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Remembering Jaffa

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old mosque in salame
An old mosque in the destroyed Palestinian village of Salemeh. It is now located in the Kfar Shalem neighborhood of Tel Aviv. (Photo: Wikipedia)

As I was waiting to board the plane to Tel Aviv, the flight attendant spoke in English then in Hebrew announcing that our flight was delayed.  I sat next to  a young woman who asked me if I spoke Hebrew.  I said no but told her I planned on learning, to which she swiftly replied, if you speak Arabic, it would be very easy to learn Hebrew.  Our conversation continued and I soon learned she lived in New York City and was going to visit her parents in Jaffa.  By now, the young woman knew I was Palestinian and was traveling to visit my family in Palestine.   I knew she could relate very little to the hassles I was bound to face on my trip just by virtue of my Palestinian background.  She may never have thought about the fact that Palestinians do not have their own airport and have to fly through Tel Aviv, to be subjected to unwarranted interrogations, bodily searches, only to consider themselves lucky if they get to leave the airport.  If they make it through the airport, they then may find themselves on a bus  to Jerusalem and then on to Nablus or Ramallah,  not without going through one check point after another. I know she probably did not know that the average travel time is close to 30 hours for a Palestinian comparing to 16 hours to the Israeli.

As our conversation continued, I asked her where in Jaffa her parents lived.  She told me they live in a flat on the second floor on Salemeh street.  I could not help but feel a chill creep through my spine. Salemeh is the town where my husband was born.  What a coincidence.  Here I was, having a casual conversation with a young lady, the daughter of Jewish parents who emigrated to Palestine, who could possibly be living in my husband’s house or next door to it.  I told her my husband was born in Salameh which is just 4 miles away from Jaffa.  I told her about my trip to Salameh last year when my husband, son and I went looking for my husband’s house.  I told her we couldn’t find anything that remotely resembled his home in Salameh except for the street named Salameh. The same street where her parents lived.  The same street where my husband lived until he was driven from his home in 1948.

The young lady’s face turned red and was speechless for a moment.   She quickly changed the subject and said she never had time on her visits to get to know Jaffa to find out who is living where.  Soon after she told me this, the young girl’s group number was called and she said good-bye, wishing me safe travels.   Her face remained red, her anxiety seemed to be somewhat relieved by being able to part ways from me.  I could not help but be reminded of a young Jewish man who stopped us in Jaffa last year, during the trip we took to find my husband’s home.  He saw the group of us wandering aimlessly and kindly asked if he could help us find something.  I sadly told him we didn’t have an address, what we were looking for no longer seemed to exist.  Silence ensued which my son broke by saying “The thing is, my father was born here a long time ago and he has not been here since 1948.  We were hoping to find his house and the cafe that was on the corner of his street in Salameh.”    The young man hardly mumbled a few inaudible words and quickly scurried off. The young lady from New York’s reaction reminded me very much of that young man’s red face and anxious reaction.

My brain flooded with thoughts and I felt a deeply aching pain.  Pain for my husband, for my family, for the numerous Palestinians who have similar stories to share.  I boarded the plane feeling an overwhelming sickness and nostalgia.  I know the young lady from the plane and the young man who asked to give us directions did not know, and perhaps did not want to know, what he, my husband, and we, the Palestinian people have endured. They did not know, and perhaps did not want to know, what happened the day my husband and his family left their home.

I recalled conversations I had with my husband’s sister, who described the excruciating details from the day they were forced to leave Salameh.  My husband was only 4 years old at the time.  After a while, as they walked away from their home,  my husband could not carry on walking.  His 13 year old brother carried him on his shoulders.  Somehow, during this process, he and his brother were separated from the rest of the family and ended up in another town.  His family frantically looked for he and his brother in every town they passed by.  In the process of trying to find the two brothers, their third son, who was 18 at the time, was killed.  The family temporarily forgot about the two lost brothers as they mourned the death of their third son, who had just been accepted at the American University in Beirut.

Later, by the help of other villagers, the brothers were reunited with their family.  My husband’s sister described the vivid details of that day on several  occasions…the sights and smells of the towns they passed by, the fear as they ran away from the firing guns over their heads, the tragic death of her brother, the blood on his white shirt and his mother holding him tight to her chest as she let out a blood-curdling scream.   I often wonder what the young man in Jaffa and the young lady from New York really were thinking and feeling when they learned more about my husband’s displacement.    I wonder if they ever think about the people who built and lived in the homes they moved in.   Did they ever think of the children who lived there  and what kind of life and memories they had in those homes?  Did they think about many of those children who never made it as they tried to flee their homes?   But, more importantly, did they want to know?

I wonder if their red faces and the anxiety they projected was a result of them feeling guilty or simply an expression of their discomfort with the conversation.  Maybe I will never know.  But I know it inspired me to continue my struggle to raise awareness around the injustices that were done and continues to be done to my people.

Amal Salem

Amal Salem is a member of the Palestine solidarity committee in St. Louis.

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30 Responses

  1. Walid on August 12, 2013, 2:11 pm

    “Did they ever think of the children who lived there and what kind of life and memories they had in those homes? Did they think about many of those children who never made it as they tried to flee their homes? But, more importantly, did they want to know?” (Amal Salem)

    More on the dispossessions from an essay by Sami Abu Shehadeh and Fadi Shbaytah in EI in 2009:

    After the creation of the State of Israel on the ruins of Arab-Palestinian society, the fledgling state began absorbing thousands of new Jewish immigrants from around the world, masses of immigrants whom the state was not fully able to absorb. The state resolved this lack of capacity by distributing the homes of refugee and internally displaced Palestinians to the new immigrants. After all the Palestinian homes in Jaffa had been occupied, Israeli housing authorities began dividing the homes in the Ajami ghetto into apartments so as to provide housing for Jewish families. As such, an Arab family in Ajami, who had been displaced from their original home, and whose family and friends had been expelled, and who lived in a house with four rooms, for example, would have their new home divided into four apartments to absorb three Jewish immigrant families, and the four families would share the kitchen and bathroom.

    This process was one of the most difficult for the Palestinian families; they were forced into “co-habitation” with the people who had expelled them and, considering that many of the Jewish families included members who were serving in the army, people who were directly carrying out the ongoing violence suffered by the remaining Palestinian community.

    The horrors of war, the loss of their country, the deep rupture in the social environment, the trauma of oppression, occupation, segregation and discrimination, the demolition or theft of their original homes before their own eyes, being forced to share their homes in the ghetto with the people who expelled them from their original homes, all combined to create an overall feeling of despair and impotence among the remaining community of Palestinians in Jaffa. This collective depression eventually led many of Jaffa’s ghettoized Palestinian residents down the path of dependency on drugs and alcohol as a way of escaping the burden of powerlessness in the face of colonial oppression. It was this form of colonial oppression that transformed the thriving Bride of the Sea to a poverty and crime-ridden neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

  2. James Canning on August 12, 2013, 2:21 pm

    Great piece.

    Someone should publish a “coffee table” book of photos, paintings, old maps, etc., of Old Jaffa. As a public service.

  3. Mike_Konrad on August 12, 2013, 3:08 pm

    Old Jaffa was the prettiest city in Israel. Still is.

    Actually, the mayor of Jaffa did want to suspend fighting in 1948, but the Irgun refused the deal. Jaffa was a prosperous city and did not want to fight.

    As I understood it, 300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood – who did not represent the city – took over the defense of the city in November ’47, and were incompetent.

    Jaffa was/is a Jewel

    It was the upper crust of the Arabs in the area.

    As I understand it, those Arabs who remained were herded into a POW camp called Ajami, and forbidden to return to their houses only a few blocks away. They were then called present absentees; and their houses declared abandoned – though they were only a few blocks walk from them – and their houses were given to others.,_Jaffa

    On May 13, 1948, the day before the declaration of the Israeli state, Jaffa surrendered and Palestinian Arab residents were forced to move into Ajami, where they were subject to martial law. By the end of the war, it is estimated that over 90% of Jaffa’s Palestinian Arab residents were expelled or fled. Some 4,000 remained in Jaffa

    It is a pity. It is the only town in Israel with flavor.

    I am trying to find out why it never developed a port like Tel Aviv where one could dock. One had to go out to the ships on row boats rather than walk out on docks.

    My understanding is that the British would not allow them to build docks; but why?

    A) Was it British machinations?
    B) Arab rowboat works who wanted to keep their jobs?
    C) Or early Yishuv machinations which wanted to prevent the Arabs from having a dock?

    Jaffa was doomed.

    Even had the Arabs accepted the partition, there was no way Jaffa could have survived as an isolated free city, like Danzig, before the war. My understanding was that Menachem Begin had NO intention of letting it survive as an Arab town.

    2 min documentary on Ajami

    Even as a slum, it is gorgeous!

    News report on Ajami’s Jewish only project

    I usually support Israel, but would it have killed the Jewish state to leave Ajami alone.

    • tree on August 12, 2013, 6:56 pm

      Why do you “usually support Israel”, when things like this are the norm for Israeli actions? Does it only bother you because you view the city of Jaffa as beautiful? Does the immense harm caused to Palestinian human beings, in the past up until the very present not bother you?

      Honestly, this is not a rhetorical question. Since this is not some aberration on Israel’s part, why do you continue to support it?

    • Obsidian on August 13, 2013, 2:55 am

      I was in Jaffa yesterday. It is a congested, unattractive, graceless town that Amal’s family would look down on.
      The Ottoman’s unsuccessfully imposed a mild Western veneer over parts of it and the British arbitrarily destroyed enormous swaths of Jaffa port in 1936.

      • Inanna on August 13, 2013, 10:40 pm

        Yours is an unattractive, graceless comment. How dare you impose your view on how Amal and her family would look upon Jaffa. And since when were the Ottomans westerners? I’m sure that a surprise to Turks and Arabs.

      • Obsidian on August 14, 2013, 12:34 am


        When was the last time you visited Jaffa?

      • Walid on August 14, 2013, 12:49 am

        Inanna, the authenticity of the red roofs and general architecture all over Palestine’s and Lebanon’s older homes is neither Ottoman nor local. They’re Italian and introduced to the area by the Ottomans in the 19th century. Obsidian did not go on to elaborate that if there was something of a bad taste in Jaffa, it was Israel’s attempt to turn this once charming city into a tourist and artists’ haven.

      • Xpat on August 15, 2013, 6:48 pm

        @Obsidian – “When was the last time you visited Jaffa?”

        How about, yesterday morning, a few hours before you came by, just before “the Ottomans unsuccessfully imposed a mild Western veneer over parts of it”?

      • Xpat on August 13, 2013, 11:34 pm

        The Bosphorus has western style palaces built by 19th century viziers. The Ottomans nteracted with and were nfluenced by other cultures. James Loewen in “Lies my teacher told me” illustrates how European settlers in America expected the Native population to preserve their pre-columbian culture intact. Otherwise, they were considered to have corrupted their own civilization. Europeam culture is constantly evolving, but that is a right that the dominan culture denied the indigenous one.
        Obsidian, your attitude to Jaffa’s articheture is typical of a colonial invader.

      • James Canning on August 14, 2013, 1:49 pm

        @Elliott – – I take it you see the great beauty once possessed by Jaffa. One wonders to what extent this could be restored.

  4. Citizen on August 12, 2013, 3:41 pm

    A very, very interesting and poignant piece, Amal Salem. Thank you for going to the trouble of writing it and sharing it with MW readers. I think many Americans just as soon not hear about Anne Frank or the Holocaust, but here in the USA, they are forced to learn such things. I think that is good. I only wish they were also forced to learn about the Nakba, not only because they need to be taught that things happening outside the USA are part of their responsibility as to US foreign policy, implemented with their tax dollars and lives and reputation as Americans, but because such perspective is needed so as not to be sold a bill of goods, and to put their own country in perspective of the larger world.
    It’s awkward, to know one is heir to a murderous thief’s baggage. I’m thinking some very intelligent people have no problem with that, so long as they live high, dry, and well-off, e.g., Goering at his zenith. The irony is Goering’s rational at Nuremberg is a significant mirror of contemporary Israel’s. And, at the end of the day, two wrongs don’t make a right. We don’t like pear-shaped figures.

  5. tree on August 12, 2013, 3:47 pm

    Thank you Amal. And keep telling the story of your family.

    I remember in 2000, when I started to learn more about the situation I was quite shocked to realize that so many Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948, and never allowed to return. I was uneasy with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, in a vague and under-informed way, but learning about what happened in 1948, and before, was what led me to realize that Israel is and has always been unjust even with the green line. Americans are for the most part ignorant of all this. Some won’t care. Many will. Keep up the good work.

  6. jimbowski on August 12, 2013, 4:35 pm

    Wow, thanks for sharing! I think the current inhabitants “did not know” as you said, but that they also “did not want to know.” :-(

  7. just on August 12, 2013, 4:48 pm

    Thank you very much for this heartbreaking and beautifully expressed essay, Amal.

    I’m “speechless”. May justice be done– soon……….. The Palestinian people have waited for far too long, and we in the US are complicit in their agony, and bear enormous responsibility. I am ashamed.

  8. annie on August 12, 2013, 5:22 pm

    thank you for telling us this heartwrenching personal history. the eighteen year old brother. that must have been….

    there was a local man i met here in the bay area who told me of his family’s flight. his sister was killed when they were exiting their village. she was 18 also. it’s hard to imaging people, a family, a person, going thru so much trauma all at one time. i remember when my sister died and i can hardly imagine going thru that while on some forced expulsion. people can be so cruel. anyway..rambling.

    i wonder if they were laughing while they killed him.

    • ToivoS on August 12, 2013, 6:40 pm

      This reminds me of the reminiscence of that Palmach veteran who described his 1948 experience in driving out the Palestinians. He was a sniper and quite openly admitted to killing a number of Palestinians who lingered or weren’t walking fast enough. He was quite proud that he only shot enough to keep the whole column moving. He said killing two was enough to provide incentive to the rest so a full scale blood bath was unnecessary. If you recall your Nakba history the Palmach were the kindly Israelis not like the unkindly ones who committed the massacre at Dar Yasein.

      • Citizen on August 12, 2013, 9:04 pm

        Sort of like demented cowboys moving the herd along…. to the fenced-in area. Also reminds me of the Bataan March and oh so much old footage of columns being moved along in Germany’s old occupied zones.

      • MHughes976 on August 13, 2013, 12:15 pm

        Didn’t the Palmach stand for socialism and the international liberation of the working class?

      • ToivoS on August 13, 2013, 8:42 pm

        Actually it means ‘shock troops’.

  9. just on August 12, 2013, 6:56 pm

    How does one “walk fast enough” while your family, your memories, your heritage is being driven out of your home? The Nakba continues. The Holocaust has stopped.

    The ongoing Nakba is a disgrace.

  10. ritzl on August 12, 2013, 7:32 pm

    May the faces you turn to red be as countless as the stars in the sky.

    Colonists just want to have fun/forget. That’s all they really want…

    They crave normalcy and acceptance.

    So make ’em remember. Make ’em think. It’s the only any of this changes over time and/or at all. One state or two.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • seafoid on August 13, 2013, 10:03 am

      Colonists just want to have fun/forget

      I was reading an article about Rios Montt, the Guatemalan dictator of the 80s.

      Does this sound familiar?

      “Also, the indigenous people of Guatemala were driven off the fertile land in the low-lying areas of the country, and ever since, the great majority have been poor farmers in the country’s picturesque but rocky highlands. The fertile land was owned by people with Spanish and other European backgrounds.”

      American support for mass murder of brown people hasn’t changed in a generation either.

      “The pattern was set soon after Ríos Montt came to power. In 1982, a little more than three months after he took over as president, Amnesty International published a careful report that stated:
      Guatemalan security services continue to attempt to control opposition, both violent and non-violent, through widespread killing including the extra-judicial execution of large numbers of rural non-combatants, including entire families, as well as persons suspected of sympathy with violent and nonviolent opposition groups.10
      The report listed a large number of rural massacres and attributed fifteen of them to the Guatemalan army, and four to guerrillas. It also said that fifty episodes either could not be attributed to one side or another or involved charges against both sides. This elicited a response to Amnesty from Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders, who said:

      We assume that many of the incidents which we are unable to substantiate (e.g.,…March 24–27, April 2, April 5) have been reported to you, as they have to others, by the CUC, which seized the Brazilian Embassy on May 12, the FP-31 or similar groups. Both the CUC and the FP-31 are now closely aligned with, if not largely under the influence of, the guerrilla groups attempting to overthrow the Guatemalan government. Accordingly we have reason to suspect the accuracy of their reports.11

      Enders’s letter was followed by briefings on Capitol Hill in which State Department officials insisted that Amnesty’s reporting was based on information supplied by guerrilla sympathizers.

      Similarly, when Americas Watch published a report in May 1983 that was based in part on testimony gathered from Guatemalan refugees who had fled into Mexico, Elliott Abrams, then the Reagan administration’s assistant secretary of state for human rights,12 was quoted in the press as saying, “The refugees there are not a representative proportion of the population.” They included, he said, “guerrilla sympathizers.””

      • ritzl on August 15, 2013, 1:17 pm

        @seafoid Gosh, what’s Abrams, poor guy, doing these days, anyway?

        Why you make me so sad?

  11. catch22oyvey on August 12, 2013, 7:45 pm

    What a moving story. I am belatedly reading Ilan Pappe’s book about the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and find that the expulsion, murder , and terrorism committed by the Zionists seemed even more well-organized than the Final Solution.

    I only hope that the Vichy government in Ramallah will sign the Rome Treaty so that temporal justice may be done.

  12. Obsidian on August 13, 2013, 2:41 am

    According to an AP article of 1 May 1948,

    Jewish troops moved into Salama, key Arab position in the Jaffa perimeter, without firing a shot after maneuvering the Arabs into a position where they had no choice but to withdraw. Streets and houses in Salama were deserted when the Jews arrived. The Arab troops and the 12,000 civilians there had fled down a narrow escape corridor which the Jews purposely had kept open.

    ‘The Arab troops and the..civilians’.

  13. Sumud on August 13, 2013, 8:54 am

    Lots of picture of Jaffa from 1948 and before here:

    Lawrence of Cyberia: Those People in Gaza: Where Do They Come From, And Why Are They So Mad?

    Scroll to the bottom of the page and see zionists literally driving Palestinians into the sea in 1948 in Jaffa Harbour, and marvel at the astounding hypocrisy of Israeli hasbara.

  14. James Canning on August 13, 2013, 1:18 pm

    Great photos, Sumud. And captions etc.

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