Ahmad Khalil: The Story of a Palestinian Refugee and His Family (Part-1)
The author of the story being serialised herein under, MARYAM JAMEELAH, originally of Jewish parents, later converted to Islam and went on to become one of the most prolific writers of the last century on Islam. She was also a leading critic of modern Western civilization and culture. She passed away in October 2012 at the age of 74. (See obituary published in YmD at http://www.youngmuslimdigest.com/profile/01/2013/remembering-maryam-jameelah/). One of the last detailed interviews she offered the press was in 2005 which was conducted by – and published in – Young Muslim Digest. The same can be read online at /interview/07/2005/despair-and-hopelessness-forbidden-tread-the-future-with-caution-maryam-jameelah. The story, Ahmed Khalil: The Story of a Palestinian Refugee and His Family, was her first attempt while still in her teens and while not yet a Muslim, to portray the plight of the Palestinians who were deprived of their homeland in 1948. Here we have begun serializing the story as abridged by ZAYD ZAKIULLAH.
As the sun set upon the fields that once belonged to his family for as many generations as he could remember, Ahmad Khalil, gazed longingly at them before slipping into habitual reminiscence. The memory of being a part of the beautiful circle that life was, filled him with immeasurable joy. He prized those shoots glimmering in the golden hues of sunlight above all other miracles of nature around him.
Though seventeen, how Allah chose him to witness this quaint yet miraculous growth of crops, soon after the rains of winter, year after year, never seized to amaze his young self. He had on one occasion, along with his cousins and the other fellaheen tried to sneak in to relive the elation of reaping crops, only to be discovered by armed and equipped soldiers. They guarded with weapons what they considered looted treasure, when he had served with love the land he owed his life. Protect it as they might, it would never mean to them what it had always meant to him.
Life used to be different around here. What used to be a tribe was reduced to only his immediate family members. He could easily visualise the geography of Negeb and Nefud, the original homeland of the immigrants from Arabia to Palestine. Though initially settled as fellaheen, repulsed by the town and village dwellers alike, his tribesmen were autonomous from the very beginning. It was in these very fields that his, now deceased mother Khadijah had bought him, a feeble child, into the world and was never left out of sight. Although her only surviving child, he was the object of the pity of her contemporaries, for Khadijah’s child lacked in pace from the other children of the tribe.
But for Malak Wahab, a former slave and Khadijah’s husband, Ahmad Khalil was a respite given by Allah from years of childlessness. For that, he was eternally grateful.
Ahmad Khalil shared his home with his grandparents, his aunt, and uncle. Still unable to walk around, he kept himself amused by listening to the rhythm and verses of the rich Arabic poetry recited in his house. Too young to contribute to the work in the fields, he often remained at home, abandoned and alone. Left to fend for himself, he found fascination in even the basic equipments of his house. He crawled over the reed matting to engross himself in a game of hide-and-seek behind the large jars of pottery used to store water and grain. In one corner was the captivating loom of his mother on which she made cloth of the most beautiful colours he’d seen.
His house was also home to the great, now charred, copper pot that had been in the possession of his mother’s family for generations. The bread that they ate was baked as unleavened cakes by his aunt and mother. He had been taught by Khadijah to not waste a single morsel of food. If ever she were to find it, she would chide him before placing it on the wall to be devoured by passing animals. Towards the far end was the room that kept the handmade farm tools.
Only a few months before his birth a raid had plunged the village into poverty and deprivation. It left slain all the farm animals of the villagers except for a few dwindling ones. The settlers, equipped with modern machinery had no need of them to plough their lands or for their flesh, so they were left to rot in the sun. Ever since the raid, Khadijah had manually pulled the plough on their field, while the weaker ones resorted to planting the seeds with digging sticks.
In the same room were stacked the weapons that made certain his safety under the protection of his father, grandfather, and uncle. His stone house, built to last generations, protected him sufficiently against the fierce summer heat, but was only a bare shelter against the winter rains.
The harvest for this year wasn’t as meagre as the previous ones. His family and he could enjoy enough milk and sometimes, even meat. To sneak Ahmad Khalil more bits of meat from the stew; eggs and oranges from Negba, was Malak Wahab’s way of showing the extent of his affection for his son.
Very soon, Ahmad Khalil rewarded his parents by learning to walk, unsupported. It came as a wave of relief for both Malak Wahab and Khadija who feared he would remain a cripple all his life. The love for him from his doubled the instant they realised he was here to stay and grow into a healthy adult, unlike the other children they had lost. Delighted by this blessing upon them, Khadijah wished to celebrate the event and share her joy with the village too.
Along with Yusuf Malik, Khadija’s brother and his wife, Khadija slaughtered ten sheep in the name of Allah and stirred great pots of rice for two days afterwards. Word spread that a feast was to be held, and the villagers, those left landless by the encroaching settlers and the bedus from nearby encampments excitedly gathered outside despite the freezing temperatures.
A small boy from Negba too was drawn to the irresistible feast and Yusuf Malik, uninhibitedly welcomed him amidst the starving children who were stuffing themselves with meat. Famished cats, birds, and dogs too strayed to the venue in search of what would be their first meal in days and were not disappointed by the many leftovers they could feast upon. When a wild jackal howled in the distance, Khadijah feared for the safety of her son only to be reassured by her brother. Yusuf Malik calmly said, “This one is our guest too. We cannot leave it hungry.”
Now that Ahmad Khalil was fit enough to run, most of his time was spent playing with his cousin Abdul Aziz and his younger sister Asma. From the crack of dawn they would be up and ready to run amok from one roof to the next conjoined one, until a complaint was brought to their parents. Like all Iraq al-Manshiyah children, Ahmad Khalil and his cousins knew better than to disobey their elders.
When night fell, Malak Wahab treated Ahmad Khalil to chanting the Quran to him, as he held him in his arms until he fell asleep. Ahmad Khalil took great pride in his people for speaking the same tongue as the bedu of Arabia and not having it corrupted like the Levantines.
Sometimes Malak Wahab even told him the tales of his youth when he worked in the mansion of Mustafa Effendi, a Turkish landowner whose great-grandfather had been granted fief by the Ottoman Sultan. But what really fascinated Malak Wahab was the life of the city. Not Gaza, but Cairo, with its high-rise buildings; access to electricity that could light up the night like day; its hospitals and schools and its airport with planes flying in and out of the city all day.
Ahmad Khalil wished he too could see Cairo, the distant mystical land like his father had seen. When he asked Malak Wahab about it, he promised him that one day he too would be in Cairo, where he would be educated and would work among the sophisticated men, well away from the dreary life that Iraq al-Manshiya had to offer. Yes. That is exactly what Malak Wahab prayed for in his every Salat.
Ahmad Khalil stirred from his sleep when he heard the rising voice of his father. He woke up to see his father discard his traditional kaffiyeh and put on strange, foreign clothes. It was when he was about to place a hat on his head that Khadija lunged forward to knocked it off and trample it under her feet.
He explained to her that this was the clothing of civilised men and it would be the clothing of Iraq al-Manshiya once it transforms. A crying Ahmad Khalil ran to his mother to seek protection against the stranger standing before him.
“Take them off!” commanded Khadijah in an unwavering tone.
“I tell you to take them off and never stand in front of me like that again.”
Ahmad Khalil no longer recognised his mother whose eyes were now blazing fire. She grabbed a rifle and pointed it towards his father, who shrieked in fear.
“No! You are mad!”
Khadijah threatened to inform her father about this and to denounce him as an infidel, a renegade and a British spy before the entire tribe the next day. Malak Wahab knew that her father being the chief of the tribe would deal with him then. A defeated Malak Wahab cast off his foreign garments to put on his kaffiyeh handed over to him by his wife.
Shaikh Isha’aq bin Ibrahim, the maternal grandfather of Ahmad Khalil became the most important person in his life. He was the village chief with power of life and death over the entire tribe. Although his real status as a serf was no higher than any other fellaheen, he behaved like as absolute monarch, expecting everyone without exception to assume that he was born to command and others to obey. His dealings with the bedu, led him to meet some Wahabi tribesmen from Arabia who had fought with King Ibn Saud to help him from a mere nominal Muslim who practised a few rituals only because of habit, custom and tradition into a zealous crusader determined to wage a religious revival in the village.
The formerly careless and apathetic fellaheen who were so ignorant, they could not perform their Salat without mistakes, rallied enthusiastically behind him. Through his vigorous preaching in the mosque, the Shaikh was able to rid his people of many superstitions, put an end to the practice of saint-worship, grave-worships, music, singing, dancing, smoking, loud lamentations for the dead, enforce the Hanbali school of the Shari’ah and inspire people – his people – to the most strict observance of the prayers and fasts, although they remained as illiterate as before. A man of seventy-years old but despite his age, his back was erect with pride and his strenuous unrelenting activities would exhaust a young man.
Khadija never told her father about the quarrel or carry out her treat to denounce her husband in front of him. Because Malak Wahab was the only man in the village who was educated and had mastered the skills of reading and writing, he soon became of indispensable help as his secretary and interpreter.
Ahmad Khalil watched his grandfather pull out from his carved wooden chest, paper, envelopes, postage stamps, a reed pen and a bottle of fine black Indian ink.
He ordered Malak Wahab to sit at his feet while he paced to and fro across the room, his hands clasped behind his back, dictating letters to King Ibn Saud in Riyadh, Shaikh Hassan al-Banna in Cairo and Haj Amin al Hussaini in Jerusalem, pleading for their help before the rest of the land belonging to Iraq al-Manshiya had been sold to the colonists by Mustafa Effendi and it was too late. There was no response from King Ibn Saud but Hussaini’s irregulars from the North and volunteer members of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun from the South streamed into the village where he somehow provided them all with food and shelter.
After a furious battle, some youth belonging to Haganah, the Zionist irregular army, surrendered and were taken prisoners. They were kept chained together in a corner under the vigilant guard of the Ikhwan, not only to prevent escape but also to protect them from any harm the enraged villagers might inflict upon them.
Another fierce struggle against the colonists of Negba concluded upon a truce with both sides exchanging their prisoners, their wounded and their dead.
Among the corpses, Shaikh Isha’aq bin Ibrahim found the mutilated body of a young Jewish girl. At once he began intense investigations and questioning. Towards the sunset the culprit was dragged to the village square and executed by the Shaikh himself. Pointing to the corpse, he addressed the people in his clear, resonant voice:
“We are not with the pagan nationalists who glorify any act of cruelty that achieves their end. We fight Jihad in the cause of Allah and Allah forbids those who wage Jihad to kill women and children. The law forbids us to mutilate the corpses of the fallen enemy. Allah has cursed all warfare for selfish reasons. The rule of the Shari’ah means absolute justice for Christians and Jews as well as for the Muslims!”
How the Shaikh could concentrate his energy in organizing a great confederation of the tribes and villages surrounding Gaza to prepare for a combined attack on all the infant Jewish colonies in the area. His plan was to methodically isolate them by cutting off their water supplies and forcing them to surrender in a state of siege. No more Arab land would be allowed to pass into Jewish hands except those who submitted to Muslim rule and paid the stipulated tribute would be allowed to stay.
The rising hope that he might succeed in driving away the intruders gave him more influence than ever before. Constantly at his side was his son, Yusuf Malik and his two small grandsons, six-year-old Ahmad Khalil and eight-year-old Abdul Aziz, both of who despite severe training and deprivations they had endured for any mischief or disrespect to elders, were prized like jewels to the Shaikh. He could not resist the temptation to take them with him wherever he went.
His travels on foot took him to neighbouring villages, to the black goats-hair tents of the bedu desert camps, to Negba and other Jewish colonies. He learned broken phrases of Hebrew and English as much of his time was spent with British officials who threatened his arrest if he persisted in causing them more trouble and disturbing the peace.
Once during his visit to the district British Governor of Gaza first saw them in front of the door of his spacious residence, he looked at their bare feet, their rags covered with dust, the two naked children and shouted angrily: “No beggars are allowed here!”
“We are not beggars,” explained the Shaikh. “You wished to see me and I have come here on appointment.”
The Governor’s eye then fell on the richly inlaid dagger thrust into his belt, saw his proud, dignified bearing as regal as a king and then was convinced that this native was an important personality.
“I am the Shaikh of Iraq al-Manshiya…”
The Governor’s manner changed completely. “Oh yes, of course. I have been waiting for you! Come right inside with me into the drawing room, and take a seat here.” He pointed to the sofa.
Ahmad Khalil looked about him bewildered as he had never been inside a European home before. His grandfather looked stiff and very uncomfortable sitting on a sofa, while Malak Wahab sat cross-legged at his feet as interpreter.
Other British officials entered and joined the Governor while Shaikh Isha’aq bin Ibrahim argued with them in the most polite manner why it would be expedient for them to enforce the White Paper, forbidding further Jewish immigration and sale of land to the Jews without Arab consent. Malak Wahab interpreted dutifully.
One night several months later, a special guest came to his door, who introduced himself to the Shaikh as a farmer from a distant village in the north. He praised the Shaikh for his courage and bravery, wishing to fight under his command, expressing that he belonged to the same clan as Haj Amin al Hussaini.
“But I have no arms to contribute. Tell me what I should do?”
“Do not worry,” replied the Shaikh. We will provide you with everything you need.”
“But I would not come to you empty hands.” He held out a sack of flour. “Take this as a token of my admiration for you. Now I beg your permission to go.” The Shaikh asked him to stay the night, which he agreed and ordered Khadija to prepare the bread quickly.
The strange youth went to the little boys squatting on the bare floor and sat Ahmad Khalil on his lap. He felt the sharp bones, the swollen belly and saw festering sores all over his unwashed body. “How long has it been since this child has eaten? Now that your daughter has prepared the bread, delicious, hot and fresh, give it to him…”
“No! Wait until I taste it first!” The Shaikh’s mouth watered. He looked to his grandson as if he were about to faint as he tore off a huge chunk and bit into it eagerly.
“That was the finest flour I could buy in the market…”
The Shaikh collapsed writhing in agony on the floor and holding his stomach. “This food is poisoned!” he gasped.
Ahmad Khalil watched terrified as it seemed to him as if everything had turned a black unreal horror while Yusuf Malik seized the assassin wanting to kill the assassin on the spot but Malak Wahab chained and handcuffed him under heavy guard to the Gaza police station.
Since the family was frozen into immobility by the shock, the Ikhwan conducted the burial as the Shaikh would have wished—the women were not permitted any loud wails or lamentations, no tearing out hair, slapping the cheeks, renting of clothes, beating on chests.
Ahmad Khalil stood beside his mother while the procession of several hundred tribesmen silently passed down the street, as the Ikhwan bore the bire on their shoulders to the village burial grounds and a grave of the most austere simplicity, marked only by a mound of earth.
The family later learned that the assassin was a cousin of Mustafa Effendi who owned the village and was also involved in the conspiracy. Among his papers was found a neatly typed letter from the Jewish Agency in Tel-Aviv, offering him a reward of five hundred pounds, English sterling, if he would put an end to “the Terror of the Desert.”
(To be continued)