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Leaving Palestine

I recall how, on November 1, 1947—my twelfth birthday—my oldest Jerusalem cousins, Yousif and George, bewailed the day, the eve of the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, with puzzling vehemence as “the blackest day in our history.” Ihad no idea what they were referring to but realized it must be something of overwhelming importance. Perhaps they and my parents, sitting around the table with my birthday cake, assumed that I shouldn’t be informed about something as complex as our conflict with the Zionists and the British.

The signs of impending crisis were all around us. Jerusalem had been divided into zones maintained by British army and police checkpoints, through which cars, pedestrians, and cyclists had to pass. The adults in my family all carried passes marked with the zone or zones for which they were valid. My father and Yousif had multizone passes (A, B, C, D); the rest were restricted to one or perhaps two zones. Until I turned twelve I did not need a pass and so had been allowed to wander about freely with my cousins Albert and Robert. Gray and sober Jerusalem was a city tense with the politics of the time as well as the religious competition between the various Christian communities, and between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. My aunt Nabiha once gave us a big scolding for going to the Regent, a Jewish cinema (“Why not stick to the Arabs? Isn’t the Rex good enough?” she asked rather shrilly. “After all, they don’t come to our cinemas!”), and even though we were sorely tempted to go back to the Regent we never did so again. Our daily conversation in school and home was uniformly in Arabic; unlike in Cairo, where we lived much of the time and where English was encouraged, our family in Jerusalem “belonged” and our native language prevailed everywhere, even when talking about Hollywood films: Tarzan became “Tarazan” and Laurel and Hardy “al Buns wal rafi” (“Fatso and the Thin Man”).

My aunt Nabiha’s family was driven out of Jerusalem in stages, so that by early spring of 1948, only my oldest cousin, Yousif, remained; he had abandoned the Talbiyah house because the whole quarter had fallen to the Hagganah, and moved to a small apartment in Upper Baqa’a, an adjoining district in West Jerusalem. He left even that last foothold in March, also never to return. My distinct recollection of Talbiyah, Katamon, and Upper and Lower Baqa’a from my earliest days there until my last was that they seemed to be populated exclusively by Palestinians, most of whom my family knew and whose names still ring familiarly in my ears—Salameh, Dajani, Awad, Khidr, Badour, David, Jamal, Baramki, Shammas, Tannous, Qobein—all of whom became refugees. * I saw none of the newly resident Jewish immigrants except elsewhere in West Jerusalem, so when I hear references today to West Jerusalem they always connote the Arab sections of my childhood. It is still hard for me to accept the fact that the very quarters of the city in which I was born, lived, and felt at home were taken over by Polish, German, and American immigrants, who conquered the city and have made it the unique symbol of their sovereignty. There was no place for Palestinian life, which seems to have been confined to the eastern city, which I hardly knew. West Jerusalem has now become entirely Jewish, its former inhabitants expelled for all time by mid-1948.

The Jerusalem my family and I knew in 1948 was a good deal smaller, simpler, and superficially more orderly than Cairo during the 1940s. The British were holders of the mandate, which they terminated suddenly in 1948 about six months after my family had left Jerusalem for the last time. There were British soldiers everywhere—most of them had already disappeared from Cairo—and the general impression was of an extremely English place with neat houses, disciplined traffic, and a great deal of tea drinking, a place whose residents were, in the case of my family and its friends, English-educated Arabs; I had no idea what either the mandate or the Palestine government—whose name was featured on currency and stamps—really meant. Compared to Cairo, Jerusalem was a cooler place, without the grandeur and wealth—opulent houses, expensive shops, big cars, and large, noisy crowds—that surrounded us in Cairo. Jerusalem, moreover, seemed to have a more homogeneous population, made up mainly of Palestinians, although I do recall the briefest glimpses of Orthodox Jews and one visit to or very near Mea Sharim, where I felt a combination of curiosity and distance, without assimilating or understanding the startlingly different presence of the black-suited, -hatted, and -coated Orthodox Jews.

One boy in my class has remained clearly in my memory. I think David Ezra, whose father was a plumber, was the only Jew in seventh primary (there were several in the school), and the thought of him still grips and puzzles me in light of the subsequent changes in my life and Palestine’s. He was strongly built, dark-haired, and spoke to me in English. He seemed to stand apart from the rest of the class, to be more self-sufficient, less transparent, less connected than anyone else: all that attracted me to him. Although he did not resemble the Levantine Jews I had known earlier at school or at the club in Cairo, I also had very little idea what his Jewishness meant for us, except that I recall distinctly not feeling anything peculiar about his presence among us. He was an excellent athlete who impressed me with his powerful shoulders and thighs, as well as his aggressive play. He never joined us as we walked away together in small groups from school after classes were over in the afternoon, a way of traversing checkpoints in the security of numbers. The last time I saw him, he was standing at the top of the road looking in my direction, while three or four of us ambled off together toward Talbiyah. When my family suddenly determined just before Christmas that we had better return to Cairo my ruptured connection to Ezra soon came to symbolize both the unbridgeable gap, repressed for want of words or concepts to discuss it, between Palestinian Arabs and Jews, and the terrible silence forced on our joint history from that moment on.

As the autumn wore on in Jerusalem we were thrust more and more on our family, a narrow circle of cousins and uncles and aunts. What overcomes me now is the scale of dislocation our family and friends experienced and of which I was a scarcely conscious, essentially unknowing witness in 1948. As a boy of twelve and a half in Cairo, I often saw the sadness and destitution in the faces and lives of people I had formerly known as ordinary middle-class people in Palestine, but I couldn’t really comprehend the tragedy that had befallen them nor could I piece together all the different narrative fragments to understand what had really happened in Palestine. My cousin Evelyn, Yousif’s twin, once spoke passionately at our Cairo dinner table about her faith in Kawoukji, a name that meant nothing to me when I first heard it; “Kawoukji will come in and rout them,” she said with definitive force, although my father (to whom I had turned for information) described the man with some skepticism and even disrespect as “an Arab general.” Aunt Nabiha’s tone was often plaintive and scandalized as she described the horrors of events like Deir Yassin—“naked girls taken through their camps on the backs of trucks.” I assumed she was expressing the shame of women being exposed to male eyes, not the horror of a cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians. I did not, could not, at the time imagine whose eyes they were.

Later, in Cairo, a certain formality kept the extended family’s relationships as they had always been, but I remember detecting fault lines, little inconsistencies and lapses that had not been there before. All of us seemed to have given up on Palestine as a place, never to be returned to, barely mentioned, missed silently and pathetically. I was old enough to notice that my father’s cousin Sbeer Shammas, a patriarchal figure of authority and prosperity in Jerusalem, now appeared in Cairo as a much older and frailer man, always wearing the same suit and green sweater, his bent cane bearing his large slow bulk as he lowered it painfully and slowly into the chair on which he sat in silence.

Only once in a typically sweeping way did my father elucidate the general Palestinian condition, when he remarked about Sbeer and his family that “they had lost everything”; a moment later he added, “We lost everything too.” When I expressed my confusion over what he meant, since his business, the house, our style of life in Cairo, seemed to have remained the same, “Palestine” was all he said. It is true that he had never much liked the place, but this peculiarly rapid monosyllabic acknowledgment and equally quick burial of the past was idiosyncratic to him. “What is past is past and irrevocable; the wise man has enough to do with what is present and to come,” he often said, quickly adding “Lord Bacon” as an authoritative seal to close a subject he didn’t want to discuss. I never failed to be impressed by this unblinkingly stoic turning of his back on the past, even when its effects remained in the present.

The subject of Palestine was rarely talked about openly, although stray comments by my father suggested the catastrophic collapse of a society and a country’s disappearance. Once he said of the Shammases that they used to consume ten barrels of olive oil a year—“a sign of wealth in our country,” he said, since where there was ample oil there were olive trees and land. Now all that had gone.

But it was mainly my aunt Nabiha who would not let us forget the misery of Palestine. She would have lunch with us every Friday—her dynamic presence overshadowed the older and by now considerably diminished Auntie Melia—and describe the rigors of a week spent visiting refugee families in Shubra, badgering callous government authorities about work and residence permits for her refugee families, and tirelessly going from one charitable agency to another in search of funds.

It seems inexplicable to me now that having dominated our lives for generations, the problem of Palestine and its tragic loss, which affected virtually everyone we knew, deeply changing our world, should have been so completely repressed, undiscussed, and never remarked on by my parents. Palestine was where they were born and grew up, even though their life in Egypt (and more frequently in Lebanon) provided a new setting for them. As children, my sisters and I were cloistered away from “bad people” as well as from anything that might disturb our “little heads,” as my mother frequently put it.

  1. *

    Contrary to what has been alleged in an article in Commentary (September 1999) I speak, in this article and in my forthcoming memoir, only of my family as being refugees, not myself.

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