Evoking a hidden form of Palestinian cultural resistance on the 45th anniversary of “Madame Khoury”!
The bet on the notion that 'the elderly will die and the young generation will forget’ was dismissed by the fact that "permanency" reigns over the hearts and minds of the Palestinians!
One day, during the catastrophic climax of the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, in the house of my late maternal grandfather, the eminent educator and theologian Professor Adib Sa’adeh Al-Khoury (1893-August 1947) in Yafa, facing the Mediterranean, my grandmother and mother were besieged in what could have resulted in expulsion or murder.
A descendant of an Arab-Christian-Eastern-Orthodox (pre-Islamic) Royal family, Madam Khoury, born in 1897 in Homs as Pelagia Doumat Ballan after the Antiochian/Syrian St. Pelagia or as the people of Yafa and beyond used to call her ‘Umm al-Kull’ (Mother of All), was destined to remain in Southern Syria (Palestine).
Enrolled in 1912 by her pioneering brother the late Professor Antoine Ballan (the director of the Educational Russian System in the Arab world) at a prestigious seminary, she later married one of her brother’s students and remained in the same Greater Syria (albeit within the borders of British Mandatory Palestine).
That day in early May 1948, just days after the fall of Yafa, the Palestinian commercial and cultural capital of Palestine, a unit from the Zionist terrorist organization raided our house in the Ajami Quarter in the newly occupied Yafa.
As they approached the two-story house banging on the main door, they started to terrorize them by screaming and began to make their way up the eighteen wide polished concrete stairs. My newly widowed grandmother, Madame Khoury, faced them from the top of the stairs. She asked them in Arabic, ‘What is it that you want?’ They replied in Hebrew, 'A graduate of the Russian Teachers’ Seminary in the Bethlehem District (Beit Jala in 1914) and the Teachers Academy in 1919.' She told the Zionist terrorists that she could communicate with them in Russian. Confused enough, they immediately accepted, thus revealing the origins of their (settler colonial) identity, that is, Jewish Polish/Russians or any of the neighboring countries.
The invading terrorists told Madame Khoury that they were raiding the property because they had received a piece of intelligence (a tip-off) that she, the widow with an only daughter (my mother, a graduate of the Church of Scotland College in Yafa who was just nineteen), had been helping Palestinian fighters who defended their own homeland and that our house harbored a substantial magazine of arsenal.
Walking confidently and solidly in a very collected and cold manner, Madame Khoury replied, ‘That is true, I must commend your strong intelligence. Please come up.’ A dozen of the raiding terrorists proceeded to make their way from the entrance to the internal hall of the house. After first pointing to it, the widow invited the chief invader to enter the designated room on the left. Feeling nervous himself, he refused and asked her to lead, so that she would be the first to enter and or get wounded.
Having studied also phycology, she contributed to the brief standoff, during which my grandmother took the nicely decorated old-fashioned steel key out of her right pocket. She offered it to the “commander” and insisted that he open the door. After consultation with his fellow organized terrorists, he indicated that the widow should unlock the door and go in first.
The two broad windows of the room were closed, and the “arsenal” was enclosed in darkness. Aged fifty, Madame Khoury had greying hair and an extremely fair complexion, set off by her black mourning dress, which had been her everyday attire for the past six months. Her face and her palms were the only white elements; indeed, she was the only white-lit entity in the room.
Looking through the gap in the doorway from outside the room, the terrorists could not see any light inside. As Madame Khoury stood in the middle of the room, they asked her to turn on the light. She replied that the bulb was damaged and that they would have to enter with their torches. She kept inviting them to come in, which they were hesitant and reluctant to do. They had prepared themselves for a possible trap, and despite their arms and number, they still refused to go in.
After challenging them gently in Russian, one of them peeked in and then edged his way forward using his torch. However, for them, there was still not enough light to see. She challenged them again, asking, ‘Can you see the weapons on the shelves?’ In the absence of any explosions, more of the raiders cautiously approached the room door.
With more torches, they started to shine the beam onto the shelves. The shelves were stacked. The men fell silent. Whilst scanning the shelves by torchlight, Madame Khoury asked them, ‘How reliable do you find your intelligence?’ She then continued in her monologue, ‘It may be that your agent was confused, but after all, he wasn’t wrong. Every volume in this library may be considered a weapon.’
Later on, the new occupiers started to promote Hebrew-language courses among the newly occupied. While my grandmother refused to do so, one of the first Palestinian women to enroll was no other than my late mother, Antoinette Adib Al-Khoury. After a few lessons, she decided to quit, suggesting that one cannot go beyond the sea (beach) with Hebrew. Whilst she continued to be a playwright and writer/author in Arabic, in the sixties, just after the occupation of the second part of Palestine (Easter Palestine), we, the third generation were familiar with works in Hebrew as it was imposed in our (Arab Schools) curricula, including literature, the Torah, the Talmud, Perkei Avot (‘Stories by the Elders’) and the Old Testament. The number of Hebrew books in our home library started to grow.
Encountering Zionist occupation and bringing Jewish settlers, Hebrew was one means of communication, but it became increasingly central. Putting the Palestinian Nakba Survivors (those who survived the Nakba and, against all odds, managed to stay in their homeland), those who had to become Israeli "citizens" in Western Palestine, under military rule, in addition to the already imposed British inherited British ‘Defence Emergency Regulations’, the Israeli establishment worked toward obliterating Palestinian identity and weakening Arab language and literature. For the new Palestinian generation in the now (undefined and rapidly expanding) colonial “state of Israel”, we had no choice but to communicate with the "state apparatus" and its new society mainly in Hebrew. Indeed, documentation and signs were all now in Hebrew.
With her motto “I'd rather die in my house in Yafa (which according to the UN resolution (181(11)) 29 November 29, 1947, Yafa was supposed to be within the proposed Arab State)) over becoming a refugee,” eventually my grandmother (newly) having seen the deception of the UN partition plan focused on her lifetime socio-cultural project. Driven by her own set of norms and beliefs, she was adamant about educating and empowering Palestinian women in the most traumatic and socio-economic circumstances, who became now under occupation and facing poverty, and assisting them to pass the immediate financial hardship by re-establishing a multifaceted Palestinian women’s movement, which emerged in Yafa post-Nakba (amongst the remaining 3,500 Aboriginal inhabitants), which not only challenged the Israeli occupation peacefully among the remaining 20% (nearly 200,000) of Palestinians who survived the expulsion of the Nakba and remained in their homeland but also contributed to the change of the old social structure in the Palestinian society in Yafa and Western Palestine (the section Palestine occupied by "Israel" in 1948).
A year passed and the Minister of Labor of the occupation entity Golda (Mayerson) Meir, who later became the fourth Israeli prime Minister (in March 1969) and ever since the first and the only one, imposed a visit to the headquarter of the Palestinian women’s movement in Yafa on September 27, 1949. Therefore, the headline of the item was: "Minister of Labour visits Arab Ladies Institute in Yafa.” Meir famously argued that 'the elderly will die and the young generation will forget’. The author of these words, like many others, not only proves her scandalously wrong but that “permanency” resides in the hearts and minds of the Aboriginals!