Once upon a family
Sahar Hamouda, Once Upon a Time in Jerusalem, London: Garnet Publishing Ltd, January 2010
Despite its title, Once Upon a Time in Jerusalem is no fairy tale. It offers no simple answers and provides no happy ending. And neither does it rehash platitudes or sentimentalities about the traumatic decades in Palestinian history leading to the Nakba.
The book, straddling the space of memoir and social history, tells the story of a Jerusalem home, Dar Al-Fitiani, located within the walls of the Haram Al-Sharif (the Sacred Enclosure) in Old Jerusalem and built originally as an Islamic school in the 15th century. The book also tells the story of the Palestinian family that lived in it continuously for at least five hundred years until 1948.
Through two voices, Once Upon a Time in Jerusalem recreates the life of a family living in one of the most coveted, and perhaps the most fiercely contested, spaces on the planet. The first voice is that of Hind Al-Fitiani, the author's mother, who spent her early years in the Dar until she left to study at the Beirut University College (now the Lebanese American University) in 1946, not knowing that she would never return to live again in the home of her ancestors, the forces of history having "crashed upon their world and brought it to an end forever." She found herself obliged to relocate to Egypt with some members of her family.
Commenting on Hind's story is her daughter, Sahar, who, through meticulous research, tried to verify the authenticity of the information given in her mother's oral narrative. To do that, she consulted historical documents and interrogated other members of the family. Her voice, rational and sometimes sceptical, counterbalances and puts in perspective her mother's spontaneous and heart- felt narrative.
Family life in Dar Al-Fitiani during the 1930s and 1940s was not idyllic by any stretch of the imagination. It was a stiflingly conservative world of "confined women and harsh men." The father, Abdel-Hamid Al-Fitiani, was the typical patriarch, an "Old Testament type, tyrannical and awesome, breathing nothing but fire and brimstone." He "didn't need to raise a hand against any of us," Hind remembers, "he merely threw a fiery look and we trembled."
His wife, Mouftieh, was some 20 years his junior. She was barely 12 when she found herself married to this older, intimidating man. When he later took a new wife and brought her to live in the same house, she could hardly object or even voice her grievance. But as often happened in those days, the two women became good friends and allies, creating their own space in resistance to the dominance of the tyrannical male. Hind tells the story of how the two women decided one day to go out of the house without their husband's permission while he was away on a long errand. But the unexpected happened and he returned earlier than scheduled. Finding neither of his wives at home, he locked the door and decided not to let them in. When the two women eventually returned from their impromptu sally, they found the door firmly shut. They were forced to spend the night huddled together in front of the door.
Life for Hind as a little girl growing up in a large extended family made up of a host of sisters, brothers, stepmothers, stepsisters, aunts and cousins had its tribulations. She tells the story of how she was once punished by herstep mother who hung her, with her hands and feet tied, like "a laundry bag on a door knob" until she was rescued a couple of hours later by her brother. But the advantages of living in a large family probably offset the ordeals, as Sahar notes, for despite the presence of "so many instances of small personal crimes, [they were] committed with love and forgiven with equal love."
The 1930s and 1940s were also an exceedingly difficult time politically, and violence often erupted, causing havoc in the lives of Palestinians. "It was called the British Mandate," muses Hind, "but in effect it was an occupation. British soldiers were on every corner, in the pores of our town, oozing out of our valleys and posh areas." Her brothers were in the fray, involved in anti-colonial activities, fighting the British presence in Palestine. They were frequently chased by the police and frequently imprisoned. Politics came to Dar Al-Fitiani and thrust the door open. There was no escaping its impact.
In one poignant narrative, Hind tells the story of how her older sister Aisheh, who was married and had her home in West Jerusalem, went back to the Old City to take part in the funeral of her uncle. This was 1948. In a few hours she had no home to return to. The Zionists had occupied her house. "Gone was her new house, her new coat, the whole life she had built for herself in the New City." With the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel, her home became off limits, for it now belonged to another country. In 1967 Aisheh had the opportunity to go back to West Jerusalem and she saw what became of her house. Jewish immigrants were living in it, sleeping in her bed and drinking from her cup. "Nothing had changed, except the inhabitants."
Once Upon a Time in Jerusalem demonstrates how personal lives can get caught up in and devastated by political events. In trying to preserve the story of one Jerusalemite family from being lost forever, the book provides compelling evidence that Palestine was not a land without a people. It was in fact a land of rich culture and long history, a land cherished by its inhabitants. The vibrant details of this family's life refute the propagated claims that Palestinians willingly abandoned their homes. As the book celebrates the memory of lost home and homeland, it pays tribute to the resilience of the Palestinian spirit that will remain forever homebound.
Reviewed by Amira Nowaira