“no empire or regime can survive by suppressing other people. History has shown this. What’s on the horizon is inspired by what’s at the roots of Palestine: it was and will be a place where people of all religions live together as equals.”
I am Hasan Hammami, 82 years old and a Nakba survivor from Jaffa. Back then, Jaffa was a prosperous city on the spice route. We did live in a big house that is now used as a retirement home. The school I went to was an all boy French Christian brothers school where we studied in Arabic, English and French. Everybody at school was Palestinian, be it with a different religious background: Christian, Muslim or Jewish. That was not exceptional at the time: centuries of occupation, by the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks and the British did result in a long tradition of religious coexistence in Palestine. That is the history of Palestine; I have lived it myself.
My memories of Palestine reflect my hope for the future: as one political state with a place for everybody’s religion. Let me share my first personal experience with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: for me, it started with the story of Mohammed Mohrabi. He was a student at my school, two years older than myself. We knew each other from the first aid training we did get after school with boys from other schools. One night in Northern Jaffa, Mohammed recognized Gabriel Samuel, a French Jewish boy from his class, taking part in a Jewish terrorist attack. When he stood up to greet Samuel, he was shot in the head and died. Nobody knows whether it was Samuel who shot Mohammed, but regardless: my life at my school did change since then. It was my first confrontation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During these years, life in Palestine became infested by insecurity and fear. There were massacres all over the country and we did what the vast majority of Palestinians did at that time: feeling completely defenseless, we fled our home country, leaving everything behind. I remember how we drove to the port of Jaffa and were rowed to a sailing freighter. There were 3000 people on that boat; we were packed like sardines. During the voyage, a woman delivered. A group of man made a closed circle around her to give her some privacy. The baby did not survive. After a short prayer; it was wrapped in a cloth and thrown in the sea. I was fifteen and have carried these images with me ever since.
My father, Ahmad Hammami, was in the citrus business in Jaffa. We were an upper middle class family. But after the Nakba in 1948, we lost everything and my parents had to start all over again. Living in the Diaspora means not having a home. Between 1948 and 1993, I made 23 different country moves in search of an education and a livelihood: I finished my high school in Lebanon, started engineering studies at the American University of Beirut and went to work as a translator for an oil company in Saudi Arabia to support our family. That meant living in a work camp in the desert, sharing a small room, with no privacy or comfort at the end of the work day, 100% humidity, summer temperatures of 45ºC and sand storms which left you chewing sand. I grew up from a youth to a man; learned so much there, it made me a better person with a better understanding of life. I was granted Saudi nationality. This changed me from being a stateless refugee with limited travel prospects. In the meantime, my father did look for new opportunities in different Arab countries. Ultimately he started a general contracting construction business in Iraq. He encouraged me to finish my education and I qualified for several good universities in the US and the UK. The UK granted me a student visa, I moved to Nottingham where I met my wife and completed my engineering education. We returned to Saudi Arabia afterwards where I started an international career in the oil business. With three daughters and no good girls’ schools in Saudi Arabia, settling in Saudi Arabia was not an attractive option: the educational opportunities for them were too limited at the time.
Today, my eldest daughter, Fawzia, lives in France; she was elected member of a village counsel in the Périgord. My middle daughter Rema teaches at Birzeit University, near Ramallah in occupied Palestine. My youngest daughter, Haifa recently moved from London to Austin,Texas. She is an Interior Architect and Urban Planner. In between those years and several countries later, after our second stay in the US, I was granted US citizenship where I live now. I retired in 1993.
This Diaspora is not unique to me. Today, we, the nine Hammami brothers and sisters and their children live in twenty two different cities, in seven different countries on three continents.
Back to Jaffa
There are many memories of Palestine to share, but the first time that I returned to Jaffa, my hometown was a special and emotionally harrowing experience. On our arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, a few months after signing the Oslo Accords, we were “welcomed” with a long, demeaning and crass security check and questioning, the standard routine for Palestinians who return to their old homeland. In Ben Gurion Airport , we saw how the Israeli border police humiliated Dr. and Mrs. Haidar Abdel Shafi, the Head of the Palestinian Negotiating team in Oslo. He and his wife were around 65 years old, very respectable couple, who were both involved for years in serving the people of Gaza with medical care and civic leadership. The Israeli police took their suitcases and tipped them out on the floor, rifled through them with their feet and treated the Abdel Shafis like dirt. The Israeli Security people knew exactly who they were. They made a point of demeaning Dr Abdel Shafi in front of his wife. I could barely control my anger, but for my late wife, that was more difficult. Finally, when we all cleared the security check, he told us that he was treated like this every time he passed through Israeli security. It was part of the game, Israel needed to demonstrate who’s on top. What a homecoming.
Re-entering Jaffa again was a remarkable experience, some landmark buildings were still there but for the rest, almost everything had changed, either razed to the ground or left to crumble with no resources of permit to repair or maintain it. There were a few modern buildings here and there. The ruins of the Serail were still there. The Serail was a historical building in the center of Jaffa that was built during the Ottoman Empire. In 1948, it was used as an orphanage. A week or so before our exile, it was blown up by a car bomb placed the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, an Israeli terrorist group that would later become the Likud party. That terrorist attack, killing over 100 orphan children, in the heart of Jaffa did trigger enormous panic in Jaffa, everybody felt defenseless. Our family fled Palestine a few days after that. The image of the ruins has always stayed in my memory; it was the last image that I remembered from Jaffa, just before getting to the Port with tens of thousands of other Jaffites who were escaping death by bombing. It was a shock to return in 1993 and to be confronted with those ruins again.
Our house was still there; it had been turned into a retirement home and filled with Eastern European elderly Jewish immigrants. On first sight, our house looked the same. Our eyes are the gateways to our brain; we look with our eyes and see with our memory. The visit to the house was heart breaking; not only because of the confrontation with so many memories of the lost childhood, but also because of the condition of the people who lived in it, old, alien, unclean, mostly with advanced Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia. It was not the house we left, which was filled with children’s joyous voices and games, a garden filled with beautiful flowers and fruits trees, and a vivacious atmosphere. The new occupants were wards of a money making business with employees who did not take care of them; the place was neglected, dirty and depressing. Yet I could see beyond the immediate scene, a possible future of a house brought back to life and joy by its original occupants, the Hammamis, our children or grandchildren.
We also visited the house of my uncle Adel Hammami. His third son, Said Hammami was the PLO representative in London where he was assassinated in 1978. He was murdered by the Mossad, as part of their killing spree of Palestinian leaders, representatives and poets across Europe. The Mossad tried to stick the killing of Said to another Palestinian rebel group but nobody in our family believes that. Said was killed because he believed that peace could only be reached by negotiating with Israel as equals. It is dangerous to defend the idea of peaceful coexistence in Israel. A few years, later Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli University student who believed in Greater Israel, with no Palestinians in it.
On the same trip, I wanted to visit the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. It was close to our house. Though the cemetery was not maintained properly, I was able to find their tomb. On the way out, I recognized the house of other neighbors, the Andraos family. I decided to ring the doorbell and as by wonder, I was reunited with three women I knew as little girls from my childhood, Suad, Wedad and Leila Andraos. There is no way for me to properly describe the feeling; it was like finding a part of myself again, in our neighborhood. Their story was heart breaking. Now in their fifties, I asked if I could meet their husbands. They said they never married, there was nobody left after the Nakbah to get married to. It’s the nature and normal practice of human beings to live as a family but for these sisters, there was nobody left to do that. From a city of 125.000 people, only 3000 did stay. What happened in Jaffa was ethnic cleansing; there is no other way to describe it.
We have many friends all over Palestine. The Abul Afieh family opened a restaurant near the Port of Jaffa, one that attracted many tourists. It took them 11 years to get a permit from the municipality to put a sign in Arabic with the name of their restaurant, next to the English and Hebrew signs. After eleven years, the Arabic sign is up. It’s their family name. Why would it take 11 years to get a permit for a restaurant sign in Arabic? Ethnic cleansing shows itself in many ways, also by erasing all signs of the original culture, street signs and names. Israel’s non-Jewish citizens are not called Palestinians but Israeli Arabs (Aravim), a term used with a sneer: this is another way to erase the name, the history, the memory of Palestine.
Ever since I retired in1993, I‘ve been involved in education, in philanthropy and in interfaith work. I’m dedicated to educating people, young and old about the Injustice placed on Palestinians and on Palestine. I am advocating for a solution that strives towards peaceful coexistence as equals.
There are more Palestinians now living outside than within the historic boundaries of Palestine. Thanks to social media and other technology, we Palestinians are now more connected than ever. We live all over the world. Some of us live in desperately poor conditions, others have built a prosperous life. Despite these differences and distances, the spirit of Palestinian identity and community is stronger than ever. If I could return to Jaffa, my homeland and live in peaceful, just and equal coexistence with my former Jewish, Christian or Muslim neighbors, I would do so. Without hesitation. I think that the majority of Palestinians in the Diaspora feel the same way. That is the path forward.
There has never been any empire or regime that can survive by suppressing other people. History has shown this. What’s on the horizon is inspired by what’s at the roots of Palestine: it was and will be a place where people of all religions live together in the same country as equals. I dream and believe the future lies in a single state for all its people, with no preferences, no special rights, with justice and equality, with complete separation of Church, Temple and Mosque from the State, where people are free to believe in their own creator, to respect their neighbor and each other. Since this happened in my own lifetime memories of Palestine, there’s no reason why it cannot happen again.
My friend Omar Siksek is a Palestinian from Jaffa. He was elected as a member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council several years ago. With only 30.000 Palestinians living in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a metropolis of 600.000 inhabitants, he had no chance to be elected. He was elected with the support of equally minded Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, who deemed it important to have a Palestinian representative on the City Council. There has been a Palestinian representative in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council ever since Omar Siksek was first elected.
This is the last memory from Palestine that I will share with you today, one that inspires and demonstrates the human desire to live together.
It’s not been easy, the “1948 Palestinians “of Israel are nowhere near having equal rights, or for that matter equal opportunities. They can’t get building permits to fix their homes or ad a new storey, they don’t have equal marriage rights, property rights or many other rights. But I trust that they will continue with their spirit of survival and achievement, even with hands tied behind their backs.
To close, of course, there are too many memories to share.
If you could remember one thing: I am the ever hopeful. Violence seems to be the language of this new century, but people will realize that killing does not bring people together, does not solve anything. Palestine has been the blight on the conscience of the World for nearly seventy years. It can also be the salvation of the conscience of the World. I look forward to that day.