A childhood memory documented in a photo: A little boy is holding his mother's hand; his four siblings stand alongside them. The place is a refugee camp near Damascus. The year is 1950. This is where the Abdi family eventually fled to after escaping from their home in Haifa, which had been captured by the Haganah during the War of Independence.
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Here is another photo, from a much later period: All of the siblings, now much older, are standing around their sister, Lutfia - an old woman leaning on a cane and wearing a white kerchief that almost completely envelops her face. This second photograph was taken in Amman, on one of the rare occasions when the family's members, who were torn apart in 1951, were reunited.
At the time, Israel allowed them to return to their homeland, while - due to her marital status - Lutfia was forced to continue leading the life of a refugee in the al-Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, cut off for the rest of her life from her homeland, her city, the landscape of her childhood, and from her sisters and brothers.
Today, with the increase in hostilities within Syria because of the horrendous civil war raging there, and with the Palestinian refugee camps there serving as targets for shelling by both sides, Lutfia's siblings in Haifa are gravely concerned for her welfare. She is now 84 and there seems to be no possibility of rescuing her and bringing her to safe haven in her native land.
The struggle to save Lutfia is being conducted by her brother Abed Abdi, a respected Palestinian artist who resides in Haifa and who has received many prizes and honors, including the title of "Yekir Haifa" (an honored citizen of Haifa). Abdi, who has yet to undertake any practical measures to rescue his sister, says that his struggle is national in character, not personal. Nonetheless, his sister's plight troubles him deeply.
The fact that a citizen of this country cannot rescue his own sister, who is in mortal danger, and cannot bring her back to her homeland just because she is Arab and not Jewish, raises painful thoughts. In another few months, a retrospective exhibition of Abdi's works, "Secrets, Drawers and Identities: Homage to My Sister Lutfia, Yarmouk Refugee Camp," will open at the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa.
The opening of the exhibition, curated by Dr. Ayelet Zohar, is scheduled for May 17. When we visited his studio this week, Abdi was still working on one of the works that will be displayed, and whose focus is a black-and-white studio photograph of Lutfia in Damascus, in 1967; the photo is draped by a jute bag. In Abdi's artistic creations, jute bags play a pivotal role. Their appearance and smell remind him of the long lines of refugees waiting to receive sacks of food from representatives of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in a Damascus refugee camp.
Abdi was lucky: He spent only three years as a refugee. Lutfia, on the other hand, has been a refugee for the past 65 years. She was recently forced to flee from her home in the Yarmouk camp and seek shelter from the war's atrocities in her daughter's Damascus apartment. From her current place of residence, she speaks from time to time on the telephone with her sisters in Haifa. Of late, her health has deteriorated considerably.
An old stone tablet points the way to Abdi's studio, a breathtaking stone structure that is situated - and concealed from public view - in an abandoned orchard on a street that ascends Mount Carmel, and which is today called Zionism Boulevard.
An inscription in German on the tablet, engraved on it many years ago, reads "To Sister Emma's garden" - a reminder of the time when the structure was a monastery for German nuns.
The building adjacent to Abdi's studio once served as a British government hospital during the years of the Mandate; Lutfia was born there. The house where Abdi's studio is situated is the property of the Anglican Church. It once headquartered the late Arab writer Emile Habibi's Arabesque Publishing House. The desk in the center of the studio belonged to Habibi; the house is now Abdi's atelier.
At 71, Abdi is still energetic, appearing considerably younger than his age. His Hebrew is impeccable. For many years, he was an active member of Maki, the Israeli Communist party. He is married to a Hungarian woman who, although not Jewish, bears the name Judit. They speak German with one another; this was the language in which they communicated in the days when they were students in Dresden, in what was then East Germany.
When Judit first landed in Israel in 1971 (her husband was already here ), she was already in her ninth month. The border-control officials at Lod Airport thought she was Jewish: Her name was Judit and her father's name was Joseph. When they asked her what her religious affiliation was, she replied that she was Reformed - that is, a member of the Calvinist Reformed Church.
Thinking she was a Reform Jew, the officials immediately offered her a generous sal klita ("absorption basket" - a package of benefits for new immigrants to Israel ) and an apartment in the coastal city of Netanya. However, when they learned that her husband's name was Abed (al-Rahman ) Abdi, all the forms she had filled out were torn up; all of the offers of an apartment and absorption basket withdrawn; and she was sent on her way without any of the financial assistance given to Jewish immigrants.
Abdi had spent seven years studying at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts; his teacher was Lea Grundig, who, like her student, was also a refugee. She was a German communist who had fled with her Jewish husband from the horrors of Nazi Germany to Mandatory Palestine, where she remained for six years, before returning to what was now East Germany. He had fled from Palestine, in the wake of the Zionist conquest, subsequently returning to his native land before setting off again as a young man to study in Germany.
The Abdi family's original home was on what is now called Shivat Zion Street; nothing remains of that home today. His mother's uncle, Abed el-Rahman el-Haj, was mayor of Haifa between 1920 and 1927. On April 22, 1948, when the city fell - to use Abdi's term - nearly all its Palestinian inhabitants fled.
Abdi was six when he, together with his mother and his siblings, took flight from his native city. His father, Qasem, insisted on staying in Haifa and Abdi remembers his father lying prostrate on the floor, screaming that they should not leave. However, his mother - who was the dominant figure in the family because of her higher social standing - refused to listen, and she and the children boarded a British destroyer that took them from the port of Haifa to Acre, from where they embarked on a rickety ship for Beirut. They were confident that, after two or three weeks, they would be able to return.
After spending two months in the Qarantina refugee camp in Beirut, they were transferred to the Mieh Mieh refugee camp, near Sidon. Lutfia, the oldest of the children, was already married, to a young man from a village not far from Tul Karm, and she and her husband were sent to a refugee camp in Damascus.
One morning, the other children came very close to being forcibly placed on a bus that was to take them to another refugee camp in Syria or Iraq; their tears, and the fact that their mother was not with them, rescued them at the very last moment. After a year and a half, Abdi's mother and her children escaped from the refugee camp in Sidon and made their way to Damascus, where they reunited with Lutfia and her husband. After living for some time in an abandoned mosque, they transferred to another refugee camp in Damascus, where they resided for over a year.
In 1951, the father, thanks to his years of commercial transactions with Jews (he sold horses and cows ), was able to obtain return permits for his wife and children to return to Israel, on the grounds of family reunification. Because she was married, though, Lutfia was not allowed to return. Abdi returned to his father and his homeland through Lebanon and the Rosh Hanikra border-crossing checkpoint. Since that time, other than his years in Dresden, he has resided in his native Haifa.
In the 1970s, when then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan implemented a "summer visits" policy, Lutfia visited her homeland for the first time since her 1948 flight with her mother and siblings. Until the family reunion, she had received greetings from home through the Arabic-language broadcasts of the Voice of Israel, and she corresponded with the family from time to time through the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Since that first visit, she has been back to her homeland three or four times. At the conclusion of each visit, she was forced to return to the al-Yarmouk refugee camp, where she gave birth to her 11 children.
After the 1994 signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, the family held a reunion in Amman. On another occasion, two of Abdi's sisters traveled to Damascus to see their sister - in the context of the visits organized by former MK and Balad party head Azmi Bishara. The photograph of the two sisters simultaneously kissing Lutfia on the cheek has been preserved in the family album; it is very touching.
Lutfia's sons recently uploaded an interview that they conducted with her about her childhood to YouTube. Abdi says that her entire life has revolved around her longing for Haifa. Two months ago, one of her sons wrote on his Facebook page that his mother had been forced to leave her Syrian home, after the al-Yarmouk refugee camp had been heavily shelled, and that she had found shelter in the apartment of one of her daughters, who had herself fled to Germany.
"I am absolutely furious," says Abdi in his studio. "I ask myself: How is it possible that a woman who was born in Haifa, who is today 84 and whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all born here and - as the saying goes - have no Jewish blood on their hands, must endure all this suffering? Why is she forced to be a refugee in a country that is not her homeland, and where she is now in mortal danger because of the civil war? I want to make the Israeli public aware of her situation and the situation that has been imposed on all the Palestinian refugees. This is a human issue - about an 84-year-old woman who has now been placed in such a situation. However, my struggle is aimed at arousing public awareness regarding all those refugees who are in similar circumstances."
Two of Abdi's sons today live in Budapest, and the third son resides in Haifa. For 11 years, Abdi worked as an illustrator and graphic artist for Arabic-language newspapers as well as on some of Emile Habibi's books. An active member of Maki - "Comrade Malka," as he calls her - until the party stopped collecting membership dues, he is still a supporter of the Hadash party.
He has taught art at many educational institutions in Israel and has held solo exhibitions both here and overseas. In 1978, in the Western Galilee town of Sakhnin, he and artist Gershon Knispel erected a Land Day memorial, marking the day in 1976 when Israeli security forces shot and killed six Palestinians who were protesting Israel's expropriation of Arab-owned land in the country's north to build Jewish-only settlements.
Abdi is the first Israeli-Arab artist to be awarded a prize, in 2008, from the Culture and Sports Ministry. Noting the reasons for its decision, the prize committee compared his artistic creations to those of Jewish painter Nahum Gutman. Recently, an exquisite catalog - published by the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery and edited by Tal Ben Zvi - has appeared, encapsulating Abdi's 50 years of artistic work.
One of his creations include a decorated floor tile that he managed to salvage from the home where he grew up on Shivat Zion Street. Another work, which he intends to include in the exhibition paying homage to his sister Lutfia, displays two clocks: One of them is ticking, while the other's hands have stopped moving.