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A Palestinian writer’s love letter to her late grandmother

February 5, 2024 at 11:17 am

Aya Ghanameh

It’s 1967 in Nablus, Palestine. Every harvest season, Oraib Yaish, 14, and her mother plucked the small, sage-green fruits that fell onto the muddy soil beneath the olive trees just outside their makeshift home in the Balata refugee camp, in the Israel-occupied West Bank. Young Oraib and her mother cherished the annual stomping of the produce to remove their pits before extracting the “oozing golden liquid” that would later be turned into precious Palestinian olive oil.

Today, Palestinian author and book designer Aya Ghanameh, Oraib’s granddaughter, sifts through remnants of her grandmother’s childhood before occupation and life as a refugee came knocking on her door, a reality predating the 1967 Six Day War, before Israel annexed all of historic Palestine.

To Aya, the nostalgic tale of her grandmother nurturing their family’s vast olive field during each harvest season has evolved into a haunting reminder of the most “despicable tragedy of our time”: Gaza. But Oraib’s story also reminds her of something far more invaluable; Palestinian resilience has no expiry date, it knows no bounds.

With the surge of demonstrations around the world, crowds of pro-Palestinian protesters and relatives of the millions trapped in Gaza have pushed for a permanent ceasefire and decolonial liberation. Many are horrified by the video footage coming out of Gaza since 7 October, where tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed and wounded. The number grows daily.

Palestinians in the US, meanwhile, have been grappling with an additional burden, as Washington continues to provide massive amounts of aid to Israel, both financial and military.

Across the country, Palestinians are left with a palpable sense of American indifference to their suffering.

Aya Ghanameh is one of them. At 24, she now lives in New York City. Like her grandmother, she grew up in Amman.

Aya Ghanameh, 24, author and book designer in New York City

“Growing up, I learned that the story of my family’s Nakba was only a fraction of a much broader campaign to empty every Palestinian city, town and village,” she told me.

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Viking Books for Young Readers, a Penguin imprint, published Ghanameh’s heartfelt children’s book These Olive Trees last August. It’s non-fiction, and traces her grandmother’s deep-rooted family ties to Palestine through their centuries-old tradition of tending olive groves in the coastal village of Al-Tira, west of Mount Carmel. The target audience is those children who are curious about, but are too young to grasp fully, the historic context of what it means to be a Palestinian.

Before Oraib Yaish was born, her family members were forced to walk to the other side of the country during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), with little but their faith in God. They had to leave behind their family’s legacy of olive orchards that had become finely woven into the fabric of their family history in their home on that land, leaving just an archive of memories.

They went to the Balata refugee camp outside Nablus, the only home Oraib and her younger siblings ever knew in Palestine, and the focal point of the 32-page book. Documenting her grandmother’s life through art, she explained, gradually became Ghanameh’s way of countering the mainstream narrative that often “lacks fundamental context of the decades-long struggle for Palestinian liberation.”

Oraib Yaish inside Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, Palestine, 2019.

From nutrient-rich Nablusi olive oil, to soaps and globally used remedies, Palestine has been home to some of the oldest olive trees in the world, with many dating back over 5,000 years. To Palestinians, they have never just been a delicious blend of earthiness and fruit. The olive trees have been their comrades in times of war, displacement and chaos. When their land and loved ones were lost to the violent occupation, the trees became silent companions, embodying the spirit of all those whose lives were cut short so tragically. The trees were also lifelines, though, and a matter of survival. The olives they bore had a solid influence on Palestine’s economy, contributing 14 percent of all income according to the UN.

A 2012 study published by the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem shows that 800,000 Palestinian olive trees were illegally uprooted by the nascent Israeli authorities in 1948. That number is much higher now, due to illegal Jewish settler attacks and destruction wrought by the Israel Occupation Forces.

Olive trees have withstood many years of drought, worn out soil and geopolitical disruption, yet continue to grow and resist such conditions. “Today they stand as living witnesses to the history that once defined the whole of their land,” said Abed Awad, a Palestinian Islamic law expert. “Especially at a time when so many are denying that history.”

The olive trees have become important symbols for Aya Ghanameh and other Palestinians; symbols of their communal strength in times of difficulty. They serve as a reminder of those who went before and tended diligently to the land, akin to a mother nurturing her children. It’s a sacred, undeniable commitment, from generation to generation, to their faith in a free future.

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The 1967 war forced young Oraib and her family to leave Balata refugee camp and her homeland. They crossed to Jordan and settled in Amman. As many as 300,000 Palestinians were displaced yet again in 1967, many being forced into squalid refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As she prepared to leave, Oraib begged for rainfall to safeguard the last olive seed she would ever plant in Palestinian soil.

She whispered a mournful goodbye, aware that the parting marked one of the final times that she could gaze freely up at the sky that had cradled her childhood. “Wait for me. One day when we’re older, I’ll return to you for harvest.” But that day never came.

With the West Bank still under Israeli military occupation and control, Ghanameh clings on to her grandmother’s inspirational words. Despite losing almost everything, Oraib always reminded her grandchildren how crucial their land would be to their identity. This shows in Aya Ghanameh’s work.

Oraib Yaish and her siblings and father in Nablus, Palestine in the 1970s.

She now works as a book designer at Penguin Random House, having graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2021.

“My art is reflective of the collective feeling of Palestinian abandonment,” she said. “The world has turned its back on us for years now.”

She uses social media to educate people in the hope of bringing more humanity to the Palestinian struggle for liberation. “Gaza is entering its seventeenth year of a tight Israeli siege, and is the second most densely populated place on earth.” Everyone, she pointed out, is desensitised to the Palestinian struggle for autonomy.

In spite of the lack of coverage of her people across mainstream media over the years, activists like Ghanameh embody the persistence against mass appropriation that has plagued every aspect of their existence.

“Ignorance is no longer an excuse,” she wrote on Instagram in October. She spoke up on behalf of all in Palestine who are enduring the “highest level of violence, occupation and siege” under round-the-clock Israeli drone surveillance, intimidation and monitoring. “Palestine is a part of me that no one can take away.”

Like nearly seven million Palestinians living in the global diaspora who are still unable to return to their homeland to live, let alone visit, Aya Ghanameh wrestles with the profound loss of a vital part of her identity. Celebrations are reserved for that seemingly unreachable moment: liberation.

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Being stripped of special occasions with extended family in Palestine is a haunting reminder of all the cultural opportunities of which she has been deprived. The opportunities now feel so distant to her.

“In the way that any group of people who have grandparents who survived something horrible, you carry that with you. And we continue to compound new forms of trauma because terrible things don’t stop happening to us.”

Every aspect of her life bears the traumatic imprint of 1948, a year etched into the Palestinian psyche irreparably. It changed forever what it means to be a Palestinian. According to Ghanameh, “Every year hurts more than the last.”

Overwhelmed by the multi-generational fight to preserve Palestinian identity — the struggle dates back to her great grandparents, her grandmother Oraib and the story of These Olive Trees — she feels that there is very little time to mourn the magnitude of Palestinian deaths during the ongoing genocide.  “I don’t know how the world continues to turn away,” she wrote on X.

And as the relentless Israeli offensive continues in Gaza, Aya Ghanameh fears for the fate of a land she will “always consider home.” It’s a home that she has only experienced as a refugee where the contours of her presence have been constrained by the enduring label of a perennial “Arab visitor” marked by dozens of Israeli military checkpoints and security forces. A home that she has never been allowed to embrace fully as just that.

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Her grandmother Oraib passed away on 9 January, aged 70, after battling cancer for two years. This was the woman with whom Ghanameh had spent most of her childhood as her first grandchild, but she believes her story is far from over.

“I see her unwavering spirit in everything around me. In my work, at every protest, in every tree. I hope she knows that her legacy lives on, on bookshelves all around the world.”

She is comforted by the fact that her grandmother had the chance to read what she describes as her “love letter” to her.

These Olive Trees is not just Oraib’s story, though. Ghanameh wants everyone who reads it to understand the human cost of occupation and war, and the enduring impact they have on families.

“It’s a story about the collective plight of all the Palestinian children just like Oraib, who were thrust into a life in the refugee camps, just a few short miles from their homes and villages. It’s a story of hope that one day, Palestinians won’t require documentation, or permission to live in a land that has always historically been theirs. And most importantly, it’s a story of every surviving Palestinian olive tree’s resilience against one of the most generously funded military apparatus. And just like those sturdy olive trees, we are still here. And we are still standing.”