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.


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