(The first of two installments)
This is a true story that began when Palestine existed as an entity under the British Mandate, and shared soft borders with Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan and Egypt. Life then was very simple and decisions were made short term, although they bore lifelong consequences. Most stories passed on through the generations speak of basic plans for weeks or months, never years or decades, let alone one’s entire life or the life span of their descendants. No one from that distant past had imagined, even in their wildest dreams, life’s upcoming twists and turns.
A young woman named Maryam from the southern village of Rmeish in Lebanon fell in love with a good hard-working man from the neighboring northern village of Kefr Bir’em in Palestine. The couple married and had their first-born twins in 1946. Life’s first challenge came in 1948 after the state of Israel was officially declared and all borders fatefully shut down. Maryam and the twins were visiting her family in Lebanon and risked being separated from her husband for “God only knows how long.” So, her father-in-law got on a donkey, crossed over through the wilderness to collect Maryam and the baby boys. Maryam’s mother, concerned about sending her daughter into the unknown alone, called on her single daughter, Nazira, to go along with Maryam, to help her and be with her until the larger family is reunited.
Just like that, in the spur of one moment, two Lebanese women entered Israel, never to see their family again and never ever to set foot on Lebanese soil again as long as they lived. Additionally, Kefr Bir’im was razed to the ground by the Israeli army forcing all its Christian population out. To this day, four generations later, the Bir’imites continue to fight for their right to return to their village and rebuild it. Israel continues to have the final say by issuing permits for funerals or site visits. The church is the only standing structure, witness to a life that existed a long time ago and, like its people, may never return.
The story goes on to see Maryam and Nazira become Israeli citizens just like their Palestinian husbands who chose to remain in their homeland. Maryam and Nazira’s families grew and they became part of a new life that was never thought of or imagined or desired or willed. It was what it was, and they went along with the new status. They now lived as Israeli Arabs never forgetting or allowing anyone to forget where they came from and which country they carried in their heart. Because of their Israeli citizenship, Maryam and her sister could never go back to Lebanon to visit their family. They did the heartbreaking waving, gesturing, and communicating through loud speakers scenarios across the Jordanian border once following the six-day-war. The agony and anguish of the moment were so traumatic the experience was never repeated.
So, Maryam and Nazira lived for their children and lived through them, day after day, year after year, an entire life away from home and family. Palestinians? No. Arabs? No. Israelis? No. Two Lebanese sisters from Rmeish, uprooted and thrown in the violent winds of life but landing on their feet, creating new roots and building strong families. They accepted the hand they were dealt and made the absolute best out of it. Proud Lebanese, who kept up with the news from home through the media but they were forever thirsty for actual news about their loved ones. They always longed for the day when they could go back even if it’s just for a visit. Their parents passed away and their siblings grew but their dream of seeing Lebanon again lingered, never to be fulfilled.
Maryam passed away in 1996 and Nazira followed her a few years after. Their life story not told yet, their lives overlooked by the masses but never by those who love them, relatives, neighbors, friends, children and grandchildren who were touched by their love and devotion on both sides of that Rmeish border.
There may be a lesson in this Maryam story for all Lebanese; especially those who take their country for granted as if it will always be there for them. Those whose patriotism was handed over to them just like an allowance or inheritance or some kind of reward for no achievement at all. For those who do not know what it means to be robbed of one’s patriotism, those who never longed for a nation to call their own, those who never tasted the pain of going to sleep every night dreaming of a long lost family only a stone’s throw away, let this be your wake-up call. To all others, consider this a reminder of what’s at stake and what really matters through this homage to a great Lebanese lady named Maryam!