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.” I had 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.
But the repression of Palestine in our lives occurred as part of a larger depoliticization on the part of my parents, who hated and distrusted politics, feeling too precarious in Egypt for participation or even open discussion. Politics always seemed to involve other people, not us. When I began to be involved in politics twenty years later, both my parents strongly disapproved. “It will ruin you,” said my mother; “You’re a literature professor,” said my father. “Stick to that.” His last words to me a few hours before his death were: “I’m worried about what the Zionists will do to you. Be careful.” My father and we children were all protected from the politics of Palestine by our talismanic American passports (our father was an American citizen because of his military service in World War I), as we slipped by customs and immigration officials with what appeared to be risible ease compared to the difficulties faced by the less privileged and fortunate in those war and postwar years. My mother, however, did not have an American passport.
After the fall of Palestine my father set about in earnest—right until the end of his life—to get my mother a US document of some kind, but failed to do so. As his widow, she tried and also failed until the end of hers. Stuck with a Palestine passport that was soon replaced with a laissez-passer, my mother traveled with us as a gently comic embarrassment. My father would routinely tell the story (echoed by her) of how her document would be placed underneath our stack of smart green US passports in the futile hope that the official would allow her through as one of us. That never happened. There was always a summoning of a higher-ranked official, who with grave looks and cautious accents drew my parents aside for explanations, short sermons, even warnings, while my sisters and I stood around, uncomprehending and bored. When we did finally pass through, the meaning of her anomalous existence as represented by an embarrassing document was never explained to me as being a consequence of a shattering collective experience of dispossession. And in a matter of hours, once inside Lebanon, or Greece, or the United States itself, the question of my mother’s nationality would be forgotten, and everyday life resumed.
After 1948 my aunt Nabiha, who had established herself in Zamalek, Cairo, about three blocks from where we lived, began her lonely, exasperating charity work on behalf of the Palestinian refugees in Egypt. She started by approaching the English-speaking charities and missions connected to the Protestant churches, which included the Church Mission Society (CMS) and the Anglican and Presbyterian missions. Children and medical problems were the most urgent issues for her; later, she tried to get the men, and in some cases the women, jobs in the homes or businesses of friends. My strongest memory of Aunt Nabiha is of her weary face and pathetic complaining voice recounting the miseries of “her” refugees (as we all used to call them) and the even greater miseries of prying concessions out of the Egyptian government, which refused to grant residence permits for more than one month. This calculated harassment of defenseless, dispossessed, and usually very poor Palestinians became my aunt’s obsession; she narrated it endlessly, and wove into it heart-rending reports of malnutrition, childhood dysenteries and leukemias, families of ten living in one room, women separated from their men, children destitute and begging (which angered her beyond reason), men stricken with incurable hepatitis, bilharzia, liver and lung disorders. She told us of all this week after week over a period of at least ten years.
It was through Aunt Nabiha that I first experienced Palestine as history and cause in the anger and consternation I felt over the suffering of the refugees, those Others, whom she brought into my life. She communicated to me the desolations of being without a country or a place to return to, of being unprotected by any national authority or institutions, of no longer being able to make sense of the past except as bitter, helpless regret or of the present with its daily queuing, anxiety-filled searches for jobs, and poverty, hunger, and humiliations. I got a very vivid sense of all this from her conversation, and by observing her frenetic daily schedule. She was well-off enough to have a car and an exceptionally forbearing driver—Osta Ibrahim, smartly dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and somber tie, plus a red fez, the tarbrush worn by respectable middle-class Egyptian men until the revolution of 1952 discouraged the practice—who began the day with her at eight, brought her home for lunch at two, picked her up again at four, and stayed with her until eight or nine. Homes, clinics, schools, government offices were her quotidian destinations.
On Fridays she would stay at home and receive people who had only heard about her as a source of help and sustenance. It was a powerful shock to me, when I visited her one Friday, that I could barely make it in the door. She lived on the second floor of an apartment house on Fuad al-Awwal Street at one of its most congested, noise-filled intersections; on one corner was a Shell station, and beneath her flat a well-known Greek grocer, Vasilakis, who occupied the whole ground floor. He was always crowded with customers whose waiting cars blocked traffic and produced an almost constant din of angry, cacophonous honking, overlaid with the sounds of raucous yelling and expostulation. For some reason my aunt was not bothered by this unholy din, and she conducted herself during rare free moments at home as if she were at a resort. “Like a casino,” she would say of the evening racket; for her a “casino” was not a gambling casino but, inexplicably, a hilltop café of the imagination where it was always calm and cool. Added to the deafening street noise as I tried to enter her building were the cries, even the wails, of dozens and dozens of Palestinians crowded onto the staircase all the way to her flat’s door, the elevator having been angrily switched off by her sulky, scandalized Sudanese doorman. There was the barest semblance of order in this pitching, heaving sea of people: she refused to let in more than one petitioner at a time, with the result that the crowd scarcely diminished in size or impatience in the course of a very long day.
When I finally entered her drawing room I found her calmly sitting on a straight-backed chair without a table or any sort of paper in evidence, listening to a middle-aged woman whose tear-streaked face told a miserable story of poverty and sickness, which seemed to spur my aunt to greater efficiency and purpose. “I told you to stop taking those pills,” she said testily; “all they do is to make you drowsy. Do what I say, and I’ll get you another five pounds from the church, if you promise to keep off the pills and start to take in washing on a regular basis.” The woman began to remonstrate, but she was cut off imperiously. “That’s it. Go home and don’t forget to tell your husband to go see Dr. Haddad again this week. I’ll take care of what he prescribes. But tell him to do it.” The woman was waved out, and another one, with two children in tow, entered.
I sat there silently for about two hours as the sad parade continued its relentless way. My aunt occasionally went to the kitchen for some water, but otherwise she sat, imperturbably passing from one desperate case to another, dispensing money, medical, and bureaucratic advice, helping to find places for children in schools that she had managed to cajole into accepting these destitute, uncomprehending waifs, jobs for women as personal maids or office helpers, and for men as porters, messengers, nightwatchmen, factory workers, hospital orderlies. I was thirteen and a half at the time and still recall dozens of details, faces, pathetic little speeches, my aunt’s executive tones, but I do not recall ever clearly thinking that all this woeful spectacle was the direct result of politics and of a war that had also affected my aunt and my own family. It was my first experience of trying to allay the travails of Palestinian identity as mediated by my aunt and informed by the misery and powerlessness of those Palestinian refugees whose situation demanded help, concern, money, and anger.
The overall impression I’ve retained of that time is of an ongoing state of medical emergency. With no visible office or institution to back her, my aunt’s presence to these people whom she voluntarily took on as her charges seemed to me nothing less than Hippocratic; she was a physician alone with her patients, equipped with amazing discipline and a moral mission to help the sick. And so many of these Palestinian refugees seemed to have lost their health along with their country. For them the new Egyptian environment, far from nurturing them, depleted them further, even as both the pre- and postrevolutionary governments proclaimed their support for Palestine, vowing to eliminate the Zionist enemy. I can still hear the radio broadcasts, see the defiant newspaper headlines in Arabic, French, and English declaiming these things to an essentially deaf populace. It was the detail, the lived unhappiness of unhealthy, disoriented people, that counted more to me then, and for that the only remedy was personal commitment and the kind of independence of thought that allowed a tiny middle-aged woman to battle through all sorts of obstacles without losing her will or her certainty.
Whatever political ideas she may have had were hardly ever uttered in my presence: they did not seem necessary at the time. What was of central importance was the raw, almost brutal core of Palestinian suffering, which she made it her business to address every morning, noon, and night. She never preached or tried to convert others to her cause: she simply worked unaided and alone, out of her head and directly from her will. Three or four years after she had started her ministrations a shadowy young man appeared as a personal secretary, but he was soon dropped, and she was alone again. No one seemed able to keep up with her.
As a country lost, Palestine was rarely mentioned again except once, before I left for America, when, just after an animated debate about Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, I suddenly grasped what my friend Albert Coronel was referring to when he spoke contemptuously of “six against one.” The phrase jolted me, as it seemed to contradict what I implicitly believed: that Palestine was taken from us by Europeans who, coming with (as well as after) the British, were incomparably more powerful, organized, and modern than us. I was dumbfounded that to someone like Albert—a close friend of mine who, with his older sister, Colette, had been with me for a while at lower school and was now in the Cairo School for American Children because his family (Jewish with Spanish passports) had sensed the post-1948 danger to the children in a hostile Arab environment—the fall of Palestine should seem like another anti-Jewish episode. I recall to this day the abrupt sense of mystified estrangement I felt from him, alongside the puzzled (and contradictory) feeling I shared with him at how unsporting and bullying those six were. I was suffering a dissociation myself about Palestine that I have never been able to resolve or fully grasp until quite recently, when I gave up trying. Even now the unreconciled duality I feel about the place, its intricate, wrenching, tearing, sorrowful loss as exemplified in so many distorted lives, including mine, and its status as an admirable country for them (but of course not for us) always gives me pain and a discouraging sense of being solitary, undefended, open to the assaults of trivial things that seem important and threatening, and against which I have no weapons.
September 23, 1999