Two guys from Al-bireh, and Brooklyn
A Palestinian-born Brooklyn man relates the story of
his brother in the occupied West Bank
Note: Due to the wishes of those discussed in this article,
their names have been changed.
When I stopped into the small Brooklyn corner grocery,
a short stocky man stood behind the counter. I introduced
myself. I was there in hopes of talking with someone about
one of the store's ownersa Palestinian-born Brooklyn
man that I had heard to be under house arrest in the West
Bank. It was mid-April, then more than three weeks into
the Israeli offensive into Palestinian territory. "My
brother," he said in a thick accent, coming around
the counter. "He's my brother."
The man launched into an impassioned tirade on the state
of the conflict in the West Bankthe latest reports
of Israeli actions in Ramallah and the Jenin refuge camp.
I wrested my notebook from my bag and started taking notes.
I asked him his name, and as I started to write it down
he stopped my hand.
"No, no, please." If the Israeli government ever
found out that he'd spoken against their policies in the
West Bank, he said, he might be detained when returning
to his homeland. He motioned me back into his storeroom
at the back of the shop.
"What should I call you then," I asked?
"Just say 'two guys from Al-bireh?' okay?"
Salah, as I'll call the brother still living in Brooklyn,
has spent the last month trying to decipher all the reports
flooding in from his homeland. Meanwhile, his brotherwho
I'll call Naimwaits in his family's West Bank home
for the world outside his door to return to some level of
normalcy and peace. I'd gone looking for Naim's story in
hopes that it might offer a way of seeing the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict through the eyes of someone who is immediately
impacted by it. How might the experience of a resident of
both the West Bank and Brooklyn impact the way we view
the unfolding relationship between this country and the
peoples of the Middle East. I wanted to bring the issues
home, you could say, through the story of these two guys
from Al-bireh, and Brooklyn.
Returning to Al-bireh
In Salah's storeroom, cases of fruit juice were stacked
beneath a poster of the American Southwest, and the wood-paneled
door into the cold storage room was scrawled with graffiti
in both English and Arabic. Salah seemed to feel more comfortable
being out of the main part of the store. I began asking
him about his brother's return to the Middle East.
Naim had returned to Al-bireh, a twin city to Ramallah,
in late January, to see his family. Returning to their hometown
is an annual trip for Naim, Salah, and their three other
brothers who live and work in Brooklyn. Their eldest brother
moved to the United States in 1979, and the rest followed
Having come to the U.S. to find work, the brothers started
and continue to run small grocery stores in different parts
of Brooklynsending most of their money home to family
The brothers are all married, and their wives and children
still live in the West Bank. Naim has two sons, ages six
and seven, and Salah has two daughters who are five and
eight. In Al-bireh, their entire family including
their parentslives in one house divided into small
apartments. Naim had only planned on being home for a few
weeks before returning again to Brooklyn.
On March 29, Israel launched its offensive into Palestinian
Authority controlled areas. Called 'Operation Defensive
Shield,' the military action was in response to the escalating
number of suicide bombings against civilians in Jewish cities
and settlements. Israel sought to find persons responsible
for organizing, recruiting, and executing these attacks.
They swept through various Palestinian cities and put Palestinian
Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah
under a state of siege.
Israeli soldiers came to his family's house in Al-bireh,
Salah said, and ordered everyone28 people in all
into one room on the first floor. "They were looking
for somebody wanted," he explained. "They steal
money, and make damage to the house. Everybody's scared."
the soldiers were content that no one on their list of suspected
militants was in hiding in the house, they left, but the
family remained confined to their home for several weeks.
They were allowed to leave the house for two hours every
five days"to buy food," Salah said, "Or
try to find fresh water." His family had no electricity,
no running water, and little food, for over 20 days. Even
when they were allowed outside there was hardly any food
for sale as few shops could actually open for business.
The military had cut electricity in the two cities. As tanks
and bulldozers made their way through the streets they ended
up destroying many underground water mainsdamage that
Salah thought would take the better part of the year to
fix, once the Israelis withdraw.
The telephone lines still worked however, and Salah has
been able to talk with his family every week. When I asked
him how his family was doing he replied that they are all
"very scared." His daughters are frightened. His
father said that he has never seen the situation so bad.
The Israeli army kept an alarm on all night long, keeping
people awake all over the city. One thousand people were
arrested in Ramallah alone, he said. A one legged man who
Salah had known growing up, and who had come with Arafat
from South Lebanon, was shot and killed in Arafat's compound.
I asked Salah when he thought his brother could leave his
"When the troops leave," he said. "But the
problem my friend is that Sharon, he plays games."
Though I tried to bring our conversation back to details
of Naim's life in Al-bireh, Salah was eager to discuss the
larger political situation. Salah described how the Israeli
troops would withdraw from certain cities only to then move
in and occupy others. The Israelis say they will end the
occupation if Arafat leaves the country and hands over suspected
militants. But Arafat will remain in power Salah insisted.
Arafat says that only death would make him leave Palestine,
When the situation is bad or good
Salah expressed a good deal of frustration at the press
coverage of the conflict, and the Bush administration's
response to the Israeli occupation.
"The news here, not always the truth," he said.
He perceives American Jews as having a great deal of influence
on the press and political sphere of this country. President
Bush, Salah believes, refuses to act against Israel because
of fear of losing Jewish votes that he will need to win
the election in 2004, and that many members of congress
feel the same way.
"Bush says that United States is a democracy,"
Salah said. "But (it is) really only democracy for
"The problem, my friend, is my people don't believe
Bush." he said.
By not sending Secretary of State Colin Powell directly
to Israel and instead having him stop in Morocco, Egypt,
Spain, and Jordan before arriving in Israel, Bush was giving
"Sharon a chance to kill more people," emphasized
"If my country had oil," he said. "Powell
would have gone right away and told Israel to stop right
He became rather quiet at one point while we were talking.
"I wish I was there right now," he said. "I'd
like to be with my people when the situation is bad or good."
"We are nice people, the Palestinians," he said,
looking me straight in the eye. "But the Jewish make
some of my people crazy."
Despite his thick accent, Salah always spoke very succinctly,
searching for the right English words to use. He was very
well-educated on both Middle Eastern and American politics.
Salah blamed the escalating violence on the Israelis and
their policies of settlement and continued state sanctioned
repression. Yet even as he criticized their policies and
the terrible impact they have on his people, Salah understands
the Israeli perspective as well.
"They had no country either," he said. "They
came from all over Europe. After being killed and oppressed."
He said that his father remembered when Jews and Palestinians
lived together, had shops near one another.
"Without Sharon and Netanyahu, the Palestinians could
live with the Jews," Salah said. He holds deceased
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in very high esteem.
"Rabin gave the Palestinians hope," he said. "He
was proof that some Israelis do want peace."
Salah points to Rabin's time in office to demonstrate that
Arafat has the power to call a meaningful cease fire, and
that he would be listened to, if the conditions were right.
"From 1994 to 1998, nobody mess with the Jewish,"
Continuing, Salah suggested that Arafat believed in the
peace process with Rabin, and he arrested and jailed members
of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in support of the process. Salah
himself returned to the Middle East during this time and
observed the positive Palestinian response first hand.
Salah feels that when Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli
law student, "the jews killed peace." Salah finds
Israeli support of Sharon unbelievable. To the Palestinians,
Salah said, "Sharon is a criminal." Israeli Defense
Minister during the invasion of South Lebanon in 1982, Sharon's
failure to prevent massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee
camps forced him to resign. "With Sharon, situation
will remain very bad."
I asked Salah when he thought Naim would be able to return
to the United States, given everything that was happening
in his homeland. "Unless situation gets much better,"
Salah said. "Naim will stay in Palestine." He
claims that there would be no one to take care of the family
if he left and worries that the soldiers could come back.
I asked if I might be able to call Naim in Ramallah. "Yes,"
he said, but "No Sharon, no politics or military."
He warned me not to use my real name on the phone because
the Israeli government, he claimed, would create a file
on me. Salah said that Marwan Barghouti, one of Arafat's
lieutenants, was caught by the Israelis because he was talking
on the phone. He had called his kids and the police had
the lines tapped. Soldiers had him in custody within minutes
I work at a design company that has their offices several
blocks north of Ground Zero. A number of businesses and
organization share the building, including a number of city
officesthe Department of Health and the Office of
Due to the time difference of seven hours, if I was to reach
Naim at a reasonable hour I needed to call in the middle
of the workday. Unable to use the phones in my office, I
found a bank of payphones in the basement level of my building,
next to a storeroom and an office of records.
I decided to use an alias, as Salah had suggested. I'd drawn
up a collection of questions about Naim's family, the food
and water situation, and when he was hoping to come home.
When I got to the bank of payphones, two men sat at the
open door of the storage room. They were big guys, wearing
sunglasses and sweatshirts, and I couldn't help feeling
that I should keep my voice down when asking questions about
Ramallah or Palestine. While anti-Arab and anti-Muslim diatribes
have largely petered out (at least from public view) in
the months since September 11th, I wondered whether hearing
Arabic names used in a government building would cause people
alarm, however misplaced. I felt ashamed to be thinking
this way. Salah had gotten me paranoid about people listening
in on my phone call, and I tried to remember from movies
I'd seen whether payphones could be tapped.
Taking the phone closest to the wall, I dialed the long
series of numbers that would connect me to Al-bireh. No
answer after maybe fifteen rings. I called again a few minutes
later. I went and got a sandwich and called one more time.
Still no answer.
Returning to my sixteenth story office, I worked over in
my head all the possible combinations of why there had been
no answer: I'd had the wrong number, all the children were
being put to sleep, or they had been able to leave the house
for a little while. I tried not to think about more tragic
possibilities. Back in my office, I got a cup of coffee
and looked south, down Church Street, to the portion of
Ground Zero barely visible amid the bustle of traffic and
the new green leaves of Plane trees.
Making everything like the ground
I found Salah eating his dinner of pizza in the store
room when I returned the following week. I asked him quickly
whether he had been able to get through with his family
or Naim, as I had not.
"Yes," he said, he'd spoken to them earlier that
week. "The situation a little bit better, but still
Some of the soldiers had been pulled out, and the curfew
lifted in many parts of Al-bireh and Ramallah, though it
remained in effect in the neighborhoods surrounding Arafat's
compound. Naim and his family worried that the withdrawn
soldiers might return at any time though.
"It's like a big jail," Salah said, as people
are still surrounded by troops and most can't leave the
city. Salah's parents are still very frightened, and his
daughters said they were scared of the Jews' "bombs
and bullets." Some of Naim's friends are still in jail,
Salah said, even thought they didn't do anything wrong.
Electricity had been restored to much of the city, but there
was still little food and no running water. People with
American passports were sent down to Jerusalem to buy food
to bring back, as few trucks carrying food could get into
Al-bireh and Ramallah. Another problem was that the agricultural
areas of Palestinian territory had been hard hit in the
Israeli offensiveincluding the towns of Tulkarm, and
Jenin, the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the
recent campaign. Most fresh produce in the West Bank comes
from these areas, Salah said, including citrus, olives,
potatoes, guavas and wheat. Agricultural land had been destroyed
in these areas during the Israeli campaignan unintentional
(one hopes) side effect to the advance on the cities.
"They make everything fucked up, my friend," Salah
said. "They make everything like the ground,"
and he ran his hand horizontally between us to demonstrate
how things had been leveled.
The extent to which houses and infrastructure in the Jenin
were destroyed in the Israeli offensive has not been fully
investigated. There have been reports of people buried under
bulldozed houses, and possibly even additional earthmoving
work done to cover up bodies.
Salah's initial expression of frustration at the Bush Administration's
lack of direct involvement had given over to more vehement
frustration with the United Nations. After United Nations
envoy Tenje Larson had given his report on the state of
the Jenin refuge camp, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered
that a fact finding mission be sent to the camp post haste.
Annan postponed the fact-finders' arrival several times,
due to pressure from the Israeli government. This caused
great frustration among the Palestinian people as they felt
that Israel was trying to hide what the military had done
As of April 30th, the Israeli government was still blocking
the United Nations inspection teams from entering Jenin.
Salah understands the Israeli desire to delay the mission
as another example of Prime Minister Sharon's anti-Palestinian
policies and actions. But he was greatly saddened and surprised
by Annan's willingness to bow to Israeli pressure.
"Annan is supposed to be straight," Salah explained.
"The United Nations is supposed to be for all people.
Why did [Annan] change his mind? The Palestinian people
no longer believe Annan, as they no longer believe Bush,"
I asked Salah if he felt hopeful about the future of things
in his homeland.
"No, not hopeful," he said. "Because a lot
of people could still die. This morning four more die, two
in Gaza and two in Hebron."
He tells me he will only feel safe for his family when all
the troops leave the Palestinian cities. "Sharon needs
to be removed from office," he said, "as long
as Sharon remains there will always be trouble."
If things are beginning to improve in Al-bireh and the
West Bank does it look like Naim will return home soon,
I asked? "Unless the situation stabilizes to a greater
degree," Salah said again, "Naim will stay in
the West Bank."
"Who will take care of the family and the children
if the soldiers come back to the city, or if they come back
to our home? He will stay in my country unless situation
Salah always spoke of the occupied territories as Palestine,
or "my country." I asked him what he would like
to see happen in event of serious peace talks between Israelis
and Palestinians. "A Palestinian state, of course,"
he said, "with Jerusalem as the capital."
"You know, " he said quietly "Al-bireh and
Ramallah would be the capital, except that Jerusalem is
holy. Prophet Muhammad went there, and after that he went
up to see my God."
If a Palestinian state was created would he return? "Not
a second would I stay here," he said. "I would
return to my country right away."
Now Salah waits to hear news from his brother and family.
He waits for developments to appear in the headlines, and
finds joy hearing his daughter's words on the phone. I tried
once more to reach Naim before this article went to print,
and someone answered the phone this time. It was a man's
voice who answered. I asked for Naim, saying I was calling
from the United States, from Brooklyn. The man didn't speak
English. He said, "In Arabic." I said I didn't
speak Arabic and asked for Naim once more. "No Naim,"
he said. "Okay?"
"Okay," I said, and hung up. Again there are a
number of possibilities for why there was "No Naim."
Perhaps there was simply a language barrier and the man
on the other end did not understand my English, or maybe
he was out of the house briefly. I hope it was the latter,
and that he is safely walking the streets of his hometown
with his sons. Wherever Naim finds himself in the months
and years to come, whether in Al-bireh, a future Palestinian
state, or here working at his market in Brooklyn, I wish
him safe travels.
-- Colin Cheney
(Editor's Note: We understand the complexity of
the situation in the Middle East and it is our intent to
humanize the conflict by telling the stories of people struggling
to cope with the tragedies at hand. FREEwilliamsburg takes
only one side, the side of peace, and wishes happiness and
prosperity for all Jewish and Palestinian people. It is
our hope to follow up on this story in the months ahead
and to cover both sides of this devastating conflict. Please