Mary Dreams of Palestine
May 15 2023

When Mary dreamed of Palestine as a child, she imagined Bethlehem’s narrow streets and ancient stone churches. A devout Lebanese Christian, she grew up hoping to one day “walk on the land of the Messiah,” says her son Shafiq Museitef, now a 75-year-old grandfather residing in Canada.

Mary made it to Bethlehem in her early 20s. She would travel on motorized omnibuses through the Jaffa-Jerusalem road from the coastal city of Jaffa — where she lived — to the ancient holy sites of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and Bethlehem to attend church. In the late 1930s, she met and married Ahmad, Shafiq’s father. But Zionist settlers were already arriving in droves. Traveling from one part of Palestine to the other became complicated — rising tensions between the native population and illegal settlers made Jaffa a dangerous city. Before the city fell to the Occupation and the Nakba uprooted thousands, Mary would decide to leave the city with her family to seek refuge in a place she thought would remain safe: the Christian quarters of Bethlehem.

“A lot of people, when they hear me, assume I’m Lebanese,” Shafiq’s eyes crinkle as a smile forms on his lips. “Even you.” 

He’s chatting with me as we sit at the dining room table that’s become a staple in the Museitef household. I’ve spent countless hours sitting around it with Shafiq’s daughter — my best friend since high school — and I’ve come to feel right at home among the ever-present bowls of mukasarat and the offerings of homemade ma’moul and Turkish coffee. 

Shafiq looks through his half-rimmed glasses across the table toward the living room, where his wife Jacqueline playfully bounces their teary-eyed five-month-old grandson. 

Growing up, I never doubted that the Museitefs were Lebanese, specifically because of how they spoke. But I found out recently that Shafiq spent most of his formative years in Bethlehem before fleeing to Beirut as a teenager. He was also Palestinian, but credits his musical accent to his mother. 

Mary decided to move to Palestine from Lebanon nearly two decades before the Nakba. After saving up enough money as a domestic helper, she asked her employers if they knew anyone in Palestine who required her services. They referred her to a family in Jaffa. Soon after moving, she met and fell for Shafiq’s father, Ahmad, a Muslim man from Ramallah who worked in the city as a cook. They married and welcomed their first child, Shahid, in “1938, or 1937, or 1939,” Shafiq jokes. The ambiguous birth date reminds me of my own parents, whose birth certificates and official documents were lost in the fray of exile. Many birth dates from that time are informed guesses at best.

By the 1940s, Jaffa’s vibrant cityscape had seen a lot of upgrades. The population had plans to expand and build more infrastructure. Meanwhile, illegal settlements were also expanding, with the invaders frequently instigating revolt. Shafiq’s mother feared the worst. Her freedom of movement was essential, and she couldn’t fathom not being able to visit the holy sites as she pleased. She didn’t think about leaving Palestine altogether. Instead, Mary wished to go east.

“She wanted to go to Bethlehem,” Shafiq says, his soft wrinkles deepening into the warmth of his smile. She thought that being away from the bustle of Jaffa would keep them safe. Through connections, her husband was able to find a job in the courthouse of Bethlehem. They left soon afterward.

“I don’t have the exact dates of when they left,” Shafiq shakes his head. He lowers his eyes, and, for a moment, I sense him retreating. "I wish I could go ask her now to be sure, but…the grave.” He playfully raises his hands in defeat. 

The corners of his mouth turn downward, a bittersweet nostalgia bubbling through behind the surface of his smile. As if mining for some long-buried memory or cross-checking information he’s been keeping filed away, Shafiq lowers his head, his silvery-white head of hair catching the sunlight filtering in through the windows. I look toward the living room. His grandson naps in his grandmother’s arms, his earlier cries having given way to gentle snores.

 “I think they left before [the Nakba],” Shafiq finally breaks his silence. "[In the early 1940s.]"

His approximation is based on tidbits of information he’s acquired over a lifetime, including a memory of his oldest brother, Shahid, returning to visit Jaffa from Amman in the 1970s. He was able to find the way to his old family home without help, which meant he was old enough to remember the way when they left. His parents had the foresight to see what was happening and escaped Jaffa preemptively to protect their family and remain in their homeland, Palestine.

In November of that year, the United Nations formally recommended the Partition Plan for Palestine, which would make Jaffa part of the settler colonial state of Israel. In the time between Mary and Ahmad’s decision to leave and the Nakba, 95% of Jaffa’s indigenous population was forcibly expelled by Zionist militias.

In 1967, the Museitef family was forced to leave Palestine for good. By then, Shafiq was an eager teenager completing his high school education. Less than 15 minutes into his last exam at the Terra Sancta Boys School, the principal burst into the classroom on a sunny day in June and told the students that school was canceled. The war had begun. 

Shafiq took the bus home and ran to his mother to tell her what had happened. Mary’s old fears were coming true. They huddled around the radio as rockets flew over the city. One exploded on the street beneath their home, leaving a big crater in the road. That evening, someone drove around the city with a megaphone and told everyone to place white flags outside their homes.

“I watched with my little sister as the soldiers started walking down the street,” Shafiq describes. “They started to sing!” His voice goes up a notch in disbelief. “I looked at my sister and said, ‘This is colonization. We are being colonized.’” 

Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) marched down the bombed and crumbling roads Mary once dreamed of. Within two weeks, the IOF forced the family onto a bus that dropped them at what is now the border of the West Bank, where they then walked across a bridge into Jordan. They took a taxi to Amman and stayed there one night before making their way to Lebanon. They stayed with Mary’s family and never returned to Bethlehem. 

The number of Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem has plummeted, and Palestinian Christians face ongoing harassment and assault by illegal settlers. Al Jazeera reports that Christians across all of Occupied Palestine make up less than 2% of the population, down from 11% pre-1948. They are denied permits to visit Jerusalem if they come from Gaza, and historical sites face regular defacement.

Once the Museitef family reached Beirut, Shafiq says he was too distracted as a restless teenager to keep up with political developments. His parents were too busy building a life in exile to formally sit their children down and really dive into what happened to them. He realizes that, to some extent, he adopted a similar attitude with his own children, but a renewed interest in politics sparked by the war in Syria reignited his interest in keeping up with the region. Today, he often looks at photographs and videos of Bethlehem and Al-Quds, reminiscing about another life. 

Shafiq finds hope in the younger generation raising its voice and continuing to resist the Occupation so many decades later. “They said the old will die and the young will forget,” Shafiq tells me as he opens his arms to greet his curious grandson, now wide awake and eager to play. “But it turns out the younger generation is a million times more determined than we ever were!”

When Shafiq watches videos of resistance movements forming back home, he recognizes the dusty old roads he used to walk on in the background. He feels a sense of joy and pride in the youth defending the streets his mother loved. 

“I have never seen a people more dedicated to their land than the Palestinians,” he says, a smile reaching his eyes as he holds on to his grandson’s hand and playfully raises it into a fist.

This article is a product of the 'How to write your Nakba story?' workshop hosted by the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) to commemorate 75 years of the Nakba, led by Laura Albast. It is also available in Arabic on our website and in Spanish on the website of our partner, El Intérprete Digital. The workshop was co-sponsored by United Palestinian Appeal and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. 

Story illustration by Aya Ghanameh. 
Translated into Arabic by Ahmad Barakat. 

Correction notice: An earlier version of this story named Shafiq's brother as Sharif, that is incorrect. His brother's name is Shahid. Also in an earlier version of this story, Shafiq says that his family left to Bethlehem a year or two before the Nakba, they in fact left in the early 1940s.

About The Author: 

Samah Fadil is an Afro-Palestinian writer, editor, and translator who resides in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Her words can be read in FIYAH, Palestine Square, Skin Deep, Mizna, and more. She was a guest speaker for Black Lens on Palestine and a performer for Global Indigenous Solidarities: a Poetry Reading, organized by Yale University Art Gallery in conjunction with Yale University Native American Cultural Center. Fadil served as a content editor for the winter 2022 Black SWANA Takeover issue of Mizna. She is a Cinephilia Film Development Workroom fellow. Her project, Wander, is an official selection for the Cinephilia Advanced Lab. Fadil is interested in showcasing historically marginalized experiences through storytelling, poetry, and visual art. 

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