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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

A Mother’s Life in Occupied Palestine

Amani Altwam

It’s been 9 years since my mother has gone home.

9 years since she’s seen her childhood house.

9 years since she’s smelled the olive trees in her backyard.

9 years since she said goodbye to her own mother.

My mother was born in a small village named Jaba’, just north of Jerusalem. A village that once encompassed only thirty households is now home to over 3,000 inhabitants and 478 households. Here, my mother grew up, married my father, and had two of her six children. She was born during a time in which the statehood of her country was in shambles; There was no way to know what the future of her village would hold. While interviewing her, my mother recounts her life in the village of Jaba’, providing insight into what Palestinian life is truly like in the occupied West Bank.

While holding her eleventh grandchild, my mother smiles at the thought that she finally has all her children in one place. “You know what would make this perfect?” she asks, “If we were back home.” My mother was born in Jaba’, Jerusalem in 1965 as the fourth child of eight, four girls and four boys. Her father was a rug salesman that worked in the United States until his retirement. Compared to the other families in the village, my mother’s family was wealthy. But even wealth could not shelter them from the Six-Day War in 1967. “I was two years old. Our whole village stayed in a cave. I can still hear the planes going over us. We stayed there for almost two weeks.” While no one from their village was harmed, that did not mean that neighboring villages were not destroyed. “A lot of people left their houses. When they tried to come back for them, Israelis had taken their houses and their land.”

The war of 1967 marked the beginning of over fifty years of Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights in Syria. During the war, over 350,000 Palestinians fled their homes out of fear and were displaced from the Gaza strip and the West Bank. As my mother recounted, there were aerial attacks geared towards the West Bank, but there were Israeli soldiers on the ground as well. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) hit many civilian targets, well aware of the high count of innocent lives that would be taken. The IDF also destroyed countless villages, burned down houses, and forcibly removed Palestinians from their homes.

My mother never finished high school, which was not uncommon “back in the old days.” She was sixteen years old when she married my father, the son of a custodian. “We had an arranged marriage and a simple wedding, just like everyone else. His family came to my house and asked for my hand.” When asked about the mahr or dowry presented to buy her clothes and jewelry, she replied, “It was not much. Maybe $500, but my parents were okay with it.” They were engaged for six months, until they wed in February of 1980. Because my father was finishing high school and working in a construction company, my mother and father did not have a honeymoon. Their first child was eventually born in Jerusalem in 1982 and two years later, the family of three decided to leave Jaba’ and head to New York “for a better life.”

My parents lived in New York for over twelve years, but they eventually returned to Jaba’ in 1995 with their five children. Back in her home country, my mother observed that it had become much more modern, “almost like New York.” My parents lived in Jaba’ for eight more years, during which time they had their sixth and last child in 1998.

Eventually, the second Intifada (uprising) began, and my parents were not prepared for how it would affect their lives. “Your father couldn’t work in Jerusalem,” my mother explains, “He was not allowed to go there. He went to South Carolina where relatives gave him a job at Subway. He would stay there and come back every few months. He would send all the money he made to us.” My mother then began to recount what it was like to be in the midst of the violence. “A lot of people from our village died. Just trying to defend their families, houses, and land. We stayed in the house because it was so dangerous. Everything, how do you say it, everything just went dead.” When they were permitted to leave their homes, they were only allowed to get necessities, like food and medicine. “We couldn’t use cars. They closed the roads and we had to walk everywhere. We walked a lot.” By 2003, their two eldest children had gotten married, and their eldest son had followed his father to the U.S. to help him work. “He did not want us staying by ourselves anymore,” my mother explains, “I had the two boys and a four-year-old. We left our home to go to a new one.”

The Palestinian struggle is an ongoing one, and it might never be truly over. My parents are perfect examples of the lucky few who made it out to live long, healthy, and happy lives. Their village of Jaba’ still stands to this day, yet their home is abandoned, covered in vines and dust. Although they left Jaba’ for a better life in the United States, that is not to say that they would not return if given the chance. My parents have a plaque made out of olive trees from their backyard in Jaba’, with the Palestinian flag painted on it; This plaque has always been displayed on full view in every home they had. They carry Jaba’ with them everywhere they go, whether it’s to New York or South Carolina.

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