A Personal Photo Album

By : Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Ph.D.
March 26th 2002

I browsed through our family's photo album this weekend and was struck by many thoughts, which led me to both lots of painful memories and lots of optimistic thoughts. Picture in my maternal grandparents' garden reminded me of the sweetness of those figs, loquets and apricots that grew on those trees. It reminded me of my grandparents' gentle and determined spirit and how much I miss them. My grandfather, Issa Atallah was born during Ottoman rule in Palestine and orphaned while at the age of 9 in the first World War. Having to scrape by with little help from his extended family, he decided to change his last name and simply use his fathers first name Atallah (=God Given) as his last name. When the government insisted he give them three names, he went by Issa Atallah Atallah. He worked as a shoe repairman to pay for his education in high school and literally pulled himself up from poverty to become teacher, principal, and finally the superintendent of the United Nations schools in the West Bank. In the meantime he seemed to find time to raise 8 children and publish several books. He was not a religious man but he had the most altruistic spirit I have known (e.g. he left a piece of land for his city). His latter books are all dedicated to his wife (she came from Nazareth and was thus separated from her own family in 1948). I have never seen in my life two people who were more in love than these two. After her death in 1994, his own health deteriorated and he died shortly after at the age of 89.

I interviewed him in 1994 on camera and he explained to me how Zionist forces slowly took over Palestine in his lifetime using many, many means. But he also explained how Christians, Jews, and Muslims had lived peacefully in Palestine for centuries (his highschool best friend in Jerusalem was Jewish). Zionism then came about with a racist and apartheid ideology and practice which caused tremendous suffering to the natives (of all religions). He also had no kind words for Britain or the Arab countries (kings, prime ministers, and presidents). Yet, he was certain that ultimately all are passing phenomena of corruption, dispossession and destruction. This faith was based on: a) his own conviction that ultimately a people who lived through rules by Romans, Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Ottomans, British will weather this, and b) his progressive ideals that younger generations learn and grow and will build a better life for all inhabitants of the Holy Land (present and dispossessed). His main and repeated advise to all is to break the chains on one's own mind to capture the great potential for progress and coexistence.

I focus on my uncle Yacoub (Jacob) Qumsiyeh in a picture at a festive occasion. He died of liver failure in early 2001. He was superintendent of the Lutheran schools in the West Bank. I remember how he came back home one day in 1994 stating that he managed to get through the Israeli checkpoint. This, he explained was exceptional also because a soldier asked him where he was going and my uncle defiantly responded: Al-Quds (the Arabic name of Jerusalem and as it is known to both Palestinian Muslims and Christians). I remember feeling so depressed to hear such pride in such little triumphs when all around them, Palestinians were seeing their lands confiscated, their homes demolished, and their livelihood slowly suffocated all while supposedly in a peace "process."

In the same picture are my parents who seem pale and weak with age (both of them seemed older than their real age). I capture that determined and yet compassionate look on their faces. Their suffering and yet persistent resistance was evident in their joining demonstrations and civil disobedience personified in the tax revolt of 1988 in Beit Sahour during the first uprising against the occupation (Intifada). From their house, they see the growth of the settlement called Har Homa on the lands of Jabal Abu Ghneim and its creeping towards them. In my phone calls to them (every weekend), they always lament the old days. We used to go there for picnics to Jabal Abu Ghneim, shopping to Jerusalem, bathing in the Dead Sea, picking flowers in the mountains etc. The buildings that replaced the trees on Jabal Abu Ghneim stand mostly empty but yet partially block our view of Jerusalem (see photos attached). More tellingly, the bypass road (for use of Jewish settlers only) now cuts off Palestinian access to the Holy City.

I have a lengthy pause at a picture of the wedding of my eldest sister. We all seemed so happy. Little did we know at the time that the groom will be arrested and jailed three times under administrative detention (allowing the occupation forces to detain people for up to 6 months with no trial or charge and certainly no lawyer can intervene). Thus, they would detain him for a few months, release him and detain him again (thus avoiding the six month limit). Depriving his family and young children of their father was hard enough but the torture he endured caused him permanent physical disability. Israeli forces called the tactics they used "moderate physical pressure", Amnesty International called it torture.

As I flip through the pictures, I then come to the pictures of Hiam Al-Sayed in our own house in Connecticut. This is the little Palestinian girl who visited us in Connecticut to get a prosthetic eye. Her eye was shot by an Israeli sniper while she walked with her mother to visit a friend. She captured our hearts. I then realize that my family was very lucky. Most Palestinian families have it much worse. It is true that the home of my cousin was demolished because his 12-year-old child threw stones at Israeli soldiers injuring no one). Ironically he was the mason who cut the stones to build so many houses of others (including my own parent's house). It is true that many of my relatives are exiled. But these families in Gaza and in the Refugee camps in the West Bank are suffering so much.

Then you might ask, what is there to be optimistic about. David BenGurion, the first prime minister of Israel, stated in his diaries regarding Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their homes between 1947-1948: "We must do everything to ensure they never do return" and to the Sunday Times: "the old will die and the young will forget." My uncle Yacoub who defied the soldiers at the checkpoint and got through has several grandchildren; ask any one of them who they are and where they come from. My brother-in-law who was tortured and imprisoned without charge has four children and soon he will be a grandfather. Ask my sister's daughter what she will tell her new child about Palestine and its history. Ask eight-year-old Hiam who while in pain repeats songs about Palestine.

You see, our homeland was not lost to the Zionists, they confiscate our land and they impoverish an entire people but they cannot take this land out of our hearts and minds. Yes, the old will die BUT the young will NEVER forget. Thus, I do not have the slightest doubt that we shall return and, just as materialized in South Africa, we shall live together in this small place called the Land of Canaan/the Holy Land. Then we will look back at these schemes of "separations" and "us here, them there" with the same incredulous look as when we review the history of black segregation in the US south.