January 2, 2018: From Palestine
On my last day in Havana last March, my host family gave me a farewell gift. In the package of souvenirs from Cuba, there was a fortified plastic key chain in the shape of a heart wrapped in the Cuban flag. “This is to keep us and Cuba in your heart. You must return!” they said, as we exchanged warm hugs on a busy sidewalk in the center of Vedado. A few months later, the key chain fell on the floor of my kitchen in Williamstown in western Massachusetts. The heart broke in half. I glued it back together and inserted it into a stronger ring that already held a metal Handhalah* key chain and my heartfelt promises of return.
One year and nine full moons later, I returned to Cuba. This time, I didn’t have to bypass the US embargo by flying out of Montreal. Instead, I took a direct flight from New York with Cubans and other passengers doubtful about the future of this route and tenuous US-Cuban relations. I also didn’t bring a thick guidebook, but rather a small USB with several images and notes in Spanish for the presentation I was going to give at a conference at the University of Havana on relations between Cuba, Latin America, the Caribbean and the East, or the Orient as the conference organizers described it. Walking towards the university on the first day of the conference, I was accompanied by colleagues from Mexico and Argentina as well as pleasant flashbacks from my March visit. I remembered how I sat by the entrance one afternoon, smoked a cigarette and puffed my daydreams into the air. I remembered how I watched them disappear somewhere into the horizon of the Caribbean, carried by the light breeze and the thick smog that convivially engulfed the city. I remembered how I heard my voice when I secretly said: “I wish I could take classes here!” I remembered joyfully relishing the lucidity of my daydreams.
With butterflies in my stomach and eyes wide open like a freshman on her first day of classes, I headed to the registration desk at Casa Estudiantil to look for my name on the list. A brown-skinned young woman with piercing green eyes and a cheerful smile welcomed me. As she was looking for my name I secretly read her name tag, scrutinized her familiar facial features and recalled all of my cousins who had different names but resembled her, Estela Pérez Léon. When she handed me my name tag and accurately pronounced my name, I asked Estela if she knew Arabic: “I don’t,” she lamented with gentle sadness, “but I am of Syrian origins.” Two days after our first encounter, I met Estela again. This time, she introduced me to her mother, Irma León, and her aunt, Sofía León. We sat in the garden of Casa Estudiantil and talked about their Syrian great-grandmother who migrated to Cuba from the Canary Islands sometime in the early 20th century. We talked about the lost archive of the wealthy Spanish family with whom the great-grandmother had embarked on a ship as a young maid, forced to migrate with her employer. We talked about their relentless efforts to find documents that would enable them to trace her last name or any details that might help them restore her identity. We talked about cultural genetics and deep roots that can flourish from fragments of family anecdotes. We talked about the many ways in which they make daily tribute to the memory of the young Syrian maid who crossed the Atlantic alone, and how she had built a life for herself in Cuba as a free woman with her own family. We talked about the significance of Estela’s keen interest in the history of Arabs and Muslims in Cuba and her political commitment to documenting genealogies of survival. We talked about the symbolic value of searching for origins and inter-generational histories of inspiration. We talked about the spirit of the Syrian-Cuban great-grandmother who brought us together this afternoon.
“You speak Spanish very well,” Professor Gabriel Calaforra said in an animated voice that matched the vivacious flair in which he occupied his old brown wooden chair. “Only when I stick to the present!” I joked in all seriousness and thanked him for his generous compliment, my eyes fixated on the quint golden-thread Quran tapestry and the word Allah in Arabic holding a translucent blue evil-eye bead, both hanging on the wall behind his upright back and his bright blue eyes almost sealed from degenerative blindness. Remaining in the present, my eyes scanned Professor Calaforra’s eclectic collection of Afro-Cuban amulets as my ears listened attentively to his vivid memories of a life spent on different continents and numerous languages, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, before his final return to Cuba. Professor Calaforra, 84 years old, a polyglot, intellectual, and former diplomat, believes in the law of karma.
When my friend Gilberto Conde asked earlier that morning if I wanted to join him on a mission in Centro Habana, I accepted enthusiastically. I was particularly excited about the prospect of walking in the colorful residential streets of Havana carrying two special gifts: traditional Mexican sweets and warm greetings to Professor Calaforra from one of his former Cuban students who lived in Mexico. After his warm welcome in Arabic, which left Gilberto and me delightfully astonished, Professor Calaforra inquired about our taste in coffee. “Just like Cubans! With sugar,” we confirmed as we sat across from him, eagerly prepared to hear more about his worldly peregrinations. Professor Calaforra spoke passionately and volubly about many topics: his attempts to study Arabic, his memoir about life in Denmark as a Cuban ambassador in the 1960s, his encounter with the concept of lobbying after observing a meeting Golda Meir held at the UN in 1967, his son who used to live in Damascus and Cairo while studying ancient archeology, his famous weekly Monday Club that hosted Cuban students, intellectuals and artists for debate circles, and his fear for the future of Cuba. Professor Calaforra spoke with the insight of a poet-historian. He described his reflections on the political lessons he had learned over the years with illuminating metaphors and ironic observations. Nothing interrupted the flow of his speech apart from our questions and a white cloth handkerchief he repeatedly fetched from his pocket to gently remove an annoying tear leaking from his blue eyes. He spoke without giving too much attention to the light wind rushing from the Caribbean into his living room via the open doors of the balcony, or the old neighbor leaning on the rail of a balcony in the building across with curious eyes peering at the people in the street below and into his living room in the same movement. “Is she listening to his stories, or casually admiring his collection of Cuban and Asian art hanging steadfastly on the peeling walls? Is she curious about the old books stacked on the four walls of his bedroom across from her?” My mind briefly wondered before Professor Calaforra brought it back by offering to take us on a short book tour of his library, which stretched into all corners of his two-bedroom apartment.
Traces of the aroma of the Cuban coffee we had just finished drinking blended with the fragrance of a used books store as we stepped into our last station on the tour: the kitchen. Old hardcover books from the east and west of Asia were lined up in bookcases standing bravely under worn-out cabinets holding sugar, spices and dust. In this collection were two shelves dedicated to books about Islam in Spanish and English, including the complete edition of Imam Ali’s Nahj al-Balaghah, which stood next to a thick Persian-English dictionary. “These books were a special gift from an Iranian ambassador,” Professor Calaforra answered when we asked how this collection on Islam made it to his kitchen. While browsing the titles, my eyes spotted a green book with Arabic letters: Ahmad Kamal, Al-Rihla al-Muqaddasah, published in 1960. Opening the book as if it were a lost item from a treasure island, and not a manual on Hajj dos and don’ts, I found a surprise covering the first page: a small, fading black-and-white photo cut from a Cuban newspaper probably dating back to 1953. The title read: “Naguib Hacia Meca.” The four-line caption had the rest of the story: “The president-dictator of Egypt, General Mohamed Naguib, arriving at the airport of Cairo on August 18 where he departed for pilgrimage in Mecca. The president wears the traditional clothes of pilgrims.” The clip did not mention the name of the person who took the picture, or the identity of the Egyptian military officer standing next to Naguib. How the flashy whiteness of Naguib’s pilgrim outfit survived the humidity of a Havana kitchen also remained a mystery, as did the question of who came up with the metaphor of the president-dictator and why this image persisted so well. I didn’t bother Professor Calaforra with these puzzles, as he was deeply engaged in talking about his ongoing efforts to expand the collection of Braille books in Cuba. Who knows! Maybe the answers are in Cairo. They may even be stored in a similar kitchen-library, together with the haunting ghosts of president-dictators and the roaming spirits of dying revolutions. But what is certain is the loud laughter of the angel of history spinning the wheel of fortune and shaking dust out of the green hardcover book and the revolving unsacred journeys of rebels.
She left her first name and phone number on a tiny piece of paper. “Call me,” Martha said. “My husband would love to meet someone from Palestine,” she added before rushing back to her seat in Jerusalen Salón to watch the man on stage perform on his guitar a song by Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez. I first encountered Martha outside the hall of Jerusalen Salón in the Union Arabe de Cuba while exploring the building, which has different salons named after Arab cities and several installations with photos documenting the recent history of the Arab diaspora in Cuba. In our short exchange, I learned that whoever told me and my friend Gilberto Conde not take to pictures or linger at the gathering in Jerusalen Salón had no right to do so. I also learned that the man playing guitar is her husband. His last name is Salman, and he is from Palestine.
On my last night in Havana I called Martha. She put her husband, Daniel, on the phone. “Just come!” he said wholeheartedly. When I called again at 8 pm to say that I might be arriving an hour later than originally scheduled, he insisted: “Just come!” So I went.
At 9.30 pm, I arrived at Nuevo Vedado. Martha and Daniel were waiting for me on their balcony on the fifth floor with a gracious smile and a warm welcome, as if I were an old family member stopping by for a late cup of coffee. After tea served with sugar and a very bubbly Q&A about my visit to Havana, amid Martha’s social charm that continues to bring people into Daniel’s life, our mutual interest in politics, travel, past lives, music and family stories, I was introduced to Simón Salman, Daniel’s grandfather from Nazareth. He surfaced from a dozen black-and-white pictures scattered among color photos of Martha and Daniel: Photos from their teenage years, photos with their families, photos from when they first fell in love, and photos from their time abroad on missions as members of the Cuban Medical Internationalism program. Daniel has never been to Palestine. He also does not know the exact year his grandfather came to Cuba, or if Simón was even his original name. However, he could roughly guess the date the photos were taken based on his fond memories of his grandfather, stories his parents told him, his grandmother’s posture, and other cues, like “before or after that year when they moved into the house in Ciudad Mar in San Miguel in south-east Havana.” While Martha and I were intensely preoccupied with the family archive spread on the dining table, my iPhone detecting phantasmic similarities between the profiles of Simón and a man on a distant continent with whom I had recently fallen in love, Daniel interrupted us: “Do you think that we can still find his traces in Palestine?” Noticing the doubtful-hopeful tone of his question, I promised that I would do my best and ask around in Nazareth. “Don’t worry!” I reassured him. “As the popular proverb goes, “Palestine is as small as the vagina of a scorpion!” Everyone knows everyone. I am sure someone knows of him.”
Going down the five flights of stairs from Martha and Daniel’s apartment, I carefully held onto the rail and my awe at the hour and a half I had spent in their living room and office-art studio. Despite the taxi’s honk urging me to rush, I came down slowly, afraid of dropping the fragile souvenir I was carrying in my hands: new contact information, a group selfie, hand-made gifts from a nascent friendship, and trust. Before leaving, Martha, an artist-healer, handed me a signed white paper carton and a small glass bottle. The carton was a three-dimensional portrait of a tree with an eye holding its roots. In the dedication on the back she noted: “Invisible Genealogical Trees.” The bottle had a liquid that she had swiftly mixed in her aromatherapy lab while I was saying my goodbye. The customized blend included essences of flower petals from the Andes and some water from the desert in Chile. “Just add a few drops of rum to it and you will be fine,” she prescribed. I believed her!
Daniel, to my surprise, gave me a small photo of Simón Salman. “This is for you. It is one of my favorite pictures of my grandfather,” he said without a blink as he handed me the gift. “Maybe it will help you find him!” I thanked Daniel for trusting me with his grandfather’s picture. I promised that I would take very good care of it and tucked it into my wallet, in the same pocket where I keep my precious belongings: my ID, small photos of my loved ones and notes of my secret wishes.
Since then, Simón Salman and I have been ruminating. He, in a small black-and-white photo walking on San Rafael sometime in the 1950s, a cigarette in his mouth and both arms loose at his side, dressed in a gray suit, a white buttoned-up shirt and shiny black shoes holding big confident steps that match his direct sharp gaze at the camera. I, in casual summer clothes in late December at the airport of Panama City while in transit between Havana and Managua, looking at him with intrigue and searching for clues that would help me trace a Palestinian man from Nazareth marching like a knight in Centro Habana with alluring elegance and charisma. Who is he? Why did he come to Cuba? When was the last time he got in touch with his family? How did he envision his return to Palestine? With these questions, Simón Salman and I crossed the Caribbean Sea. Together, we had imagined conversations about homelands and diasporas, compared notes about tropical vs. cold landscapes, celebrated Christmas with Muslim Palestinian friends in the Selva Negra in Nicaragua, looked without hesitation into the cameras of US immigration officers, walked in the freezing avenues of New York City with their decorated lights, celebrated the beginning of another new year away from home, crossed the Atlantic, wrote poems while waiting in transit in Istanbul, and finally returned to Palestine. In our overweight luggage, we carried our deepest longings and a light Cuban-heart Handhalah key chain.
*Handhalah: A 10-year-old character created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, used by Ali to denote a young refugee and universal witness, and now a well-known symbol of Palestinian resistance and an icon for the right of return.