A member of the recently formed Palestinian Seraj Board.
By Laurie Salameh, Palestinian Director.
Ra’id and I met over a cup of coffee in the Al-Tireh area of Ramallah. We spent the first hour of our meeting discussing the impending high school graduation of his youngest daughter, Laila, who would finish from the prestigious Quaker Ramallah Friends School. He reminisced over the challenges she faced as both a top student and the top equestrian competitor in the country, his voice quivering with both immense pride and the loss all parents must experience when their children are launched into the world. He ruminated that he wasn’t alone in these feelings of pride and loss, echoing Kahlil Gibran’s famous words that our children are not our children, they are the sons and daughters of life itself. Wise words, after which I made a note to remind myself of as my children grow up and find their ways in the world.
So tell me a little bit about yourself… where did you grow up? Where is your family from?
I was born in Bethlehem, actually, I was born and grew up there, when it was under Jordanian rule. My family were forced out of our family home in 1948 in Jerusalem. When I was six years old, the war began and the bombardment was intense in the hills around us. We escaped as a family for a few days to my grandfather’s house in the Old City of Bethlehem. I remember my father repeating over and over, “Even if we are attacked, we won’t leave or give up our family home.” I remember hearing the sounds of the Israeli army entering, their loud speakers insisting that people leave. Those that left ended up being forcefully relocated to Jordan, leaving behind the only homes and the only life they knew. We stayed. I never forget these things even though I was only a small child. I still remember the white flags fluttering in the wind over my neighbor’s homes. My uncle was visiting with his British wife, and there was debate, should we send the kids with him to save them? It was decided to stay together. These are the kinds of conversations you hear as a child that you don’t fully understand at the time, but they stay with you for your entire lifetime. They come flooding back each and every time I visit our ancestral family house in Jerusalem, who now houses an Israeli family who stole it from us.
I ended up having the opportunity to study in New Jersey, in the United States. I loved my time there, but I eventually felt called to return home, where I fell in love, got married and began my life.
Did you like to read? Did you have any experience with libraries? What is your earliest memory of reading?
My grandfather was an educator who started the first public school in Bethlehem. He graduated from Cairo with a university degree in 1903, returned home to Palestine and opened a school. My father was also in education, so I had the privilege of exploring both their private libraries at home.
In addition to enjoying their books, I registered with the local library run by the pontifical mission in Bethlehem. I read all kinds of things, starting with comics and magazines when I was young and then moving to classic Arabic books.
As I grew up I began to read more literature, at some point even challenging myself to read War and Peace and Les Miserables. After that, I was introduced to a few Palestinian writers, such as Emile Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani, and before I knew it, the library was becoming not only my hangout place but also my escape from the world around me.
I remember the best part was the time I would spend with my dad and grandparents, who shared the oral history of everything with their traditional storytelling. My grandmother lived during the time of the British Mandate and would share stories, and then my father continued the tradition. I spent a lot of time hearing their stories of historical Palestine and how life used to be. More than reading, these are the stories that live within me until today.
What about now? What are you reading?
I read a lot of newspapers (laughing); This culture has changed a lot and unfortunately reading for pleasure is not a big part of our lives anymore, but it’s something I hope we can bring back through our work with Seraj.
What do you do for work?
I try to do my part helping the resilience of the Palestinian people.
What inspires you?
Honestly, I’m deeply inspired by the young generation. I see in them the opportunities and hope that they will make the change that my generation wasn’t able to make. They are determined and they know what they want, but they are also, contrary to what we hear, very committed, conscience and resilient in many ways. Look what’s happening now in Palestinian life, they have figured out their own way of resistance.
How did you get involved with Seraj?
I was inspired by Estephan and Laurie, their beautiful story and their friendship.
What do you like about Seraj and what we are doing?
I like that we think outside the box, combining reading with heritage and the holistic approach we follow. It’s not just reading for the sake of reading, we build communities and we are very much connected to being Palestinian. Our programs and projects are part of the dynamics of Palestine, they are not stand-alone activities, and they are part of the collective goal and inspiration of the Palestinian people. Everybody carries certain responsibilities and Seraj is contributing to this in an organic and integrated way into the collective aspiration of the Palestinian people. If you look at all the elements of Seraj, our centers are not just a building of books, they are a living model that is integrated into our communities and our collective story.
What are your hopes for Seraj in the future?
I hope that Seraj can grow and reach more communities and that we can help more communities integrate our approach into their daily lives, so that we can reach further geographical areas. It would be very exciting for every area to have a Seraj library and community or storytelling center.
What are your hopes for Palestine and for your kids?
Freedom and peace. If you have freedom and peace there are no limits to what we can do. For my kids, I wish for them to fulfill their potential and to live a free and peaceful life where they can exercise their life without fear of war and army, without barriers, and at the end they will be part of a better world that we are all aspiring to build. No kid needs to have anything less than that.
A further note from Laurie: When Estephan and I were dating, I found an old National Geographic magazine in a used bookshop in Chicago from 1927 on Palestine. I gave it to him as a gift for Christmas that year. In 2017, I posted a few of the images from that magazine on my Facebook, as the articles inside referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, in contrast to Trump’s new decree that it was the capital of Israel.
To my great surprise, Ra’id messaged me that the women in the photo were in fact his grandmother and great-grandmother! They were the original residents of the home in Jerusalem that is now lost to settlers.