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Interview Transcript

Ron Stockton: Hello everyone, this is Ron Stockton once again. This is the second of three interviews on this amazing archive project. This time we will interview Mr. Adel Bseiso, the creator of this archive. We will focus on his family and upon himself. The third interview will focus on the archive. Mr. Bseiso, are you ready to start?

Adel Bseiso: I am sir, good morning to you.

Ron Stockton: Good morning. Tell me about yourself. Where were you born, what is your occupation, your education?

Adel Bseiso: Thank you sir. I was born in Al-Bireh, Palestine, also known as Birra, a suburbs of Ramallah. My occupation is entrepreneur businessman. My disciplines range from mathematics, finance, and technology. For the past four decades I have launched three particular companies from ground up, two of them going public, as CEO of those companies. Today I’m semi-retired and focusing on my son and this project.

Ron Stockton: Where were you educated?

Adel Bseiso: I attended two universities. I went to Princeton for mathematics, and I finished at NYU with business.

Ron Stockton: Tell me about your family history. I know your grandfather was an iconic figure. But what about the family before him?

Adel Bseiso: That’s a great question. My family has a depth of existence and lineage in Palestine and the Arab world in general. We go back to the heritage of Levantines and can be traced back for many centuries. We go back beyond the Byzantine Empire from the Levantines, settling in Egypt and moving to Palestine in the 8th Century in Jerusalem and Haifa. There’s a big lineage that goes back to the original name of Kayali. About eight centuries back in Jerusalem, the name Bseiso emerged from that lineage, and we can go in depth of what that name means and how it happened.

Ron Stockton: Tell me about that. I’ve never encountered that name before.

Adel Bseiso: The name Bseiso comes from bseiseh, which means cats. That derived from centuries of my family specializing in farming, agriculture, and mills. This is where the name came from. The villagers and all the people that purchased commodities from my family to the mills. My great, great, great grandfather, going back eight centuries to Mohammad, was the first to carry that name. The name derived from the mills because he housed many cats, over 100 cats, to take care of the rodent problems in the mills. The villagers and all the people that purchased stuff from him referred to him as the father of cats, abu bseiseh, which then became the family name, Bseiso, coming from that historical transformation. From Kayali to abu bseiseh, which is the father of cats.

Ron Stockton: How did your family acquire a very large number of properties in the Beersheba area?

Adel Bseiso: The Beersheba area was settled in Jerusalem and Haifa – mostly Jerusalem – where my grandfather was born. For over 12 centuries they owned and operated the largest farm and mills in the Middle East as far as the Palestinian coast. They acquired a lot of the property through inheritance and brought it down and so on through the family. My grandfather in Beersheba, all the properties in Beersheba was acquired by purchase with my grandfather’s success as he migrated from Jerusalem to Beersheba in the early 1900s.

Ron Stockton: From the owners?

Adel Bseiso: Yes, here’s how it started. One of his great uncles who had a tremendous relationship, [Erse] Bseiso lived in Beersheba. They had a great relationship.  At that time, he visited and was looking to partner up with him on certain projects. He looked at the desert oasis, wanting to be able to do the same things that he did in Jerusalem with farming and mills and so on. After a few back-and-forth travels over the years in the late 1800s, early 1900s, he got to know the government of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire very well in that region. In the early 1900s, 1905, he was invited by the Ottoman Empire to come in and to head off an agriculture and civilization type of project. Civil engineering to expand the culture there from the businesses of agriculture farming and so on. In 1906, he won one reference that he wanted, which was to be an Independent. The Ottoman Empire and the Turks granted him that and gave him the first purchase that he made. In 1906, he purchased over 4,400 dunams – a dunam is what an acre is, or roughly an acre, back in those days – from the Ottoman Empire to start the first farm. That’s how he started his purchasing in Devers, in Beersheba. That first purchase agreement was made with the government ruling at that time, the Ottoman Empire, and was given in fortitude with their ruling to go ahead and expand his purchasing and agricultural power to industrialize. He had a vision to industrialize that whole area. Over the next 20 years, he acquired a massive number of properties. He did that by getting to know all the tribal leaders in the area, the sheiks, the political leaders and cultivated an organization that allowed him to expand that vision for industrializing. He purchased over hundreds of thousands of dunams over the next 30 years from that first date of 1906.

Ron Stockton: Do you have any idea of the total amount of property that he owned in terms of the size or is that hard to estimate?

Adel Bseiso: It’s difficult to estimate because the documents which were left that comprise this archive was only a fraction of what he really owned. Those were the ones that he was able to carry with him as original documents. But those indicate well over 20,000 dunams of property. It was estimated by the family throughout the years and speculated with descriptions by my father that he owned well over one third of all of southern Palestine.

Ron Stockton: Your family started with a base farther north in Jerusalem and Haifa and then they moved south.

Adel Bseiso: That is correct. The family from Mahrous, which is my grandfather. Mr. Mahrous is the one who migrated, the lineage of the family. My father was born in Beersheba. The family still lives throughout the Middle East, but really the heritage and everything started in Jerusalem and Haifa until the early 1900s.

Ron Stockton: What you describe is very common with empires that have a big chunk, a zone of their land that’s underdeveloped. They want to develop it, so they’ll find someone who’s energetic and creative and work with that person. So, it’s not surprising that your family was favored and became wealthy because they were performing a vital service for the empire that they wanted that land developed. They didn’t want it just sitting there being used for casual grazing or whatever it might be.

Adel Bseiso: That is correct. If you take a step back, one of the reasons they identified and really wanted Mr. Mahrous to take this endeavor is he launched the commodities import to wheat and grain and commissioned the shipping in the entire European belt line through their mills in Jerusalem. This was his brainchild, he started that whole entire logistics from Jerusalem through Europe with grain and wheat. That’s when he exploded with success because he calculated well. That allowed him to have the finances when he went to Beersheba to really go after a lot of this growth and vision to industrialize that whole region.

Ron Stockton: He was involved in a lot more than just agriculture though, wasn’t he, he had a whole range of enterprises.

Adel Bseiso: That is correct. In Beersheba he started and launched mining companies. He was working on purchasing and further developing the railroads, education, manufacturing, and medical. He wanted to completely industrialize and make Beersheba a port for the entire middle eastern side, to do the exact same thing he started in Jerusalem with the logistics and import of a lot of the agriculture that was being developed there to further the living conditions of all the people there. The only thing bigger than his mind and his vision was his love for the Palestinian people. What he really wanted to do with that region was expand it. He was the first to build and dig a well and make it easily accessible for all the villagers and the Bedouins, as well as purchasing historical reservoirs and reengineering that. He gave access to all the farmers for growth as well as the land that he developed for farming.

Ron Stockton: Now we’re not talking today about the archive, we’ll do that in the next conversation, but I know that for those of us from the American Midwest, the idea of a well is a very distinctive concept. We know what a well is. But this concept of a well is totally different. I know you have a photo of it, but could you tell us what that well was like.

Adel Bseiso: To make sure that water was accessible to the villagers and Bedouins – because in the desert, water doesn’t come easily – he took his skillsets and put them to work for the betterment of people by drilling a well, which still exists in the middle of the town. At the time it was known as Bi’r Al-Sab’, that was the historical name, the colonial name now is Beersheba. Along with that he wanted to make sure that not only did he prosper but also the indigenous people of Beersheba by giving his technique and skills and finance and put them to work for those people without any charge. He wanted to give back. He and his uncle also built the first mosque in Beersheba to allow all kinds to worship at their speed with no judgment and no invitation needed.

Ron Stockton: That well was also used for irrigation, wasn’t it.

Adel Bseiso: That is correct. He introduced state-of-the-art equipment and irrigation technologies from all over the world and brought them to Beersheba. Equipment, irrigation systems, techniques of wells, how to be able to run pipes and be able to transport that water directly into those farms. He introduced that entire technology to that region and implemented it fairly. Just to give you an example, over 150,000 dunams of farming was developed by Mr. Mahrous and the new technology of irrigation. It really flourished in the wheat and grain farming business over 30 years that he endeavored in that area.

Ron Stockton: I’ve told you before, I think some scholar’s going to grab this archive and write a very good book on what Palestine was like before 1948. This was a thriving area, wasn’t it.

Adel Bseiso: It sure was. History is made in two ways, fiction and fact, and sometimes it takes time to fix the difference. To give a full understanding of the pride of the different makeups of Palestinians from the Bedouins to the villagers to also the educated and entrepreneurs and visionaries of that time. Yet history does not describe the entrepreneurs, the business people, and the educated Palestinians. They only describe the indigenous Bedouins and tribes that had no organization, didn’t really own the land, had no tax receipts to any of that land. What these documents of Mr. Mahrous will do is change history by presenting original documents that show the facts, that there were contracts, there were agreements, there was tax being paid. He navigated his way through all the political make up through the Ottoman Empire to the British, the Jordanians, and finally to Israel, to which he paid taxes on the properties and businesses that he owned. That’s what this will show the world. Scholars and historians and students and human rights and everybody that’s interested in this region and what really happened is going to get an eye opener of these facts from these original documents.

Ron Stockton: I think you told me that some of your family, maybe your father even, had been educated in Britain, is that correct?

Adel Bseiso: That is correct. He was born in 1924, and as we know from history, the British ruled at that time. They made an educated guess, for lack of a better term, to educate him at Cambridge in the business and finance world because he was the heir apparent to my grandfather. He was educated in his late teens into his early 20s, but by the time he finished school and rejoined his father, the war of 1948 had broken out. So he was well educated in those terms, educated in the family business from when he was “knee high,” that’s how it worked in those days. That’s how they planned it out. A lot of stories and the dialogue that I’ve had with my father about my grandfather and his relationships about any assurance that the British would secure that part of Palestine and it would never be part of anything that happened obviously [were not honored, as] we all know. He had assurance all the way to the top political heads of the British empire that this would not happen, and it did. So here we are 70 years later, still trying to figure out what happened.

Ron Stockton: Yeah, exactly. I have a lot of good friends who are British, so I want to say very nice things about the British because I like every one of them, but there’s an old saying that the sun never sets on the British Empire because you can’t trust an Englishman after dark.

Adel Bseiso: Facts is all that I want to deal with. I don’t have a political agenda, I don’t have any kind of agenda except to set the record straight and honor Mr. Mahrous and the family for what they were and who they were to the people of Palestine and to the country of Palestine.

Ron Stockton: Immediately that’s one of the things that really drew me to this project. It’s not a political project. You’re just putting data into the historical record that has been missing up until the current time. It fills in the gaps.

Adel Bseiso: Yes, it fills in the gaps and we discover that history is written from two things, fiction and facts. We’ve read enough fiction and it’s time to read some facts.

Ron Stockton: Tell me what happened in 1948.

Adel Bseiso: In 1948, the stories through my father have been passed down to me, it was quite a horrific transformation from one ruling to the other. The understanding was it was a temporary escape, a temporary movement from a lot of the villagers and a lot of the estate owners. That they would get their land back, that it was a temporary move just to settle things down and then be able to really address things from a political perspective that the British empire had set forth. A lot of the villagers were taken over by force. A lot of the burning, a lot of the war machine that’s never been described, the horror that the Palestinians endured during that time. My grandfather, Mr. Mahrous, had the fortitude to not just give in to all of that. If nothing else he left his estate by force, he cultivated these documents and some of the documents, he didn’t get them all, but he did take these documents with him. They started to see the writing on the wall that that was not going to be the case, at even early stages. That this was just a ploy to move them out peacefully without destruction, and then take over the properties and lands that were not part of the, whatever it is they put together in the partition or the split state. That part of the world, Beersheba, was a historical place for Palestine and they never negotiated any part of that to be part of the Israeli state. They had that to lean on from the British government. My grandfather was very attached because he was probably the wealthiest guy in that area, the most influential business and financier, and very tied to all that movement. He was not a typical human being. Had he had any kind of thought that this was not the fact, he would have gone a long time ago. He wouldn’t have left everything there to be disparaged like it was. So the stories that have been passed on from my father were just that, the horrific takeover, the complete dismantling of an indigenous race, and the erasure already showed that this is what the Zionists and the Israelis wanted to do. The British just kind of left everything in their hands and packed up and left and didn’t follow through with making sure that humanitarian logistics and what everybody negotiated would be honored. The Palestinians were not at war with anybody, and this is what they ended up with, the short end of the stick because nobody cared.

Ron Stockton: Under different circumstances, a conquering army would make an alliance, reach out to someone like your grandfather and try to work with that person rather than try to obliterate or erase them. This was a unique conquest.

Adel Bseiso: That is correct. That was understanding from the heads of the government that was in Beersheba, that it was a portal at that point, and became a port for a lot of the stuff based on what my grandfather had built and expanded. There is no way that this was not the way it was going to be handled. It was going to be negotiated, it was going to be fair settlements, it was going to be done with a humanitarian approach because nobody was at war with anybody. The Palestinian people didn’t have an army. They weren’t at war with the Israelis. They just happened to be in a place that the world decided that this is where Israel started and this is where they were going to give them back land, without really knowing the history of how and what, where everybody derived from the Levantines. My family and a lot of families were there before the Israelites. It doesn’t make much sense then, it didn’t make much sense when they did it, and the biggest mistake made was by the British to be able to make these promises and make these securities to some of the most prominent people in that region, sheiks, leaders of tribes, business and entrepreneur guys like my grandfather, that this would be an easy transition. Yes, it’s not going to be likable by anybody, but it was going to be definitely fair and negotiated, not with destruction and bloodshed and to erase an entire race from its existence.

Ron Stockton: You know, there’s what’s called counterfactual history, in which historians say, what if it had worked out this way, how would the world be different. You just think of how the world could be different if that conquest had occurred under different circumstances, with a different approach, with a different strategy, who knows.

Adel Bseiso: God only knows.

Ron Stockton: Exactly. How did your grandfather get those documents out? Did he just put them in a box and carry them? What did he do, do you know?

Adel Bseiso: No, my father said that he actually divided the documents among the kids and put them in their shirts and carried them out because there was no bag that was left unopened, there was nothing that you could carry with you that was not confiscated. The picture was painted by gunpoint did they lead my grandfather off his estate. He had the fortitude to be able to import these and get them out of there by putting them under the shirts. Nobody frisked the kids, so that’s how he got them out.

Ron Stockton: It’s amazing, he used the children.

Adel Bseiso: He used the children. Smart man.

Ron Stockton: Oh yeah. Now you told me your grandfather suffered a serious blow during that time.

Adel Bseiso: He did. When the 1948 war happened and the scramble of all of this, for the next 20 years, 30 years, both my grandfather and my father tried to do something. In the late 1940s, early 1950s, they gathered in towns. This is how these meetings took place and my grandfather was a very well known, prominent man. He was attacked by God knows what and he was struck in the head with a hammer and never recovered from that. Always suffered seizures, lost somewhat his faculties, but not all of them. He continued to work through my father who was in his mid-20s at that point but was ridden with these injuries. From my family perspective there’s always been this bullseye, so to speak, on who they are, who they were, and never wanted to be heard of. Even the people who lived in that region and had witnessed these contracts and agreements appear in the history books, but for some reason my grandfather doesn’t. They left a lot for us to figure out why, when, and how, but there was always that stigma about the last name and the target that it had on its back. There’s been many of them assassinated throughout the years for one reason or another, which left the family extremely paranoid and scared for some of their lives. Especially my father knowing that he had these documents. He was extremely paranoid and scared for himself and for his children.

Ron Stockton: Where was he living at that time?

Adel Bseiso: They moved from Beersheba back to Haifa and Jerusalem and eventually moved out into Kuwait and Jordan, which they spent from 1951 all the way up until the late 1950s, before they moved to Ramallah and settled there. My grandfather and grandmother had lived with my father from the time of 1948 until he passed in 1968.

Ron Stockton: So, you knew your grandfather, didn’t you.

Adel Bseiso: I was five years old when he passed away. I was born in 1962 and after the war in 1967 he lost all will to live. He was heartbroken at that point, as was everyone else in that region. I was born to a heartbroken, war-torn country with a lot of uncertainties. When the 1967 war broke out, I was five years old and that’s when my grandfather passed. I have faded memories of him, but I only know him as a man and a giant through my father and his stories. Now that I’ve researched these documents and built this archive, I’ve grown a tremendous respect and pride and gotten to know my grandfather in ways I never have before.

Ron Stockton: Amazing. How did you come to be in possession of these documents? I’m guessing you’re like the inheritor of the family tradition.

Adel Bseiso: You could say that. Growing up, my father always said I reminded him of my grandfather, Mr. Mahrous. Since the beginning, he recognized. I had a good relationship on and off with my father, but the end of the years between him and I were magical and extremely close. He entrusted me with these and passed them on to me with exactly what Mahrous wanted. He entrusted me with this prior to his passing in the early 2000s to do the right thing with them. The time will come, just to never let the world ever forget, they’ll always remember my dying grandfather’s wish. He wanted everything which should ever come to fruition, any reparation or anything, to go back to the citizens of Palestine and to help those who are in need, more than anything. He was never a greedy person and wanted to make sure that whoever was entrusted with these documents would carry on that wish. So, I was handed this along with the descriptions and the wishes of my ancestors, my father and my grandfather. The timing of this was never right for me because of my endeavors and my businesses. The stigma of what was happening with the region, with the Arabs, and so on until this time. But this is how I came to possess these documents, they were entrusted in my hands to carry on this wish.

Ron Stockton: It’s wonderful to think of how these documents survived. You’ve done not only a service to your family but a service to history, a service to the Palestinian people by preserving an existence and a story that would otherwise be lost. It’s not just existing in a story, it’s existing in official documents, which historians really like because you can read exactly what is there. Let me ask you something personal. You were born in Birra, you’re now living in the United States. You’re obviously a Palestinian but you’re also an American. Tell me about how your understanding of what it means to be a Palestinian has evolved over time. What does this mean to you? Tell me what it means to you to be a Palestinian in a country that, to be honest, is not very friendly to the Palestinians.

Adel Bseiso: You hit it on the nose. When we finally made it to America, we moved to America in 1972, I was ten years old. The horror that I incurred in this country was a lot to bear as a young 10-year-old. Being ridiculed, pointed out, bullied just for who I was, that in itself hurt a lot. It made me not want to be a Palestinian, it made me not want to be an Arab. It made me feel really unwanted and unneeded in a strange land. Here’s a ten-year-old boy trying to go to school, not understanding the language and then being judged for that. It could have turned two ways, and it did at the beginning. I was very angry, I became hard to handle. But I also became galvanized in making sure that I rose above that because I knew what kind of intelligence I had even back then and I wasn’t going to be painted into a picture that somebody else was going to paint me in. So, I started to excel. The first three years until I was 13 I kind of lived hell here on earth, that’s what it felt like. Unwanted, hated, spit at, bullied, judged. And no fault to my family, my father was trying to survive, my whole family was trying to survive in this new world. Very well-educated man, couldn’t get a job, ended up working in a grocery store. A lot of these things weigh heavy, especially to a man that was the heir apparent to everything that we described pre-1948 to be sweeping floors at a grocery store to keep his family alive here in America. So, that’s the beginning of it, as I said, as I turned 13 I became an exceptional athlete in the wrestling side of the world. I started to rise in that and I was an honor student in mathematics. English was a little rough because I still didn’t get the language pretty well, but I excelled in math. So, there I became a little bit more, my confidence levels as a leader became at a young age, galvanized in me that I will not allow the world to paint me into a picture that I’m not and that’s where that all started for me. Years have passed by with still the same hiding in the shadows of being a Palestinian or an Arab man, because you wouldn’t be recognized as a talented or anything of that nature because you’d be pigeon-holed. Racism, I felt it just like the Indians back in the day, that’s how I felt. The only people I could really relate to was the indigenous Indians and how they lived in a country that was theirs and then how they were treated in that country even years and years and years later. Through studies I’ve gravitated to that. It took a long, long time for me to even recognize and be proud to come from Palestine, because everything was written against it in America. It felt like America was just a big brother to Israel. It was hard to have doors open, I can’t even begin to tell you how many doors were slammed, not based on the talent, not based on skill sets, just based on who you are and where you came from. There came a time where I changed a character in my own book and didn’t even identify as a Palestinian or an Arab until the later years, after gaining many, many successes and doors not being slammed in my face because I no longer identified as that. I identified as an American and things changed. Now I’m coming full circle and we’ll talk about the real ignite of me taking on this project in my later years and how that really happened. We’ll go in depth in that when you’re ready to go into those. That’s really the story of how it all, what difference of being a Palestinian meant and an American man. The Palestinian child, he died at 13, reborn at around 50.

Ron Stockton: Interesting way to put it. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?

Adel Bseiso: My final thoughts would be this. It’s a very, really strong journey I have traveled. It’s one that has so many emotional roller coasters for me. As a young child, for three years living in refugee camps and seeing the destruction of war, and seeing the loss of hope in people’s faces, it’s really a faded, buried memory for me to come full circle and have my own kids and seeing the prospects of my own kids. How I really sunk my teeth into this and really hit home and hit me in the spirit, in my soul and in my heart is I have 18-year-old son and three years ago he came to me because he befriended a Palestinian kid in school that needed help with math. He’s exceptional in math and started to tutor this young man named Yusuf and became really close to him. To come home to me and ask me, aren’t we Palestinian too and why don’t I know anything about where I came from, who, what, where and what that culture is all about. It hit home with me. That’s when I decided my son, his kids, my grandkids and anybody else attached to me will never forget what and where we came from. I started to go down the path of building this archive and building this history and the story and to stay to the facts so that he would have the same pride and that glimmer in his eyes he had in helping this Palestinian and then understanding that he is Palestinian and what that means moving forward. This is the real – if I leave you with my last thoughts – this is what this project means to me. It is not political, it’s not religious. It has no agenda except to address the facts and to educate young Arabs, Palestinians, and all races a little bit more about the beauty and culture of the Palestinian people and who they were. The pride of the Bedouins, the pride of the tribes, and the pride of the educated. They’re all the same. Not one is less than the other. They are the heart of the Arab world. That can never be forgotten. If I can add one brick into that, that would be a great legacy for me.

Ron Stockton: That’s a wonderful statement. Thank you very much. We’ll be back to talk about the archive and what those documents tell us.

Adel Bseiso: I look forward to it Professor.