In Jenin, Fates Intertwine
May 15 2023

My grandfather Fayiz found solace in the quiet sanctity of the Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery in Jenin. This hallowed ground served as his personal refuge, where he could escape from the world's pressures and seek solace in the memories of those who left this earth before him. My grandmother Kamleh would make him tea to warm him in the stillness of the night.

For my grandmother, Jenin became an unexpected refuge. She was born in Akka in 1932. In 1948, she was suddenly displaced and found herself all alone in Jenin, without her mother or sister. She had never imagined this life for herself, far from her home in Akka. However, fate had other plans for her. She soon fell in love with my grandfather, a fallah (peasant). Jenin eventually became her home away from home, where she found solace and a sense of belonging, despite the hardships she faced.

Zain's late grandparents: Kamleh (left) and Fayiz (right).

With a cup of tea, the aroma of merimaya (sage), and my teary-eyed mother, we sat together as she recalled my grandparents’ Nakba stories. My mother was the youngest of 10 children. Her bond with my grandparents — especially my grandfather — was unbreakable. He was her best friend. My grandparents spent the last remaining years of their lives in proximity to my mother, and it was during those cherished moments that she heard the tales of their lives. And now she passes down those stories to me, offering a glimpse into a world shaped by their struggles and triumphs and the enduring power of love that bound them together.

My grandfather's 1948 was shaped by his experience establishing the Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery. This cemetery held a special place in my grandfather's heart, for it was more than just a final resting place for the departed. It was a poignant reminder of the selflessness and courage exhibited by the Iraqi soldiers during the Nakba when the brutal crimes of Zionist militias threatened the very existence of the Palestinian city of Jenin. 44 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the Battle of Jenin. This number, with the soldiers' corresponding names, is printed on the original stone plaque at the cemetery. My grandfather collected their bodies, identified them, and donated his land to build a cemetery to preserve the memory of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for his homeland.

Taking a deep breath, my mother recalls what her father experienced.

“He found them, [lying] in their blood. They were martyred, yet no one bothered to do anything. People were scared to get close to them.” 

My grandfather — with the help of other men in the village — collected their bodies and buried them on a property he owned, establishing the Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery. 

The Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery in Jenin. 

The Iraqi martyrs were Christians and Muslims, Shia and Sunni. He buried them all in the same place. All were united behind one noble cause.

He also took the time to identify their names. 

“He looked for the military pendants that had their names. For whoever he could identify, he carved their name on the gravestone. For those he could not identify, he carved ‘unknown.’”

My mother recalled how my grandfather described the smell of their bodies. “They released an aromatic scent of misk [musk]; they were martyrs, after all.” 

In Islam, it is believed that the bodies of martyrs are permeated with a musky scent.

My grandfather, before 1948, spent his days farming. He never thought he would find himself in a situation where the existence of his home city would be at risk. The Iraqi cemetery would consume his life and legacy. “They [the martyrs] were his life,” my mother said over and over again. 

Half a stone plaque at the entrance of the Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery (left). Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery (right).

He met his wife, my grandmother, soon after. 

“She was from the old city of Akka, next to the Al Jazzar Mosque. She used to take us through the village streets and show us her old house.” My mother recollects her memories of visiting my grandmother’s hometown. A city even my mother and her siblings were forbidden to see as another home for themselves.

When Palestinians were being expelled from their villages and towns in 1948, my grandmother was visiting her family and friends in the village of 'Arabba in Jenin. Her father had passed away — her mother and only sister were back in Akka. 

When the stories of massacres spread, fear was heightened. Her mother and sister were expelled from their home, displaced, and turned into refugees in Saida, Lebanon, while she was in Jenin.

“She got stuck in Jenin with nothing. She never imagined this would ever happen. Your grandmother left her home with all its goodness and glory. She did not know what the future held for her,” my mother sighs, sipping another cup of tea with longing in her eyes.

In a single day, my grandmother went from being a visitor in Jenin to a refugee with no home to return to, away from her family. 

But soon after the Battle of Jenin, my grandfather would come across my grandmother. He used to regularly visit his uncles that lived in ‘Arrabi. They happened to be neighbors with the same people my grandmother was staying with. They crossed paths and fell in love at some point in 1948.

“He fell in love with your grandmother. Passion (غرام). She was a very beautiful woman, and he was known as the Al-‘Antarالعنتر. The fearless. Everyone respected him in the village. He was also a handsome, tall, and blue-eyed man. ‘Antar!.”

My grandmother fell for him. But his parents disapproved of their union. In their eyes, she was a refugee, not worthy of marrying their son. Yet, by 1949, they eloped.

My grandfather could not take her back to his family house. So, they moved to the bustan (the garden), where he farmed.

“The bustan was like heaven,” my mother says with a smile. “I swear to God, it’s not flattery.” 

She described how when one would sit beneath the grape tree, the leaves would cover the sky like a blanket.

The bustan had a small structure consisting of one room and an external bathroom. There, they built a life, working hand-in-hand.

My grandparents — now two lives intertwined — continued to face the consequences of the Nakba, and years of falling and getting back up again. Three of their children were poisoned and passed away after eating contaminated vegetables from the garden. And in 1967, Zionists struck the home they built in the bustan and destroyed it. Only the metal framing of the room remained.

The same year, my grandmother was nine months pregnant. When the six-day war began, alongside other villagers, my grandparents and their children hid in the mountains next to the town of Al-Shuhada. Around the second or third day of the war, my grandmother’s water broke.

She gave birth to my aunt, Amal, in the cave. “They named her Amal [hope in Arabic] in the hopes that Palestine will be freed,” my mother says. They did not foresee the future of Jenin and other Palestinian cities as the Occupation expanded its reach.

The Zionists prevented my grandparents from rebuilding their home in the bustan. So, they were forced to rent an apartment nearby for their family. That is where they spent the remaining years in Jenin. Years later, the land fell under the jurisdiction of the PA, and one of my uncles was able to reclaim it and rebuild. 

Occupation, settlements, and resistance would flog the rest of their lives. My mother was a child during the First Intifada; she describes how my grandfather, at an elderly age, was constantly targeted, harassed, and interrogated by the Israeli regime. Like many Palestinians, my grandparents’ eldest son was arrested and put in a renewed and arbitrary administrative detention cycle. He was then sentenced to six years in prison.

Administrative detention is a tool of oppression used by the Israeli regime to incarcerate Palestinians without charge or trial, with indefinite renewals. Administrative detainees are subjected to cruel treatment and psychological and physical torture during interrogations. Many protest their detention by straining their bodies for freedom: going on hunger strikes. 

Despite the life of sorrow and loss that my grandparents experienced after the Nakba, my mother says they had love. Their lives were a tribute to the Palestinian human spirit of resistance.

My grandfather passed away in his late nineties in Amman in 2001, eleven months before I was born. His dying wish was to be buried alongside his Iraqi comrades in Jenin. But, since the graveyard fell under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority after it was formed, this wasn’t possible. He was laid to rest in Jenin… but at a different cemetery, beside his best friend.

My grandmother, who passed away in 2008, also had a dying wish: to be buried in her hometown of Akka. She was, however, laid to rest in Amman — far from the land that was once her home.

Last year, I was in Jenin. I visited the Iraqi Martyrs' Cemetery, walking the ground my grandfather walked, touching the Cypress trees he planted. I looked upon the rows of headstones and knew I was a part of something great — a legacy of bravery and sacrifice that would endure for generations.

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. 

About The Author: 

Zain Assaf is a graduate of Georgetown University in Qatar. She majored in Culture and Politics and minored in History. She also pursued a Certificate in Media and Politics, offered jointly by Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) and Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q). Her thesis examined mainstream media's framing of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. She is currently a part-time Assistant Engagement Producer at Al Jazeera English. She has written for Palestine Square and Doha News.

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