I’ve heard countless bittersweet tales of my father’s childhood in Palestine, but I never had the courage to ask him about the one episode that tore the fabric of his community to shreds; namely his experience in 1948. During his recent visit to Abu Dhabi, I finally sat him down. This is his story of joy and trepidation, trauma and resilience.
In The Beginning…
Butros Peter Elias Zabaneh was born in Ramleh to Elias Rafael Zabaneh, a businessman, distributing goods to retailers and Julia Rantissi, a homemaker. From a family of five boys and three girls, they lived a comfortable life, next door to extended family. It’s thought that the Zabaneh family fled Ottoman persecution from Anatolia and settled in Ramleh 250 years before my father’s birth in the 1930s.
Ramleh enjoyed a thriving Arab majority before most of its inhabitants were expelled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Its economic importance was shared with the neighboring town of Lydda, located strategically on the main supply route to Jerusalem.
Ramleh had a popular Wednesday market replete with the colors, aromas and bustle that only an Arabic marketplace can yield.
As a boy, I loved walking through the stalls to see what the villagers were selling.
His father was a devoted Christian, who was very strict and his mother a busy homemaker, caring for her large family. “My fondest memory was of her superb cooking. She made the best ‘Laban Immo,’ a rice and yogurt delicacy, made with lamb or pork. I can still recall its mouthwatering fragrance.”
Dad’s childhood in Ramleh was peaceful, with a close-knit family filled with happy memories in their home. “We had a beautiful garden with a fountain. I loved to play football and run in it. There were plenty of animals roaming around like chickens, roosters and rabbits.” He also spent a lot of time playing with cousins and siblings in his grandfather’s olive grove. “These were precious moments,” Nobody realized then how irrevocably his life would be soon turned upside down.
World War 2
In 1941, Dad broke his arm while playing with his cousin. “We were riding a donkey through my grandfather’s citrus grove. I can still remember the tangy scent of the lemon trees filling the air. It was paradise.” There was no expert surgeon in Ramleh so his mother and grandmother took him to hospital in Tel Aviv.
It was World War 2 and while I was being treated, there was a bombing raid. Italian fighter jets flew over us. I was too young to understand what was happening, though I remember my mother holding me tightly while we escaped to a bomb shelter in the hospital.
The fear he experienced at that time was a prelude to what would come only a few years later.
The Death March
When the British began withdrawing from Palestine in 1948, my Dad’s family became increasingly concerned. His relatives were all hearing stories of massacres in nearby villages by Zionist paramilitaries and the family began considering an emergency plan.
Ramleh became a gateway for refugees who travelled through from nearby towns. The Palestinian exodus from Lydda and Ramleh, also known as the Lydda Death March, involved the expulsion of nearly 70,000 people. These desperate families clogged the roads in and out of Ramallah for weeks. Over 350 Palestinians died due to exhaustion and dehydration. Dad recalled,
I remember seeing flocks of Palestinian families leaving in droves through my town. Fleeing in trucks, buses, taxis and by foot, any means possible.
In March 1948, Zionist paramilitaries carried out an explosion at Ramleh’s famous Wednesday market. “My father and uncles were there that day when the explosion happened. They came home disturbed by what they saw; bloodshed and body parts lying on top of stalls and carts.” Like many Palestinians who were terrified of what would become of them, the family decided to pack up and leave their beloved Ramleh. As the refugees were departing the twin cities of Lydda and Ramleh, many of them were stripped of their jewelry and money, some of the women even raped at roadblocks manned by the Jewish Army.
We were petrified as the journey out of there was perilous. My mother buried her jewelry in the garden and we locked up our home, escaping into a taxi via a hidden dirt road in order to avoid Zionist guerillas.
The Zabaneh family took refuge in Birzeit College dormitories and waited impatiently for loved ones to arrive safely.
My pregnant sister Wadad, who was living in Lydda, fled on foot to meet us in Birzeit. Probably induced by the trauma of the situation, Wadad went into labor and ended up delivering her daughter on the side of the road. The umbilical cord was cut with a stone, and miraculously my sister and her daughter Almaza – or Diamond in English – survived, continuing their journey to Birzeit on a donkey.
Picking Up The Pieces
After nearly two years in Birzeit, the Zabaneh family moved to Ramallah when it became clear that there was no hope of returning back to Ramleh. They stayed in a warehouse at first , taking food from UNRWA. Eventually, the family began a new life and started a business, The Zabaneh Groceries, which still exists there today. My father remembers going into a depression, impacted by the trauma of loss and surrounded by the hardship of so many.
It was difficult to pick up the pieces and start over, we had lost so much. Things were never the same after that. I started working at the age of 19 to help support my family.
My father’s first job was with the Jordanian Broadcasting Service in Ramallah as a radio announcer and translator. Dad found a passion in the field and continued to build his career translating news from Washington into bulletins with the United States Information Service (USIS) for the American Embassy in Amman, Jordan. He was later offered a position with the Voice of America (VOA) on Rhodes Island in Greece, where he worked for five years.
These were amongst the best years of my life, things were finally shifting for me and my career had really taken off. I loved my job and found a passion in the news world,
My father received offers with Reuters and BBC Radio but felt the responsibility and pressure to stay close to his family and support them. By 1971, the opportunities of Canada began to present themselves and Dad decided to immigrate to Toronto, following his younger brothers. Together, they began a new life and started a successful business.
I made the momentous decision to leave my career in broadcasting and start a new life in Canada with my brothers. Our family was close knit, having experienced the deep trauma of loss together. I didn’t want to abandon them. What happened in 1948 propelled us toward a better life with freedom, equality and opportunities that no longer existed in the Middle East. We understood how hard we had to work and that sacrifices needed to be made to achieve our goals.
That same year, Dad met my mother Nabila in Beirut, Lebanon after which they decided to get married and move together to Toronto. Dad and his brothers founded a chain of grocery businesses known as the Shopping Spot and they thrived over the years.
My father and uncles were hard working immigrants and I am so grateful to them for the life they gave us. I grew up with a sense of peace and security that my father never had.
Maintaining a cultural connection to Palestine was vital for Dad. Devoutly spiritual, he was involved in several charities and was also a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, becoming a Knight of the Order of St. Ignatius, helping to found a new church for the Levantine community in Toronto. Always ready with a smile, extending a hand in friendship, Dad was the first point of call for new immigrants to the community and would often take people under his wing, socially and professionally, as they navigated their arrival to the new country.
Educating our children and grandchildren about what happened in 1948 is necessary and represents a huge part of who we are and what we have become. The cultural and national identity of Palestinians is inextricably tied to the memories of our once thriving homeland. Palestinians the world over must not be afraid to visit Palestine and connect with their roots, even if it is difficult to face the occupation.
He returned to his ancestral town of Ramleh for the first time in 1983 to see what had happened to his family home.
I was heartbroken, Ramleh was unrecognizable. I went to my childhood home that my grandfather built on his land, to find it converted into an American School. I couldn’t believe what I saw it was devastating. I wandered the grounds and went into the garden to see that the fountain was still there. I wondered if my mother’s jewelry was still hidden in the ground around it.
Like so many of his generation, my father believes that Palestinians living in the diaspora have an obligation to keep the legacy of Palestine alive.
A resolution to the conflict will take time – but our memories – these can never be erased. Memories are eternal.
Did you know…
The St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Toronto was founded in 1951 by a group of dedicated and faithful Orthodox families – a small community at the time – but with a lot of generosity and hard work, they succeeded in building a church in down town. Due to the political instability in the Middle East, the Church grew largely and a larger temple was established in the 80’s.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.