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To Teta, the Queen of Oranges

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Jaffa: General view from the south beach looking north, 1898-1914. Matson Collection.

Jaffa: General view from the south beach looking north, 1898-1914. Matson Collection.

She told me that the Church sat at the edge of a cliff with a wall in the front and that from that point, you could see the whole port. She told me that from that point, you could see her house, all the way down at the bottom of the hill in Ajami. She told me that in her home, she used to sit on the back steps and feel the water wash up onto her legs. Orange peels fresh under her fingernails. She loved the smell of cedar wood.

There are no more homes like that in Ajami now. No more homes like that in Jaffa. The shore is lined with parking lots, cement bike paths, ‘rustic’ artesian exhibition spaces, a beautiful park with suspiciously lush grass and old warehouses that are being turned into chichi hotels.

The house that she lived in, that my grandfather lived in, that my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather lived in is gone from the geographic location but is still so strong in my imagination. There are very few who remember that house now and if I knew who they were and where they were, I would ask them to tell me about it. I want to know which parking lot, which abandoned couch, which old broken cabinet, which piece of scrap metal chicken-wire holds my heritage.

“Did you see my Teta grow up?” I wanted to ask the old trees. “What was she like as a child? Was she a stubborn little girl? Was she a serious teenager? What did she dream about before she left her roots behind? Did she smile the day before they were severed from her body and scowl the day after she realized they were gone?

The Khamsah

The Khamsah

Their town today would be unrecognizable to them, the omnipresence of Jaffa’s orange trees made hazy from the pretense of high-rises. Even the streets are named after famous Zionist leaders who they had never known about, had only ever heard about. Listen I just want to ask all the questions I never got to ask. Hear some of the little stories I was never able to hear. Take these dormant seeds and sprout them from my palms like the eye of Afreet-Jehanam*. Cut this Hegelian dialectic with our vision of the future. Tell the hundreds of stacked bodies in their rocky beds to rest in assurance that no more of any community will be added to their grave, no more swept to the ocean bed below.

How can you stick a memory? I need a fix of adhesive glue with a dose of letting go all at the same time. Is there a prescription for bringing the disappeared back? Holding on burns like coal and smells like tar, it drowns my senses.

Stones in the old city, Jaffa (photo: Nadya Raja Tannous)

Stones in the old city, Jaffa (photo: Nadya Raja Tannous)

What is the cure for vanished existence? The stones are layered in holes. The houses are like sponges, dry with the absence of your presence. We need you to fill them in.

Breath of the living and prayers of the dead, is anyone out there?

The west wind blows warm here. I know it is a trick.

…Seashells shredded into sand: how can we be nowhere and everywhere at once?

Come back come back come back come back. Don’t let their memory be washed out to sea. I never finished searching for their driftwood.

* Afreet-Jehanam is the 3-eyed blue jinn of the desert or, more simply, the King of the Underworld.

There are many legends of Afreet Jinn. The one put into writing by Rabih Alameddine in his book “The Hakawati”, tells of the fabled Fatima, the human lover of Afreet-Jehanam, for whom he gave up his 3rd eye in order to protect from harm. According to the story, it is the jinn’s eye in the middle of the Khamsah.

The Khamsah is also known as “the Hand of Fatima”.

Aida Najar

Aida Najar is a community activist and writer located in the Bay Area (Ohlone Nation).

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12 Responses

  1. bintbiba on May 15, 2014, 11:44 am

    Beautiful , Nadya.!
    I remember (as a 12 year old growing up in pre ’48 Jerusalem) a young boy called Raja Tannous, whose father was Izzat Tannous and friends with my parents.
    Your writing is sheer poetry …. penetrates the heart and sensibilities !

  2. marc b. on May 15, 2014, 1:56 pm

    beautiful indeed. a catalyst for emotions, that lead you down some very specific paths.

    I had just read an entry from one of my favorite blogs about the connections between Odessa and Jaffa. some very different memories and associations than Nadya’s.

    it’s jarring to read descriptions of Jabotinsky variously as

    the celebrated essayist and Jewish civil rights activist of Odessa . . . the brilliant satirist . . . [and] [t]he polyglot [who] translated into Russian the poems of the greatest representative of the Hebrew trend [in Ukraine].

    maybe it’s my prejudice, but I can’t comprehend how a discussion of the linking of Odessa and Jaffa through, in part, the personality of Jabotinsky can be so gushing and simply ignore what comes next. nostalgia over a lost Jewish history in Eastern Europe devoid of any sense of irony, at least.

    for other connections between memory and loss and pain see the recent New Yorker piece on an Israeli scientist studying the relationship of pain and the repression of memory:

    One morning every spring, for exactly two minutes, Israel comes to a stop. Pedestrians stand in place, drivers pull over to the side of the road, and nobody speaks, sings, eats, or drinks as the nation pays respect to the victims of the Nazi genocide. From the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, the only sounds one hears are sirens. “To ignore those sirens is a complete violation of the norms of our country,” Daniela Schiller told me recently. Schiller, who directs the laboratory of affective neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has lived in New York for nine years, but she was brought up in Rishon LeZion, a few miles south of Tel Aviv. “My father doesn’t care about the sirens,” she says. “The day doesn’t exist for him. He moves about as if he hears nothing.”

    Sigmund Schiller’s disregard for Holocaust Remembrance Day is perhaps understandable; he spent the first two years of the Second World War in the Horodenka ghetto (at the time in Poland, but now in Ukraine) and the next two hiding in bunkers scattered across the forests of Galicia. In 1942, at the age of fifteen, he was captured by the Germans and sent to a labor camp near Tluste, where he managed to survive the war. Trauma victims frequently attempt to cordon off their most painful memories. But Sigmund Schiller never seemed to speak about his time in the camp, not even to his wife.

    “In sixth grade, our teacher asked us to interview someone who survived the Holocaust,” Daniela Schiller said. “So I went home after school. My father was at the kitchen table reading a newspaper, and I asked him to tell me about his memories. He said nothing. I have done this many times since. Always nothing.” A wan smile crossed her face. We were sitting in her office, not far from the laboratory she runs at Mount Sinai, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was an exceptionally bright winter morning, and the sun streaming through the window made her hard to see even from a few feet away. “I long ago concluded that his silence would last forever,” she said. “I grew up wondering which of all the horrifying things we learned about at school the Germans did to him.” . . .

    (the article is locked for non-subscribers, but goes on to describe research into memory and various attempts at learning how to ‘rewrite’, ‘erase’ or otherwise manipulate painful memories.)

    • Studiolum on May 16, 2014, 2:25 am

      I am afraid that you are right, and it is in fact a certain prejudice to require that any mention of the name of Jabotinsky, even in his early Odessa period – where he was in a completely different position and played a different role than later – should be accompanied by a ritual disapproval of his later development, isn’t it?

      • marc b. on May 16, 2014, 4:38 pm

        yes, we all have our prejudices, but at some point the question becomes relevant: when are someone’s positive traits overtaken by the nastier bits of their history? that question has been an integral part of the recent debate over paul de man’s career, and he never killed anyone so far as I know.

  3. Walid on May 15, 2014, 3:59 pm

    Nadya, you’re looking for your Jaffa roots in the chicken wire and other places. The full background on your teta’s beloved and once beautiful Jafa, is found in the history of the Jaffa orange itself as it fully describes what happened to the Palestinian people when the Zionists decided they wanted it all. One the first things they did was to actually steal the orange and the Palestinian culture that had evolved around it. I’m sure you’re aware of this piece but others here that erroneously believe that Israel invented the Jaffa orange may not be. Israel actually stole it from the Palestinians and marketed it as its own.

    A great essay on Jaffa, the orange, the Palestinians and what the Zionists did to all three of them starts with the following intro:

    “The Jaffa Orange (or Shamouti) was the principal export of Palestine in the 1890s. The history of the Jaffa orange (and the city after which it has its name) reflects the recent history of Palestine. Just as the theft of the name, by the Zionist colonisers, reflects the greater theft of Palestinian land and identity.

    The fate of the residents of Jaffa, those who owned the land, planted the groves and harvested the fruit is the same as that of the vast majority of the Palestinian people in 1948.

    Understand the background to the hijacking of the Jaffa orange for the purposes
    of the colonisers and you understand the fear and terror which led to the
    dispossession of the Palestinian people. You understand the background to the
    dispossessed, refugees in their own land or dispersed across the globe….”

    Full essay:

  4. annie on May 15, 2014, 4:12 pm

    thank you so much nadya. words fail me.

  5. Stephen Shenfield on May 15, 2014, 6:03 pm

    Zionism as identity theft. A fruitful perspective.

    So Israeli identity consists of three sorts of pieces: (1) pieces kept or revived from the Jewish past; (2) pieces stolen from the Palestinians; and (3) newly invented pieces, but these are fewer than they appear because so many pieces passed off as new are actually stolen.

    If you have stolen someone else’s identity, it is essential to pretend that the original owner of the identity no longer exists (or, ideally, never existed). Essential both to self-presentation to the world and to psychic coherence. If the original owner manages to contest the theft effectively, the response to be expected is hysteria.

    • Walid on May 16, 2014, 1:25 am

      The Zionists’ insistence on linking the world’s Jews with everything that Israel does to make them appear in full unison with Israel is causing whatever remains of the glorious pieces of number 1 to be snuffed out by evils of numbers 2 and 3; a big loss for the other Jews that don’t condone Israel’s vile actions.

  6. bijou on May 15, 2014, 10:45 pm

    Nadya, thank you for this haunting and evocative piece. It is seared in my memory.

    Walid, who wrote that essay on the Jaffa orange? I couldn’t find an author.

    Both of you and everyone: There is an excellent film on the theft of the Jaffa orange and its symbolism by Eyal Sevan: Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork. You can read about it and see the trailer here: It is excellent, with lots of archival footage. You might be able to view or download it here:

  7. Walid on May 16, 2014, 3:04 am

    bijou, that piece containing important statistics was produced by the Scottish Friends of Palestine and if you want a more comprehensive socio-historic essay on this topic, there’s one by Sami Abu Shehadeh and Fadi Shabytah, residents of Jaffa, and members of the Jaffa Popular Committee for the Defense of Land and Housing Rights. It appeared in Electronic Intifada in 2009 with lots of historic photos from the Matson Collection.

    Reading that essay, you’d get the full story on what the evil of Zionism had done to this once great and vibrant Palestinian commercial hub. A small sampling:

    “… Some of the most difficult stories are those of the Palestinian farmers and peasants from the villages of the Jaffa district. They describe how they were forced off of their land, how they managed to stay in Palestine, how the Israeli government handed their land over to Jewish settlers, and how these settlers then hired the same Palestinian farmers to work on their own land as day laborers exploited for the personal profit of the Jewish settler off the produce of the land that Palestinians had cultivated for generations. In fact, after their properties and enterprises were seized or shut down, the vast majority of the Jaffa Palestinians who remained became cheap labor for Jewish employers. Their employment was contingent on their “loyalty” to the new state. And so it was that the people who ran the economic hub of Palestine before 1948, became its orphans feigning loyalty to the ones who orphaned them in order to feed their own children.

    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.”

    For full essay:

    • seafoid on May 16, 2014, 9:10 am

      Very like the experience of other aboriginal communities under settler colonialism, Walid. Nobody in Palestine in 1914 could have predicted the awfulness of the next 100 years.

      But the Palestinians belong to a much bigger collective , the one thing the Zionists haven’t managed to work around.

      And history isn’t over.

  8. Walid on May 16, 2014, 8:54 am

    Testimonials from 2 Jaffa and 1 Jerusalem surviving refugees, Khaireddine Abuljebain and Mohammed Himmo and George Agha Janian..

    “Khaireddine Abuljebain, 90, born in Jaffa, Palestine. Currently residing in Kuwait:

    And if fate does not allow me to be alive, my children and grandchildren must return.The Zionist forces, backed by the British, always threatened Jaffa. They encircled the city with colonies and set up military zones before the city fell in April 28, 1948.
    On April 25, 1948, I was moving around the city after I transferred my office from the city’s outskirts into its center. I was a journalist for a newspaper, a teacher and an activist, so I had a role to play during that time. The Zionist forces were shelling Jaffa with mortars. Of course, the Zionist forces had superior weaponry because the British occupation forces went after Arabs who had weapons and did not touch the Zionists. If an Arab had a rifle with three bullets, he would have been condemned.

    On that day, I was moving around the beautiful city of Jaffa, one of the economic hubs of Palestine. I note this because the youth today do not know much of the historical times of Palestine. They are always playing on the computer and know nothing of the history of Palestine, or Kuwait, or any other Arab country.

    Anyway, as I was moving around, one of the shells shot from Tel Aviv into Jaffa landed next to me and I was injured. I was lucky, they were not terrible injuries and the doctors were able to mend me quickly. They transported me home to recover with family.

    By nightfall, as the whole family gathered, we had heated discussions about whether or not we wanted to stay in Jaffa. A lot of us did not want to leave, but it was a very difficult situation. The final decision was that some of us would leave. My mother, my fiancee, my cousins, and I decided to leave.

    On April 26, 1948, we got on a truck and headed to Egypt. My father, and other family members, decided to leave by sea because there was heavy rain and the Israelis were blocking the roads…”

    “Mohammed Himmo, 89, born in Jaffa. Currently residing near Sabra camp in Beirut, Lebanon:

    Let me be honest. The Arab armies called themselves the rescuers in 1948. That was a complete lie. They didn’t let us do anything.

    In our area, there was an Iraqi and a Turkish commander who planned operations and we would implement them. When the Zionists attacked an area to occupy it, we begged those commanders to do something and they wouldn’t move a finger.

    When the resistance in our area began, we had about 700 makeshift mortars. Most of the men in my family were fighters. I remember we tried to convince these commanders to allow us to send a mortar every minute towards the Zionist positions occupying most of Jaffa. Both the Turk and Iraqi turned white and one of them said, “Do you want to destroy Jaffa?”

    I replied, “Do you think anyone is left in Jaffa now? There’s is no one, they all left.”

    I swear, if they had allowed us to fight back things would be different. The Zionists were not ready to lose any casualties. They were not.

    We were just a family, not a battalion or an armed force. It was me, my brother, my cousins – the cousins were the ones who hand-built those mortars. We moved around five mortars on simple trucks, building makeshift launchers from metal, and shooting them at places that were occupied by the Zionist forces.

    But let me start from the beginning.

    Life before 1948 was good, except for the British. All the problems are because of them. All the support and supplies to the Zionists were possible because of the British.

    Before 1948, the relationship with the Jews was decent. There was an uprising before I could remember, but nonetheless the relationship between Arabs and Jews was alright. It was the English who really played with us all.

    I remember our house was along the coast. The British police would always move around on the main street, passing by our house and headed towards Tel el-Arab [Tel Aviv]. They also had implemented a nightly curfew, and denied any large gatherings outside.

    One night, I was up sitting next to the window looking out to the sea. Usually no one would be out – English or otherwise – during the night. I remember as the night went by, I suddenly saw a large number of men, more than 10, all holding machine guns, arriving on the coast. Then another group. Then another.

    Another neighbor of mine, who was a fisherman and used to go swimming at night, had seen them too. It was the Jews. They were coming in force, landing along the shore.

    Look, in terms of the Jews, after 1936, a boat would arrive bringing Jews from Russia, or from Germany, or from God knows where. Every week. The British would welcome them and disperse them throughout the country. They were allowed to conduct military training and they prepared themselves….”


    “George Agha Janian, 77, born in Haifa, Palestine. Currently residing in Brummana, Lebanon:

    We all thought this would be temporary. We only realized that all hope was lost after the Arab armies went in to Palestine and were broken [by the Zionist forces].My father was from Jerusalem, and was part of the Armenian Orthodox sect. There is a neighborhood in Jerusalem known as the Armenian Quarter, and the family had a house there. I don’t know what has happened to it now. My father worked in Haifa with customs. Haifa, after the port was established there, became one of the most important trading and business hubs in all of Palestine. He moved to that city for work, and eventually met and married my mother. My mother was from a village called Shefa-Amr.
    I remember we lived on a street called Mokhalis. It was a road that kind of divided Arab and Jewish areas. In front of our house was a large piece of land, Zambar’s land, and all the young boys gathered there, and then headed towards to the Dera Karmel area. Over there, next to the cinema, fights and scuffles always broke out with Jewish kids. I don’t remember the reasons, really, I was just a child.

    There were no major tensions with the Jews and Arabs before 1948. We didn’t feel frightened by them, yet. I was at an age that couldn’t completely judge the situation, but I remember how my family spoke about [the Jews] and it didn’t seem like there was any hatred.

    I remember my uncle used to live in the mountains nearby, and we would always visit him up there. We would always go to Jerusalem to visit my father’s family too. At the time, employees of the state were allowed to use the trains without any difficulty, so we would always travel to Jerusalem….”

    For the rest of the 3 stories, from al-Alkbar:

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