My grandmother is not just a beacon of warmth and love. Not just my first best friend. She is a survivor. She is the compass that points to justice.
By Nooran Alhamdan
My grandmother was my first best friend. As soon as I’d be dropped off at her house, almost daily, the hotheaded and spoiled four-year-old me would change to well behaved and bubbly.
My teta, grandmother in Arabic, would sit me by her side while she meticulously rolled tiny stuffed grape leaves on the large dining room table. She would turn on the Arabic pop channel for me – a special treat, as I was only allowed to watch cartoons – and I would clap along with a scantily clad Nancy Ajram.
What I remember more than anything, though, is our ritual mid-day nap. It is only within the past few years that my grandmother’s hair had lost its color and length. When I was a little girl, it was long, black and silky smooth. She always kept it in a knot on top of her head while working around the house. But when it came time for her nap, she would let it tumble down her back. Laid down in bed, it would fan out across her pillow and push me almost to the opposite end of the mattress.
I can remember that hour nap so vividly. Her room always smelled sweet, like perfume and flowers. The shades would be shut, but a fraction at the top never fully closed, so dusty light would fall through the air. Teta would sleep on her side, facing away from me. Using a delicate comb, whose teeth were so fine that you couldn’t see the spaces between them, I would brush through her hair, from root to tip, repeatedly, until my eyes could no longer stay open.
When we woke up, there would only be a few hours before my entire family would gather for dinner. As the family matriarch, my grandmother’s home was the epicenter of gathering. My childhood is defined by the living room of my grandmother’s house, filled with my mother and aunts and uncles. The small guest bedrooms would be crammed with all my cousins and me, giggling and scheming, the air smelling like the warmth of hearty food and bitter coffee.
In a small house in New Jersey lived an entire legacy of homeland and dispossession, of Jaffa and Alexandria and Cairo.
When I was six years old, my parents picked up and moved my brother and me from New Jersey to New Hampshire. It was a new place, very cold, but most notably, missing Teta. I remember how my mother would find me crying because of how much I missed her. The daily visits turned into a visit every few months.
It was only when I was older that I began to understand the stories my grandmother used to absent-mindedly tell me. When she would grate lemons into finely chopped salads and mention how the lemons in Jaffa tasted better than any other lemon in the world. How the sea there can be heard at all times. How the salt leaves a permanent kiss on your lips.
Thanks to my grandmother, I became infatuated with the love of Jaffa. There wasn’t a history book I didn’t read or film I didn’t watch. I scoured the internet for clues about her family’s house. I looked endlessly for connections on Facebook with long lost relatives of hers, trying to piece together who their parents were in relation to Teta. I memorized the names of the streets and neighborhoods: Nuzha, Manshiyya, Ajami.
On August 3, 2017 I got to live my grandmother’s dream. A rickety van drove my parents, siblings and me from Jerusalem to Jaffa. As we got nearer, I could smell the salt in the air, just like Teta told me I would. We dismounted right by the shore. The waves spread out across the sand, desperately reaching to embrace and welcome us. The clock tower stood in the center of town and I could see Teta as a child, holding her mother and sisters’ hands as they walked by it.
I couldn’t understand the seeming normalcy around me. I wanted to grab every person walking by, shake them by their shoulders and tell them: Najwa Qattan, my grandmother, was born here. She played on this beach with her sisters and brothers. She prayed in that mosque. She skipped through these streets. Can’t you see her name etched into every stone? Can’t you hear the wind whispering it?
I baptized myself in the warm water of the Mediterranean Sea. My eyes closed, and for some seconds I forgot whether I was in Jaffa or my grandmother’s house. Was the smooth sand her soft living room carpet? Perhaps the cascading waves, her hair?
I couldn’t leave Jaffa without trying to find Teta’s house – her real house. The house she was born in. The house her parents got married in. The stone house, overlooking the sea, near enough to the mosque that you could hear the athan (the call to prayer) every morning, but far enough for the sound of the sea to compete with it every dawn.
In my descent to Ajami, I witnessed the houses grow older, the people turn darker. The language of the stones, of the streets, and of its residents switched from Hebrew to Arabic.
I asked every passerby if they knew where I could find the Qattan house. You are going in the right direction, they all told me; down, down, down. I turned blindly, ran my hands over the hanging citrus, listening closely for the sound of the sea.
I reached a dead end. What looked like an abandoned mosque, fenced by wild vegetation, offered a clear view of the sea.
I didn’t find my teta’s house in Jaffa. But Jaffa has been in her small New Jersey home my entire life. She, too, has unknowingly been in Jaffa this entire time.
Upon returning to the United States, I told her in detail about the visit. She simply smiled, not saying a word, nodding her head. She knew – she had always known.
My grandmother is not just a beacon of warmth and love. Not just my first best friend. Not just an old woman with a lot of stories. She is a survivor. She is a living preservation of her city. She is the compass that points to justice. She embodies the humanity that so many wish to deny us, Palestinians.
We are a people who cherish family, who pour our hearts into everything we do, who celebrate life with vigor, despite the hardships and ugly dehumanization we constantly and consistently face. Our grandmothers are a living testament to that.
Nooran Alhamdan is a Palestinian-American student of economics and political science at the University of New Hampshire.