My Grandmother, the Pirate

I tell my daughters that my grandmother was an adventurous, young woman, descended from a persecuted and battered Jewish community in Yemen. While pregnant she went on a month-long trip, leaving everything she had behind, just to live out an old prophecy, which was memorised by generations of Jews about a far-away land we can call ‘home’.

Published also in Dutch on De Groene Amsterdammer

I can see Ella my 4-year-old daughter through the viewfinder of my new camera: she’s drawing at the other side of the kitchen table in our Amsterdam home. I press record and ask her in Hebrew. “Ella, are you Dutch?” “Yes”, she answers in Dutch while nodding her blonde curly head. “And are you Israeli?”, I continue in Hebrew. “No, you are Israeli”, she points at me. “Are you Jewish?” She stops drawing and looks into the lens and answers: “What does that mean?”

The next picture moment with Ella and this camera is a few weeks later during a visit to my grandmother in Israel. She sits legs crossed, squatted in her wheelchair. My mom and I seat Ella at the table in front of her – next to the food. Ella’s white hands and blue eyes are in great contrast to grandma’s olive skin. She doesn’t hear very well these days, but she can hear my aunt Sharona shouting in Arabic into her ear: “This is Ella, Ella from Nirit, the daughter of Mali.” Grandma’s eyes light up and a smile spreads across her face. She breaks another piece of pita bread and dips it in the Yemeni soup that aunt Sharona has just served. As always, she eats with her hands. She offers a piece to Ella, who is more than happy to lay down her fork and enjoy the permission to eat with her hands as well. As Ella sucks the Yemeni soup from the fresh pita bread, a wave of childhood memories flashes through me. “She is a true Yemenite!” the older women roar with laughter. Ella passed the test. Grandma’s soup is yellow, spicy, and full of large, soft pieces of potato. It has a heavenly scent of comfort and safety that has been tattooed on my memory. Combined with the sour smell of the pita dough rising on the balcony for the next day, I feel like I am back in the distant, happy days when we would spend time together in this house with the whole family.

We’re greeted first by an overarching olive tree that was planted when I was born

Every weekend my grandmother would make this soup. Every time she asked my grandfather to kill a chicken. He was the rabbi of the village and in the backyard he would slaughter the bird in a kosher way. She would sit at the bottom of the stairs in the front of the house and pluck the feathers from the chicken with graceful movements, making the ritual look effortless. At the same time, she was ordering her five daughters around, making sure the house was clean and the meal could be served in time – before the start of the Shabbat. Her appearance was tough, her regime strict. Next to her would be a ‘Marita’, a stick made of the top branch of the palm tree, to beat anyone who disobeyed her. She didn’t beat that many: the Marita was elastic and produced a ‘woosh’ sound when it slashed through the air, an audible reminder of how it would feel if it scathed you. I remember when she saw me her face would light up. She was two women at the same time: the hard-working, strict housewife and the loving grandma.

Every time we visit my grandmother in the small village next to Tel Aviv airport, coming a long way from Amsterdam, I am filled with nostalgic desert memories. In her village, settled by Jewish refugees from Yemen soon after the establishment of the state of Israel, it feels like time stood still. When arriving, I can smell the Tabun ovens in the gardens. An old woman in traditional Yemeni clothing with a basket on her head crosses the street, my mom says “Hello aunty”. Everyone is ‘aunty’ here. Big families are described as the brother of the mother of your uncle.

We’re greeted first by an overarching olive tree that was planted when I was born. Eight brothers and sisters used to live here. Now my grandmother lives here alone. These days her health is deteriorating. She taught her caretaker, Sunita, a young woman from India, how to make her Yemeni soup.

During our next visit, Naomi, my second daughter is seven, and Ella is nine. Both appear reluctant to enter their great grandma’s small kitchen. Waiting, they watch. My grandma can no longer feed herself.. Instead, Sunita breaks the pita bread, dips it in the soup, and holds it to her mouth for her. I’m shaken: she’s so skinny. I’m alarmed to see her sitting in the wheelchair drifting away, staring at her soup. Her high cheekbones are visible under her skin, accenting her sculptured nose and big eyes. She still has the same smell and the same soft, olive skin. I find comfort in touching her and look for her hands, as if our unifying skin tone could convey what I feel right now.

I am pulling the wheelchair with my grandmother towards us. “Savta, come sit next to us,” I call, hoping she can hear me. Naomi jumps on my lap grabbing my neck, she doesn’t want to sit next to her. She seems a bit scared. The jumpy change of seats takes a moment, but my grandmother seems to enjoy it. Her smile reveals the last remaining tooth in her mouth. All of a sudden, her hair wrap glides off her head. I never saw grandma’s hair. Traditionally, it would always be wrapped in a large, colorful scarf. Her hair appears white, frizzy and thick. Sunita starts brushing it well. With a continuous giggle, as we are all watching her, she struggles to put my grandma’s hair back in the scarf and ties it up in a way that is covering most of her high forehead too. Then a flash of light surprises us. “Put the flash out, Sunita!” I want to offer her my new camera but my voice is drowned out by the next landing airplane. I give up: we’d better go, we have a plane to catch.

In the short car ride to the airport I hear Naomi and Ella quarreling about a picture of my grandmother. “She looks Morrocan!” says one. “Where is Yemen, ima?” says the other. They keep mixing Dutch and Hebrew when they speak. I tell them to sit properly and buckle up, and then Naomi says: “Your grandmother is a pirate.” “Why?” I think while bending in between the seats to buckle them myself. “Yeah”, Ella explains, “that’s how we call her. It’s the hairband.” Ella is trying to make it softer. “No, it’s the crooked teeth!” Naomi cuts her off, being direct as always.

While I’m settling in the front seat, I look out of the window and see the sunny landscape passing by. Tomorrow, in Amsterdam, I will be cold. Suddenly, it hits me that, despite many hours of reading in Hebrew and celebrating Jewish holidays, my kids are unfamiliar with the Arab side of my culture. They find the scent of the pita dough too sour, they think of my grandmother as strange. Certainly compared to their great grandmother in Limburg, down south in The Netherlands, who is always smartly dressed when we visit her in the elderly home.

Ever since I’ve been living in the Netherlands, I have an arsenal of identities: Israeli, Jewish, Yemeni (my mom’s side) and Syrian (my dad’s side). Depending on the situation, I pick and choose the one I need. In a New York City cab, when the driver asks where are you from, I stare at the Jordanian flag hanging above his mirror and decide to try Yemen – knowing I will get to practice my Arabic and avoid the political discussion about Israel. When I film the supporters of Ajax for a documentary, I choose for my Israeli identity and turn into their mascot. Now I can add ‘pirate’ to my wide range of personalities. Having lived in The Netherlands for more than twenty years, I got used to my identity being on the line all the time. When I think of my grandmother, I realise we have been immigrants for many generations: always on the move, in this diasporic state of mind, redefining your identity – longing for a place you can call ‘home’.

I tell my daughters that my grandmother was an adventurous, young woman, descended from a persecuted and battered Jewish community in Yemen. While pregnant she went on a month-long trip, leaving everything she had behind, just to live out an old prophecy, which was memorised by generations of Jews about a far-away land we can call ‘home’. She left Sana-a, south-ward, mostly by foot through the mountainous desert. Eventually, she ended up at the sea, which she’d never seen before, in a refugee camp close to the city of Aden. When, in 1949, they finally arrived to the place, they called Zion, as she has told me many times, together with 50,000 other Yemenite Jews, they kissed the ground of the land they knew was promised to them.

My grandparents arrived in a young country bleeding from war and austerity measures by the government. In a secret mission, called Operation Magic Carpet, they were brought by the founders of the new state of Israel to settle in ‘the promised land’. These founding fathers were building the country merely according to the European standards they knew. The Jews from Yemen were received in integration camps. As newcomers they had to learn how to speak Hebrew and assimilate to their new environment. They were given a house with a table, and they were taught how to eat with knife and fork. My grandmother used to tell me how there would often be a knock on the door and loud demands for them to stop speaking Arabic. Nurses would pass by to encourage them to have less children. The pressure to assimilate was high and unjust: their Arabic identity, their stories, all slowly being erased.

While explaining my family’s history to my daughters, I realise that in Amsterdam, with its rich Jewish history, there’s no elements of my Arab-Jewish culture. Here, Jewish people are traditionally from Europe and predominantly from white, middle class communities. “But we are all Jews,” said the late Uri Coronel, former Chairman of Ajax, in one of the many conversations I had with him about Jewish identity. “What brings us together, is that they don’t like us here”. Uri was clear: “I know that and I will never forget, so neither should you”. I do get him, especially while celebrating the Shabbat with his grandchildren in Amstelveen. We sing the same words to bless the candles, although with a different melody, and different scents. The simple sight of a kipa makes me feel at home.

Yet, I found more familiarity in the breaking of Ramadan meal with my dear friend, Laila. A big table full of small dishes of hummus and kube in front of us, late eating is something I know. Once we had our bellies full, we continued to the shisha lounge on the Rosengracht. There I saw young men, who reminded me of my grandfather, sitting and smoking the ‘Nargila’. It is one of my last memories of him. He used to sit downstairs on the concrete veranda of the house. A few old matrasses staked with rugs and pillows created a low seating area where the old Yemenite men squatted together, smoking the water pipe and chewing qat. On the way back home, the taxi driver, a typical suit-wearing Dutchman with strong Amsterdam accent, reminds me that good girls should not go to bad places like the shisha lounge. I let him speak for a while before I reveal: “I am from Israel”. He seems to be relieved: “Ah, I thought you were Moroccan! You don’t look like our Jews”. He puts the change in my hand. There is 20 Euros missing, I keep my hand outstretched towards the driver. “Hahaha, that’s my Jewish girl!” He gives me the paper notes he was hiding in his huge hand. Friendly laughs, he is looking for my eye in his mirror while touches his nose referring to ‘my Jewish talent for money’. “Thank you”, I answer in Arabic, confusing him again. “Shalom”, he replies.

Being with my Dutch kids, I recognise my otherness. It makes me feel I don’t fit anywhere. I want to embrace the piracy, they gave me. The allure of the pirates, their adventures, their untold stories – and by doing so, the richness of our culture, of our habits and rituals. I want my kids to be proud of their great grandmother, the pirate, who was twelve when her marriage was arranged, was forced to run a household, saved money to bribe border patrol, and who smuggled her jewelry out of Yemen to Israel. My grandmother, who boarded the plane (which she described as “that big bird”) and was miraculously taken into the clouds and onwards to her promised land.

All these efforts just for me to leave it again and put myself in a migrant position, again. Missing the earth that gave me these roots but not able to live there. In starting a family somewhere else, I have tied my DNA to another place that believes in the normality of eating with knife and fork, speaking quietly and preferably not too much.

The next time at the dinner table, when the Dutch father of my daughters demands that they eat “normally” with a fork and not with their hands – they will remind him that their great grandmother always ate with her hands. Naomi will spoon a potato out of the soup with a piece of pita and with a grin on her face she will lick her fingers. Ella will be squatted on her chair and resist the ongoing correction of her table manners, as a kind reminder of all the years that her great grandmother was eating on the floor. We immigrants have the obligation to keep alive the scents and traditions that are marked as ‘different’ – and should not separate ourselves from who we really are.

Text By
Nirit Peled & Simon van Melick
Published on
De Groene Amsterdammer
Chief Editor
Xandra Schutten
Nirit Peled