“Over time, I have only seen the misconception about Palestinians grow. During my public speeches, I used to tell that peace will only be within reach once Palestinian blood will be valued as much as the blood of anybody else.”
My name is Nellie Bannayan, I grew up in Jordan after my parents left Jaffa in 1948. In 1967, following the Six Day War, I moved to Canada, as a single woman. That was unheard of at the time, but my father gave me his blessing.
I have little memories from Jaffa but my father always described it as a place of harmony and peace, until the Zionist terrorist groups started killing people after World War II. My mother’s brother was killed in Jerusalem, when Zionists threw a bomb at the balcony of their house. When my father witnessed how a murdered British soldier was pulled behind an armored Zionist truck through the streets of Jaffa in 1947, he decided it was time for us to move to Lebanon where he could teach French. However, the boat we were on was forced to return in a storm and we lost the little we could carry with us on that trip. The only alternative was to leave by train to Egypt. At the border, the Egyptian authorities confronted my parents with an ultimatum: woman and children were allowed to enter, man had to enlist for the army and fight the Israeli’s. My father was a teacher, my mother had four children: that was not an option. We got off the train at Rafah and slept under a tree until a truck stopped and took us to Jerusalem, to our grandparents. But it was not safe there either; my second uncle was injured by shrapnel. My grandparents wintered in Jericho but by then they had moved to the small town of Salt in Jordan. We stayed with my grandparents while Dad looked for a job. My Mom would give us a bath one at a time, wash our only clothes, hand them to dry and then it was time for the next Fortunately, my father found a job at the Jordanian army in Zarqa, near Amman. We did live in a small army barrack, in the most primitive circumstances. We all slept in one room, on one mattress sideways with my baby brother in a hammock on top of us. I still see us lying there: trying to sleep while my father pushed the hammock with his foot.
What saved us was the fact that Dad found a teaching assignment in Amman, in a renowned private school. This meant that our education was secured: my brothers could study there for free. My father always told us that education was the only asset no enemy could take from us. My sister and I went to a nun school in Amman but one day Dad noticed some mistakes in our homework and was very disappointed as our teachers had not corrected them. His desire to provide us with the best possible education made us apply for a top girls-only private school, the Ladies of Zion institute in Jerusalem. As we were good students, my sister and myself were offered a grant to study there: that is where we learned French. After graduating from elementary school, we were even invited to continue our studies in Paris. Because our father was worried that as a result of that, our English would suffer, we passed on that opportunity and went to the British School in Amman. We are Catholic and the Bishop was very disappointed that Dad sent us to a Protestant school. For him, the only thing that mattered was the level of the education.
Dad supported us by giving private lessons in the evening. The school principal told Dad that there is a family where the children needed some tutoring but was not sure if they could afford to pay him. Dad said it was not important as long as the children got the proper education. It turned out they were King Hussein’s cousins. They came to our house on a regular basis and called my mother “Auntie”. But despite all of Dad’s hard work, we could hardly make ends meet. All of his extra income went to our education: we barely had enough money to buy food and clothes. My mother did magic with her sewing machine: during all my childhood and even when I started working, I wore clothes made by my mother. She passed at the age of 49, after a stroke and a coma.
Despite all this, I have nothing but happy memories of my childhood, my parents instilled in us to be proud of who we are, not worry about material things, we were smart and healthy. Going to private schools we had uniforms so we were equal. When it was time for me to go to college, my two brothers were studying already abroad, we simply could not afford it. As a consequence, I started working to support the family. My time to study would come once my brothers had graduated. At a given moment, I combined three jobs: one at the US Embassy, one at a store and on as a US chemical plant. I was good at several languages and really liked to work, that is how I made a difference.
After the Six Day War however, I decided I wanted to move to Canada to the chagrin of my employer, the US Government, they were willing to sponsor me and issue a visa but I was fully aware of the US policy in the Middle East. Canada had a different, much more peace-oriented approach at the time and my choice was clear.
I give Dad all the credit as he gave me his blessing to emigrate, unheard of at the time. People stopped him in the street to ask him if it were true that I was emigrating, when he said yes, they asked him if he had lost his marbles letting me go as a single woman, why doesn’t she get married first? Dad very proudly said “I know how I raised my daughter, whatever Nellie does, she always lands on her feet.
Before arriving in Canada, I travelled through Europe. What struck me was that nobody would believe that I was Palestinian; I did not fit into the stereotypical image they associated with Arab or Palestinian women. At a party in Rome, the Jordan ambassador told me that it was a loss for the Arab World if people like me emigrated. I told him that I would continue to fight for my country, by challenging the misrepresentations of Arabs in the Western World. That has been a struggle every since.
But first, let me explain how I arrived in Canada. I was scheduled to travel to Ottawa but changed my destination in an impulse to Montreal. That is where I would later meet my future husband and start a family. I arrived with nothing but my energy; found a small place to live and was employed at Reader’s Digest as administrative assistant to the President. His name was Paul Zimmerman. Most people thought he was Jewish while he was not. This resulted in many passionate but respectful discussions. I will never forget his words: “People who arrive in Canada without passion for their homeland make shallow Canadians”. I ended up doing very well at Reader’s Digest, married and became the mother of two sons. The fact that my father lived to see all this and visited us in Canada makes me very happy.
As Canadian politics evolved over time, moving to a more right-wing position in the aftermath of 9/11, I became active in politics and fund raising on behalf of Palestine. Over time, I have only seen the misconception of Palestinians grow. During my public speeches, I used to tell that peace would only be within reach once Palestinian blood would be valued as much as the blood of anybody else.
My husband and I traveled back to Palestine on a few occasions. He was Palestinian as well, with an Armenian Christian background. Once we stood with our boys in front of the house in Jerusalem where he grew up. The people who lived there graciously let us visit the house: we took a million pictures. On the same trip, we went to Jaffa. On the beach, I put my foot in the sea and started crying. Everything was in Hebrew, all street signs, store signs… The search for my home and the family orange groves lead us to an old Palestinian man who showed us around and offered us tea. When he started reading poetry in Arabic, I wanted to record him. But he asked me not to do so, he was afraid to get into trouble. After that visit, I felt homeless for the first time. While we realized how important our roots were, traveling back to Palestine is very difficult emotionally because of the humiliation and the pain. I still feel it is unfinished business and would like to return. If ever I write a book about my life, it will be called: Palestine, a bittersweet return.
Talking about books, I would like to suggest one: The General’s Son by Miko Peled. He is the grandson of a man who signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence; his father was a Israeli general during the War in 67. For those who want to hear the story of the injustice in Palestine from another perspective, his book offers great value and insights.
Since I left Jordan for Canada, I have met many Palestinians all over the World. There are so many of us, our children have spread out even more. The Diaspora is a worldwide network. What pleases all of us is the fact that our children do not forget. At the Palestinian Film Festival in Toronto, I see many young people who build upon our memories and deem it important to keep them alive. They seem to tell our story with even more talent and passion than we ever did. Thank you for sharing mine.