Reclaiming the Jerusalem of the Past

I recently attended a talk by Ms. Layla Moran, the former Liberal Democrat candidate for Oxford West, at the Quaker Religious Society of Friends. She was not there to talk about politics. Rather, she was there to share stories from the memoirs of her great-grandfather, drawing from his book “The Storyteller of Jerusalem : The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904 – 1948”. The memoirs draw from Wasif’s life as a child in Jerusalem until when his family leaves the city. The stories Ms. Moran selected to relate were funny at times, poignant at others, and largely reflective of the socio-political goings-on in Jerusalem in those times.

The memoirs are broadly divided into three parts – the childhood and youth of Wasif spent while Jerusalem was governed by the Ottoman Empire, followed by days of employment under the British rule, and finally the departure from the city he loved after the creation of Israel. In his early days, Wasif seems to have had a delightful childhood, in a Jerusalem that was distantly governed by the Ottomans and that was testament to peaceful coexistence of the Arabs (Christians and Muslims) and the Jews. Two such examples struck me as particularly endearing. One, that during the Jewish festival of Purim (in which people wear masks and costumes to celebrate), Palestinian children would dress up as orthodox Jews, wearing the wig of curls and rabbi hats. The other, that Wasif’s father would insist that he read the Qoran (in spite of them being Christian) because the Arabic language in the Holy Book is so pure and lyrical that it would help Wasif become a better singer. This does not only show immense respect for another religion, but is also emblematic of the willingness to imbibe elements of a shared culture and heritage, notwithstanding religion. Such mature navigation of different religions at a non-academic domestic level is rare in today’s times.

The talk then moved to the next phase of Wasif’s life. In 1917, following the fall of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem and the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, Jerusalem was now governed by the British. In the initial days of this development, Wasif was elated to see the British take over (he recorded the atrocities of the Ottomans toward the end of their regime). But he soon realized the underlying designs of the British colonialists, who drove deep wedges between the Jewish and the Arabs, and the Arab Christians and Muslims. Entries to each other’s places of worship, that went unquestioned in the past, were now controlled by the British administration. Incidents of racial profiling and inciting one against the other became more frequent. This explains the Nabi Musa riots in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1920, probably the first incidence of large-scale violence in the Arab-Israel conflict. This led to demands by the Jewish community for autonomous infrastructure and may have sown the seeds of the demand for Israel. Wasif was extremely pained by such breakdown of communal harmony in his beloved city.

In 1948, Wasif and his son listened to the radio as the creation of the Jewish state of Israel was declared. Wasif recalls this moment of father and son looking away from each, unable to articulate their feelings and unable to control their tears. Thousands of Palestinians, in one fell swoop, were rendered homeless. The Jawhariyyeh family left Jerusalem to join relatives in Beirut, but ironically, they left thinking they would be back in a few months. The conflict continues even today, with hundreds killed every year on both sides as a result of unabated violence and the absolute lack of any framework for peace.

In conclusion, Ms. Moran shared her anguish at the current state of affairs in Palestine, and urged more and more people to advocate for peace in the region. Through a very personal and apolitical form of storytelling, she had managed to convey to her audience a glorious past of a glorious city that is today at the epicentre of mass massacre.

The event was hosted by the Oasis of Peace UK, which works to support a village in Israel where Palestinian and Jewish Israelis have chosen to live in peace together with mutual respect and understanding.

Great stories always remind us of other similar works of art. In this case, Wasif’s memoirs reminded me of “Out of Place”, memoirs of Edward Said, who also talks about his childhood in the culturally-thriving cities of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, and the sudden usurpation of the Palestinian identity.