A Mother’s Smile, a Mother’s Grief
May 12 2023

 I first met Mariam al-Saleh on May 19, 2011. It was four days after Israeli Occupation Forces shot and killed her 17-year-old son, Mohamad, during one of the largest protests that the village of Maroun al-Ras, near the southern Lebanon border, had seen. I was accompanying a journalist, who was also a friend, to interview her. I remember her poise if not much else from the encounter. The image of her is still stuck in my mind: Mariam, dressed in a black ‘abaya and a matching black veil, sat on a green armchair in her living room across from me. Photographs of her martyred son and deceased husband hung on the walls. The room bustled with family members, friends, and strangers. She looked younger than her 43 years of life, with hardly a wrinkle. But her smile was older, impressed with pride and serenity. It exhibited none of the pain that one associates with grieving mothers, it was peculiarly powerful, emanating from penetrating dark eyes, spreading over a gentle face. n 


She only joined the conversation once my friend picked up his camera to show pictures of the young men who risked death as they rushed to the barbed wire fence separating them from their homeland. At that moment, Mariam sprang to her feet and looked at the small digital screen that may have captured the last few moments of her son’s life. Her smile temporarily disappeared from her face, disappointed to see that he was absent from the shots. Burj al-Shemali camp residents believe that her son Mohamad was one of the first to have fallen, killed by an Israeli bullet to the side of his chest. i  

Day of Death: Refugees march toward the Palestinian border

Mariam was present in the demonstration on the day of her son’s killing. She had gone with her younger son, Jihad, in what was more akin to a picnic than a political protest. That was on May 15th, 2011, when thousands of Palestinian refugees converged on the borders of Occupied Palestine, marching from southern Lebanon, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the West Bank. What was meant to be a commemoration of the Nakba quickly turned to bloodshed. IOF killed at least 15 people, one of whom was Mohamad. This exceptional day came in the wake of the Arab Spring. The checkpoints that usually prevent Palestinians from reaching the border were suspended.

Palestinians traveled across Lebanon to Maroun el-Ras in hundreds of buses. A large turnout was expected but not to the levels witnessed. Countless refugees were left behind in the different camps, bitter that the number of busses available was insufficient. The road leading to the village was transformed into a parking lot for several kilometers as vehicles were stuck behind each other unable to advance any farther. People continued on foot to reach the hill near the border, where a platform was set up in front of white chairs. A series of speakers were lined up to take the stage, but all that was irrelevant. Quickly enough, young men and women ran down the hill toward the border fence and threw stones at Israeli soldiers occupying their land. Israeli soldiers responded with live bullets, injuring, paralyzing, and ending lives. Ten protestors were killed that day at the Lebanese border.


Mariam was born in the late sixties in a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Lebanon. Her parents were agricultural laborers, working on the land around the camp. She would help them after school, enjoying the fields and only heading home at night to sleep. She remembered planting zucchini, cabbage, chickpeas, and herbs — parsley, cilantro, mint, and sage. However, her life changed in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. She fled with her family to Saida, settling in an empty building and using blankets as makeshift walls. She left school and never returned. A few months later, her parents decided to return to the camp, however, their home had been destroyed. The IOF had reached Beirut, leaving destruction in their wake. Mariam’s family sought shelter at an UNRWA school in the camp and slowly rebuilt their home with the help of the UN agency. Israeli soldiers were everywhere. Mariam recalls how the school courtyard was turned into a landing strip for helicopters. It was now dangerous to venture into the open fields to plant.

Soon after that, Mariam met her husband. It started out as a teenage crush but developed into a long-lasting loving relationship. Her husband, Samir al-Saleh, used to work in the orange groves, but her parents did not approve of him as a match. It took four years and the help of a main camp figure for Mariam and Samir’s engagement to be possible. They then waited six more years before the wedding, as they had to save up to build and furnish a home. It was in that home with that same furniture that I first met Mariam.

They had Mohamad in 1994, his sister Samah was born a year later, and their youngest son, Jihad, in 2003. A few years later, Samir got sick and underwent open heart surgery. He stopped working in the fields and instead bought a used car and worked as a taxi driver. He passed away in 2010 from a heart attack. His car had broken down a week before and the family could not afford to repair it. Mariam explained to me that after her husband’s death, she felt a responsibility to the family. She began to clean homes to make a living. While housework is stigmatized in Arab society, Mariam looked at me straight in the face when she told me this. Mohamad wanted to leave school to help his mother, but she refused. Once he proved to her that he could read and write, he dropped out and became a household painter. In his spare time, he played football but did not join any team out of fear that it would keep him away from gigs.

Mariam told me that she was assigned the role of a bus coordinator ahead of the May 15 demonstration. Mohamad, however, rode a different bus to be with his friends. The morning he left with his friends was the last time that his mother saw him alive. 

Sobhanallah (Glory to God), he went and didn’t come back.”

It has taken me years to write Mariam’s story. I was incapacitated by my inability to conclude it. How can the smile she gave me when I first met her be understood in light of her son’s murder? How could she remain so calm? When I met Mariam, I was single and a student. Today, I am the mother of two young girls.

Was Mariam not in pain? Where did she get her strength from? I found solace in Ibrahim Nasrallah’s novel Safe Weddings. One of the characters, a mother, explains:

“Do you know why mothers cry for their children all the time? … We cry all the time, because we know that that moment will come: the moment when we will have to betray our grief. And do you know who really forces us to rejoice [at the funeral of our loved ones]? No, it is not our families, or our kin or our neighbors, it is not them. Those who force us to rejoice at the funerals of our martyrs, are their killers. We rejoice aloud so as not to give them, even for a moment, the illusion that they defeated us. If we live to see it, I will remind you that we will cry long after liberation! We will mourn those at whose funerals we were forced to rejoice. We will cry as we wish, and we will rejoice as we wish. Not according to the timings set by those who shot them and are shooting at us now. We are not heroes, no, I’ve thought about it at length. I’ve told myself; we are not heroes, but heroes we have been forced to become.”

About The Author: 

Perla Issa is a researcher at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, Lebanon.


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