Discovering Families

At the heart of life in the Middle East are families--not only immediate families consisting of parents and children, but also extended families comprising grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws. These families resemble concentric circles: the immediate family is encircled (both circumscribed and protected) by the extended one, which in turn is encircled by a “tribe” or “clan” that includes multiple families living in the same region. During the past several weeks, I’ve been taught--by people ranging from my aunt to an Israeli passport-control officer--about the significance of families in the Arab world.

A few weeks before departing for Bethlehem, I visited my amto (aunt), my amo (uncle), and my cousins in southern California--partly to talk with them about my upcoming trip, but mostly to re-experience the warmth and connection I feel when within our family circle. While we were sitting together drinking tea, I asked my amto to recount our family’s journey from Palestine to the United States. Although I had heard this story in childhood, in adulthood it took on fresh significance in light of my upcoming journey to the region where my father, his sister, and his two brothers grew up.

My father and his three younger siblings were born in the 1930s in Lifta, a village just west of Jerusalem. After the 1948 war the family moved into Jerusalem proper. Their emigration to the United States began with my great-uncle Osman, who came to southern California in the early 1930s. He was followed in 1954 by my father, Muhammed Jamil Mustafa, the eldest child of my grandmother Fatima and my grandfather Jamil.

(Above: My father before leaving Palestine)

Palestinian families are patrilineal (that is, they trace their genealogies through the male branch); thus, my father’s middle name is his own father’s first name, and mine (Muhammed) is my father’s first name. (Even daughters are given their father’s first name as middle names.)

My father lived first in southern California and then in New York and New Jersey, where he met my mother, Miriam Louise Keenan, a New Jersey native. (In my thirties, my mother told me rather offhandedly that my maternal grandfather, Emmett Keenan, was a cousin of Rose Kennedy’s and an occasional guest at the Kennedy family’s compound in Hyannisport.) My parents married, and in 1964 they settled permanently in Costa Mesa, California. My aunt and uncles also made their homes and raised their families in southern California.

(Above: My father after arriving in the United States)

At the airport in Tel Aviv, this basic knowledge of my family’s history would prove useful, though not quite sufficient. I had been advised that, notwithstanding my American passport and citizenship, because of my Arab name I might well be detained and questioned upon my arrival in Israel; thus, I had ready for inspection my passport, my letter of invitation from Bethlehem University, and my genealogy. I waited in line for about twenty minutes in front of the steel-and-glass booths whose occupants processed foreign passports. The women in the booths stared at computer screens and occasionally spoke on the phone. I noticed with some anxiety that every so often a uniformed man with a shaved head would step up to one of the booths, take a passport from the woman behind the glass, and say brusquely, "Come!" to the passport-holder. They disappeared together into a screened-off area behind the lines.

(Above: My parents as newlyweds)

At last I was called to a booth. I wiped the sweat from my passport on my pants, smiled, and spoke awkwardly into a narrow horizontal gap in the impressively thick glass. I explained why I was coming into Israel, I named my father and grandfather, and I mentioned Lifta. After ten minutes or so of searching, the woman in the booth was unable to locate them on her screen. After a few more minutes she again asked about my family, but by then it was too late. The man in uniform had arrived.

He led me to (and left me in) a waiting area/holding room where I found the other people I'd seen taken away. Judging solely by appearances, they were a fairly eclectic group: not only Arabs but also Asians, and even a European or two. The room contained about twenty chairs, a TV (which was broadcasting some steamy Israeli evening soap), and a Coke machine. I was pleased to see an Arab-looking woman in hijab who spoke perfect, American-accented English and was comfortable enough to walk up to the machine and get a Coke. (Alas, she was destined to be detained even longer than I was, and I never saw her depart from the airport.) We put our bags on a table and waited. I tried to remain calm, but I was nervous over having lost sight (never mind possession) of my passport.

Twenty minutes passed before I was called into another area and ushered into a tiny office dominated by a desk, a computer, and a map of Israel. Behind the desk sat a man with a shaved head who looked very directly at me while asking questions. I sat down and smiled, doing my best to relax. For the next hour or so, we chatted about my family. I volunteered my mother’s name and birthplace, neither of which interested him. (Perhaps I should have drawn his attention to my relationship with the Kennedys--which, while admittedly tenuous, is still noteworthy in a cocktail-party-anecdote sort of way.) He asked about my father and grandfather, and where they had come from. I explained again about Lifta, but he’d never heard of it. (In contrast, it seems almost everyone I’ve met in Bethlehem, especially those over thirty, not only knows Lifta but knows--or knows of--somebody who lived there.) He scanned the map in vain. I suggested he might know it under a Hebrew name (which, of course, I couldn’t provide). I also noted (a few times, actually) that since my family left Lifta in the 1950s, they might well not be in his database. Nevertheless, he searched said database (without success) for my father, grandfather, and grandmother. We even tried uncles (he had no interest in my aunt), again without success. At one point he asked, "What's your family name?" "Mustafa," I responded. "No, I mean the name of the entire family." I guessed he was referring to something like a clan name, but I wasn't certain. "I was born in southern California," I said, smiling slightly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

I want to stress that, despite his imposing appearance and his relentless stare, this man was not unfriendly. At one point--when, improbably, it turned out that his dad and mine shared the same birthday--he even laughed. He seemed to be doing a job that he didn't relish. Nobody's fault, just going by the book.

Realizing our discussion was going nowhere, he said, "I'm sorry, but I need to find this information. Until I do, I can't let you leave. This could take five or six hours." I looked at my watch and worried about Br. Neil Kieffe, Bethlehem University’s outgoing Vice President for Academic Affairs, who was waiting for me in the arrivals area. Br. Kieffe had insisted quite generously on meeting me at the airport, despite my objection that my flight wasn’t due to arrive until almost 11:00 p.m. local time (and, as bad luck would have it, it had been delayed an hour). No doubt he was wondering what had happened to me. I sighed. It was past 2:00 in the morning. So far I had been detained for nearly two hours.

At last I thought to use my new global cell phone to ask my family in Orange County about this “family name” the man kept emphasizing. I finally got my cousin Amal on the phone. Amal, a globetrotter who had been to Tel Aviv and back, told me that nobody was in the computer because they had left so long ago, that when she herself went through the airport she had not been detained (lucky Amal!), that my aunt wouldn't know any more than she did, that nobody had any Palestinian ID numbers, and that I should just explain all this to my questioner.

I asked Amal to see if she could reach my aunt anyway.

After listening to my call and spending a few more minutes looking at the screen, the man abruptly left the room. Five minutes passed. Then I heard a mysterious voice (not his) say, "Come." I walked out of the office and back toward the original waiting room--where I saw almost everybody who had been sent there over an hour before. Before I arrived, I was stopped by a young woman holding my passport. "You can go now," she said.

That was it. Done.

By this point I was worn-out and perplexed, and I felt more than a little like a character in a Kafka novel. "Miss," I said with only a slight edge of weariness to my voice, "I'm traveling through this airport three more times while I'm here." (In October for a mandatory trip out of Israel and back into it again, to get my three-month tourist visa extended; and again in January on my way home.) "Should I expect this to happen each time?" She shrugged. "Maybe not. But who knows? Every time is different." "Do you think my luggage is still at baggage claim?" I asked. "Should be," she responded.

Fortunately, it was--and, wonderfully, Br. Neil was also waiting patiently for me. The rest of the trip into Bethlehem was without incident--including, to my slight surprise, the stop at the checkpoint (a.k.a. “the separation barrier” or simply “the Wall”) between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

My colleagues and students told me that the Israeli passport-control officer had been asking about my hamouleh, or family name. It seems Palestinians have no fewer than four names: a first name, a middle name, a last name, and a family name. Realizing at this relatively late point in my life that I have an additional name has come as something of a shock. It's like finding relatives I didn't know existed.

Speaking of which, if I can determine my hamouleh I may be able to discover relatives still living in the vicinity of Lifta whom I've never met (or even heard about). While these long-lost relations will be distant by American standards, by Palestinian ones we'll all be part of one very extensive family.

And, unlike the Kennedys, they would probably invite me to family reunions.


Rather than devote this posting to my father’s departure from Palestine and my initial reactions to life in Bethlehem (both of which topics I promise to cover next time), I’d like to share an experience I enjoyed this evening (Saturday, August 25) that has caused me to think again about the relative nature of safety. After a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment near the Paradise Hotel to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, I sat down to eat a falafel sandwich for dinner and observe the people congregating in the square. Perhaps because it was after 8:00 at night, almost all of them were male (ranging from small boys to elderly men), though occasionally a few women or girls would pass by. The boys played soccer, while the teenagers sat and talked. Policemen, and members of the security force wearing camouflage gear and shouldering rifles, watched cars pass by and occasionally questioned drivers. (Two were friendly enough to allow me to take a photograph with them.) At one point a blond man who appeared to be either European or American approached a police officer at the wheel of a van and demonstrated card tricks for him, drawing a small and admiring crowd. “It’s magic,” he explained in English.

I noticed a group of young men smoking a nargileh (hookah) and asked if I might photograph them. They not only agreed but—demonstrating the hospitality for which Palestinians are rightly admired by foreigners—invited me to join them.

Mustafa (at twenty-six, the eldest of the group) spoke English, and he interpreted our conversation for the others. A graduate of Bethlehem University, he was visiting his family on a vacation from his job in Dubai, which is among the most prosperous, modern, and fastest-growing cities in the Arab world. For an hour we discussed life in Bethlehem, the trouble that young people—even those with (advanced) university degrees—have in finding work (the unemployment rate, I’m told, approaches fifty percent), and his desire to emigrate to the United States. “I want to live the American Dream,” he told me with a smile and without a trace of irony—though he also admitted wistfully that even in Dubai he missed Bethlehem and wished conditions would allow him to make a living there. He described the considerable difficulty that Palestinians under forty face in securing permits to pass the Israeli checkpoints that divide Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Ramallah, and other nearby large population centers where they might find work. “It’s like we’re living in a big prison,” he concluded. I wondered whether the checkpoints made everyday Israelis feel safer (a topic I hope to broach with them, provided I can negotiate said checkpoints).

After a pause, Mustafa inquired where in the United States I lived, and when I responded, “Chicago,” his eyes widened a bit. “I hear it’s not safe there,” he said quietly. I laughed and told him that many people in Chicago believed Bethlehem wasn’t safe. “No, no,” he replied with animation. “It’s very safe here! We love peace! Tell them this! You will see this for yourself!”

What I’ve seen again and again, after only five days in Bethlehem, is that the people here are almost unbelievably warm, gentle, and humane. I’ve never felt safer.

Welcome to Bethlehem Blog

Thank you for visiting my blog, which is designed to inform readers about Bethlehem University and to share my experiences there and elsewhere in the Middle East with my colleagues, students, friends, and family--and with anyone who's interested.

The blog will feature not only written postings but also plenty of photographs and videos. I plan to update it as often as possible--at least a few times a week, and perhaps as often as once a day. I encourage you to subscribe in order to receive notifications of updates. If you would like to comment on the postings or suggest a title for the Books and Films list, please contact me at

From late August until late December, I'll be teaching and learning in the English Department at Bethlehem University. The first question I'm most commonly asked about this journey is "Why do you want to go there?" The answers are simple: because I want very much to become acquainted with the region where my father, uncles, and aunts grew up; because I hope to strengthen the bond between Lewis University and Bethlehem University; because, now more than ever, it's important that the people--especially the young people--of the United States and the Arab world get to know one another, and I'd like to contribute in some small way to that mutual understanding.

The second question I'm often asked is "Will you be safe there?" To be frank, I believe this question reveals a tendency Americans have to conflate the various countries of what we call the "Middle East" (itself a problematic term for various reasons) and to view them all as potentially dangerous. In reality, the "Middle East" is as diverse a region as Europe or the Americas; and (Iraq currently excepted) it's neither more nor less perilous. Furthermore, "dangerous" is a relative term. When I moved from Portland (Oregon) to Philadelphia after graduating from college, Portlanders warned me that Philly was a very violent city controlled by mobsters. Later, Philadelphians wanted to know whether it was safe to visit Portland, since they had heard that gangs from Los Angeles had started to take over some of its neighborhoods. I didn't recognize either city in these descriptions, which were drawn mostly from a few news reports.

I do believe I will be physically safe in Bethlehem--and in Amman and Istanbul and Cairo, all of which I plan to explore. But no doubt my preconceptions about the region, together with my established ideas about teaching and learning and living, will be in considerable danger. It's going to be a very risky experience, and I hope you'll share it with me.

Before I conclude this first posting, let me emphasize that I am by no means an expert on the Middle East, and that I've got a good deal of homework to do before I gain even a basic understanding of its history, politics, and culture. (I'm currently working my way through some of the titles on the Books and Films list.) For this reason, and because I want to focus mostly on life and learning at Bethlehem University, this blog will seldom touch upon those seemingly intractable challenges (such as Islamist radicalism, terrorism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict) that we in the United States tend to associate with the region. That said, getting to know the people of Bethlehem University does mean coming to appreciate the often very difficult conditions under which they live, and certainly I won't shy away from discussing them.

On Monday night I leave Chicago for Amman, Tel Aviv, and finally Bethlehem. In my next posting I'll describe my father's emigration from Palestine to the United States in the 1950s, and my first impressions of Bethlehem.

Thank you again for your interest in the blog. I hope you'll keep me company during the next few months.


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