Everyone Wants to Die in Dura, Part 1

Posted on March 8, 2007


As you may have guessed, being half Palestinian and half Colombian brings with it a multitude of uncommon experiences. Unfortunately, the majority of them for me have been long and odd sagas about vengeance and loss, hopelessness and ignorance. This is one of them.

My father, Ghazi, and his brother, Taha had a long and sordid history. Taha, I must say was a beautiful man while he lived; a raw, giving, emotional firehose who stank of cigarettes and farts and cried whenever he laid eyes on his brother’s children. He was my dad’s opposite, guileless where my dad was consumed with greed, dirty and stinky, where my dad was mired in vanity. Perhaps it was because Taha had a harder life–and that’s saying something for a guy from Palestine. There was the mess with Safia. Safia, Taha’s wife for nearly half a century, was not the woman promised to him when he reached manhood; there was a tribal mishigaz, the details of which are always explained to me differently every time I ask, and the men in the family gathered along with my grandfather and beat Taha within an inch of his life. It seems obvious that they meant to kill him, and if not, that they didn’t care if they did. Taha was in a coma for a week or so, according to the story, emerging from being “the handsome one” in the family, as my father told my mother, to the Uncle described above, with a lifelong list of ailments and coginitive issues. Its a brutal story, but not an isolated one. My grandfather died a few years later, and my grandmother a few days after that. She suspected that one of her daughters was hiding some of my grandfather’s cash in her house after he died, my grandmother confronted my aunt about it in their home, they had an argument about it. As my grandmother left the house, her daughter threw a stone, which hit the head of its target far more accurately than she had intended it to.

With the beating, my grandfather had disowned Taha, making my dad the first born. My father never seemed to mind the method in which he had ascended. When my grandfather died, Taha assumed–perhaps because it would have been his own perspective if the roles were reversed–that things would go back to the way they should. My dad, however, had no interest in the old way. They reached a shaky truce in which they shared the title, with my father having somewhat more control and the support of his sisters and other members of the family. There was a bitter enmity between them for the remainder of Taha’s life. I was never given the whole story; my mother, who had assumed the mantle of archivist for my non-communicative father, told me stories about his side of the family, giving me tantalizing tid bits here and there, but you could never fully believe what she said. She obviously liked telling stories, the spookier the better. She told me that flies could turn invisible, that cats had a secret retractable claw at the end of their tails by which they ripped the lungs out of infants and children when their parents weren’t looking; and she even claimed to have witnessed the resurrection of a man from her neighborhood in Bogota. But much of what she told me about my father’s family, has been independantly corroborated by my father, in one way or the other over the last few years. I’ve queried and compared their versions, like a chemist applying solutions to bases and looking for chemical markers, and I’ve come up with a mosaic of things that seem mostly true, punctuated as they are with surreal details that can’t possibly have happened, but seemed to have anyway.

The enmity between my father and my uncle lasted for decades. I remember being sent as an emissary from the fiefdom of Flea Market stalls run by my father, to the small, crowded stall that my Uncle ran down the way, to break large bills for change. These were the only times that my Uncle did not seem overjoyed to see me, but he would grudgingly give me what I had been sent for, and sometimes send back some coffee for my father; not out of spite, but because he was fundamentally, and unfortunately, a man who doggedly stuck to certain principles. Things continued like this for sometime. They lived seperate lives in America, and our families experienced seperate fortunes. While we lived in an Oakland ghetto apartment for a few years, my father was a shrewd and ruthless business man, and by hook or by crook (less hook, more crook), he made enough money to move us into a decent house in San Leandro. My Uncle, by contrast, never learned English, never moved up, never stopped dressing like a Felahi. He and his family lived in a progression of small, crowded ghetto apartments and backyard Oakland ramshackles, one after the other until he died.

My father is not the live and let live kind of guy, nor, apparenlty the live and let die type either, though he has mellowed somewhat in the last few years. Taha expired in that typical tragic way that seems to only affect those involved in protracted ethnic and political turmoil; a resident alien of the US, he ironically had no intrinsic right to visit his homeland, not like my father, who as a naturalized American citizen received all the rights to travel to and from Dura al’ Q’ara that a stateless Palestinian like Taha could only dream of. For years, Taha had waited for permission from the Israeli government to return. He knew he had little time left, he wanted to die in Dura. The mail came one day and there was an envelope marked with the Israeli seal and he opened it and died right there at the living room table.

As I said, my father had trouble letting things go. The wake was held in the banquet room at Dick’s. I always liked Dick’s, the way its lone marquis rose above the squalid, flat blocks of warehouses and factories in that part of the town, sprouting up from the railroad, to proclaim !DICK’S!, as if it was a revelation. It was one of those stand-alone deluxe diners, that you don’t see anymore, with a bar and a banquet room, and my dad reserved the latter for the family post-mortum. It makes me a little sad that I missed the funeral; I had already been excommunicated from the family in a way. Because I had been away for so long, most assumed that I was uninterested, which was not exactly true at first, but became so over time. The more they left me out of family business, the more that energy was consumed in other endeavors.

As the now uncontested patriarch, it was my dad’s role to speak at the assemblage. These were the adult children of Taha–Wasfia, Omar, Halima, and a few others who I no longer remember, and a bevvy of cousins, who may have only been there to see if they could get a handout from my dad. But the heart of the group was Taha’s family and they hated my father each to a degree; that emotion was only tempered in some by the pragmatic realization that as a succesful relative he held the keys to certain destinies in his hand which were worth being polite for.

The story of the wake was told to me by my mother, who always gets a kick out of how crazy my father is. She knew Taha quite well, loved him dearly and counted Halima as one of her best friends for a long while, so she was invited independently of my father. They had not seen each other for ten years or so since the divorce; in the meantime, my father had ventured back to Palestine to find a wife who had bore him a new handful of children. My father took the stage in front of the assemblage and he didn’t say much more than Taha’s wife was a whore. From the way my mom told the story, the men there would have killed my father if it weren’t for the fact that one of the waitresses heard the scuffle and called the police. My mother took the children, even her ex-husband’s, to another room, and when the police came, my father was holding off Taha’s sons with a folding chair.

One would think this a perfect place to end this story, but though my father’s family has great stories, they lack well-placed endings. The political situation in Palestine had changed with the advent of the Oslo Accords by the time of my Uncle’s death. Palestine now had a rudimentary legal structure, at least for completely internal affairs, and so Taha’s family pursued Taha’s old quest for justice–the replacement of his role as the first born, and their position as rightful controlling heirs to the land–in Palestinian civil court. For nearly another decade, they fought over the land. And then, just last year Safia had a stroke and went into a coma, and that is when I come back into the story again.