Texas journalist Aziz Shihab on 'Does the Land Remember Me?: A Memoir of Palestine'
Palestinian-born Texas journalist Aziz Shihab may be best known as the father of San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and he often has a place in her poems. But since emigrating from Palestine in 1950, Shihab has had a long career as a newspaperman, especially in Texas, at the San Antonio Express-News, The Dallas Morning News, and as the founding editor of independent Dallas newspaper The Arab Star, which he closed after 10 years in 2004 because of failing health.
In 1993, Shihab published a memoir and cookbook, A Taste of Palestine: Menus & Memories. His new book, Does the Land Remember Me? (Syracuse University Press, $19.95), is a memoir of his Palestinian village home of Sinjil in the West Bank district of Ramallah. Shihab organizes his tale around a 1993 visit to see his 100-year-old mother, who came to him in a dream and said, "Even when you are no longer in this world, your land will remember you." The title quickly assumes a double meaning: Whether his small piece of village land remembers the author, exiled from his home in Jerusalem in the 1949 war (displaced by Jewish emigrants from Brooklyn) and whether as a visitor he can find his place again in the world of family and village always under the shadow of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
In a tone ranging from domestic comedy (Shihab is in demand as wedding mediator) through social observation (he exchanges guarded home visits with an Israeli soldier) to bitter outrage (an old man terrorized by soldiers dies of a heart attack), the author explores the difficulties of life in Palestine, the complex relationships of village life, and the oppression and contradictions of life under occupation.
A passage recalling his return to his old Jerusalem neighborhood catches much of the complicated pathos of his tale: "I walked the road of pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross. The streets were deserted, but a street sweeper was pushing water down the ancient steps of the Old City with his big broom. I stood at the entrance to the Christian Quarter, in front of a bookstore I used to visit on my way to school. I would buy a cup of hot sweet milk and a sesame cake for breakfast. I gazed at the ancient stones and asked quietly, 'Do you remember me? I am the schoolboy who stood here morning after morning to eat his breakfast. How are you, stones?'
"Two armed Israeli soldiers approached me. The street sweeper put his finger to the side of his head and turned it around, telling them that I must be crazy. They walked past me. Another Arab man was rushing down from the Christian Quarter and he stopped and gazed at me. I said Salaam. The sweeper told him I must be out of my mind since I was talking to the old stones.
"It seemed that being crazy might be a salvation in my situation. In a country of madness, people bothered you less if you were crazy."
Of her father's book, Nye says, "I'm very grateful for his appetite for story, despite all of the exhaustion one has with stances and injustice and just the grievous kind of backbiting and sloganry. He can still feel the sense that there's a story here; there's a scene here. There's something very resonant in this story, if people would only pay attention to what the people are saying, what the scene really is." Recently, I corresponded with Shihab about his book, supplementing our e-mail exchange with a phone interview.
Austin Chronicle: Do you still own your land in Palestine?
Aziz Shihab: Yes, I still own my land, although one of my nephews stole part of it and built on it without asking me. I still feel strongly about owning it. It somehow connects me with Palestine and the people there. I don't think I will ever use it or build on it, but it is important for me to know that I still own a small part of the Holy Land. ... I had obeyed my mother's beggings and went and got a license to build one day when I was there. But mostly it was really just putting on an act, to show her that, yes, someday I'll come back and build here.
And I bought that license from the Israeli government, who was in charge of licenses it wasn't much, I paid 30 or 40 dollars but I left it there. My nephew took that and said it was his license and built a house on my land. He didn't even ask me.
AC: Did you consider taking any legal action?
AS: No, because if I had done that, the whole country I'm exaggerating the whole village would have come against me. You just don't do that against family.
AC: I gather your health has worsened in recent years?
AS: Because I lost my kidneys, you know. Suddenly, about two years ago, my kidneys failed. So I am on dialysis. I tried to do a replacement, and I wanted to go to the Middle East because you can get a kidney there fast and cheap. I went through a lot of testing in two hospitals to check whether I can replace it or not. They said my heart cannot take it, so I should not. So I just canceled that. But I go for dialysis, twice, three times a week. And I write during dialysis.
AC: And the book grew out of those sessions?
AS: No, when I started, I had already thought of doing it, and I wrote almost half of it. And then I went into a clinic. I was very afraid of dialysis; I didn't know much about it, until a friend of mine who is a doctor came and sat with me and explained it to me and told me, 'Really, either you die, or you do dialysis, and it doesn't hurt.' So when I went into the clinic to start, and I saw people were crying in pain and suffering and looked very unhappy. There were 24 people in that clinic. I saw that, and I said, 'There is no way, I couldn't do it; I'd rather really die.'
And then, it occurred to me, "Why don't I make use of the time, four hours every session, and not get involved with anybody or talk to anybody, except the nurses and the doctors, and do writing?" So I took a big thick notebook of just blank paper, and I started adding to my thoughts, and writing it, and I finished it during the dialysis.
I sent it to the university, Syracuse, and I was very amazed because they immediately wrote to me accepting it and praising it. So that's what happened, all in the past two years. The dialysis helped me a lot, to concentrate on it, and finish it there. And I really started feeling good again and wanting to live a normal life and not worry about the dialysis.
AC: How difficult was it to write this book in the physical sense, since your health is precarious and you were working on it during dialysis and, in the emotional sense, in recalling all these sometimes difficult memories of your homeland?
AS: My birth place and the people I knew there never left me, or rather, I never left them. Every journey I made to Palestine, I felt at home. And a lot of the memories and stories are not that old. Sometimes I felt I was reliving experiences on subsequent trips. Writing during dialysis made me forget that I really was going through dialysis. I got so involved in the subject that I hardly noticed the people around me sometimes. So the writing itself was very helpful. ... But the writing made me think of a lot of friends, relatives, and events that I might never think about if I weren't writing. I often felt sorry for them in their struggles and wondered if even dialysis might be better than occupation.
AC: One of the things you do in the book is take ordinary experiences or details and turn them into metaphors for larger things. It's a tension that runs through the book, trying to remember what it was like to be among friends and family, and also just the larger political circumstances.
AS: What I really meant about that [dialysis and occupation] I have always really been positive in my life. I've tried to look at things in a positive way, regardless of what happens. The more I thought about occupation, I thought, had I stayed there, like many of my friends, I would have been dead a long time ago, because I would not have remained silent about injustice or occupation or mistreatment or humiliation. I would have been definitely killed or jailed by Israel. So I thought, well, getting out of that area was the best and most logical thing for me.
I came here, and when I really arrived in this country, I really believed this country was about the best spot on earth. Being in New York there, and meeting people, and then going to school and started to work I thought the United States was heaven on earth. Until I began facing a lot of the misunderstanding here and almost intentional, intentional distortion of the facts. I couldn't take that. I rebelled, even at the newspapers where I worked. I said, "You can't do that. You cannot editorialize and call the Arabs 'murderers' and 'terrorists' and call Israel 'Oh, they are just there to take over their homeland,' and so on." That caused me a lot of problems.
But finally, I thought, "Well, calm down and cool off, and go with what's going on and see what happens, and maybe you can change things." Well, as you know, I did not change many things. I couldn't change anything, really, because, there are a lot of powers in this country that love Israel, rightly or wrongly. And I couldn't do anything about it. So I just thought, well, I'll do my job, and go from there.
AC: Did you specialize in any beats as a reporter?
AS: I always started, like The Dallas Morning News (that's the last newspaper). I came from San Antonio [the Express-News], and I was chief of what they called then the Universal Desk, which is a copy desk, you know. And I had 12 editors, and I sat in the middle of that big desk, and I was the chief of the desk, checking their work. Because actually, I learned English by memorizing a dictionary that's how we started learning English back home and my English in writing, my writing and my editing and my grammar were very strong, but my speaking wasn't. It took a long time. So I became an editor with the desk here.
After a while, they asked me to do some editorial writing, but my editorial writing did not please the owner, who called me in his office. It was Joe Dealey at the time; it was a newspaper owned by [the Dealey] family, you know. And Dealey said, "Look, we're not crusaders, and I make a lot of money from Neiman Marcus. So stop this."
What I had done was write a story about when Henry Kissinger was appointed to become the problem-solver between Israel and the Palestinians. I wrote an editorial signed editorial saying that can't happen. If they would have named me, I couldn't be that impartial, and why would we think that Kissinger would be impartial because he was Jewish, as you know? They didn't like that. And Dealey said, "Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus called me this morning and reminded me that Neiman Marcus spends over a million dollars in advertising with us, and who in the world are you, anyway?"
So I said, "Well, I'm sorry, sir." So they stopped me from writing signed editorials. That last two or three years of my being there I had a heart attack, so they named me the editor of the special sections. Special sections have to do with talking with people and producing sections, so: a section on oriental rugs, a section on cars, a section on homes. ... So I became the editor of that, and they named three girls to work for me. And it was an easy job, I mean I went and came as I please; I didn't sit in the office for eight or nine hours a day. I think they were very kind to me.
I retired in 1987, so that was in about '84 or '85.
AC: So when did you found The Arab Star, the independent newspaper that you edited?
AS: After I retired. I had met a lot of Arabs here, and we have a large population of Arabs in Dallas-Fort Worth. And some of the powerful rich friends, who are Arabs, said "Look, we need a newspaper, and you are the only journalist we know of." So I started the paper this couple said we will guarantee to run three pages of ads with you, every week, and we'll encourage everybody to advertise, not so you can get rich but so you can get money to run the paper.
And that came, I would say I retired the last day of '86, and I went to work for the state department. I worked for the state department as an observer of the feelings of the Arab world about the United States. And I traveled a lot in the Arab world, and I met leaders, I met journalists, and all I did really was translate some newspaper articles or some of what my friends there said about the United States, which was at the time, very, very favorable. And I kept assuring, in my writing and my reports, that there is nothing to worry about in the Arab world, that they love the United States. And I worked with them for about seven years, until 1994, and then I started the Arabic newspaper.
AC: Now is that still in business?
AS: No, when my kidneys failed, I couldn't continue it, so I closed it.
AC: The title, Does the Land Remember Me?, and obviously it works both ways, you of the land as well. Talk about why you chose that title and what it means to you.
AS: The title, I should tell you, was the creation of Naomi's son, who was then about 5 or 6 years old. I was with them, and we were talking about you know, I'm thinking about titles, and I mentioned that as a possibility, because of what my mother always said. I would get home, I'm taking good care of your land, the land is still happy, and it still remembers you. And Naomi's son said, "Grandpa, why don't you just call it, Does the Land Remember Me?"
I said, "You know, that sounds good," and I chose it because it answered a lot of questions in my mind. Whenever I went there, to visit, especially when I worked for the U.S. government I went there often I always went to visit the land. It just gave me a connection to the people and the land. Every time I went there, I took a walk, and I went there and sat and contemplated it and wondered if I should build or not build. My mother always begged, "Please build, and come and live with us; you don't need to live in the U.S." It remained with me for a long time; my nephews believe it or not are still wanting it, and they probably will take it one day. Land there is, honestly, more expensive than downtown Dallas. Even in the village, land is very expensive.
AC: You have all these little scenes on the journey, in the village, getting dragged into being a wedding mediator it gives an introduction to what the people's lives are like and also gives a sense of your odd position in these circumstances, the "doubleness" of your situation both in the village and out of it.
AS: To me, it was an escape from a concentrated life as a journalist, and a life I love this country, I still do, and I love the people here. But my life never felt like it fits perfectly, like it fits there [in Palestine]. I mean, I walked in Jerusalem, in the streets of Jerusalem, and people come and hug you and say, "Where have you been?" It's like they haven't seen me for two days, when I've been absent for 50 years. Here, they don't do that not even my own relatives that I brought here. There is no warmth. There, honestly, I was there, the last trip, I'm walking in the street in Jerusalem with a friend of mine who's an American and who's a doctor was going there. Suddenly this man comes and hugs me and says, "My God, you haven't changed; where have you been?" It's amazing the feeling you get.
In Palestine, these people don't have much to do. They don't think of many other things. To see somebody that they knew, who has been absent, is an occasion to them.
AC: You write about the role of the media in misrepresenting the true nature and history of the Palestinian situation. Has that gotten better or worse, in your experience?
AS: It always hurt me to be part of the press in the U.S., and often I wished I wasn't part of it. Then I realized that reporters were not intentionally trying to mislead, but they were truly ignorant about what had happened in Palestine/Israel. When so much of the news came through major sources (The New York Times, the AP wire, etc.) they just followed what they read and bought that line, believing it, as most people do. I think that this situation has gotten better over the years, though the presentation of the facts is still far from being balanced.
AC: The memoir is in part a tribute to your mother, her thoughts about her life and yours, and your life in what she calls "Amirka."
AS: Of course I loved my mother, and I was always amazed at some of her statements, knowing that she was illiterate. I specifically remember her comments about Arabs coming to the U.S. hungry and skinny, and they could get inside the large belly of the bottle with the narrow neck. Then we get so full and fat, we can't get out of it. I used to laugh so loudly when she would say this. I always felt, as the book suggests, a mixed feeling about being far from her.
AC: Your history has made you a man with two countries Palestinian in spirit, and yet American in your history and in some ways in your cultural allegiances. How would you sum up this "doubleness" that runs through the book?
AS: I love this country. I still do, and I love the people here. But my life never felt like it fits perfectly, like it fits there [in Palestine]. I mean, I walked in Jerusalem, in the streets of Jerusalem, and people come and hug you and say, "Where have you been?" It's like they haven't seen me for two days when I've been absent for 50 years. Here, they don't do that not even my own relatives that I brought here. There is no warmth. There, honestly, I was there, the last trip, I'm walking in the street in Jerusalem with a friend of mine. ... Suddenly this man comes up and hugs me and says, "My God, you haven't changed; where have you been?" It's amazing the feeling you get. ...
I think it is helpful to a person to have a doubleness, as you call it. I always find myself defensive about the Palestinians and our homeland, but the longer I am here, the more I understand that Americans are far too involved with many other things to see beyond what's happening in the States or to them and their families. ... One of the things books can do is invite us into the lives of others who are different from us and whose struggles are different from ours. The more I thought about it, my hope as I wrote this book was to educate some of my American friends about what happened to our land and people.
AC: It's a humble book, as a personal memoir, but you also have a sense of larger things to talk about. Would you expand on that a little bit?
AS: Well, I have a sense, that I didn't really do much for these people there, or for the country. That I escaped, in a way. I came to live a better life and make more money and buy land here and buy homes and cars. So I thought, "The end of your life, you really need to do something that's worth while, and what else can I do more worth while than teach people what truly happened there? And what truly happened, is not pleasant, but I wanted to mention the people, their lives, what they did, and so on, and see. If it helps, if it changes one person, I will feel comforted.
AC: Any current thoughts on the predicament of Palestinians and Israelis that there may one day be a way to justice and peace?
AS: I feel strongly about two things: One, the U.S. needs to leave the Arabs and the Middle Eastern people alone and stop supporting one side, as in Israel, rightly or wrongly. We have contributed to imbalance in the region, and everyone knows it. The second thing: The U.S. should stop supporting dictators in the area. The Arabs need new rulers who care for their people's lives more than for their own power.
I really believe that the Arab people, as Bedouins traditionally, will quickly forgive and forget and make peace with Israel if Israel stops seizing more and more of their lands, offers true justice to the people who are already there, and if the U.S. stops feeding Israel money and weapons. I can see peace coming, but the key is in the hand of the United States.
The whole Arab world is a nomadic world, a bedouin world. We are bedouins. I remember a story as a child. One day I was sitting in the front yard, with my father. And this young man burst through our gate and ran through the yard and into the basement. I was shocked and asked my father, "Who is he?" What's he doing? My father said, "I just heard that this man accidentally killed a relative with his knife. They were talking, and he killed a relative. He is coming, not to hide, but he wants me to be a mediator between him and the family of the man who was killed.'
I said, Well, how can he? If he killed, he's going to be punished by them. He said, "Look, we are bedouins. Bedouins forget fast and forgive very fast." I said, "So what are you going to do here?" He said, "I'm going to bring this man out and ask him what to do and let him go and ask forgiveness and say he did it by mistake. He didn't mean to do this, it's an accident." Those were the rituals of the bedouins: by taking his headgear off, what he wears on his head, and his cloth. And as a young man he was wearing what looked like a cloth and put them on the ground, stand on them, while he is apologizing. And the family will forgive him.
I thought, "What are you talking about?"
That's exactly what the young man did. He took his headgear and his cloth off, put them on the ground in our front yard. My father went and brought several men from the family of the dead man and said, "Here he is: Do you want to kill him?" They looked at him and said, "Oh, he is apologizing."
So he said, "Please, I didn't do it on purpose; it was a mistake. We argued and so on and so forth. And the men embraced and said goodbye and goodbye.
Honestly, my feeling now not to change the subject but if the United States leaves and leaves Israelis and Arabs together, they will reach peace far quicker than with the United States' help. This is my feeling. Am I wrong? I asked people when I was there, "what do you think?" They said, "If they just leave us alone we lived together before; we can live together again."
But the U.S. favors Israel, which irritates them, and favors dictators there, who are nasty to them. Every Arab leader I ever heard of has done miserable things to the people. But the United States goes to people like Jordan and Saudi Arabia and supports the leaders there, who, if their own people oppose the policy or criticizes them, put them in a faraway desert place and tortures them. ...
I am hopeful that if the U.S. leaves there, and leaves them alone, that there will be peace. I lived near Israelis, near Jews when I grew up. We were friends; we never knew the difference between Arabs and Jews. We really didn't. A young boy used to come to my home and eat in my home, and I would go to his home and eat, and we didn't know: This is an Arab; this is a Jew. We were all Palestinian.
Aziz Shihab will be at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Sunday, July 22, 3pm.