“This is where mom would have walked back and forth between the house and our farm,” Dad said, gesturing from the sycamore tree towards the gently sloping hills.
We were mostly quiet. Dad picked up a stick and half-heartedly flicked the tall grass as we walked towards the tell-tale, lone palm tree in the middle of what is now an Israeli watermelon farm. We paused to search for figs from the beautiful, ancient “jamayza” tree, miraculously still standing in the otherwise-razed plain. This tree was a precious one to us—my grandmother used to describe it to us, over and over, even decades after she had left it behind.
I remember her, once daughter of the sheik of a modest but thriving Palestinian village, sitting on the floor of her meager apartment in Saudi Arabia, her final resting place after decades of exile in multiple refugee camps. She often told stories of her wedding day, her family life, her love of the farmland that brought forth so much bounty in season. As I picked my way around the GMO watermelons that have replaced the homes, graves, and fields which stood before 1948, I struggled to grasp the fact that I was literally treading on my grandmother’s memories. My dad handed me an unripe fruit from the jamayza, and as I bit into it I reflected on many other things that would’ve been sweet, if allowed to bloom. In the noonday sun, surrounded by vast commercial farmland, the only sound was the wind, blowing with a steady and solemn tune through the gently rocking jamazya limbs.
“Here it is, we are entering the village now.” Dad announced softly, coming to a halt next to a half-demolished well. My brother, father, and I shared a surreal moment, staring down into the large, wide opening, littered at the bottom with broken stones and debris. In a breathtaking surprise, a large, snow white owl appeared below, spreading its wings and lifting gracefully and silently towards us. I shivered a little at the unexpected, ethereal visitation. Dad pointed out the large pipe that was installed in the well in early 1948, before the war. The Hebrew markings in the metal were clearly visible; Dad told me how the village had a party to celebrate the new technology, bought from their Jewish neighbors, which would greatly increase productivity. It was an ultimately futile innovation, of course—a few short months later the entire village would be expelled from their homes, leaving their precious well to rot.
It is hard to describe the horror and sadness that this “homecoming” represented to me. The silent stones, crumbling and forgotten beneath a brilliant blue sky, like torn pages from a long-lost story book…one I know I would have loved to read, to enter, even. Were there ghosts in the tall grass? We know some of our relatives died there. I wanted to know if they were ever buried; the scattered ruins, even seven decades later, seem like a haunted, half-healed wound.
I swallowed hard to fight back the fire kindling in my chest. I reverently brushed my fingers against bark of the only other tree still standing, the majestic palm. My mind flashed back to the countless, flashy advertisements I’ve seen for the free “Birthright” trips offered to Jewish students in the States. According to the website, over 300,000 students from 54 countries have taken advantage of this offer for a free tour of Israel—yet my grandmother and her sons, after being forced out of their home in 1948, would never be allowed to return. My grandmother died a refugee after sixty years of waiting for justice; meanwhile, thousands of students enjoy free tours of her homeland under the pretense of their “right” to the land. Whence does this right come, and at what cost? How many are willing to believe that so many roads, so many lives, in Israel are built over literal and figurative graveyards?
There was no resolution. After about 3 hours of pacing, poking, and, in my case, praying, we retreated. We looked back often as we trudged away from the “village,” feeling a deep exhaustion and sorrow; even though we left in peace, without bullets at our back, the moment reeked of defeat. My dad murmured softly that we would’ve had olive trees “if…” The “if” was bigger than any of us. I thought I would choke on that “if,” the “if” that stole my grandmother’s youth, my grandfather’s life, my family’s legacy.
Two Israeli youth sped by on dirt bikes, kicking up dust on the country road and temporarily dimming our vision. As I glanced back for what I swore would be the last time, I wondered about hope and history and what it must have felt like to draw ones dying breath in exile.