A Family Tested but Intact

Times Staff Writers

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."

So it goes: family spats overlapping and mingling with momentous world events, the arc of history finding expression in life's daily tension and tumult. Like many Palestinians, the Rahals regard their personal story as part of something much larger.

For them, as for many in the Arab world, the fulfillment of Palestinians' desire to have their own state and an end to the conflict with Israel are crucial preconditions for any genuine rapprochement with the West. Family members here see Saddam Hussein as the only Arab leader who has unequivocally taken up the Palestinian cause and defied a powerful Israel.

When Hussein Rahal, his wife and his children speak of this war, they brush aside any talk of the Iraqi leader's oppression of his own people, or the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction might pose to the outside world. They view the conflict through the prism of suffering of ordinary Iraqis, with whom they closely identify, and of the affront to Arab dignity they see in the U.S. bid to topple the Iraqi president.

"They stand with us, the Iraqis, and we stand with them," Hussein Rahal said.

The Rahal family saga mirrors that of the Palestinian diaspora. Driven by war in 1948 from their village, near a cement factory in what is now central Israel, the four brothers and three sisters began what would be decades of scattering and regrouping, settling and resettling.

Work, marriage and education took them from the tents of the Dahaisha refugee camp on Bethlehem's outskirts, where the family first found shelter, to homes for months or years in cities across the Middle East -- Cairo and Damascus, Syria, Beirut and Kuwait City, Baghdad and Amman, Jordan.

The youngest brother, Ahmed, settled permanently in Baghdad and is a major general in Saddam Hussein's army, said by his family to be the highest-ranking officer of Palestinian origin in Iraq's fighting forces.

The eldest, Khadar Hussein, the Oklahoma City cancer specialist, is an American, one of whose sons could be called up to fight in Iraq.

'Bad Dreams'

"It gives me bad dreams, the idea that my American and Iraqi nephews could find themselves in war against each other, now or in the future. But it could easily happen," Hussein Rahal said. He spent more than 12 years in Iraq on the payroll of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, moving back in 1994 as Palestinians gained control over West Bank cities, including Bethlehem, as part of the Oslo peace process.

Another brother, Rahal Rahal, is a mathematics teacher in the hilly, provincial town of Madaba, Jordan, best known for its Byzantine-era mosaic of a map of the Middle East. The family patriarch, Khaled Ahmed Hussein Rahal, a three-pack-a-day smoker, lives with him in a spacious home where Western-style furnishings contrast with traditional Arab floor cushions.

Among the patriarch's most precious possessions are the property documents for the land the family owned in the ancestral village, Artouf. Although he is elderly and somewhat feeble, his memory is unimpaired and his eyes burn with passion when he talks about his home.

"Listen, my dear, in 1948 I was a policeman in the British Mandate. I had 200 olive trees, I had 500 sheep, and now I have not even one sheep," he said. "What do I want? I want my land, my village, my country, my olive trees."

Although he longs for his village, Khaled found some happiness in Baghdad, where he settled for some years in the 1970s and 1980s, when four of his children were working or studying there. His first wife, Shia, died and is buried in Baghdad. He then moved to Jordan to be closer to his daughters and their families, but the war in Iraq has reminded him that his family remains scattered. After watching news coverage of the war's first days, he made a rare call to his son in Baghdad on Monday, just to be sure he was safe.

His son Rahal, like his three sisters in Jordan, is adamant in his opposition to the war and American policy. But rather than defending or justifying the actions of Iraq's leader, he speaks of his concern for its people. Similarly, he is careful to make a distinction between the American people and American government policy. For him, Iraq was a place where he lived happily for more than two decades before the country's economic collapse in the mid-1990s made life too difficult.

But for him, Americans are not just faceless masses; they are his nephews, both born in America; one of them with a new wife, a slim, blond Oklahoman with a place of pride in newly received photos. Rahal lived in Oklahoma for nearly two years in the mid-1980s and had several unsuccessful operations on his right eye, which was injured by shrapnel during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

'They Don't Want Peace'

"The Americans say they want peace, but the Palestinian people are suffering from daily killings," he said. "Daily now, we are watching the American and British warplanes killing Iraqi children. The American administration ... they don't want peace."

He added: "This is the American administration, the American-Israeli administration I am talking about, not the American people.... I'm sad when I see American mothers and wives crying on television because their sons and husbands are going to fight in the gulf."

"Why do they do this? What will America get?" he asked.

Hude, the eldest sister, who now lives with her 16 children outside Amman, sees the war in Iraq as part of a violent continuum that began in 1948.

"We want peace and safety like you," she said. "Why is this happening to the Arabs? I have a brother in Iraq and a brother in Palestine. What have we done? What have they done to Bush and [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon?"

As in many Palestinian families, education has been a driving ethic for the Rahal siblings, whose parents were illiterate. Insistent on schooling for his children, the patriarch worked any job he could as the family moved from one refugee camp to another. He hauled stones on his back for construction sites for about 30 cents a day to pay for the children's books.

"I wanted them to study. I wanted them to be more educated than I was," he said. "And I want my grandchildren to be more educated than their parents."

The pursuit of education was one reason that Baghdad attracted so many family members. Throughout history, the city's universities have been among the best in the Middle East, and because the country poured money into the sciences and had close links with the former Soviet bloc, its engineering, medicine and science faculties are more sophisticated than those of most other universities in the region.

Palestinians have received especially favorable treatment in Iraq as a sign of Saddam Hussein's support for a Palestinian state. In addition to free tuition, they receive a stipend to help cover living expenses.

But the Rahal family was drawn by more than educational opportunities. Baghdad has been a magnet for Arabs as early as the 9th century. It has been the Middle East's most sophisticated cultural and intellectual center, drawing artists, musicians and poets to its late-night cafes and restaurants overlooking the Tigris River. It had good housing and a bustling economy, especially during the oil boom years of the 1970s.

Khadar Hussein, the 61-year-old American oncologist, is the most accomplished of the seven siblings. But the other brothers also managed to get solid educations: Besides Rahal, Ahmed, the Iraqi army officer, studied engineering; Hussein in Bethlehem is an accountant.

Two of the three sisters in Jordan, Mazuza and Thuria, also excelled in school, but Mazuza followed Palestinian tradition and married early, becoming the mother of 10 children. Thuria, the youngest, still longs to go back to school, but as the last one at home, she ended up doing much of the caring for her aging parents and for Hussein before he married. Although she last studied English in high school, she still can manage a little and remembers happily her student days in Baghdad.

The next generation shows even more promise: Two of Hussein's children in Baghdad -- Amr, 23, and May, 20 -- are medical students. The third, 18-year-old Mohammed, is studying civil engineering.

Hude also beams as she speaks of her children's academic accomplishments. "I have one teacher of Arabic language, two nurses, a midwife, one is studying mathematics and all my daughters so far have gone to university," she said. But not quite all her children -- four of them have had only limited schooling because they are deaf, a congenital disorder that Hude believes is the result of her having married a first cousin.

Mazuza points to a similar list of accomplishments -- but her pleasure is undercut by the reality that most have not found jobs that match their training.

For all of them, the war in Iraq probably means that there will be one more place that they can no longer call home.

"If the regime is changed, I may never enter Iraq for all of my life because I would be seen as a supporter of the past regime -- because of my uncle," said Mazuza's son, Mohammed, 28, who has a university degree in Arabic but cannot find a job.

For him, it all leads back to Palestine, to the quest for a place that can be home.

"The Palestinian case will never be over," he said, nodding as another brother, Amjad, chimed in: "If we were living in Palestine, we would be proud to be martyrs." Martyr is the word commonly used in the region for suicide bombers as well as any Palestinian who dies fighting Israelis. The anger seems raw.

In Hussein's living room in Bethlehem, Hind was getting off the phone with her sister May in Baghdad. Five years apart and close companions all their lives, the sisters hate it when the connection fades and their conversation abruptly ends. They like to choose for themselves when and how to say goodbye.

Although their conversation had at times been sentimental, Hind's farewell words to her sister were not a wish for peace, or even for safety. Her eyes flashed with defiance as she spoke.

"May God grant you victory," she said.


King reported from Bethlehem and Rubin from Madaba.



Rahal family tree

The Rahal family has settled throughout the Middle East and in the U.S.

In Jordan

Khaled Ahmed Hussein Rahal, 90

Wife: Shia Abulfatah Ismail Rahal (mother, dead)

Current wife: Laila Rahal


Rahal, son, married, 3 children.

Hude, daughter, married, 16 children.

Mazuza, daughter, married, 10 children.

Thuria, daughter, married, 1 child.

In Bethlehem

Hussein, son, married, 5 children (3 of whom are in Baghdad).

In Baghdad

Ahmed, son, Iraqi army general, married, 5 children.

In Oklahoma City

Khadar Hussein, son, married, 2 children (First son, Khalid, is a U.S. reservist).

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