The Abtouqs of King Hussein Camp
Walking into the dingy corridor of a small house nestled amongst the steep, narrow alleys that criss-cross the Palestinian refugee camp on Amman’s Jebal King Hussein, I’m not quite sure if I feel comfortable or not. I had met 47 year-old Kamal minutes before, chain-smoking through yellowed teeth, as he stood on the steps outside his house. Upon learning I was British he told me how he once loved a British lady he had met in Lebanon, but that was a long time ago, and nothing had come of his affection.
He invited me in to take a tea and to meet his family. Through the doorway from the hallway came the sound of the Qur’an being read on television, a channel that I had seen many times before in the restaurants and cafés of Syria. In this room his father sat on a chair at the foot of his wife’s bed; she was recovering from a broken leg and so her life passed in this room. I initially hesitated as I entered; the father moaned & beat his chest, and I wasn’t sure that I was very welcome here. My fears, however, turned out to be totally unfounded. His “moans” were actually expressing “very nice to meet you”; seven years ago he had suffered a stroke which left him paralysed down one side, and with problems speaking.
This man had trained as an accountant in Lebanon, and had had a successful job, traveling all over the world thanks to his knowledge of business and his English skills. He comes from Jaffa, near Tel-Aviv, but was forced to leave in 1948 with the creation of Israel. He has since lived in this refugee camp with his family, and what was once a good standard of living has given away to relative dilapidation.
Kamal’s brother, Mahmoud, joined us and acted as a translator for his father. His father evidently understood everything I said, but his mind had trouble finding the words he wanted, and his body prevented them from expressing them. Both Kamal & Mahmoud had inherited some of their father’s English, and when they successfully explained his slurred Arabic to me, they were followed by emphatic cries of Aywa! Aywa! (“yes” in Arabic). When he couldn’t express himself, he tried to incite his words to come-out by slapping his forehead.
On the side-table next to his chair lay a photograph of the family at a hotel in downtown Amman when his now middle-aged offspring were still children, Kamal beaming at the camera. The hotel is now out of business, and Kamal, in particular, shows little hope for his life. He is evidently depressed at having reached his age without having raised a family; he asks me “who is more beautiful? Me or Brad Pitt?”. Did I think he would have a chance with Angelina Jolie, or Katie Holmes? Hollywood hasn’t passed him by, whilst he feels his life has.
Jordan offered citizenship to the Palestinians who arrived in 1948 & 1967, as Mahmoud testifies as he shows me his Jordanian passport. But whilst he is classed as a Jordanian citizen, his family still lives in the UN Refugee camp that was created here as a result of the huge waves of immigrants who fled Palestine during the wars there, and the quality of life is fairly minimal.
The Abtouqs are still suffering from the double-dealing that the British undertook following the Balfour Treaty, from the repercussions of the failed British mandate in Palestine. But the welcome they afforded me in their little house in Amman didn’t show any rancour of my nationality. The most important thing I could do, Mahmoud told me, is to tell people I know that “We Palestinians don’t hate Jews, like the media says. Our problem is with the Zionists. Jews & Arabs have lived together for many years.” They just need to get back a quality of life, one that cannot exist whilst they are still living as refugees.