Saffuriyeh, the biggest village in the Galilee, fell on the night between Thursday and Friday, July 15/16, 1948. Under the British Mandatory government, it had counted as a town, but of its 10,000 inhabitants only 400 remained after that night, among them my own family. The rest had fled.
The occupying authorities gave the remaining inhabitants Israeli identity cards, and they continued to live in the big desolate village. My father, Sheik Muhammad Abdel Majid AI-Azhari, a graduate of the University of AI-Azhar in Cairo, and a well-known religious authority, was recognized as such, and a sign saying” A Holy Place,” in three languages, was placed on our house. Six months later, on January 7, 1949, when the fighting was over, came the expulsion order. It was unequivocal- anyone found in the village 48 hours later would be shot.
I was born two weeks after the State broke out over my village. For years I used to record my birth date, erroneously, as July 1. I did this until 1976. Then my sister discovered in Father’s 1948 diary the exact time of my birth: Friday, 4:15 in the morning, July 30. Thus I was once again uprooted and forced to move. After years in Cancer I migrated – or rather, was made to migrate – to Leo. My mother confirmed my father’s record: “You were born in the figs and grapes season, and in those days, unlike today, figs and grapes were not ripe at the beginning of July.”
The remaining inhabitants scattered through the neighboring villages, and never ceased to demand the right to return to their homes and lands. In November 1951 the High Court of Justice turned down a petition presented by the lawyer Ali Zu’abi on behalf of 86 villagers, who were residing in Nazareth at the time. The minister of defense and the military governor of the northern district were required to state why they did not allow the petitioners to return to their village. The petition was rejected on the grounds that the village lay in a closed military area. However, this fact did not prevent the construction of the Jewish village of Zippori at about that time, on the outskirts of Saffuriyeh and on its lands. Even after the abolition of the military government in November 1966, and indeed to this day, not one of the former inhabitants has been allowed to return to the village.
I have in my possession copies of letters my father sent to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the Cabinet Ministers for the Minorities, Religions, Home Affairs and the Economy, the Custodian of the Properties of Present-Absentees, the State Controller, military governor, and others. The letters are stamped: “Formerly Head of the Islamic Faith in Saffuriyeh.” In all of them my father asked to return to Saffuriyeh, together with the 400 men and women who did not flee when the Israeli army took the village, and to be treated with equality, as much as were the priest and nuns of the Church of St. Anne, though they’d had no congregation in the Muslim village.
“If you, the sons of Isaac, wish your infant state to grow to maturity, you should inoculate it with justice and equality,” he wrote. “Does the Law of Moses command the expulsion of people from their homes, or is it a precept of the Talmud or Mishnah?” he asked.
The answer was not long in coming, and it was delivered by an unusual messenger. I witnessed it. It was three or four that morning, when the village of A-Reineh, where we were living at the time, woke to the sounds of mighty explosions from the direction of Saffuriyeh, some five kms away. I clung to my father and clutched his gown in terror. All around stood the members of my family and the neighbors, rooted to the ground by the fearful sights and sounds. Columns of smoke and dust rose to the heavens above Saffuriyeh. In the evening came the news: there would never be a return. The Jews had blown up the houses with dynamite.
In many houses only the ceiling fell in, while the walls remained standing. Later the Jewish National Fund arrived and gave the place a facelift. They planted pine trees, a lot of pine trees, literally inside the houses, between the floor-tiles. Nowadays a traveller on the Nazareth-Shifa’amr road who looks towards Saffuriyeh sees only a thick pine forest. That’s what is called making the desert bloom, to the greater glory of the State of Israel.
In later years I would stand with my 11th-grade classmates in the municipal high-school in Nazareth and recite by heart passages from the Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles .. .It will develop the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants .. .It will rest on foundations of liberty, justice and peace, in the light of the vision of the prophets of Israel…It will maintain complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or sex …. ” The sounds of this recital blended in my mind with the sounds of that explosion, and have not ceased to trouble my mind ever since.
Last summer the yellow wind carried a leaflet to my doorstep. It came from one of Israel’s “national parks,” and was accompanied by an urgent request to translate it into Arabic. The subject – the national park of Zippori! Clearly, it was not aimed at the refugees who remained in their native land, since these have become quite proficient in Hebrew. It is intended for Arab tourists. The process of normalization with the Hashemite Kingdom is continuing apace. These tourists are to be welcomed, and must be told, in their language, all about “our country.”
There will probably be no shortage of such tourists in your national parks. They will be readily identifiable, not necessarily by their Eastern looks. They have some strange customs: you will see them staring at stones, touching doors and lintels, stroking trees. Some will be armed with dangerous weapons – the keys of their houses from 1948.
Recently, I visited the ” Zippori National Park,” to see the latest archeological discoveries. I asked the ticket-seller, a young Arab, the son of a refugee family from hereabouts, if I could have a discount as a returning refugee. He told me, with a wink, to show him my identity card. I told him that I had lost Saffuriyeh twice. The first time when it fell in 1948, and the second in 1984, when it fell from my bicycle in Tel Aviv. I mean, when I lost my identity card while riding on my bicycle. I realized the extent of my loss when I saw the new card which was issued to me. Under “Birthplace” it did say not “Saffuriyeh,” as in the old card, but “Israel.” “The new regulations are that only the country of birth is given,” I was told.
Speaking of documents. After the expulsion of the 400 remaining inhabitants, whom the army had provided with identity cards naming Saffuriyeh as their place of residence, the military government applied pressure to make them change their official address – if they failed to do so, they would lose their right to receive aid (in the form of food and second-hand clothing) from the refugee agency UNRWA. Thus only a handful held on to their pre-expulsion identity cards, naming Saffuriyeh as their place of residence, but these held on tight, keeping the documents close to their heart. Until the mid-1960s, my father’s name, Sheik Muhammad Al-Azhari, appeared in the voters’ registry of the Jewish cooperative Moshav Zippori. But he never set foot in the polling booths of Israeli democracy.
In contrast to nature’s blooming in the spring, the hopes of the Saffuriyeh refugees would bloom in the autumn, when the UN General Assembly opened its annual session. Scores of refugees would gather in my father’s house in the village of A-Reineh, to listen to the radio. During this brief blooming season they speculated on the possible resolutions that the UN General Assembly might adopt in their case, and what would befall them in the future. I remember that the UN resolutions, which were adopted in New York, were received here with grief. The Saffuriyeh refugees continued to gather thus annually, until the Suez war – called “Operation Kadesh” in Israel- in 1956. Thereafter they changed the date to July 22, the day of the Officers’ Uprising in Egypt, when Gamal Abdul Nasser would make a major speech. Nasser continued to set the tone until June 1967.
One of the refugees’ persistent worries was that the return would find them unprepared, that it would be as hurried and chaotic as the war and the flight. They therefore prepared for it meticulously, down to the last detail. My father, for example, hung the key of our Saffuriyeh house near at hand, beside the Koran. He bought a new gallabiyeh, yellow shoes, prayer beads and a special chair, none of which he used, reserving them for after the return. Vociferous debates were held, such as which was the shortest route to Saffuriyeh, the paved one or the dirt road? How many sheep would be slaughtered, and of which kind? On which tree would the sacrifices be hung, and who would invite whom to the celebration?
In A-Reineh the dozens of refugees prayed in the open air, led by my father, especially during Ramadan. They did not attend the village mosque, either because they wished to retain their separate identity, or because they felt ashamed of their status. My father made a point of declaring, at the beginning and end of each prayer, that Allah would defeat the oppressors and restore the uprooted. He would raise his arms high, until his armpits became visible through the wide sleeves of the gallabiyeh. The congregation followed suit, including the present writer, who learned, in addition to the lore of Palestinian refugeedom, the principles of Islam. Among the prayers for the return there was one verse which always mys¬tified me: “Please God we shall return on a piglet” (in Arabic: Ya rabb nerja’ a ‘al hannous). I was about five or six years old, and imagined the caravan of refugees returning to Saffuriyeh, led by my father riding on a piglet.
Later I found out that AI-Hannous “piglet” was simply the name of the part of Saffuriyeh where we lived before the expulsion. I wondered about such a name in a village which was entirely Muslim. It is said that the last Christian family in Saffuriyeh converted to Islam at the beginning of the century. There was a wave of conversion after the Crusaders’ defeat at the hand of Saladdin in the battle of the Horns of Hittin, in 1187. Other Saffuriyeh natives told me that they were of Jewish descent.
A person whom I greatly admired in my childhood was Granny AI-Hajj a Amna, the midwife who delivered me and some of my brothers and sisters. She moved to Nazareth, but did not stop visiting us until she died in 1957, when she was almost 100 years old. She told me a great deal about Saffuriyeh, and I was especially entranced by her stories about jinns. “Awaa .. .Don’t ask. Saffuriyeh was infested with jinns. Not all of them were bad. There are all kinds.”
She told me how she ran into them once, shortly before the Occupation. She had risen before dawn to take a donkey-load of wheat to the flour-mill in Nazareth. Some bad jinns ambushed her near” AI-Castal,” the famous spring at the entrance of the village, and knocked her down, while the good jinns swung on the village children’s swings, which hung from trees. “But nowadays,” the Hajja said, “there aren’t any more jinns. They’ve all moved north. When the Jews came the jinns ran away.”
It should be noted that the jinns too have the right to return. But there is no need to worry – jinns are not like other nations, and don’t demand self-determination. If they should be found swinging on the swings in Saffuriyeh, it would mean that the refugees have returned to their homes. Once, when the UN General Assembly dispersed without resolving anything, my father went to see the Hajja, who was baking pittas in the courtyard, to talk to her and recharge the batteries of hope until the next UN session in the following autumn. “Have you had any dreams for us?” he asked.
“Yes, I dreamed about the refugees.” “What did you dream?”
“I dreamed that they wandered to the north and to the east.” “North and east – or south and west?”
“North and east, north and east,” the Hajja insisted, wiping the smoke from her eyes.
My father protested: “But they have already gone north and east.”
“That’s what I dreamed.”
“God preserve us.”
Whenever it rained hard and caused floods in A-Reineh, my mother, the Hajja and their friends would pray to God to help the people in the north. It did not take me long to understand two facts: that the further north you go, the heavier the precipitation, and that the inhabitants of the north were the refugees in the camps in Lebanon and Syria, where about half the original inhabitants of Saffuriyeh lived, most of them in the camp of Ayn Al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon. Another 10,000 have lived for the past 47 years in the northern suburbs of Nazareth, opposite the remains of their village.
In 1982 the refugees in Ayn AI-Hilweh again had a taste of Israel’s wrath. A year later I asked a friend of my parents if anyone from there had come to visit Saffuriyeh.
“Yes, Abdallah AI-Najib.” (He was a friend of my father’s before 1:948.) “What did he do?”
“He went to his land in Saffuriyeh carrying a bucket, filled it with earth, turned around and went back to Al-Hilweh.”
“What good will it do him?”
“He will smell the earth, hug it, and if Allah does not deliver him, he will fill a pillow with it and take it to his grave. After all, he is eighty-five already.”
One evening in the 1950s my father ordered me to go to bed early “Tomorrow I shall take you to Saffuriyeh.” “Have the Jews finally given you permission?” my mother asked. “Yes, I got a permit from Akifa” (i.e., Akiva, who was one of the military governors in the north at that time.)
The following day we sent to Saffuriyeh by car and two horse-drawn carts. We went first to the cemetery, where the grownups read verses from the Koran for the souls of those who lay under the ground. Then my father led us to an old domed structure, a few minutes’ distance. We crowded inside and I heard the men reading the same verses from the Koran for the soul of the one who was buried there.
After the prayers I asked my father what place this was. He said: “It is the burial-place of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, God rest his soul.” The name “Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi” were the only Hebrew words I ever heard him pronounce fluently. Later I understood why my father asked every Arabic-speaking Jew he met, even if he was a mere carpet-seller, to get him the Mishnah in Arabic.
If the Rabbi could have sent forth a message from the soil of Saffuriyeh, he would no doubt have inquired after the Ishmaelites who regarded him as a wali, a Muslim saint, and made his tomb a maqam, a holy place. If he could, he would no doubt have asked why the language of the Prophet Muhammad in which, as well as the language of Moses, prayers and entreaties had been said on his tomb for countless generations had fallen silent.
Ali Al-Azhari (Jaffa)
This article appeared in Hebrew in Ma’ariv newspaper, 15.10.1995; translated by Yael Lotan.
Image cover: Noa Ben Shalom, The Jerusalem Bird Observatory, 2008, from Hush – Israel Palestine 2000-2014
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