Guest contribution by Dena Elian
If Palestine were a human body, its women would be the heart. Although sometimes we forget how hard it works, it operates 24 hours a day, pumping the blood and oxygen necessary for us to live. And like generations, each heartbeat relies on the one before it in order to continue. It’s a sequence that will make us stronger if we maintain it.
Today marks the 101st anniversary of Women’s Day. While the woman of today may be a different woman than her grandmother, let us remember that we owe the achievements of the present to the steadfastness of the past. Take today to honor the she-roes of yesterday, without whom today’s Palestinian resistance would cease to exist.
My grandmother, Tamam Sbaih, was 19 years old when Israel waged war on Palestine on June 5, 1967. She and my grandfather lived atop the Mountain of Olives; a region quickly flooded with Israeli tanks and soldiers due to its close proximity to Jerusalem’s Old City. On the first day of six when the war cries had reached the mountain, residents took hold of their children and whatever valuables they fit in their pockets. In a panic, they hastily fled by foot as they sought refuge while they still had the chance.
An expecting mother at the time, my grandmother worried that choosing to stay or to go could likely end in the same fate. She was 7 months along and had there been a criteria for physical suitability to evade your home with the desperate anticipation of seeing another day, she surely wouldn’t have met the requirement.
The Middle Eastern sun bathed the land in its heat and the escape route to Jordan was 30 miles long. She could remain in her home and wait to be discovered by soldiers, or leave and tackle whatever affliction would be brought on by the sun, distance, or soldiers along the way. Aware that her chances of survival were decreasing as time passed, my grandmother realized that if she was going to try to save her unborn child, her only choice was to flee immediately. With a lump of uncertainty in her throat and a glimmer of hope, she and my grandfather left, unsure where or how their journey may end.
They traversed downward toward Jericho, the lowest city in the world, a description similar to what their hearts must have felt like at the time. Along the way, my grandmother recalled seeing fresh corpses lining the pathway of those who had pursued the same route not more than hours before, as if they served as a sign reading “continue at your own risk.” After having walked from sunrise to sunset, they arrived in Jericho. It was then that my grandmother’s body could no longer release the strength continue. She was carried by my grandfather and a passerby who was also scurrying to exit the country. This was the farthest their migration would extend. They located an abandoned Bedouin tent where they waited for whatever was to come next.
For the remaining five days and nights of the war, they were left without food or water. My grandmother battled the effects of dehydration as she fell in and out of consciousness and my grandfather looked after her as there was no hope of finding help. The day the war ended, they were spotted by an Israeli soldier driving by. My grandfather refused to let the opportunity to receive help pass, so he flagged his car over to their tent. Overcoming the language barrier, he managed to articulate their frantic situation with his hands and the soldier agreed to drive them back to Jerusalem. As a result of her rotating unconsciousness, my grandmother remembers nothing from the last two days of refuge in Jericho, including being transported back to their home in Jerusalem where they were hostages due to a relentless occupation. Despite all odds, my grandmother had given birth to her daughter, my mother, two months later.
“The thing that kept me alive was the thought of my child. God let me live so she could live.”
She said behind tears the first time she told me this story in her distinctively Palestinian Arabic. Although she claims it’s the other way around, my grandmother saved my mother’s life and to them both I owe my own. My grandmother’s story is just one of the millions of heroic displays of courage among Palestinian women and the billions among women around the world.
With every era of Palestinian women comes a new age of people who will learn from them. The last generation provided us with women like Hana Shalabi, Huwaida Arraf, and Rachel Corrie to take after. Each heart beat relies on the beat before it, and beats so another will come after. It’s our generation’s turn to beat. What will we give to the next?
Dena Elian is a Palestinian-American and fourth year undergraduate student studying International Relations at Michigan State University. She is the president of MSU SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom & Equality), the organization on her school’s campus dedicated to advocating for the rights and self-determination of the Palestinian people.