February 23, 2020

It’s Time to Talk About Our Grandmothers

Photo by Pexels.

It’s been a banner week for grandmothers.

After Israel announced that it would deny entry to Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for supporting boycotts of the Jewish state, Tlaib then requested permission to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank, agreeing to respect any restrictions.

After Israel granted her permission, Tlaib declined to go, citing “oppressive conditions.”

Pro-Palestinian social media had a field day, particularly on Twitter, where people began to use the hashtag #MyPalestinianSitty to post stories of their Palestinian grandmothers (“sitty” is Arabic for “grandmother”).

As I read these tweets, I thought about grandmothers, not just Palestinian grandmothers but all grandmothers. I thought of our Jewish narratives, like those of the 850,000 Jews who fled or were forced out of Arab and Muslim countries in the 20th century.

Don’t they deserve their own Twitter hashtag? 

Yes, the stories for #MyPalestinianSitty were powerful. One woman tweeted, “#MyPalestinianSitty(s)- strong, inspiring & influential women from #BeitHanina who shaped who I am today. One was born in a free Palestine & died without seeing it free again. The other born shortly after the #Nakba, with hopes of seeing a free Palestine during her lifetime.”

We could use a similar energy among Jews and their  descendants who escaped or were forced out of Arab and Muslim countries that will propel them to share their amazing stories, not necessarily as a reaction to the Palestinian narrative but simply because these stories are worth telling.

I know the stories are out there — from those who escaped Iraq during the 1941 Farhud, during which an estimated 150 to 180 Jews were slaughtered, to the Jewish families who were airlifted out of Libya because of anti-Jewish riots after the 1967 Six-Day War, to the stories of Iranian Jews who fled after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though not all survived.

I recently heard a story about one man’s Jewish-Syrian grandmother, who unwillingly left her infant to die in the desert as she tried to escape Syria in the late ’40s because the baby’s cries could have exposed the entire group. But her torment was too unbearable, and the woman returned for her frightened and dehydrated baby, risking the lives of other escapees as the infant cried through the desert.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not a battle between heart-wrenching stories, and the controversy over Tlaib’s grandmother resonated deeply with me because I’m Iranian and I’ve never been able to return to Iran to visit my grandmother’s grave.

In fact, Iran is the reason why I won’t let Tlaib and others who tell emotionally charged stories of wars and grandmothers be the only voices on the subject.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing if not a battle between heart-wrenching stories.

As soon as I read the aforementioned post about a young woman whose grandmother “was born in a free Palestine and died without seeing it again,” I thought of my grandmother “Nanechi.”

Her story was that of a woman who was born free and died oppressed. She was born in Iran before the revolution that turned the country into an official Shi’ite theocracy that persecutes minorities and hangs gay men.

I never saw my grandmother after my parents, sister and I escaped Iran. She died in 2003, and three of her five sons (and their children) weren’t there to bury her in the soil that had turned from vibrant and free to rotting in oppression.

I don’t want to sound heartless, but Rashida Tlaib is lucky on at least one account: She had an opportunity to see her grandmother. I’d have to decide whether returning to Iran to place a rock on my grandmother’s headstone would be worth being imprisoned, beaten or worse.

With all this in mind, I have a hashtag, too:

#MyIranianNanechi was born in a free Iran, survived the deadly air raids of the Iran-Iraq War, never saw most of her grandchildren again, and died while still wearing her mandatory Islamic head covering in a hospital bed. In her modest grave in Tehran, she is finally free.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.