Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Khalil Sakakini's house in Katamon

My first goal in walking around Katamon today was to find the former home of Khalil Sakakini, which he finished building in the late 1930s. He lived from 1878-1958, and was "among the most prominent Palestinian intellectuals at the end of the Ottoman period and the Mandate period." (The Ottoman Turks ruled Palestine and much of the Middle East and North Africa for several hundred years. Palestine was conquered in 1517, and in 1917 the British conquered it and took it from the Ottomans during the First World War. They administered the Mandate for Palestine until 1948). Sakakini was a "teacher, educator, linguist, writer, poet, and politician." He was "born in Jerusalem to a Greek Orthodox family from the middle class."

"His public activity included the struggle for reform in the Greek Orthodox community, exhorting for secular Arab nationalism and the struggle against Zionism, and also the leadership of modern liberal education in Arab society." (From David Kroyanker, Jerusalem Neighborhoods: Talbieh, Katamon, and the Greek Colony [Jerusalem: Keter, 2002], 253; translated from Hebrew by me).

Sakakini began to build his house in the Katamon neighborhood in 1937. Tom Segev in his book, One Palestine, Complete, which uses Sakakini’s diaries as a primary source, describes it this way:

While reporting about an event in the Revolt and explaining it in letters to his son Sari, Khalil El-Sakakini devoted most of his time to building his new house, in the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem. He documented the project, perhaps not by accident, as if this were his national home. This began in May 1934: Sakakini and a few friends went out in a kind of procession, holding maps in their hands: “We surveyed the land on the heights, in the valleys, and on the plain, he later wrote.” …

The project aroused his imagination. At first he thought about a modest house, he wrote to his son, but then decided that the family needed a grove for the bring animals and birds, and a tennis court. Then the thought occurred to him to plant coconut trees to raise big and small monkeys in them, and build a swimming pool where the water would be changed daily. As much as he fantasized, he tended to despair – he doesn’t have the money, perhaps it’s better that he shouldn’t build at all and live the rest of his days as he had lived up until now – wandering from house to house. Difficulties also arose with the purchase of land, but in the end he succeeded in buying a portion of land in Katamon….

Another three years went by. Construction on the house was proceeding satisfactorily, Sakakini wrote. He went every day to check its progress, “stone by stone.” He measured the height, the length, the width. “This will be the bedroom, we’ll put the bed here, the wardrobe here, and the chair here. This is the kitchen, we’ll put the oven here, the sink here. This is the study for Dumia and Hala, we’ll cover the walls with shelves, and we’ll put Dumia’s desk here and Hala’s desk here….”

People began to gossip. Where was he getting the money to build such a house? Sakakini was building with thought to the cost: the builder was the best in town, as was the carpenter, the ironmonger, the tiler, and the painter.… Sakakini decided to call his house “The Island,” because it was surrounded by streets, except on one side, like the Arabian peninsula. Each room had a name: San’a and Damascus, Cordoba, Baghdad and Cairo. the house’s gates were called the Gates of Eternity. When Sari returned from America, “victorious and conquering, enlightened and educated,” they would circle the house as if it were the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, and would go from room to room as if they were going from city to city. Afterward they would crown him with a wreath of laurel or olive branches.

The family moved in May 1937: … “We all feel as if we were born yesterday,” Sakakini wrote, and everyone who saw him wondered at the source of his youthful exuberance. All his guests received a tour: this is the bedroom, here is the study, the living room, and the rest of the house. Sakakini decided to create a map for visitors. “The house, the house, all we talk about is the house,” he told Sari.: “Our house is a universe, and we are all in it, eternity is our slave” (Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete, pp. 271-274).

(Continuing from David Kroyanker's book). 
His daughter Hala describes in her memoirs the peaceful and happy life that the family led in the house for eleven years, since it was dedicated in 1937 until they were forced to abandon Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

The members of the Sakakini family left their house in Katamon on April 30, 1948. They traveled in a car (Hala Sakinini, Jerusalem and I, p. 121) to Cairo, and lived there until their father died (ibid., p. 150). After that, Hala and her sister Dumia moved to Ramallah, where they live until this day.

Since the house has become a daycare it has undergone changes, to the extent of a complete opposition between the pastoral-village appearance of the original Sakakini house and its degraded condition today. Thus Hala Sakakini describes her new meeting with her house in July, 1967, nineteen years after they left it:
We had reached our destination. It was a sad moment. The house appeared intact from outside, but it somehow looked darker. The walls seemed so dusty, the paint on the shutters had worn off, the stairs were dirty.… Gone was the beautiful, fragrant honeysuckle over the garden gate, gone was the jasmine shrub leaning against the house.… The garden was dry and brown and covered with litter. Right in front of the house, in the middle of the garden, they had erected an ugly wooden structure that was an eyesore. (Hala Sakakini, Jerusalem and I, p. xiv).
Sakakini's former home is about an eight-minute walk from where I'm staying on Elazar ha-Modai Street.

This is the route I took to walk there:

The house is now a daycare center sponsored by Canadian-Hadassah WIZO, named after Nina Cohen.
The Nina Cohen Atlantic Provinces Daycare (Katamon, Jerusalem), opened in 1969, is one of six that CHW supports. Currently, the daycare provides daily care to 59 children, in three classrooms. The children come from a variety of backgrounds which reflects the diverse neighbourhood of new immigrants, religious families, and young couples who populate the area. The daycare offers a dedicated and well-trained staff of nineteen who provide guidance and care to the children in a nurturing and enriching environment. 

See more at: http://www.chw.ca/children/chw-daycares/nina-cohen-daycare-centre/
From Katamon June 24, 2014

Another view of the front of the day care center.
From Katamon June 24, 2014

From Katamon June 24, 2014
Toy car on a ledge on the back of the Nina Cohen Daycare Center

I have not been able to find a really good photograph of what the house looked like when the Sakakini's still lived there. Tarek Bakri, a Palestinian journalist and photographer, has created a montage of a photograph of the current use of the house as a daycare center and a photograph of what it looked when it belonged to the Sakakinis. 

Here is a crop from that image, which shows only the old photograph.

You can see that the basic fabric of the house is still there, even though it is obscured by a new, higher wall, and ugly gates and fences. The open area on the second story of the house has been filled in with windows. The outside of the building is not very well kept-up.

Sakakini's diaries were published in Hebrew in 2007. For a review (published in Haaretz), see Farewell to Our House: The Journals of Khalil al-Sakakini.

No comments:

Post a Comment