Older Palestinian Women Have A Voice

By Jane Toby

Catskill, New York, United States


ABOUT THIS PIECE: Older Palestinian Women Have A Voice

What is the unique story of the Palestinian older woman? What is the Nakba in her eyes? Here are moments from interviews I made in January 2008 of older Palestinian Christian and Muslim women living in and nearby Bethlehem: the Rachel’s Tomb area, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Wallajah Village, Dheisheh Camp. Here are the voices of Antoinette, Sada, Miriam, Hend, Nora, Rose and Jala. Friends and relatives present in their homes translated the Arabic for me. Antoinette’s grand-daughter Rojan sings the song at the end of the selections.

Jala lives with her husband in Beit Sahour; She was an English teacher working for the Ministry of Education. Two of her four children live abroad. Nora, mother and grandmother, now teaches hyperactive children. Her husband’s stone factory, from which they derived their income, was bombed in 2000. Antoinette lives in the Rachel’s Tomb area; her home is surrounded by the Wall. She was a music teacher and organist in Jerusalem, but cannot travel there freely anymore. She volunteers for many charitable organizations. Sada says she is 120 years old, though I heard she is 115. Originally from Turkey, she has been a refugee in Dheisha Camp since she was a young woman. Hend lives with her family in Wallajah, a small farming village. On a nearby hill, she can see the village from which her mother fled in 1948 when Hend was a baby. Hend’s son, Taha, is studying film-making to document the story of his people. Rose lives in Bethlehem near her grandchildren whose well-being is the most important thing in her life. Miriam, mother and grandmother, is now legally blind; her remembrances of the Nakba are blindingly clear.

I’m grateful to the Arab Education Institute (AEI-Open Windows) for the opportunity to interview these women.

ABOUT THE ARTIST: Autobiography: Jane Toby

I was born and spent my childhood in Merrick, New York. I was eight years old in 1948 when I was asked to bring pennies to school to help plant trees for the new state of Israel. I remember a picture book from that time--a young boy was looking out over fields to his home that he could never return to. I have not been able to find that book again, but I have discovered the reality.

The longing for universal human rights has long been a concern of mine. I graduated from Antioch College; the motto of its founder, Horace Mann, was: “Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity.” I served two years in the U.S Peace Corps as a teacher in Benin City, Nigeria, just after Nigeria achieved its independence, before the country was devastated by multinational oil interests. Later, I would write about the changed life of the Nigerian people in articles such as “Havoc Where We Once lived.”

Intercultural education has always been important to me. When my children were grown, I returned to the university and received a Doctorate in Italian literature, bringing to light the life and writings of Maria Messina, a turn-of-the-century Sicilian woman writer. While teaching Elderhostel groups in Verona, Italy, I met the Italian Women in Black. Standing in vigil with them, I learned so much about international non-violent struggles for peace with justice.
On returning to the states, I initiated the Women in Black movement in Woodstock, New York. I presented “Women in Black” at the Women’s Studies Program at SUNY, New Paltz: Women and War, Peace and Revolution. My poem “You Go On With Your Dying” appeared in Poets Against the War, a collection of poetry edited by Sam Hamill, protesting the U.S. attack on Iraq.

I’ve been to Palestine two times: in the summer of 2005 during the International Conference of Women in Black. This past winter 2007-2008, I traveled with Luisa Morgantini, Vice President of the European Parliament and a delegation of 45 Italians into the West Bank. For 2 weeks in January, I lived with a family in Bethlehem and interviewed older Palestinian women who work for peace through the Arab Education Institute (AEI-Open Windows).

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