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WAR WITH IRAQ / PORTRAIT OF A FAMILY | COLUMN ONE

A Family Tested but Intact

Three generations of a Palestinian clan have been scattered, some as far as the U.S. Now, war may leave those in Baghdad with one less place to call home.

March 27, 2003|Laura King and Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writers

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Their family name, Rahal, means "one who journeys," and for this widely scattered Palestinian clan with kinship bonds strengthened and sundered by generations of hardship and exile, the war in Iraq is only the latest chapter in a remarkable voyage.

From the biblical hills of Bethlehem to the comfortable tree-lined streets of Oklahoma City, from the arid plains of Jordan to smoke-shrouded Baghdad, seven brothers and sisters, their daughters and sons, grandfather and grandchildren, have been watching -- or living through -- the conflict in Iraq as it unfolds by anxious day and thunderous night. It is the latest in a lifetime of upheavals.

"My darling one, are you all right?" Hussein Rahal, a stern-faced, mustachioed father of five, bellowed into his cell phone. From his simple stone house in Bethlehem, he was calling his daughter May, a medical student who is one of his three children living in Baghdad, after the city was rocked by the first night of fierce all-out bombardment.

"Look, Dad, look!" his skinny 14-year-old son Omar shouted from the next room, where the television set -- tuned to the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera -- was showing flickering images, in eerie hues of night-vision green, of American battle tanks on the move deep in the Iraqi desert.

Omar's fists clenched as he watched TV footage of Iraqi troops surrendering to U.S. Marines.

"I wish I were there to fight," he murmured.

Far more than politics is at stake for every branch of the Rahal family. The war is beginning to look like a watershed event for them. Their hearts and minds look both east to Baghdad, the home of one brother who is a general in Saddam Hussein's army, and west to the United States, the home of another whose son is a National Guard member awaiting a possible call-up.

For family members who have spent their lives as refugees and students, wives and workers drifting from one Middle Eastern country to another, this war means that there might be one less place they can call home. The Rahals worry that a new pro-American government in Iraq is unlikely to be sympathetic to Palestinians, making it more difficult for them to study in Baghdad or visit family members there.

As for so many Arab families, the region has had no national boundaries for this clan. The concept of a unified Arab nation is at once ideological and real, fostered by a common language, history of domination and rebellion against colonial empires, and political philosophy. But year by year, it has become clearer that the borders arbitrarily drawn across the Arab world by foreign powers are permanent, and that they will increasingly limit movement.

Although the Rahal family's many branches exchange photographs and telephone calls, nothing can replace seeing a first-born child or dancing at a wedding, gathering at feasts or mourning together at funerals.

From the moonless night 55 years ago when the Rahal family fled its home village inside what is now the state of Israel, geography has determined their destiny. Where each brother or sister ended up has strongly colored his or her worldview. For all of them, the most important fight still is over the land they left behind, in the place they call Palestine.

Family Bonds Strained

But the war in Iraq is pulling at the family bonds that have held through more than half a century of difficult times.

Days into the American-led military strike on Iraq, the strain was clearly visible on the face of Omar's mother, Afaf. She worried about the deteriorating health of the family patriarch, her 90-year-old father-in-law, who has been increasingly depressed and angry since the start of the war.

He lives less than a two-hour drive away in Jordan, but he might as well be on the other side of the Earth. Because of restrictions imposed by Israel and the Jordanians, the family members have not been able to visit him, nor he them, for many years.

And Afaf, in spite of herself, was miffed that her husband's elder brother, an oncologist in Oklahoma City, had not called as soon as the war broke out to make sure the Bethlehem branch of the family was all right -- although its members heard through the ever-reliable family grapevine that he had checked in with his brother and nieces and nephews in Baghdad.

It made no difference to Afaf that Bethlehem, which often has been the scene of bloodshed during the last 2 1/2 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was calm at the moment. Or that the fighting in Iraq is hundreds of miles away. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip fear an intensified Israeli crackdown while world attention is focused on Iraq. "He is the eldest of the brothers," Afaf said stiffly, mindful as always of the rigid traditional roles held in every Palestinian clan. "He should call us -- it is his responsibility to see if we are safe."

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