JERUSALEM // Mahira Dajani gives little sign of having mellowed with age. At 78, she retains a formidable presence and does not like to mince her words. She is, she remarked, a product of her generation, one that was hewn from stronger stuff. "Today's generations are not like us," she said somewhat dismissively from behind her desk last week in the principal's office of the Dar al Tifel School in East Jerusalem. "They are soft."
But then Ms Dajani lived through dramatic times of loss and defeat that would have humbled most. Yesterday, Palestinians worldwide commemorated the 62-year anniversary of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe), when more than half of all Palestinians were displaced and dispossessed in the fighting that led to the creation of Israel. Like all Palestinians, and perhaps more so, Ms Dajani's life has been irredeemably stamped by that history. She was 16 at the time, and though she remembers the events well, she did not understand their significance. She was busy. The impending end to British control over Palestine had meant that final examinations under the then British-administered matriculation board had been pushed forward to April. The unrest saw her spend two weeks in the dormitories of a boys' school in order to study and sit for her exams because it was too dangerous to go home to the western side of Jerusalem. When she finally went home, in late April, she found that only her father, a sheikh, remained, and she was bundled into a car and taken to a holiday residence near Hebron where her mother and two sisters were waiting. "I took nothing, just some clothes and a book. I never imagined that we would not come back." A few weeks later, she lost a brother, Alaeddin, a local commander with the irregular Arab forces fighting in Palestine. He was killed, she said with detached accuracy, on May 18, 1948, when he had tried to fix a jammed machine gun and exposed himself to sniper fire on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. Her family lost all their possessions, two homes in Mount Zion in what became Israeli West Jerusalem, as well as 10 apartments and a separate three-storey building in other western neighbourhoods of the city that they owned and rented out, "mostly to Jews". The two homes were demolished. The other properties were lost to the Israeli state, which in 1950 enacted the Law of Absentee Property, granting the state ownership of lands and buildings abandoned by fleeing Palestinians. That law - which "legitimised theft", in Ms Dajani's words - or more precisely the refusal to grant refugees the right to return and claim those properties, is still ranked by Palestinians as the greatest injustice they have suffered and one that all negotiated efforts to secure peace with Israel have failed to resolve. "I have become convinced that the world is against us," she said. "What happened to Palestinians is unjust and the world has helped Israel take our land and homes. Why should we lose our inheritance like this?" It also informs her view of any solution. "From the river to the sea, this is Palestine. Everyone should have the right to go home." Her work today meanwhile provides a constant reminder of the Nakba. Dar al Tifel School, which she now heads and on whose board she has sat since 1962, was set up specifically to care for 55 orphans, survivors of the Deir Yassin massacre in which more than 100 villagers were killed on April 9, 1948 by the Irgun, a paramilitary Zionist force led by Menachem Begin, who would later become an Israeli prime minister. The massacre would turn out to be one of the decisive incidents of the fighting in 1948. The fact that a non-belligerence pact that Deir Yassin had struck with its Jewish neighbours did not save the villagers from the murderous rampage helped precipitate the mass exodus of Palestinian civilians fearing a similar fate at the hand of Zionist forces that were by then gaining the upper hand. Today the school has more than 1,000 students and still offers free board and education for orphans. Their number, however, has shrunk due to the restrictions Israel imposed on Palestinian travel. Only 21 orphans live at the school now, though the school caters to more than 100 hardship cases. It is not cheap, and most of her time today is spent soliciting donations, mostly from Palestinians abroad and in Jerusalem, but also from Arab countries, to meet a monthly US$200,000 (Dh734,609) budget. It is a challenge, she said, one that has only grown harder as charity to Palestinians became a more daunting task after the attacks of September 11, 2001 made many Arab philanthropists fearful of falling foul of US-imposed terrorism financing laws. But she has never shirked challenges before in a life that has largely shunned convention. She never married and chose career over family, a decision she does not regret. Fiercely independent, she braved her family's disapproval to pursue a life in education, becoming the president of the Jordanian Girl Guides' Association when Jordan administered the West Bank, and the supervisor for physical education studies at the ministry of education in 1962, a high-ranking position for a woman at the time. She introduced badminton to Palestinian students and folk dance, both European and the local variant, Debka, to school curricula. In time, she became a "notable personality" in Jerusalem, and was recognised as such by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, in 2009 when she received the International Distinguished Senior Citizen Award. Her energy appears undiminished even if she sometimes wonders if she can carry on in a post she has held for 15 years. "I tried to resign last year, but the board wouldn't let me. Sometimes I am glad, sometimes I worry I can't keep it up." That energy, however, belies a growing despondency with the Palestinian situation. "It's getting worse. We never used to care about whether we were Christian or Muslim or what political group we belonged to. As Palestinians we were united. That has changed." email@example.com