The teacher quickly agreed to meet me. I was in Syria for a few days and had heard quite a lot about him. Hamid Halabi, a simple schoolteacher, had decided to fight the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in his own way: by giving lessons via television to children residing in the occupied area.
He showed up at my hotel carrying documents and maps showing every village in the Golan. Born in one of those villages, Halabi has become passionate about ‘keeping the memory of the Golan Heights alive’, as he puts it.
The Israelis have set up their own schools for our (Syrian) children and they are teaching them pure propaganda,’ he said, outraged.
Halabi produced his maps and pointed to all the Arab names of the villages. ‘The Israelis have given them Hebrew names, Hebrew!’ he continued. ‘But they have proper Arab names.’
The villages are now long gone. They were demolished in 1967 by the invading Israeli army. Over 150,000 residents fled the area and 244 villages and farms were subsequently destroyed. Today, Jewish settlers dot the area. Only five villages remained in the northern tip of the Golan Heights. The residents of four of them – members of the Druze faith, an offshoot of Islam – refused to leave. Halabi was born in the village of Massaada – one of those four villages. The fifth village, Ghajar, is populated by Alawites, a branch of Shi’a Islam.
‘I know the families in these villages,’ he said. ‘And I want their children to know that they are Syrian. The Israelis are teaching them Hebrew and their own version of history, so we have to counteract that.’
Along with several other teachers, Halabi appears on television in a daily half-hour programme pointing out the Arab names of the villages and teaching the Arabic language, history and geography.
His family still reside in the occupied Golan Heights. It was by pure chance that he happened to be in Damascus sitting for a teacher certificate examination when Israel invaded. He was trapped.
‘My father, my family and the rest of the villagers stayed,’ said Halabi. ‘They made a pact to die in their homes rather than leave. And there they still remain.
Halabi hasn’t been able to return home since. For years, the only way to communicate with his ageing parents and his eight siblings was to stand at the edge of the free Golan Heights and look across the few hundred metres at the occupied village of Majdal Shams. Through a loudspeaker he would yell across to passers-by to telephone and summon his family from the next village. Once facing each other, the separated family would exchange their news. Near them would be hundreds of other Syrians doing the same. Seven years ago, however, people in Israel were able to place telephone calls to neighbouring Arab countries, allowing the separated Golan families to talk to each other.
‘But we still go and stand at the edge of the Golan Heights every once in a while so we can see each other,’ he said.
The only chance he got to embrace his mother again was in 1980 – 13 years after their enforced separation. The United Nations arranged a meeting in tents set up between the occupied and the free Golan Heights. An overwhelmed Halabi took photographs of his mother. But the film was confiscated by UN peacekeeping troops after Israeli soldiers objected to the photographs being taken.
At the memory, Halabi’s tears began to flow. After a few awkward moments, he regained his composure and apologized. ‘You see, I never saw my mother again,’ he said. ‘She died three years later.’
Halabi began a teaching career in Damascus. But an increasing feeling of frustration at his inability to help out the residents of the occupied Golan was gnawing at him. In 1985, when the Syrian Government announced its intention of funding a television teaching programme for the children of the Golan, Halabi jumped at the chance. ‘This was something I could do,’ he said. ‘I know the people there. I know their parents. They know my family. It’s one way I can help out.’
Settling for this much lower-paid job, Halabi threw himself into the project.
Every once in a while, he would travel to the free Golan to within a few hundred metres of his 95-year-old father. The men would wave at each other.
‘What else can I do? I am desperate to embrace my father. But until Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria, I cannot be with my family.