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ISLAMIC STUDIES SPECIAL ISSUE ON JERUSALEM 2001 Personal Account A Multiple Identity

I never realised how much Jerusalem was mine, how it had lived with me and within me, till I wrote my first novel, The Sun Rises from the West, in 1986. Then Jerusalem became a reality, a living pulse, stronger than all those years and deeper than all other feelings. Jerusalem became the core of my text, while Beit Aman -the city parallel to Jerusalem, the true city rooted in my depths- receded. Jerusalem occupied my text, and, in all its details, human, structural and social, imposed itself upon me.

My papers were redolent of its quarters and alleys. The water seller and his donkey would appear in the open square of al-Aq~a Mosque, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Magdalene, or ~al~ al-Din Street, or the Khan al-Zait entrance, or the Via Dolorosa, or the Maghribi Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Mamuniyyah School, the Sahira Gate, the Hutta Gate, or Gethsemane.

Oh, how fascinating this old Jerusalem is; how beloved, how close to the heart, for all the great distance separating us! It's hard to write about a city that lives inside you, where its many aspects, all dear to your heart, mingle and intertwine as you imagine them. But I shall choose the beginning: my childhood in al-Quds.

I've felt, from my earliest concsiousness, the weight of a question that's never ceased to perplex my heart: "Is it possible for Jerusalem, the city of peace, my city, the centre of tolerance and the three monotheistic religions, truly to encompass the co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews, after all the contention and dissent -ideological, political, social and racial -that it's known? Can it permit these three to lie down together, to mingle within the calm shade of peace? Can all these different colours fuse together, blend with it and in it?

This question remained a conundrum growing ever knottier with time. From early childhood on, I could recall something almost unconscious, something like a vision or a clouded dream, of a tree that time and again blazed with light and was then extinguished. Still it dominates my unconscious, even though it lies so remote and obscure.

Years passed, cloaking the secret of this blurred vision, till one day I heard him speak about it. And from the sad words of my uncle, and his distress, each time he celebrated Christmas, over his lost home in Jerusalem, I realised the tree was the Christmas tree he and his wife would decorate each year in front of his house, now lost, in the Qatamon district of West Jerusalem. His wife was one of the first generation of education inspectors in Palestine, and he was the manager of Spinney's stores. They had an only daughter.

It was this daughter who, when I first woke to ideas, put many theories of knowledge to the test. For a long time, despite the age difference between us, her presence perplexed me; and the same puzzle occupied all the people of our town, despite the general heaviness and depression weighing on the place since the loss of Palestine. When, in 1948, she returned with her parents, as a refugee, to her father's birthplace, she was around ten years old. All I know of this I had from my mother, who described how my uncle and his family, along with his Muslim and Christian neighbours, took refuge in our house. This was a normal enough thing, with many parallels among people who left their homes in the face of the sudden Israeli occupation.

What was not normal -this I realised as I grew a little older -was that my so-called cousin was a Jewess. This was in fact the appellation always added to her name by strangers; and it was from this that the question stems. How could Jerusalem bring together Muslim and Christian neighbours, and a Jewish adopted daughter, then send them all out as refugees seeking shelter and the means of subsistence? How could Jerusalem contain all these three religions, in peace and freedom extending to actual brotherhood, then fail in the face of the State of Israel, expelling so many to live as refugees elsewhere?


After their exodus my uncle's family lived in our original town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, just like thousands of other refugees; but my uncle still kept possession of the deeds to his house in the Qatamon district of West Jerusalem, and of its keys, waiting to return home. Death, though, proved closer. He soon passed away.

After a few months his Muslim neighbours left, in search of income and education. Yet this girl of Arab nationality (but, as everyone claimed, of Jewish extraction) stayed on, living in anxiety and distress, almost destroying herself and others as she wandered in search of the real mother from whom she was now separated by wars, closed borders and armies. Any approach outside would have been branded as treachery and espionage, giving rise to the gravest SUsp1c1on; it was quite unthinkable. Before his death, the father persistently denied all the rumours about her origins, asserting firmly that she was the daughter of himself and his wife. This he maintained in her presence and before others. The mother, though, stood weak and tearful in her knowledge of the truth, suffering, through the girl's spiritual torment and quest for the mirage of a faraway mother, a torment of her own beyond description.

The girl continued to bear my family name; but, whether consciously or not, she knew the truth, and strove to take revenge on this name, on what she regarded as my uncle's contribution to her tragedy. This drove her to opt out of all the well-entrenched Arab traditions, to trample on all the taboos binding the daughters of the family: she took it upon herself to lay down the limits of what was permissible and possible. Because of the way she behaved, the whole extended family became very cautious about the behaviour of the rest of the family's daughters. We weren't allowed to mix with her or acknowledge her relationship to us. If, by chance, her name should be mentioned in front of strangers, our mothers would straight away relate her story in explanation of her wayward behaviour .

People's feelings were divided, some siding with her, others standing against her. Many felt deep pity for her, unable to comprehend why she persisted in destroying herself. They told her to lead a normal life; but this was beyond the power of a woman who knew her roots were out there, behind the barbed wire, and the soldiers, and the animosities and wars -who knew her own kin had driven out her adopted family and closed all the doors against her own natural mother .

Could anything have been harsher than to be alone because you spring from tWo different, warring societies, something that makes you different from everyone else you know?

She married and produced two children, who later became two of the most famous engineers in Amman. One evening, when she paid a surprise visit to our town, I asked her: "Suppose, by some miracle, you found your mother. What would you want from her?" She answered impetuously, without a trace of hesitation: "I'd kiss her", she said, "and throw myself in her arms. No, I'd spit in her face and ask her why she did this to me. Or maybe I'd keep quiet, say nothing at all. I just want to see her!"

Then, since I'd chosen writing as a career, she asked me to write down her story. I'd never, to this day, dared do it; but now I'll set down here what I've managed to glean from those who knew the facts. The true, tragic story was told to me by my own mother, who heard it from my uncle's wife just a few days before she died. She admitted the truth, weeping bitterly and incessantly. Her Jewish neighbour, with whom she'd forged a close friendship, became pregnant in her husband's absence, and my aunt, who was childless, offered to adopt the baby so as to ward off the scandal. She pretended to be pregnant herself, imitating the normal stages of pregnancy along with her neighbour, till the baby was delivered. Then she adopted her, registering her in the family's name. She wanted to quench her own desire for a child, while, at the same time, the child herself would grow up near her natural mother. This arrangement was made at the end of the 1930s. Both anguished women believed that neighbourhood and friendship between Arab and Jew, in Jerusalem, would be stronger than any political upheaval, that Jerusalem would be able to hide the truth from people's eyes. Then the 1948 disaster overtook the two families, and the tragedy began of a Jewish child with an Arab name and passport.

This stopped being such a great puzzle when I realised there were a number of Jewish women married to Christian or Muslim Arabs, who lived with their husbands till the end. I discovered, too, that some of the sons of these Jewish women had indeed joined the Palestinian resistance.

The behaviour of my "cousin ", though, led to further restrictions being imposed on us girls of the family. I mentioned how we weren't allowed, either as children or young women, to mix with her directly, because, in a conservative town, she'd opted out of all norms and traditional moral restrictions. The men of the family, who would never accept any behaviour from their women that defied our code of honour and moral behaviour, let my cousin be so long as we weren't in direct contact with her. But they sharpened their vigilance, and none of us girls was allowed to go out unless chaperoned by her brother or father, or to stay out late, or to sit on the balcony for any length of time. Any such behaviour would whip up a family storm, and the eyes of the men would glint with suspicion and fear for the family honour. They'd scrutinise everything, even the very skyline, for fear something male was moving there. We weren't even allowed to mix with the male members of our extended family.

Such was the beginning of Jerusalem for me: my uncle and his wife hiding the scandal of their Jewish neighbour, who entrusted her daughter to them in the hope the girl could be brought up close to her. No one could have predicted what was in store for the region. But, eventually, the greed for expansion and conquest separated two desperate neighbours: a mother unable to accommodate the child of her sin, and another breast eager to hold a child and love it.

This was the Jerusalem of my adolescence. I returned to it looking forward to a promising future as a writer, after my teachers had recognised my special aptitude and I'd published a number of short stories. Carrying my first novel, I went looking for a publisher, chaperoned by my sister's husband. During that particular trip, I fell in love; my heart throbbed with the pangs of first love, for all the chaperon's eagle eye. But I suppressed all expression of this love, hiding it even from the person concerned, blocking all attempts to be near him or let him discover my feelings towards him. T o him, as to others, I had to remain the "good" Arab girl whose society proscribed love, whose traditions and upbringing decreed she behave like a virgin in heart and body, ready to offer both to her husband when fate and traditional arrangements brought him forth. I would suffer at night, react in lukewarm fashion when we met by chance or contrivance. The memory of that experience went on wounding me, even as I protected the family name untouched and won the happy approval of my family and society.

This was Jerusalem. She made my dream come true, like a sky opening with a miracle. In Jerusalem I became a well-known journalist, finding a place, in this sphere, faster than I'd ever dared expect. This happened after I'd whipped up a storm with an article entitled "Violence against Women".

And in Jerusalem, after a few years, I met a young poet and writer, a truly cultivated man. Our feelings for one another grew on a calm fire, to reveal a deep and serene love that ripened into marriage after the fall of Jerusalem.

The loss of Jerusalem came about when I was preparing for my university finals in Beirut. Suddenly, the road from Ras el-Amoud to the Jihad paper where I worked was filled with soldiers, road blocks and death. A world we knew became split, taking away female friends brought together in Jerusalem's liberal ambience. Ah, the walks we'd take through its old streets, where we'd wander in the Via Dolorosa to visit the Holy Sepulchre, then go and pray in al-Aqsa Mosque. From them I learned where I could buy the less expensive clothes in the heart of the Old City, and the very expensive ones in ~alal;1 al-Din Street. One of them came from one of the remaining Moroccan families who'd lived in Jerusalem for many decades; another was of Afghan extraction; others were from well-known Jerusalem families -all brought together through work or study in Beirut, Christians and Muslims, who'd go to light candles on the sacred grave of Jesus, or borrow scarves to cover their hair when visiting al-Aq~a Mosque.

And here the question poses itself: can you come to hate a city you've loved with profound passion? The pathways that bore your feet as you hurried in quest of your hopes and ambitions -can they turn dark and deny you? Can the faces you loved grow different, your city become a city you no longer know? Can she lose all trace of you, of the fragments of your soul you scattered so joyfully over her body?

You enter it now through a gate you didn't use before, the gates changing through time and space. Jerusalem's gate was the one next to the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Magdalene. How often I'd pray in the early days, as I returned home to Beit Sahour, that I'd meet the one I loved by chance, that he'd appear, suddenly, from the corner of the street. But my morning prayers were never answered; the one I loved worked in evening journalism. They say first love remains strongest of all in the memory .But I maintain its memory can be supplanted by a love stronger and more serene. Then the former becomes a mere recollection.

During the years of my first absence, when my city was taken captive as I sought knowledge at the university in Beirut, the walls grew old and decrepit. I came to the city looking to retrieve my identity, rejoin my family, carrying in my arms my first child, Dana, who was nine months old. I found my friends and colleagues had separated on the road of life. One had emigrated to America, another to Belgium, but most had been married in the traditional way, mostly to men less educated than themselves.

The deepest loss was our old intimacy and the ardour of life -replaced now by worries greater than the fact of alienation, too complex to be summed up in words. I found the working class that had built Israel's settlements had increased and flourished. Was this, I wondered, a matter of ignorance or need? But this working class had become, too, a weapon in the hands of Israel, one it used to threaten the livelihood of thousands of Arab families whenever it chose to slam the door in their faces. It was from this class that a number of myoId friends had married.

Under occupation, concepts and attitudes changed profoundly! In quest of my identity card, lost between the Bethlehem and Jerusalem bureaux, I went to see the head of the Israeli Information Bureau. I later discovered the card had been withdrawn in response to an article I'd written, giving my view of the situation in Jerusalem after the occupation. It had been published in an Israeli paper, under the title: "How Can the Minister of Defence Allow an Antagonist like her to Return to Israel?" That was nothing to me. I'd returned to my own country and people. None of them was Israel, and they never would be.

Yet no words can encompass, can describe the feelings of a defeated person seeking to affirm identity in the face of a powerful occupier! All words are hollow, crippled in the face of such a situation. How can a stranger, who came to your city as an occupier, discuss your identity and grant you your citizenship?