The first time I saw the book, I had been talking to refugees in the Palestinian camps in Beirut, Sabra and Chatila. Abu Youssef, a man I had come to see, was reading it out loud to his eight children.
‘You come from a village in northern Palestine called Deir al-Qassi,’ he was telling them. ‘I am going to read to you the names of every person who lived in the village. You must memorize every detail in this book.’
Intrigued, I sat among the children and listened intently. Abu Youssef turned to a map and showed it around. It was hand-drawn and marked every house and tree. The lesson over and the children dispersed, I scrutinized the book. It was about 255 pages and contained an amazing amount of detail.
Like most Palestinian villages, Deir al-Qassi was destroyed in 1948 when the Jewish state was created. But in the book, it was still very much alive. I felt myself transported to Deir al-Qassi, observing villagers going about their daily chores. I learned of the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the crops they sowed and how they constructed their homes. I felt I was accompanying them to their mosques and cemeteries and later to picnics in the woods.
I learned of their customs, traditions, beliefs, and superstitions – their religious commemorations, their ways of welcoming strangers, proverbs, folk dances, poetry and songs. I even learned how to relate with passing Bedouins. Every inhabitant, shop owner, proprietor and shepherd was listed.
‘Who did all this?’ I asked.
The writer’s name was Ibrahim Othman, I was told, and he lived in the southern Lebanese town of Tyre. I set off to meet him.
No sooner had I introduced myself to the 60-year-old schoolteacher than he pointed to a rough painting on the wall. It showed a few houses scattered among some hills in a picturesque village. He had painted it himself and it was how he remembered his village.
‘Do you know that my village is closer to Tyre than Sidon is?’ he said. Sidon, another Lebanese town, was less than an hour away.
He began to write the book, he said, when he noticed that he was agonizing at the passing away of the elderly. ‘They have the memories and evidence that once there was a village called Deir al-Qassi,’ he said. ‘That once there was a people living there, farming the land and leading simple honest lives.’ Three years ago, he suddenly felt compelled to track down the elderly and get their stories.
‘I felt I had a mission. And that is to write every detail I could get and write a book about Deir al-Qassi.’ And so Othman travelled throughout Lebanon going from village to village asking if Palestinians above the age of 70 resided in them – specifically Palestinians from Deir al-Qassi. Altogether, he located 51 elderly villagers – the oldest was 102 years old. It was often a race against time. ‘Some passed away a few days after the interview and others died before I could get to them,’ he remembers.
Othman spent hours with each person. ‘I wanted to know everything,’ he said. ‘From customs, to who owned what shops, to the games children played.’
Othman was also able to depend on his own memories. He clearly remembers that day in 1948 when as a six-year-old he was playing in a street with some friends. In only three days, he was to go to school for the first time and he was excited about it. He also recalls that his parents were especially pleased that season as the harvesting – which was to begin in the next few days – looked exceptionally good that year.
‘It was a Thursday afternoon when the (Israeli) planes came and began to bomb the village. I ran in panic along with everyone else. On the way, some children were blown to pieces.’
Joining up with his family, he hid in fields. But the attacks didn’t cease and villagers fled to nearby Lebanon. A few days later, some of the villagers sneaked back into Palestine and made their way to the village to retrieve their belongings from their homes.
Some never made it back. Among them was the mother of a man Othman located and interviewed. The last thing Mohamed Maarouf, now 77, heard was his mother calling out to him as Israeli soldiers riddled her body with bullets. His story is one of those included in the book.
Othman spared no details – from statistics to the name of the coffee seller down the road. ‘They’re all in the book. Everything has been reconstructed just as it was.’
Finally, last year, the book went to print. Othman put all of his savings into producing over 1,000 copies and distributed them free of charge to the offspring of Deir al-Qassi. Fifty copies were kept aside for ‘my children, their children and grandchildren,’ he said. ‘This is my legacy to them.’