The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine

By – January 27, 2020

The Words of My Father, by Yousef Bashir, opens with a ten­der descrip­tion of an idyl­lic home in the Gaza Strip. The author’s father loved his land as much as he loved his moth­er. That love was obvi­ous in his father’s care of the olive trees on his land, his pride in his home, and his resis­tance to leav­ing it when sol­diers occu­pied it dur­ing the sec­ond Pales­tin­ian upris­ing, the Intifada.

Before the Intifa­da, Bashir’s boy­hood was filled with school, friends, sib­lings, and the aro­mas of lov­ing­ly pre­pared meals. But with the start of the Intifa­da, life changed. The sol­diers, most­ly Israeli Jews but also Chris­t­ian-Arab, Bedouin, and Druze, took over two floors of the Bashir house and used them as an out­look point. The sol­diers plead­ed with the fam­i­ly to leave, but Khalil, the author’s father, refused. The coex­is­tence was not entire­ly peace­ful. The fam­i­ly was not always free to move around the home and the inter­ac­tions were hos­tile and occa­sion­al­ly vio­lent. But the fam­i­ly was not iso­lat­ed, Jour­nal­ists were now start­ing to come to our house, and I liked show­ing the bul­let shells to them.” Despite the dan­ger, Khalil’s response to jour­nal­ists was that the sol­diers only want­ed the top two floors as an obser­va­tion post. If I leave, I know I will nev­er see my house again…”

The ten­sions cul­mi­nat­ed when a sol­dier shot the author in the back while he was stand­ing out­side his home. In a sub­se­quent apol­o­gy he learned he was not the intend­ed tar­get, but what fol­lowed the inci­dent was an awak­en­ing of sorts. Bashir was treat­ed by Jew­ish doc­tors and nurs­es in a hos­pi­tal in Tel Aviv, where he dis­cov­ered, for the first time in his young life, that Jews can be good. He writes, When­ev­er I remem­bered my nurs­es were Jew­ish, I felt con­fused … they were just like the Pales­tin­ian women I knew at home — kind and very car­ing. Until then, I had only thought of Jews as sol­diers who point­ed their guns at my fam­i­ly and me.” This is a pow­er­ful win­dow into the divi­sive­ness that per­me­ates the region, but it is a brave admis­sion and one that marks the start of Bashir’s jour­ney towards edu­ca­tion, under­stand­ing, and peace-making.

Bashir offers a pow­er­ful sto­ry of love, growth, sur­vival, and unfash­ion­able gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it inspired by his father. Miss­ing from the nar­ra­tive is the broad­er socio-polit­i­cal con­text, but this is a per­son­al nar­ra­tive rather than a polit­i­cal one. There are some hints at the larg­er land­scape, One of the teach­ers in our school, my his­to­ry teacher, was com­mit­ted to Hamas.” Bashir describes friend­ly vis­its between the teacher and his father, a com­mit­ted paci­fist who was the head­mas­ter of the school. Yet, pol­i­tics nev­er came between them,” he writes.

There is no explo­ration of the role or meth­ods of Pales­tin­ian lead­er­ship. If the author was moved by the com­plex­i­ty of the con­flict that has plagued the region since long before his time, it was not appar­ent in the nar­ra­tive. It’s his grap­pling with the com­plex­i­ty of his per­son­al expe­ri­ence that is both har­row­ing and admirable, even more so in that it has led him to a career as a peace activist.

Bashir ends with a pow­er­ful let­ter to the sol­dier who shot him. At the heart of this let­ter is a haunt­ing ques­tion which undoubt­ed­ly echoes in the wounds of gen­er­a­tions of Israeli Jews and Pales­tini­ans alike: Dear Cousin, why?

Discussion Questions

Ques­tions cour­tesy of Yousef Bashir

  1. What kinds of things does the young Yousef have in com­mon with teenagers every­where. Of these, did any sur­prise you?

  2. Know­ing that Yousef is a self-described food­ie, what would you serve if he joined your fam­i­ly for dinner?

  3. In the hos­pi­tal, Yousef inter­act­ed for the first time in his life with many Israelis — doc­tors, nurs­es, oth­er kids who were patients. He writes that he learned a lot from that expe­ri­ence. Do you think the Israelis who met Yousef also learned from him?

  4. What most impressed you about Youse­f’s father, Khalil?

  5. Would you remain in your house as Khalil insist­ed on doing if it were forcibly occu­pied by a hos­tile army?

  6. Imag­ine your­self spend­ing night after night as Youse­f’s fam­i­ly did in one room with ten oth­er peo­ple, and lim­it­ed access to a bath­room. How would you react?

  7. What would you want to ask or say to Youse­f’s moth­er about the chal­lenges she has faced rais­ing a fam­i­ly Gaza?

  8. Were the sol­diers cor­rect in deny­ing Yousef s fam­i­ly from hold­ing his grand­moth­er’s funer­al in their home, as was the custom?

  9. Yousef, at the end his book, for­gives the sol­dier who shot him. Should the sol­dier respond?

  10. After all the pain and the tragedy in the Holy Land, can human­i­ty still exist there? What do you think? Can you think of exam­ples of human­i­ty of each side and how it still exists despite every­thing that hap­pened between Pales­tini­ans and Israelis over the years?
  11. What is a Pales­tin­ian and where do Pales­tini­ans come from?

  12. Who are the chil­dren of Abraham?