A true story of a Palestinian Cultural icon
Atallah (literally the gift of god) could never have imagined the depth of tragedies nor the heights of glory that the damp morning of October 2nd, 1908 ushered. His wife Miriam (Mary) delivered a rather large baby in a one room stone srtructure with little amenities. They decided to call the newborn Issa (English equivalent is Jesus) "because his mother is Miriam". The family was a simple Christian family whose ancestors are remnants of the old Nebatean kingdom called Al-Ghassasinah. Many Christian families, including this one lived in and around Bethlehem at the time for protection and proximity to other Christian families. Atallah and Mary and the little child Issa lived in the area that is known as Beit Sahour. Literally this means the house of those who stay up by night, an allusion to the Shepherd's field where tradition holds that the Shepherd's saw the star and heard the voices of angels singing "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and happiness to mankind" as the prince of peace was born some twenty centuries earlier.
Three other kids followed: Mitri, Hilwa, and Elias. Atallah made a living for his young family by making Holy Land souvenirs including prayer beads (misbaha) from mother of pearl and supplementing his income by working as barber. In weekends, he went hunting for birds, foxes, gazelles, and wild boar which were especially abundant in the Jordan valley some 5 hour walk from his home.
Issa's first memories of his childhood was that at the age of 3, a pot of hot water fell on him burning his legs. The physical (and perhaps emotional) pain stayed with him throughout his life. His other major memory is that at age six he heard people talking about the the drums pounded; this he learned meant a war had started. Palestine at the time was under Ottoman rule and the Ottoman Turks drafted all men to service including Issa's father Atallah. So in 1914 and with the father and most able bodied men gone, the family was left with no source of income and limited sources a food (the extended family owned a farm with some olive, fig, and almond trees but this could bnot sustain such an extended family). Poverty, hunger, and disease took its toll on all inhabitants and the Atallah family was no exception. As a child, Issa had to rummage in trash in the hills for edible plants, and to beg for food from others who were not much better.
Rumors spread that situation across the Jordan was a bit better so some decided to try their luck there. Miriam took her four little children (ages 1 to 7) and traveled to the town of Madaba (biblical Moab). The walk of over 100 kilometers through deserts, hills, and treacherous terrainne was imprinted on Issa's yound mind.
In Madaba, one family felt pity on these poor refugees and allowed the mother and her children to stay in the abandoned cave (originally used as an animal stable) on their land. The place was damp and especially cold and wet in the winter months that came that year. Mother and younger children fell ill and Issa was left caring for them. He would go to where locals watered their animals, wait patiently till animals filled themselves of water and then fetch some water for his mother. For food, he scavenged and knocked on doors and did odd jobs. Alas it was not enough and his younger brother Mitri soon died followed by his sister Hilwa. His mother felt the despair and after some weeks of deliberation and agony (and deteriorating health), she decided it is time to go home. She found a Bedouin (Arab nomad) who was traveling in that direction. He agreed to take her back to her village on his donkey in exchange for all her remaining wordly possessions (a few blankets, a couple of lamb skins, a couple of pots). Miriam rode the donkey with baby Elias while the Child Issa walked along.
Miriams health kept getting worse as the treck continued. The last night on the road was spend in the Bedouin's camp. Early the next morining and on the outskirts of her village, word spread that Miriam was back. What Miriam did not know was that her husband had escaped from the Turkish Army, was hiding from the Turkish soldiers, and had been frantically trying to find were she was. Upon hearing that she is returning he ran as fast as he could to meet her at the edge of town. As young Issa watched, the mother exhausted fell into his father's arms. His father could hardly say a word as he looked into the sunken eyes of his pale wife. She could but utter one word as if in disbelief that it is her husband and her questioning word was "Atallah?" She then stopped breathing.
Atallah was devastated by the loss of his wife and two young children. He was still a wanted man (for desertions from the draft). The Turkish authorities were desperate for men as the war effort floundred. They even hung a few deserters (includinga distant cousine of Atallah). Atallah (with his two children), Atallah's younger brother, and several cousins decided to flee across the Jordan. Many of them settled in the town of As-Salt but had little luck with work. Unfortunately, the authorities captured Atallah and sent him to the front. Again young Issa had to beg for food. A break came when they heard that laborors are needed to build a road between As-Salt and the Jordan valley. The contract administrator was the German command. Atallah's younger cousins were some of those who jumped at the opportunity. They would be transported daily and fed some lunch. The pay was meager but enough to get food for the two children left behind.
One day, young Issa decided to go with his uncle to see the work place. A German officer took a liking to Issa and asked him to help him in his fishing. The officer would shoot into the pool and young Issa would run in and collect the dazed fish. He would then help clean and cook it. An incident that Issa relates from this era is that duing lunch time one day, the foreman was examining a rubber-like wire in the wall next to the road. He tried to pull t out but could not. Then he lit a match and brought it next to the wire as everyone watched. Suddenly, a huge blast occurred and the foreman's body was torn to pieces. This was apparently a mine left by the Turkish army. After they recovered from the shock of what they just witnessed, the laborers went about the grisly task of collecting the remains.
Issa's uncle died suddenly one day from a massive infestation of Ascaris worms. The war raged on and Germany and Turkey were losing. Untill one day, British soldiers arrived in town. Again, the remaining family members were unemployed and decided to go back to their village. Their Atallah had already found his way back. He resumed his early career of souvenir making, as a barber, and as a hunter. As months ran by, Atallah decided to take a wife to care for his two young children. A few days before the wedding Atallah felt pain in his lower abdomen (what we now know is the common appendicitis). In the whole region there was one physician of a greek origin who rode around the villages on his white donkey providing needed medical services. His "prescriptions" ranged from slitting ears to vacuum pressure cups to drinking English tea or castor oil. This "doctor" could not be found. Issa and his blind aunt traveled to Beit Safafa near Jerusalem where a French doctor was found. They described the pain. He recommended hot pads on the area of the pain. Instead of decreasing the pain, this recipe increased teh fathers pain and he soon expired. This was the fall of 1918. The young brother Elias died shortly after. Issa was barely 10 years old when he was left an orphan with no family to take care of him other than his blind aunt. One evening, as Issa walked from the town area to the farm he met his cousine Michael. Michael told him that he is now studying at a school in Jerusalem for orphans. The school was called Schniller (after the German guy who established it). Michael went on and on about how this school takes care of all orphans like they are and that he should come and join. Michael said he is walking back to the school in two days and would suggested Issa accompany him. The contrast between the description and his current desperate situation seemed to Issa almost unbelievable. He could hardly wait.
It took a days walk to get to the school. Yet, Issa relayed later that he never felt tired. He felt like he was walking on air. The sun was setting as the 14 and 10 year olds arrived at the guarded gate. The guard saw that the older boy had the school uniform and would let him in but he would not let Issa in. No begging or pleading was to change this guard's obstinance. As the trip back is a day's walk Issa begged to stay the night and the answer was still no because his instructions are strict to not allow any vagrants or others enter school grounds. Issa did not know what to do and not knowing anyone or anything in this big city started to cry uncontrollably. A number of the students whose boarding areas were near the gate heard the commotion and came out to investigate. Here was this ironic and pathetic scene, an orphan at the gate of an orphanage that would not take him. By chance, Ms. Maria Schniller (daughter of teh founder) was heading out and stopped to see what was going on. When she heard his story, she was touched. She called for the school taylor and asked him to take the kid in for the night and bring him to see her in the morning. Issa did not forget that night when he laid near flour sacs, with mice running around him, and not knowing what tomorrow brings.
As the sun rose and Issa came to see Maria in day light, she noticed how terrible he looked. What Issa was wearing at the time was nothing more than piece of old tent cloth (army tents) draped over his head and tied with a piece of string; nothing more. He had not been bathed in weeks. Maria again felt pity, called for an assistant and asked that he be bathed and given cloths. When he walked back in her office, she could hardly recognize the child. She called for teh head of the education, a Palestinian arab, who then gave Issa a verbal examination. As a result he enrolled him in third grade.
Life smiled on young Issa. He studied and worked hard. Kids were expected to learn trades while going to school so he chose to learn repairing and making shoes. He did so well that the decision was made to take him directly from third grade to fifth grade the next year. He finished 6th grade in 1921. As this was the highest possible grade at that school, he was met with two choices: go work in Haifa in a shopping area or go work in Jerusalem as a bus boy for a government supply officer. He chose the latter because it is closer to home. His monthly salary was to be three pounds but most of it went back to Schniller school for allowing continued use of dorm and food. He would sit on a chair in front of the office and wait for orders. Mr. Solomon would tell him to take the mail, bring tea, clean stuff and so on. This grew boring after a while. Another administrator noticed Issa spending a lot of time intently reading anythig his hands fell onto. He suggested that Issa leave this job and join the new "Teachers College", a three year program after sixth grade that graduates teachers. This administrator explained that the only way to get off his assignment is if Mr. Solomon dismissed Issa and asked Schniller to send a replacement. Hence, Issa was put in the position of getting himself fired (by refusing to obey the next order). Having accoplished this, he was promptly returned to Schniller where he mended more shoes until the date of the exam for joining the Teachers' college.
Having passed the exam he thought he could get admitted. Yet, the committee met with all who passed and when Issa came before them, they told him he was too young to join (not yet 15). They asked that he retake the exam the next year. So Issa spent a year in Schniller making and mending shoes. He took the exam as instructed the next year and this time passed with distinction. Fortunately, the college decided his grades were so high that he does not need to take the preparatory year and can move directly to the actual first year of study. The year was 1923. The famous Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini had worked as Principle at the school until 1920 when he resigned because of the appointment of a Zionist Herbert Samuel as the chief British Mandate official. Samuel allowed the Jewish agency to run the segregated Jewish schools. While officially all schools were listed under the Department of Education, exceptions for management was made for Jewish agency schools. It was one of many ways by which a shaddow government was taking shape later to materialize as the state of Israel. Some non-Zionist Jews chose not to segregate themselves from other Palestinians in these Jewish Agency run institutions and hence there were Jews, Christians, and Muslims in these other schools. When Issa joined, the principal was Dr. Khalil Tawtah who had a masters in education from Columbia University in New York and who developed a climate of coexistance, tolerance, and high standards of education. Only in 1927, the college changed name to become the Arab College as Palestine adapted to the increasing British imposed segregation of "Jewish" and "Arab" educational systems.
It is not very clear when in these years between age 14-18 that Issa decided to drop his family name and use his father's last name (Atallah) as his family name. He related to me that this decision was based on a number of cfactors but most prominently that his immediate family was gone, and that other than his blind aunt, he felt no kinship to the remaining members of his extended family. He wanted to be truly independent. When British authorities said his name must consist of four parts, he asked them to record Issa Atallah Atallah Atallah. So was born a new person with independence and determination to succeed as an individual. Those who spent time with Issa at the Teacher College said he was perhaps the most serious student. He studied very hard and excelled.
Upon graduation at age 18, Issa tought at a school in Beit Jala near Bethlehem. There he fell in love with Emilia (Milia). Her family originally from Nazareth and was a highly educated and well to do family. Emilia, her two sisters and her father were all educators. It is not hard to see how Issa's love letters and poems to Emilia (which still survive to this day) swept her off her feet to marry someone who, in a very traditional family-oriented society, would have been otherwise highly undesirable. Their first modest apartment in Beit Jala quickly became crowded with children: eight in all in very rapid succession while the mother and father where in their 20s.
For every child that was born, Issa wrote a poem which these Children still treasure. Being a linguist, Issa with the gentle consultation of his liberated wife came up with names taht reflect a hopeful, optimistic vision of the future: Sami (noble soul), Bisher (blessing), Sana (guiding light), Humam (hard worker), Fauz (prize), Arij (blossom), Hayah (life), and Amal (hope).
Issa shuffled time between his demanding work and the large family. He became school principle and superintendant of schools. It is amazing that he found the time through these years to read so many books and to write so many others. His first books were Arabic grammer books which were adopted by the Jordanian Ministry of Education and used throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His writings ranged from language, to poetry, to short stories, to play scripts, and to history. His collection of Palestinian and Arabic proverbs is one of the largest published. On a personal level, he continued to grow and build his academic credentials despite the wars of 1948 and 1967. But he knew from his childhood experience that things would not always be the same and that life is fragile. We can glimpse evidence of that in the frugal way in which he saved every penny he could and only spent on what he considered solid and unbreakable: his largest was building a house in Beit Sahour in 1952. His children relay how when overgrowing their cloths, they passed on to the next child and so on until fully unusable. The family photo album includes no pictures of vacations from the 1920s until the mid 1970s when he retired. Yet, it would be a mistake to suggest that this was not a happy home. The children were well taken care of, went on their own mini vacations and excursions. Issa nurtured a large garden where the family grew loquots, figs, olives, almonds, apricots, plums, and seasonal vegetables. They also raised chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Children took care of this assorted fauna and flora. Food was plentiful and wonderfully prepared by Emlia.
Issa's cautious and frugal ways taught his children lessons that helped them in their future lives. They all became highly successful. All seemed going well until tragedies struck. Life in the Holy Land was not getting any better after Israel was established in 1948. Refugees flooded from 550 towns and villages ethnically cleansed by the Zionist movement. Some of these refugees ended up in the area of Palestine not yet occupied by the Zionist movement. Eastern Palestine, the area in which Issa and family lived, was occupied by the Jordanian army and then annexed to Jordan in 1950 and became known as the West Bank of Jordan. Its economy suffered under the weight of refugees. Issa moved from his governmental job to act as superintendant of UNRWA schools in Gaza and the West Bank. UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees, was set up to provide humanitarian relief and jobs to the nearly one million refugees created during the establishment of the state of Israel. People settled in if they could, or moved out if they thought it better.
The eldest son Sami emigrated to America in 1951 where he married and had four children, a boy and three girls. The boy, the eldest grandson of Issa, got into a car accident and remained in a coma for three years before expiring. Issa heart was to ache some more. His son Sana was perhaps the brightest of his children. The list of firsts Sana broke are long: the first from the village to get a PHD degree in the sciences, the first to publish over 12 papers while still studying for his PhD (at the University of Connecticut), one of the youngest to get such a PhD degree (age 27), the first Arab selected to join an American international exploration expeditions (to Jordan and then Afghanistan), and on and on. Sana finished his PhD in late 1969 and moved to Iran to teach at Pahlavi University (now University of Shiraz). Less than six months later (in 1970) he and his assistant were killed in a car accident while heading to do field work. He was 27 years old. This event devastated his father and was pivotal in shaping Issa's remaining years as well as changing the lives of many in his family.
To be continued
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