Two Interviews by Lara Kollab (2013)

Interview 1: My dad

What year were you born and where?

I was born in 1958 in the Old City of Nablus. I was born and raised in a house that was built by Romans over a thousand years before.

So you were alive during 1967. What was that year like and how did things change after that?

A lot changed. The biggest thing I felt was that, prior to 1967, people still had hope. People still made plans for returning to Yafa and Haifa and the rest of the Palestinian lands that our parents and grandparents told us beautiful stories about. After 1967, a lot of people began to lose that hope. Also, the obvious differences—prior to 1967, there weren’t imprisonments, curfews, checkpoints, etc. Once the occupation started, the Israeli army would regularly come into the city and imprison people and put us under curfews for days. Life became very expensive under occupation. Israeli income was much higher than Palestinian income but we still had to pay the additional taxes to Israel.

How did people adjust to life under occupation?

Even before 1967, we gradually felt that things were changing. In 1966, we were under Jordanian control. That year, there was an uprising against the Jordanian government. There were clashes between Jordanian police and Palestinians throughout the West Bank. People were getting restless. We wanted to break free of all outside control.  So, the Jordanian government put a curfew on pretty much every West bank town—this made us feel the atmosphere of war. At 9 years old, I was participating in demonstrations against the Jordanian police. So, we were all prepared for war if it happened, and we knew it would. And soon after, the occupation started.

I remember one day in particular—we were home, knowing that the Israeli army was moving into our towns. We saw tanks come into the city with Egyptian and Iraqi flags on them and we thought the Arab armies had come to help us and everyone was so happy, but we soon realized that they were Israeli soldiers because they were speaking Hebrew. Once they knew that we had discovered who they were, they started shooting at the people. Right in front of me, I saw the man who was in charge of the playground get shot in the chest 7 times. That was the first time I saw someone get shot. That’s a moment that I have never been able to forget. As a child, that was a life-altering moment for me. But after that, witnessing violence became a regular part of our lives.

Your parents are 1948 refugees from Yaffa. Did you or your parents ever go visit Yaffa?

After my dad passed away, my mother, brothers, and I were able to go visit Yaffa in 1971. There were certain areas we could go to through organized tourism groups at that time. We went to visit my grandparent’s big old home. My mother’s memories were all there. There were European Jewish immigrants living there. Some of them agreed to talk to us. We also went to my parents home that they had built and were only able to live in for 6 months before they were forced to leave. There was a European Jewish couple living there with their dog. We asked them if we could go inside and see the house, but they refused to let us. My mother was heartbroken and cried for the rest of the day.

What are your most salient memories of growing up in Occupied Palestine?

The day Lena al Nabulsi was killed. In 1976, the Israeli army had closed down Al-Najah College. Other students and I had decided to initiate a nonviolent protest against the Israeli closure of the college. We held signs outlining our demands that the college be opened and that students be allowed to resume classes. We weren’t even throwing stones. Israeli soldiers came over to us and the sergeant asked what we were doing. I told him what we wanted. He responded by laughing and saying, “You have 5 minutes to get out of here or I will arrest everyone”. I argued that this was a peaceful protest and, as I was arguing, a soldier started coming at me with a baton to hit me. Before he could, one of my friends threw a rock at the soldier, which caused the soldier to drop the baton. After that, all hell broke loose. The soldiers started shooting and we started throwing stones. There were people running everywhere. The whole city became engulfed in clashes. One of the girls that was with us, 16-year-old Lena al Nabulsi, was killed.  A sergeant had chased her to the top floor of a building and shot her in the head. When we heard of this, the entire city of Nablus was distraught and angry, and the army put a curfew on the whole city. We resisted the curfew and went out for the funeral. The whole city was at her funeral. Afterwards, demonstrations erupted everywhere. I’ll never forget that day and those events.

Another defining moment was when I got arrested. When I was 18, in 1977, there were demonstrations all over Nablus protesting the occupation, so Israel imposed a curfew on the city. All men aged 16-35 were arrested. When they put us in army jeeps to move us from the police office to the prison, I saw that my mother was across the street, in the rain, alone, in the middle of the night, waiting for my brothers and I, hoping to take us home, but she didn’t get to. That still bothers me to this day. My mother meant everything to me. She raised 11 children alone, under occupation, after my father died, and to see such a strong woman look so broken filled me with rage and sadness.

What was prison like?

It was difficult. We were beaten and tortured. We were imprisoned without charge and without trial and had no idea how long we would be there. The interrogator would ask us questions, and if he didn’t like the answer, he’d hit us on the hands and head with a metal stick. You have to also keep in mind that there were a lot of kids there, too. They would take people to a room, attach them to the ceiling with ropes, and make them stand on a huge block of ice and, as time went by, the ice would melt and the person would just be hanging by his arms to the ceiling, with his feet in a pool of ice-cold water. They would bring the sisters of some men and tell them they would rape their sisters if they didn’t “confess” to whatever they wanted them to confess to, so people would confess to something they didn’t even do just to save their sisters.  They’d put people in a box with dirt and ants and keep them like that, arms and legs tied up, all night. All for something stupid like throwing stones or speculation that they did something against the occupation. There were 4 people in one tiny cell (about 7 feet tall by 3 feet wide) with one tiny window for speaking to the guards. The only reason we were arrested was because we were young Palestinians. I learned a lot in those days, though. A child is thrown into prison for something trivial like throwing stones at tanks, or for no reason, and comes out with big dreams of fighting the occupation. I was taught things about our history and our struggle that I didn’t know before. I was taught new ways to fight the occupation. We learned about the economy and ways to help ours while hurting Israel’s. We learned about boycotts and strikes and other forms of civil disobedience. There was also much talk about armed resistance. Israel’s policy of throwing every Palestinian in prison is a big mistake for them because people become even more politicized. When you are beaten and tortured and treated like a non-human, it changes you, makes you angry.

What was it like growing up under occupation and how do you compare that life with your experience living in the US?

* Laughs * Huge difference. Growing up under occupation, I always felt like my life wasn’t normal. I wasn’t quite sure what “normal” was but I knew that my life wasn’t it. Everyday, we witnessed something horrendous—soldiers attacking protesting students, randomly arresting people including kids, house demolitions, going to sleep to the sound of gunshots, curfews randomly imposed on us, restrictions of movement…  Basic survival was difficult. We had very limited resources. The West Bank doesn’t have access to the sea or anything, so we were always under the mercy of the Occupation and whether or not they would give us supplies or allow import and export. I learned about business from a young age. My father passed away from a stroke when I was 12 years old so I had to help my 17-year-old brother take over our father’s carpentry business so that we could support the family. So, at 12 years old, when normal kids would normally spend their days playing, I spent my days working to provide for my family and, for fun, sometimes threw rocks at army tanks. It was difficult, though, because people were relying more on Israeli products, which were lower quality, but less expensive. Eventually, people stopped buying from us and we had to close the business and that’s when I left to find work and my brother had to go work in Jordan.    

There is no comparison between life in the US and life in Palestine under occupation. We completely take our freedom for granted here and many Americans cannot even fully comprehend what it means to be free.

Tell me about your journey to America

I wanted to finish my education and help my family and that wasn’t possible in the West Bank at the time. I was accepted to the College of Engineering in Egypt in 1977, which was the same year Sadat visited Israel and signed a peace treaty. Palestinians in Egypt protested this move, and all Palestinians were ordered to leave Egypt that year, so I did. Shortly after, the Iraqi government said that they would take any Palestinians who were kicked out of Egypt. So, I went there but didn’t like it, because it was dictated that Palestinians had to be part of the Baath party in Iraq,which I did not support. I left Iraq and went to Syria in hopes of finding a university which would let me register late in the semester, but had no luck. I realized that I needed to somehow make money to help my  family who was still in Palestine, so I went to Kuwait to work. I stayed there for 2 months but hated every moment. Palestinians were treated very badly and there was a lot of discrimination against us and, as a 19-year-old, I couldn’t deal with the conditions. Eventually, I applied to an American University in Chicago and was accepted, so I came to the US. At first, it was difficult. When I got to the airport and heard this language which, for the most part, I couldn’t understand, all I wanted to do was get on a flight and go back to Palestine. Of course, I couldn’t do that because Israel had a policy which dictated that any Palestinian who left could not return until 6 months had passed. Eventually, I started school and working—I worked many jobs like driving a taxi cab, flipping burgers, etc. full time while also being a full-time  student—and that’s when my life completely changed.

How do you think this conflict should be resolved? Are you a supporter of the two-state solution, the one-state solution, or something else?

I would prefer to see one state with Christians, Muslims, and Jews living together under a true system of equality and democracy, without special treatment for Jews. Unfortunately, I think this desire is unrealistic. If one-state were to be created, Palestinian Muslims and Christians would outnumber Jews (Israel’s “demographic threat”), so I do not think the Israeli government would support such a move. It’s a complicated situation. I have no idea how or if it will end. The occupation must end and there must be real understanding between the people, not false dialogue between corrupt leaders. Israelis must begin to see us as equal humans, and stop thinking that they are superior. We as Palestinians should realize that not all Israelis are the same, and that there are some that, like us, were born into an unfortunate situation over which they have little control. Seeing Israeli soldiers refuse army service gives us hope. I think America’s role is also important. If America continues to unconditionally support Israel, we won’t get anywhere. That’s why educating the future leaders of tomorrow, university students, is imperative.

Short Interview with my 17-year-old cousin, Salma

What were your most traumatizing memories as a child?

There are a lot of memories I have that always stay with me. I’ve seen people get arrested and shot, including my uncle. One time, when I was 8 years old, I was walking home from school and I saw army tanks and jeeps coming down the street I was on. I got scared so I jumped into a garbage can until they passed. One memory that really affects me happened when we were trying to go to Jerusalem one day. We had a really hard time going through the checkpoints and, at one point, the soldiers wouldn’t let the bus go through. So, we had to all get off the bus and walk through these sewage tunnels to pass through. I just kept thinking, ‘Why, when we are from this land, do we have to walk through sewers to go to Jerusalem? Why do we have to be at the mercy of teenagers with guns?’ A simple vacation is torture and humiliation for us.  

You came to America a few years ago. What were the main differences you noticed about life in America and life in Palestine?

The first thing I noticed was that there weren’t checkpoints or soldiers! I was shocked that you could actually get into a car and drive on a road for hours without having to stop at checkpoints or show your identification card to any soldiers or have anyone point a rifle at you! America was like heaven. But still, I missed Palestine. Although there is freedom and wealth in America, in Palestine, we are all like one family. Because the whole community struggles together, we are all connected. Nothing brings a nation closer than does a tragedy, and we are living in a never-ending tragedy. In America, it seemed like people were more separated and busy with their own lives.

What are your memories from the 2nd intifada?

I was young but I remember that soldiers were everywhere. They would always be walking around outside of our house. They took over the kindergarten right by our house and we were so scared that they would take over our house too. They called a “manaa’ tajawol” meaning that no one could leave their house. My dad had just gone to Tool Karem for work and was stuck there because all movement between Palestinian cities was stopped, so we were alone and my mom was pregnant and was very close to her due date. We didn’t know what we would do if she went into labor because anyone who went outside would get shot at. The tanks were parked in front of our house and any time we looked out the window, the soldiers would aim their guns at us. We didn’t have water or electricity for weeks. They shot the boy who lived next-door in the head and destroyed a lot of our neighbors’ houses and the garages under our houses. We went to sleep every night to the sound of bombing and the house shaking. We were lucky to survive because every day we heard of so many people we knew that got killed. Obviously, we couldn’t go to school. We’ve missed a lot of school in our lives.

What is one message you want to send to the American people?

When I came to visit America, I was amazed that you could actually just get in a car and drive down a street or walk outside without stopping at a checkpoint or having seeing soldiers pointing guns at you or being verbally abused by a fully armed teenager. I want Americans to know that we are people like them and we should have the right to live and move and speak like the rest of the world. The portrayal of our situation in America is not reality. Israel is not a democracy and we are not terrorists. They are the occupiers and we are the occupied and we do not suffer equally. Next time you hear someone talking about a suicide bombing or rockets on Southern Israel, think about the fact that every single Palestinian grows up listening to the sounds of bombs and watching death from our windows, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that many days, we cant even go to school without seeing guns and soldiers and being yelled at and stopped at checkpoints. Not one moment of our lives isn’t affected by the Occupation. Israelis have the luxury of usually ignoring our existence. We don’t have that luxury. Think about what needs to happen for someone to do something like take their own life—we are not monsters. Something like 60% of suicide bombers were people whose houses were demolished when they were kids. And anyway, why is suicide bombing so much more morally reprehensible than dropping white phosphorus on a civilian population? That is terror. I want Americans to realize that this is about so much more than land now.

Do you think peace could be achieved if both sides took the time to better understand each other?

Yeah, probably. But I don’t see how that’s possible when they wall us off and only interact with us during their military service. How can we see their humanity if we only see them as soldiers? How can they see our humanity when they are simply carrying out orders to control us through violent force? In my 17 years of life, a soldier has never even looked me in the eye. They don’t want to see my humanity. I search for theirs but can’t find it behind the military uniforms and the guns.


Interview Analysis

“The winners write the history books.” In our current age of interconnectedness through the media, the “winners” also attempt to control what people do and do not see. According to Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, Palestinians have been systematically denied the “permission to narrate” their history and daily struggles, particularly in the Western media. For this reason, I chose to interview my father, Mahmoud Kollab, and my 17-year-old cousin, Salma, both of whom have struggled to survive horrifying conditions under Israeli occupation. The telling of these unheard personal stories is crucial to the Palestinian cause. Unless the world hears these stories, the struggle will remain misunderstood, ignored, and unresolved. Literature can serve as a window into people’s deepest emotions and most traumatic experiences. It has been used throughout human history in an attempt to understand and make sense of the inhumanity that sporadically permeates our existence. Many Palestinian writers and poets have used literature to convey their strong emotional ties to their homeland, as well as to their struggle. However, the experience of conflict as expressed through literature and poetry differs slightly from that communicated in personal accounts of struggle. This analysis will combine the experiences of my father and cousin with the literature that we have read to form a more complete image of the conflict.

My father was born in 1958, in a time and place full of tension, between the Palestinian Nakba (1948) when 750,000 Palestinians became refugees, and the Naksa (1967), when many of these refugees were forced to begin living under a system of Israeli occupation. Like all children in Palestine, he was made to live a childhood full of violence and hardship. He told me, “At 12 years old, when normal kids would ordinarily spend their days playing, I spent my days working to provide for my family and, for fun, sometimes threw rocks at army tanks.” Even children are pulled into the conflict, as it seeps into every facet of Palestinian life. In the literature we read, it was made clear that no one is spared involvement. This was demonstrated most clearly by characters such as Adil and Zuhdi in Wild Thorns, a novel that dramatizes the diversity of struggle within Palestinian society and shows that, despite this diversity, no one is able to remain neutral.

My cousin’s memories of the Second Intifada also demonstrate the pervasiveness of the occupation in Palestinian life. Although she was 7 years old at the time of the Uprising, many disturbing memories haunt her, including the shooting of her neighbor and the takeover of the kindergarten near her home. When she visited America, the first thing she noticed was the lack of checkpoints and soldiers. An unfortunate effect of occupation is that those living under it do not know what it means to live a normal life. In Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, State of Siege, he writes, “The martyr teaches me: no aesthetic outside my freedom” (Darwish 163). Palestinians spend their lives fighting and dying for freedom without fully comprehending the meaning of the word, only knowing that it is the opposite of their existence.

A commonality I observed between my dad’s stories and my cousin’s stories was that, under occupation, schools were often closed for extended periods of time as dictated by Israeli authorities. This reminded me of a scene in Savyon Liebrecht’s The Road to Cedar City in which the woman’s husband is upset that she bought a game of shapes for the Palestinian baby, which he said would “help develop the baby’s intelligence”. He hinted that developing the baby’s intelligence is dangerous because he would have “a good chance of understanding the Russian’s instructions on the tanks” (Liebrecht 150). This passage suggested that intelligent or educated Palestinians might be considered dangerous. When considering this particular passage, it is interesting to think about the fact that the closing of Palestinian schools is so prevalent.

While listening to my father’s description of his prison experience, I was reminded of the prison scene in Wild Thorns in which Basil witnesses educated prisoners teaching about the Palestinian struggle (Khalifeh 124). Speaking of what he observed in prison, my dad explained,

“A child is thrown into prison for something trivial like throwing stones at tanks, or for no reason, and comes out with big dreams of fighting the occupation. [In prison], I was taught things about our history and our struggle that I didn’t know before. Israel’s policy of throwing every Palestinian in prison is a big mistake for them because people become even more politicized.”

Every Palestinian knows at least one person who has been imprisoned for no apparent reason. It is interesting that Israel’s tactic of imprisoning civilians indiscriminately, particularly the children, may actually radicalize many Palestinians against them.

The negative and dehumanizing view of the other is something that we have seen time and time again in Palestinian and Israeli literature. In The Nomad and the Viper by Amos Oz, Palestinians are described in animalistic terms, stripping them of their humanity. This dehumanization of the other is instrumental in the continuation of the conflict. As my dad described, “When you are beaten and tortured and treated like a non-human, it changes you, makes you angry”. When people are seen as inhuman, oppressing and hurting them becomes more justifiable. When people are on the receiving end of that dehumanization, they become filled with rage and begin to see the other as the devil. In Here We Shall Stay by Tawfiq Zayyad, Israelis are demonized and said to have “blue fangs”. When one side sees the other as inferior savages, and the other side sees them as demonic monsters, peace is difficult to attain.

This is why my father firmly believes that the path to peace is dependent upon the ability of each side to see the other as human, and to be able to individualize the members of the “other” group. When I asked my cousin what she thought of this approach to peace, she agreed with it, but said “How are we supposed to understand each other when they just have us walled off and all we see of them is soldiers coming and destroying our lives and all they hear of us is rockets on the South?” I intended to interview a Palestinian of an older generation and a Palestinian of the younger generation in order to compare their viewpoints and experiences. I found that both experienced similar hardships and equally traumatizing childhoods filled with violence. However, I was surprised to find that the younger Palestinian, my cousin, seemed to have less hope for peace. I’m not certain whether this is due to the generational gap or the fact that my father hasn’t had to live in those devastating situations in decades. One thing is for certain: If peace is to ever be achieved in the Holy Land, the discrimination, dehumanization and oppression must stop and the occupation must end, because if people continue to experience traumatic events in the context of the conflict, they will never be able to forgive and move past the pain to a peaceful future.