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Two guys from Al-bireh, and Brooklyn
A Palestinian-born Brooklyn man relates the story of
his brother in the occupied West Bank

Al-bireh before the occupations.
photograph courtesy of

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 owners—a 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 Bank—the 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 brother—who I'll call Naim—waits 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 in 1990.

Having come to the U.S. to find work, the brothers started and continue to run small grocery stores in different parts of Brooklyn—sending most of their money home to family in Al-bireh.

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 parents—lives 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 everyone—28 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."

When 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 mains—damage 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 family's home.
"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, claims Salah.

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 business."

"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 Salah.

"If my country had oil," he said. "Powell would have gone right away and told Israel to stop right away."

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," he said.

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

Calling Al-bireh

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 offices—the Department of Health and the Office of the Mayor.

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 very bad."

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 offensive—including 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 campaign—an 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 in Jenin.

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," he said.

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."

My country

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 gets better."

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.

Assalaamu alaikum.

-- 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 stay tuned.)

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[email protected] | May 2002 | Issue 26
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