Palestinian American activist Yousef Bashir remembers that his father was “as much in love with his land as he was with my mother and he loved them both deeply.” So he begins his memoir, “The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine,” recalling the date palms, guavas, figs, olive trees and honeybees that made the land home.
Bashir was at Congregation Beth Shalom on March 4, part of the congregation’s 2020 Speaker Series. The talk was also sponsored by Temple Ohav Shalom, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and Classic Lines.
The idyllic life Bashir remembers as a child was soon interrupted by conflict, and his book tells the story of a teenager aching to break free from both his father’s expectations and what he refers to as “Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers living illegally next to and on our land” in the Gaza Strip before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal in 2005. Bashir’s comments were deeply personal and did not address the broader political aspects of the conflict.
Bashir began his talk recounting the passion his parents had for their Muslim faith, “the idea that they came from and descended from the Holy Land,” and the knowledge that the land his family called home had been inherited through multiple generations.
The elder Bashir taught English literature and believed his children should put a premium on education and eventually study abroad.
“In my house, you go to Germany to become a doctor or an engineer. That’s what my siblings are. I remember my dad cornering me one day and telling me this would happen to me and I should start studying really hard.”
“The Words of My Father” might have been simply a tale of generational angst and a son’s search for meaning if not for the Second Intifada.
In 2000, Israeli soldiers were stationed near the Bashirs’ home. Tensions escalated when the soldiers began shooting at their house, according to the author. Bashir’s father believed that there should be peace between Palestinians and Israelis because both were “children of Abraham.” His mantra throughout his family’s ordeal was “everything will be fine.” He even used that phrase after being shot in his bedroom, and when soldiers forced the family’s neighbors to desert their homes.
When Bashir’s father refused to leave like his neighbors, and IDF soldiers quartered in their home, he used that phrase again.
The author’s description of his youth includes typical complaints of teenagers worldwide: being forced to study and live up to parental expectations when they would rather be playing soccer. Bashir’s memories, however, are told against a backdrop of Israeli soldiers restricting access to the second and third floor of his family’s home and requiring passes to even visit the bathroom at night.
Bashir’s story reached an apex in February 2004. A contingent of United Nations peacekeepers were at the family’s house and after a brief 15-minute visit, Israeli soldiers announced over a loudspeaker that it was time for the foreigners to leave. Father and son walked the U.N. staffers out. The author raised his hand to wave goodbye.
“I heard a single shot,” he writes in his memoir.
“The soldier put an M16 bullet in the middle of the back,” Bashir recounted to the Squirrel Hill audience. “I didn’t feel pain. I didn’t see blood. All I remember is that I couldn’t get my dad’s attention and I couldn’t stand.”
Bashir’s tale took an unexpected turn while he was being treated at a Tel Aviv hospital.
“For the first time, I saw Jewish people who are not settlers or snipers. This time, the same people were telling me with smiling faces to describe the level of pain I am feeling.”
The 16-year-old spent the next three months enduring various surgeries and the following nine months recovering in Israel.
While recuperating, Bashir recalled his father reinforcing that he and his siblings were born “to do great things. Since that day, I was convinced I was saved to do great things.”
Before leaving for the United States, Bashir returned to his family home and worked to mirror the attitude of his father, treating the soldiers who were occupying his home as guests.
Once in America, the author faced another crossroad, the death of his father. Unable to go home and attend his father’s funeral for fear of not being able to cross the multiple military checkpoints and get back to the United States, Bashir committed himself to becoming an American citizen and to write a book recounting his tale.
Since his memoir’s publication, Bashir has spoken at schools, synagogues, mosques and churches, telling his story and hoping to advance the cause of peace to which his father was committed, he said.
Bashir closes his book with a letter to the anonymous Israeli soldier that shot him, concluding with: “Without your bullet, I might never have understood forgiveness. You were created by the same God who created me. You have the same humanity as I have. You are part of the same family as I am. I forgive you my cousin.”
Beth Shalom’s Speaker Series is made available through the Jewish Book Council and funded by Seth Glick and Carolyn Slayton. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.