Nusseibeh, Hazem Zaki. Jerusalemites: A Living Memory. 2009. Rimal Publications, Nicosia, Cyprus, & Melisende Publishing, London, UK
Review by Theresa Wolfwood
“...although the story is recounted from the viewpoint and perspective of an individual, it is in many ways the story of the unparalleled tragedy of the Palestinian people.”
“The inhabitants of Jerusalem, a highly sophisticated versatile and experienced community, suddenly found themselves jolted into dispersal: uprooted physically from their homes, civil service jobs...They migrated to all corners of the globe...”
Intended to be a personal memoir, without references or scholarly footnotes, the author has written the story of his remarkable life and in the process has written a history of Palestinians, seen through the eyes of a passionate and articulate lover of his home, Jerusalem.
He writes,”...the book has its own inherent justification as an historical record of an era when Jerusalem – the whole of Palestine- was the prosperous and dynamic capital of Palestine...My testimony is a personal one that should not be buried, but rather recorded, remembered and commended.”
For readers who see Palestine only in the context of the present occupation and conflict, it is worthwhile to learn about and reflect on the long and rich culture and development of this people and place, firmly rooted in history and archaeology.
Born in 1922 into an illustrious Jerusalem family with centuries of history and achievements, Nusseibeh chronicles the golden years of his youth in his beloved city. He remembers the architecture, the schools, the institutions, the cooking and his loving mother. He writes that Palestinians, of different religious faiths, urban and rural, literate and illiterate still constituted a homogeneous society with little internal discord. In Jerusalem, diversity was an accepted part of life. Nusseibeh’s family was entrusted with the keys of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 7th Century. A member of his family opens and locks this shrine of Christianity every day.
After the British occupation in 1917 when it became a mandated protectorate, Palestine became the site of increasing Jewish immigration and as the British betrayed their trust, Jewish military and paramilitary occupation took control and in 1948 they created the Nakba or catastrophe. The Israelis drove out 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, lands, villages and cities. It is that incredible act of brutality that underlies today’s tragedy. The destruction of Palestinian Jerusalem intensified after the 1967 war and continues today with the relentless destruction of homes and lives of the legitimate owners and residents of this sadly fractured and militarized city and country.
Nusseibeh records the difficult and confused period during which the British handed over Palestine to the Zionists and the reaction of the Palestinians and their lack of full knowledge of the planned takeover. Everything was mooted to be temporary and as a friend told him, “things will return to normal in a few weeks.”
But as violence increased people started to fear for their lives and began to leave. Nusseibeh’s family of women and children left for Lebanon. The author stayed on working in the media, married and went abroad for post graduate work. His PhD thesis in the USA, The Ideas of Arab Nationalism, became a standard reference on the subject.
UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and work Agency, for which the author worked, was set up originally to cater for the needs of Palestinian refugees until they were repatriated. Because the world’s governments failed the cause of justice for Palestine – and continue to do so - UNRWA still exists. It operates refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan which I have visited. Some of the best camps, somewhat crowded and lacking in facilities, look like local communities. One camp I visited in Jordan is one of the worst slums I have seen, full of forgotten people struggling to survive and to make a better life for their children and grandchildren. Canada has recently cut its funding to UNRWA, already desperately underfunded.
From elegant suburbs to crowded and filthy camps, Palestinians are united in their demand for the right of return. (Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948 by Canada, the USA and Great Britain among other nations, enshrines the right of exiles to return.) Yet 7 million Palestinians are still exiles; there are only four million living inside Palestine.
Meanwhile the author did return to Jerusalem and was chair of the Jordanian delegation to the Jordanian- Israel Armistice Commission in 1955; he reports it was an unpleasant and unrewarding task. His work with the Jordanian government on behalf of Palestinians settled the author and his family in Amman in 1956 where he filled high level posts in the government – foreign affairs and eventually he was the Jordanian ambassador to the UN from 1976-1985. The book is a detailed record of the many plans and efforts to create a nation of Palestine, at one time it was proposed in a union with Jordan. There are many reasons this did not happen and Nusseibeh is frank about the problems on all sides.
But in 1967 when the second Israeli –Palestine war occurred, another tragic period of destruction and forced exile devastated the Palestinian people; more refugees and camps were created. For the author as for many others it was the brutal truth of occupation of their homeland. The history of these times, the relationships between Jordan, other Arab countries, Europe and USA are chronicled in this personal memoir; the author was completely involved in all these events. His book, the memories of an insider, is essential reading for any serious student of Palestinian history.
In 1989 Nusseibeh retired from public service and for some years taught at a college in Amman. But his commitment to Palestine and in particular to Jerusalem, and the urge of so many Palestinians now living in Jordan led to the formation of community groups and activities that strengthen the Palestinian society in Jordan. In 1990, an organization called the Jerusalem Forum was founded in Amman; Nusseibeh is the life honorary chair of this organization. I was invited to speak to it in 2010 and met the author after I spoke about my recent experiences in Palestine – which most of my audience cannot visit. The Forum is part of the continuing work of Palestinians everywhere to retain their culture and ties to their rightful homeland; it is not only an educational forum but it also funds restoration of historic Jerusalem and provides scholarships to Jerusalem university students.
The author writes that the forum and other societies, “are unwaveringly committed o a platform of eventual return to their homes and homelands from which they had either fled or had been forced to flee...Their activities are designed to keep alive in their hearts the city of their forefathers.”
Intellectually, Nusseibeh has a global and liberal outlook, interest and knowledge of world cultures, but deep in his heart he is a passionate Jerusalemite and his life is dedicated to ending the decades of injustice to Jerusalemites and all Palestine.
The Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, TW photo