Prayers for the Middle East
Christian Palestinians keep the faith in Levittown and keep their homeland in their hearts
By Shomial Ahmad
December 31, 2006
At St. John Antiochian Orthodox Church in Levittown, events in Israel and the West Bank are never far from the Rev. George Makhlouf's mind.
After all, Makhlouf was born in Jerusalem, and other members of the church were born on the West Bank and in former Palestinian towns and cities inside what is now Israel. The church and its members constitute a thriving community of Palestinian-Americans in the heart of Long Island - families who live American lives while keeping a worried eye on the land of their birth.
In many ways, the center of their lives on Long Island is their church. And this one is not their first in Nassau County. On a bright day in October, the church, recently built on 2 1/2 acres, was consecrated by the head of all the Antiochian Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada, Eminence Metropolitan Philip Saliba. The ceremony capped a journey of several decades in which the congregation worshipped in different churches, growing out of many of them.
In an interview at his East Meadow home, Makhlouf, 63, spoke of the pride he felt in his church and his birthplace. He constantly watches the news for developments in the Middle East. This summer, as the war in Lebanon between Israel and the Hezbollah raged, he said he was glued to the TV, following each day's bombings on both sides of the border and feeling sick over the violence.
He said he feels a strong sense of still belonging to Palestine, where Palestinian Christians amount to less than 2 percent of the population. There are also pockets of Palestinian Christians in Gaza and in the Galilee region of northern Israel. Before May 1948, when Israel was created, more than 20 percent of the Palestinian population was Christian.
In a small way, the Palestinian Christian community on Long Island is part of a worldwide diaspora, with far larger communities in such places as Dearborn, Mich. Even conservative Israeli historians, such as Benny Morris, say that the creation of the Jewish state resulted in the expulsion and flight of up to 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Makhlouf was born on the western side of Jerusalem; after fighting erupted in 1948, he moved to East Jerusalem, to the opposite side of what would later be delineated the Green Line, or the border between Israel proper and the West Bank.
Long Island, New York City and northern New Jersey are home to, perhaps, several thousand of those Palestinians and their descendants, according to church officials. In a few words on this day, Makhlouf summed up the often conflicted feelings of many members of his church.
"America is my country," he said. "Palestine is my homeland."
Too young to remember
Eddie Zarou can't remember the details of the house in which he was born on the West Bank.
In 1937, 5-year-old Zarou moved with his family to Long Island, and, in the nearly seven decades since, the only homes he's known intimately have been in Nassau County. Palestine is more a part of his imagination than his memory. He says it always will be.
Zarou, 74, sits in his living room in Hicksville, a cross peeking out from his tan polo shirt. An Abbott and Costello figurine sits by his fireplace near a Palestinian handicraft, a wooden octagonal plate.
While describing himself as Palestinian-American, he is emphatic about his life on Long Island: "Home is here," he says, pointing to the floor of his living room.
Now retired, Zarou, who owned grocery stores in Hempstead and New Cassel and has worked as an electrician, is one of approximately 200,000 Palestinians living in the United States, according to the Journal of Palestine Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based academic publication devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinian history.
Within that group, a minority are Christian, like Zarou and the members of the Levittown church. At the time Zarou's family first settled on Long Island, he remembered there being only a small handful of Palestinian Christian families, living mostly in and around Hempstead.
As the community grew through the decades, its members sought churches where they could pray together. In the 1950s, Palestinian Christian families went to services at Hempstead's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Paul. Zarou married his wife, Jean Hanna, of West Hempstead, there in 1956. Later, the congregants rented space at East Meadow's Holy Trinity Church. The Zarous, both of whom trace their roots to the West Bank city of Ramallah, attended the church with their three children.
In 1979, Palestinian families built a church of their own in Uniondale and called it St. John Antiochian Orthodox Church. It was a community effort: Zarou built the icon stand; volunteer carpenters constructed the pews.
What had been a community of half a dozen families has grown to nearly 100, including many entrepreneurs, lawyers and schoolteachers. Last May, the growing congregation moved again, to the white-spired church in Levittown. It was this church that was consecrated in October.
The church centers the community, a place of worship and fellowship, where people break bread together, celebrate and find refuge - and talk in worried tones about life back in what, before Israel declared statehood in 1948, was called the British Mandate of Palestine.
Zarou's family gathers in the church every Sunday. Five of his seven grandchildren, ranging in age from 3 to 18, live on Long Island and attend the church as well.
Though Zarou has never been back to the place of his birth, his parents, both siblings, and one of his daughters have all visited the West Bank. Even for people who have been living in America for generations, how events unfold in the occupied West Bank, and inside Israel proper, to which many Palestinian- Americans trace their roots, continues to have an effect on what it means to be Palestinian-American.
Zarou keeps tabs on CNN and BBC World. He sighs with frustration that there's never been a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a reconciliation of the deep historical issues that divide the two sides.
Many of the church's families living on Long Island hold dear to the Arabic language and traditional foods. They try to pass traditions on to younger generations.
Zarou's daughter, Debra Zarou, 41, remembers enjoying her grandmother's cooking. Nijmeh Zarou, who died in 1994, lived two blocks from Uniondale High School. After school, Debra and her friends would visit her grandmother's home and smell the aromatic seasonings of Arabic cooking as soon as they walked into the house, Debra Zarou said. There'd be grape leaves wrapped around lamb and rice and squash stuffed with the same ingredients.
"Every friend I had wanted to be Palestinian," she said. "They loved the music, the food. The food - forget about the food!"
Zarou, who owned and operated a Levittown deli with her brother for 19 years, sits on the church's parish council, which functions as its governing board. Inside the church one recent afternoon, teenage boys ran with girls who held water jugs on their shoulders, practicing the steps in a traditional Arabic folk dance called dhabka. Outside in the parking lot, teenagers teased one another while hip-hop music blasted from car speakers.
The ladies' club of the church sells falafel breakfasts in the dining hall twice a year, and on Wednesday nights in the same room nearly 30 women exercise to the sounds of Arab music. Friday nights, Debra Zarou takes her youngest son, Justin, 14, for Arabic classes and her eldest son, Isam, 18, visits from college for the major church parties on Mother's Day and Thanksgiving. At Halloween parties, children come to church dressed up in their costumes, and on Easter they hunt for eggs.
Debra Zarou said she believes Palestinians - Christian or Muslim - are misunderstood by the world because of the nearly 60-year-old conflict with Israel that has at its heart the issue of land.
"A lot of people think that all Palestinians are terrorists," she said. "If they would only maybe one day walk into our church and see what kind of people that we are."
Middle Eastern concerns
One day last July, Makhlouf stood at the front of the church and spoke of the fighting in Lebanon, worried that civilians caught in the middle would suffer the most.
In the church foyer, people greeted one another with kisses on each cheek. Nearby, children stood on their tiptoes to light tapered candles. Soon, the choir began singing and burning incense filled the air.
As the ceremony began, Makhlouf switched between Arabic and English. His lips closed into a small circle while he chanted prayers. He stood in front of a portrait of Jesus with icons of the disciples arranged in a semicircle above him.
For his sermon he read a letter from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archbishop of New York, addressing the conflict that engulfed Lebanon over the summer. The letter asked parishioners to donate money to the war-torn region. To many Lebanese, the war was seen as an act of aggression; to Israelis, the war was the result of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah rockets' being fired at northern Israel from inside southern Lebanon.
In 1994, Makhlouf left Ramallah in the West Bank - the countryside around it now home to Israeli settlements built, according to the Israeli human rights organization Peace Now, on land owned by Palestinians - and moved to Yonkers to lead an Antiochian Orthodox church there. In 2001 he came to Long Island to join this congregation.
He last visited Palestine in 1997. He said Israeli officials at the airport in Tel Aviv detained him for hours, asking hundreds of questions about the purpose of his visit. It was as if, he said, he had become an unwelcome visitor to the place where he was born - a stranger in a familiar land.
On Long Island, he says, on some days, when word of bombings or fighting dominates, he tries to hide his emotions, often fighting back tears. He finds refuge in his prayers and in his sermons, he said.
Fingering his prayer beads during one interview, Makhlouf said, "I can't live without hope."
It was the last Sunday in July when Makhlouf was the most affected by news of the fighting in Lebanon, with the Israeli bombing of the city of Qana.
Before attending church service, Makhlouf, like many of his congregants, had watched pictures of bodies being pulled out of the rubble. More than two dozen civilians were killed, half of whom were children, according to news accounts. At the end of the monthlong conflict, 845 Lebanese were killed, the majority of whom were civilians; in Israel, 157 people died, according to an Associated Press report. Since then, a truce was instituted that still holds.
After the Sunday service, people sat in the church cafeteria, some eating doughnuts and others, bagels spread with olive oil, oregano and thyme, a mixture called zatter. The fighting in Lebanon was on everyone's mind, though some were reluctant to talk about it.
Ebtessama Habibi Jaghab, 63, lives in Garden City. She was born in a former Palestinian town near the Israeli city of Haifa. She fled her hometown in 1948 when she was 5. She said that, with her family - and thousands of other Palestinian refugees - she walked for days, eventually settling in a town outside of Beirut.
"No money. No clothes. No nothing. Thinking that we will go back ... and we're still waiting," Jaghab said.
Raed Shami, of Bellmore, also sat at the table. His parents left Jaffa, now an Israeli city, in 1948 and settled in Jordan, where Shami was born.
"I never saw Palestine, even though I'm Palestinian," said Shami, 40. For him, the only reference to a Palestinian home is a photograph with peach and apricot trees that his grandfather once owned.
Shami said he doesn't consider himself a political person. But like many of the other congregants, he watched the news of the fighting before going to church and felt moved to do something, even if it was just to talk about his homeland to a visitor.
Suad Zeibaq, 55, said she was angry about the fighting, and that she believes Palestinians who live inside Israel do not have full rights. (Approximately 20 percent of the population of Israel is Palestinian.) She left Ramallah in 1967, the year Israel occupied the West Bank, and moved to California, where she got married. She now lives in East Meadow, retired from working as a saleswoman at Fortunoff in Westbury.
She has returned once to the West Bank, in 2000. On a monthlong visit to the Middle East, she spent time in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. In every place she felt comfortable, she said, except in Ramallah, where she was born. After that visit, she decided that she wouldn't return.
Visiting the land of her birth, she said, was just too painful.