In a Heartbeat: Loss and Longing in al-Mahjar, A Pacific Northwest Story

In a Heartbeat:  Loss and Longing in al-Mahjar, A Pacific Northwest Story

Hashim and Samer Al-Huneidi - Oregon, United States

“In a heartbeat.” That is how fast it must have taken 18 year old Hashim and the rest of the Al-Huneidi family to realize after the massacre of 426 residents of their town, Al-Lydd, that they would have to flee to safer ground. “In a heartbeat.” That is also how fast Hashim’s son, Samer, would return to Al-Lydd today—if he only could.

An amazing declaration from Samer who has only known Palestine from the stories of his father and family elders, and from a few summer vacations. How is one able to leave all that one knows and all that is familiar to live in a homeland that is the stuff of legend?

 Thirteen thousand miles away, in Oregon, is just about as far as one can get from Palestine. Samer is forty-nine years old and is married with teenage children. He works as an engineer for the state. He has a good life by anyone’s measure—but he would leave it all to “go home.” He tells me that his children would do the same just as easily.

Samer comes from a notable Al-Lydd family: his grandfather, Abdel Mu’ti Al-Huneidi, and great uncle, Salim Al-Huneidi, were mayors of the town in the 1930s. Samer’s grandfather and his great uncle died in internecine fighting before the Zionist occupation of Al-Lydd on July 11, 1948. Samer tells of how his father joined over 55,000 others on the road from Al Lydd to Ramallah. He tells the story with detail one would expect from someone who had actually lived through the Nakba, someone who had made the long march during the height of the brutal summer’s heat with the thousands of others to an unknown future.

The story of how the Al-Huneidi family survived and made it out of Al-Lydd, to Ramallah, to Nablus where Samer’s maternal grandfather, Al-Shaikh Mahmoud Amin Al Taher, was from, to Amman, to Kuwait, and then to the US, is remarkable enough. Even more remarkable, however, is Samer’s personal story—how the descendant of refugees has maintained his connection to Al-Lydd and his dream of return.

Samer was not content to passively take in the knowledge of his family history and the stories about his family’s olive and fruit trees, the smell of jasmine wafting in the air of Al-Lydd in a Palestinian Spring, or the celebrations that took place under the roof of the family home. In 1998, Samer was getting ready to travel to the Middle East to bury his mother, Ummama. Prior to his travel, he had obtained the name and phone number of the man who was currently occupying his family home in Al-Lydd. Samer had visited Al-Lydd several times through the years and he knew that his family home was still standing. Samer was cautioned not to try to approach the house by a Palestinian resident of Al-Lydd who was among the approximately eleven hundred original residents who took their chances and did not flee the town in 1948. In one of Samer’s visits to Al-Lydd in 1996, Samer knocked on the door of his father’s home. The occupant of the home was out but his teenage daughter gave Samer her father’s contact information and allowed Samer to take photos of the outside of the house.

When Samer returned to the US, he called the occupant of his family house. For two years, Samer talked with Robert ben Ano almost monthly. They talked about their lives, their family, and their work. Samer learned that Robert was a Morrocan Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1949 at the age of two. Speaking together in Arabic, Samer learned that Robert owned a successful construction business, he was married to an Iraqi Jew, and they had three children: two daughters, and a son.

When Samer’s mother passed away in 1998 and Samer was set to travel to the region, Robert invited Samer to stay with him in Al-Lydd. Samer was excited by the prospect but he had one important condition: Robert would have to agree that Samer was not coming for a visit to Robert’s home—Samer was coming to his home. With perhaps a little discomfort, Robert agreed.

When Samer arrived at his family home, he was greeted warmly by Robert and his wife. Samer however perceived some tension in the air. Samer stayed for four days and slept in a room that he later learned was his aunts’. Robert took Samer around the town and introduced him to other Palestinians living in Al-Lydd. They ate together at a local restaurant and spent the time talking together and with other townspeople. Robert told Samer that he had his own Arabic restaurant that he built on part of the Al-Huneidi property. Samer learned from the Palestinian inhabitants of Al-Lydd that Robert was well-liked among Palestinians and was kind to those in need.

When it was time for Samer to leave, Samer’s feelings were a bit mixed: on the one hand he had met a friend, a good and decent person; but on the other hand, he was leaving his family home in the same way his father had left: never knowing if he would ever return—or if he ever could. Being in such an emotional state at the Ben Gurion Airport before a security check is never a good idea for a traveler of Palestinian descent, especially not one named Al-Huneidi with multiple entry and exit visas in his passport. Samer spent four hours in an Israeli interrogation room before admitting to officials that he had visited Robert. When they learned Samer had visited Robert, the security officials left the room, returned a few minutes later, and then, without explanation, let Samer get on his plane.

When Samer returned to the US, he found a voice message on his home phone from Robert who called to make sure that he arrived home safely. Evidently, the security officials had called Robert to ask about Samer and Robert assured them that Samer was a friend. Samer and Robert have maintained their friendship since that visit in 1998.

Samer has learned that the Israeli government is planning to demolish the family home along with many other Palestinian homes and businesses that still stand in what is today called Lod. The Israeli government is offering Robert US $250,000 for the house; Robert wants half a million. To Samer, it is priceless; it stands as evidence of the crime that was committed against his family, it represents his identity as a Palestinian and a material connection to that identity, and it embodies Al-Nakba as it affected his family and countless others.

Today, Samer does not know if his house still exists. Regardless of whether it remains or whether it has been demolished like so many other Palestinian homes in Al-Lydd in favor of a high rise apartment complex for new Jewish immigrants, Samer assures me that he will not cease in the search for justice for his family—so long as there is still a beat in his heart.