Fatema Abbasi (Tayta)


Three years ago today, I wrote this post about interviewing my grandmother, or tayta, in Jordan which she has since passed. In her honor I repost this.

In 2003, when I went to the University of Jordan to study for a semester, I met a young lady named Samira who was interested in meeting my tayta. She wanted to interview tayta about her experience in Palestine, and the forced exodus to neighboring countries in 1948, for a school project. To help, I translated this interview from English to Arabic to tayta, and Arabic to English to Samira. I had a feeling this information would not come around again, and if so, with less detail. Almost ten years later, turns out, I was right.

I recently found Samira’s original notes from the interview in my filing cabinet. Since tayta‘s death in 2011, I have been reviewing all my past journals and notes for the stories I documented while spending time with her. This interview tells my mothers family’s story when they left Palestine.

Interview with Fatmeh Abbasi, tayta, 2003

English soldiers tried to protect us, the Palestinians. Jewish soldiers were owed this land, and so the Arabs had to leave [Safad]. When they left, they were left alone – some Jordanian armies …. I told them to leave… until the war was over. I saw Jordanian army coming in while the Palestinians were leaving.

I was 20 years old, married with three children, my youngest was an infant, maybe a few months.

All the women scattered to leave, they walked with their kids across plains, up the hill and out of the country. They were killing Arabs, and the Jewish soldiers said to go tell the women not to come back, or their children to come back, because they would be killed too. Our men had stayed to join the Palestinian army – but when the war got ugly, started to escape and flee.

When we left the house in Safad, it was crowded and there were people everywhere, many dead in the streets and we were scared we would get trampled or split up. I carried the youngest baby on my back. I kept my kids close to make sure no one was left behind. I didn’t see my husband for three days after this.

Our house in Safad was guarded by army men – the house was all locked up and our things were still in the house. We tried to go back to get our things, but the entrances to Palestine were being guarded. Our Jewish friends that lived with us and near us, neighbors, they were scared too. We all had such a good relationship, it wasn’t them, it was the Zionists. My Jewish friends were crying because they were scared, they didn’t understand what was happening that day. The same as us.

My father owned land in Jordan, he called our family there to let them know the Abbasi family was coming to take refuge. There were signs leading us to the border, and we had a bus waiting for us at the border to take us to Jordan, but he took other people. It took us too long to get to the border, so we saw another bus that took us to Syria. We later found out that our driver that was supposed to take us to Jordan felt bad for other people and tried to take everyone, but couldn’t. It was really crowded on the border, everything was filled up and cramped. On my bus, people were split up, crying, they were sad and trying to comfort their kids when they were clearly in a bad state themselves. I remember one of my siblings was lost, and it took us four months after getting to Syria to find each other again.

My husband was fighting when I left Palestine with the kids. I waited three days near the border and we reunited with my husband there. After that, we lived in a chicken shack, with dirty water, little food. We had just left without anything but the clothes on our back. After the chicken shack, in Damascus, Syria, we lived for three months in the refugee camps. My husband then got a job near the Euphrates River, where we then moved.

I had taken my gold out of the house when we were leaving, and an old coat that I’d tried to get rid of. I tied the gold and put it under my dress so that we could sell the gold to live. When my husband learned he got the job next to the Euphrates River, we went to live in an apartment there instead of the refugee camps. We were lucky to get out alive. Many of my relatives ended up in refugee camps for years.

My mother was at the border of Lebanon, waiting for entering soldiers to ask if they had seen her kids… us. She prayed that she would find us in three months, just to know if they were safe. She found us all.

I was upset, but my husband was very upset, and he was very emotional and had the stress of the finances, so I kept my emotions to myself. We had nothing in our new house, we didn’t even have pots and pans. There were times my husband would reach for a pot or pan we had at our house in Palestine, he would forget he was in Syria without anything. And he would get so upset, every time we would remember what happened, we were shocked.

Older people who couldn’t leave Palestine that day because of disability or difficulty, were made to witness their young men be killed in front of them. This was a strategy to force them to leave.

They Syrian government helped us a lot. They got us food, visas, jobs, they didn’t take our passports, they let us assimilate. The kids could go to school, the Syrians didn’t make it hard. The Syrians treated us very nicely. At one point I felt like throwing my key [to the Palestinian home] away in Syria because the Syrians were so accepting. But i still have my house key.

In Syria, we were issued cards for refugees to receive flour and sugar. To start over. My husband had a job and felt that we didn’t need it. He was proud to live without any assistance from the government.

After four years, we went to Irbid, Jordan because relatives were there. We really tried to start over in Irbid, to have a new life.

I am still expecting to go back to my house. Every night that I can sleep, I imagine that I am in Palestine. My house in Safad still stands, it is not gone. I just don’t feel like Jordan or Syria are the same as Palestine. I had a home in Palestine. I don’t want compensation, I just wish they bought my land like a business deal. It would have been fair, and no emotions. I want my land back, unless they want to buy it to make it a legal exchange.