A tale of two cities and three worlds

Phila. is a 2d home to many in a Palestinian-Israeli village.

Posted: May 29, 2007

MUKHMAS, West Bank - Standing on a hilltop in front of her family's home in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Nelly Omar, a Jersey-born, Philly-bred, 22-year-old Palestinian, looks out on almond and olive trees, dark brown fields, and dozens and dozens of mansions.

Like her family's hilltop four-story villa, the mansions were built with money from abroad - much of it from Philadelphia.

Omar points to the finely cut local stone, the large plate-glass windows, and the ornate tile roofs, and in her Philadelphia accent she enumerates where the owners of these houses live: "Philly, Philly, Jersey, Jersey . . ."

In fact, more than half the village's 4,000 residents live most of the year in Philadelphia or New Jersey, and return here only in the summer.

With money from America, Mukhmas' residents are doing well, though they worry that the lure of an easier life in the West and a recent Israeli policy that restricts the stay of Palestinian Americans in the West Bank will combine to empty the town.

Last year, Israeli border authorities began refusing entry to Palestinian Americans, closing a loophole that allowed them to stay for years if they renewed their tourist visas every three months.

Some Palestinian Americans outside the West Bank have not been able to get back in. Others face an impossible choice: If Mukhmas residents leave to renew their visas, they may not be allowed to return. Yet if they stay, their visas will expire and they will be illegal immigrants.

Between the pull of Philadelphia and the push from the Israelis, Mukhmas, a village thousands of years old, sometimes seems destined to become an affluent ghost town.

The Phila. connection

For decades, the door between Philadelphia and Mukhmas has been a revolving one. Mukhmas' young and ambitious have left to find work, but they have returned each summer to look for a mate or immerse their children in Palestinian culture. Sometimes they stayed a few years to tame troubled teens with simple village life. Eventually, they made their final journey home to retire in Mukhmas' rocky hills.

Once upon a time, no one here had ever heard of Philadelphia.

Families lived in one-room homes with stables below. They grew olives and raised sheep and goats. The village had a small boys-only school, no medical care, no electricity, and not a single proper road.

In 1908 Mohamed Ahmad set out to find opportunity, and he landed in Philadelphia. That changed the town's fortunes.

Ahmad later brought his son to the United States and then, in 1958, his grandson, who in turn helped 12 brothers, some cousins and a few friends emigrate as well. They brought families and cousins, and suddenly the entire town seemed to be packing.

Mukhmas' New World pioneers worked and started businesses, first selling goods out of their cars and later opening shops such as Cousin's Supermarket, Ibrahim Bros., and small convenience stores.

Soon, the Mukhmas villagers around Philadelphia were able to send money home. And they transformed the town.

Their remittances built mansions with topiary gardens, a school for girls, a municipal building and a mosque. Their donations paved and lit the roads, and put desks and even computers in the classrooms.

Now Mukhmas boasts a few convenience stores, a clinic, and a pool hall with one pool table.

Many of those who never left and those who have returned live a life of leisure. Before midday prayers, they meet in the center of the village, where the main road widens and a few trees offer shade. They sip tea and talk about their relatives on Philadelphia's North Second Street or G Street, or discuss a wedding between two children in Bergen County, N.J. They sprinkle their conversations with English phrases and place names.

Still, the town has held fast to its conservative Muslim values. The pool hall does not serve alcohol, the schools the boys and girls attend are on opposite sides of the village, and women still cover their hair - albeit with fine scarves - when they leave the house.

A door closes

The new West Bank border policy caused an outcry around the world and grief in Mukhmas. The Israelis say they have resolved the problem, calling it an unintended consequence of a new procedure. Even so, they acknowledge that Palestinian Americans may encounter problems entering the country.

An unapologetic Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli ministry that deals with the administration of the West Bank, said: "Sure, some of these old men seem nice. They want to sit down and drink tea with you. But their sons, the young ones, are sometimes militants involved in dangerous activities."

The policy has shaken Mukhmas, which never much struggled against the Israeli occupation. "We raise farmers, not fighters," one villager said.

Mahmud Ibrahim, a Mukhmas native credited with bringing dozens of villagers to the United States, served on the village council for 40 years from his home in Philadelphia. He resigned last year after the Israelis detained him and his wife at the airport for hours, initially refusing them entry. It was too stressful for a 72-year-old, he told his daughter Adab Ibrahim. Now, she said, he and his extended family are reconsidering future visits to Mukhmas.

"A visit to Mukhmas, it changes your life," said Adab Ibrahim, who was born and bred in Philadelphia, save for a two-year stint in the hills of Mukhmas. "I didn't understand what my parents were talking about until I went there and experienced it and made the connection and lived it. Now I'm trying to teach my children Arabic and the traditions, but it is hard if I can't bring them there."

Likewise, Nelly Omar's parents, 20-year residents of Philadelphia's Feltonville section, have not been allowed to return. The grand mansion they constructed with proceeds from the family's West Philadelphia convenience store stands vacant.

Omar's neighbors Ribhi "Sam" and Laila Hassan are trapped in Mukhmas. Laila Hassan - a former Avon lady and nutritionist who grew up in Hoboken, N.J., and raised her family in Union City, N.J., before retiring in Mukhmas - has overstayed her visa. Last year, she missed her daughter's wedding in the United States because she didn't want to risk leaving Mukhmas.

"That was the hardest thing," she said. "Can you imagine missing your own daughter's wedding?"

Hassan married at age 14, not unusual for a Mukhmas woman of her generation. She has bigger plans for her daughters.

"They have to get an education first," said Hassan, who completed her GED while pregnant.

And they have. Her eldest daughter just graduated from Yale University. The second is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hassan said she hoped all five of her children married partners from Mukhmas and settled down here. She and her husband added guest suites to their home to sweeten the deal.

But sitting in his garden, Sam Hassan sighed. The Israelis are only part of the challenge facing Mukhmas.

"My kids say that the U.S. is their home," he said. ". . . They come here to visit us, but after we're gone, the village will be gone. No one will come back."

Drifting away

Neither Abraham nor Jesus nor Mohammed passed through Mukhmas. But this is the birthplace of the Hassans' fathers, their own final destination.

"This is always home," Laila Hassan said. ". . . No one leaves here because they want to. We wanted to improve our lives financially."

Deputy Mayor Mohammed Haj, 40, feels as passionately about Mukhmas as the Hassans do, but he can also see the younger generation straying. His 11-year-old daughter's plans for the future don't include Mukhmas.

"She says, 'Why do I have to study if I'm going to go to America? Why does any of this matter?' "

Haj acknowledged that for all its villas, its worldly residents and modern schools, Mukhmas was still missing something critical: young people who want to build a life here, in this village so small that "no one is a stranger."

Omar, who arrived in Mukhmas from Philadelphia three years ago to look for a husband, would be on the first plane back if not for her new husband, who has been refused traveling papers because of his previous political activism.

"America is the promised land for us, the younger generation," she said. "Mukhmas is like our Florida. It is where our old people go."

But in the summer, Mukhmas comes alive. "It is like a meat market," said Laila Hassan, her eyes sparkling. Dozens of parents with their American-born teens in tow, many of them speaking only the most basic Arabic, unlock their empty villas, don their best clothes, and crowd Friday prayers. Then everyone picnics in the hills, boys and girls keeping a watchful eye on each other.

"Everyone still tries to come back," Laila Hassan said. "Because if one person lets go, then everyone will let go, and then it's gone."

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