'Maybe I Don't Have Any Home': What This Palestinian Author Found After Returning to Her Ancestral Homeland

Fida Jiryis, a writer born in Beirut to Palestinian parents in voluntary exile, now lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Her unique, near but unfamiliar voice is one of dozens in a new collection of Palestinian prose in Hebrew

Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed
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Fida Jirys
Fida Jiryis. Her stories reflect a creative talent possessing ingenuity and a unique voiceCredit: Emil Salman
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

In the crowd milling around the lobby she appeared slightly lost, smiling pleasantly but self-consciously, disengaged from the knots of people thronging the table on which pitchers of lemonade and neat piles of cakes dusted with powdered sugar were arrayed. It was a particularly optimistic gathering of the moribund Jewish-left elite, come to celebrate the publication of the first anthology of its kind of Palestinian prose in Hebrew translation, “Belashon Kruta” (“Amputated Tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew”).

The volume is a joint Jewish-Arab creation, the collaborative effort of over 80 translators and editors, including literary scholars affiliated with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Under the leadership of Prof. Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani, the group has translated into Hebrew and published 11 books of Arabic poetry and prose, under the Maktoob imprint. “Amputated Tongue” was edited by Rawiya Burbara. The book’s very existence is a minor miracle; Palestinian writers living in the Arab world are not exactly eager to participate in projects to translate their works into Hebrew.

A festive occasion it is, then, when Israel’s Jewish elite is joined by enthusiastic young Palestinian writers from the Galilee and the so-called Little Triangle formed by the Arab towns of Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira. Men in suits or T-shirts, women wearing hijabs and traditional Muslim dresses, as well as jeans. A human mosaic of faiths, religions and opinions — but there, too, and perhaps everywhere, Fida Jiryis is sentenced to a profound sense of alienation, seeking out a peer group, a home, a homeland and a language.

Attending the November 13 book launch involved overcoming her apprehensions about it and negotiating the Qalandiyah crossing from the West Bank into Israel. As usual, members of our security forces silently studied her blue Israeli ID card, without asking her whether she lived in Ramallah, or why — and let her enter. Even if they had asked, they probably wouldn’t have understood. There is no room for her story in the checkpoint soldiers’ rudimentary, show-me-your-papers Arabic.

This time the round trip from Ramallah to Jerusalem was relatively easy, only a one-hour wait in either direction, but southwest of the well-groomed lawns and the pastoral olive trees of the Van Leer Institute, sirens blared as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel were intercepted, and fighter planes took off and landed.

A view of the Galilee village of Fassuta, where Jiryis' father, Sabri Jiryis, was born.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“I didn’t believe we would go on with the evening,” Jiryis says. “Are you sure it will actually happen? Because last time, when I spoke at a gathering of Breaking the Silence, there were people in the hall, there for the purpose of provocation, and they began shouting at me. It was ... not very pleasant.”

Jiryis chooses the language of understatement that is characteristic of our conversation: small, measured words, describing catastrophes and tribulations, offset by a smile evincing a great unmasking of the absurd. All with the subtle, elegant hand movement that we here understand as “halik” — “Let’s forget about it!” (there is no adequate English or even Hebrew equivalent). Jiryis betrays no weakness, but I feel a need to protect her or at least to reassure her that here, in this beautiful place where everyone clings with resolute hope to the concept of coexistence, everything will be fine. A flicker of doubt sparks in her eyes, showing that she would like to believe me, but from experience it’s hard to do.

Jiryis’ stories, appearing in Hebrew for the first time, reflect a creative talent possessing ingenuity and a unique voice, the wonderful sense of humor of the oppressed and the irony of refugees who, wherever they are size up the place with a deep sense of forced alienation. “The Foreign Master” appeared in “Al-Khawaja” (The Gentleman), one of her three published books of short stories. It is about a British scholar, a self-proclaimed expert Arabist, who finds himself in a village in the Galilee. He is shown the finest traditional hospitality, but the villagers don’t understand the language that he speaks and he doesn’t understand Arabic. The situation precipitates several humorous cultural accidents, replete with good intention and a great deal of misunderstanding that shines a bright light of beautiful, powerful prose on both sides of Orientalism.

“The Cage” is less funny. It takes place here and now, or in the prolonged and hopeless present of Palestinians in Ramallah, at the checkpoint she knows so well. “Suddenly, without any apparent reason, the tumult dies down, and for several seconds a profound silence reigns. A moment passes — and the cacophony of cars, shouting, honking, crying of babies and barking of dogs immediately resumes. In Eastern philosophies, such an abrupt silence is an opportunity for tranquility and spiritual closeness to God,’ she writes in the prologue. “But the soldiers at the Qalandiyah checkpoint are not God, and for those waiting in the convoy, strategically equipped with their daily survival capsule, that moment of silence is the essence of the horror.”

Fida Jiryis. At first they told us that Mother had been injured but they didn’t explain where she was or why we couldn’t see her. Credit: Emil Salman

War child

Where there is no God, politics is destiny, and many chapters of Jiryis’ biography were written long before her birth. Her father, Sabri Jiryis, was born in the Galilee village of Fassuta. He was the first child in the village to attend law school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, under untenable conditions: Under the Israeli martial law imposed on the country’s Arab citizens from 1949 until 1966, every exit from the village and every return to it after curfew hours required a special permits from the local military governor. Her mother, Hani Shaheen, was the first female university graduate from the village, whose inhabitants belonged to the Greek Catholic Church.

Sabri Jiryis was among the founders of Al-Ard, a Palestinian nationalist movement that tried to run in the Israeli general election of 1965 but was prohibited from participating in the political process. The organization was outlawed, its leaders targeted by the Shin Bet security service. A restraining order issued in April 1969 barred Jiryis from living anywhere but in Haifa and restricted his movement in other ways. In 1970, fed up with the systematic abuse and oppression, he packed up as many books as he could and left for Lebanon, with his wife. The rest of the family remained in Fassuta. Thus it happened that Fida Jiryis was born in Beirut, to parents who were voluntary refugees, without citizenship.

“Only when I was in school did I first realize that we were atypical. When they asked me to draw a flag, I drew a Palestinian flag, when the other children in class were drawing a flag of Lebanon,” she recalls. The small family — only two children, Fida and a brother five years her junior — was also exceptional in the local Palestinian landscape, which took deeper root in Beirut following Yasser Arafat’s relocation of PLO headquarters to the city.

'Amputated tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew.Credit: Art on the cover: Nasrin Abu Baker

Sabri Jiryis became Arafat’s closest confidant and advisor on Israel affairs, and eventually the scholar would direct the Palestine Research Center, beginning in 1978. “That is exactly the same year in which things began to change for the worse, with what you call the Litani Operation, and the alliance that Israel forged with the Christian Phalangists,” she notes dryly, as if the facts had no effect on her own life.

Later, in the summer of 1982, she would become a war child. Like every child in Beirut — or in Kiryat Shmona, on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border — she would learn to identify the launches and landings of flying metal objects that spread destruction, and would stare, wide-eyed and terrified, at the tanks crawling through her neighborhood. But that was only the start. On February 5, 1983, just as her mother was crossing the street to buy chocolate for the children, a car bomb exploded at the entrance to the Palestine Research Center, where she worked. Hani Shaheen was one of 19 killed. Sabri Jiryis was also in the building at the time, on an upper floor, and was not injured physically. “There were dozens of other people who died from their wounds,” says Jiryis.

Who was responsible? “From documents that we collected over the years, it turns out that these were gangs of Elie Hobeika [commander of the Christian Phalange forces] and Amin Gemayel, the brother of the favorite of the Israelis, Bashir Gemayel. I’m not saying that Israel is directly guilty, but without a doubt the Israelis enabled this thing to happen. They are responsible.”

Stricken with grief and the fate of the family, she says, “Father was unable to explain to us what happened. At first they told us that Mother had been injured but they didn’t explain where she was or why we couldn’t see her. We weren’t at the funeral, we didn’t understand a thing. I was 9. I remember an incomprehensible tumult, that’s all. And a few weeks later we were already in Tunis, and an older man with a beard hugged me and told me and my brother that we would go to the biggest toy store and we could buy everything we wanted. We were very polite children and bought only one toy.”

That man was Arafat, who gave Sabri Jiryis a new assignment: to reestablish the Palestine Research Center in Nicosia. “On the one hand, Cyprus was a warm and embracing place, with familiar cultural customs and surroundings that I could understand. On the other hand, the English was foreign to me, and I had to work very hard to be a good student,” she smiles.

Sabri Jiryis, who recognized that he could not raise his children on his own, married his wife’s sister. “It was a deep family connection, not a marriage of love, but she took us into her heart. I could not have asked for a better stepmother.”

In Cyprus, she learned how to navigate life successfully as a foreigner. Her English is perfect, native-speaker-level, a source of great pride to her teachers in school and to the father who raised her to pursue intellectual excellence. After high school, she chose another option available to the foreigner, of alienation: studying computer science at Lancaster University in England. Upon her return, she quickly found her way into the high-tech industry in Cyprus, but then came the Oslo Accords, and the ship that is her life was again tossed by a great political storm.

“Folded into these agreements is one section that many people do not recall, the product of years of debate on a question that has never been resolved. The Palestinians demanded a sort of symbolic recognition of the right of return. Israel agreed that 50 Palestinians, all of them born as citizens of Israel, could return, and among them was my father. It is obvious that I wanted to see the village which he left when he felt he had no other choice, and never stopped missing, the family, the life that could have been mine,” she says, but nothing prepared her for the culture and political shocks of her first encounter with Israel, and with the ensuing encounters.

Fida Jirys is giving a talk during the launch of 'Amputated tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew.'Credit: Tamar Abadi / The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute multimedia

“In my imagination, there was a homeland named Palestine, not a state whose name was Israel, with huge flags and an army that I identified as the occupying army in Lebanon, which was everywhere. In my imagination, there was not the language of an occupier and his laws, with an inherent discrimination toward me and toward my people,” she says.

She relates her tale pleasantly, without complaint and without rage. Nevertheless it seems fairly obvious to wonder: What were you thinking? After all, this is Israel, not Palestine; Israel is the geopolitical fact on the ground.

Jiryis quickly found that this was not her only problem in the new, alien, dreamed-up landscape. “Fassuta may be home, but I was not educated as a Palestinian Christian woman in Israel and I did not fit in with the social fabric or the expectations that my surroundings had of the girls of the village. Contact with official Israel was never easy, and even after I learned Hebrew and worked in my profession in Carmiel, I was unable to fit in. Things reached a boiling point with the outbreak of the second intifada. I would arrive at the office and feel their eyes hanging on me, the talking behind my back, and I couldn’t bear it any longer.”

Palestinians at the Qalandiya checkpoint.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN / Reuters

Together with her then-husband, she left the country for Canada. There they divorced, and there she discovered the buds of her writing talent — and the fact that she could not stop yearning. Six years later, she was back. Home, if there is any such thing as home in her life story. At first, she returned to care for her ill stepmother, and later she simply stayed, and again came up against the provinciality of a fairly homogeneous village whose people had never lived as she had.

The restrictions that Jiryis felt in Fassuta and in Israel led her to a challenging choice: move to Ramallah. However, the bourgeois city of the Palestinian Authority and the cradle of the nascent Palestinian state, in the view of the optimists, offers no guarantee of calm and leisure for one’s soul.

The launch of 'Amputated Tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew'

“I do not for a moment dismiss the feeling of strangulation that has been imposed on Palestinian society by the occupation, but there is also the internal strangulation that it imposes on women, on anyone who does not toe the line, on anyone who is not ready to silently obey without expressing their doubts,” she says.

So began for her a deluded existence on the Israel-Palestine route: from Ramallah, where she writes for various Palestinian publishers in Arabic and in English, to Fassuta, to the family and back from the family in Israel, to the ideological family that is in “the territories,” and between the two of them always stands the Qalandiyah checkpoint, and over the years it does not seem that they are growing any closer.

The words are home

She tells a little of all this to the audience at the book launch. Before, she had gazed admiringly at A.B. Yehoshua, who spoke about the significance of the amputated tongue in his iconic 1963 novella about a forest ranger, “Facing the Forests,” the story that gave the anthology its name. With his characteristic fervor, with a pathos that forms the roots of his soul, Yehoshua asked, begged actually, that we come to terms with the fact that we amputated the tongue of the Palestinian forest warden in 1948, preventing him from relating his story, and as a result the forest went up in flames. Only after we listen, understand, recognize the fact of the Nakba, recognize that our hope is bound up in the shocking historic injustice done to the Palestinians, can it be possible to begin coexisting without the forest burning, together with everyone in it.

Nods of agreement all around, a round of applause. Yehoshua didn’t have to exert himself to persuade the crowd. But outside this hall, Miri Regev is still Israel’s culture minister and there is still a “Nakba Law,” by whose order the tongue is amputated.

When she took the stage, she apologized for not speaking in Hebrew and stressed that it was only because her command of the language did not suffice for matters of literature and the heart.

Fida Jiryis. 'I can’t bear the weight of the history and of the conflict [in Jerusalem]'Credit: Emil Salman

In a muted voice, she related episodes from her life. She also revealed to the audience that she is writing a family memoir, “My Return to Galilee,” that begins in 1948 and whose end no one yet knows. I listen to her, incredibly fluent, not tempestuous. She sounds like the survivors of all the wars, refugees of the great traumas, who again and again talk about their lives to supportive audiences that will never understand, out of the confidence and the comfort of their own lives, the complexity of her existence.

Later, in a telephone conversation, I read her a quote from the American literary critic Irving Howe, “Where there are no gods, politics is destiny,” he said, referring to the writing of political novelists, but the sentiment is correct not only for imaginary characters, but for human beings, as well. She chuckles in agreement.

Praise the gods, there were no disturbances in the hall, no heckling by provocateurs. And when event ended, the audience went outside into the cool, pleasant Jerusalem air, with a sense of exaltation.

“Did you ever consider living in Jerusalem?” I dare to ask.

“I can’t bear the weight of the history and of the conflict; with every step and every breath I take in this city I feel it.”

It is my turn to nod: a difficult city, Jerusalem, even for refugees who have logged impressive mileage.

“Maybe I do not have any home in this world,” she shrugs her shoulders. And I am thinking: maybe she doesn’t need a home. With her sort of talent, the words are the home.

With a story like hers, which is being woven and written in the book she is now working on and that could make an excellent TV series, perhaps within it and from within it she will overcome both the gods and also those who carry out their commandments, the instigators of all the wars. Until then, her two stories in “Amputated Tongue” are an invitation extended to those who read Hebrew to be introduced, to understand a little, to see the hand outstretched to them.

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