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Memories of my grandmother, a defiant victim of the occupation of Palestine

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Sitting in the backseat of a taxi heading to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I waved goodbye to my grandmother while trying hard to hold back tears. I was nine years old at the time and I had no idea that this moment would be the last time I’d ever see her again.

My sitto’s name was Myassar – a beautiful name that suited her beautiful persona. Although she faced and endured the horrors of a brutal military occupation on a regular basis, she led a very beautiful life. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have many experiences with her; after all, she lived thousands of miles away behind military installations and army-grade checkpoints. But after thinking back upon the few moments I did manage to share with her, I feel nothing short of admiration for the person she was, the kindness she embodied, and her dedication to defying the inherently vile nature of occupation, injustice, and oppression.

The earliest memory I have of Myassar happened in the summer of 2000, just months before Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount sparked the Second Intifada. My uncle led Mama, my little sister, and I up the stairs of a humble apartment building in Gaza City to where my grandmother lived. She knew we were coming but she didn’t know when so we took advantage of the circumstances and hoped to surprise her. I peered into the room and found her sitting on a beige-colored couch, but even after calling for her attention, she never turned my way. “She’s praying,” Mama told me, and that’s when I first began to take notice of how spiritually motivated and pure sitto was.

Later that evening, after we had finally settled in, I rearranged my belongings and prepared for the night ahead. There were two small beds in her bedroom. One was for sitto, the other was unused. A steady ant trail caught my eye just as sitto came through the doorway of the room. In a true display of hospitality, she politely ordered us to use both beds in the coming nights. I asked her where she intended to sleep and she pointed to a small, empty room across the hall.

I was nine years old at the time and the only things that concerned me were my die-cast toy cars. I used to bring them into that empty room and spend hours crashing them into each other. It was an ideal room for toy car racing because it featured the smoothest surface a child like me could ever wish for: no bumps, no lumps, no cracks, no carpets, just tile. Just cold tile. My sixty-plus year old grandmother spent many nights sleeping in that room with nothing more than an occasional blanket and the steady ant trail. Eleven years later, I still can’t forgive myself for forcing her to vacate the comfort of a warm bed.

Myassar was definitely small in stature but she pretended not to notice and, instead, made it her personal mission to fatten me up. Food was never hard to come by, thankfully, but living in such a densely populated city and coping with unsteady food imports due to Israel’s tight control of the borders naturally restricted portion sizes. Nevertheless, sitto made sure to defy these standards. Whatever rice she owned was cooked. Grape leaves were put to use once they were picked. She rolled maftoul with her own hands. And mangos – the mangos never finished. If she wasn’t in the kitchen preparing another feast of traditional food and drink, sitto was sitting on the same beige couch peeling the skin off of the sweetest mangos grown in the Middle East.

The child-parent dynamic always intrigues me. Being a nine year old pseudo-rebel, I took pleasure in seeing Mama take orders from sitto. Mama wasn’t bad, of course, but whenever she tried to force us into bed, Grandma always took our side. She would grab an aluminum tray, half a dozen mangos, and start peeling. Facing each other, sitting in the dark with the open window letting in a soft breeze, and scraping clean the mango pit – that was how we spent many nights. There really was an endless supply of mangos.

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t hold very many distinct memories of my grandmother. I was hoping that by writing this, the memories would magically come to me but I can only visualize vague flashbacks of her praising Mama, congratulating my sister, reading the Arabic alphabet to me, kissing us on the foreheads, reminding us of old family stories, and holding my hand. She had very small hands and whenever I held them, whether it was to help her cross the street or simply out of fear of being separated in large crowds, I felt a sense of rojoola. I was only nine years old at the time but it allowed me to practice adult-like responsibility. My purpose was to ensure sitto’s safety and wellbeing so I held her fragile hand tight.

Letting go of her hand and eventually leaving her side was one of the hardest things I had to experience during my summer vacation in Palestine. The time had finally come for us to pack our belongings and prepare for the long trip home. The next few hours introduced me to the disheartening reality of the occupation of Palestine and the apartheid-like policies enforced by the standards through which Palestinians are forced to live.

Although tensions were clearly mounting in August of 2000, the Second Intifada had not yet sparked and travel to and from the United States via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was still an option. Sitto insisted on coming with us to the airport, so we hailed a taxi and made the short trip to the hustle and bustle surrounding Ben Gurion Airport. Instead of delivering us to the front entrance of the airport through which most civilized people would enter, the taxi driver indicated that we would be entering the terminals from the back – an undisclosed location seemingly reserved for Arabs and anyone else marginalized in Israeli society. There were no fancy doorways or bright lights but there was an expanse of flat concrete, almost as if the taxi had stopped in the middle of a runway. On one side was a tall watchtower and on the other was a desolate landscape featuring a chain-linked fence.

We were met by two Israeli soldiers who demanded the driver’s identification. I noticed the two enormous dogs accompanying the soldiers the moment I stepped out of the car. I figured we would have to unpack our luggage and walk the distance to the airport entrance but sitto emerged from the taxi as well.

My sister said her goodbyes first and Mama gave her a long hug. I stood back and looked away, trying hard to disappear into the dark. Real men don’t cry, I tried telling myself as I anxiously waited for my turn. As Mama and my little sister returned to the taxi, I realized that Grandma had reached the end of her journey with us. I gave her a silent hug and quickly ran to the backseat. The taxi moved forward, quickly picking up speed, and through the rear window I stared at my beautiful sitto for the final time. There she was, alone in the dark and waving at us behind two Israeli soldiers and their guard dogs.

It turned out that sitto was diabetic. Medicine was expensive and she needed treatment. Her eyesight was readily fading and her hands shook but she managed to conceal her symptoms during the time we spent with her. She was a noble individual who refused to push her burdens onto us.

In 2003, three days before my birthday, her apartment was hit by a missile that collapsed half of her walls. The cold tile floor in the empty room became buried underneath the rubble of the walls that once hid her from air strikes in the past. The electricity had been cut off all night and Israeli armed forces had bombed surrounding areas earlier in the week. Thankfully, she sustained no injuries.

Her inspirational resiliency was made clear when she refused to move out of her apartment. She never budged to Israeli intimidation in the past so she continued to live in the remaining half of her apartment. However, her diabetes, combined with her age and the anxiety of expecting another air strike, took its toll. The Intifada was still moving strong and the Israeli military maintained direct control within and around the perimeter of the Gaza Strip. Most medicines weren’t allowed through the border. Palestinian hospitals weren’t prepared for her and Israeli hospitals weren’t necessarily open to Arabs, specifically ones from Gaza. She was forced to make do with medicine sold over the counter. Unfortunately, her pharmacy had nothing to sell.

Thinking about her still brings me to tears. I had the chance to visit her home almost two months after her death in 2004. I held the missile casing that tore through her building and I saw the empty shelves of the pharmacy across the street.

The name Myassar comes from the Arabic root word yusr, or well-being and ease. It’s ironic, particularly because she didn’t have anything close to an easy life. If anything, she was a victim of an oppressive and unjust occupation who devoted herself to making everyone else’s life easier and more comfortable. Bred out of hardship and struggle, she was blessed with a beautiful personality that served as the antithesis of the occupation of her homeland. The few moments I shared with her stand as the most golden moments of my life. I hope that by sharing with you these few memories, my beautiful sitto will never be forgotten.

Sami Kishawi is a second-year student at the University of Chicago where he studies biological sciences and human rights. He blogs at Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.

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