The Migratory Cactus

Today we mark the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba through the life of an aloe vera plant currently bursting with verdant vitality at Salma Al-Khalidi’s home. Through this plant’s travels out of Palestine and back to it, we retrace the journey of a family displaced by the Nakba, and join them as they embark on their return. This cactus plant not only represents one chapter of a personal history, says Salma, but also narrates the history of an entire generation.

The Palestinian Museum was not the only entity to be granted the opportunity to delve into a story that began at the clinic of a literature and plant loving physician in Jaffa. The threads of the story split and spread out, eventually coming together again in a clay pot on one of the verandas of the family house in Ramallah. Just as Salma shares the story of the cactus plant with every guest visiting her house, she also happily gives whoever of her guests desires it a seedling from it, affirming that that is the very essence of this plant. As the plant propagates and spreads, Salma hopes that the spiritual elements of the story the plant narrates will similarly multiply and propagate its significance. Today we dig into the soil of the cactus plant once again and invite you to enter into the narrative and share the dream.

Salma Khaldi- image

When the [Haganah] gangs intensified their violence and the war became oppressive, Salma’s grandfather had to leave his Jaffa clinic towards the end of 1948. He was keen not to part from his memories and chose to take with him his dearest possessions. He told his wife, who was frantically packing their belongings, to include seedlings of the house and clinic plants. Thus the aloe vera plant reached Nablus. Several years later nostalgia transported it once again, this time with Salma’s uncle, whose desire for a spiritual extension that would intensify the meaning of his existence impelled him to carry a seedling of the plant with him to his new home in Amman. Her father, with his passion for plants, continued this natural legacy and carried a seedling of the plant with him to Kuwait. Years elapsed between one travel destination and the next, with the cactus growing in exile until it was repatriated to Palestine.

In 1990, Salma’s uncle on her mother’s side took 36 cactus plants with him on a journey from Kuwait to Amman, but all the plants perished from heat with the exception of this aloe vera. After five years of residency in Amman, Salma decided to return to Ramallah. She could think of nothing better than this cactus plant to symbolize the strong ties that bound the family together, and to guard its members against the feeling of alienation during their displacement. Thus, she carried the plant with her as she moved back to Palestine.

In the sun, the red strands that adorn its leaves make the cactus glow like a flame, says Salma as she describes the beauty of her aloe vera. She hopes that the plant’s return to Ramallah will be the first step on the road to returning to Jaffa, a return bound with the return of all Palestinians to their homeland.

As the displaced move to their exiles, so this plant moved, and as they return home, so it returned.

Text: Malak Afouneh
Translation: Rania Filfil
Editing: Alexander Baramki
Interview by: Loor Awwad
Photographs: Ihab Jad

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