I clearly remember the signature look of Jidditi, the name I called my grandmother, Amna. A white veil embroidered on the edges wraps her head and hangs down her back. A long black skirt called qunaa surrounds her waist. Shiny silver bracelets dangling from her wrists, and the golden Dome of the Rock imprinted in her brown eyes
Like every Palestinian child who witnessed the beginning of the Nakba, Jidditi did not know her real birth date. She was given a birth date of 1948 when her green ID card was issued. Yet it is presumed that her actual birth year is 1938, month and day unknown. It is heart-wrenching that most of the children born around the time of the Nakba do not know exactly when they were born and can never really celebrate their birthdays. They just keep drifting through life without these special markers.
At home, she is the woman sitting behind a table rolling huge quantities of grape or cabbage leaves, stuffing them with half-cooked rice mixed with homemade tomato sauce and a little meat, to add flavor, in the kitchen that all her daughters-in-law share with her. The common kitchen embraced an atmosphere of mutual love and respect. She takes the pots, sets them on the blazing fire that she lights in the middle of the square of sand. Gathering the whole family in the square, she cooks beziena, boiled rice with tasty dough balls. When I would visit, she’d be standing behind the gas stove, brewing tea in her favored metal kettle.
At 3:30 AM, Jidditi starts her day before the sun rises, leaving her house and children in the trusted hands of her firstborn’s wife, Khalto Umm Hamza. She wanders through all the local souqs—Saturdays in Rafah, Mondays in Nuseirat Camp, Tuesdays in Deir al-Balah, Wednesdays in Khan Younis, and Thursdays in Gaza—with one thing in mind: to collect valuable pieces from mafaresh and nol (rectangular-shaped fabric sewn by hand and used as carpets), safifa (a large fabric of maraqem in a triangular shape, made by hand and used as decoration in the House of Hair, or Bayt al-Shaar, the Bedouin’s tent), and khrouj (a handmade fabric placed on the hump of camels to make them more comfortable for riding).
Waiting at the occupier checkpoints to be permitted entry, she takes weekly trips to Jerusalem, where she has two missions: to exhibit and sell to tourists the precious items she has collected and to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. When the sun sets, she returns to her small house with avocados, turkeys, and khubbayza (a type of mallow) for her children and grandchildren. She also takes part in exhibitions to preserve Palestinian heritage. For example, at the Islamic University of Gaza, she presents her favorite pieces, talking enthusiastically about their history and uses, but making it clear that she is not selling them.
Education was not part of her own childhood, but it was certainly welcomed in the house Jidditi built with blood, sweat and tears. Though money was tight, she was determined that her kids have the best education, even if two of them had to share the same shoes for wearing on different school shifts. When her husband opposed sending their son, Khalo Mousa, to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, she fought and assured her son that she had his back, supporting him with duaa (supplication and prayer) and money transferred from Jerusalem to Moscow (thus adding a third mission to her weekly trips). My mom pursued the study of economics and political science and Jidditi did not hesitate to support her all the way to the day she graduated with a master’s degree in those fields. I remember the zaghrouta (joyful ululation) coming from her mouth, filling the graduation hall, and transforming the nervousness into intense joy. Indeed, Jidditi made possible the success of my mother and all eleven of her siblings.
In 2014, Alzheimer’s disease crawled into Jidditi’s mind, poisoning the colorful bits of the simple life she had created for herself and those around her and turning them into black holes where everything is swallowed and buried. She started forgetting names, faces and her own daily rituals. She was not able to recognize herself, seemed to be shredded into foggy details that crossed her mind like a sparkling light that diminishes swiftly. She strayed away from places and faces that knew her well.
Lying in the hospital bed, being fed through her veins, her heart was pounding, her children were there waiting, making duaa, not ready to say goodbye. But my grandmother had to leave and she did. As the memories were fading from her mind, she never faded from our lives. Her name is Amna. In Arabic, it means safe, but she never felt safe, even in her own memories.