By Liza Foreman
It was during the First Intifada, in the spring of 1988, that I took a bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to find my real dad. Soldiers squatted on abandoned shop fronts with metal cages pulled around their faces, riffles to hand. They stared suspiciously as a waif-like English girl, all of seventeen, and her friend alighted from the bus to wander the barren streets, and disappear into the dust. “Please do not go,” my mother had pleaded from England. But there was no stopping me.
The locals, mistaking us for Israelis lost in this Arab enclave, stood on their balconies and hissed. We continued until we found a deserted gift shop where a man dressed us in traditional costume as we sipped mint tea. “Where can I find Farad Mattan?” I asked. “He lives above the Seven Seas restaurant,” he said.
My father, a Christian Arab from an old, wealthy Bethlehem family was well known around these parts. He had been educated in London where he had left my English mother and I when I was two. “He would have been a second-class citizen here, disinherited by his family for a child born out of wedlock,” she would explain to me. “He was always going home.”
My mother had married then remarried again. Farad broke off contact with us when I was three. He said it was best to stop sending the photographs and letters. But an English judge had ordained that I must be told. I always knew about him.
At sixteen, after a tumultuous childhood, I had attempted to telephone this stranger from a call box at school. The line was dead. A year later, here I was in Israel on an exchange. I stood in the street and rang on his intercom this time instead.
A boy answered. “Please tell Farad that Liza is here.” Silence. No answer for half an hour or more. We kicked stones in the streets. We were about to give up then the same voice said, “Please come in.” At the top of the flight of stairs, a young boy (my brother) ushered me into an opulent living room, filled with grand pianos and chandeliers. English magazines and silk cushions adorned this elegant space.
For the first time I was seeing the man that was my father. He walked in and sat calmly in his fine slacks and shirt and played with his daughter (my sister), who ran into the room. “How are you?” he asked. “How’s your mother? How is your father? Your sister? Are you happy? Do you need anything?”
“I don’t need anything,” I said. “I just wanted to get to know you.” We spoke politely for half an hour. Then he arranged for a driver to take us back to Jerusalem. “Tell your people that we are starving. We have no food, no work, no water on The West Bank,” said his driver. I heard nothing more. Two years later, on a trip to Israel I went to meet my father again. First his wife came to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. “Farad is a man who sees things in black and white,” she said. “Because he did not grow up with you, he cannot get to know you now.” Then he came in and said the same thing. They left me their number in case I needed help. Years later, my father helped me with money for a PhD, to buy the then aspiring reporter a computer to pursue her dreams. On occasions when I asked he would send a check. No letter. No other contact. Nothing more.
A few years ago, my rage grew and my despair. I went into self-destruct mode. I had some sort of desperation for him to finally love me and care for me, give me what I had been denied – the top education my siblings had, grand homes, jobs waiting for them. I slept for three nights in a beach hut as the Atlantic
ocean crashed to shore in the dead of night, at my lowest point, penniless with no way to get home. But life propelled me forward. The rage poured out in emails to Farad. Then curiosity met his silence, and I started to spend time on the Internet, researching his life.
I found photos of him at his daughter’s wedding, at the local university, and then a family tree. Through this, I discovered that I had three siblings. I found them on Facebook. Maybe they would want to get to know me? I couldn’t bring myself to find out.
Instead, I blurted out my story to a Palestinian film director I was interviewing after the Sundance Film Festival this January. “Do you know this man? I asked, knowing that he was well known in his community. “What do you advise?”
I was holidaying on the Amalfi Coast in Italy this summer when the Facebook message arrived.
“Looking for you,” it said. “Farad is my uncle. X told me your story and I would like to know more.” If Farad was her uncle, this person was my cousin. What’s more, I realized I had once interviewed her in Dubai. A miracle had occurred.
My new cousin, also a film director, had been looking for me for five years, she said. Slowly it began to emerge that beyond the wall, which cut through my father’s heart, there was a whole family of people who wanted me, a thought unimaginable.
She began to tell me our family history via email. The family were textile merchants who had gone from Bethlehem to Japan and then India, where my dad was born, and then The Sudan and England to set up shop before going back to Bethlehem. The kids had been schooled everywhere from Alexandria to London where my father was sent to a Catholic boarding school. Like me, the Mattans were wanderers. World travelers. “Would you like to come to my wedding?”
she asked. “He’s not coming. I’m getting married in North Carolina.” She wrote again, “My mother and father are so excited that we have found you.”
“What do you think if we just introduce you during the event?” she asked later. She did not know who knew what.
Two months later, I was on a plane from Los Angeles to North Carolina. The Mexican lady sitting next to me had lost her jacket and sat directing me, in Spanish, to go and find it somewhere in the airport, as she ate her lunch. I didn’t care if the world went up in flames.
I got to my hotel at 10 p.m. and called my aunt with great anticipation. Thirty minutes later, I saw a group of people hugging in a circle in the parking lot in the midst of the North Carolina countryside in the dark and sweltering heat. They drove around the corner and hugged me one by one. We drove to their house.
Looks of bewilderment covered their faces, emotions both happy and sad.
My aunt told her two other children, my cousins, who I was, there and then. They had no idea I was coming or if I really existed. “I feel like I know you,” said one, in a daze. She did. She had played with me as a child when my father was too scared to tell her or her mother who I was. If only they had.
With looks of total wonder and shock on their faces, we talked into the small hours. Stunned and silent, they sat. The next morning my aunt called me and said she would bring over her brother, my uncle and tell him then too. ”It is the only way to do it,” she said.
In he walked unaware of what was about to happen. “This is Liza, Farad’s daughter,” she began. He did not register and sat down quietly, as his wife began to cry. His daughter looked on in amazement. “Give me a second,” he said.
My father had always kept me a secret. Many in his community had heard rumors or whispers following my trip to Bethlehem and through an outraged family friend. His brother had been told only two years prior by his sister. Here he sat in the corner stunned. Then we began to speak slowly. He had added me to their family tree, he said, when he had first heard of me. His wife cried. His daughter listened on. “Did you know?” “No,” she said. (I had seen them all on Facebook too but didn’t know they were relatives.) “We wish you had contacted us,” they said. “My father should have known,” continued my uncle of the man everyone had been afraid to tell. “We should have had contact with you,” he said. My other cousins wiped their eyes in the background. New aunts and uncles pottered around making cups of tea. Then friends of the family and relatives arrived. Each was told in turn. One was one of my father’s closest friends. Others were friends of his children. He and his family remained absent.
That night, at a welcome dinner, one by one the guests, all family members or close friends who had left Bethlehem for the U.S. and Europe, were introduced. Some were startled. Others went into shock. Tears came to their eyes. One walked to the bar. Another ran to the toilet to cry.
Guests came up one by one to meet this figment of their imagination, this rumor, looking at a ghost come back to life. No one could imagine the look in their eyes or reenact that initial shock or imagine the warmth and affection that flowed.
The love that poured out to me began to melt the pain from the silence in my father’s heart. They told me about family traits. Chocolate cravings. Wanderlust. Whispers from bankers who had seen checks sent out. Proof I existed. Things they had heard. They embraced me with open hearts. They hugged me and walked around with me, holding me in their warmth like a sacred child. They ferried me back and forth and told me stories of their lives. “Great Uncle Habib (Harry) was once the richest man in England, the owner of nine textile factories,” my uncle explained. Then the next day, “Maybe not the richest, but very important.” Or sadder stories of eminent Palestinian doctors, living now in New Jersey, who had to walk for a day to get to their childhood homes through Jordan. Or memories from long ago of Israeli soldiers stopping them on the street. When asked if they were going to Israel, they had said, “No, Jerusalem.” “We weren’t even thinking,” they recalled.
After four days, I flew home and cried for a week. Emails began to flow. Other relatives came out of the woodworks. I was no longer alone. I had a family from Chile to Jamaica and all across the United States.
I emailed one of my new cousins. “We have all had an emotional week,” she said. “We are floored. No one could understand why he would do this? We love you and we are glad we have met you now.” I called my adopted father in England. “We all missed the point,” I said. “There were people, my family, out there with beating hearts and they wanted (to know) me.”
Soon my excitement was muddied by sadness. A month after the wedding, despite multiple emails and phone calls from his relatives, my father and his children remained silent.
– Liza Foreman is a former staff reporter for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. She now writes freelance for publications including the International Herald Tribune/NYTimes.com (Great Homes and Destinations/Style), and has contributed to The Times, The Financial Times, Reuters and The Observer. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.