Zakia would become a refugee for a second time 13 years later, this time with a husband and two children, when President Gamal Abdel Nassar nationalized Egypt’s commercial and industrial enterprises and banned travel by Egyptian nationals. The family managed to leave without being detained, but the state would not allow them to return. They eventually settled in Geneva.
The author’s move to Palestine, coupled with her argument that Zakia’s family history should be written so that her grandchildren could understand their heritage, persuade her mother to revisit her past, which she has avoided talking about for decades.
Although mother and daughter connect via Skype daily, the mother’s stories are unfolded slowly, through letters. It seems she found it easier to write about the cataclysm that upended her comfortable, middle class life than to speak about it.
From the letters, the reader learns that Zakia was born in Jerusalem and lived in Lower Baq‘a. She grew up in an unconventional household: In a love match formed in 1918 that would be unusual even today, her Christian mother was eight years older than her Muslim father. They were both French-educated, and her father had attended a university in Switzerland. He taught school but later published and edited a newspaper.
The children were educated in a German school and raised in a home where discussions were lively and they were expected to have opinions and to be able to defend them. They had a German Shepherd, named Knut, after a Danish prince. In her letters to her daughter, Zakia describes her life as a teenager. She recalls her school and the pedagogical approach used and the deaths of some of her teachers. She loved to sing in the YMCA and fancied herself the Palestinian Edith Piaf.