Palestinian Quilt Presents a Different Viewpoint

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

One man grasped a large key close to his chest as a symbol of the compound his family was forced to flee 60 years ago. Another flipped through the pages of a tiny clothbound diary, stamped 1948. In it, his father meticulously noted the events occurring in Palestine: "A cloudy day. Critical situation . . . and all the people leaving the country."

These men and dozens of other Palestinians and Palestinian Americans who gathered on the Mall yesterday call the events of 1948 the nakba , the Arab word for catastrophe. Their event was organized as a counterpoint to the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel, celebrated nationally and in Israel last week, where President Bush joined in the ceremony.

To make way for Israel, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and more than 400 of their villages were destroyed, organizers of the event said.

"While people are welcome to celebrate the creation of Israel, it's significant and important for people to understand that in order for Israel to be created, the Palestinians paid a price for what happened," said Nora Hasan, a member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace. The event also was sponsored by Sharing Jerusalem, the Vineeta Foundation, the American Palestinian Women's Association and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The group gathered west of the reflecting pool, in view of the Capitol. The event was one of many held in more than 20 cities nationwide. Here, the group laid out a huge antique quilt, each square stitched with the name of a Palestinian village, the number of residents and the year it was destroyed.

A large map of Palestine was outlined on the lawn with a rope and dotted with flags that represented the villages.

The names of the villages were read as a bell tolled, and eyewitnesses, or the children of eyewitnesses, spoke about what happened in 1948.

"My mother walked into my room early in the morning and said, 'Get up, we're going to Lebanon,' " recalled George Hishmeh, now a freelance columnist and a member of the Washington Association of Arab Journalists, whose family experienced the exodus from Haifa, a port on the Mediterranean Sea, 60 years ago this month.

Family members packed 11 suitcases and left aboard a ship for what they thought would be a vacation for a couple of months. "We thought we would come back," Hishmeh said, stopping to wipe away tears.

Philip Farah, 56, of Vienna, carried his father's diary from 1948, which contains the story of how the family had to leave West Jerusalem. And Yusif Farsakh, 81, of Arlington, had the large key that his grandfather and father used to unlock the compound in Birzeit, north of Jerusalem, where the family lived for generations.

Such keys are handed down through families today, he and other event organizers said, to symbolize the right of return to Palestine. "Not the right of return in the sense of kicking people out of their homes, but the right to a claim," said Mark Braverman of Bethesda, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace.

"It's like America acknowledging slavery and apologizing, or acknowledging to the Native Americans that we took their land," Braverman said. "There needs to be an acknowledgment by Israel that 'we took your land; now let's talk and move forward.' There needs to be an acknowledgment that there was a people and culture that was destroyed."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company