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Video: Tamara Ben-Halim’s moving story of finding her grandmother’s home in Palestine

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Last spring when we published Tamara Ben-Halim’s story, Searching for my grandmother’s home in Yafa, she didn’t reveal the incredible news that right before publication she had received an email confirming her grandmother’s home had been found. She requested we hold back the story as she was in shock — literally she couldn’t believe it, it was “crazy” and she hadn’t even told her grandmother yet that her home was still standing. It was an exciting, emotional experience for me just being on the other end of our email exchange. Intuitively I sensed her earth moving and her whole world shifting in these few moments. And — it wasn’t something she was ready to share with the world. So, with her agreement, instead of holding back the story until she had processed this thrilling information and updating her article, we published it that day knowing she had a precious secret.

In the following TEDxMünchen (Munich, Germany) presentation, Hidden Spaces, Treasured Places, Ben-Halim tells her story. First, more broadly but still very personal, about refugees. She asks:

So, why does this story matter for us today? Not because it’s the story of my grandmother —it matters because it is representative of different moments in history, moments that mark the upheaval and struggle experienced by so many different people in so many different parts of the world. It matters because this is a similar story, although a different moment in history, experienced by Jewish refugees fleeing from oppression in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It matters because as a result of that particular moment in 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians continue to struggle today as the children and the grandchildren and even the great-grandchildren of those families displaced in 1948 continue to live in refugee camps …. It matters because as we speak next door to Israel/Palestine in Syria a new generation of landless and homeless people is being created, some whom will be absorbed into the fabric of this very country …

Tamara Ben-Halim's grandaunt, grandmother and granduncle with Palestine in the background. Screenshot: Hidden Spaces, Treasured Places | Tamara Ben-Halim | TEDxMünchen

Tamara Ben-Halim’s grandaunt, grandmother and granduncle with Palestine in the background. Screenshot: Hidden Spaces, Treasured Places | Tamara Ben-Halim | TEDxMünchen

She also mentions a new project she’s co-founded called Maken, “to reach the most human core of the Palestinian struggle” (she’s also co-founder of Cycling4Gaza). And in the latter half of the video she tells the story about the continuation of the search for her grandmother’s home, revealing the importance of “the human connection” culminating in the discovery of a treasure.

As you may recall in her story when she stood on Share3 Alnuzha in Yafa (the Arabic name of the first avenue ever built in Palestine, later called King George Avenue during the British Mandate and now called Sderot Yerushalaim, Jerusalem Street although Palestinians in Yafa still call it by its Arabic name), she told herself it didn’t matter if she couldn’t find her grandmother’s house because she knew she was standing on the same street her grandmother walked countless times. “But of course,” she confides “I knew that nothing could replace the feeling and the fact of actually knowing that this was her home”. In the course of her search she meets Abu George and Yossi, two locals who inadvertently became her trusted guides for the day in Yafa.

Screenshot: Reading Yossi's email -- the discovery of her grandmother's house --Hidden Spaces, Treasured Places - Tamara Ben-Halim - TEDxMünich

Screenshot: Reading Yossi’s email — the discovery of her grandmother’s house –Hidden Spaces, Treasured Places – Tamara Ben-Halim – TEDxMünich

Listen to the change in energy when she begins talking about Yossi and Abu George (at 9:25). A pleasure creeps into her voice and spreads across her face in the anticipation of sharing the discovery of her grandmother’s house with the audience. While the initial shock Tamara wrote me about months ago may have worn off, there’s something about an almost bashful way she tries to hold back the expanse of her grin that exposes just how much this means to her —  her demeanor exudes joy as the moment approaches in her story when she reveals the discovery of her grandmother’s house. I won’t give all away, listen to her tell it:

Although Ben-Halim had walked up and down the street photographing every possible building with old Arab-style architecture she returned to London not knowing where her grandmother’s house was, or if it was even still standing. She knew there was a good chance the house had been demolished a long time ago. She wrote about being back in London with her aunt:

As she flicked through the photos on my phone, she suddenly stopped at one of the buildings and said, this one. Is it this one? Why this one, I asked her? I don’t know, she said. I just have a gut feeling about it. Plus it looks like what Mama always described to us when we were younger – they were on the top floor, the neighbours below them, and a shop at the bottom. Funny you say that, I told her. That’s the same house that Teta, her mother, had said looked most familiar to her. That couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?

Was it the same house in your story that your grandmother and aunt thought they recognized from your photographs, I had asked Tamara last spring. Yes, it was. She sent this along:

Tamara Ben-Halim's Grandmother's house Yafa (Photo: Tamara Ben-Halim)

Tamara Ben-Halim’s Grandmother’s house Yafa (Photo: Tamara Ben-Halim)

And here is the photo Yossi, who continued the search, sent from the students’ Architecture project at Tel Aviv University along with a file about the building, the first house built on north Alnuzha. It is clearly the same building. “Let’s hope that someday you will be able to live in it”, he wrote.

Tamara Ben-Halim's Grandmother's house Yaffa (Photo: Architecture project -Tel Aviv University)

Tamara Ben-Halim’s Grandmother’s house Yaffa (Photo: Architecture project -Tel Aviv University)

It must have been fate that day in Yafa, the day Tamara met Yossi and Abu George. Indeed, maybe she will live in her grandmother’s home one day. The home that her great-grandfather built for his family on Share3 Alnuzha in Yafa.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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3 Responses

  1. sawah
    March 8, 2016, 12:58 am

    Her talk is lovely. I felt I was somehow walking through a Mahmoud Darwish poem.
    thank you.

  2. Citizen
    March 8, 2016, 3:52 am

    Great article, Annie–I will pass it on.

    • annie
      March 8, 2016, 11:30 am

      thanks citizen. i had the pleasure of spending the afternoon w/tamara when she was in the bay area a couple years ago. we took a hike on mt tam. she’s an exceptional — and really lovely person. even before i met her i was blown away by her accomplishments at such a young age (see my cycling4gaza posts). during our hike i just kept thinking wow wow wow over and over.

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