. Ahmed had inherited the apartment on the first floor, and Shadi the second floor. My uncle said that Ahmed and Shadi always fought, ever since they were children. Now they were grown men with families, but still they fought. And their fights brewed. They started quietly with a casual remark, and grew, gathering force, until one of them erupted with a sling of curse words that the whole neighbourhood could hear. One such fight had been brewing for almost a year. There was a tree outside Ahmed’s apartment on the ground floor. Over time, the tree had grown. It had a very long trunk and no leaves until it reached the height of Shadi’s apartment on the second floor. There it grew leafy and lush. Pruning it back was not practical because the large, long trunk looked silly without the lush leaves and branches at the top. Shadi hated the tree because it blocked the sun and light from his living room windows. He started complaining about it casually, as it grew. His complaints grew louder as the tree grew, with leafy stems everywhere, practically blocking his window. Ahmed loved that tree and took great pride in the fact that their great great grandfather had planted it, and that it had survived and flourished all these years. Shadi wanted Ahmed to cut the tree down. Ahmed refused. Gradually, Shadi started threatening to cut the tree down himself. And this fight brewed until one beautiful, sunny summer day when Shadi, unable to see any sun from the tree, stormed down to Ahmed’s apartment to complain. Ahmed’s apartment was bathed in sunlight, which made Shadi erupt with anger, cursing Ahmed, promising to get an ax and chop the tree down himself if he had to.
Things got so heated, that both their wives were worried what the brothers might do to each other and they came running to my uncle begging for his help and wisdom. The ladies were so distraught that my uncle felt compelled to follow them back. The brothers were wrestling on the ground right by the tree when my uncle arrived. When they saw him, they were shamed into separating and standing up, although my uncle said they each had steam coming out of their ears, which was funny to imagine.
My uncle went up to Shadi and asked him to please do him a favour and wait for him in his apartment on the second floor while he talked to Ahmed.
Shadi wasn’t happy about this, my uncle chuckled, but he complied out of respect for my uncle, muttering under his breath the whole way up.
When Shadi was gone, my uncle went to Ahmed and told him how sorry he was for this mess they were in, and how terrible it was when anything came between family.
Ahmed said he loved that tree more than his brother and he was not going to chop it down for the sake of his brother.
My uncle nodded slowly. “I completely agree with you. The tree is beautiful. I would not cut it down either. In fact,” my uncle continued, “Shadi is lucky to have such a beautiful tree right outside his window to look at. I bet you wish you could see the leaves from your living room, right?”
“Yes,” Ahmed replied, “who would complain about looking out on to such a beautiful green leafy tree. I wish the leaves were lower on the trunk so I could see them without having to look up.”
My uncle nodded again. “Let me go talk to Shadi,” he said.
My uncle described shuffling uncomfortably up the stairs in the summer heat. When he got to Shadi’s apartment, Shadi’s face was still red, but he seemed a bit calmer. My uncle looked out the living room window on to the tree and said, “Ah, I see what you mean Shadi, this is ridiculous. It completely blocks the sunlight from your apartment, this tree.”
“Exactly, see?” agreed Shadi.
“Your brother can’t appreciate how unpleasant this is for you because the tree doesn’t block the sunlight from his apartment, so he gets to enjoy looking up at the tree’s leaves, while his living room is bathed in beautiful sunlight.”
“Exactly,” Shadi repeated.
“Hmmm. Yes, that does seem rather unfair.”
My uncle stopped for a second, winked at me, and asked me if I’d figured out what he was doing. I shook my head. I had no idea. My uncle chuckled again and continued with his story. “I already had a solution, you see. But I knew neither brother would agree to it if it were my idea. I had to figure out a way to make it seem like each of them had the idea all on his own.”
“What idea?” I asked.
He winked at me again and continued. “Shadi, I see your point. It’s nice for Ahmed to extol the virtues of the tree from his sunny apartment, while you sit up here in the dark.”
“I mean, it seems to me if Ahmed insists on keeping the tree, then he should be the one to suffer from living in its shade, not you.”
“Ok, let me talk to Ahmed now.”
And he shuffled back down the stairs to Ahmed’s apartment. “Oh Ahmed, I see what you’re saying. That tree is beautiful! Who would complain about having that to look out onto? It keeps his apartment in cool shade, protected from the hot sun. I would love it.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. He’s lucky, I can’t believe he’s complaining about it. I have to keep my curtains drawn to shield us from the sun.”
“Yes, yes, I see what you mean.” Here, my uncle paused and chuckled. “I would love to be able to look on that tree every day,” my uncle continued.
“So would I,” Ahmed said in agreement. “Hmmm. Let me see what I can do. Let me go talk to Shadi.”
And up he went again, sweating, pausing to wipe his sweat along the way. When he saw Shadi, he said: “Ahmed is being completely unreasonable. I really think if he doesn’t want to cut down the tree, then he should be forced to stare at it every day.”
“Ah,” my uncle continued, “I just thought of something: now I have no idea if I can convince Ahmed to do this, but do you agree with me that if he won’t cut the tree down, he should at least have to live up here and let you have the sunny apartment downstairs?”
“Absolutely,” said Shadi, “but he will never agree. He is selfish.”
“I understand, yes, it will be difficult, but let me try.”
And again, he went down to see Ahmed. “Ahmed, I’m sorry your brother is so stubborn. I said to him just now, “Shadi, if you don’t like the tree, you should switch apartments with Ahmed because Ahmed would love to be able to see the tree every day out of his window, but Shadi just snorted and said there’s no way he’s moving, the tree has to go.”
“There is no reasoning with him, stubborn mule,” shouted Ahmed, “the tree is not going anywhere unless he kills me first.”
“He is being very unfair, yes. You agree with me that the least he could do is allow you to switch apartments so you can enjoy looking at the tree every day?”
“Well, sure, sure, but Shadi will never agree to that.”
“I know, I know, I think you’re right. I don’t think he’ll agree to it, but let me try one more time. You’re being very reasonable by being willing to switch apartments with him, I don’t know why he’s so stubborn. But let me try one more time.”
And up he went to Shadi. “Shadi, your brother is being very difficult, but I think I can bully him into agreeing to switch apartments with you if I tell him you’re willing to make the sacrifice of switching places with him.”
“Well, sure,” said Shadi, “I’ve always been the reasonable one in this family. But good luck with him.”
“I know, I’ll need it. It probably won’t work. But I have your word that you’ll agree to make the switch.”
“Sure, sure,” said Shadi, certain that Ahmed would never agree to it.
Back down the stairs to Ahmed. “Well Ahmed, I’m getting old, I can’t go back up there, it will kill me. I basically tricked Shadi into agreeing to switch apartments with you so you can enjoy looking at the tree and he can have the hot sun he seems to love so much. What do you say? You get to have your tree and look at it all the time, now.”
Ahmed wrinkled his brow for a second, but then slowly his expression changed and he was beaming. “You really are a miracle worker, Doctor, thank you. I can’t believe you got that stubborn mule to agree.” And so my uncle ambled out of that apartment building, back home, with the wives shouting their profuse thanks to him until he was too far away to hear them.
He had countless stories like this, my uncle. It was from him that I first remember hearing the word Jews. My uncle and my dad were having a heated discussion when we got back from our wanderings during one visit, and I remember seeing my uncle’s face turn red and hard as he said it. “We Arabs are so stupid.” He practically spat the words into the air. “The Jews are taking the land right out from under our feet and we’re too stupid to know what’s going on. “Remember Ahmed and Shadi?” He looked at me as he said this, and I nodded and couldn’t help but smile, even though it seemed the wrong time for it. “Well, guess who just sold their building to the Jews,” he bellowed. “Some day soon, when they’re strong enough, they’ll drive us all away. And it will have been our own fault. Our own fault for letting it happen, for letting them go so far.” My father was silent then; everyone was silent. And I started to feel afraid of whoever these Jews were who might some day drive me away from my Paradise.
After that day, when we went to visit my uncle, I would go out to play and explore less often or for shorter periods of time. I wanted to sit quietly with the grownups and hear what my uncle had to say about these Jews. But that was the only time he mentioned the word, in front of me anyway. I found this reassuring and soon forgot my fears. Then one day we heard that my uncle had had a heart attack. He was 55 years old, in perfect health and physical condition, sitting on his balcony drinking Turkish coffee. He had a heart attack and died right there. It was my first experience with death and, luckily, I could not have imagined back then that it was only the first of many deaths, the mildest of the sorrows to come. I was seven years old and fifty five seemed ancient to me. I remember for a long time, well into adulthood, thinking of fifty-five as a risky age, a year when one could just as easily have a heart attack and die as cross over into old age.
I don’t remember much about how I felt about his death. I must have been sad, but what I remember isn’t the sadness, not really. What I remember is feeling like when a piece of a jigsaw puzzle goes missing. I kept seeing uncle’s face on a jigsaw puzzle piece, floating around in the universe. I couldn’t see the puzzle it was supposed to fit into, just a lone puzzle piece with his face inside my head. I still see it whenever I think of him.
Right around the time of my uncle’s death, a new family moved across the street from our house. It was a small family consisting of a mother and her teenage daughter. I knew that they were from Europe but I knew nothing else about them. The girl was pretty; her mother seemed the saddest woman I had ever seen. Sometimes the girl waited with us at the bus stop to go to school. She always stood alone. I don’t remember that anyone was ever mean to her but neither were we friendly. I wished I were older so I could have the courage to talk to her and once, when the bus was very crowded, she made room for me to sit next to her. I said thank you and she smiled at me. She always looked as though she were looking past everyone and everything to a place very far away that only she could see. I was too shy to speak to her, but she spoke to me first.
“I don’t speak Arabic,” she said in English. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes. But how come you don’t speak Arabic?”
“I’m not from here.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Poland.”
“Ok,” I said and I was quiet, trying to remember where Poland was.
“I saw you climb out of your window and down the olive tree the other night,” she whispered after a while.
This startled me. I didn’t know what to say. “I’m almost eight,” I blurted out.
She giggled and said, “I’m 10.”
I looked at her for the first time when she said that. I had thought she was much older.
She saw the surprise on my face and turned away to the window. “Where do you go when you sneak out?” she asked, her face still turned.
“It depends,” I lied. “I usually just walk around at night and see how far I can go each time. It’s nice in the dark; I can pretend it’s all mine.”
“What’s all yours?”
“Paradise.” It came rushing out of my mouth and escaped my lips before I could close them. My face felt hot and I was sure it was red. But she didn’t laugh.
“It is beautiful here,” she said quietly.
I wanted to ask her if it was more beautiful than where she came from but I was afraid.
“Most beautiful place I’ve seen,” she volunteered.
I nodded, even though it was the only country I had seen.
“You can sneak out with me one night, if you want,” I said.
“I can’t. I’d worry the whole time that my mother would wake up and find me gone. She would be very scared.”
“Your mother always looks sad.”
“She didn’t used to be this way. She used to be very pretty.”
I wanted to ask, was she as pretty as you, but the thought of saying that made my face feel hot again. Then I wanted to ask what changed, what made her sad. But I was afraid and this made me quiet. The bus arrived and we both got off without saying a word. I saw her at the bus stop after that but there were always other kids around and we never spoke again.
They didn’t stay very long. Within a few months they moved away and the neighbours were happy. I remember it was shortly after the massacre, and just before the bruises that made my father very quiet. Shortly before everything changed.
It was one of those days when the sun was so hot and the heat was so thick you felt sure that at any moment you could either burst into flames or simply melt away. We were lounging around the school playground lazily on our lunch break, too hot to play. All of a sudden the sound of sirens pierced through the hot air with a shrillness that startled us. We knew something big had happened because the sirens were many and did not take a breath. The principal rang the bell early to send us all back to our classes in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable chaos that followed. Parents started streaming in through the gates to collect their children, panic and tears all over their faces. Somehow in all the craziness, I managed to find my brothers and we ran back home as fast as we could. We got to the stone steps and ran half way up before we had to stop for breath. I looked up and saw my mother standing on the balcony waving to us to come on home.
We walked into the house and collapsed in a heap on the floor of the living room, too spent to speak. We let our faces touch the tile floor so we could feel its coolness. A few of our neighbors were standing on the balcony with my mother. When we finally regained our breath and my mother had given us each a glass of lemonade, we slowly inched our way closer to the balcony. They were all too preoccupied to notice us and we sat very quietly listening to words that hardly made sense. And that was the second time I remember hearing the word Jews. From their rantings we gathered there had been a massacre. I didn’t know what the word meant and had to ask my older brother who told me that it meant the slaughter of many people with the use of knives, the closest and scariest kind of combat imaginable, he’d said with excitement. A massacre in a nearby village in a Muslim neighbourhood. The death count was unknown.
My father came home from work a little early that day and he hugged my mother when he walked in. I remember because I had never seen him do it before. Some of the neighbours lingered and had supper with us. And I remember my father trying to calm them down and to reassure them that we were all safe. “It’s between the Muslims and the Jews,” he said. “We have nothing to do with it and nothing to worry about. It will pass. You will see. We can all live side by side, eventually.” And that was the end of the discussion. My father had a way of speaking with such calm and quiet authority that you couldn’t help but believe and accept everything he said, at least for a while and certainly for as long as you were in his presence. That night I had dreams of knives and blood but when I woke up sweating and scared, I remembered my father’s words and felt safe and calm. I looked over at my sleeping brothers and soon fell back asleep myself.
After that day, tensions were more palpable and I started hearing the word Jews and Jewish more and more often. This is what I learned. Preparations had been underway for quite some time for the establishment of a Jewish state. (I didn’t really know what a state was and why its name mattered so much.) When this was accomplished, our country would no longer be called Palestine but Israel. The tensions between Arabs and Jews had been building for some time. In the beginning there had been no fighting, only the feelings against each other were building and growing. But eventually, Jewish gangs began committing a number of massacres in small, Muslim Arab villages. They did that to scare the Muslim Arabs away because there were too many of them and the Jews thought that if they could make them leave, it would be better for the future of the state of Israel. And they were succeeding. Arabs were leaving Palestine by the thousands. I learned all this here and there from bits and pieces of conversations I overheard on the street, on the radio, in our house, at school. I thought then of what my uncle Hakeem had said to us long ago, and I was afraid.
But still, we were safe, my father insisted. He took us one day to visit what he told us was a Jewish market. It was called Hadar and it was to me a very modern and nice market and gave me a good impression of a Jewish neighborhood. I decided after that that my father was right. There was nothing to worry about. We were Christians and they had no problem with us. Our neighbourhood was a predominantly Christian neighborhood. They did not care to bother us. But as the days passed, my father said this less and less authoritatively every time. And then he stopped saying it altogether.
That Summer, in 1947, my Paradise began to crumble. My father had been wrong. There was a massacre in a well known Christian neighbourhood. Hundreds were killed. It wasn’t just the Muslims that the Jews wanted to get rid of; it was all Arabs. Many years and many kilometers later, I would hear and learn of the other side, that massacres and atrocities were committed by both sides. And I would learn of the holocaust and the suffering of the Jews, the need and urgency to have a country to call their own where nobody could persecute them. But that was long after I myself had been stateless for many years and knew what it meant. Back then, I knew only what I heard, and what I heard made me afraid. Not of death but of loss, a loss of my home and my paradise, loss of everything I knew.
A few nights after that massacre, I couldn’t sleep and I climbed down the olive tree to the garden so I could count the stars. That always made me sleepy. But there was a full moon that night and only a few stars in the sky. So I squinted up at the moon and tried to make out shapes or movement. A few minutes later, I heard a door close across the street, followed by a very loud whisper of “Shhhh.” And then I heard a car pull up. I got up and peered through the trees and bushes that hid our garden from the road and the houses across the street. I saw the Polish woman and her daughter walking toward a jeep with no lights full of armed men and a flag I didn’t recognise. I looked at the pretty girl and it seemed as though the moon had shone all its light on her face alone. She looked scared and she was crying quietly. One of the armed men was trying to comfort her, and her mother had a very calm look on her face and was gently dragging the girl along toward the jeep. I heard their quiet voices but they were speaking a language I couldn’t understand. One of the soldiers helped the girl into the jeep and she sat there against the window, looking in my direction, tears streaming down her face. Then she saw me. I was scared but I waved at her. She looked around the jeep but everyone was busy helping her mother climb in and stacking the suitcases into another jeep that had pulled up right behind that one. So she turned back in my direction and she put her hand up against the window. Then she smiled. Until that moment, I didn’t know that it was possible for a smile to be sad. The jeeps drove away and she turned back her head in my direction until the jeeps were out of sight and I could no longer see her face. That was when I first realised that I didn’t know her name. I climbed back up the olive tree and into my bed and fell asleep trying to imagine all the different names that might be hers. I wanted to tell my parents that the sad woman and her pretty daughter had left and to ask them why armed men speaking a different language had come to take them away at night, but I couldn’t because I didn’t want them to know that I had snuck out of my room. So I thought about her quietly; I liked having this secret preoccupation. And a few days later something else happened that put the Polish girl and her mother out of my mind.
My father came home one evening later than usual with cuts and bruises on his arms and face. My mother screamed at seeing him. He tried to calm her down. “Not in front of the children, Lilly,” he said. “Please honey, I’m fine. It’s just some cuts and bruises.” But my mother kept on crying quietly as she cleaned his cuts and put ice over the bruises on his face. In front of us, all my father ever said was that some street hoodlums had beaten him up. But he grew even more quiet than usual. He was now the one in need of reassuring. Others would say, You can’t leave. This is our land. If you leave you’d be doing exactly what they want. It won’t be so bad. You’ll see. So what if it’s called Israel instead of Palestine, it will still be our land and we can live side by side. But my father would shake his head. “If we stay, we will become second class citizens. I am not a single man. I can’t stay and fight for my land, my house. I have a wife and children. They are more important to me than the land.” And he would look out on the balcony at the towns and the sea. “This is not my final home,” he would whisper. “It is only a resting place.” He repeated those words often in those last few months and I wondered if he was talking to himself or to God, if he was reminding himself or trying to convince himself.
Shortly after the massacre and the hoodlums that made my father whisper quietly, we packed two suitcases and went to my mother’s family in Lebanon. My parents told us this would hopefully be only a brief visit, since mother needed to see a doctor in Beirut anyway. We did not pack as though that were the last time we would leave Haifa.
When we got to Beirut, my father said good-bye and left us to go back. It was December and we spent our first Christmas without him. My father stayed in Haifa until he couldn’t any longer.
It became known very quickly in Beirut that Haifa had fallen to the Jews and the state of Israel was declared almost simultaneously on May 15, 1948. I remember nothing about those months between December and May other than waiting. When we heard that Haifa fell and had no news of my father we prayed very hard and wept very quietly. He finally showed up unannounced at my grandparents’ door where we were staying, a suitcase in each hand. He looked at my mother in a way that made me understand what sorrow was. And he couldn’t stop apologising for only being able to bring two suitcases. He had to go by boat, it was the safest way. And they were only allowed two suitcases per passenger.
“The whole house, Lilly,” he would say, “and I had two suitcases for the whole house.” He told us over and over how he packed and unpacked the suitcases many times, each time remembering or noticing something that was more important to take than what he had just packed. Did I pack the right things, Lilly, he would ask over and over again, begging for her approval and blessing over the choices he had made. “How can you pack a whole house into two suitcases. What would you have chosen? Impossible; it’s an impossible task,” and his voice would weaken and trail off. Years later I would remember of the two cases only the family photo albums and the stamp collection, a hobby my father had passed on to us, one I was not successful in passing on to my own children.
My few years in Haifa were happy ones, memorable ones. And when we left for Lebanon with only two weeks’ worth of belongings, I had asked my mother if we were coming back, and she’d said, “God willing, son. God willing.”
“Yes, God willing,” I had answered her swimming eyes. But secretly I was afraid of God’s will for the first time. Afraid because I suspected even then that once you walk out of paradise, you can never go back.