'Farewell to our house!': The journals of Khalil al-Sakakini

'Farewell to our house!'

The Sakakini journals are a fascinating, very readable document, which is in essence the story of the destruction of Arab Jerusalem.

By Danny Rubinstein | Apr. 27, 2007 | 12:00 AM

"Khalil al-Sakakini," translated to Hebrew and edited by Gideon Shilo, Tzivonim, 281 pages, NIS 84

Khalil al-Sakakini and his family were among the last families to leave the Katamon quarter of Jerusalem at 6 A.M., on April 30, 1948, a few hours before members of the Haganah and Palmach (pre-state forces that preceded the Israel Defense Forces) took over the neighborhood. Al-Sakakini, perhaps the most prominent of Palestine's Arab intellectuals during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and under the British Mandate, was then 70 years old. He packed up a few belongings in his bombarded home and went out to Hebron Road, and from there to Egypt. (Today Sakakini's house, at 8 Yordey Hasira St., serves as a WIZO day-care center, and many Palestinians who admire his journals and writings have made it a site of pilgrimage.)

In his journal he wrote: "We put a few clothes that we would need in the suitcases, and left the rest behind ... for our return. I wanted to take my notebooks and papers ... but I forgot them all. I wanted to take my hookah, which is my second brain, but I forgot. We left the house, the clothes, the furniture, the library, the food and the giant piano and the large electric refrigerator ... Farewell to our house! Farewell to the gathering place where friends drink together, a magnet for visitors during the day and the night ... Farewell to my library; farewell, house of wisdom, hall of philosophers, institute of science, home of the literary committee. How many sleepless nights have I spent in you, reading and writing ... The anguish of my love is alleviated only by the fact that I have transferred my journals, which are numerous and cover thousands of pages, to a safe place."

The safe location for the journals was the home of Sakakini's daughter, Hala, who remained in Jerusalem; later she edited and published some of the journals, a few of which were lost. These writings, originally in Arabic, have been of use to many historians and authors, but the man who has invested the most work in them is translator Gideon Shilo, who added a preface and illuminating notes, along with brief biographies of the people mentioned. The journal was first published in Hebrew by Keter in 1990, but now, in the new edition, it has been prepared and edited more thoroughly.

The Sakakini journals are a fascinating, very readable document, which is in essence the story of the destruction of Arab Jerusalem. The families that constituted the city's veteran Arab Muslim aristocracy - Husseini, Nashashibi, Dejani, Khalidi, Nusseibeh and so on - and others,members of the Christian elite like Sakakini, moved outside the walls of the Old City a century ago and went to live in new Arab neighborhoods, especially during the British Mandate years. Hence they occupied luxury homes in Talbieh, Katamon, "Upper" Baka (now Hebron Road) and "Lower" Baka (Bethlehem Road), the German Colony, the Greek Colony and adjacent areas. Documentation of this movement has recently appeared in the books of Jerusalem architect David Kroyanker, but most of it is gradually being forgotten.

After these neighborhoods fell into the hands of the State of Israel and the Arab homes were looted, most of them were given to new Jewish immigrants. In the wake of the 1948 War of Independence, quite a few of the beautiful houses in Katamon and Talbieh were handed over to officials of the newly formed state. The Arabs fled; a minority of them went to the defeated Jordanian side of the city, but most traveled all the way to Amman, to the Persian Gulf states and further afield. Few Husseinis and Khaleds still reside in Jerusalem today; the Christian elite is all but gone. The great majority of Jerusalem's Arabs today (80 percent, according to some estimates) are descended from Hebronite families. In addition to their homes, the veteran Arabs of Jerusalem lost much of their spiritual property.

In early 1949, while the abandoned property was being inventoried, the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem also complied a report of "abandoned books." According to lists from those days, the library, which later relocated to the Hebrew University campus at Givat Ram, holds books from the homes of Khalil al-Sedadini, Awni Abd al-Hadi and many others, as well as the archives of Arab institutions from those same neighborhoods, such as the Al-Uma college (now the Etzion ulpan in Baka) or the Al-Omariya school (in the Liberty Bell Garden near the old train station).

Many of the topics Al-Sakakini discusses remain relevant. For example, he describes at length the struggles between his Greek Orthodox Arab sect and the clergy abroad. This struggle remains just as intense today, when the Arabs are accusing the Greek clerics who control the property of the Greek patriarchate of selling some of it to Jews (the latest scandal erupted two years ago, when word got out that the Greek patriarch had sold two hotels near the Jaffa Gate to a Jewish settler organization).

"I can no longer live under the leadership of these corrupt, vile priests," Al-Sakakini wrote a century ago, demanding that they be deported back to Greece.

The journals are sharply critical of the structure of Arab (mainly Muslim) society, which showed a preference for the interests of the family (clan) over anything else. "If you ask one of them to elect someone for the house of representatives, or the city council, or the educational committee or the national committee," Al-Sakakini wrote, "he will choose the elder of his own family, whether the man is suitable or not. Ask him whom he considers a person of virtue, extensive knowledge or sound opinion, and he will name his father, or his brother, or his uncle, and any society or committee that does not contain a member of his family will become the enemy."

This observation, written some 90 years ago, is also largely true today; it is actually still relevant concerning some of the current internal machinations of Israel's political parties. Furthermore, a resident of Abu Ghosh recently told me that putting together the local soccer team has become a difficult matter, because family affiliation rather than athletic prowess was the main criterion for selecting players. Even more interesting, however, are those parts of the journals that allude to Jews and Zionism. Al-Sakakini hated the Zionist movement "only because it is trying to create its existence and independence on the ruins of another" - i.e., on the ruins of the local Arab society. He adheres to the Christian belief that the Jews vented their rage on Jesus Christ, tortured him, tied him up in ropes, spit on him and humiliated him, and finally crucified him.

But the writings also describe the risks Al-Sakakini took during World War I, when he generously agreed to shelter his Jewish acquaintance Alter Levin, who was wanted by the Turkish police on suspicion that as a foreign national, he had committed espionage. Levin refused to eat the food in Al-Sakakini's home because it was not kosher, and one day peeked out of the window and asked a Jew who was passing by to bring him something to eat. The Turks tracked Levin down and arrested both him and Al-Sakakini. They were supposed to stand trial and were exiled to Damascus and even faced the death penalty there. Eventually their lives were saved when the Turkish army withdrew from Damascus and the city fell to the troops of Prince Al-Sakakini was a nationalist Arab, and all through his journals he describes the concern felt by the Arabs of Palestine with respect to the encroachment of the Zionist movement.

"A nation that has lost its country has lost everything," he wrote in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. Later, in the 1930s, when the Fifth Aliyah (Jewish immigration wave) was at its peak, he described it in the following terms: "Every day the Mediterranean bombards us with thousands of immigrants, and the rush to buy land in the plains and on the mountains is enormous."

Full of bitterness and despair, Khalil al-Sakakini died in Cairo in August 1953. Among the Arab and Palestinian populations today, he is considered a first-rate educator, pioneer and revolutionary who preached secular Arabism and progressive education. He wrote textbooks and compiled curricula. Educational and cultural institutions in Ramallah and Jerusalem as well as a street in East Jerusalem now bear his name, and conferences are occasionally held in his honor. Above all, he has become one of the symbols of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948.

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