By Khaled Diab
In part I of this Palestinian great-grandmother’s story, she tells of the tranquil Jerusalem in which she spent her youth until disaster struck.
Friday 11 May 2012
Um Khalil is a walking embodiment of modern Palestinian history and has lived through the most significant events of the past nine decades. A great-grandmother of 90, she has known peace, tranquility and tolerance… war and displacement… not to mention, British, Jordanian and Israeli rule, but no independence.
History is usually about mega events and the acts of leaders. And millions of us are familiar with the politics, wars, ideology and major episodes of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what about ordinary people? What was and is life like for them on the ground? How did the major convulsions of the conflict affect them? Do their personal experiences match the familiar narratives?
Um Khalil’s memories and recollections can provide us with some valuable insights into the personal history of a Palestinian person, as opposed to the more familiar collective history of the Palestinian people. Of course, Um Khalil’s personal history, like her life, is unique to her, and her experiences and impressions are not universal – some will be similar to the experiences of other Palestinians, others will differ.
Born in 1922 at the beginning of the British mandate over Palestine, Um Khalil missed the convulsions of World War I and Ottoman rule, which she only heard about from her parents. She was born into a prominent Palestinian family and spent the early years of her life in the ancient melting pot of the old city.
At the age of six or seven, following a major earthquake, her family was forced to move out of the old city and settle in one of the modern new neighbourhoods just outside the city’s walls.
Though she distrusts the British and blames them for what befell her country, she admired their cordiality, politeness and efficiency. “If they saw an Arab woman on the pavement, they stepped off onto the road. They never bothered anyone,” she opines.
She got married at the age of 19 to a young man who was in charge, as his ancestors had been, with managing the affairs of the Holy Sanctuary (the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock). Though they were married in 1941, World War II passed but hardly noticed, except for the fact that they had to blackout their windows at night. But their time was soon to come.
“Life in Jerusalem was beautiful,” she remembers, and with their comfortable lifestyle, there seemed no reason why it should not be. The young couple made their home in West Jerusalem, near al-Baladiya (City Hall), which was then home to well-to-do Arabs and Jews. “We lived side by side, Muslims, Christians and Jews,” she recalls nostalgically.
Describing her Jewish neighbours as “friends”, she recalled how Arabs and Jews mixed freely, and some even came searching for them, 19 years after they’d last seen each other, following Israel’s capturing of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967.
Her Jewish neighbours, all of whom spoke Arabic, shared a love for the Egyptian silver screen and, in those days without home entertainment systems, the local cinema was a popular hangout for all.
A particular favourite for all was the legendary Jewish Egyptian actress Leila Murad who came numerous times to visit Jerusalem, as did many other leading lights of Arab art, including the Syrian-Druze superstars Asmahan and her brother Farid al-Atrash and the “Lawrence Olivier” of the Arab World Youssef Wahbi.
This interfaith mixing had its advantages, lots of holidays to celebrate. “Muslims would celebrate Christian festivals with Christians, and Christians would celebrate Muslim festivals with us. And the same went for the Jews. We were all the same, except that each followed their own religion,” she said.
Um Khalil had little sense of the clouds of war and disaster forming on the horizon, nor did the low-intensity conflict between Zionist settlers and Arab nationalists register much in her daily life, though she would sometimes hear “older people talking about the Balfour Declaration”.
But then the UN partitioned Palestine and this comfortable, middle-class world came crashing down around everyone’s ears. Though the early fighting during the civil war had not affected them or their lives, when her son was about four months old and her daughter was four, they heard about the Deir Yassin massacre. “Everyone was afraid and people around here began to flee,” she recalled, describing the streams of frightened citizens carrying their children and a few belonging as they fled for safer ground.
Afraid that something might befall their children, they first fled to her family’s home, which was in a safer corner of Jerusalem. Then her mother-in-law urged her husband to seek refuge for his young family with a distant relative in Amman which was tiny, underdeveloped and full of “Bedouin houses”. “We left with nothing,” she says. And after a few months there, they returned to nothing, finding that their home had fallen inside the Jewish-controlled part of the city.
There, the landscape which greeted them was one in which tents outnumbered houses. “They pitched tents everywhere. There were no houses, just empty land full of tents,” she describes, recalling the wretched souls they saw in the refugee camps.
They were a little more fortunate, though eight of her family stayed in a single tiny room. “The Palestinians were fed a curse,” she concludes. And this “curse” they call the Nakba, or Catastrophe.