Ahmad Khalil: The Story of a Palestinian Refugee and his Family(Part 2)
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 http://www.youngmuslimdigest.com/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. The first part of the story was published in the August 2018 issue of Young Muslim Digest.
“And did we shoot all the Jews?” questioned Ahmad Khalil, his eyes wide.
“Yes, my son,” responded Khadija. “We drove them away again and again and we killed many of them too and captured their weapons. For fifteen years they tried to build their settlement here, steal our land, deprive us of water our animals and crops and drive us out but my father and my older brothers united the fiercest tribes of the desert behind us and we chased them out every time.
When I was a young girl, life was good. My father kept our platters filled with roasted meat, great mounds of rice with melted butter and dates and milk for the constant stream of guests who sought our hospitality. The floor of our house was piled high with bright rugs, cushions against the wall, mattresses to sleep on and heavy quilts to keep us warm on cold nights. My brothers always kept the house in good repair, cleaned and freshly white-washed. My mother would cover my dresses with colourful embroidery and my brothers had fine striped robes to wear. We were blessed with health and strength. Sickness in our tribe was rare then and our numbers were growing fast but now each year we are fewer and fewer…”
Affiliated with inconsolable grief after her father’s death, Khadija found solace only with her small son, with whom she would spend many long hours telling him when she was a little girl and seeing his mother comforted, Ahmad Khalil also found comfort in listening to her tales which made him appear alive again.
“But why do the foreigners come here?” asked Ahmad Khalil. “Why do they want to take our land?”
“They say they have no country. They say they were forced to leave their homes and that they were persecuted and driven out. They tell us they must possess this country as their own because once it belonged to their forefathers…”
“But why do they come here? Why don’t they go to some other place?”
“They say that other countries don’t want them, that they have nowhere else to go. This is in our Holy Quran ~ the entire story of the Bani Israel (Children of Prophet Jacob) and how Allah punished them for their sins and condemned them to suffer persecution, homelessness and exile.”
“But are the Bani Israel the same people as the Jews today?” questioned the child, his curiosity to know more about them growing keen.
“Don’ you listen to your father when he recites Quran?” Allah tells us in the Quran that the most important of the Prophets before Muhammad (PBUH) were all from the Bani Israel. They are the People of the Book, the Ahl al-Kitab~ their origin is the same as ours. We must revere the Prophets of the Bani Israel as much as the Jews do, nay, much more than them.
“Long, long ago when the Torah was revealed to Moses, the Bani Israel were very much like us. Allah favoured them above every other people. They were the People of the Scriptures. They gave birth to most of the Prophets about whom the Quran tell us. But then they changed. They rebelled against Allah, the sacred laws and commandments. They grew more and more corrupt and sinful until Allah cursed them with exile and expelled them form this land. They migrated to distant countries where they mingled with foreigners and adopted their ways until they lost all resemblance to us. Now there is nothing to choose between them and the British, I cannot see how the Jews of Negba differ from the British at all. They are just as arrogant, cruel and godless. They have no respect for any religion, not even their own.”
The pangs of loss and grief stabbed Ahmad Khalil more than ever. He did not have any desire to play with his cousins. He only squatted against the wall, listless and apathetic, wondering why Allah did not punish them. Not until the following morning did he find comfort from his father’s recitation from the Qur’an:
“…And thou (O Muhammad) will see each nation crouching, each nation summoned to its record. And it will be said unto them, this Day are ye requited from what ye used to do…”
Now that Ahmad Khalil was seven years old, he was responsible for saying his Salat(Prayer) five times every day. He did not even have to be taught the ritual for he watched his mother and father and the other family members at Salat, imitating them since infancy; only from now on, it would no longer be play. He was so proud when his father began to take him to the mosque for the congregational prayers among more than a hundred men. The mosque was unique in that it was always kept clean and repaired. Amid the turmoil in the over-crowded huts, the dirt and the squalor, it was not only valued as a sanctuary for worship but also as a haven of cleanliness, order, peace and tranquillity.
Once Ahmad Khalil overheard his mother tell her husband, when pretending to be asleep, that before long she would bear him another child. For years he had longed for a brother or a sister and now Allah had granted his prayers at last! The weeks passed and then the months, as he watched his mother closely, although not a word was exchanged between them, he knew for certain!
The time for the birth grew near and Khadijah did not go to work in the fields that day. MalakWahab ordered her to stay back home and even managed to borrow a mattress and pillow so that she might have rest and comfort. He commanded Ahmad Khalil out of the house and told him to work in the fields or play anywhere he pleased as long as he would go away, but the boy knowing what about to happen, refused to leave.
Several hours later at mid-day, Khadijah gave birth.
“Allah be praised,” cried out his aunt in triumph. “It’s a boy!”
“Let me see my brother!” pleaded Ahmad Khalil.
“You can wait!” rebuked his aunt sharply. “You should not be here now!”
“Let him look at the baby,” Khadijah remonstrated. “He is almost eight years old. He has waited long enough.”
Ahmad Khalil looked upon his brother for the first time. He was rather small but healthy and well-formed with soft smooth skin the colour of rich copper and a head of stiff black hair as kinky as Rashid’s. He gazed at the baby’s face. Although fully awake, he did not yell lustily like the usual newly-born. He lay absolutely quiet and limp.
Word spread quickly and soon the entire clan gathered at the house, eager to see the baby. Its head was shaved, kohl applied around the eyes to beautify them and improve the sight and then MalakWahab whispered the Adhaninto its ears like every other Muslim new-born. Khadijah upon insisting that no ordinary name was good enough for such a special child, he was named Khalifa — the representative of God on Earth.
The winter rains failed and the harvest was poor. MalakWahab spent almost all his time searching, foraging and even stealing from Negba as much as he could find, to give it to Khadijah insisting that she must eat and feed Khalifa, lest the flow of her milk stop and the child perish from starvation — the fate of so many Iraq al-Manshiya babies. There was little for Ahmad Khalil — no more regular meals — only occasional scraps and leavings and he was left on his own to scrabble what he could.
Again, it was a fine winter day. The sun shone bright and warm but not too hot. The morning desert air was deliciously cool, crisp and invigorating. Khadijah sat on her mat near the open door, her legs stretched out and Ahmad Khalil squatted behind her, arranging her waist-long glossy black hair and industriously delousing it with a fine-toothed wooden comb.
MalakWahab was sitting against the wall outside, reading aloud from a newspaper to Yusuf Malik, his brother, Mansur and several other men who squatted around him, eager to discuss the current affairs of the day. The newspaper was more than a month old; but seldom was a newspaper of any kind seen in Iraq al-Manshiya and Khadijah wondered how he got hold of such things. Ahmad Khalil overheard him discussing the war which was raging in the cold lands to the North across the sea but to him it all seemed unreal and remote. He went to his father and peered at the paper from behind his shoulder. He recognised a picture of Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Mister of England below which was an Arabic translation of the text of his speech delivered while London was under Germany bombardment. Haj Amin al-Hussaini was in Germany and Ahmad Khalil stared long at the photo of the Mufti seated on a sofa beside Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler is our friend,” asserted MalakWahab. If the Germans win the war, The Jews will be destroyed, the mandate of the British will be finished and then Palestine can become an Independent Arab State.”
“Would you exchange one tyranny for another which is even worse?” shouted Yusuf Malik, “Haven’t you heard what he’s done? Hitler is very cruel. Wherever he rules there is nothing but killings, torture, oppression and terror. Not even infants and little children are spared. The Jews are not the only victims. All the people suffer. Don’t you know about the bombings and the concentration camps? No, I think you’re wrong. Hitler is our enemy. The flood of Jewish immigrants is only because of him. If he left the Jews unmolested and treated with justice, they might be content to stay in their homelands where they belong and not come here to persecute us…”
“Do you think the war will spread to Palestine?” asked Mansur, his black face strained and anxious. I have heard stories that already there is fighting in Egypt and sometimes we can see war planes marked with the black German Swastika flying overhead. Do you think there will be a German invasion soon?”
Yusuf Malik sighed with resignation. “Only Allah knows…”
Now it was mid-day and a group of several women from a neighbouring house on the next street went inside to visit Khadija.
They discussed of how sickness was a rampant and many children were ill every day. The fever was terrible which snatched away lives of many, while they were clueless to even guard their babies from illnesses. But Khadijah was not alarmed. Sickness and child-deaths were so common-place here, there was nothing to do but accept it with resignation. She felt the danger remote and did not believe it could happen to them.
Meanwhile Ahmad Khalil, feeling extremely tired, had fallen asleep on his mat. When Khadijah tried to wake him up, he moaned of pain in his head and his body was burning hot. Later he was diagnosed with high fever.
As he lay he could hear the Adhan, calling from the mosque for the afternoon prayer. The melodious chant soothed and comforted him. He saw his mother gracefully kneel on the floor, and perform ablutions with dust. She felt her own head aching and her limbs painful with fever. Trembling she turned towards Mecca and Ahmad Khalil watched her stand, bow, kneel and prostrate herself on her mat the prescribed number of times as she never failed to do after hearing the Adhan. The she raised her hands, the prayer her father had taught her so long ago automatically springing to her lips:
“O Allah! I ask of Thee a pure life and a pure death and returning unto Thee that shall not call for reprehension or disgrace…!”
Hour after hour Khadijah sat beside Ahmad Khalil as the fever climbed higher and higher and he could not sleep. His head in her arms, even though the delirium, Ahmad Khalil felt the delicious comfort as his mother caressed his hair with the palms of her rough and calloused hands, gazing down upon him as though she would never see him again.
“Where is Khadijah” demanded MalakWahab. He crouched on hands and knees before Ahmad Khalil who slumped half-unconscious against the cold stone wall. MalakWahab shook him fiercely. “Where is Khadijah? Khadijah?” he cried out, “Where are you?”
Ahmad Khalil saw his uncle, Mansur, put a heavy hand on his father’s shoulder. “She was buried more than two weeks ago. You and Ahmad Khalil were so ill, were it not for the devoted care of Halimah gave you both day and night, you would not be here now. You were beyond all understanding. But at least we managed to give her a decent burial and lay her to rest in peace as she would have wished beside the graves of her father and her brothers.
For a long moment MalakWahab was too stunned to speak. “No, Mansur! No! I do not believe you! This can’t be!” His voice rose to a hysterical pitch. “She could not die. She was no more than twenty-six! That is too young to die! If I call her loud enough, she will surely answer!”
Mansur laid a restraining hand upon him. “My brother, you cannot bring her back to life. We belong to Allah and to Him we must return. You must accept the will of Allah!”
“No, No!” cried out MalakWahab. “This did not have to happen. If we were not so ignorant, if we had education, if we were a part of modern life, if would never happen! Would the colonists of Negba ever permit this to happen to them? It is the lice—yes, the lice which infests our hair, our bodies and our clothes—the rats are everywhere, the flies and the filth—not the will of Allah. There is scarcely enough water to drink and for cooking—rarely any for washing or bathing. It is impossible to keep clean in this wretched place. I hate it! I must get out of here and take my children with me to the city before it is too late,” he shouted.
“My brother,” cried out Mansur. “Have you lost your reason? How can you go to the city without any money?”
“I could make a decent living,” insisted MalakWahab. “I can speak, read and write perfect English and Turkish besides my native Arabic. I completed my secondary studies and passed the required examination with honours.” He went to his tin trunk and opened it with a key.
Triumphantly he took a roll of parchment, unrolling it lovingly with both hands and holding it up for his brother to admire. “Look! Here is my diploma! I am qualified to work in Government service or else I could teach school. I will no longer work like a beast. I cannot bear to watch my children growing up like barbarians…”
“Yet,” reminded Mansur, “You have stayed here with me for thirteen years…”
“Only because I was compelled to—this was never my choice. Had Khadija’s father allowed me to take her to the city, she and all seven of my children would be alive, well and favoured with good fortune today. I could never understand Khadijah’s world and her fierce resistance to change, her fanatical hatred of all Progress, nor could she understand me. An unbridgeable gulf of centuries, of two opposing civilisations which permits no communication, no appreciation, no understanding or respect between them separated us. Nevertheless, I took her as my wife and stayed here. That was the greatest mistake of my life…”
Night fell and the moon was plunged into darkness. Ahmad Khalil could hear the Adhan from the mosque but this time it did not comfort him for there could be no comfort for him without his mother, as there was no more protection or security for him without his grandfather. He did not love his father who now more than ever before seemed cold, alien and remote. He did not believe his father really loved him. If he did, it was not for himself as he was but only to fulfill his own ambitions, so he could take pride in a son who would accomplish what he himself could never do.
The boy wept long and bitterly in the night with no one to hear or comfort him. All he loved had been taken from him and he felt completely alone in an unfeeling hostile world.
(To be continued)