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Sousan Hammad: Islands of Amnesia

February 26, 2014

Guilt was a knot in my grandfather’s stomach, and the decision to leave was a wound that only surfaced when he faded out of this world.

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Image courtesy of Sousan Hammad
By Sousan Hammad

For victims of persecution, however, the thread of chronological time is broken, background and foreground merge, the victim’s logical means of support in his existence are suspended. The experience of terror also dislocates time, that most abstract of all humanity’s homes.
—W.G. Sebald from On the Natural History of Destruction

I never got to know my grandfather until it wasn’t really him. It wasn’t until he was hit hard with dementia that I learned about his experiences in Palestine under the British Mandate and in Jordan after the Nakba, the war in 1948 that established the state of Israel.

As his dementia progressed, he became even less communicative—eventually he would die from the disease. But before my grandfather lapsed into total silence, my mother brought him to Houston from Jordan where she thought he could receive better treatment for his Alzheimer’s. Often, we watched him relive moments that would surprise us—such as when he woke up speaking monologues in bad Hebrew, assuming the role of an Israeli soldier. In these weekly, sometimes daily episodes, he relived his formative years in Lydd, a small town southeast of Jaffa. There were times he would hush us when we talked politics, pointing at the living room window and whispering in Arabic, “the mukhabarat are outside listening! They’re in the white car…”

The mukhabarat in Jordan are undercover spies for the King—taxi drivers, shoe shiners, nosy neighbors—and they do listen. Any criticism they hear of the monarchy, or anything even slightly political and related to Palestine, could result in serious punishment.

He would recite a verse, then pause to look up for acknowledgement, like children do when they first learn to read.

Sometimes my grandfather’s paranoia was severe, like when I awoke to find my shoes in the kitchen sink, soaked with tap water; he believed that tape recorders had been hidden in them. The saddest days were when he was truly afraid. He’d hold long conversations with himself in the mirror, mostly nonsensical because he didn’t know he was looking at his own reflection, but it was hard to imagine he could have invented any of it. “What does this man want?” he’d tap at his reflection, a shrunken man with oversized ears and thick white hair. “This is my house! Who are you?”

He recognized nobody at my mother’s house except for me, though he sometimes believed I was a younger version of his wife, a confusion that became slightly annoying. For those rare moments when he sought attention, he’d tug at my clothes like a nagging child and stare at me with his beady, black eyes, softly smiling all along. My grandmother, who at times became hostile to his condition, would laugh and sneer at him: “I never loved you! Who are you fooling?”

Despite the vortex of illusions and distractions, the one thing my grandfather never forgot was his faith. Though too fragile to pray, he remembered verses from the Qur’an line for line. He would recite a verse, then pause to look up for acknowledgement, like children do when they first learn to read.

One of my last memories of my grandfather is from the day he went missing. He wasn’t in the house or in the backyard. Not more than two hours after we realized he wasn’t sitting in his customary place on the living room couch, a cop rang our doorbell: “This belong to you?” he said, holding my grandfather’s arm tightly. “He was pounding at your neighbor’s window. She called us sayin there was a man speakin Arabian yelling on her driveway…”

That afternoon, my grandfather had gone out to buy tomatoes. He exited the front door and made a right turn, just like he would have in Jerusalem—only turning right from our house in suburban Houston just takes you to the front lawn of another house, and a straight walk from there takes you to several front lawns of several other homes. But my grandfather didn’t see a brick house with white window panels and brown shrubs dead from that year’s drought. He walked like he would in the Old City, and reached what he imagined was a store in the souq that sold fruits and vegetables, and knocked, rather aggressively it seems, on our neighbor’s window.

Safely back home, my grandfather was smiling mischievously, only faintly dismayed: “I just wanted tomatoes.” I told my mother that I preferred him in pre-Alzheimers mode, when he’d rationalize his irrational actions with a simple “I don’t remember,” but I still didn’t want to dissolve his made-up reality in those rare hours of liberation. His personal wants were few. I was glad for the days he happily stepped into the fantastical world of home.

There was a reason, my grandmother said, that my childhood “vacations” were in Amman, and not Jerusalem.

I looked at my grandfather and explained that it was the siesta. “Maybe that’s why the shop was closed. I’ll get your tomatoes later.”

***

In October 2013, The New Yorker published an excerpt from the Israeli writer Avi Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. The chapter on “Lydda 1948” (or Lydd, which is the original Arabic name) chronicles the destruction of the Palestinian village my grandfather is from. Shavit, who considers himself a “Left-Zionist,” wrote: “If Zionism was to exist, Lydda could not exist. If Lydda was to exist, Zionism could not exist.”

It was at this time, in 1948, that my grandfather was expelled from Lydd, making his way to my grandmother’s family house in the Old City of Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule. He had a new wife, no job, and no money.

Last summer, during a visit home to Texas, I asked my grandmother, now 89, to draw a map showing me how to get to her Jerusalem house. Only then, as she penciled in the Damascus Gate and various alleyways, did she explain why my mother’s family left Palestine. There was a reason, my grandmother said, that my childhood “vacations” were in Amman, and not Jerusalem. My grandmother did not censor the way she felt about my grandfather throughout their long marriage, feelings that she let surface, unabashedly, during those final years of his life. She still complains, though more empathetically, that it was his decision to leave Palestine.

And it was his decision, unlike the thousands of expelled families who did not have the privilege to choose their fate. Eight years after the Nakba, and two children in, my grandfather hardly had a suitable job. The 1950’s in Jerusalem were a challenging decade: people assumed the situation would return to a calm, but it only got worse, and Jordan had opportunities, so like many other Palestinians, my grandfather decided the family would go to Amman—a journey they undertook on foot. Eventually my grandfather opened a small spice shop near the city’s downtown market, making a measly monthly income that would still leave the family poor.

As I pieced together my grandmother’s stories from that period, details would change or be left undeveloped, and new characters emerged: people, like the families who walked with them to Amman, whom I had never heard about before. But her artful storytelling wasn’t new to me. My grandmother has a great talent for talking about tragedy that’s not tragic but absurd—perhaps to cover up her grief. And if anyone is willing to listen, she will gather all the stories she’s picked up throughout her long life—from neighbors, cousins, friends—and merge the memories of others to form a collective tale.

“If it didn’t happen to me it happened to someone else, so who cares if it’s not exactly my story…it still happened.”

My favorite example is the story of her father. To strangers she says he is a hero who died fighting, killed by an Israeli soldier while protecting his home, his family. To her grandchildren she has another story: that her father was shot by his lover’s husband— here she’d pause to boast about how handsome her father was and how so many women chased after him— and that her brother-in-law would later seek revenge, shooting dead the man who shot my great-grandfather. The story could be straight from one of the dubbed Turkish soap operas watched throughout the Arab world: a man is killed after getting caught in a steamy love affair by the husband of his mistress. Once, in my naïve days, I asked her why she sometimes lies about his story, so she winked at me and whispered: “If it didn’t happen to me it happened to someone else, so who cares if it’s not exactly my story…. it still happened.”

***

When my grandmother decided to take her husband back to Jordan, where he would lapse into complete silence and die one week later, she told him they were going home. My grandfather genuinely believed he was going home, but he understood home as Palestine, not Jordan. At the Houston airport, he tugged at strangers like he would tug my shirt, his neck craned to look up with those innocent eyes a person wears once the cycle of age sets back to the beginning, saying over and over, “I’m going home! I’m going back to Lydd!”

It seems altogether anticlimactic to say that my grandmother, even if she had the chance, would not want to return to her home in Jerusalem. Home, for her, is with family, regardless if it’s in Texas or Jordan, but for my grandfather the guilt was a knot in his stomach, and the decision to leave was a wound that only surfaced when he faded out of this world. Neither of my grandparents approached grief directly— in this they are like Sebald’s characters—and perhaps that is why my grandfather returned to Palestine in the end. It may not have been real, but he allowed the real and the imaginary spaces to merge—and sometimes, especially for the generation that never lived there, and who understand Palestine through its injustice and not its grief, the imaginary is what makes new spaces alive.

Sousan Hammad has lived in America, Palestine, and France. In addition to writing essays and poetry translation, she is a contributing writer to Al Jazeera America. See sousanhammad.com for more.

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One comment for Sousan Hammad: Islands of Amnesia

  1. Comment by David McHam on March 4, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    This is a wonderful piece of writing. My compliments
    to Sousan. Keep on writing about these isssues.

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