Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, writer and human rights activist currently traveling throughout Israel and Palestine.
She describes exploring the destroyed village of Zakariyya with Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian acquaintance whose mother fled the village during the 1948 war. A Jewish community now resides in the town, whose name was changed to Zekharya.
The mosque was surrounded with a chain link fence, with barbed wire on top and signs in Hebrew attached: “Zekharya Village. Dangerous building. Entrance is forbidden!”
Despite the signs, the fence did not completely encircle the mosque and Sami, our friend Marcy and I entered the grounds easily. We picked our way through the rubble, pushing aside the undergrowth blocking the door. The structure was crumbling; it had not been maintained for over sixty years. Sami stood in silence looking at the mosque, taking in the eroding interior along with the piles of trash and scrap metal on the floor. The mosque is among the few remains of the Palestinian village Zakariyya — Sami’s mother’s village.
I’m writing a book with Sami, to be published by Nation Books next year. The book details his life experiences, shedding light both on the Palestinian narrative — sorely missing from the U.S. media — and Sami’s own unique outlook on life.
Sami and I interviewed his mother two years ago about her memories of Zakariyya, including her flight as a small girl in 1948, during what Israelis consider their war of independence and Palestinians consider the “Nakba” (the Catastrophe), marking the beginning of the dispossession that has been central to the Palestinian experience since then. Zakariyya is one of approximately 400 villages (numbers vary according to the source) that were destroyed in 1948. Like many of the others, there is now an Israeli town built on and around Zakariyya’s ruins. Its new name is a Hebrewized version of the original; Zakariyya became Zekharya.
Sami’s mother passed away four months after we interviewed her, before we could ask her follow-up questions. So we decided to venture to Zakariyya ourselves. Sami began getting nervous as we lingered in and around the mosque. “We may not be welcome here,” he said repeatedly. “Someone might shoot us.” There was no real danger of being shot. Sami was tapping into a deeper fear, connected to the violence his mother witnessed in 1948.
The Zakariyya school is still standing near the village’s entrance. It was converted into a small convenience store. As we approached it on our way out, I asked Marcy to pull over so I could photograph it. I investigated the entrance’s road sign. The name of the village is written in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Or it was until recently; the Arabic was almost entirely scratched out.
“It wasn’t like that when I was here last time,” Marcy said.
Marcy was in Zakariyya a week ago. This vandalism was fresh.
Less than an hour later, we were sitting in Deheisheh Refugee Camp, talking with Sami’s uncle Mustafa, two years younger than Sami’s mother. We asked Mustafa to fill in the missing gaps of his sister’s story, and he was more than happy to oblige. Sami and I learned the details of how his grandfather died fighting the British in 1939 and the attacks that pushed out the residents of Zakariyya.
Zakariyya holds a prominent place in Mustafa’s house in Deheisheh and in his heart. A 1921 photograph of the old school (now convenience store) with students sitting cross legged outside is framed on a shelf. A map of Zakariyya is on the wall, with the former houses indicated and a code to decipher which areas were inhabited by which families.
Mustafa spoke not only about his memories of losing Zakariyya. He spoke about a more recent pain as well. His older sister, Sami’s mother, had been struck two times with brain tumors. The first was in 1977 when Sami was fifteen years old. She received a life-saving surgery. Mustafa came to the hospital in Jerusalem every day. He fed her daily, tenderly. She would eat only from his hands. The second tumor took root in her brain in 2007. But this time, Mustafa could not feed his sister as she lay on her death bed in Jerusalem. The Israeli military would not issue him a permit to visit her.
Mustafa and Sami sat in silence as I digested this information. The evening call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque in the camp. It was time to wrap up the interview. I had one final question. “Did you realize in 1948 that you were leaving Zakariyya for good?”
Uncle Mustafa’s eyes glistened slightly, both from the memory of his beloved home and the fresh loss of his sister.
“Until now I don’t accept that I left for good. As long as I am alive, I have hope that I will someday return.”
Those who were forced to leave their homes will always be filled with longing to return to them. Acknowledgment and empathy are natural responses. But Mustafa’s yearning seems to be met with something other than empathy by the current residents of Zakariyya. With fear, perhaps? Dismissal? Contempt? Whatever it is, it permits the ancient mosque of the historic village to dilapidate to the point of ruin. It permits the Arabic word “Zakariyya” to be scratched out on the entrance’s sign. As if by scratching out the name, somehow the existence of Zakariyya and its people will themselves be erased.
Mustafa’s very presence, however, is a form of resistance to this deletion. Sami’s uncle sits surrounded by memories and remembrances of his home, waiting in quiet dignity for his longing and his claim to be acknowledged rather than erased.
– Jen Marlowe
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