x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

History in the breaking

The old Palestinian families of Jerusalem have struggled to remain stewards of the city's Arab past, writes Hamida Ghafour, but the trail of history has all too often been eroded by time - or erased by conflict.

In an effort to preserve diminishing Arab identity in Jerusalem, Said Khalidi is determined to reopen his family's library in the Old City.
In an effort to preserve diminishing Arab identity in Jerusalem, Said Khalidi is determined to reopen his family's library in the Old City.

The old Palestinian families of Jerusalem have struggled to remain stewards of the city's Arab past, writes Hamida Ghafour, but the trail of history has all too often been eroded by time - or erased by conflict.

The Khalidis, a prominent Palestinian family, fought in the battle of Hattin in 1187 when the Muslim armies of the chivalrous warrior Saladin reconquered Jerusalem and overthrew its Christian rulers. They were rewarded handsomely for their bravery with land in the Old City and various endowments, and they settled near the largest gate leading to Al Aqsa mosque. Over the centuries they served as judges, scholars and mayors of Jerusalem. Many were buried in the Mamilla cemetery just outside Jerusalem's Old City walls, where thousands of other prominent Jerusalemites have been laid to rest since the 12th century - and where a battle over territory today threatens the graves of the dead.

Asem Khalidi, 77, a scion of the family, tells me this story one warm spring afternoon after we meet at the entrance to the cemetery gates. He points to a low grey fence spanning the perimeter of the medieval Muslim burial site and a small plaque by the entrance. "There was a wall built here by the Ottomans around 1860. We believe it was so no one would encroach the cemetery's grounds." Inside the site, which originally comprised of 33 acres, there are crumbling tombstones and faded graves under a tall canopy of eucalyptus trees. The cemetery shrunk in size years ago when a huge chunk of the original site was turned into Independence Park - to celebrate the 1948 creation of Israel.

"Look what remains of the graves," he says as he picks up a piece of broken tombstone. "No one looks after them. The Israeli government is depending on time so we all forget. New generations don't know. "When I was a boy of 12 I came here and recited the fatiha," he says, referring to the opening verse of the Quran. "But a couple of weeks ago I asked a taxi driver 'Please take me to the Mamilla cemetery.' And he said, 'Where? You mean the Independence Park?' He didn't know. The generation that witnessed the 1948 exodus like me knows. But the new generation? Who is going to protest when we are gone?"

Khalidi is a retired professor of English and Arabic at Birzeit University in Ramallah and spends a lot of his free time campaigning to save Mamilla from further destruction. The battle over the ancient cemetery cuts to the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict because the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organisation named after the famed Nazi hunter, wants to build a Museum of Tolerance on the northern part of the cemetery to teach the public about the Holocaust, human rights and terrorism.

For the Palestinians and their supporters who are fighting the construction of the museum, the irony is so rich, so obvious that it illicits simply a grimace or a bitter smile. Khalidi and the 60 other signatories to the organised campaign, descendants of other old Palestinian families with historic ties to the city, took their battle to the Israeli supreme court and lost in 2008. But they have protested long and loud. Frank Gehry, the architect, pulled out of the project. The site is surrounded by high walls and security cameras and work has started, but it is unclear when the museum will be completed.

In an affadavit submitted to the courts, Gideon Suleimani, the chief excavator of the site for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, called the exacavations "one of the largest and most complex I have ever conducted in my professional life." He stated that the decision to go ahead and build the museum was an "archaeological crime" because there were at least 2,000 graves. For Khalidi, the father of four grown children, preserving Mamilla is not about religion but about keeping Jerusalem's authentic memory, that of a city revered and contested by Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Yet Jerusalem's 1,300-year-old Arab or Muslim identity is disappearing. The Middle East peace talks are at a standstill, despite the efforts of the Barack Obama, the US president, and his special envoy George Mitchell. But Jerusalem is in many ways a city in decline as Israel consolidates its hold over it. Arab neighbourhoods do not receive proper investment in infrastructure. Jewish settlements, illegal under international law, cut through old Arab neighbourhoods, which have made the prospect of East Jerusalem ever becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state a diminishing dream. Saladin Street, the centre of East Jerusalem, is struggling to survive. Palestinian political and cultural centres such as Orient House and Hakawati St have been repeatedly closed by the Israeli authorities.

As a result, Palestinians with wealth and education have been driven out either to Ramallah or abroad. Most of the Christians have long gone. Even secular Israeli Jews, fed up with growing numbers of Orthodox Jews, are leaving. A report published in February by the respected London-based think tank Chatham House pointed out that the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the city has been "profound". Checkpoints and barriers, ostensibly to keep out suicide bombers, make it difficult for ordinary Palestinians to move around.

The report stated that the lack of proper urban public space for Palestinians has meant the mosque has become a centre for resistance. The most popular Palestinian leader in Jerusalem is the firebrand Islamist leader Sheikh Ra'id Salah. It is a bleak picture for the old Palestinian clans who were once all powerful in the city. Many of them still make up the city's few remaining Arab scholars, lawyers and artists.

There are the Nuseibehs, the custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was entombed and ascended to heaven. The family has held the keys to the church since the 7th century. Then there are the Dajanis, who looked after King David's tomb for 500 years until 1948. Yet today Palestinians without Israeli-issued Jerusalem identity cards cannot enter Jerusalem, let alone live in it. They certainly wouldn't be able to visit the Museum of Tolerance.

The Chatham House report says that Israeli authorities are confiscating Jerusalem identity cards to prevent Palestinians from living in the city because their birth rate is higher than that of Jewish Israelis. In 2008, 4,500 cards were seized. "The Israelis don't want anything Islamic here. What can I say? We are no more here," says Khalidi. He suggests I meet his son, Said, who returned home from America after 18 years.

"My son had a good life there but he came back because of the family. It is difficult for him." Early one evening at twilight I meet Said in the Old City, by the metal detectors leading to the Western wall, the sacred Jewish site. "This is a very sensitive location as you can tell," he says as he arrives. A few armed guards keep a close eye on him. Said, 38, is wearing neatly pressed trousers and a dark blue jacket. He smiles politely at them.

"Watch where we go." He takes a sharp left next to the security gate, and the expanse of the Western wall appears before us. Above a small door is a green sign that reads "Khalidi library". He pushes the door open. Inside is a dim and sparsely furnished room with three tombs belonging to medieval Mamluk princes. Beyond is a smaller room and a winding staircase leading to a room where more than 3,000 manuscripts and books chronicling the family's history and that of Jerusalem are kept. There is a copy of the Quran written in gold ink, a map and description of the battle of Hattin, as well as letters, journals, diaries and government records all written in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. The earliest document dates from the 1100s.

The family want to open the library to the public again, the way it was before the 1967 war. They have raised funds from relatives scattered around the world. "We had moisture problems," Said says, "but we got experts from Britain and the US to come and assess the manuscripts and put them in fireproof boxes in a climate-controlled room and helped sort them out." Said is an engineer. He has a doctorate in industrial engineering, taught at Wichita State University in Kansas then took a job at Bombardier, the aircraft manufacturer. But he resigned and returned home in 2007. Though he had a bright future in the US, the weight of his family's history beckoned him back. Now he teaches at Birzeit University, and he married a girl from Nazareth a year ago.

"I have ties to this place. I thought if I could give it a shot, it could be fulfilling. I had a nightmare that I'd return to the city like a visitor, with a visa and stamp in my passport and questions like 'Which hotel are you staying in?' I resigned from Bombardier. I took a chance." He was terrified of losing his right to live in Jerusalem. "It's not clear how you cannot lose residency. If you acquire another citizenship for example, you lose it automatically. You cannot have dual nationality. If you are gone for three years then you lose it too."

He took the job at the university to connect with young Palestinians. Does he regret his decision? "No, but that is not to say I'm frustrated. When I saw the separation wall for the first time I was shocked. It was snaking through my city. It doesn't belong here. "Today it took an hour to get here from Ramallah. I was stuck at the Qalandiya checkpoint. The Israelis are working on psychology. They want to make it more normal. They call the checkpoint a terminal, did you know that? They want to make it sound better, like an airport. They want to make it like a part of life."

A couple of days later I meet Professor Mohammed Dajani, the director of the American Studies Institute at Al Quds university. We meet at the terrace of the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem for a mid-morning Turkish coffee. Prof Dajani is a stocky man with large glasses, and he arrives with a stack of books under his arm. The Dajanis, one of the largest Palestinian clans, were custodians of King David's tomb for 500 years until 1948. An Ottoman sultan issued a decree that gave an ancestor, Sheikh Ahmed Dajani, the right to look after the tomb of the prophet revered by Jews and Muslims. The sheikh, who died in 1561, has his own large tomb made of yellow stone, one of the few that remain intact on a shady spot in Independence Park.

"We'd like to clean the tomb, remove some of the old stones," he says. But he knows the city is moving in an uncomfortable direction, which would make renovating the tomb of his esteemed ancestor extremely difficult. "Judaisation has escalated to unprecedented levels in the last year," says Dajani. "The Israelis are trying to evict us from our land so we cannot develop it, put schools on it." He offers to take me to the checkpoint in Anatta, a Palestinian town four kilometres north of Jerusalem. As we get into the car, he explains that he is battling the municipality over 11 acres of land owned by his family.

"Half of it was confiscated by the Israeli army for security reasons because, during the first intifada in 1987, people came and destroyed the properties. We wanted to build a school, but we couldn't get a licence. Then the municipality said we didn't use the land so we received notice of absentee property, which means we must leave. Now we find out the municipality is suing us for 850,000 shekels (Dh819,000) to claim back pay for taxes."

The car pulls up a few hundred metres from a checkpoint that is under construction. "They are expanding it to make it more permanent," he says. Faced with such exasperating living conditions and the hassle of army checkpoints, he says many moderate Palestinians are being driven out of the city. He, however, refuses to leave. "This is our property. We will not give it up. That's what they want. This is where our tombs are, our legacy. We are not going to leave our history, our roots, our inheritance. The problem is our leadership. We lack focus and strong leadership."

He is trying to do his bit to change that. In 2007, he launched Wasatiya, a political movement that aims to teach a more tolerant interpretation of Islam by holding workshops for Islamic religious leaders. "In the long term, until you teach people we are meant to live together, there is no hope for peace. The general teaching in Palestinian schools is the conflict between Islam and Judaism and Christianity. We think this is not the true interpretation. We don't think we should allow a conflict 100 years old to influence a religion more than 1,000 years old. We don't think religion should be used to dictate politics."

But has he had any success? "It's a long process," he admits. He has faced death threats in the past, but they have died down. The Palestinian Authority hasn't been much of a help. "We are trying to get permission to work as a charitable organisation but so far we haven't got it." For Said Khalidi, history - particularly the story of Saladin, who allowed the Jews back into Jerusalem after they had been killed or banished by the Crusaders - offers a warning to those trying to dominate the future of the city.

"The Crusaders isolated themselves in the area; in Syria, Jordan and Palestine they built castles. They came here and resided for 100 years but did not mingle with their neighbours because they wanted to rule one way. Israel is part of the Middle East but not part of Middle East culture; it is like a foreign object. The Arabs shared Jerusalem. The Israelis can stay but we share. Jerusalem is for both of us. Saladin let the Jews back in. If they don't want to share it but put themselves in a corner, well OK. But they have serious enemies out there."

Hamida Ghafour is a senior reporter at The National.