The Secret Life of Sido Habib
May 15 2023

Sido* Habib, what happened here?” We asked this question in a hesitant tone. A short but solemn silence ensued.“They killed my uncle,” he responded. 

“Forty-eight…one, nine, four, eight,” he told us, pausing after each number and struggling with language and memories. “Go, go!” he suddenly added, sticking his hand out the window and waving it. It was April of 2017, and Sido Habib had decided to join me and my husband, his oldest grandson, to visit Palestine. We were eager to know more about his life in the village of ‘Ilaboun in Galilee. His answer to all our questions had always been: “Why do you want to hear a sad story?”

Sido Habib didn’t continue the story, so we sped up our cautious driving through the narrow streets of ‘Ilaboun, leaving behind the main square where we had stopped. The massacre happened there on the morning of October 30, 1948. The repetition of those four numbers was mournful for Sido, as it still is for every Palestinian.

Sido Habib greets his childhood friend Milad in 'Ilabun, 2017.

I kept looking through the windshield from the car's back seat as we drove away from the plaza. Before the Nakba, it had been the site of weddings, where men gathered on Sunday mornings before attending Catholic or Orthodox church service. The churches were also where villagers hid when they heard the news about the defeat of the Arab Rescue Army in nearby towns. When the Israeli soldiers finally came, they demanded that the villagers gather in the square, firing bullets and killing one. 

I tried to remember everything I had read about how the catastrophe unfolded in that small Christian village surrounded by blooming olive trees. Recalling those events was troubling for me, but it was certainly more upsetting for Sido. His uncle Zachary (Zaki), who was unmarried, had volunteered to be captured in place of his brother Hanna. Israeli soldiers picked 12 men to execute, despite the villagers’ surrender. Zaki Moussa Skafi** was one of the 14 men martyred on October 30, 1948. Six other men were made prisoners, used as human shields by the invading forces against possible resistance from Palestinian and Arab groups as they escorted the villagers out. Soldiers fired at the villagers from behind, causing terror and forcing them to leave the country as they proceeded to ethnically cleanse the Galilee. 

The return of the majority of villagers by May 1949 was facilitated due to an outcry by Christian clergymen from Palestine, Lebanon, and the Western world. Dozens more returned in the summer of that year due to additional efforts by the Archbishop of Galilee, Maximos V Hakim, with the help of Lebanese representatives at the United Nations. An embarrassed Israeli regime was forced to allow the people of 'Ilabun to return to a looted and ransacked village after an imposed destiny of refugeehood in Lebanon.

“[Sido Habib and his family returned] When they got to ‘Ilabun, it was unbelievable,” Elias Skafi, one of Sido Habib’s sons, tells me. “Nobody buried the men killed, and the [stench filled] the town.”

We left the village boundaries and continued our road trip around Galilee, driving a small rented car without GPS. After roaming around the slippery souk in old Akka, we ate fried fish by the sea, as we did when Sido Habib and his wife traveled from Flint, Michigan, to Barranquilla, Colombia, to visit three of his four children. Later, we drove to Tiberias in search of the modest YMCA hotel, where he once worked alongside Jeannette, the youngest of his children and his only daughter. (He also worked at the YMCA hotel in Jerusalem.)

Sido Habib by the sea in Akka, 2017. 

At dawn, we began our return to 'Ilabun. Sido Habib effortlessly guided us back. Our day had been long and exhausting after trying to engage in simple yet profound conversations in a bizarre mix of our broken Arabic, English, and Spanish. Nonetheless, we were dazzled by how Sido Habib — already in his eighties and a naturalized American citizen — recognized the roads. He seemed to know every old shortcut and every path back home after 30 years of exile.

His sense of location was as sharp as his sense of adaptability. Sido Habib was 13 when his family was expelled. They walked barefoot through the mountains for three days through freezing nights toward the south of Lebanon. They settled in the Mieh Mieh Refugee Camp in Saida. Sido Habib would always say that they survived on whatever “the dogs wouldn’t eat.” After the massacre in their village and several weeks in exile, they were permitted to return, an unusual fate in contrast with that of inhabitants of hundreds of depopulated villages during the Nakba.

Life in 'Ilabun slowly began again, despite the unforgiving military rule imposed in Galilee upon the return of the villagers. Memories of another life in 'Ilabun brought occasional laughter to the family. They recalled that during the time of the Mandate, Hanna and three of his children were fetching water when they were stopped by British soldiers, who asked the names of his children.

“Habib,” he said, pointing to the first, triggering mockery from the soldiers. “Mufideh,” he answered next, receiving the same reaction. The soldiers were harassing him. Hanna then audaciously decided to change Abdallah’s name to “Churchill,” prompting praises and indulgence from the soldiers, who said they would visit him one day. Relatives tell me that the British soldiers would eventually visit 'Ilabun looking for Churchill, the son of Hanna. Since then, Abdallah’s name was forgotten; he went by ‘Churchill’ until he passed in 2006. 

When Sido Habib turned 18, Hanna, his father, died. Sido Habib became responsible for his six younger siblings. During a trip to Jerusalem, he decided that the Hospice of St. Vincent de Paul, led by the Company of the Daughters of Charity, would be a suitable place for his sisters and his aging mother, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The Hospice was established in 1885 to care for the ill, the poor, orphans, and the elderly. During their stay at the Hospice, they would befriend Sido Habib’s future wife — an orphan born in Beit Jala — whose extended family had settled in Barranquilla, Colombia, in the early 1900s.

But Sitti* Maria and Sido Habib would only meet while working at the renowned YMCA hotel in Jerusalem. Their life together was filled with happiness and adversity. One winter night, Sitti Maria left an empty milk bottle on the doorstep of their house in Ma’man Allah (a neighborhood in Jerusalem, also known as Mamilla), knowing they could not pay for a new bottle to feed their young children. Early the next morning, a peculiar noise prompted a suspicious Sido Habib to open the front door carefully. He found Lucky, their dog, with bills crammed in his mouth.

Sido Habib and Sitti Maria with two of their children in Jerusalem, 1965. 

The iconic YMCA also became the site of another unexpected yet rewarding encounter. One early morning during his official trip in March of 1979, President Jimmy Carter left his suite at the King David Hotel and walked across the street to the YMCA. An archival document from the former president’s daily diary reveals that he was there at 7:30 a.m. on March 12, 1979. Sido Habib’s relatives say the former president wanted to use the heated swimming pool since the King David Hotel did not have one. The family also says Carter wanted to reward Sido Habib for his kindness and generous service by the poolside, so a hopeful Sido Habib requested help with a visa for Jeanette. He was later given a letter to aid with his predicament, signed by the former president. Sido Habib’s family says this happened; two children also claim they saw the letter. 

Sido Habib by the poolside while visiting family in Miami, 2003. 

Sido Habib submitted the letter to the American Consulate in Jerusalem and secured the long-desired permit. By September 1984, Sido Habib and his wife and daughter had left for the United States to join his three emigrant sons. They began writing a new story in the Americas. 

 The stories he told his eight grandchildren about his life in Jerusalem seemed magical and happy. But his childhood in 'Ilabun was a sad memory that he rarely shared; it was his aching, long-kept secret. 

Sido Habib died on January 13, 2023; he was 88 years old. He is remembered in Beit Safafa, Jerusalem, 'Ilabun, Flint, and Barranquilla — where his children and grandchildren reside — as an incommensurately generous, permanently joyful, and tirelessly optimistic Palestinian man. He chose to always look toward the future, as the past would only open unhealed wounds for him and an entire nation that remains in search of accountability, peace, justice, and freedom. 

*Sido is Arabic for grandfather. Jeddo is also used for grandfather. Sitti is Arabic for grandmother. Teta is also used for grandmother. 

**Also known as
Zaki Musa Nakhla. Nakhla means palm tree. A relative tells me the name was attributed to the family due to their height, tall as a palm tree. 

Editor’s Note: To learn about the massacre of ‘Ilabun, the expulsion, and return of the villagers, read Nakba and Survival: Stories of Palestinians Who Remained in Haifa and Galilee, 1948-1956, pages 70-75, 168-172. Free access

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 Laura Albast. 

About The Author: 

Odette Yidi is a Palestinian-Colombian cultural entrepreneur, researcher, writer, and educator interested in Arab-Latin relations and in the intersection between migration and identity. She holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern studies from SOAS, University of London, and is the executive director of the Institute of Arab Culture of Colombia.

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