Teta and her garden
My maternal grandmother, my teta, in my memory is like the summer: proud, powerful, determined, and calm. Her name was Najibe, the Arabic feminine form for a person of nobility, generosity, and integrity. She very much embodied those traits too.
She was born in a village in Upper Galilea, Palestine in the early 1920s. With a population in Palestine at the time of approximately one million, she belonged to the group of almost half-a-million Palestinians who were farmers, living mostly in villages farming the land. She married at nineteen, at an older age than the more common marrying age for girls in villages then. They would be married by the time they turned fourteen. I always thought that this small gap allowed her a bit more grounding in who she really was as a woman. Proud, powerful, determined, and calm. When the expulsion happened in 1948, she made her 3-day trek to Southern Lebanon with three children in tow. She spent the next two years living in tents until they were moved to “The Gouraud Barracks” in Bekaa Valley East of Lebanon. I wonder if my teta knew who Henri Joseph Eugene Gouraud was, the French General who enforced the French division of the Levant and whom the military barracks were named after.
She would spend years in “The Gouraud Barracks”, until the early sixties, living in a small room that her and my grandfather built. She was luckier than the other Palestinians who lived in the barracks’ hangers, each family separated from another by hanging blankets and bed sheets attached to ceilings and walls. My mum was born in the barracks. She would tell me that the worst part was waking up at night needing to use the bathroom. She would have to walk for a kilometer from their room to reach the common toilets. At night, that was not a trip my grandparents wanted to make often. So teta had a peeing bowl for nighttime use. My mum disliked that too.
They moved in the early sixties to the “Rashidieh” refugee camp, located on the Mediterranean coast about five kilometers south of the city of Tyre. The camp was divided into “old” and “new” sections. The old section was built by the French Government in 1936 to accommodate Armenian refugees who fled to Lebanon. The new section was built by UNRWA in 1963 to accommodate the new Palestinian refugees. Teta lived in the new section and was allocated eighty square meters in which she spent the rest of her life.
Najibe had nine children in total and lost two. The first one she lost was Ali, a boy that was my mother’s twin. I asked her once how and when he died. She told me he was around one years old and that he choked on her breast milk. She was carrying him as she was running to get him to the clinic but knew when he died in her arms. That was in 1955. Exactly ten years later she lost a daughter, Inaya. She was five and teta was heart wrenched over her death. Inaya had slipped and fell into a large cistern with boiling water that teta had prepared to use for washing clothes. She stayed with her in the hospital for days. Inaya took her last breath in the hospital as the morning call for prayers was going off in the background. Teta wrapped her small body in a blanket and ran out of the hospital hailing a taxi down. She wanted to bury Inaya in the small garden that she meticulously took care of in her allocated eighty square meters. She wasn’t allowed to as hard as she tried and Inaya was buried in the camp’s cemetery.
Teta also told me stories about surviving the camp’s siege during Lebanon’s civil war in the 80s. For six months, the camp was shut down with no one allowed in and no one allowed out. Food supplies ran out quickly and hunger and starvation set in. She told me how radish stew became a staple and lemon peel became a meal. If it wasn’t for the orchards surrounding the camp, they would have starved to death she said. But venturing out to the surrounding orchards to grab some lemons or oranges could have costed them their lives. Some in the camp died by sniper fire as they searched for a few lemons to take back. She was worried most about her grandchildren, my uncle’s daughters, who cried every night from hunger. Their mum would sit them in front of a pot with a few stones boiling in it, telling them the stones were potatoes, and asking them to wait just a little longer for the food to be ready. They would soon get tired and be overcome by sleep.
During that same civil war, Najibe’s other son who lived in Beirut and worked as a paramedic in an ambulance was rounded up by the Syrian forces and sent to prison in Syria. He was married and had three children. Najibe searched for him for five months, unsure whether he was alive or dead, unsure about his whereabouts. But she left no stone unturned and was again luckier than others to have found him. She would apply for a permit to see him every couple of months and make an arduous journey to Syria, including a last stretch of a 5 kilometer walk on foot to reach him. She would carry food, clothes, pictures, and letters not just for him but for others on the way whom she needed to bribe so she can eventually reach him. She did that for four years until he was released.
In her later years, her garden became a place where everyone in the camp would pass by to bask in. She would at any given time almost always have someone sipping a cup of Turkish coffee in her garden. A woman with “green hands”, a reference in Arabic similar to having a green thumb, she nourished her plants and flowers so well and could literally grow anything. She planted trees of all kinds: Custard Apple, Figs, Pine, Ficus. Her colorful Celosias spread color throughout her garden, and their plumes of jewel-colored feathers gave her a small paradise in her allocated eighty square meters. She passed away peacefully in January 2012.
Najibe was my grandmother. As she flows through my memory, as she still lives on through my cells and as her story flows through my voice, I think of what Najibe herself would really want to say. And I think she would want to tell me a few things: that only a vast heart could endure tragedies of all kinds, so love fiercely and love in all kinds of small and grand ways; that a vast heart needs strong arms and strong legs to carry it forward in life so take each step with feet strongly anchored in intention and resolution; that life throws all kinds of things at you so make sure your vast heart, strong arms and strong legs know when to surrender, know when to flow and know when to allow the meandering rhythms of life to lead the way; that if ever I lost my way, I can always find home in the earth and its trees; that every time I create my own paradise, with devotion and love, I create it for others too but it always has to start with me; and that we only take what we hold in our vast hearts when it’s time to leave, so make that your most precious cargo and keep it light.
Najibe is like the summer, the warm breeze under my brown skin and the brilliant sun ushering in vastness to my heart. Rest in peace teta.