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The Loss of Tatas

Palestinian grandmothers are a force unto themselves

Last year, I buried my Tatas. 

Tata Eva, my mother’s mother, died on August 26, aged ninety-three.

Tata Marcel, my father’s mother, died a month later, on September 24, aged ninety-four. 

Tata Eva was buried in Amman and Marcel in Beirut; both miles from Haifa, Palestine, where they had been born and raised.

No one could claim the loss was unexpected, or the lives cut short. I had been anticipating their demise for at least a decade. Every time I left either of them, a whisper would surface in my mind. Could this be the last time? It is odd, then, that I cannot recall our final partings. Perhaps, having been proven wrong time and again, I no longer took those premonitions as seriously as I once had, and now, I find myself bereft of last memories. Instead, what has emerged in my mind is an episode from much earlier in life, which returned suddenly with the news of Tata Eva’s death. 

Barely four or five years old, I wake up in the middle of the night, shaking from a recurring nightmare that Tata Eva has vanished, left me behind, possibly died. My pillows are soaked with tears. I get out of bed, leave the bedroom I share with my brothers, tiptoe down the corridor and into Tata’s room where, after checking that she is breathing, I tuck myself beside her. “Habibi, she whispers, “go back to sleep, I’m here. Mama finds me there most mornings. 

The grief I felt at Tata’s death was ferocious and overwhelming.

I had all but forgotten about those dreams when I got the call from my mother, and before I knew it, I was back in that boy’s body, shaking, reuniting with a past foreboding like it was a long-lost friend. The grief I felt at Tata’s death was ferocious and overwhelming. It seemed to rob me of my very autonomy. Yet there was also something comforting about that resurfaced pain. I knew this state, had been here before. Mourning Tata’s death confirmed a suspicion I had long harbored: that the sadness within me, which I have held and tended to since childhood, is not all mine. 

Umm al-Hiran cemetery, East Amman. | Courtesy Tareq Baconi

The pictures I skimmed through as I packed up Tata’s house in Amman confirmed that, as a boy, I acted as an appendage to her, an extra limb, my hand always in hers or my body leaning against her frame. I was struck by this physical attachment, which had since morphed into something intangible. We had not lived in the same country for over two decades. But I spent my frequent trips back home with her, and we spoke often during my weeks away, gossiping and sharing cooking tips, she asking relentless questions about Jesus Christ and marriage, me evading them. 

Covid-19 prevented me from making it back in time for the funeral. Arriving two days later, I asked my mother and uncle to accompany me to the cemetery. We drove from the edges of West Amman down to the Abdoun corridor, the newly built multi-lane highway at the bottom of the valley separating the hills of West and East Amman, an artery that spills into the downtown area, with its renovated cultural center and sprawling Friday flea markets. On the way, we passed the outskirts of al-Wehdat, one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. After some distance, I turned left into a nondescript entrance where a small black sign read “Burial Grounds of the Christians’ Deceased.” A Christian cemetery, a space that reduced the messy complexity of the lives of the deceased, gave them a single narrative, maybe secured them passage to an afterlife.

Umm al-Hiran cemetery is an escape from the chaos of East Amman, a space filled with pine trees which surround an octagonal church. Rows upon rows of graves marked with crosses stretch out on all sides. The cemetery is overflowing; without any room to expand, it has grown upwards. We walked down one corridor lined with graves on either side, four stacked on top of each other, reaching higher than our heads. John 11:25 marked the epitaphs of most graves: “He that believeth in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Many also noted the birthplaces of the deceased. Haifa, Beit Jala, Yaffa, Acca, Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah, Ramle, Lydd: the width and breadth of Palestine. In Amman, a city built by refugees, this is a final nod to a history of exile. The scale of the Nakba can be felt acutely in Umm al-Hiran. 

In tomb-lined corridors, row after row of lives that had survived a common tragedy now share a burial ground far away from home. Fearing such an outcome, in his poem, “My Father,” Mahmoud Darwish writes

And my father once said 
he who does not have a homeland 
does not have a shrine in the soil 
and he forbade me from traveling

But we do have shrines in the soil—thousands of them, stacked on top of each other in packed cemeteries, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and scattered across the globe. Tata was buried in one, a grave stacked on the wall, in the same tomb as her husband, my grandfather, who died almost forty years ago, before my time. Rajae was born in Jerusalem, Eva in Haifa. They had fled to Beirut and fallen in love, raised their family, and fled again during the civil war to Amman. Was their final resting place not a shrine? 

Witnessing the conclusiveness of death threw into question all that I held certain in life. What return, what liberation, are we as Palestinians still fighting for, am I still fighting for, when our loved ones are buried in strange lands? What is a homeland, when our graveyards have no home, and when we immortalize our expulsion on our own tombs? What happens when our rootlessness roots itself in exile? 

On the drive back, we argued. Question after question about Tata’s life, and the lives of our grandparents, emerged, as unclear as if we had been discussing the details of a long-lost ancestor. The youngest of her siblings, Tata was born in Haifa—but had her brother and sister also been born there? Her family had moved from Jerusalem to Haifa—did they own a house in Jerusalem’s Baqa’a neighborhood? And why had they moved in the first place? I was sure, for some reason, that Tata’s father was a vicar who was called on a mission to Haifa. Mom disagreed; he did preach in church, but he made his money as a merchant. Cousin so and so could verify this. That is what ethnic cleansing does: it tears apart families as much as it tears them from their land.

After the graveside visit, we grasped at whatever memory or tale we could still hold of Tata, even as she vanished from our lives. Anticipating this moment, I had recorded hours of conversations with her about life in Haifa. Our oral histories are what have sustained our peoplehood and our quest for justice. Words passed down in bedtime tales and nostalgic reminisces that shape our lives. As the generation of the Nakba passes, these oral histories are precious assertions of belonging, and more importantly, of being, in a world that continues to deny Palestinian existence. An Italian friend emailed me after she heard about Tata. “Grandparents passing,” she wrote, “is meant to be something we are born prepared for, and yet they hit us hard regardless, particularly as they take crucial bits of history with them.” What happens when that history is contested, negated, refuted, silenced? 

My comfort is knowing that while Palestinian graveyards sprout in exile, in the absence of a homeland, our homes lie within us.

Palestinian Tatas are a force unto themselves. They are the formidable older women facing young Israeli soldiers who steal their homes and desecrate their olive trees in Palestine. They teach us to rage with dignity; they are fragile in their resistance and precious in their embodiment of our history. For those of us who grew up in exile, our grandmothers, more so than our grandfathers, are Palestine. Through our Tatas, we also grow up in Palestine, in the homes they were born and raised in, the homes they were robbed of, those given over to Jewish strangers. They are the source and the explanation of the unknown worlds we carry within our chests, and with their deaths, we feel a cataclysmic uprooting. 

It is from our Tatas that we learn that the struggle for Palestine is feminist. Celebrating the force of his grandmother, Rifqa, the poet and journalist Mohammad El-Kurd writes: 

Nowadays, grandmother walks fragile, 
so unlike the past she battled. 
Wrinkled faces
Hide inside the wrinkles of her face,
Tell the story of that event: 
    organized     undying.

We have all peered into the wrinkles of our Tatas to find stories of our roots, even as we inherit their rootlessness. 

My comfort is knowing that while Palestinian graveyards sprout in exile, in the absence of a homeland, our homes lie within us—not in the bricks, mortars or tombstones of al-Wehdat or of Umm al-Hiran. There comes a moment when we realize that Palestine is not, or not solely, the land between the river and the sea. It is, of course, that, and as Fanon said, land is precisely what the colonized must reclaim. And we will. But could the homeland be much more than the land, with its jasmine and olive orchards that invoke endless nostalgia in our grandparents? For our generation, many of whom grew up away from its shores, Palestine has morphed into a state of being, a way of understanding and confronting the world. And with that transformation, our concept of liberation and return, our very notion of homeland, is also evolving.   

Palestinian grandmothers are a force unto themselves.
Umm al-Hiran cemetery, East Amman. | Courtesy Tareq Baconi

I missed Tata Marcel’s funeral a few weeks later, too, and I have yet to visit her grave. She had been more absent than present in the lives of me and my brothers, courageously refusing to leave Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war. As the months since her death have passed, I have come to realize that my grief for Marcel is inseparable from my grief for that city which is buried and getting buried further still under the feet of the warlords who claim to safeguard it. Unlike the focused pain that Tata’s death delivered, the pain of losing Marcel is chronic, throbbing in the background.

My Tatas could not have been more different. Marcel was broad and hearty, Eva was wafer thin; Marcel was loud and foul-mouthed, Eva was quiet and never cursed; Marcel loved to dress up and put on make-up, Eva wore the same dress for decades; Marcel was averse to the refugee camps in Beirut and protested the time I spent there, Eva was curious, wanted to know more, to relate, and volunteer; Marcel was angry, Eva was forgiving. 

They carried their traumas differently. Where Eva turned to faith—mumbling that God works in mysterious ways, even when those mysteries dealt lethal blows—Marcel became fierce, protective, closed off from the world, fearful of strangers and of change, distrusting. In some ways, she was the more intuitive of the two; she learned that the world is cruel, and humanity unkind. For the longest time, I judged Tata Marcel, not quite understanding that bitterness and anger are inevitable in the face of searing injustice. As Beirut descended into darkness following the 2020 port explosion, Lina Mounzer wrote of feeling “powerlessly enraged” in the face of the crimes of Lebanon’s leaders. What does that powerlessness do to a person if felt in perpetuity? 

My destination is not a ruptured past but an imagined future, one that might, finally, honor my Tata’s life.

As I grappled with the death of my family’s matriarchs, I kept thinking about necropolitics, the politics of what Achille Mbembe called “the living dead.” Palestinian lives are spent in purgatory, but in death, too, there is little peace. The bodies of our people are often used as bargaining chips by the apartheid regime—stored away in morgues, not reunited with families, who are denied the closure of burial, until political gains might be had. Once buried, the graves have no peace either. They are frequently dug up to make way for Israeli parks, museums, and recreation centers. If Palestinian lives are worthless when they breathe, why should the Palestinian dead have any value?

On one of my last visits to Tata Eva, I sat next to her. Holding her hands in my own, I told her of Palestine, where I was living at the time. By then she was very old, tired, wrapped in woolen shawls, blind and toothless. She told me she was bored of waiting for God to invite her up. It was time. It had been time for years, she said. “It is time that I see your Jiddo again.” Her bony hands rested in mine, and she tilted her ear towards me. She rubbed her fingers against each other. “To warm their tips,” she whispered, as she distracted herself from the memories flooding in. 

Wisps of white hair caught the light as I recounted tales of my return. Of making a home for myself in Ramallah. Of having found the house she had fled from in Haifa as a young seventeen-year-old still full of sight. Of how I located the house based solely on her description of how to reach it from the city’s main boulevard at the foot of the mountain. Of having smelled the jasmine in that entrance, the same fragrance she took in on the night of her dispossession. Of having stood in front of her school, which is now an Israeli museum, weeping. 

Behind her sealed eyelids, she imagined returning, reclaiming a stolen past, knowing that she never would. I, too, conjured images of another world. Unlike Tata, my destination is not a ruptured past but an imagined future, one that might, finally, honor her life.