“Mr. Ahmed Ebrahim?”
“Hello, this is Anthony Bannister, I’m an investigative reporter with NPR. We have a radio show coming up on May 15th dedicated to Nakba Day, and I’m looking for survivors to bear witness to what they lived through. There aren’t many refugees here in the States, but your grand-daughter Aya contacted me and said that she’s sure you’d be willing to give me an interview. As you know, not many Americans know about this catastrophe, and my job is to increase awareness.”
“That was 73 years ago. I was only 10 years old, but I’ll be happy to tell you what I remember. People should know.”
“Great. Can I come to your house to record your witness?”
“The address I have is 4604 Roosevelt Ave., in Sacramento Heights; is that correct?”
“How about next Monday morning, May 10th, at 9 am? Does that suit you?”
“That will be fine.”
“Thank you so much Mr. Ebrahim, see you Monday, God willing.”
“It’s my pleasure Mr. Bannister, see you then Insha Allah.”
My knowledge of Islam is limited, but I do know that when Muslims speak of the future, statements are always followed by ‘God willing’. I’ve started reading a translation of the Holy Qur’an since I saw it sitting next to the Bible on an end table beside the easy chair of an old Texan woman I interviewed two years ago.
I check my itinerary on the net and see that it’s 9 and-a-half hours’ drive to Sacramento, so I decide to drive on Sunday and book a room in the Rodeway Inn Sacramento Central Hotel. It’s a 2-star with a swimming pool at $100 a night, just 10 minutes’ drive to Ahmed’s House.
On Monday morning Ahmed meets me at the door with a big smile, he’s in a beige suit jacket and slacks, his white shirt open at the top without a tie, and a traditional black and white keffiyeh covers his head. Behind him in the entryway is a Palestinian flag over an old framed black and white photo of a stone house in a village. A big old iron key is hanging on the wall next to the photo.
“Good morning Mr. Bannister, please come in.” We shake hands.
“Good morning Mr. Ebrahim, Al Salam Alaykoum (God’s Peace be with you).”
Ahmed’s smile becomes even larger. “Wa Alaykoum Salam, it’s indeed a nice surprise to hear you pronounce these words. Are you a Muslim?”
“No, but I read a translation of the Qur’an sometimes.”
“So, of course you’re not fasting, would you like some tea? You can call me Ahmed.” An old woman appears in the entryway behind him. She’s in a long black dress with red trimmings and embroidery, a black and red headscarf covers her hair. “And this is my wife, Aisha.”
“Pleased to meet you, Aisha.” I extend my hand, but she motions ‘no’ with a smile, and I remember suddenly that Muslim men and women traditionally don’t shake hands with people of the opposite sex. I also realize that it’s Ramadan, so they must be fasting. “Yes, I’ll gladly have some tea.” Aisha disappears back into the kitchen.
Ahmed shows me the old photo. “This is our home in Lydda, Palestine. My children or my grandchildren will go home to it one day Insha Allah. Please have a seat.” Ahmed motions towards the living room.
As I sit on the sofa, I get out my Tascam voice recorder and set it on the coffee table.
Ahmed sits beside me. “I was very surprised by your call. Our people have been talking about the Nakba for 72 years, but the world remains deaf and blind to our suffering.”
“In fact, I too was ignorant, until I met a fellow reporter who had visited the occupied territories after the Gaza War 7 years ago. What he told me made me want to help your people. I was able to persuade the direction to do a radio show to commemorate Nakba Day this next Saturday. What is aired is subject to approval though. So, try not to say anything that they could deem as defamatory.”
Aisha comes and serves me tea and cake, then takes a seat on an easy chair. “Thank you, Mrs. Ebrahim, the tea smalls nice, it has a fragrance of sage.”
“Your welcome Mr. Bannister.”
“If you want to speak, I’ll be happy to have your testimony too. Let’s start, shall we?” I turn on my voice recorder. “How did you become a refugee Mr. Ebrahim?”
“Lydda was a quiet city. Christians and Muslims lived in peace together. There weren’t any Jewish people in our town. I was 10 years old in July ’48 when everyone in our village was rounded up and herded out by the IDF. The Israeli soldiers let us take just a few things. My mother was wearing gold bracelets and they stripped them off of her wrists, just like they took my father’s watch. They took all of the women’s jewelry, and everyone’s money. They didn’t leave anyone with any valuables. My father kept the key to the house, and we all thought that we would be coming back. There were thousands of us, and we were forced to walk all the way to Jordan. Many people dropped dead as we were walking, but the soldiers kept forcing us on. Later I learned that there were some 70,000 people in the Lydda Death March. I spent my childhood in a refugee camp in Jordan, at Al Mahatta. That’s where I met Aicha, we went to school together in the UNRWA school, and we both excelled in our studies.”
“I was better than you” Aisha adds. “Except for math, you always beat me there!”
“We both did so well in our studies that we were hired by the UN. I worked as a school teacher and Aisha worked as a nurse. My father died in the camp, and gave me the key to our home in Lydda. I’ve always kept it. I was able to return to see it once. I knocked on the door and a Jewish settler answered. I told him that it was my home, and asked if I could enter to look around. He said that it was his home now, and no Arab would ever come into his home. He told me to go away or he’d call the police.”
“How did you arrive in the USA?”
“Allah was good to us. We married in the camp, and were both able to get scholarships to study at the California State University here in Sacramento, so we managed to come here. Travelling here was hard. We didn’t have passports; Palestinians weren’t allowed to have them. We just had an official document that permitted us to travel across borders. Because we didn’t have passports, we weren’t allowed to stay in the airport like the other passengers when we were changing planes. We were separated and held in a cell like prisoners while we waited for our departure.”
“We made it though. We both got a PhD, mine is in Political Science, and Ahmed is a Doctor of Physics. We were able to get good jobs and buy our little house here. But it’s not home.”
“You’re not happy with your new life here?”
They both smile. Ahmed speaks “As I said, Allah has been good to us. We’re happy, happier than most of our people. There are almost 6 million Palestinian refugees in the world, and about a million and a half are still in refugee camps. We both still have family members in Jordan. But this is not our home. Our homes were taken from us. Any Jewish person in the world can get a visa to live in Israel, but all the Palestinian refugees may not. We dream of returning to the land that was stolen from us. We always keep hope that one day justice will prevail. Our children live here in California, but they will return to Palestine if they are allowed.”
“Is it hard being a Palestinian and a Muslim in America?”
“There is a lot of hatred and misunderstanding. I don’t blame people for the biases that they have grown up with, and we stay discrete. I only wear my keffiyeh in the house. I wore it especially for you, Aisha wore her traditional dress for your visit too. We’re fortunate, there’s a small Muslim community here, and the closest Mosque, the Masjid As-Sabur, is only 15 minutes’ walk from here.”
“May I enter and pray the noon prayer with you?” (This will have to be edited out of the recording)
“Of course, it will be a pleasure. Islam allows non-Muslims to pray in a Masjid. You will just need to do a ritual cleansing. I’ll be happy to show you how. Aisha will make you lunch.”
I spend the rest of the day with them, talking and learning about their incredible lives, until they break their fasting a little after 8 pm. Their children and their grandchildren all come to break the fast with the elders, and I thank Aya for having given me her grand-father’s name. They all confirm their wish to live in Palestine, and they consider it to be their home even though they’ve never been there. It is where Ahmed and Aisha were born.
I bid them farewell and tell them to tune in on Saturday for the Nakba Day commemoration show. There are still rooms at the Rodeway Inn, so I can head back home in the morning. As I’m about to leave Ahmed gives me a token of his appreciation, an original Palestinian keffiyeh, and I promise to wear it. I’ve become an activist, and from now on I’ll try to take part in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.