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Shafeeq, the Hummus-Lover
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
December 2nd, 2011 (13 Comments)
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Shafeeq Zahr was born in Nazareth around 1912. He was smart, funny, and dashingly good-looking.  He was a Palestinian, and he loved hummus.

His mother died of complications during his birth, and his father quickly remarried.  After his teenage years, Shafeeq left Nazareth and eventually settled in the beautiful Palestinian seaside city of Yafa.  At that time, Yafa was, the economic, political, and cultural center of Palestine.  He became a Christian missionary, worked as a construction worker, and was from then on known by his baptismal name of Elias (Arabic for Elijah).

In the early 1940s, after performing work on her family’s house, Elias met Salma Manoli.  Salma was a teacher in Yafa, and they soon decided to be married.  Before they were married, however, Shafeeq, in hopes of bettering his life, and perhaps to fall into good graces, volunteered to fight for the colonial British in World War II.   Of course, the British at that time controlled Palestine.  Elias performed his duties for the British during the war, where he was captured by and eventually escaped from German forces.  He returned from the war, with many physical scars, and returned to Yafa, where he finally married Salma.  In March 1948, George, their first child, was born.  George, a Palestinian, loves hummus too… with lots of olive oil.

One month later, Zionist forces (with the support of the British government) took Yafa by military force, forcing tens of thousands of Arabs from the city, including Elias, Salma, and their infant child.  After fighting and risking his life for the British government, he returned to his homeland only to find that the same government that he had fought for had “given” it to a foreign people.  I think I know how Elias must have felt.  One time I took a girl out, bought her an expensive dinner, and even got a flat tire on the way home.  I didn’t care though, because we had a great time, and we even planned to see each other again.  We had a real connection.  The next night, I saw her out with another guy, not nearly as smart or handsome.  When I went over to say hello, she said looked me up and down and said, “Who are you again?”  I was so depressed… I drove on that flat tire for a month.

Elias refuged to Amman, continued to feast on hummus, and eventually put down roots in a poor neighborhood named Jabal al-Hashimiyeh a-Shamaliyeh.  Using his skills in construction, he bought some used crates and built a small wooden structure for his young family.  He worked mainly as a carpenter in Amman, and Elias and Salma lived the life of refugees, earning meager wages and surviving on monthly UN rations of flour, sugar, milk, and beans.

In Nazareth, Musa, Elias’ father, knew nothing of his son.  He had assumed that Elias had died in World War II.  By 1960, Elias’ neighborhood in Amman had grown, and a small church had been built.  The parish priest, also a native of Nazareth, knew Elias and Salma well.  As a religious official, that priest traveled freely.  During a trip in 1960, he noticed something peculiar in a Nazareth church: a memorial dedicated in the name of a lost loved one… Elias Zahr.

The priest quickly found Musa, the father of this man, telling him something unbelieveable: “I think I know your son… and he is in Amman.”  In order to prove that Elias was who they thought he might be, the church asked Musa to formulate a set of questions to be sent to Amman.  Elias passed the test with flying colors.  As an Arab-Israeli Christian, Musa was permitted to enter the old city of Jerusalem (at that time part of Jordan) once a year for religious purposes.  He arranged to meet his son there.  Elias, Salma, and their young son George traveled from Amman to Jerusalem for the occasion.  Father and son were briefly reunited, but 24 hours later, Musa had to return to Israel.  Similar visits occurred over the next few years.

In early 1967, after a dispute with his own family, Musa angrily left Nazareth to live with his son in Amman.  He illegally crossed into the northern West Bank, but he was an old man.  He did not make it far before he was captured by Jordanian forces, who thought at first he might be some sort of smuggler, or worse yet, a spy.  He was detained for a few weeks and sent back to Nazareth.  He might be the only Palestinian ever actually deported back to Israel.

Elias and Musa never met again.

Elias continued his hard life in Amman. Although Palestinians were granted citizenship in Jordan, they were and remain second-class citizens. King Hussein constantly cracked down on them, most notably during the fighting of the fall of 1970, dubbed “Black September.”  During that time, the Jordanian army killed at least 10,000 Palestinians.  Elias and his family sought shelter under their one-room house.

George graduated from college in Jordan, went to study further in Beirut, and eventually earned a PhD from the University of California-Berkeley, where he married a fellow Palestinian refugee.  In 1977, he returned to Amman and became a professor at the University of Jordan.  In 1979, as a result of an ugly and unjust political episode, George, wildly popular with his students, was fired from his post.  He was exiled from Jordan and found a new life in America.  Elias, like Musa, had lost his son.

Later in 1979, Elias died in his sleep in Amman.  It is said that he died from a heart attack.  But it could have been that he had simply had enough.  George did not return to Jordan for his father’s funeral, knowing he would face certain arrest.

Elias was my grandfather.  His legacy lives through George (my father) and me (and my siblings).  Of course, we both share his intelligence, humor, and handsome looks.  We also carry on his Palestinian story.  Yes, we enjoy life and we laugh like everyone else.  But we always have that little hole in our hearts.  As human beings, we are thankful for what we have…  As Palestinians, we are always aware of what we don’t.

Things, however, are changing.  The world can try to reject our past, but it can’t deny our future.  I happen to think my future is bright… and it’s full of Palestinian hummus.

 

 

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Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of “The Civil Arab.”

Comments (13)
  1. Amer, you should write a book based on collective stories of displaced Palestininans. You are a great story teller. I read the story of Shafeeq as if the events were happening now in front of me and enjoyed you spreading some warm words to lightened up the dark times.

    Joumana

  2. I can tell you from personal experience, that there is nothing in the world like Palestinian hummus…with warm ful and drenched in extra virgin cold press Paltestinian olive oil!.

  3. Solovey Razboynik ... December 3rd, 2011 - 00:25

    Joumana has the right idea for such narratives. And Amer is the one with the pen and wit to assemble such a collection. It is only natural that Elias would be Amer’s grandfather. Amer loves hummus too. As most everyone with a clever palate does. This saga of uprooting and survival is woven into the rich tapestry of the Palestinian epos. The loom vibrates with its untiring motion, continuing a tale that is bound to celebrate great triumph, may it be soon, inshallah!

  4. What a beautifully told story. It’s the story of all our grandparents and great grand parents. It’s the reason we should all sit down with our parents/aunts/uncles to understand the stories of our own family history. Thanks for sharing! :)

  5. Amer, as always, you did an awesome job. It is great to read this story as your family history especially that you were able to make me read it all the way to the last dot. But most importantly I think, you are telling the true story of many, the story of hundreds of thousands if not millions, and many even Palestinians don’t know those facts from how tough life was for our grandparents though the British BS, or the families that spent years without seeing each other and in many cases never saw each other…
    I’d better stop here so I wont end writing another story now, Amer you did an amazing job, and whether you allow me or not, this story is getting spread widely.

  6. Ok. From now on, every meal for you at our house will be HUMMUS!

    I love the story and humor, of course.

    NJ

  7. mohamad elzein ... December 3rd, 2011 - 19:09

    Nice Amer. I like it, but Lebanese hommus is better. ;)

  8. Very nice piece, Amer:-)

  9. Wow sad but an amazing story, would make a great movie

  10. Amer,
    finally I read Shafeeq and several other articles you wrote recently. “Shafeeq” (and the other aricles as well) is very nicely written, and ought to be part of the collective memory of Palestinians. Let’s do something about it. Have similar – and not so similar – other real stories, some of them I already wrote in Arabic.

  11. Gisela Droege ... June 4th, 2012 - 19:15

    Hi, I had some time on my hand and googled in my son’s name: Elias Manoli, and up came your story. I don’t think there is a connection, but somewhere down, in my husband’s genealogical tree, there is a Salma and an Elias, and somewhere, there is an uncle George. Except, they are from Egypt, but then again, they are Christian. Well, and then, there is a niece, who produces comedy shows in Montreal. Well, you put this together and let me know. Oh, and I am the total stranger in this story. Liked your story, Gisela.


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