Beyond borders: Gaza to Delhi, an Indo-Palestinian love story

“I wanted to name my son either Gandhi or Arafat, but finally I chose Arafat,” says Maphaz, who hails from Gaza. Unlike Gaza , a coastal enclave with pleasant weather and clean air, Delhi was hot, polluted, and overcrowded. She met her husband Badar Khan Suri, a Delhiite, when he was part of an international humanitarian convoy to Gaza in 2011. She had this enormous interest in India, and asked me endless questions about our country,” says Badar. Maphaz says she grew up watching Bollywood movies and India for her meant Mahatma Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, SRK and saris.

The early morning chill permeates the sunless living room of Maphaz Ahmad Yousef’s fourth-floor house in Jamia Nagar. The room has many souvenirs from Palestine. Dressed in a black Palestinian thobe, her head covered with a scarf, Maphaz, 27, is playing with her son, Arafat. “I wanted to name my son either Gandhi or Arafat, but finally I chose Arafat,” says Maphaz, who hails from Gaza. “I want him to be like Gandhi, whom I consider a self-sacrificing man of exceptional values.”

The otherwise soft-spoken Maphaz has strong views on the Palestine-Israel conflict. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Palestine on Saturday, she says, will help assuage the feelings of Palestinians who were hurt after he visited Israel, but not Palestine, last year. “I know India is a sovereign country and faces serious challenges in its neighbourhood, but we hope India will not give up its moral position on the Palestine-Israel conflict,” says Maphaz, whose father, Ahmed Yousef, was a senior political advisor to the Hamas leadership.

The story of Maphaz’s passage to India is the stuff of Bollywood movies. She met her husband Badar Khan Suri, a Delhiite, when he was part of an international humanitarian convoy to Gaza in 2011.

Badar, pursuing a PhD in peace and conflict studies at Jamia Millia, needs some prodding before he tells the story of his love and marriage to Maphaz. “She was our translator who helped us interact with the locals. She was very attractive, knowledgeable and had an infectious smile. Many in the convoy competed with each other to talk to her. She had this enormous interest in India, and asked me endless questions about our country,” says Badar.

Maphaz says she grew up watching Bollywood movies and India for her meant Mahatma Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, SRK and saris. “For me Badar represented all that, besides I liked him for his knowledge and deep interest in the Palestinian cause.”

Badar returned to India after five days in Palestine, but they kept in touch through email, social media and the phone. “She mostly discussed the Palestine-Israel conflict and the political situation in Gaza. Finally, when I proposed to her, she said, ‘It is possible only if my family agrees to it,’” says Badar. “So, I spoke to her uncle who spoke to her father. ‘My daughter will marry only a Palestinian,’” was his father’s response. “He is very liberal and I think it had more to do with fact that he did not want me to move out of our country,” says Maphaz.

One day, she gathered courage and broached the subject of Badar with her mother. “She suggested that I should ask Badar to talk to my father directly,” says Maphaz. “I did and he asked me to come and meet him,” says Badar. So, in June 2013, Badar travelled to Gaza again with his father. “His father heard us patiently and we were engaged after a couple of days. Her friends and family made me dance to Bollywood numbers,” says Badar.

The two were to get married in Gaza in December 2013. The venue was decked up, guests had come but Badar and his family could not travel to Gaza because the political situation in Egypt -- through which they were supposed to cross the borders into Gaza-- turned volatile.

“So I was a bride without a groom. But we went ahead with the party. We put up his picture and danced to Bollywood numbers,” laughs Maphaz. Finally, the marriage took place in Delhi. “As we prepared to travel to Delhi, my friends and relatives in Gaza were excited and asked me to say their salaam to Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan.”

Maphaz herself was excited. She was finally travelling to a country she was always besotted with. Accompanied by her mother, brother, uncle and aunt, she arrived in Delhi three weeks later, and the two got married on January 1, 2014. What was her first impression of India when she landed here? “I felt Bollywood films were all fake,” she laughs. “The India I saw in reality was not quite the India I saw in Bollywood movies. Unlike Gaza , a coastal enclave with pleasant weather and clean air, Delhi was hot, polluted, and overcrowded. It took some time getting used to it.”

But slowly, Maphaz, says she fell in love with the city. “Everyone in my family was too happy to have a ‘foreign’ daughter-in-law,” says Suri. But Maphaz says it was hard to explain to many of her new relatives which country she actually came from. “While India is very popular in Palestine, I realized there is not much awareness about Palestine here,” she says. “Sometimes they thought I am from Philippines, sometimes they confused Palestine with Pakistan.”

In 2015, Maphaz enrolled in a post-graduate course in conflict and peace studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. She was pleasantly surprised to see that the main administrative building of the university has a hall named after Yasser Arafat, the first Palestinian President. But she rues the fact that unlike in the past when over 3,000 Palestinian students were studying in universities across India, now there are only 100. “It mostly has to do with difficulties of travelling between Gaza and India.” Maphaz’s father, Ahamed Yousef, a former deputy foreign minister in Hamas government in Gaza, now heads The House of Wisdom Institute (HoW) for conflict resolution, which provides courses in humanitarian law and governance. “My father-in-law left the Hamas government after its five-year term ended and there were no fresh elections,” says Badar.

Hamas has been widely viewed as a terrorist organization launching rockets into Israel. So, does she face uncomfortable questions about being the daughter of a Hamas leader? “For Palestinians Hamas is a political party fighting for the cause of Palestine, not a terrorist organization,” she says. “And those questions also give me an opportunity to explain the Palestine cause,” she says.

Maphaz is often invited at conferences and seminars across the country to speak on the Palestine-Israel conflict. She also serves as executive director of the IndoPal Foundation, whose Facebook page describes it as an ‘Independent organisation advocating Palestinian rights and working to achieve a positive and accurate public opinion on Palestine.’

“The foundation works for advocacy of Palestinian cause with Indian parliamentarians, institutions, media and civil society. The idea is to reconnect with Indians,” she says. “ It is an Indian initiative and I am with them because they want me to engage with people who want to know about Palestine,” says Maphaz, who has who has over 34,000 followers on Instagram.

She has not been to Gaza in the past three years but her mother, she says, talks to her almost every day. “She mostly talks about my family life, what I have cooked, eaten. And she finds it odd when I tell her we often eat daal- chawal. In Palestine, it is the food of poor people. Initially, I had a hard time explaining to her that it is the staple diet in India,” she laughs. Maphaz speaks to her son in English and Arabic. “My Hindi is bad and my husband feels that I might spoil our son’s Hindi,” she laughs.

Maphaz, who apart from advocacy of Palestinian cause in India, also contributes columns for Arab publications. She feels Muslim women in India have more freedom than those in Palestine and says she did not know what triple talaq was all about until recently when it became a matter of debate. “This is not how it works in Gaza, both marriages and divorces are possible only in court.” And what does she think of the recent protests by Iranian women against the compulsory hijab? “It should be left to women to decide whether they want to wear it or not,” she says.

One of Maphaz’s dream was to meet Shah Rukh Khan. She has been in India for four years now and the dream is yet to be realized. Kal Ho Na Ho is one of her favourite movies. “I get emotional when SRK cries on screen,” she says. “ I hope to meet him soon.” Stay updated with all the Delhi Latest News headlines here. For more exclusive & live news updates from all around India, stay connected with NYOOOZ.

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