A Very Handsome Man




My father, Moshe, was born in 1934, to a Zionist family living in Palestine, under the British Mandate. Relations at that time with the Palestinian Arabs in the neighboring town were distant, and underlined by a thread of suspicion. Nevertheless, my grandfather, a citrus farmer, developed a relationship with one Arab man, named Abdullah, that reached extraordinary levels of trust and respect. My father's relationship with Abdullah was a different and simpler matter. He just loved him. He loved Abdullah completely, as only a hero worshiping boy can love his very own living hero. 

My grandfather met Abdullah at a train station, where he was packing oranges into shipping crates. Abdullah, a Palestinian Arab was there with his wife and family - two children, both daughters. He and my grandfather, who spoke fluent Arabic, struck up a conversation, and by the end of it, Abdullah was working for him. He started off as a laborer and night guard for the citrus fields, living in a shack with his family in the fields themselves. My grandfather, Meir, impressed by Abdullah's work and charisma, quickly promoted him, and within in a few years, Abdullah and my grandfather were co-managing the orchard and starting small projects together as business partners.

They were never very social with each other, but they were there for each other in profound ways. Once, while carrying the weekly payroll back to the orchard, my grandfather was shot and robbed by two Arab men. They took the money, of course, as well as my grandfather’s watch, and left he badly wounded. When Abdullah heard about the attack, my father says he went to wash himself, dressed in his best robes, and disappeared. A week later, he returned, carrying my grandfather's watch and satchel. The money was gone, but my father is convinced that Abdullah had hunted down and killed the two men who attacked my grandfather to repair the dishonor they had done him by attacking his employer. 

Later, as the 1948 War of Israeli Independence approached, Abdullah trusted my grandfather to smuggle his new baby boy across the lines to get the boy's eye infection treated by Jewish doctors. My grandfather took the boy by bus to Rehovot, got him treated, and returned him across the lines to Abdullah - not once, but many times.

Meanwhile, while Meir and Abdullah worked together, and respected each other, my father was in love. For him, Abdullah was the very embodiment of manhood - strong, prideful, and courageous. I suspect that Abdullah was also more effusive with my father. Not having a son of his own at the time, Abdullah doted on my father and brought him into this family. Moshe loved and idolized my grandfather as well, but their relationship carried more of the obligations and expectations that associated with fathers and sons. Abdullah was a man my father could look up to without the weight of responsibility.

My father's relationship with Abdullah did not go unnoticed, and despite their own relationship with Abdullah, my grandparents tried to curb it. It was embarrassing that their eldest son, still just a boy really, preferred the company of an Arab man and his children to that of his own cousins and school friends. My father, however, stuck with Abdullah, even during the summer, when all of his cousins would gather in Tel Aviv to enjoy the beach - my father was with Abdullah, swimming in the orchard's watering holes with Abdullah’s daughters.

In 1948, my father was thirteen, and when the Israeli War of Independence began, Abdullah and his family were caught up in what the Palestinians call the Nekba, or tragedy. Just a few months earlier, Abdullah was begging my grandfather to flee to escape the Arab armies that he thought would inevitably destroy the fledging Jewish state and its residents. But in the end, it was Abdullah who fled with his wife, daughters, and very young son. For a time, Abdullah managed to stay in touch with my grandfather via messages broadcast by Radio Jordan. Displaced Palestinians used these radio messages to let family members still in Israel know they were ok. Abdullah used them to say hello to my grandfather.

My father, Moshe, never expected to see Abdullah again, but in 1956, he crossed paths with that very handsome man in the most extraordinary of ways. By then, my father was a young army reservist, a former commando, still hardened to the fight. He was called up to active duty during the 1956 Sinai War, and he was happy to go. Early in the war, but after days of combat already, my father was resting in jeep. He had a pretty good growth of beard at the time, and was now a full grown man in his early 20's. He looked nothing like he did as a 13 year old kid preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.

Despite wanting to close his eyes and rest, my father felt agitated, like someone was watching him. He sat up, looked around, and spied an Arab soldier staring at him through the fence that was corralling hundreds of captured Egyptian soldiers - prisoners of war. 

My father stared back, challenging the guy to back down and look away, but he didn't. Moshe got up, and started walking towards the prisoner, ready to let him have it, when the prisoner started calling out to him. "Ibn Meir, Ibn Meir!" That's what Abdullah always called my father, "Son of Meir" in Arabic. My father couldn't believe it. He rushed to Abdullah, and they embraced, crying through wire. The Israeli MPs thought that a prisoner had managed to catch a passing soldier and was trying to choke him. They beat Abdullah terribly while my father screamed, at them to stop, saying over and over again, "That's my father, your beating my father!" As you might imagine, the MPs found this very confusing. They stopped beating Abdullah, but they didn't understand, and they certainly weren't going to let Abdullah out of the POW camp, despite my father's demands that they release him. But my father persisted, told them the whole story, and he got another solder from his hometown to corroborate who Abdullah was. He also got his commanding officer involved, and eventually, Abdullah was released to my father's custody on the condition that Moshe take him home that night and be back the next day to resume his duties. So, my father drove Abdullah to his hometown of Rehovot that night, dropped him off with my grandparents, and returned to his unit by dawn. My grandparents weren't exactly happy to have a captured Egyptian solder in their house, but despite the odd looks from the neighbors, Abdullah stayed with them until the war's end, when he eventually returned to Egypt as part of a prisoner exchange.

That again, might have been the end of my father's and grandfather's relationship with Abdullah. They didn't hear from him at all after the end of the war. Decades later, however, after the refugee experience had shattered Abdullah and his family, my grandmother, found him, a shell of his former self, hiding in her garden. His daughters were gone, taken against their will as wives. His wife also gone, perhaps dead. And Abdullah was now old, and frail. Somehow, he had crossed the border into Israel, and made his way to my grandparents' house. Perhaps they were the closest thing to family he had left. They took him in for a while, and then found him a job as night guard at a local factory, where he could also live. 

He and my father, now living in America with his own family, saw each other only once during this time before Abdullah died. I never met Abdullah, and didn't even know this story until I myself was a college graduate. For whatever reason, this was never among the many stories my father told me as a child about his own dramatic childhood. Given my father's right wing politics, and anti-Arab sentiments, this story was shocking, and illuminating of a part of my father I had never seen before. 

My father is dead now - more than 7 years gone at this point - so I can't get any more details about Abdullah, his work with my grandfather, or the impressions he made on my father. I do, however, have my father telling the story in his own words on video - made shortly before he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that would eventually kill him. I've attached that video below.