My Brother, My Land
A Story from Palestine
Sami Hermez, with Sireen Sawalha



Visitor’s Room, an Israeli Prison, 1999

Returning to the prison consumed all of Um Yousef’s energy. Afterward, she remained in bed all day. But like the full moon, she had to return. She had to see her son. For in his absence, her chest was tight, her breaths suffocating.

Habibi, ya ʿeni, how are you?” she asked him excitedly.

“I’m good. God makes things easy,” Iyad responded, his face lit up with joy. Then he paused and glanced around. “Where is the Haj?” he asked his mother.

Abuk kan taʿban. Your father was tired the past two days. He didn’t think we would be able to see you,” replied Um Yousef. Iyad met his mother’s words with a slight frown and lowered eyebrows. He nodded. His father had been dealing with diabetes for over ten years.

Sireen examined her younger brother as he exchanged words with their mother. She could see him panning the room, as if still expecting their father to emerge from the shadows. His broad shoulders shrugged at the news. She saw her eyes in him—earthy, with a blend of green and brown, now shimmering against his short, dark beard.

It was hard to imagine, despite all the years that had gone by with him in prison, that my brother had been involved in resistance activities. That my brother was a prisoner of war.

She thought back to the last time she saw him free, a time before she had left for the US. The two of them were brother and sister, this was true. But they might as well have been strangers leading separate lives. Strangers who left indelible marks on each other.

Sireen had been around in Iyad’s early years. She had spent many hours telling him stories and taking him on imaginary adventures. But it had been a decade and a half since they had lived under the same roof. A decade and a half since their paths began to diverge.

There is one story I always remember. The story of Shater Hasan, the brave, smart, hardworking Hasan. In my version, Hasan falls in love with the king’s daughter. The king agrees to let them marry on condition that Hasan is able to retrieve a stolen jewel on the peak of a mountain. Seven hills, each guarded by a hyena that Hasan has to outwit, stands between him and the peak. It is a near-impossible task. Sometimes the story took me two nights to complete, and Iyad listened to every word. Shater Hasan is ultimately able to outmaneuver the hyenas, free the jewel, and live happily ever after with the king’s daughter.

“Sireen, I miss your stories,” Iyad blurted out.

Sireen smiled. It was as if the two of them were little again.

He wanted her to talk about her life, but the prison walls did not inspire her. She glanced at her mother. Although she knew there was tenderness underneath, their relationship had always been rocky. She did not want to discuss her problems in the US around her. And Iyad would likely not understand or might take their mother’s side anyway. She decided the less they knew, the better, so she stuck with generalities.

Mother and sister sat with Iyad for over an hour that day. His face was bright and alive, the two women were all smiles, they all laughed together, and he felt rejuvenated. But there were moments when they avoided eye contact and fidgeted, studied their hands, repeated questions they had already asked about Iyad’s health and whether he had enough food. When they felt the sting of the place and were reminded of the walls around them. Walls within the walls of occupation within which each of their lives was framed.

Before they left, Iyad pleaded with Sireen to help him. “Sireen, you have to get me out. Use your contacts in the US. Don’t leave me here.”

Princeton, NJ, 2005

Sireen is standing in her kitchen across from me. It is nine in the morning on a Monday, and her three children are at school. She is patiently watching, waiting for a stained kettle to come to a boil. When it whistles, she turns off the stove, adds two tea bags and half a handful of dried miramiya, and stands over the simmering tea, staring into space as steam rises. A moment later, she glances at me with a twinkle in her hazel green eyes. Around her cheeks, deep dimples fold like waves excited to caress the shore.

Do you smell that? That’s the scent of Kufr Raʿi,

The sweet scent of sage fills the kitchen air, but I don’t know her village and certainly can’t smell it. I smile.

To Sireen, Kufr Raʿi is more than a land, more than a village, more than its people and its structures; it is a life. Her life back in Palestine. And for a moment, she feels home—home in the presence of the jasmine tree that has always hung over a green steel gate. Home in a suspended future.

She places the kettle on a wooden tray and carries it into the living room. She sits down, pours two cups of tea, and looks out at the snow in her garden that stretches out toward a vast meadow, horses galloping in the distance. Princeton University is only three miles away, across Carnegie Lake. The weather is freezing and unforgiving this February.

I sit beside Sireen, separated by a small side table, stroking my three-day stubble, watching her hard and weathered yet still-gentle hands as she raises her cup of tea to her lips. Her fingernails are short; it’s easier this way to do the gardening. She’s applied an orange-red polish to them, a color that stands out well against her olive skin.

Behind me, a desk with a monitor and piles of paper, her children’s homework layered between unpaid bills. On the floor, two wireless joysticks and scattered toys in front of a box TV—no matter how much she tidies up, there is always the mess of a house well lived in. Soft sunrays refract through two large windows, delivering a lightness to our morning encounter.

On the side table between us, she has placed a tray with toasted Jersey-made pita bread and three small bowls, one with zaʿatar, another with oil—both brought from Palestine during her father’s latest visit—and a third with homemade labneh. She dips into it but tells me this spread is otherwise for me, as she has already eaten.

We begin with chitchat about our previous encounters and the people we know in common at Princeton University.

The two of us have only met twice before today. The first time was through her close friend Rima, who introduced me to Sireen a few months earlier, some time between Yassir Arafat’s death and Mahmoud Abbas’s election—or ascension—to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat had done so much for the Palestinian cause, but he may have also ruined it, buried it, and all but delivered the capitulation of his people. He left Abbas, his right-hand man, a stooge-like figure, to effectively inherit his rule. However great Arafat was—and I’ll leave that judgment to others—he was certainly a poor judge of character. In any case, those events mean less to me now as I write this story, and I have to search my notes to recall the coincidence. What I still remember from that time is Rima—and Sireen.

I had met Rima a few months earlier, while conducting a mini-ethnographic project as a graduate student in a class at Princeton University. As a new member of the Princeton Committee for Palestine, I hoped this research would help build community connections. Rima, a real estate broker, encouraged me to meet her friend.

So Sireen and I met that first time at Small World Coffee. It was loud and busy with the hustle of people getting their coffee and trying to find a seat. Sireen had a youthful, fashionable appearance; she wore a red dress under a black jacket, and black stockings and boots. Her hair was permed, neck length, brown with highlights, with a slight part on the left side. Around her neck was a colorful beaded necklace. Her wrists were adorned with a number of silver bracelets with little gems—ruby, emerald, sapphire—and her fingers were wrapped with silver rings with stones of matching colors that brought out the glow in her eyes.

We sat down in a far corner with our coffees. She was full of energy, shoulders back and chin high as she spoke, smiling and speaking with her hands as much as her lips. Despite her energetic outward appearance, it did not take long for her to express that she was fatigued, and I could hear sadness and worry in her voice when she talked about her family in Palestine. She shared snippets of her home and her life growing up in Kufr Raʿi and of her brother Iyad and his adventures resisting the Israelis.

In some ways, that moment was not unlike others that would come to pass between us. Sireen was often rushing to tell me her story—the story of her family, of her life in the village, but most of all, the story of Iyad. Sireen took every chance to tell her stories, even in our casual encounters, and I always enjoyed listening. She would tell and retell the events of her family’s life as if it were her last chance, as if she needed someone to make sense of it, as if she might lose the memory of it all if she didn’t retell it. And the storytelling was not for my ears alone. She would take any opportunity she could when we sat together with mutual friends.

The next time the two of us met was at a gathering in the home of Rima and her husband, who was a successful doctor. They were both Palestinian refugees who had immigrated to the US decades earlier with their parents. On that cold and snowy December evening, I arrived with two other students, forty minutes late, and got teased for perpetuating a stereotype about “Arab time.” Sireen was already there.

At dinner, the conversation veered quickly to Palestine as Sireen captivated us with her storytelling in a heavy Palestinian-accented English peppered with Arabic words. We all listened, with interest and some discomfort, as she recounted fragments of her difficult life in Palestine. Her arms orchestrated the words through the space around her and together with her voice, with its highs when she spoke about resistance and its lows when she told of loss, brought defiant and melancholy images to life. Yet the seriousness of her story was softened by her laughter, which kept the night alive.

Today, in our third encounter, I’ve come to her house to begin collecting her story in earnest. No longer motivated by my college class research, I am driven by something deeper—wanting to fight empire, chase its tentacles (and troops) out of the lands I call home, follow the path of Che Guevara, have my life’s work somehow connect to the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. Romantic thoughts of struggling against injustice. Yes! But then, there is no resistance without romance.

The story of Sireen’s younger brother Iyad fascinates me: his rise as a resistance fighter against Israeli occupation forces, his years in prison and his perseverance under torture, his involvement with the Islamic Jihad. In time, I will discover that it is Sireen’s entire life that is worth retelling, and, indeed, it is this larger story, not simply Iyad’s, that I will recount in these pages.

Sireen is dressed in black. She is mourning the death of her father. Her father, who was mostly absent in her life but somehow remained her pillar of comfort, her foothold in this upside-down world. Her father, who should have still been alive.

I give her my condolences. The moment feels awkward. It is why I have already delayed this meeting by a few weeks. I don’t know how to continue with life in the presence of someone’s grief.

Sireen and I continue to make small talk. My tape recorder is still off, and I am stalling—perhaps unconsciously nervous of the commitment involved in receiving a life story. Instead, I listen to her complain of pain in her back and knees, and I continue to sip my tea and dip my bread into labneh. She expresses how exhausted she is even as the day has barely begun. Already she has been up for several hours preparing a packed lunch for her husband and breakfast for her kids before dropping them off at school. When the children return, she will have to feed them before rushing her two older ones to soccer practice and dance class and whatever else they are enrolled in. These few hours in the morning, when her youngest is not yet back from kindergarten, are her only precious moments of peace. Yet she is unable to keep still. In the summer, if there is no work at home, she often spends her mornings gardening. So when the winter months arrive, they are especially harsh on her otherwise active body, and in these long, cold months she comes to treasure morning visits to and from friends.

When there is finally a pause in our small talk, I take it as a sign to begin. I can’t delay the inevitable any longer. I turn on the recorder and ask her to tell her story.

Well, first things first. My name is Sireen Ahmad Yousef Sawalha. This is the way it is written on my identity card issued by the Israeli military administration. In my Jordanian passport, my name is Sireen Ahmad Yousef Abdallah, but both are inaccurate, since my family name is actually Nimer.