I woke up early that Sunday morning last May to attend the Nakba Day at Kass-Kass Park, just outside of Shatila Palestinian refugee Camp in Beirut. I made a promise to Doha Abou Jamous—a young Palestinian resident of the Shatila Camp who I had interviewed earlier in the week—that I would attend the festival to see her perform her dance recital. This festival war organized by Palestinian camp committees to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the Nakba Catastrophe. The Palestinian Pride festival proved to be especially significant, because in addition to attending the inspiring Kaas-Kass event I accompanied my friend Zeinab to join her on a trip to Saida, where we would interview her grandmother, a 1948 Nakba survivor, in the Mieh Mieh Camp, one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
I’d met Fatima Hajj once before at Zeinab’s home in Shatila when she was visiting her children and grandchildren, and the trip to her home in Mieh Mieh turned out to be an exciting adventure, considering that it was my first visit to that particular Camp, where approximately 7,000 refugees, mainly from northern Palestine, resided. It was the third Palestinian Refugee Camp I visited during my visit to Lebanon. When we arrived, Fatima greeted us with kisses, hugs, handshakes, and tea. After we finished our proper Arab-style greeting, we settled in and I began asking Fatima some questions as Zeinab interpreted for us.
Born January 1, 1927, Fatima seemingly remembered everything about her life and the Nakba. When I asked about her childhood, Fatima said she remembered going to the gardens as a little girl and picking flowers and fruit. The village where she lived, Daishoum, was located in Northern Palestine in the town of Safad and Fatima recalled a village of many happy families. Her father was a farmer who worked the fertile soil and provided for his family without ever needing to sell their produce. The family owned the farm and had many cows and goats in addition to their bountiful gardens.
Fatima is the oldest in her family and had four brothers and one sister. She lived on her parent’s farm with her siblings and her husband and baby. Fatima was married at fifteen to a thirty-five year old man from Safad and gave birth to her first child at eighteen years old. I asked her if she knew any Jewish people in Palestine and she responded that while she didn’t personally know any Jews, they would often visit the village to picnic and trade goods with some of the Muslim farmers in her village, but there was never any conflict. She was unaware with the conflict with the Jews until they attacked her village on May 15, 1948.
Fatima explained that she didn’t know outsiders invaded her country, because she was from a small village and news didn’t travel fast; given the roles of women and the fact that she was a twenty-year old woman with a two-year old child, she didn’t pay attention to politics—the men were more involved with community—women generally stayed at home to cook, clean and raise children. She had no idea that the British and Jews clashed with the Palestinians—it was only when there was a sudden attack on her village that she knew about the Zionists. Bombs seemed to drop from planes and suddenly explode with no indication, and hostile Zionist soldiers stormed through Daishoum and started killing people at random without explanation. Her neighbors fled for their lives—Fatima’s family included—leaving all their possessions and seeking a safer place. Fatima described leaving her home as chaos—violence was around every corner, and the fear of being killed motivated the Palestinians to move quickly. In this frantic rush, Fatima’s ten-year old brother was left behind. She told me that her family never knew what happened to him and they never saw him again.
Her family walked from Daishoum, Palestine to Aitroun, South Lebanon, a distance of roughly 40 miles, where they rested for five days. Travelling was a struggle for Fatima, because while she already faced so much stress and fear she was also carrying a small child while pregnant with her second baby (my friend Zeinab’s mother). After five days in Aitroun, the Zionist soldiers attacked inside Lebanon too and her family fled to Bint Jbeil where they stayed for two days. Given the uncertainty and awareness of what was happening, her family moved as quickly as they could away from the killing in Palestine.
A week after being forced from their home in Palestine, Fatima and her family finally arrived in Tyre, South Lebanon where they stayed at the new camp, Bourj Al Shemali. The United Nations provided shelter (tents) for these Palestinian refugees, and Fatima stayed in Tyre for thirty years until 1978. During this time she established a home and had several more children, but after the Israeli’s attacks in 1978 on the Palestinian Refugee Camps at Ein el-Hilweh, Nabatiyeh, Mieh Mieh, El Buss, Rashidiyeh and Bourj el-Shemali, she moved to Shatila camp and stayed for seven years. When the Syrian backed Amal militia attacked Shatila and Bourj Al Barajneh in the 1985 “Wars of the Camps” (they were massacres, not wars—the camps had been virtually defenseless since the September 1982 Israeli-facilitated massacre at Sabra-Shatila and the new Amin Gemayal government’s military intelligence, Deuxieme Bureau, targeted Palestinians across Lebanon). Fatima Hajj fled again to Mieh Mieh, where she’s lived ever since.
After hearing all of this, I was astonished by how one person could endure such violence and still be one of the most pleasant and hopeful individuals I’ve ever met. When I asked her about the future of Palestine, she replied hopefully that one day her family will be able to return to their homeland. After living in Lebanon for sixty-four years, Fatima insisted that she too would like to return to her country, before she died. I asked her how she felt about the efforts of the resistance group Hezbollah, and she replied the she doesn’t know much about them, but she hopes that the Palestinians, forced to live in refugee camps, will return home regardless.
When it comes to the future of Palestine, Fatima hopes that the Muslims and Jewish people can live in peace. She explained that there were many Jews in Palestine before the Nakba, and that they lived peacefully. “They are good people,” she said, “and the problem with Israel has nothing to do with the people of Jewish faith, but rather with the Zionists who use religion and the claimed territorial history of the land as a self-entitled right to occupy Palestine and to establish a Jewish-only country.”
While the Israelis reign over Palestine and occupy her homeland, Fatima Hajj reiterated her wish that one day the Palestinians will return and together all people—regardless of religion or ethnic background—will live in peace in Palestine.
Fatima’s story affected me in a way I cannot compare to anything else. The passion of an old woman, who, despite the struggles of her tumultuous life, believed in the best of humanity even in a terrible situation, was awe-inspiring. I admired her good nature especially considering most of her life was spent feeling anxiety—the kind that I, as a privileged American student, perhaps can never understand. Fatima Hajj died three days after our meeting, and while I am not a particularly spiritual individual, she instilled in me some mercy for all people, regardless of the propaganda we’re exposed to. I felt an honest connection between us, and the opportunity I have to write this is a remarkable experience for me as an aspiring writer as well as a human residing on this planet. Fatima was the quintessential Palestinian woman, and her story—which parallels so many others—makes the quest for Palestinians to return to their ethnically cleansed homes in Palestine much greater.