Jana Kotaishová and a Palestinian story through Czech eyes

Photo: David Vaughan

Jana Kotaishová grew up in the countryside of Southern Moravia, but when she married a Palestinian refugee over three decades ago, she embarked on a life that was far removed from the security and continuity of rural life in the Czech Republic. She has written a remarkable book, telling the story of her own life and of the lives of three generations of her husband’s family, drawing directly from their own memories. David Vaughan talked to her about the book.

Marie Kotaishová and Jana Kotaishová,  photo: David Vaughan
When you meet Jana Kotaishová, as I did recently in Prague’s Café Montmartre, it does not take long before you realize that this is not a person who would ever have been happy with a quiet life. She is highly articulate, well-travelled and energetic, and as she says at one point in our interview, she has never been interested in accepting mainstream ideas uncritically. When she saw the level of prejudice and ignorance in the Czech Republic about Palestine and Palestinians she wrote a book about the reality of life for Palestinians over the last eighty years, all from the perspective of a single family. What makes the book so powerful is that members of her husband’s family tell their own stories in the first person, based on her own long interviews with them. In other chapters she talks about her own life, spent between two very different worlds. As we sat in the café, along with her oldest daughter Marie, she told me more about the book.

Abu Dhabi,  photo: Rüdiger Meier,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
JK: “My name is Jana Kotaishová. I am Czech but I have been living for more than 35 years with a Palestinian husband. I have spent all this time in different Arab countries, following my husband on his journey, because my husband used to be a refugee [he now has Czech citizenship]. Refugees live where there is work for them, which means that if my husband got a working contract in Morocco, we moved to Morocco, if it was in Libya, we moved to Libya, Algeria, then sometimes in Lebanon, sometimes also in the Czech Republic, and now, for more than fifteen years we have been living in the United Arab Emirates, in Abu Dhabi.”

And you are here with your eldest daughter…

Illustrative photo: Eliška Kánová,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
MK: “My name is Marie. I’m the daughter of the author of the book that we are going to be talking about and I’m not sure how much I will be saying, but just in case I’m needed I can add something!”

Let’s start by talking about how the book came about.

JK: “I have to say that every summer I was coming back to my country. I’m from Velké Bílovice, the biggest wine-growing village in the Czech Republic. So my grandfather, my father and my brother have all worked in this job – growing wine. Whenever I came back and talked to friends from school, high school and university I was sad when I heard their reactions to the Arab world, because many people in the Czech Republic know nothing about it, but they spend hours and hours talking in a negative way about Arabs, about the countries, the habits, traditions…”

… and also about Islam…

Gaza War in 2009,  photo: International Solidarity Movement,  CC BY-SA 2.0
JK: “Of course, about Islam, because Islam is for them the worst religion in the world. And I was comparing it with my life with Arab people, because I must add that not only my husband is Palestinian, but all our life together I have been surrounded by my husband’s relatives and other Arab people and I can say for myself that I have become half Arab. I started to think in a different way. Because my original profession is journalism I always felt that I have to write something about my experiences with the Arab world. And when I witnessed the war in Gaza in 2008-9, we were watching this war on the TV screen, I said to myself that I must do something, but I knew I couldn’t do anything. All I could do was to write the story of people I know – my husband, his relatives, his mother and father – about people who used to live in Palestine but were kicked out. And it was the reason why I started to write the book.”

And the book tells the story of three generations of your husband’s family.

JK: “It is the story of the grandfather and grandmother of my husband. They used to be farmers in Palestine. The farm was located between Haifa and Acre cities.”

Our house was in a valley, where there were fields on every side. The neighbors were within view. Their houses, surrounded by fields, were scattered about the countryside; it was a pretty sight. All of us in that region were farmers, Arabs and Jews, age-old residents… … I was the oldest daughter, which meant that mother taught me everything first. At ten years old I was already a fully-fledged housewife. I could knead dough for bread, milk a cow, decant milk into canisters, skim milk for cheese, pluck a hen, skin a rabbit, pickle olives, and if it came to it, operate the press for olive oil.

[Em Omar, Jana’s mother-in-law]

JK: “It continues about my father-in-law and mother-in-law and then my husband, and then my husband’s brothers and sisters. And also part of the book is my story, how I met my husband and how he changed my life, my beliefs, my thinking, the way I act.”

Another person who figures in the story is your daughter, who is sitting here with us. Marie, you are part of the story as the next generation.

MK: “That’s true. For me personally it was a great thing that Mum wrote the book, because I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know previously. Only then did I realize that for my father it was probably too painful a topic to talk about on normal occasions, so if the book hadn’t been published, I wouldn’t know a big part of our family history. “

Palestine,  source: Rob,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Your mother has just said that she feels that she’s become half-Arab. You were born half-Arab and half-Czech. Is that easy?

MK: “I’ve always thought that it was some sort of punishment, especially when I was a kid. To be honest it wasn’t easy at all. I sort of chose one side, because I don’t think I was able to deal with the complexity of it. So I always felt Czech. But only recently – as one becomes wiser, hopefully, as one gets older – I’ve realized that it’s not the right way to go about it and I’ve started accepting my other half, which is the Palestinian half. And I think it was a great thing. Only today do I realize that it has made us, I mean myself and my two sisters, richer and probably it has made it easier for us to understand other people who are different from what we’re used to. “

And you also played a role in getting the book published.

Gaza War in 2014,  photo: Azzam Talahmi,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
MK: “Yes, we tried to publish the book with different publishing houses. It took a lot of years actually. Mum was contacting everybody and in the end there was a publishing house that agreed to it, but just when the last war in Gaza happened, they pulled out. At that moment I decided that we really need to publish it. So it was published as self-funded and that’s how it happened.”

It was published in both Czech and English.

MK: “First in Czech and only then did we get it translated into English. Now it’s available in both languages.”

Although it’s self-published, it has sold well.

Palestinian refugee camp,  photo: Mrbrefast,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
MK: “That’s true, which is great, and we’re very happy because of that. I’ve had many people tell me that they always thought they understood the situation in the Middle East and that they were always very clear about who was right. In their minds it was Israel. But they said that when they read the book they saw how complex the situation really is and they heard about it from the other side for the first time in their lives. So I’m very happy that this is what the book is doing.”

In the book we read about the trauma of being driven out of the country in 1948, but it is just as shocking to read about the conditions in Lebanon, in the refugee camps, in the years that followed, and seeing how badly the Palestinian refugees were treated even in other Arab countries. In the book you very movingly give the reader an idea of what it’s like not to have a home to go back to.

Illustrative photo: Lilly_M,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
JK: “You know, in the first year in the refugee camp my mother-in-law and father-in-law spent in a tent. It is very nice in summer, spring and autumn, but very cold in the winter. They spent the first winter in a cave and my mother-in-law, because she was close to the soil, did everything to turn this cave into a home, because she knew that spending the winter in a tent would be very difficult. So they spent it in the cave – and then a second year. You know, life is so short. Four or five years passed, the children were born, and they were asking the question, ‘My God, we have spent five years in the refugee camp, when are we going back?’ The first generation who left Palestine never resisted, because they always believed that they will be back. The resistance started only with their children. When twenty years passed and the children grew up, then they started to do something to be able to go back.”

And that’s the generation of your husband, who is also one of the narrators of the book.

JK: “For my husband, when he was talking about childhood, I understood that even if he is going to live to a hundred years, he cannot forgive, he cannot forget. And for me it is a problem, because he is trying very hard to be positive but always there is something coming to him that is bigger than all his attempts, and this is the absence of a homeland and the absence of a happy childhood, because you know, if you are happy as a child, there is a big possibility to be happy as an adult.”

I never liked autumn and winter, even as a child. I do not even like my childhood. I would like to forget it. Yet it seems that the past, saved in the memory, floats up to the surface and is reflected in my thoughts and actions. Many people think I am crazy, but I am not. I just want to forget. The more I try, however, the more the events of years past invade the present, stretching their shadows over it.

[Ahmed, husband of Jana, father of Marie].

In the Czech Republic, because there was a very large Jewish community in the country until the Second World War and the memory of the Holocaust is still very much alive, it makes it more uncomfortable talking about the later sufferings of the Palestinians at the hands of the Jewish state. When you were writing the book, you must have been aware of this difficulty in getting across the story of your husband’s family in a way that would be understandable and sympathetic to Czech readers.

Concentration camp,  photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
JK: “I have known since a very early age about the suffering of the Jewish people and I have to say that it was one of the elements that originally moved me towards having a social awareness, because I have a very strong social awareness. Just recently I’ve been listening on Czech Radio to fascinating stories of Jews who came back to Czech society from concentration camps and how Czech society was tough and inhuman with them. I don’t think that when I’m giving witness about what the state of Israel did to Palestinian people, that in this way I am underestimating the suffering of Jewish people. I always say that injustice is injustice. It was injustice during the Second World War, or even before, after the Nuremberg Laws were introduced, then there was injustice during the Stalin era in the Soviet Union and injustice is now going on in the state of Israel. It started when people were kicked out of their houses and when people, like my husband’s family, lost the homeland where they used to be for thousands of years. All this is injustice. And if I don’t want to play mainstream games I have to say my personal opinion. I am not telling stories about the suffering of Jews, because we have excellent writers, even in Czech literature who did so in a very good way. But my personal experience is different and I am giving my personal stories and what I personally have witnessed.”

Israel Defense Forces,  photo: Archives of the Israel Defense Forces,  Wikimedia CC BY 2.0
Marie, would you like to add anything to that?

MK: “I’ve been listening to you and Mum, and we all know that it’s a complex topic and it’s also uncomfortable, as you said. But one has to remember that essentially most of the survivors of the Holocaust and their families and their descendants are against what Israel is doing today. And I think that’s very important because it’s usually people who don’t have direct experience of the Holocaust who approve of the military actions of the state of Israel. But those who have had the experience and their families see it very differently, and those are the people who say, ‘Of course, it should never have happened to us, but it should never happen to anyone else either.’ So I think that’s part of the narrative that’s really missing in the Czech Republic. We all understand how terrible the Holocaust was – it was something indescribable – but that doesn’t justify the military actions of the state of Israel.”

Do you think that your book has helped to create a different narrative and create a discussion at a more nuanced and sophisticated level about the fate of the Palestinians?

Refugee camp Nahr Al-Bared,  photo: UNRWA
JK: “For me, if one or two thousand people will read the book, and they will think about what I am writing, getting the point of view from the other side, it will be enough, because when I started I never thought about publishing the story, because I said that I want to write for my daughters, for my grandchildren because my husband’s destiny is very important, because it is not just his destiny. It is the destiny of the whole nation.”

Jana Kotaishová’s book is entitled Nahr Al-Bared, which in Arabic means Cold River, the name of the refugee camp where her mother- and father-in-law first lived after fleeing Palestine in 1948. It was translated from the Czech by Nathan Fields.