The Story of Her

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2020 Barrett Winner

1st Place Malack Jallad

When we were younger, we’d lean against the flowered sofa, our eyes fixated on the movements of Siti’s frail hands. Mesmerized, we’d watch as she massaged one month old Ali, as the olive oil would seep into the deep creases of her hands, like the rings of a tree, an indication of bittersweet age. Her youngest grandson, whom we called Aloushi, lay on the patterned rug, squirming beneath her touch. She’d continue to massage him in the olive oil, then wrap his tiny torso with the white cloth of fuschia and turquoise stripes that babies are given upon hospital birth. We watched this demonstration tenfold, with each grandchild. We were once in Aloushi’s position ourselves. Her own kids too. Herself. And all who came before her.

And it didn’t end there.

Our hair would smell of olive oil as we’d take the short walk from Siti’s house to the Islamic Center of Detroit for Friday prayer. Our food cooked and doused in it. Our breakfast of thyme and olive oil. On the cheese. It’s versatility endless. Every pain, every cut, every minor and major illness that would befall, this was the cure. And it still is.

The olive oil came from the same tree my grandfather planted nearly 50 years ago in the backyard of my mother’s childhood home.

He’d planted it so they wouldn’t take it, so they wouldn’t grab its ancient roots with their invisible hands, mutilate it and leave its branches to the birds. To the doves.

Like they did to the other trees.

Till this day it still grows, bearing the fruit of struggle.

And with every ounce of olive oil that grazes past my eyes, I can’t help but to remember her story, the story of Siti, my grandmother.

The story began on March 21st, 1955, Mother’s Day in Jerusalem, Palestine. My grandmother was born to Ali and Saadah Hassan, the first born of eight. They named her Fatheih.

She’d spend the majority of her childhood helping her mother with the tasks women were obliged in 1960’s Palestine: raising cattle, tending to children, cooking and cleaning, and making a livelihood of the produce. Every morning, she would wake before dawn, pray the morning prayer, and gather the buckets of goat milk she’d pasteurized the day before. By the time the sun had risen, she’d already distributed the buckets to the neighboring townspeople and merchants who requested them. Afterwards, she would walk to the local all-girls school, immerse herself in the only environment she felt superior, and make her rounds once more, this time collecting the buckets as she walked back home from school. She’d become accustomed to this very routine as the years went by, until a day where it all changed. She tells me, “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

She was on the way back from school. In one hand, the empty buckets, digging into her skin as her 12-year-old self tried to balance the weight, and in the other, a certificate of achievement, a shahada. Only a handful of students had the honor of carrying one. She was beaming as she walked through the gate of the structure of sand-dried brick that she called home, placing the buckets in their designated area that she’d visit later to prepare for the next school day. Except, it would never come.

Her parents were inside, staring at her as she entered. She reached for the certificate. “You,” her father shouted in the voice of an army man, “you are not to go to school anymore, you are to stay here and help your mother.” There were no objections. She couldn’t challenge her father. She couldn’t ask why. And so she stood there, the shahada swaying as it dropped to the floor, as she came to terms with her future. In that second, she would go from school aged to child-bearing age. And there were no objections.

At the age of 16, my grandmother married Ragheb Hamad, a man eleven years her senior, my grandfather, Sidi. By the age of 25, she would have endured the birth of seven children, one passed from SIDS, another a miscarriage, and the five surviving that I would come to know as Khaltoo Mahbooba, Khaltoo Samar, Khaloo Nimer, and Khaloo Atef, my aunts and uncles, respectively, and the fifth child, whom I’d come to know as mama. She would raise them in the city of Ramallah, in Palestine’s West Bank. My grandfather resided in Jerusalem, working as a mechanic during the day and a watchman during the night, two jobs making barely enough to support the family. My grandmother was left alone to tend to the children, teaching them early on the importance of education. They attended school and helped their mother with the daily responsibilities established upon them: cleaning, taking care of livestock, growing fruits, picking olives. If they acted up, they would be disciplined, subjected to beatings that “put them in check,” she explained. “They were shatreen, good kids, but I had to straighten them up every once in a while,” she tells me. She was in control and she liked it that way.

The children came of age during the First Intifada. Schools were shut down. Resources bare. But she was ready. “I anticipated a long war, and so I prepared ahead. We had nothing, but we had everything.” She made sure to send her children to the libraries, where they would study with other children in an attempt to retain the information they’d learned while schools were closed. The neighbors came to her for sugar, spices, cheese, anything. They would spend mornings sipping mint tea, dipping bread in thyme and olive oil, crunching on falafel and kaak, a sesame based bread, and laughing amid the chaos.

Twice a month, the children would accompany their mother on the hour long trip to the Holy City to attend the Friday prayer at Al Aqsa Mosque. My grandfather would meet them and they’d spend the day in the Mediterraian climate, picnicking under the shade of the trees, devouring Mansaf and Maqluba, dishes native to the land.

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the idea of hijra was brought up. The immigration. A decade prior, her mother had applied for her daughter’s family to join her in the United States. She herself had immigrated in the 80’s, accompanied by her young sons. She took it upon herself to bring her first born to the country, to “give us a better life.”

And so they left.

Siti would trade her sacred thobe, the customary Palestinan dress embroidered by hand through tatreez, traditional embroidery, for the look of the Western world.

If you ask her how she felt leaving all she’s ever known for a new country, she won’t give you a response. She’d stay silent. And that is how she was the entire first month in Amreeka. Silent.

She’d fallen into a crippling depression, moving to a new place was already hard as it is, but she had the grueling task of raising five teenagers alone in a new country. Sidi would not arrive until months later, as his work allowed. And so, with the support of her brothers, she did just that, while taking care of a mother who’d fallen captive to dementia.

This time, olive oil was not the cure.

And with this sudden loss of control, she fell deeper into the abyss of uncertainty, crossing territoires she hadn’t entered since the day she stopped going to school.

Mama recalls the day she stepped into the historic halls of Fordson High School in September 1994. She was excited for this new life. Her sophomore year schedule consisted of all ESL classes, although she didn’t know that there was a distinction between classes at the time. It was the first time she would really converse with people from other parts of the world, even the Arab world. “I never knew of different dialects.” The language barrier was the hardest part, but she learned English quickly and took a liking to school. She always had. Her siblings, not so much.

Her youngest sibling, Atef, wanted to do what everyone else his age was doing. He wanted to drive, have a girlfriend, go to prom, things that weren’t considered normal back home. Her mother did not understand this way of living and she didn’t know how to react. Cultural shock would ensue. She consulted her brother on matters like these, confused. Her initial reaction would consist of aggression. It was fueled by this sudden realization that things were not the same; she could not control her children as she done back home. And her children, seeing the way she would react, would not come to her with their problems, or anything really. They were left to their own, or to the advice of their siblings, figuring out how to navigate this new world. “I remember when my menstrual cycle began,” my mother would tell me, “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t ask my mother, I asked my brothers. I didn’t even know this was a womanly thing.”

The first year, the family lived with her uncle, in the city of Dearborn, Michigan. His house was close to the school, so she would walk alongside her siblings as they made the daily walk there and back. School ended at 2:15 and Siti would tell them that they had to be back by 2:30. They were scolded if they took a minute more. Her mother worked as a custodian at a nearby school and sometimes her and her siblings would go help her clean the school at night. She also babysat. The boys worked at various local businesses as waiters, clerks, stock boys, and whatever jobs a teenage boy could get. Her father worked as a mechanic and at Joe Randazoo’s supermarket in Detroit. They made ends meet and were able to move out and rent an apartment on Calhoun Street, closer to the school. They continued attending school, eventually moving to my grandmother’s present home in 1998. It was a milestone for them, to be able to own a house in America, a real accomplishment. She would reside in the last house on the cross section of Warren and Tireman, where Dearborn and Detroit meet. A year later, mama would get married to my father.

Siti’s children left, as she married them off, but her house was never empty. Her grandchildren would grow up in that house. Siti’s house, as we call it. All 22 of us.

Today, when you arrive at Siti’s house, you can knock on the basement door. One of Khaloo Nimer’s kids will answer you. You can take your shoes off at the door, say your Salaams, and make your way to the living room. As you look to your right, you will see Sidi on his rocking chair in the corner, watching an Arabic sitcom. You should shake his hand, and ask him how he is. He will smile and say a prayer for you.

But if you stare into his tired eyes, you will see the pain, the urge to be back in the arms of his motherland. You will hear the conversations that go on in Siti’s house, spoken in English, in hushed whispers and monotone, for he cannot understand. “We cannot send him there, no not now. Not with his health. Not while he has it.” It being “cancer,” the only English word he understands, for it runs in his family. He has leukemia, he is aware, but not. “I need to go back, I want to go home,” he argues in a thick Lifatwi accent, a remnant of his childhood village of Lifta.

“I don’t want to die here.”

Some days he refuses to take his medicine, refuses to eat. And all that he does eat comes from the homeland, the olives, the oil, the cheese, the thyme, all of it. Against doctors’ orders, he drinks shots of olive oil daily. He insists it will make him better. Siti obliges.

You will make your way past the cabinet that holds gems seemingly frozen in time, a thobe my grandma had embroidered as an ode to her mother, my aunt’s senior headshot, fine china, my great-grandmother’s Quran. You’ll walk down the stairs that still seldom stop creaking, the laundry room that smells of Pine Sol, and probably step on a Lego. Then, in the kitchen, you will see her. She will smile at you, then offer you food. You will kindly reject it, even though you know she won’t care. There will be no objections. She may ask you to be her designated taste tester, to test the yogurt of the Mansaf she’s making for the family gathering. You should gladly accept. You’ll help her set the table. You will be sent to the pantry, where you will find the tin of olives from Sidi’s tree. But this time, it’s filled up, it’s new.

Siti had just returned from a trip back home. She tells me that the olive tree is still standing just how it was half a century ago. She tells me that she had to touch it, that she had a sudden urge to pull on its delicate leaves. She tells me that she’s worried it may be the last time she would feel these leaves. “They can take our land, but the roots, they’re still there.”

It continued to grow in the poor conditions, through the war, through the occupation, in the days without rain. It stood witness as the world around it crumbled. But it would resist. It would bring about the olives, creating the olive oil, bearing the fruits of labor that I will never understand.

And maybe this is why I am reminded of my grandmother’s story every time I see the olives. Maybe she is just like the olive trees.

Resilient.

In all that she does, there is appreciation for the country that raised her, in the painting of Al-Aqsa Mosque that hangs in her living room, in the spices that she keeps in makeshift mason jars, labeled in her mother tongue, in the way she spreads the mint out to dry in summer, in the way she spaced out the letters of her name she’d written on her American citizenship, in the breakfasts with the neighbors, in the values she’s instilled in her grandchildren, and in the leaf of the olive tree she’d dried in a book.

Palestine will be her forever home, and to this, there are no objections.