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From Prairie To Palestine: The Eva Marshall Totah Story by Lyla Ann May


My Grandma Eva
by Lyla El-Safy

My Grandma Eva was not a famous person. She didn’t make big speeches or invent the light bulb. However, she referred to herself as a pioneer, and she truly was a wonderful example of a woman of her time. Readers interested in the history of the modern Middle East will be fascinated by Eva’s autobiography and personal letters, published in From Prairie To Palestine: The Eva Marshall Totah Story.

Her story begins in 1895 when she was born in a claim shanty on a South Dakota homestead. With her Quaker family’s emphasis on education and support, Eva graduated from college during World War I, and obtained a Masters’ degree at a time when few women went to college at all. Active in the women’s suffrage movement in college, in 1920 she traveled with her brother to the postwar World Peace Conference of All Friends in London.

Then, in 1927, this prairie girl travelled across the world to teach in the Friends’ school in Palestine for a year. Not realizing there were Arabs in Palestine, Eva was expecting to teach Jewish children at the Friends’ Girls School in Ramallah. Discovering the varied religious landscape in Jerusalem’s environs was only one of numerous surprises in store for her.

She stayed on and married a Palestinian Quaker – the school’s Principal – and lived in Palestine until 1944. How unusual it was in those times for an American girl to brave the disappointment and veiled racism of her own mother to marry a dark-skinned Arab in another country! In the Quaker tradition of consensus building, she did so only after sustained discussion through which she defended her choice and obtained her parents’ blessing.

As the years went by, Eva witnessed heartbreaking economic and social disruptions at the close of the British Mandate era with Zionist gangs terrorizing the countryside and Palestinians in revolt against British policies, as the creation of the state of Israel rolled inexorably forward. Her observations make a contrast with the images of Palestine we see today.

The fields behind the Friends’ Boys’ School, where she loved to walk, described by Eva as being filled with flowers, are now bloodstained. On her final return to the US, during World War II she crossed mine-strewn Atlantic waters on an American Liberty Ship accompanied by a military convoy of warships.

My Grandmother witnessed the technological revolution of the 20th century; the advent of radio, automobiles, television, airplanes and computers all occurred during her lifetime. She lived through huge social changes and spent the last decades of her life in the crowded cities of Southern and Northern California, far from the wide open prairie where she was born. She was always active in the issues of her day.


Eva Marshall Totah

I have rarely encountered anyone else with my Grandma’s quiet, dignified manner. Her Quaker upbringing led her to seek unity in social situations – a tradition that seems missing these days. She did her best to keep on living the life God gave her, although in her last decade she expressed feeling out of place in the rapidly changing world, feeling lost once her birth family and husband were gone.

Eva began to write this autobiography in those turbulent 1970s, completing it at the age of 82. She seemed to be preparing for her death, trying to tidy up the business of her life and sum up its meaning. Grandma asked for my help in editing and typing it up, which I did for her at the age of 17 in the summer of ’77. In payment, she gave me her old Chevy II, a blue sedan in perfect condition. I’m sorry to say that a few months later, I had an accident and that Chevy was totaled but alhamdulillah, I was okay.

The autobiographic project, too, was junked. Grandma, in her gentle way, had expressed her wish that the autobiography be published. Unfortunately, in an act that I really regret, I told her I didn’t see a market for her autobiography. In my youthful arrogance I told her that it had only sentimental value and would interest no one except us family members. After all, she wasn’t famous; she hadn’t invented anything! But she realized, as I did not at the time, that she had lived through a time of incredible changes in the world; she had witnessed and participated in important world events. Still, lacking her family’s support of the project, the handwritten original manuscript and its typed counterpart were tucked away in my mother’s file cabinet.

Like Eva, I married a man from Arab lands and am the mother of three children. My Grandma, who lived to dance at my wedding, died in 1991. I embraced Islam several years later. Then in 2004, while homeschooling my children, my interest in genealogy and family history was rekindled by taking an online class. I began doing my own ‘roots’ search. I would occasionally think about Eva’s manuscript, and asked my mother if she still had it. She did!

I re-typed and edited it, adding notes for historical, genealogical and explanatory context as well as editing for flow. I left her voice as it was, as much as possible. Then, I began to think about actually publishing it, both to honor her wishes and to preserve her story. As time had passed, it became clear to me that her recollections of pre-Israel Palestine constituted primary sources of history that are important to document and share.

Eva’s family kept a number of the letters she wrote weekly from Palestine. Realizing that their historical record provided an interesting counterpoint to the autobiography, I included them in a second section of the book after her autobiography. Especially interesting to the contemporary Muslim reader, I believe, are her initial impressions of Palestine and the Levant, and her descriptions of the country as tensions escalated during the World War II years leading up to the creation of the state of Israel. Also interesting to me as a Muslim are her observations about the various religious groups and customs, and her affinity with the Muslims she met (despite what she considered their backward ways!).

The book ends with a section of family history narratives and genealogical charts that are the result of my research on Eva’s ancestors. Vintage family photographs and photos of Palestine in the early 1900s are included (www.PrairieToPalestine.com).

More book reviews: I Speak for Myself, Deserts and Mountains, The Breath of God