‘Mama, it’s me!’
I first saw them on television. It was a live satellite broadcast of two women, one older and one younger, crying hysterically. They were obviously in different countries. Suddenly, the older woman fainted and television crew members rushed to her.
Intrigued, I kept watching – along with thousands of viewers across the Arab world. As the woman was revived, I soon learned that I was watching a mother and daughter seeing each other for the first time in 24 years. They were Palestinians separated during the 16-year Lebanese civil war. And now the mother was in Gaza in the Palestinian occupied territories while the daughter was in Beirut. The television station, run by the Lebanese Shia Muslim Hizbullah organization, had brought them together through satellite. A few weeks later, I saw them again on a live Abu Dhabi television broadcast. This time, the women were in the same studio, hugging each other dearly and crying out against the misfortunes which had separated them.
A month later, I heard that mother and daughter had been reunited again in Beirut. The cameras were absent this time. The mother, Rihab Kanaan, had managed to come to Lebanon by joining a delegation from Gaza who were touring the country to exhibit photographs of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. The daughter Maymana, a Beirut resident, was spending every waking moment with her. I found myself drawn to the exhibition to meet the women.
Their disbelief in being together was obvious as they continually touched or embraced each other. Suddenly, a worried look came across Rihab’s face.
‘When am I going to see her again?’ she asked me. ‘I am only here for one month. It may be years before I hold my daughter once more.’
Twenty-four years ago she had kissed Maymana, then six, and her four-year-old son Maher goodbye, promising to see them every day. Rihab and her husband had just divorced and Muslim law dictates that the children remain in their father’s custody.
But the Lebanese civil war was in full swing. The children and their father were forced to move around the country hiding from shelling and violence. Rihab, who had remarried, could no longer locate them.
In August 1982 Rihab’s new husband, who was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization movement, was exiled – along with Yasser Arafat’s entourage – to Tunisia. From there, Rihab kept up her efforts to locate her children. When no word came, she returned to Beirut in 1986 to continue her desperate search. But with the ongoing shelling in the capital, it proved to be an impossible task. Dejected, she returned to Tunisia.
Soon after, she came across a magazine recounting the horrors of the Lebanese war. She stared at one of the photographs. It was her son, Maher, then 12. She read that he had been killed by a sniper’s bullet. The years passed and she remained clueless about the fate of her daughter.
In 1995 Rihab and her husband moved to Gaza. Five years later, Rihab found a telephone number for a relative residing in Beirut. On impulse, she called the number and asked for help in locating her daughter. Two days later, she received a telephone call. Thinking it was a friend she had been expecting and who was late, she picked up the phone and began chiding the caller. After a brief silence, the caller yelled out: ‘Mama, it’s me. Maymana.’
That year Israel withdrew from south Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. The women arranged to meet at the border. For a week after Israeli troops withdrew from the south, hundreds of Palestinians congregated on both sides of the border where they were able to greet each other through the fence.
Maymana showed up carrying a sign identifying herself. But the day passed and her mother didn’t appear. Unbeknown to her, the Israeli authorities had refused to let Rihab reach the Lebanese border. As Maymana watched other families reunite, she broke down in tears. She felt doomed never to see her mother again.
Two years later Rihab met a journalist in Gaza who worked for the Hizbullah television station. She told him of her plight. On 21 March, on Mothers’ Day, the station arranged for mother and daughter to see and speak to each other via a live satellite broadcast. A month later, Abu Dhabi television invited mother and daughter to the United Arab Emirates for a televised reunion.
In Beirut, their time together was limited. Travelling for Palestinians is difficult.
‘I missed so much in her life,’ said Rihab. ‘But I found her and that’s all that matters right now.’
As if fearing that her daughter would vanish, Rihab held on tightly to Maymana’s arm.
‘I now believe in miracles and hope when I didn’t before,’ said Maymana. ‘I have finally found a mother’s love.’
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.