927: A Mint Sprig and the Right of Return
Day 927: Thursday, September 29, 2022
A Mint Sprig and the Right of Return
We recently had a visit from our relative, Georgette Fattaleh, and her son Nadeem. As we reminisced about the past and caught up on their news, I proudly served them some homemade mint iced tea, with fresh mint from my own recently planted garden.
Nadeem then told me that when they had to flee their home in West Jerusalem, during the Nakba of 1948, they took with them a sprig of mint from their garden, which they then planted in a used ghee tin can and transferred to a garden in their temporary home in Amman. As they struggled through life and made their careers in Amman, Kuwait, the Gulf, and eventually the US, their family always carried and replanted mint from that sprig, reminding them of their home in Jerusalem and of their desire to return.
Georgette is a remarkable woman. She is now 88, in excellent health as she swims daily before going to work. She is still an active pharmacist in Amman. After exile, she had insisted on continuing her education in Damascus and was one of a very few Palestinian women to obtain her college degree in pharmacology and start with her husband a famous pharmacy in Jebel Waibdeh in Amman, which is still functioning today. She paid her way through college by tutoring rich kids in math and chemistry and had the temerity to demand five Syrian Lira per lesson (“Why, even the male teachers do not get that much!” complained one mother.)
Their entire family has struggled over many years in different countries, but they always maintained their memory of Palestine and of their home in Jerusalem. Somehow, they also kept their mint plant alive. They use it with tea, salads, tabouleh, and for garnishing different dishes. They enjoy its fragrant smell and flavor. Nadeem told me that his son, Yazan, in Colorado would love to give me a sprig from it when I visit him during my upcoming FOSNA trip to Colorado next week.
Like other Palestinians who hold tightly to the keys of their original homes, as they languish in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Gaza, or indeed as they forge out successful careers and lives in different parts of the world, they hang on to their dreams, memories, and desire to return home.
This yearning is not a nostalgic myth, but a part of their present-day reality. It may well be that most members of the Fattaleh family would be quite happy continuing to live the lives they have carved out for themselves in different parts of the world, but their desire to be connected, visit, and, yes, return to Palestine if they so choose is a valid and understandable right and key part of their identity.
What appalls me is that the Palestinian right of return is considered by some to be controversial, and Palestinians are often urged or even required to drop that demand if they want to have any prospect of peace with the state of Israel.
I do not understand this: when the world seems to fully understand and sympathize with a need for recognizing a right of return to Palestine for Jews after 2000 years of exile, but they do not accept the Palestinian right of return. Can someone please explain to me, on any moral, ethical, political, or historical grounds, why Jews can claim such a right after 2000 years of exile when Palestinians like the Fattalehs are denied the right to return to their actual homes and land on which they lived within current living memory?
From its early days, Zionism has insisted on an absolute right for any Jew who wished to “return” to Palestine, regardless of the impact such a “return” would have on the indigenous inhabitants of the land. They resisted any quotas or limitations, and when they established their state this right of return was enshrined in its Basic Laws. It is matched by their refusal to allow Palestinians the ability to return or even visit their homes and homeland.
Justice would demand that, at the very least, an equal right should be guaranteed to Palestinians and their descendants. The current refusal to allow Palestinians the right to return is based on a desire for exclusive control over the land, on behalf of Jews and Jews alone. It is enforced by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians the ability to return and by many obstacles preventing them from even visiting their homes and homeland, even in the Occupied Territories.
Refusing to acknowledge a Palestinian right of return is both unfair, unjust, and immoral. Ultimately, it will fail. Palestinians will always carry their memory of and attachment to their homeland. An old key, a land deed, or even just a sprig of mint tells the whole story.
by Jonathan Kuttab