When asked to write a piece about my father, Afif Safieh, I decided I didn’t want to write something that anyone with access to Wikipedia could produce. Just Google him if what you are after is a rundown of his CV. I am fortunate enough to have grown up with this man as my live-in hero, and what I would like to share are the lessons he taught me. These lessons have served me well, but I believe they are also the principles that have guided him throughout his career. So please allow me the privilege of being slightly sentimental at times. And as he was not foretold about this article, I would also like to apologise to him if this tribute makes him self-conscious. Perhaps one of the few ways in which he is a stereotypical Arab man is that he is more comfortable discussing ‘bolitics’ than emotion.
The theme for this month’s issue is diplomacy, and nothing tests this art like raising two daughters. Already abundantly diplomatic before Randa and I came into this world, we would still like to take some credit in developing his negotiating, mediating and peace-making skills. I still don’t know how he managed to convince me, aged six, that it was my idea that I wanted books for learning instead of that pony. But I am grateful to the man who taught me that education is the ultimate, the only thing you can take with you wherever you go, or are forced to go. This was lesson number one, always be open to learning more lessons.
Like so many second generation Palestinians, many of whom, like us, are of mixed heritage, my sister and I had to navigate the complexities of being culturally, physically as well as generationally different from both our parents, whilst living amongst customs that were neither theirs nor ours. Because of my father’s career, we also moved from country to country fairly often. Having been denied the right to return to Jerusalem after 1967, when he was just 17 and studying in Belgium, my dad showed us that that developing this resiliency and ability to adapt to new situations and challenges should only ever be viewed as an advantage. Lesson number two is that it is not a case of belonging neither here NOR there, but belonging here AND there.
I have also learned a perhaps surprising amount about what it is to be a woman from my father. While preparing us for the specific constraints we would face as females (ambitious, opinionated, ‘ethnicky’ ones at that), he always instilled in us that we have just as much right to achieve whatever life goals we desire (apart from one, to return to our homeland, but that is not gender-specific, and my dad is still working on this). This should not be viewed as an enlightened perspective, yet sadly in a world where women still face glass ceilings, walls, and locked doors in many aspects of life, and not just in our supposedly backwards country but also in the apparently developed western world, we women need more men like my father on our side. Lesson number three is not to limit your ambitions to what society dictates is possible for your gender, age, religion, ethnicity.
I remember the time Randa came home and told us that she had made a new friend at university whose parents were Zionists. My dad’s reaction was to tell her ‘never let that be an issue between you.’ Far more accepting of people than I could ever hope to be, he holds the belief that those who respect the basic human rights of all people should be able to find mutual ground, be it in the political sphere or in friendship. Lesson number four, and this one is a difficult one to abide by, is to always judge a person by their own actions, beliefs and words, and not those of their family, people or nation.
Brought up in a Christian family, on the issue of his own faith my father will be the first to say ‘I have my doubts, but also doubts about my doubts.’ Although I seem to have inherited those doubts, the Christian ethos of serving humanity was also passed down. Regardless of what we believe happens after, we can all agree that we are here for a short time, and if that time is not used to improve the situation of one person, one people, one cause, then it has the danger of being a waste. Whether it was as president of the General Union of Palestinian Students, visiting scholar at Harvard, general delegate to the UK, Holy See, USA or Moscow, it is not just because I am his daughter that I say he has fought tirelessly to raise awareness about the plight of the Palestinian people, and has been faultless and irreproachable in representing us all, regardless of our various religious or political views.
I have the privilege to work for the London fundraising branch of St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group, the only charitable provider of eye care in the occupied Palestinian territories. The solid guidance from my father gave me the will and strength to pursue a career in the humanitarian sector. From an early age, he taught me that every job will have elements that are boring or difficult. These tasks are infinitely more bearable if it is for a cause you love. I have just been admitted into the Order of St John for contribution to the hospital, the biggest honour in fact being that I will be joining my father and great uncle as members. As we like to joke around the dinner table, my father will now also be my brother. Lesson number five is to always do something significant.
I am not the only one who has been mentored in all of these ways by my father. He has advised and guided many young Palestinians who now hold positions of positive influence and change. I would list them all if I hadn’t been set a word limit.
Those of us lucky enough to know him personally can confirm he is in his private life as he is in public. He handles difficult situations, and difficult people (again, you’re welcome, dad), with dignity, grace and respect, always finding common ground and a means of communicating effectively. Although the life lessons mentioned have been duly noted, I am still working on learning how to apply them 100% of the time. Given more time with my father, I hope to solidify these teachings.
*Article first published in This Week in Palestine in May 2016.