Architect in Exile

Mahmoud Kaddoura – Toronto, Canada

“Our lives became so much more complicated when Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait” Having been born and raised in Kuwait, Mahmoud’s perception of his being a Palestinian refugee revolved around his father’s stories about their village of Suhmata and its people, the pools, the castle and the stories of his childhood visits to Balbaak’s Thakanet Ghoro (Gouraud) refugee camp. He would also hear about ‘Ein El-Hilweh, the refugee camp in Sidon where his mother was raised. “In Kuwait, it was very normal for you to be Palestinian or Yemeni or Indian, or indeed from anywhere in the world since most of the labor done in that country came from elsewhere.”

Years later when Mahmoud lived in Lebanon, the grandfather he was named after would tell him long stories of his days working at the Akka docks, about his memories in Suhmata, the road to Safad, the agricultural school that they took so much pride in having despite the village’s small size, the neighboring towns of Tarshiha, Al-Jish and Deir Al-Qasi that everyone had relatives in, and about how many of the men and women of Suhmata organized themselves into popular resistance committees in 1948 to try to prevent their expulsion at the hands of the Zionists.

 Although they were not rich, the lives of the Kaddouras in Kuwait was comfortable, especially compared to what people underwent in Lebanon in those wretched years of the Israeli occupation, Lebanese civil war, and the war of the camps. Then came August 2, 1990 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Daily life turned into a quest for the basic needs of survival; queuing for endless hours to get the meager rations of bread, cooking gas, drinking water, and whatever was available for the month.

Everyone who could leave left, including the Kuwaitis themselves. Those that stayed did so out of necessity; either they did not have the means to leave, or they were from Gaza or Lebanon; places that were in an even worse condition than Kuwait. Most brutal was the uncertainty, stories of Iraqi soldiers abusing Kuwaitis began to spread, and news of the US amassing allies and troops at Kuwait’s doorstep in preparation for war made it clear that the worst was yet to come.

“For those of us in Kuwait, 1991 was another Palestinian Nakba like ‘48, ’67 and ‘82” Even before the war, the idea that Palestinians were no longer welcome had begun to surface. In 1975 Kuwait stopped granting entry permits to Palestinians with refugee documents mainly from Lebanon. That year Mahmoud’s uncle Mustafa was supposed to start work in Kuwait and obtained a work permit to do so, but while at the airport discovered that he would not be allowed entry as the new law had come into effect. Later, a Kuwaiti law was passed that effectively stripped foreigners including Palestinians of residency rights once they turned eighteen, unless they were enrolled at the University of Kuwait, however only Kuwaitis were accepted into that university unless they had very good connections or ranked the highest in the country. This was affecting the family since Mahmoud’s older sister Leena was to start high school, and the family had to think of a place for her to go once she graduated. Another law was that any non-Kuwaiti whose salary was less than 300 Dinars was not allowed to marry; so “ultimately Egyptians went back to Egypt, Pakistanis to Pakistan, where were we supposed to go?”

There was also the palpable bond between Palestinians and Iraqis in Kuwait; “when the Iraqi football team would come to play in Kuwait, half of those who came out to cheer them would be Palestinians.” The leadership of the PLO was playing a very risky, and ultimately disastrous, game in taking a strong official position endorsing Saddam Hussein in the war with the US and its allies. As a result, and despite some Palestinians playing important roles in training and supporting Kuwaitis fighting against the Iraqi occupation, Kuwait began to see Palestinians as part and parcel of the Saddam regime, indeed many Palestinians had rejoiced when Saddam entered Kuwait, and many were supporters of his regime because he was against Israel.

Within weeks of the February 27, 1991 liberation of Kuwait, Kuwaiti militant groups had been formed both unofficially by local warlords and by the state itself. Iraqis, Palestinians, Sudanis, and Yemenis were the “four nationalities” targeted by these groups with more than the mere complicity of the regular Kuwaiti security apparatus. It also became known that people from various communities were collaborating with Kuwaitis, informing on anyone who hosted Iraqi soldiers in their homes or even offered them a glass of water during the days of the occupation. Mahmoud began to notice and hear of disappearances from the Palestinian community and several Palestinians’ bodies had been found tortured and killed. Abdallah Abdun, a very kind and generous Sudanese man who was a very close friend of the family had sent his wife and daughter back to Sudan to wait for him while he got his affairs in order before leaving himself was intentionally run over by a car that had chased him. What made it particularly difficult for Palestinians was the lack of any kind of representative that could follow up on these cases. Mahmoud admits that “until today, I don’t know if anyone is even asking about what happened to those who disappeared during those horrible days.”

Mahmoud’s father began to seriously consider moving the family to Lebanon, despite the horror stories that were reaching Kuwait from Lebanon. He planned to wait for compensation from work in order to be able to afford the move, and hoped that in the meantime the situation would quiet down in Lebanon. During this period, Mahmoud and his friend were randomly and with no reason, other than their Palestinian identity, arrested by militants and beaten mercilessly for most of the day. It was clear that they would be killed, and at one point they overheard that they were indeed to be taken to a desolate area and executed. Luckily for the two young men, one of their neighbors had told their families about the kidnapping and the families had gone to people they knew in the government and the allied military, which in turn showed up at the scene and prevented the executions from taking place. Their captors were released immediately with no charges laid, while the two Palestinians were then handed over to an official state prison where they were further interrogated about their connections to the Iraqi occupation, and ultimately set free when none were found. With his son bruised from head to toe, Mahmoud’s father could no longer postpone the relocation of his family to Lebanon.

“In the 1990s as in the 1980s, we Palestinians were the most vulnerable group in Lebanon” Life in Lebanon was very difficult at first. There was not enough room for the newly arrived family in relatives’ homes, so Mahmoud and his brother joined his aunt’s family ending up in a Kharroub juice factory building with another five families. Through out the civil war, these families had sought refuge there from Tal El-Za’tar camp, Al-Damur (Lebanon), Al-Rashdiyyah camp, and Tyre. His mother, two sisters and two younger brothers stayed in Sidon at his grandmother’s home.

After six months passed, and with Mahmoud’s father reunited with the family, they were able to acquire an apartment in Sidon with a Lebanese sponsor. Mahmoud and his siblings enrolled at the school in ‘Ein El-Hilweh camp. There was great concern over how they would be able to afford enrollment at university. While the two older siblings, Lina and Fadi, enrolled in UNRWA’s Seblin Vocational School, Mahmoud went to the Beirut Arab University, and he was only able to do so with the help of his aunts and the PLO’s Palestinian Students Fund. “This fund was perhaps the most important thing set up by the PLO for young Palestinians; some of my friends were fully dependent on it. I hear that its services are now dwindling and that it is under-funded, this is a disaster. I can easily say that it would have been impossible for us to continue our studies without it.”

The 1990s were a time when the Islamist currents were hegemonic, “which made sense because what we saw of resistance to Israel and the US was carried out by Islamic currents, whether by Hizbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine.” The main issue was the peace process, and a rift developed between those for and against the Oslo agreements and its ramifications.

“Those defending Oslo would say that it would provide us with a launching ground to liberate the rest of Palestine, as if Arafat was engaged in a strategy where he would somehow trick the US and Israel, those people were very embarrassed when the Aqsa Intifada erupted and construction of the apartheid wall began. Those from the Islamic currents saw Oslo as a way of getting the Palestinian leadership into Palestine to do Israel’s dirty work and repress the Islamic resistance. I remember people talked about how it was a conspiracy to resettle the refugees; every time someone saw a new housing project being built they would report that it was to permanently resettle us there, or if a high ranking foreign official would visit, it was to discuss ways to get rid of the right of return. Some put a lot of emphasis on making sure they had their UNRWA ration cards to prove that they were refugees in case compensation was going to be paid out.”

Mahmoud experienced a significant shift in his perception of Palestine with the advent of satellite television broadcasts and the internet, especially when he moved to Beirut to study architecture in 1995, and even more when he moved to Australia to complete his Masters degree. “Haifa, Akka, Nazareth, Umm El-Fahem were places from my grandfather’s stories or from patriotic poems, now I could see live pictures of them. More shocking was seeing Tel Aviv, and seeing Israeli civilian politicians on television; I began to see Israel and Israelis as not being only soldiers at checkpoints shooting kids, but as a real colonial settlement project, they had kicked us out and saw themselves as being in Palestine to stay.” Another important thing for me was based on remembering West Bank Palestinians in Kuwait who would hear our accents and call us Lebanese, through satellite TV I saw people like Azmi Bishara and Jamal Zahalka who spoke with the same accents as us, and they were there, in the towns and villages we were kicked out of, and they were talking about our return, and about preserving and developing their Palestinian identity.”

While in Australia, Mahmoud supplemented whatever support he could get from his family by working at a convenience store. He would communicate regularly with people in Palestine through the internet, which is how he met Nadia, and the two would soon fall in love. Upon graduation, he discovered that he could not stay in Australia. He returned to Lebanon, where the situation of Palestinian youths was, as it continues to be, very difficult. With very little in the way of job opportunities most young Palestinian men looked for a way to find a way to leave Lebanon, and Mahmoud was no exception. He got the chance to immigrate to Canada, a place where he could also arrange to meet Nadia and ask for her hand, and so it was that in 2005 he arrived in Toronto. It is here that Mahmoud’s talent as an artist and architect have been able to flourish as he completes project after project of some of the most innovative architectural designs around the country, and it is here that he was finally able to unite with his sweetheart after years of phone calls and internet conversations.

As we end our conversation talking about the projects he has worked on, Mahmoud tells me “while things are finally looking good for me, I still feel a sense of hollowness since I do not have the chance to use my skills and research to help build my own country and people. Wherever I have lived, Palestinians have been the most vulnerable with no one to really represent and protect us; look at what’s happening to Palestinians in Iraq and Nahr El-Bared camp. My dream is to live in a place that I belong to culturally; geographically; politically; to feel a part of it; and to use whatever skills and resources I have as an architect and as a person to make it a free and thriving place. Even though I have never been allowed to be there, I know that the only place that I can feel and do this is Palestine.”