A Roundabout Named Dajani

Moments of hope are rare in this miserable, interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so archaic in its colonial character, so postmodern in the methods Israel uses to oppress the Palestinians living under its rule.

There was one such moment around the time Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. Soon after, the Israeli filmmaker Esther Dar contacted my mother proposing to make a documentary film about her and some friends, two Palestinian Arabs and two Israeli Jews who had spent four years together at an Anglican boarding school in Jerusalem, starting in 1939, during the British Mandate in Palestine. “Four Friends” shows Salma Dajani and Wedad Shehadeh, and Olga Belkind and Sharona Aharon in their seventies, going back to visit their old school more than a half-century after leaving it.

In the film, Salma and my mother, Wedad, also return to their old homes in Jaffa. Their families had been forced out in 1948, after the Israeli declaration of independence. It was an emotional visit. Salma couldn’t hold back tears when she saw the state of her father’s grave on the grounds of the Dajani Hospital, which he had established in 1933. “Four Friends” shows her addressing Israel and lamenting: “You have taken everything. At least allow us to take care of his grave.”

When the film was broadcast on Israeli television a decade ago, a retired architect from Tel Aviv felt outrage. He started a small campaign on the Dajanis’ behalf. Eventually, he obtained permission for the family to place a tombstone at the hospital. He also recommended that the joint municipal council for Tel Aviv-Jaffa name a street after Salma’s father, Dr. Fouad Dajani.

This took many years. But last Sunday, under a mild sky with white wispy clouds, some two hundred guests collected in the roundabout in the center of Jaffa to rename it in honor of the Palestinian Arab who founded the first private hospital in the city. Many members of the Dajani family came for the occasion, and from different parts of the world. Because Israel considers them “absentees,” they had to enter the country on foreign passports.

We waited for the mayor. Dark clouds gathered. Louis Armstrong’s “What a Beautiful World” played. Looking overhead, the master of ceremonies, an Arab resident of Jaffa whose grandfather had stubbornly refused to leave his house here despite frequent bomb explosions, said he wished the rain would be delayed.

The ceremony began. Speeches were made promoting unity between Jaffa and Tel Aviv and cooperation between Arabs and Jews. The local head of the Islamic movement said that Jaffa, once a center of culture and medicine, was now being reborn. An Arab from the municipal council told the story of a 93-year-old Jewish woman who had worked as a nurse at the Dajani Hospital in the 1930s. When she applied for the job, Dajani had told her, “In this hospital, we speak Arabic.” Here was a moment of civility between Jews and Arabs living together in Palestine. It belied Israel’s insistence that the war of 1948 was inevitable.

Of the women featured in “Four Friends,” only Olga Belkind was alive and well enough to attend the ceremony on Sunday. She lives in Jaffa now. As the event proceeded I thought of my mother, whose family house we had passed on our way, and of my father, whose law office my brother had pointed out. I thought of the difficulties they had endured after being forced out of Jaffa.

In the back of the audience, a young Israeli woman was standing, holding up a placard that said, “Everyone Speaks About Peace But No One Speaks About Return.” She was from Zochrot (Remembering), an Israeli nongovernmental organization that seeks to raise public awareness, especially among Jews in Israel, about the nakba — the catastrophe, the beginning of the Palestinians’ forced exodus in 1948.

When I approached her I found by her side the Israeli architect who had started this whole enterprise. He was asking her to go home. He thought she was complicating matters by raising the issue of the nakba. “This is a personal initiative that should not be politicized,” he told her. Politics will frighten Israelis, making it impossible to name any other street in Jaffa after the Arabs who once lived here. She held her ground and refused to leave.

A single roundabout in a city where 125,000 Arabs lived over a half-century ago now bears the name of one of its famous residents (never mind that the word for “hospital” on the commemorative plaque was misspelled in Arabic). Yet the Dajani Hospital for which that man is being honored remains in the hands of the Israeli state — a state that continues to deny the rights of his descendants, calling them absentees and refusing to treat them even as refugees.

Still, it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and it did not rain.

By Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer and writer living in Ramallah and the author of A Rift in Time, Palestinian Walks and the forthcoming book, Occupation Diaries will be published in August.

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