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Volume 29, Number 2March/April 1978

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Reunion on the Potomac

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by Scurlock Studio

Family reunions, typically, comprise at most a few dozen relatives, and the kinfolk, divided into easily discernible generations, normally hail from places within reasonable distances from the reun­ion. But in Washington D.C. last summer there occurred a family gathering so big that it virtually filled the Shoreham-Americana, one of the city's more com­modious hotels. Those attending, furth­ermore, came from throughout the United States.

In some ways, it was typical. Exuberant guests embraced and kissed with en­thusiasm. Old friends shared old memories, and the tears flowed like wine. Yet this family, although nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage to everyone else, had something exceptional in common. Each member had his or her roots in a piece of hallowed real estate 7,800 miles off in another part of the world: a small, mountainous town called Ramallah, on the now famous West Bank of the Jordan River. And each was a member of the American Ramallah Federation which for 19 years has been sponsoring annual conventions for this unusual group of United States immigrants.

Like most immigrants, the Ramallans, after settling in the States, prospered, raised children and worked hard at becom­ing "good Americans." But they also - perhaps more than some immigrants - reserved a special place in their memories for their origins: the mountain town in the Middle East where, years before, their ancestors had planted deep and durable family roots.

As a result Ramallans, over many decades, encouraged a special cohesion. Wherever a significant number of Arabs with Ramallah connections settled, they soon formed a Ramallah club, many with youth auxiliaries. By last year there were 19 of these clubs, with a membership totalling 20,000 Palestinian-Americans and with chapters in such disparate loca­tions as Detroit, Washington, Birming­ham, Houston, Knoxville, San Francisco, Jacksonville, San Jose, and Lexington, Kentucky.

As with all such organizations, one big reason for forming such a club was purely social: the need to share the language, food and music that is so vital to Arabs, wherever they are. But there were other, more serious purposes too. One was the provision of help, primarily in the fields of education and health, to fellow Palestin­ians still living on home soil.

Ramallah itself, about nine miles north of Jerusalem, sits on seven hills which, some 3,000 feet up, boast a summertime coolness that has attracted vacationers from all over the Middle East for genera­tions. Beyond that, this town of about 50,000 permanent residents has always been known as a center of learning. With three colleges and six high schools in their midst, the citizens of Ramallah have long been known for the high levels of schooling they attain and for the unusually high proportion of well-educated professionals among them.

There were, nevertheless, areas in which the American Ramallans could help, and they have done so enthusiastically. Eighteen years ago they founded a hospital in Ramallah and, by sustained support, helped it grow into one of the most modern and best equipped institutions on the West Bank. They also contributed to construc­tion of a fine community library and to the provision of books. And, enlisting the aid of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (see Aramco World, March/April 1977) they have distributed in Ramallah the proceeds from fund drives sponsored by the U. S. Ramallah clubs for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, the formation of Boy Scout troops and other causes.

The third purpose of the Ramallah clubs is the preservation of a culture. For the older generation - particularly those who were born in the little city above Jerusalem and immigrated during the last 40 years - there will never be a question of who they are and what their heritage is. But among the widely scattered overseas Ramallans there is concern that their offspring, growing up with at least one foot planted firmly in the West, might forget their roots in the East. Many Ramallans, therefore, have established neighborhood schools to teach Arabic and, indirectly, foster re­membrance and knowledge of Ramallah and Ramallan ways.

Although most of the Ramallans did not come to the United States until 30 years ago, the first trickle of Ramallah citizens to head for American shores began in 1901. Twelve years before that the American Religious Society of Friends - the Quakers - had established schools for boys and girls in Ramallah and, in telling tales of life in America, whetted the appetites of many youngsters. Some Ramallans, con­sequently, began to see in America oppor­tunities for advancement and began to emigrate. Like many American immi­grants, they didn't really plan to stay; they planned to make their nestegg - sending remittances home on a regular basis to wives  and  families  left behind - and eventually return to Ramallah themselves to realize old dreams of a home of their own or a shop that would give them future independence.

According to chronicles of the early immigrations, many new entrants into the United States, usually short on general education, became peddlers, selling linens and other dry goods obtained from abroad. Later, though, they moved into more stable businesses - a small grocery store or a restaurant specializing in the kind of ethnic fare they knew best. They also began to buy their own homes and then, established, sent for their families - until, it is said, there were more Ramallans in the United States than in Ramallah itself. There were, certainly, a lot of them at the Washington convention, many sharing the same family names - Ayoub, George, Saah, Misleh, Ibrahim and Radifi for example - and many, in appearance, re­flecting the single bloodline from which they sprang: that of one Rashid al-Haddadeen. A blacksmith believed to be the father and founder of the town, Rashid al-Haddadeen was apparently attracted to the craggy, hilly site because it was well wooded and could supply him with plenty of fuel for his forges. In any case he settled there 500 years ago and had five sons - Sabra, Ibrahim, Shugayr, Jiryes and Has­san - who in turn sired a total of 18 male heirs and got the house of al-Haddadeen off to a fruitful start.

Because their roots do go so deep, Ramallan researchers have worked hard at keeping track of the now far-flung Ramal­lah blood-lines. But with the help of all the sons and daughters of Ramallah - re­inforced by regular local chapter meetings and annual conventions - they have suc­ceeded admirably. Asked where they came from, two youthful conventioneers, obvi­ously generations removed from their Middle Eastern roots, did not say they, came from Detroit or Jacksonville or San Francisco; instead they looked at the questioner in puzzlement and said with­out hesitation, "Why, Ramallah, of course...Why do you ask?"

The Ramallah bash in Washington had many of the outward appearances of any convention held anywhere: the usual excited melees on both sides of the registra­tion desk, the distribution of name tags and the scouting of hotel premises. Those attending also collected tickets for sporting events and tours of Washington's sights, and signed up for such events as a ladies' fashion luncheon and a young people's career symposium - which brought to the podium speakers representing the worlds of medicine, law, engineering, business and the theater. But there were unique elements too; elements that were wholly and unmistakably Arab.

All day Thursday, for example, cars from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia pulled up, one after the other, to the Shoreham to discharge cargoes of huge pots and kettles brimming with Arab food. For at the annual Ramallah conven­tion, the Ramallah families themselves provide and serve the complete opening-night meal - a feast that only travelers who have observed the creation of a meal in the Levant can appreciate. It entailed, said Samira Ayoub, wife of Washington Ramallah Club President Sliman Ayoub, a full week's preparation by herself and other Ramallan ladies from the Washington area. On the other hand, it was worth every minute of the effort. The menu - roast leg of lamb, rice and stuffed grape leaves, with great mounds of delicious round, flat Arab bread - could not have been more Middle Eastern, or more delicious.

Unlike the usual national convention, where most of the participants fall within a fairly narrow age-range, the Ramallah convention also included participants at both ends of the age scale; Arabs just don't leave babies or grandparents at home. Into the main lobby at the Shoreham, there­fore, came scores of tiny Palestinian-Americans, some carried in their mothers' arms, some pushed in carriages, some sucking bottles or pacifiers, and all in­cluded in every event, even those that ran late into the evening. For the slightly older set there was a well-run all-day babysitting service - to free mothers and fathers for the daytime business meetings and symposia - and professionals brought in by conven­tion planners gave a variety of magic shows and enthralling exhibits to keep them occupied and happy.

The activities seemed endless: an exhibit of paintings by Palestinian artists, after a successful nationwide tour; Arabic-language films, with English sub­titles; and late each evening a hafleh - roughly, "party". Featuring authentic folk dancing, those gatherings brought everyone with a willing body and spirit onto the floor to dance in the old way to the accompaniment of oud and tabla.

There were, of course, business meet­ings too, and, on Sunday evening, a formal banquet at which the guest of honor and principal speaker was U.S. Senator George McGovern, Democratic candidate for Pres­ident in 1972. Seated with him at the flower-decked head table were such no­tables as His Excellency Najati Kabani, the ambassador of Lebanon and dean of the Arab diplomatic corps in Washington; Salah Abdulla, Jordan's ambassador to the United States; Zuhdi Tarazi, representa­tive of the PLO to the United Nations; Dr. Muhammad Abdul-Rauf, director of Washington's Islamic Center on Mas­sachusetts Avenue; and several members of the Palestine National Council. Even there, the family feeling prevailed: incom­ing Federation President Mukhles ("Mike") Saah of Falls Church, Virginia, addressed the tables full of listeners in front of him as "my dear cousins and brothers" - and it was hardly hyperbole.

Delegates to the convention had already voted on Chicago as the site of the next gathering, and even before the conven­tioneers in Washington had had a chance to say their final farewells, the Chicago delegates were already beginning, in their minds at least, the year-long preparations for the Ramallah get-together on the shores of Lake Michigan the following summer.

That planning for the 20th Convention of the American Ramallah Federation will be shaped by a plethora of guidelines and precedents. There is one exigency, how­ever, that has not been allowed for in the organization's constitution or bylaws. It seems that at each yearly convention there is a small but interested faction of delegates who keep hoping that a certain highly eligible young lawyer, always active and helpful behind the scenes, will somehow discover an attractive Ramallan girl who will bring about a change in his bachelor status. It didn't happen in Washington, alas, but inshallah - if God wills - there's always a chance that things will go dif­ferently in Chicago. Then the organ­ization known as the American Ramallah Federation will have achieved yet another unspoken goal: keeping it all in the family.

Brainerd S. Bates was one of Aramco World Magazine's first editors, and later served for many years as Aramco's chief writer on petroleum in Dhahran. During that time he contributed regularly to the magazine, writing on oil and a wide range of subjects besides - from horse racing to desert camping to the Orient Express. After his retirement in 1975, he returned to freelance writing, and was working on a full issue of Aramco World when, at the end of 1977, he collapsed and died. He will, of course, have a successor, but will never be replaced. —The Editors

This article appeared on pages 30-32 of the March/April 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1978 images.