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My Grandmother, Icon of Palestinian Resilience

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Rifqa al-Kurd. (Twitter: Amany Khalifa)

My grandmother passed away on Tuesday, June 16. She was 103 years old. One of my poems, “This Is Why We Dance,” begins with “Home, in my memory, is a green, worn-out couch / And my grandmother in every poem.”

Each day after school my grandmother would welcome me at the door with jasmines wrapped in Kleenex. I grew up in her wisdom, and my poetry was a reflection of that. She is the axis to my actions, the orchestrator of my cadence. She cameoed my poetry and praxis. A month ago, I wrote yet another poem about her, “The Biggest Punchline of All Time,” stating: “I fear this poem will turn eulogy in real time.”

My grandmother lived through wars and then some. Older than Israel itself. For this, she was hailed as the “icon of Palestinian resilience” by Jerusalemites. During the 1948 Nakba, she left her Haifa home meticulously cleaned, not knowing she would be readying it for its colonizers. A refugee, cast with her children from city to city, she finally settled in Jerusalem, only to be confronted with the Naksa—Israel’s occupation of Arab lands following the 1967 War—followed by the annexation of Jerusalem, and, in her last days of life, the imminent annexation of the West Bank. She passed away amid the chaos of the “Deal of The Century” and Israel’s plans to make Palestinian subjugation permanent and call it a state. Her activism led her from court halls to protests to hospitals. Relentless, she worked and worked until survival was a funny story to tell with what remains of the family.

In 2009, Israeli settlers, adorned with backpacks as if going on a weekend camping trip, entered our homes in East Jerusalem escorted by Israeli police. They claimed that our home was theirs. After a tumultuous battle with two colonial committees in Israeli courts, the settlers seized half of our home. Their takeover was part of a broader effort to ethnically cleanse the entirety of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. We were among 180 Palestinian families facing eviction orders from Israeli courts, which claimed that our homes were built on Israeli lands. Across the street from us, we watched the Ghawi family thrown out of their home and set up a makeshift camp on the street on their land where Israelis settled.

As a child, I witnessed my grandmother, 80-something at the time, as a freedom fighter, an ambulance and a half, treating tear-gassed protesters with yogurt and onions. In 2009, I saw her rally her body against heavily armed and American-accented Israeli settlers and police in our yard, claiming our land as their own by divine decree. As if God were a real estate agent.

Because the Israelis moved into half of the house, separated from my family only by drywall, the 2009 confiscation of our home was highly publicized and so the house became an international hub to which solidarity activists and curious liberals alike made pilgrimages. But my grandmother refused to be a humanitarian case for gazing eyes. She was not a clueless woman. She was always ready with her talking points and historical facts. “Are you American?” she would ask some of the visitors, before letting them know that the United States is largely to blame for our homelessness and statelessness. She would say the same to people from England. “We don’t want your sympathy, we want your action,” she would say. Her punch lines intact.

My grandmother was suffering from dementia for a year before her death. But despite sometimes forgetting my name, her political conviction stuck. The atrocities she witnessed blanketed her subconscious. So much so that, amid her memory’s decay, her stories of the Nakba were still highly detailed, her comments hurled at TV news coherent and complex. 

Her wit stuck too. Last July, visiting my aunt in Nablus, my grandmother did not know where we were and asked how we’re getting back to Jerusalem. “On our bikes,” I answered her jokingly. “You take your bike and I’ll come on my horse,” she retorted. Her smirk unwavering. 

In truth, I am not ready to eulogize her. Even in writing this, I find myself having trouble with tenses. There are people who cannot exist in the past tense. For a hundred years, she walked a tightrope between pride and self-respect. My grandmother taught me everything I know about dignity. She taught me how to launch my sentences like missiles. How to be resilient. Even in the face of eviction, monetary punishment, tens of trials, and threats of imprisonment, she persisted. “I will only agree to leave Sheikh Jarrah to go back to my Haifa house that I was forced to flee in 1948,” she famously said, demanding her right of return. 

I do not know when I will digest her death. I am currently in Atlanta, and Palestine thousands of miles, an apartheid reality, and a pandemic away. I do not know when I will be able to go back. Needless to say, the absence of a farewell is heartbreaking. There is not enough poetry nor explanation that would quantify this grief and so I will spare it. 

The day she passed, social media was effusive with condolences. Blogs and news outlets mourned the death of “Palestine’s jasmine tree,” and much like the trees, my grandmother died standing. Struggling. I had hopes of publishing my first collection of poetry, Rifqa, to honor her in her lifetime. To immortalize her. However, I am certain that Palestine will not let its icon of resilience die. There are people that just do not die. I can already imagine her wrinkled face replicated in the lines of stones in the Old City. I know her roots are entangled underneath my every step. 

A few years ago, my grandmother and I watched men preach about patience on TV. “Be patient! For after patience comes relief!” My grandmother responded, “After patience comes the grave!”

Over 100 years she demanded justice. And much like James Baldwin, who could not live 60 more to see the “progress” he was constantly promised, it has taken my grandmother’s time. We are yet to see the fruits of our seven-decades-old patience. 

I am heartbroken that she died without having seen a free Palestine, though I promise her that the grandchildren have not forgotten. This fight is a revolution until victory. Rifqa embodied that until her very last breath. 

This was my last poem for my grandmother during her lifetime.

The Biggest Punchline of All Time

Rifqa took from me my molotovs
         if not a metaphor
they’d make a good vase for jasmines
                        a good jazz for the dinner table
where revolution is TV volume lowered
to make room for familial dysfunctionality 

Over the years     her fingers thinned
             veins like those of the vines
             verandas required less wandering
And Teta gave up the remote control. 

 

I fear this poem will turn eulogy in real time. 

Sheikh on the screen babbles about relief
It is what comes after patience. After patience
there is but a grave, Teta says. 

Why cradle a century-old;
whose punchlines are still intact? 

Her daughter in law     my mother
                       is her cane. 

When not a metaphor,  her cane is
the edge of a bed or the edge of a sentence
she clings onto physics and wit
                                             her cane
never a stick for the elderly, she who once knew
 purple shrouds, who once knew
            clouds as in-nose residents 
shall not bow her head. It’s a fight really
4:00 am and my parents are screaming hospitals
Teta fell again. Her body did
                                                 Did she?
She’s OK. Alhamdulillah. A hundred years
tightroping the distance between pride and self-respect
I grew  up in a circus. I grew up in ERs and death post the ER
was uncommon so I never held breath or hands
                                                                               hope for me
was a serendipitous outcome, always
Teta walks fragile
she’s a straight spine in theory
I got from her          her hunch
                            and her hunch 

Last July, she asked how we’re getting home.
On our bikes I said, giggling. You take your bike and I’ll take my horse. 
Her punchlines intact            her smirk unwavering 

I assign imagination to memory
                                            molotovs in Fendi bags
                                            pamphlets in python shoes
                                       silk scarves masquerading ramage
                                       a grandson fascinated by both rebellions: fashion and liberty

Teta remembers what she has to
                    rifles in rice bags 
                                           bellies split open
                    women mistaking pillows for offspring
men sirening the street            performing ardor
                    women whose gods no longer respond
   men emasculated by refugee status
                     she does not remember my name
             unkindness is much more memorable                 than  blood
        she remembers       seven decades later
what martyred her homeland the first time

Political conviction sticks.
Chants chandeliering her subconscious       

Habibi?  Why are you in America?
                                           School. God bless you. Mohammed who?
Why America? Be careful! Tell them,
‘America is the reason’.       Tell them ‘Drink the sea’
              Let them ride their tallest horses
                              Jerusalem is ours. 

The biggest punchline of all time. 

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