Comedian | Professor | Writer
(& Smartest) Arab
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.