–Translated from Czech by Nathan Fields
Editor’s Note: Author Jana Kotaishova was born in 1956 in the Czech Republic. In 1974 she emigrated to the Soviet Union, where she studied journalism, and met her future husband, a Palestinian refugee. 35 years of living in various Arabic countries and meeting countless refugee families led to her first book, Testimony, in which she portrays the fate and struggles of three generations of Palestinian refugees.
Part I: SCHOOL
In my childhood I had a grand dream. To sleep. To sleep until I was completely saturated with it and would not have to get up in the dark. Every day I longed for the dawn prayers to be delayed. The voice of the muezzin calling “Allah Akbar” was for me what the factory siren is for workers. The only difference was that after the voice from the mosque, there always followed my father’s screaming. Ever day over and over, “Get up, get up, get up!” The stars in the sky were not yet extinguished, but I had to get up. I dragged together my slender limbs and, knowing there was no other way to silence father’s voice, raised myself from the mattress.
At school I was sleepy, but I loved the hours I spent there. Even as a young boy I knew that I was studying for my life. I devoted all of my strength to my education. I saw in it the way to a better existence. I knew that I was a refugee, but it was school that started me dreaming of myself as a free and respected man. I would tell myself that I just had to claw my way out of this miserable camp somehow. I even allowed myself to fall in love with one of my classmates. I did not have to be ashamed of my poverty in front of her; she was as intimate with it as I was. She, too, lived in the camp. It was the sweet love of a child, pulsing inside a sphere of dreams and wishes. None of it lasted. We both forgot about each other long ago.
About school, however, I have not forgotten, nor will I ever forget. Since we could not go to public Lebanese schools, the UNRWA organized a nine-year basic education for us. It truly was the only valuable thing that we refugees got from the United Nations. It is a gift that I am grateful for until today. It may be the only real gift I ever received in my life.
Our school was a large brick building with spacious classrooms and a vast sports field. It was located in close proximity to the clinic and centers for helping refugees. You only had to leave the camp and follow the path bordering the small orange orchard, and then the school suddenly appeared before you. We students were almost all Palestinians, though a couple Lebanese attended with us. All of the teachers were Palestinians. Lessons were held in Arabic through the fifth grade, and then from the sixth grade our main subjects were taught in English. It truly was a proper education. English language and literature, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology; all the lectures were in English. Those of us who went through that school in the ’50s and ’60s never had difficulties with English. History, geography, Arabic and Arabic literature and Islam continued to be taught in our native tongue.
I remember it being an honor to be the best in class. There was fierce competition for such a title. I would have done anything to be the best. It always mattered so much to me. And I was first, or, if not first, then one of the first. But I was usually first. We had a point system and it was easy to count.
It is interesting that we, the children of refugees, outcast and forgotten by the whole world somewhere on the sea coast in a miserable provisionary camp, became interested in everything that was happening in the world, that we were familiar with English literature, world history, math, chemistry and plenty of other things. I loved geography, for example. This was probably because I was not allowed to travel more than 20 kilometers from the camp. (It was only a couple times a year with special permission that we went to Beirut with Mother and Father to visit Grandmother, our uncle, aunts and cousins.) There was not one country on the globe that I did not know about. I also always excelled in math, but more than anything I was fascinated by physics. When I later studied at University in the Soviet Union, I was able to verify that my knowledge of mathematics, chemistry and physics was far better than that of my classmates.
Games also belong to my school years. My brother and I worked from early childhood, but we always found time for games with friends. Our camp was called Naher al Bared, named after the river which flowed into the Mediterranean Sea just behind our camp. It was a beautiful place. In the summer, when the river would dry up, there remained only a small tranquil stream, changing its wide delta into a green meadow perfectly created for moments of relaxation. The whole camp met there. We children loved the meadow. From spring until autumn we spent our every free minute there. We knew how to swim and catch fish very well. We were always sunburned black as chocolate, wearing just underwear sewn from flour sacks which shone white in the distance. In summer, when the days were long, even adults came around in the evening after work or on Friday afternoon. They would sit in circles and discuss. We warmed ourselves in the sun and listened to their talk. They didn’t just speak about Em Waseem having a goat who had born however many kids, or that Abu Izmail’s cow could give I don’t know how many liters of milk, that so and so and what’s his face were getting married, but they also recalled memories of Palestine together. We boys perked up our ears immediately. Our parents were not generous with words; after the everyday struggle for a piece of bread, they had neither the time nor the mood, but there by the river and everyone together in the soft grass, they were glad to remember their lost lives in their mother country. It was the only place where we were able to find anything out about it. Even at school it was strictly forbidden to even mention Palestine.
We studied the whole world, but of our actual homeland we could not utter a word. Until the day, I was probably in the sixth grade, that our teacher took an incredibly brave step. He decided that we would learn about Palestine. I remember that he came to us in class and challenged each of us to name the parts of the camp that we lived in. We began: Damun, Safuria, Sasa, Haifa, Akka, Sheik Daud, Gabsie, Faraada, Tarshiha, Azzib, Kadita… He interrupted us with the words, “And do you know that all of those names are the names of actual places in Palestine, the places your fathers were driven from? From the country which was our home for hundreds of years, and that we brought only the names of our villages and towns to this camp and gave them to the parts here?” He then laid out a huge map of Palestine and added, “You have the right to know about your own history.” And so we began learning the history of our nation.
Part II: EM OMAR FARM
There were eight of us children, and father and mother. We were a big family. A shepherd also worked for us, and women came from the neighborhood daily, two or three of them as necessary, to help mother with the milking. We had a lot of cows. At night we closed the herd into a pen at the house and in the morning the shepherd led them out to pasture. Each morning the milk merchant waited down at the road; we handed a full canister over to him and took an empty one from him for the next day. Our milk traveled to Akka every day. My father Ibrahim had a contract with the English army regiment supplying provisions of milk and cheese. We made cheese at home and stored it in salty brine. This way it lasted a long time. Our fields were everywhere around the house. We grew everything; nothing was bought. Grains, vegetables, potatoes, olives, grapes, oranges, lemons, apples, almonds, pistachios; we had our own of everything. My mother Sara was an excellent housewife, managing to make use of every last bit of every crop. The surpluses were distributed among the family, uncles, aunts, cousins, and even the neighbors always received something. Not even meat was scarce. Hens, ducks, a goat or a pair of sheep were always running around the spacious yards, and we raised rabbits in cages.
Our house was in a valley where there were fields all around on every side. The neighbors were within view. Their houses, surrounded by fields, were scattered about the countryside; it was a pretty sight. All of us in that region were farmers: Arabs and Jews, age-old residents. There were more of us Arabs, but there was certainly no small number of Jewish farms. Basically we were not counting in those days; we made no difference between Arabs and Jews. Everyone farmed their own land; that was the sacred right. We cultivated our land and did not worry about what the neighbor was doing on his land. We really liked each other. Very much.
My father Ibrahim walked to the mosque every Friday to thank the Lord God for the richness with which he had blessed us. He could have gone by buggy as the others did, but he went on foot. He would say that “those who ride could not understand those who must stride.” His pockets were always full of coins and he would give them out to the poor. He already had his places and his people who would wait for the money from him. They thanked him profusely each time, but he would say, “The Lord God be thanked,” that he was merely His servant. Father had a lot of money, but he would keep very little for himself, giving the rest to Mother. With it she would buy gold and keep it in a chest in her bedroom.
Although we had an abundance of everything, we did not live like wealthy people. Beginning with Mother and Father, we all worked. From early childhood. I was the oldest daughter; that meant that mother taught me everything first. At ten years old I was already a full-fledged housewife. I could knead dough for bread, milk a cow, decant milk into canisters, skim milk for cheese, pluck a hen, skin a rabbit, pickle olives, and if it came to it, operate the press for olive oil. I knew how to preserve marmalade, and dry vegetables for winter; we dried spinach, molokhija, okra, and mint, among others. I was clever and mother praised me. From morning until evening I was at her side helping her and I picked up on everything she did.
I did not go to school. This was not our custom as farmers. I was born in 1931 when only noble or urban girls went to school. Farmers only sent their boys. My brother Mohamed (he was the oldest child, born in 1929; I came after him) did go to school. Father enrolled him in the madrasa, where a sheik taught reading, writing, counting and Islam. When Mohamed was about twelve, Father reckoned it was time for him to help on the farm. “You can read and write, count and pray, too. That’s enough for farming,” he told him. Mohamed, however, did not like this. Working with cows had not taken root in his heart. He wanted to go to school. He shirked his duties as much as he could, often no one saw him at home the whole day nor knew where he was. It then turned out that he was secretly going to school.
One of Mohamed’s friends was a Jewish boy from the neighborhood. It was to him that Mohamed complained of not knowing what to do, that he wanted to attend school, that what he had learned in the madrasa was not enough, but that his father was forcing him to manage the cows and the fields. His Jewish friend offered to enroll him in the Jewish school in Mutesken, a small settlement not far from our farm, and then did so. Mohamed was afraid at first because he did not know even a word of Hebrew, but his friend knew Arabic and promised that he would help him. When Father saw how much school meant to him, he allowed him to continue. So, Mohamed went to the school in Mutesken for six whole years and finished a year after the second war ended. He learned Hebrew so well that he was unrecognizable from a Jew in speech.
During the years that Mohamed was at school, I worked at home. I liked every kind of work, but I most liked being with Father in the fields. I was glad that Mohamed had finally fought and won school for himself, and that I could take his place in the tilling and sowing and harvest. I have always thought and still think that working with soil is the most beautiful thing in the world. Preparing it so that it is soft enough for a grain to germinate in it, and then observing as it sprouts up into the world, cleaning the weeds from the true stems and ultimately harvesting the crop — for me this is a miracle.
I experienced the most beautiful moment in spring when Father and I drove up into the mountains for a couple days where we had a small earth house and a modest field adjacent to it. There we planted grain. We harnessed two horses, loaded the cart with the plow and food supplies and set off. When we had plowed and sown the field, we returned home to the valley. Father loved that place in the mountains. Each time we sat on the porch of the house after work, he would point to the hill opposite — there was a vineyard growing, figs, olives and almond trees as well — and he would say that he wanted to buy that hill. “So buy it, you have the money, don’t you?” I asked him. “Oh come on! I have enough money, I would have bought it long ago, but they don’t want to sell it. Next year, they say. When I do buy it, we’ll demolish this mud house and build a brick one like we have in the valley. Then when we ride up here for work and harvest, we’ll be much more comfortable sleeping here.”
Once, when I was fourteen, my father broke his leg. It was spring and the plowing had to be done up the mountain. Mother was pregnant, but just at the beginning of her term and she told Father not to worry, that the two of us would manage it together. And we managed it. We plowed and sowed the field. When harvest came, I set out with helpers to our earthen house to harvest the crop. Mother stayed home, her term was fast approaching. Before we returned, she gave birth to twins! Alone! No one helped her. The neighbors arrived after the baby was already blinking at the light of the world. No one can believe it nowadays.
JANA KOTAISHOVA was born in the small Moravian city of Velke Bilovice in 1956. She received her journalism degree at Rostov State University in the Soviet Union where she also met her Palestinian husband, Ahmad. It was his memoirs that compelled her to record this story, which is a reflection of not just his family’s life, but that of all Palestinian people.
About the Translator:
NATHAN FIELDS has translated contemporary Czech literature into English in the form of novels, short stories, screenplays and scripts, and poetry. He has received praise for his translations of Jan Balaban (Septej se táty) as well as works by Jáchym Topol, Edgar Dutka, Petra Hůlová and Miloš Urban. With a degree in Literature and Writing, he has been teaching English and translating in Prague for over a decade.