Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2008, pages 37-38

Voices of the Nakba

The Shami Family: Turning Troubles into Triumphs

  • Farouk Shami (c) with his mother, Jamilah, who died in 2004, and father, Mohammed Shami, who died in 1999 (Courtesy Shami Family.)

ALONG WITH THEIR two other brothers, Farouk and Jamil Shami have worked not only to carry on their father’s life-long efforts to make a difference in Palestine, but also to share American ideals of freedom and democracy with their homeland. Dr. Jamil Shami, who has earned degrees in journalism and psychology, as well as a Ph.D. in higher education administration and a post-doctorate master’s degree in public health administration, is an educator and journalist, an expert in peace and conflict resolution, and founder of Arab-American Republicans of the Washington, DC Area. His younger brother, Farouk Shami, is the one of the most influential men in the hair care industry, and the founder of Houston-based Farouk Systems, which employs 2,000 Americans.

For more than 1,000 years the Shami family has lived in Beit Ur Al Tahta, on the outskirts of Ramallah. Today the two Arab-American brothers and their families can return on tourist visas—subject to Israel’s whims.

In 1923 their father, Mohammed Shami, immigrated to the United States and began to get established in the restaurant business in Brooklyn, NY. Then, in 1935, Mohammed heard about British and Jewish plans to destroy the unity of Palestine, partition the Holy Land, and give Jews, who owned less than 7 percent of the land, more than half of Palestine. The British were arresting, deporting and even hanging Palestinian leaders who objected to their plans. Mohammed packed his bags and returned to fight for his homeland.

Since Arabs were forbidden to build an army, Shami was commissioned to organize the Palestinian paramilitary under the name of the Palestinian Scouts. Made up of youths and even including women, the Scouts eventually numbered 25,000. The Scouts were the main figures in the fight against the establishment of Israel in the land of Palestine.

By the time the British crushed this first Arab intifada, or uprising, in March of 1939, more than 5,000 Arabs, 400 Jews, and 200 Britons had been killed and at least 15,000 Arabs wounded. During that revolt, British authorities confiscated most of the Arabs’ weapons and decimated their political leadership (which greatly hampered military efforts later, in the 1948 war). At the same time British troops collaborated with and sometimes even trained and armed Jewish paramilitary forces like the Haganah and the Palmach.

After Britain ended its mandate, Mohammed Shami commanded all the Arab troops west of Jerusalem, who desperately fought the maurading Jewish forces. For his resistance work between 1936-48, Mohammed was recognized in 1995 by the Palestinian Authority as Dean of Palestinian Veterans.

Believing that education was the best weapon his people could use to continue their resistance, Mohammed started an adult literacy program for men and women in the West Bank. The project included 12 mobile centers in refugee camps, villages and Ramallah.

“In 1955 Israelis came into our village and skirmished with Jordanian troops,” Jamil recalled. “They left an unexploded bomb behind our home. Three of my little brothers and two cousins found it. They were killed instantly.”

Their mother Jamilah almost lost her mind with grief, Jamil said. “Our father was a prominent man, so thousands came to their funeral,” he explained, “including the administrator of the Friends School in Ramallah.”

When he invited Farouk and Jamil to enroll in the Friends School, Jamil continued, “Our family moved there, too. It was one way to remove my mother from the location of her sons’ terrible death. We went to school, and it opened America to us.”

Jamil, Farouk, and Mufeed later came to the United States to complete their higher education. Farouk won a scholarship at the University of Arkansas in 1964, and attended cosmetology school while working in a restaurant. “Instead of spending my money on girls, they were spending their money on me—to cut their hair,” he tells people. To his father’s horror, Farouk dropped out of school—but he soon was making more money than a doctor.

He opened his own salons and began creating hair care products, including dyes, which had fascinated him since childhood, when he had helped his mother create dyes for carpets and embroidery from plants and vegetables. That knowledge helped him during the 1967 war. By then he was back in Ramallah with no hair care supplies, so he created his own from natural herbs and vegetables.

  • Jamilah with sons Farouk (l) and Jamil on either side, and Mufeed (l) and Zaki behind (Courtesy Shami Family.)

After the war, Farouk returned to the U.S. to open more salons. When he developed a severe allergy to ammonia in 1991, and doctors told him he’d have to give up his hairdressing career, he instead created a non-ammonia hair coloring system. It was so unique that he became the first hairdresser ever to receive a patent on a hair care product.

The rest is history. Farouk’s multimillion-dollar beauty industries now include environmentally friendly natural dyes, the “Bio Silk” range of hair products, CHI nail lacquer and ceramic-plated hair dryers, as well as curling irons and other hair care products. Today his company exports to more than 92 countries.

“I pay $40 million in taxes,” Farouk said. “I hope I’m a good citizen. I’m proud of what I’m doing. I’m living the American dream and sharing it by creating jobs.

“I never faced discrimination in all my years in the States,” he added. “But when I went back to the occupied territories with a plan to open a factory to employ 500 Palestinians—Israel blocked me at every turn.

“Our village, Beit Ur, is on the Green Line and the wall is right there,” Farouk explained. “The factory I bought was too close to the wall. I couldn’t get my goods out of the port. It took forever to get materials. I was not permitted to build a clinic or even put up street lights in my village. It took weeks to get a permit to travel into Israel. I am forbidden [as a Palestinian American] to use the highway, which would take me to Ramallah in 10 minutes. It takes me an hour. This is discrimination. How can I run a business and move goods back and forth like this?”

Farouk Shami did manage to build a secondary school for girls in their father’s memory in 1995, however, and he’s determined to do more.

Jamil agrees that education is the key. “We Palestinians lost our land,” he noted, “but because we’ve managed to educate ourselves we have not disappeared. No one can occupy our minds or steal our education—which is what I like to call the Palestinian Phenomenon.

“Every Palestinian has what I call the Palestinian Syndrome,” maintained Jamil. “We feel something like an electrical current in our bodies when we see Israelis cutting down our trees, taking our land, putting up checkpoints, building settlements, and escalating the suffering of the refugees into a second nakba.”

“Palestinians need to see hope,” Farouk added. “If they have economic justice it will lead to peace. We can’t have an independent state without an independent economy. We have lost our land. The only hope for Palestine is industrialization. It’s time to invest in peace.”

According to Farouk, “Each Palestinian [in the diaspora] has a duty to invest in the Holy Land. Palestinians don’t need donations, they need open markets for Palestinian goods. We have an educated labor force and quality materials. We could build an independent economy in our independent state. That would be good for Israel, too.

“I will do my part,” Farouk vowed, “and I challenge anyone who loves peace to invest there. Go to the Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem in May (see box). We can create jobs and hope for a future for our people.”

The Nakba scattered Palestinians throughout the world. For 60 years or more their hard work, intelligence and vision helped shape the countries in which they settled. Now it’s time for diaspora Palestinians, and the nations in which they’ve lived, to help deliver—and invest in—a viable and free Palestinian state.

By Delinda C. Hanley, news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

SIDEBAR

The Palestine Investment Conference

May 21-23, 2008

To Be Held at the Intercontinental Jacir Palace
and Convention Center in Bethlehem, Palestine

This event will showcase investment opportunities in Palestine for the Palestinian Diaspora, the Arab business community and other regional and international investors. It’s a chance to forge partnerships between Palestinians and international businesses. In December 2007 the international donor community agreed to a three-year $7.7 billion development plan for Palestinians to help improve their economy and standard of living. This is the next critical step.

Tours to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth and Tiberias will also be available, and a parallel exhibition will showcase national industries, business success stories, and Palestinian culture. The Palestinian National Authority will facilitate entry and ease of access for all participants in accordance with international guarantees and agreements.

Palestine has opened its doors to all its friends, concerned individuals and interested parties. The message is simple: “You can do business in Palestine.” For more information or to register contact:

Palestine Investment Conference

Jaffa Street, Al-Kharaz Building, 1st Floor, Ramallah, Palestine

Tel: (+970 or 972) 2 295 8418; Fax: (+970 or 972) 295 8419

E-mail: [email protected]

Web site: <www.pic-palestine.ps>