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 …

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