11 Lives



With an introduction by PERLA ISSA

With contributions by: Nadia Fahed, Intisar Hajaj, Yafa Talal El-Masri, Youssef Naanaa, Ruba Rahme, Hanin Mohammad Rashid, Mira Sidawi, Wedad Taha, Salem Yassin, Taha Younis, Mahmoud Mohammad Zeidan

“This marvelous book lifts the veil of anonymity that has long concealed the reality of refugees, not as UN statistics, but as human beings with stories to tell.” —Ghada Karmi, Palestinian doctor, writer, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

“Vivid accounts of a world we know too little about” —Caryl Churchill, playwright

“This is a book of remarkable lives, written by remarkable people, whose stories are to savour”
—Elizabeth Laird, children’s fiction and travel writer

“Stories about contemporary Palestinians are few and far between in English, let alone stories told in—and by—non-elite, diasporic Palestinian voices. The volume brings a vibrancy and vitality to these stories that reminds the reader of the multitudinous experience of Palestinian refugees”
—Ghenwa Hayek, Associate Professor of Modern Arabic Literature, University of Chicago

“The triumph of this unique book is how it manages to unite the indomitable spirit of Palestinian survival with the transformative potential of first-person narratives. 11 Lives is a deeply humane, precisely detailed, and intimately drawn collection of refugee stories that reveals more about life as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon—with all the major pitfalls, daily joys, and absolute steadfastness—than any newspaper report, academic treatise, or NGO study ever could.”
—Moustafa Bayoumi, award winning author of The Muslim American Life

“offers an assiduous, kaleidoscopic look at life for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon against the tide of a literary supply-chain that demands extractive and paternalistic refugee stories, seldom written by refugees themselves.” —Mohammed El-Kurd, Palestinian writer and poet

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About the Book

The 11 lives given voice here are unique, each an expression of the myriad displacements that war and occupation have forced upon Palestinians since the Nakba of 1948. At the same time, they form a collective testament of a people driven from their homes and land by colonial occupation. Each story is singular; and each tells the story of all Palestinians.

As Edward Said argued in 1984, the object of Israel’s colonial warfare is not only material—seeking to minimise Palestinian existence as such—but is also a narrative project that aims to obliterate Palestinian history “as possessed of a coherent narrative direction pointed towards self-determination.”

In these pages, Palestinian refugees narrate their own histories. The product of a creative-writing workshop organized by the Institute for Palestine Studies in Lebanon, 11 Lives tells of children’s adventures in the alleyways of refugee camps, of teenage martyrs and ghosts next-door, of an UNRWA teacher’s dismay at the shallowness of her colleagues, and of the love, labour, and land that form the threads of a red keffiyeh.

What unites these 11 stories is “the inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people” highlighted by Said. Their words persist, as one contributor writes, “between the Nakba and the Naksa, throughout defeats and massacres, love affairs and revolutions.” The stories of Palestinians in exile are also open-ended, and will continue to reverberate across borders until Palestine is free.

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Co-published with the Institute for Palestine Studies

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240 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-347-1 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-348-8

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About the Editor and Translator

muhammad ali khalidi author photo

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Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at CUNY Graduate Center, where he teaches and publishes in the philosophy of science. He has written on various aspects of the question of Palestine, including Palestinian refugee rights. His edited volume, Manifestations of Identity: The Lived Reality of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, was published by the Institute of Palestine Studies in 2010. He has translated a wide range of texts from Arabic into English, including the collection, Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings. He was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father.

Read an Excerpt

From “My Heart Hangs from a Mulberry Tree” by Wedad Taha

“Mama, I want to be veiled,” I said to my mother absent-mindedly when she came to visit me, as I buried my little head in her lap. I shut my eyes and took in the scent from her long black dress. It was my mother’s scent and lap. She hadn’t visited me in a month and a half, leaving me to toss and turn at night, yearning and longing for her. I missed her dear spirit and missed playing with my siblings. I was the middle child, but I always behaved like a mother to them. I cried for an hour as I buried myself in her lap and held on to her, as though I was trying to plant her in my soul so that I could have my fill of her. My mother was and has always been my comfort and the soul of my soul. I’m not sure whether being deprived of her made me more attached to her, or whether it was her short stories, or her sweet singing that mingled with the steam and smell of soap when she bathed us. I held her head with my hand and told her not to leave me there, to take me with her, wherever that might be. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t know where I stood or how to make sense of what was happening to me. I wasn’t fully conscious of the significance of what I had lived through.
One of the clearest images that I had came from my dreams. Like most Palestinian families, mine was pious, following traditions inspired by the face of God and his power over hearts, minds, and practices. Did I just say the “face” of God? It was a face that I saw through thick, high, white clouds, an ethereal face that visited me in a dream and I spoke to it. I don’t remember what He said, but He spoke to me too. Yes, I spoke to God when I was asleep, and in the same dream I saw the prophet. When I woke up in a muddled state and said, “Mama, I want to be veiled,” my mother refused. She feared that I would take off the veil after a while, and she wanted me to be sure of the first free decision that I would make. Did I say “free decision”? I don’t know how free my decision was, nor do I know the meaning of that idea now. I don’t even know if it was a decision, or just the outcome of the traditions speaking to me in a dream.

All the women around me were veiled. My grandmother was veiled, despite the fact that she continued to flirt with my grandfather into her seventies. My mother was veiled, covering the most beautiful hair of any woman—apart, perhaps, from the hair of nymphs, if they exist—with its waves and thick locks that fell in layers, and its magical, saturated color. I always contrasted it with the thin and wiry hair of my paternal aunts, and I thanked God that I didn’t inherit it. All four of my aunts, and all the women of the neighborhood, were veiled. Even Umm Sulayman in her dark, cramped hole in the wall wore a headscarf, though she never went out and was hardly capable of walking. She had barely any visitors except me, my grandmother, her daily plate of food, the ravages of winter, her grinding poverty, and the memories of her children.

For my first veiled photograph, I smiled before the lens of Ibrahim al-Susi, posing in front of a white background. I sent the picture to my father along with a keychain engraved with the words: “If hearts could be gifted, I would have given you mine.” I didn’t expect much of a reply, but one sunny winter’s day the school principal summoned me. As soon as I crossed the threshold of his office, I saw my father perched giant-like on the black leather couch. I threw myself at him and was pricked by his thick black mustache. He and the principal chuckled at how long I cried, then he kissed me. I felt special because my father had come to pick me up before the end of the school day. It was a rare and strange event. When we got home, my grandfather was resplendent in his usual chair in the living room. There was a lunch in honor of my father, who then took me to our new house. We arrived there exhausted after a long car ride on a road full of potholes, my insides rattled by all the vibrations. The road had gone on and on, scenes of fruit orchards rushing past fleetingly, as my heart raced gleefully, soaking up the exhilaration of the day. As soon as the car stopped, I ran toward the house and took in the aroma of the lentil dish that my mother was preparing especially for me.

In between two refugee camps, and in the face of an impossible return, my grandfather had bought a small plot of land with the money transfers that my father had sent back while he was working in the Gulf. On it, he’d built a two-story house, which he only managed to enjoy in his final years. The bloody events that had consumed Lebanon, including the Palestinians, rendered the house hostage to a variety of factions, militias, and groups. Some of them turned it into a sniper’s nest because of its location on a main artery between the camps of ‘Ayn al-Hilweh and al-Miyeh wa Miyeh, and it also served as a Lebanese army barracks and a main hospital of the Palestinian Red Crescent. Others turned it into an ammunition depot. Our neighbors even told us that during some periods of the war it had become a makeshift prison.

My mother was the first to see our new home in that building. She says she almost fainted when she went inside. I can only imagine her crushing disappointment and sense of loss as she saw her years of life in the Gulf devastated by the greed of the militias and others who had plundered our property. My grandfather had registered the house in his name and it was to be inherited by my father and paternal uncles after his death. The bizarre thing is that the house is still being held hostage. During Rafiq Hariri’s term as prime minister, the Lebanese parliament passed a property law prohibiting Palestinians from owning land in Lebanon, so when my grandfather died, none of his children were able to inherit the property or register the house in their names. That building, where we spent over twenty years, until I convinced my father of the need for change, now seems cursed to me.

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