Hala Sakakini, daughter of the Palestinian educator Khalil Sakakini, fled with her family (father, brother Sari, sister Dumia, & aunt Melia) their Jerusalem home in 1948, escaping Israeli mortar attacks. Hala recounts in this excerpt from her 1987 memoir "Jerusalem & I", her first visit to her occupied- home in 1967.
On Tuesday, July 4, 1967, one month
after the Six-Day War, my sister and I visited our house in Katamon, Jerusalem,
for the first time in nineteen years. It was a sad encounter, like meeting
a dear person whom you had last seen young, healthy and well groomed and
finding that he had become old, sick and shabby. Even worse, it was like
coming across a friend whose personality had undergone a drastic change
and was no more the same person.
All through the years since 1948, we had lived in exile, away from our Jerusalem. We had almost given up hope of ever seeing Katamon and our house again. When at last the opportunity came to visit our old quarter, we hesitated to do so. That was not the way we wanted to go back.
The last time we had been there was on April 30, 1948, the day we fled from Jerusalem during the Palestine War. Our house was then exactly eleven years old. It was still in perfect condition. Everything about it was bright and shiny. Only a month before leaving we had had all the shutters freshly painted. The garden was well kept, and on that day in spring it was in full bloom. How different we found the house and the garden now.
We came from Ramallah, where we are living at present, to the Old City by taxi. We continued on foot in through Damascus Gate and then up the hill through the familiar narrow lanes of the Old City to Jaffa Gate (which was still closed at the time). Part of the stone barrier near that gate had recently been pulled down. While walking across the wide gap over the rubble in the thick dust, I turned to Dumia and said "This is a historic moment in our lives." - We had not been to the other side of the wall for nineteen long years.
As we walked along
we started to notice old familiar sights: the shoeshine shop where as children
we often sat on the high chairs and watched with interest how our old Armenian
friend went about polishing our shoes. The shop was now in ruins. Further
along, on the opposite side of the street, we saw the place where a delicatessen
used to stand. Abu Shafiq was famous for his delicious Arabic sweets. Then
ahead of us we saw the narrow two-storey building at the street-corner.
There used to be the little fruit shop that belonged to Jawdat al Amad,
who sold along with the fruit the local Arabic newspapers Falastin,
Ad-Difa' and others. In the old days we would pass Amad's shop as
we came down the street from Fast Hotel, then turn round the corner and
there at the bus stop take No. 4 to Katamon and home.
We continued along Mamillah Road, which used to be a busy shopping street and which now had become an ugly, dirty slum district. We walked past the Zananiri premises but could hardly recognize the building.
On we went.
It was rather a pleasant surprise to discover Stern's little shop exactly
where we had left it nineteen years before. I think it is the only shop
in that street that has remained unchanged. Further on we passed by Hammoudi's
beauty salon and barbershop, or rather what used to be Hammoudi's. There
was always a hustle and bustle in front of that shop with customers going
in and coming out through a wide colorful bead-hung doorway.
Another much frequented place was the cafe across the street from Hammoudi's- Piccadilly. (Its proprietor, Mr. lssa Salfity, was a neighbor of ours in Katamon.) Piccadilly used to be a busy meeting-place. Whenever you walked past it or rode past it in bus No. 4 or bus No. 6, you would see most of the tables on the wide terrace occupied by Arab gentlemen, young and old, many of whom would be smoking narghilehs. In the forties Piccadilly was both my father's and my brother's favorite coffeehouse.
At this point we turned left and started going up Julian's Way towards the Y.M.C.A. and King David Hotel. Here we found everything exactly as we had known it nineteen years before. For a moment I felt as though we were back in 1948 and no period of time had elapsed.
Then we reached the Y.M.C.A. and stopped there for a while. Nostalgically we let our eyes rove over that huge, sprawling building - the auditorium where we had attended many interesting lectures, the wide terrace where we had enjoyed open-air concerts on summer nights, the gymnasium where we had attended innumerable gym classes. Then we passed the tennis courts where we had often watched Sari playing games with Robert Mushabbek and the Deeb brothers.
After we had passed the YMCA we started walking leisurely, enjoying beautiful sights that were so familiar to us. How often we walked down that street when we were residents of Katamon, going home in the moonlight after a concert or a cinema.
We were pleased to see on our right in the midst of an olive grove the Omariya School. The railway station further down, and the gas station opposite it, provided still more familiar sights; but the old grey wall around the railway station seemed so much lower than I had remembered it.
Next we came to the German Colony where we spent six happy years of our childhood and where we went to school the thirties. The first old building we saw was the Saal (the assembly hall) behind the school house. We noticed it had been turned into an Armenian church. Then we came to our school and there was the old clock high up on the building, but the big school bell which used to hang outside the front door was gone. The large playground was now cluttered with ugly pre-fabricated huts.
We walked on along the familiar tree-shaded street. Everything was as we had known it nineteen years before except that the houses looked shabby and the gardens neglected and full of litter. When we reached Eppinger's shop (which, of course, had been converted into something else) we turned left into the street on which we lived from 1931 to 1937. First we saw the little grocery shop at the street corner which was known to all the German colony as ''Ladle". It seemed to us more disorderly than it had ever been.
At last we stood in front of Bauerle's house where we used to live. That lovely brickhouse had also decayed. It looked so dark as though layers and layers of grey dust had stuck to it over the years with never a winter season to wash it clean. The young trees in the garden had grown huge and needed trimming.
We went back to the main street and continued past the old police station on our left, past Spinney’s, or at least where Spinney's used to be, past Sayegh's pharmacy, past Dajani’s greengrocery and Kaloti's butchershop, past the Garabedian villa, past thc German cemetry, past Samaha's white building on tile street corner, and then to the right past the Greek Colony and the Sporting Club. I remembered the pleasant bicycle rides I used to make with my friend Jeanne along this street on cool summer evenings in the early forties.
Now we were approaching our own quarter - Katamon. We grew excited and could hardly wait to see our own house. The first thing we noticed here was the many new buildings that had sprung up in the vacant plots. Also, second storey had been built on the roofs of previous villas, all of which made it quite difficult for us to recognize some of the houses.
At last we started going uphill on the last stretch of our journey. With some relief we saw the two Tleel houses standing unchanged as though to serve as landmarks. After the Tleel houses we came to the twin Murcos villas, which we also found unaltered. Between these two villas we caught a glimpse of our house for the first time. We were relieved to see that the red tiles on the roof were still there, which meant that they had not built a second storey over our house. We quickened our pace past the Damiani house. (That grand villa stood forlorn, neglected and lifeless in its huge garden.) We turned right and walked along our own familiar tree-shaded lane, round the Damiani garden, past the Homsi apartment building where my grandmother and uncles, the Awads, the Sfeirs, and the Budeiris used to live, past the third Tleel house, our next-door neighbours, and at last we were there. We had reached our destination. It was a sad moment.
The house appeared intact from the outside, but it somehow looked darker. The walls seemed so dusty, the paint on the shutters had worn off, the stairs were dirty. But I think what made all the difference was the state of the garden. Gone was the beautiful, fragrant honeysuckle over the garden gate, gone was the jasmine shrub leaning against the house. The big adalias of many colours in front of the house were, of course, not there anymore. 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.
A young man in thc street told us that the house was being used as a nursery and kindergarten. There was some consolation in that. I remembered my father tenderly repeating the words of Jesus: "Let the children come unto me."
We went up the stairs. The verandah was so bare. The same old lamp stuck to the ceiling. An iron railing all around the verandah had been put up apparently to prevent the children from climbing. We hesitated for a few moments, then we opened our front door and entered (as the electric bell had been taken out and no one it seems had heard our knocking). We stood at last inside, right in the middle of our big living room. The wide folding door that used to separate the living room from the dining room at thc back was gone. The two rooms now formed one large hall which was apparently being used as a playroom for the children. Except for a few colourful decorations and pictures hanging on the walls the place was bare. We walked in and had a look at what used to be our dining room. It was like in a dream. I would have liked for us to spend some time more all alone in the house in order quietly to relive the many memories that came rushing through my mind, but this could not be. We were afraid someone would come out of a room and start accusing us of trespassing (as happened to several of our friends who had gone to visit their houses). We could hear children's voices coming from the room that used to be our sitting room. We knocked on the door. Two ladies appeared —one a dark young lady and the other an elderly European lady.
We addressed them first in Arabic, but they seemed not to understand; so we asked them if they spoke English, but they shook their heads; so we started to talk in German and the elderly lady understood. We tried to explain: "This is our house. We used to live here before 1948. This is the first time we see it nineteen years ..." The elderly lady was apparently moved, but she immediately began telling us that she too had lost a house in Poland, as though we personally or the Arabs in general were to blame for that. We saw it was no use arguing with her. We went through all the house room by room - our parents' bedroom, our bedroom, Aunt Melia's bedroom, the sitting room and the library (which were now one large room, as the wall between them had been pulled down), the dining room, the kitchen. The house was more or less in good condition, but everything was so different. It was no more home.
We went out to the verandah again. The little children swarmed around us and made happy noises, but we stood there as in a daze looking across the street and the square at our neighbours' houses - the Sliheet house, thc Sruji house, the Tleel houses. lt is people that make up a neighbourhood and when they are gone it will never be the same again.
We left our house and our immediate neighbourhood with a sense of emptiness, with a feeling of deep disappointment and frustration. The familiar streets were there, all the houses were there, but so much was missing. We felt like strangers in our own quarter.
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