We were drinking Nescafe in the cool, over-furnished parlor of an elderly refugee schoolteacher. A horde of charming, bouncing small children had been pushed out to make room for serious grown-up talk. The children all seemed to be the same age and were, oddly, the teacher's own sons and daughters and his grandchildren. His wife vanished, as is correct. His bright 22-year-old daughter, already the mother of four, crouched outside the door like a beggar, holding a bit of white cloth over her face, and listened.
In 1961, I had made a long tour of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) Palestinian refugee camps m Lebanon, West Jordan and the Gaza Strip, and I had been at this camp near Jericho before. It is disheartening. The world believes, because it is constantly told, that the Palestinian refugees have lived in physical misery for nineteen years. Middle-class refugees will confide, in private, that their poorer compatriots, those who remain in the camps. owned nothing at home and are no worse off now than before. The majority of refugees, educated, skilled, semi-skilled, live outside the camps and manage like any other Arabs.
The refugees' misery is in the head. They are sick in their minds from a diet of propaganda, official Arab dogma and homemade fantasy, which they have gobbled for nineteen years. Schooled in self-pity, encouraged to believe they are the worlds unique victims of injustice, they have never been allowed to forget the daydream past or to settle for the real future. Since the third Arab-Israel war hardly touched them, they learned nothing from it.
The schoolteacher was tired of fire eating and disabused with Nasser. But the rest of the company, three husky chicken farmers, men In their late 20s, a tall, pale, elegantly put together student from Amman University, and a cocky grammar schoolboy, were as devoted to Nasser as ever. Though all except the schoolboy (we took a vote) thought a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel would be a good thing, the young men felt that Nasser must decide.
They had personal problems from the war. The chicken farmers lacked transport. The schoolteacher said his wife was running out of kerosene for cooking, The grammar schoolboy's matriculation exams at Ramallah had been Interrupted; when would the Israelis arrange for him to finish? The university student was worried that the Israelis would compel him to repeat his second year instead of continuing straight Into his third year, as was fair, at Hebrew University In Jerusalem. He was stunned to hear , that Hebrew University teaches In Hebrew. I kept pointing out, in the face of these complaints, that the shooting had ended only ten days earlier .
Then, as on remembered cue, we went into the fantasy phase of conversation It consists of recounting how many acres of fine fields and orchards, what splendid houses, were left behind in Palestine and stolen by the Jews. There is competition In fantasy ownership: if you add up the lost acreage claimed by the inhabitants of any camp you usually arrive at a total larger than the whole recovered arable land of Israel. One very nice man in another camp told me that he had owned 11,000 acres of citrus groves: legend has it that once the Sultan of Turkey owned that much land in Palestine and sold it to the Rothschilds. But I think this ownership fantasy is the real human core of the Palestinian refugee problem, as opposed to the unreal Arab propaganda problem.
Half the refugees are under 18 years of age; Palestine is a myth taught in school and at home. I do not think that any of these people truly want to return to Israel - not unless the Israelis would give them the country, improved by decades of labor, and obligingly jump in the sea. What the refugees really want is money for their imagined lost possessions. They don't seem to know that, repeatedly since 1949, the Israeli Government has offered compensation, sometimes with conditions, such as a peace treaty, sometimes for nothing. Nor, apparently, do they know that these offers have always been angrily rejected on their behalf by the Arab governments. To accept compensation would be to end the Palestine Refugee Problem. The compensation is there and waiting, but it will never satisfy these people because it is based on fact, not fantasy. If your father owned a recorded 5 acres of land, and you believe he owned 500 acres, you are bound to feel bitter and cheated by an exact repayment.
"Why can't we go on a bus to see Israel?" the schoolboy asked. He was the best linguist. "What is it like?" How to put it quickly, m our limited mutual supply of words? "Everyone works very hard," I said. That is the basic description of Israel.
"Works very hard?" he repeated with horror, and was annoyed when I laughed.
"What do you think about the English and American planes for Israel?" he asked, black eyes gleaming.
"A lie. There were none."
"Every Arab believes it. There were. The planes helped the Israelis. What about the oil blockade?"
Translations into Arabic for the chicken farmers and the teacher, who understood no English.
"I think it will hurt the Arabs most. How will they live if they don't sell oil?"
"Russians will buy the oil," the boy said proudly, "and India and Vietnam. Arabs will not suffer."
"What would have happened to the Jews if the Arabs had won?" I was taking a little Gallup poll on that one. The university student translated and the six men muttered together for some time.
"Very terrible," the boy summed up. "All dead."
Out of the blue, remarks of the schoolteacher were translated. "Eshkol and Dayan are very good."
"Why does he say that?"
"Because all is peaceful," the university student said. "We must live in peace with the Jews."
"King Hussein is very good," the boy interrupted. "We like him very much now he went to Cairo to see Nasser " Repeated In Arabic; general nodding agreement. The schoolteacher looked weary and offered more coffee and cigarettes.
"Educated refugees make money and have a good life," the university student observed suddenly. "In Amman we go to our classes with girls. That is very good. Can I go back to Amman University because I cannot speak Hebrew?"
The visiting males filed out, thus freeing the bright 22- year-old daughter from veiled exile by the door. She spoke passionately; I feared that I had offended some mysterious female code. "What does she say?" I asked the boy, a friend of the family and too young to require a woman's hidden face and silence. He grinned, embarrassed by her outburst.
"She says: Finish Nasser. Finish Shukairy. Finish Hussein. Enough. Enough. Peace. Peace."
It is a great pity that Arab women have no voice in Arab politics.