I met a woman the other day who said she was 104 years old. She lives alone in a one-room stone house in a village called Khirbet Abu Falah, in the Palestinian highlands north of Ramallah. The house, with its distinctive Ottoman-style vaulted ceiling, is older than she is.
She is hard of hearing and spoke in a peasant dialect so distinctive that even my Palestinian friends had trouble understanding her. She didn’t say much anyway.
I imagined all that she has seen in her lifetime. When she was born, at the turn of the last century, there were no political borders from Jerusalem to Damascus to Baghdad to Istanbul. The population of the region that was to become Palestine, and later Israel and the Palestinian territories, was 600,000, of which 87 percent were Arab Muslims, 10 percent were Arab Christians and 3 percent were Jews, both immigrants from Europe and indigenous Sephardic Jews.
Nearly a decade after her birth, in 1909, Tel Aviv was founded as the first Jewish city in the Middle East. She was approaching adulthood, when in 1917, British forces occupied Jerusalem and began a 31-year occupation.
In middle age, in 1948, British troops left Palestine, Jewish residents declared independence as Israel and war erupted. Seventy-eight percent of Palestine was conquered by the new state of Israel. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians, or 90 percent of those living in the Jewish state, became refugees. Israeli bulldozers destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages, after their occupants fled or were forced from their homes.
Her village, however, was spared. It became part of a new political region known as the West Bank, annexed by Jordan.
Nineteen years later, she was in her late 60s when Israel invaded Jordan (as well as Syria and Egypt) and occupied the rest of historic Palestine, including her village. She later survived one Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, in the late 1980s, and so far has survived the second, which began in 2000.