Outside, there was a tropical storm, all swaying palm trees, bright lightening and thunder like an airstrike.
You could imagine – amid the stale croissants and bland coffee of the "executive" lounge and the frightened local newspapers – that Malaysians grow used to this, the thousand shades of greenery amid the hanging trees, the little Chinese temples and the ancient mosques and the dripping villas wherein once lived the rubber-planters from Godalming and Guildford, men who believed the Japanese could never struggle through this mess and reach Singapore. And so, here in Kuala Lumpur, there was something perverse to my little meeting with the Palestinians of Malaysia – yet more representatives of a lost, occupied Middle Eastern people, washed up on the far side of the earth; the same accents, the same desperation, the same courtesy, the same patience when I unforgivably forgot to offer them tea for almost half an hour.
In Hong Kong, I visited Muslim families and traced the roots of their Yemeni origins, and in Kentucky this week – Lexington, to be precise – I met up again with Terry Anderson, the American hostage held for almost seven years by his Shia Muslim captors in Beirut, "trust-me" Ali featuring once more in our conversations: the kidnapper who always gave Terry hope and never produced it. In a frozen Ottawa, I once picked up a taxi driven by a man who lived next door to my favourite tea-house in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Live in the Middle East and it follows you around.
Sometimes, it's a surprise – we Westerners are like this – to find that the people you write about don't take such a romantic view of the world. The old betrayals return. The casual remark knocks you over. "I went to the Palestine Embassy," one of the Palestinian men round the hotel table in hot, greasy Kuala Lumpur tells me casually. "I needed to renew my passport. But I come from Gaza and the ambassador refused. He refuses to renew all passports belonging to Palestinians from Gaza. That is how it is. Even here I must be punished by my own Palestinian government for the fact that Hamas rules Gaza. Because Hamas controls Gaza, I must be an illegal alien in Malaysia. This is my fate. What can we do?" And there are those familiar, beseeching, pathetic – in the literal sense of the word – upturned hands. Talk to Palestinians and they give you the world.
The world of Iraq under Saddam, for example. What a guy! He stood up to the Israelis! He tried to help Palestine! "He was a real man!" one of the younger Palestinians tells me. "He was a hero! There was no president like him!" It was the fate of thousands of Palestinians to wash up in Baghdad, to be housed well by the Great Dictator, to be given jobs and education – until "we" arrived to "liberate" Iraq, when the Iraqis turned on their oh-so-fortunate Palestinian guests and evicted them from their homes and killed some of them and sent them on the road to exile all over again. Even unto Kuala Lumpur.
Ghassan Younis Mahmoud. Born in Baghdad in 1982 (grandfather fled Palestine via Jordan to Baghdad in 1948), government-provided house in the Mahmoudiah district of the Iraqi capital. His father worked in the weapons factory at Salman Pak – guns, pistols, no "weapons of mass destruction" – but dodged orders to join the Iraqi army and fight the Americans. To no avail. "Our district was bombed in the 2003 war," Mahmoud says. "My brother was killed during a gun battle – he wasn't involved, just a passer-by – and then in 2007, the Iraqi militias threatened us, It was the Mahdi Army. They took our house away three years after we bought it." Mahmoud fled the Shia gunmen for Syria, spent 11 months in Aleppo and then flew as a tourist to the one country that didn't ask him for a visa – Malaysia. His original Iraqi passport was a fake but he got a real Palestinian passport through the husband of an aunt in the West Bank. He is a bright man – no supporter of Saddam, as it happens – and in real life should be working as a schoolteacher or a businessman in "Palestine". But he works listlessly in a Lebanese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. "I want to go to Europe – anywhere, if I have a choice – and my cousins are in Stockholm. Another refugee.
Other men among my guests have darker tales. They fled to Malaysia, then to Thailand, were imprisoned in Bangkok, then shipped to the Philippines and imprisoned again. The problem, these nations discovered, was that the Palestinians couldn't be deported home. They didn't have a home, for some reason. Malaysia does not recognise Israel – Malaysian Christians can travel to Jerusalem only with government permission – and so the authorities in Kuala Lumpur could not negotiate with the men who control "Palestine".
Fawaz Ajjour managed to study business administration in the Philippines, married a Philippine woman – their first son, Ahmed, was born there – but, using an Egyptian travel document, he took his wife to Gaza where she gave birth to their second child. She left Gaza before him but when he tried to follow her, he was held at Manila airport for three weeks, returned to live with his father in Cairo and, when his papers expired, set off for another country which did not require a visa: the Ukraine. He spent 10 years there, sick for much of the time, unable to see his family.
These people speak with great and terrifying and justifiable anger. Hussan Farhan draws me a picture of the Baghdad estate where his family lived. It is the same old story. The family arrived via Basra in 1948, were given a government house in 1979, in the suburb of Baladiah. "After 2003, there were kidnappings, killings, abductions. I went to Syria for eight days, then bought a ticket to Malaysia which let me in as a tourist and now I've gone to the United Nations to ask them to help me." Abbas teaches English at a Libyan school in Kuala Lumpur. "I would be ready to accept Malaysian citizenship if I could. Of course. Otherwise, I have to wait for the UN to help me." The Abbas family, by the way, come from a small village called Izzem, not far from Haifa, in what is today Israel.
It goes on like this, brothers in Norway, friends in Europe, a lost people telling their woes in a kind of trance – refugees get bored with their own life-stories – as the warm rain sluices down the window of the executive lounge and the thunder cracks around the building. Just occasionally, the emotion breaks through so I will end with a remark from Ajjour, speaking from the far side of the earth. "You know something? Mahmoud Abbas, our leader, will do nothing for us. It is better for us to keep the Israeli boots on our heads than to live like this."
published in The Independent 17th April 2010