Maha Saca, founder of the Palestinian Heritage Center, displays the embroidered stole she was to give to Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp in May, 2009. (Photo: Getty Images)
As I continue my journey into the West Bank, I find examples of Palestinian nonviolent resistance in the most unexpected of places. At the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem, I wander into a lushly decorated traditional living room, floor to ceiling photos and artifacts, a furnished Bedouin tent, a collection of priceless traditional wedding dresses, an exhibition space for old artifacts and a gift shop. Posters attest to the many awards the Center has received for its continuous efforts to revive Palestinian heritage and to promote Palestinian culture., There is even a picture of the Pope wearing a robe embroidered by Bethlehem women.
I find the founder of this center, Maha Saca, juggling customers, visitors, and me with a generous and focused manner. Maha is the kind of glamorous woman wearing beautifully embroidered clothes and jewelry, who just laughs when I ask her how old she is. Finally we sit alone in the decorated living room at the back of the Center and she begins to tell me her story. She was born in Beit Jala just south of Jerusalem, the oldest of six, to a politically active household. Her father, Jires Saleba Rumman, fought the British, the Jordanians, and then the Israelis, "Never with guns. All struggling by culture and heritage, no weapons." Her mother, Elaine, served as the unofficial social worker of Beit Jala, frequently volunteering to care for people in need, especially children. Her family had an elegant house with gardens, Cypress trees, fruit and olive orchards. Some of the olive orchards have more recently been declared part of Jerusalem and are now surrounded by the Jewish settlement of Gilo. Maha can visit her olive trees if she can get a permit, but last year she hired an olive picker who slept in the orchard and awoke with a gun in his face, harassed by an armed settler, and she has not returned to the land this year.
As a young woman, Maha developed a love for her home, "It is part of paradise," she smiles warmly, and was politically outspoken at school demonstrations against the Jordanian occupation before 1967. Her father became a major figure in the PLO, but was expelled from the country in 1967 and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. When her father died in 2002, Maha recalls asking for a permit from the Israelis to fly from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel to attend his funeral. She was informed that permits were granted for illness,not funerals. There was no time to arrange a cumbersome exit through the Allenby Bridge and Jordan and she still deeply regrets missing his funeral.
Her siblings left to live with their father and Maha stayed behind with her mother and youngest brother until 1969 when an ambitious young engineer, Nader Saca asked the Rumman family for the hand of the 19 year old Maha. They first met on their wedding day and are happily married today with three grown children.
Maha became interested in researching the traditional Palestinian embroidered dresses as a key to maintaining cultural roots and identity in the face of expulsions, refugee camps, and an extensive diaspora. She explains to me that she found 40 different villages represented at the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and interviewed the older women, documenting their particular dresses and embroidery styles, their pill box shaped hats lined with gold and silver coins, mostly prepared for weddings. "Each dress tells a story." She shows me one hat where much of the gold is replaced by silver; the mother would remove a gold coin every time the family had a financial emergency and replace it with silver.
She is still upset that so many Palestinians sold their treasured dresses, hats, and jewelry to Israelis after the ’67 war, out of desperate poverty and a lack of appreciation for the value of their cultural heritage. In 1987 during the First Intifada, Maha opened a Palestinian cultural heritage center in Bethlehem "as part of the struggle." She continued to be politically active in the anti-occupation movement and shows me a scar on her leg where she was shot in a demonstration by an Israeli soldier in 1988. She recounts the protests and the tear gas, "many times, even in the Nativity Church and Manger Square." In 2000 during an Israeli incursion, she remembers being home alone with Israeli F 16s bombing nearby and shattering her windows on impact. She describes the occupation, "I feel myself in jail."
Despite all of these challenges, over the years she has built this cultural museum and shop, continued her research, taught countless women embroidery skills, and employed women in the refugee camps. "This is good work for women, They do it in their house."
We continue the interview in Maha’s family home after a tour of the grounds which includes a cold cellar where 100 people hid under the house for 3 days during the 1967 war. She recounts the fear and the terrible conditions, the Israeli loud speakers urging people to flee to Jordan or face death, the stream of poor desperate refugees moving eastward. She remarks forthrightly, "It is better to die in your house than to leave." She has learned the lessons of 1948 well. She keeps picking herbs for me to smell and explaining the various teas and recipes she loves. She stops to smell a white rose bush in full bloom.
Maha Saca laughs easily, her hair is beautifully coiffed and honey blond, and she is feeding me an excessive amount of tasty stuffed grape leaves and zucchinis which I am happily consuming. A Christmas tree twinkles beside the couch and her home is wall-to-wall treasures, mostly Palestinian and Syrian. Despite all the trauma and the losses she has experienced, she is clear, "I don’t believe in weapons. You are more strong by speaking than by the bullet…We can be friends with the Jewish people. We are against the occupation. Israel is very lucky to take [over] half of Palestine." She urges Israelis to stop seizing land, destroying houses, and imprisoning the Palestinian people. "If they do not do this, then one day there will be no State of Israel."
Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician and author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: The Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience.