Jerusalem, the Nakba, and My Mother in Law
Last week was a very busy week for me. I was elected to the Palestinian national council (PNC), the Parliament of the Palestinian people worldwide. Later that week I was elected also to the Palestinian Central Council (PCC). As we members of the PNC gathered in Ramallah to reflect on the state of the Palestinian people seventy years after the Nakba and on the decision of the Trump administration to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, I got a message from my wife, Najwa, that my mother-in-law was admitted into the hospital. Although my mother in law is not young anymore, her health has been relatively stable. Other than some symptoms of Dementia, she has been healthy. Yet, her health started deteriorating last week and she needed to be hospitalized. After being given the needed medical care, my mother-in-law, Georgette, was released and returned home, still suffering dementia.
Three days ago my mother-in-law woke up early and told my sister-in-law that she wants to go home. My sister-in-law responded ” but mom, you are at home !” My mother-in-law responded angrily “This is not my home, my home is in Jerusalem. I want to go home.” My mother-in-law has being living in her home in Bethlehem since 1960 when she got married to my late Father-in-law. For fifty eight years this has been her home, where she gave birth to five kids and saw them grow and prosper. This is where she bought every piece of furniture and where she found refuge in all the wars since 1967. She knew every stone and every step in the house by heart. And now, after spending in that house almost sixty years, she is saying that this is not her house and she wants to go home, to Jerusalem.
Is this a symptom of dementia? It sure is. While her latest memories are eroding, the memories of her childhood are coming back crystal clear. She is right. My mother-in-law is a Jerusalemite. Her family, the Mushahwar family, is one of the oldest Christian families in Jerusalem. Her father started one of the first secular printing presses in Jerusalem, Beit al-Maqdis Press (meaning The Home of the Holy). The press was located just outside of Jaffa Gate in one of the modern buildings that were built outside the old city walls and was the flagship of modern prosperous Palestine. Her father imported from Heidelberg in Germany the latest state of the art printing equipment of the early twentieth century. His business was booming. He was printing major Palestinian newspapers, texts books for the governmental schools, matriculation exam for high school students and religious booklets for his church, the Greek Orthodox Church.
Palestine in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century was the land of progress and promise. The Palestinian people were highly educated in private christian schools, businesses were booming like never before, new upscale neighborhoods were built, and some of the best hotels in the world were opening. The future seemed to be so promising. And as Mushahwar was expanding his business, he decided to build in new home in the new emerging Palestinian upscale neighborhood of Jerusalem, called Upper Baq’a. That neighborhood was not built by one developer. Rather, each family designed its home individually, employing some of the best known architects of that time. Each used the best known stone of that era, the rose-color stone mined from the famous Jerusalem quarry, known as Slai’ib (meaning the cross). The quarry was named after the location of the quarry, where it is said that the tree, from which the cross of Jesus was made, stood. The Mushahwar family moved into their new homes in the twenties. There my mother-in-law grew up. From there she used to go every day on bus 5 to the English school called Jerusalem Girls College, built in Rahavia. Her class mates were from that neighborhood in West Jerusalem. They were mainly Palestinian families: mainly Christian and Muslim, and a few Greek families. The house had a beautiful garden with a lemon, an almond, and a fig tree. The house has a beautiful balcony, where the family used to drink its afternoon tea and watch the beautiful sunset.
All these memories were cherished by my mother-in-law. Yet, this promising future was shattered to the ground by a catastrophe called in Arabic the Nakba. In April 1948, the Jewish terrorist organization “Palmach” attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Palestinian families were driven out of their homes, others sought refuge in the old city of Jerusalem, while others decided to leave to neighboring Arab countries. The Mushahwar family decided to go to Lebanon, to the maiden family of my mother-in-law. They thought it is a matter of days and that they will come back. My mother-in-law remembers that day in 1948 when they became refugees. Whenever we had visitors from abroad, she would share that story with them, her personal story, how one of the well-to-do Palestinian families lost everything. Their house, with all their furniture, belongings, family pictures and toys was occupied by a Jewish family. The printing press was in the no-man-zone and later in 1967 was destroyed by Israel as if it never existed. Yet, the Mushahwar family were lucky to have their in-laws in Lebanon. They weren’t forced to live in a refugee camp. And they were lucky to have decided to return in 1950 to East Jerusalem and to start all over again.
My mother-in-law is right. The house she married into in Bethlehem is not her home. Her home still stands in West Jerusalem, although occupied now by an Israeli family. My mother-in-law is an American citizen. The decision of president Trump to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem will not be able to erase her memory. She forgot many things. She never ever forgot that she belongs to Jerusalem. Here are the roots of her family. By the walls of the old city stood the printing press of her father and in Upper Baq’a stands her home, with all her childhoods memories. While my mother-in-law is losing memories, subconsciously she is connected to Jerusalem. No American president, no Israeli government and not even the dementia can take that away from her. As she likes to always say : “I am a Jerusalemite. Not one of those newcomers, but a member of the authentic families of Jerusalem.”
Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
Bethlehem, May 13th 2018