By Nana Mahmoud
My maternal great aunt Teta Fatoum is in her late nineties. We do not know her birthday or exact age. Her passport says she was born on January 1st, as do my grandmother’s and grandfather’s passports. She is frail, short, and wears colorful hand-stitched dresses. She is dark and has gray eyes, her white hair wrapped in a florescent shawl. “Who are you?” is her signature question.
When Teta Fatoum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the family was not surprised. She had been losing her cool quite often, and had been frantically recalling and retelling memories of the Nakba, a word that means catastrophe in Arabic but has been used regularly to describe Arab defeat in the 1948 war.
“Do you think they will win the war?” she would ask me. “We Arabs are stronger than they are—we are greater in number. They cannot possibly win.” It was Mustaheel, she would self-assuredly insist.
It was not only her sense of time that was flawed. Teta Fatoum was convinced that she was still in the outskirts of West Jerusalem, in the 2,000 person village of Lifta that underwent ethnic cleansing in 1948 when she was in her early thirties.
“Look outside,” she once told me. “You see that? This is where the soldier came. The bastard threw the stone on my hand. He was standing right there.”
Teta Fatoum pointed to her hand where there was unmistakable inflammation and what appeared to be a dislocated bone. But the area she was pointing at was the neighbourhood in the Ramallah municipality, where my grandfather built a home upon accepting there would be no return to Lifta. It became the home where my mother was born, and where she and her eleven siblings were brought up. The locale of many internally displaced refugees like Fatoum, Ramallah would become the capital of the West Bank, encircled by a security wall that divides the West Bank from historic Palestine.
The view of the city was perfect from the balcony of my grandfather’s home, where Fatoum always sat. On the balcony hung a green plant whose leaves reached the floor from a wooden basket by the entrance. The couches were pallid blue and red; and cherry coffee tables were placed on each corner of the room. I often sat there with Fatoum. We looked outside the window, observing the passersby and breathing in the relative calm of the city. One evening, she gazed at me with her wide gray eyes.
“Do you want to come with me? We’ll go tomorrow.”
“To Lifta. Do you think the Israelis will stop us?”
“Yeah, I’ll go with you.”
This was the approach that I took with Teta Fatoum. My aunts had told me not to shock her with the unfortunate reality that there would be no return to Lifta. “Sayreeha”  they would always say to me, so I did just as they asked—I appeased her with false hope.
The authentic Jerusalemite hand-stitched dress that Fatoum always wore in Lifta would in her later years become the subject of her incessant picking. She would poke for lint, a habit that would embarrass her sister, my grandmother, when they would visit the neighbours’ homes. My mother said that since her early years, Fatoum was profoundly observant to detail and that when she raised the children, she always made sure that they were clean and dressed neatly.
In the 1930’s when Fatoum was in her twenties in Lifta, she sold vegetables and eggs in the village. She later took a full time job caretaking at Schmidt’s GirlsSchool in Jerusalem. My grandfather said that even in her young years, she was always concerned with everyone around her, and that she didn’t give herself time to rest. Fatoum used to help with house chores and often went to the produce market to get household necessities.
After the Nakba, Teta Fatoum, who never married, moved to Ramallah with her brother Ibrahim, my grandfather. There she nursed children until 1983 when she left her job with a Liftawite family and moved in with Ibrahim’s children. She raised my mother and her siblings and particularly uncle Fadi, the youngest child of the family and undoubtedly her favorite.
When Fadi and his wife had children, Teta Fatoum decided to raise the children while Fadi and his wife Nadia were at work. Fadi’s sons Mohammad and Ibrahim became the center of Fatoum’s life. With her Alzheimer’s, she lost her sense of time and place but clinged onto her love of the boys. She taught Ibrahim to walk in 2005 when he was a year and a half old and by 2008 he was in preschool.
As years passed and her Alzheimer’s progressed, she began to hallucinate that Ibrahim, now five years old, was falling on the floor.
“The boy!” she would cry, reaching her hands out to assist the Ibrahim of her illusion. When Ibrahim played outside she would sit on the balcony watching painstakingly and making sure he was not falling to the ground.
Having lived in the same Ramallah apartment with a working stove for close to four decades, she once told my aunts to call five year old Ibrahim to start a fire out in the yard so that she could make some coffee, demanding a method made obsolete by time and inappropriate by place.
“Did you migrate? You and your family?” she once asked me.
“Yes, we did.”
“We migrated.” She looked at me as though unveiling a shameful truth.
Despite her frantic episodes, Teta Fatoum was the only one of my relatives among the Nakba generation who was willing to talk to me about what had happened in the late 1940s. Maybe it was due to the fact that she was unaware of the defeat and still anticipated her return. My grandmother Bahiyeh once spoke about her life during the better days of pre-1948. She explained to me that the idea that Arabs and Jews never got along is a myth.
“We had no problems with the Jews. They were our neighbors. On their holidays, we would give them gifts and on ours they would bring us sweets. I remember that on the Sabbath, the Jewish neighbours would ask me to turn on the light switches, because they weren’t allowed to touch any man made tools.”
I would later read about Lifta’s history and learn of its character as a mixed community with Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It was a historic village said to have existed since biblical times. When the Zionists came in 1948, the Jewish Hilo tribe was given the choice to stay in Lifta but joined the non-Jewish Palestinians in their exile.
When I visited Lifta after Fatoum’s passing, I saw remnants of the spring from which Lifta had gotten its name, but it was almost completely dried out. Lifta, unlike the other villages that were cleansed by the Haganah was never resettled. Located on the road to Haifa are the abandoned remains of a once spirited rural community. Its grass is still green and its dome-roofed homes are still present, but the Jerusalem stone dwellings house no occupants.
On the day of Fatoums funeral, my aunt called me into the bedroom to say goodbye. She was lying on her bed, and her face was covered with a blanket. She was wearing the laced white underdress of the garb she had usually worn. I lifted the blanket, and I apprehended what Fatoum had unknowingly taught me, that the frame of time was only relative and that memory, not the moment, was vital.
Nana Mahmoud is concerned with issues of migration and identity, and is interested in the links between birthplace and nationalist ideology. On an academic level, she studies the impact of civil society in the fulfillment of human rights in conflict zones.