Nine Palestinians about their heritage
Multicultural East Jerusalem
The media usually talks about ‘the Palestinians’ as if they were a mono-cultural unit. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Palestinian community has a wealth of cultures, with roots in diverse regions, from Africa to Armenia and even India. Nine portraits of Palestinians that sketch the colourful diversity of this community.
It is fair to say that the area we know as Palestine has been inhabited since the dawn of civilization. Between 10.000 and 8.000 BCE, hunter-gatherers started growing grain here, thus introducing the so-called Agricultural (or Neolithic) Revolution, which would change the face of the earth. Around 3500 BCE the first human settlements in Jerusalem arose. By the time King David conquered the citadel of Zion – around 1000 BCE – and made Jerusalem the capital of his Jewish kingdom, it was already an old city. In his wonderful book Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, the British writer and journalist Matthew Teller expresses his surprise that the city exist at all. It is not situated along a major trade route, its water sources are very remote, ‘everything is wrong’. But the city is definitely there and over de centuries is has attracted conquerors, adventurers, pilgrims, refugees, tourists and all other kinds of visitors. One of the great achievements of Nine Quarters of Jerusalem is the fact that is presents the city in all its glorious diversity. Words like ‘Jerusalemite’ or ‘Palestinian’ can be deceptive. In terms of cultural multifariousness, Jerusalem is a horn of plenty. Inspired by Matthew Teller, we took a dive in it.
Domari don’t like
dark shades at all
Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem
The interior of the honey-colored Gypsy Community Center in the Shu’fat neighborhood is decidedly colorful. This is due to the numerous arts and crafts with which the space is filled. From beautifully embroidered cushions to wall hangings, from paintings to necklaces and earrings, from bags to garments. All in fresh colors of red, green, yellow, blue, orange….
‘Those colors betray the Indian origins of our community. We don’t like dark shades at all. We want brightness! Speaking is Amoun Sleem, director of The Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem. Whereas in the West the word ‘gypsy’ is perceived as condescending, Amoun uses the word as easily as the more official terms: Domari and Dom people.
‘About 800 years ago, groups of gypsies began to leave India and swarm out across the world. We Domari are the oldest gypsies, the first to leave India and live abroad. We Domari have lived in Jerusalem for over 250 years.
“Domari are the oldest gypsies, the first to leave India and live abroad”
There are about 7,000 Domari living in Jerusalem and the West Bank. During the Six Day War of 1967, many Domari fled from Jerusalem into Jordan. As many as 35 tribes live there, according to Amount. In Jerusalem, there are only three, mostly located in the Burj Al-Laqlaq neighborhood.
‘We would like Jordanian Domari to come to Jerusalem. It would make our community stronger. The Jordanian Palestinians themselves would like to return, because this is where their roots are. But the Israeli authorities do not allow it.’
Amount founded her Society in 1999, with the goal of preserving Domari culture. ‘Domari are ignored, also by the other Palestinian groups. The African Palestinians have a better position. They get money from the Palestinian Authority. Most of the donations we receive come from Christian church communities abroad, not from here.’
Fortunately, the international media in particular are slowly but surely gaining interest in this small and relatively unknown Palestinian community. Amoun is also getting more and more tourists, who buy the Domari’s products and sometimes eat their traditional meals. Amoun nods: it has taken a long time, but there seems to be hope on the horizon.
A tailor who speaks
Mukhtar of the Syriac community
‘My father came to Jerusalem in 1915 as a Christian refugee from Turkey. He ended up in a German orphanage and was trained as a shoemaker. He was a true craftsman and his store became famous. Jewish refugees who came here from Europe after World War II were amazed that he spoke German.’
Sami himself, who prefers to be called by his first name and makes a decidedly youthful impression, was born in Jerusalem in 1935. He became a tailor and gained the same excellent reputation in his trade as his father had in his. In addition, he became muktar (representative) of the Syriac community in his city, which numbers about 500 people. In this capacity, he has met numerous dignitaries over the years. In a book he wrote about his life, dozens of photos attest to that fact. ‘The Syriac Church is the first holy, universal and apostolic church of Christianity’, he says proudly.
“Respect everyone, hate no one and you will live as long as I have”
With a little wink, Sami explains that he considers himself a man of five nationalities: Ottoman because of his father’s ancestry, British because he was born at the time of the British Mandate, Jordanian because East Jerusalem was Jordanian territory after 1948, Israeli because his city is currently under Israeli rule, and Palestinian because he is, above all, part of the Palestinian community.
As a muktar, Sami has traveled extensively, both in the Middle East and to the US, Canada and India. In the process, it was quite convenient that he speaks an impressive range of languages : English, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Turkish and German.
Although officially retired, Sami is still in his tailor store every day. He gets frequent calls from American Jewish students who are sent to study in Jerusalem by their Orthodox parents. ‘Then I mend a pair of pants or a shirt and have a chat. Above all, you have to stay active, that’s important.’
In a friendly gesture, he confronts his clients with the wisdom that his eventful life and respectable age have taught him: ‘Respect everyone, hate no one and you will live as long as I have.’
In the middle of a
Abu Walid Dajani
Owner of East New Imperial Hotel
‘Would you like water, coffee or brandy?’ Abu Walid Dajani conjures a wide grin on his face as he places his hand imploringly on my shoulder. I choose water, but I bet the hotel owner would have poured me a stiff glass of cognac without hesitation if I so desired. On the walls of his boardroom hang dozens of photographs, including of Mr. Dajani’s father in the company of Egyptian President Abdel Nasser and King Hussein of Jordan. Also hanging is an autographed portrait of famed French chef Paul Bocuse. These are small glimpses into the existence of the Dajani family, one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most prominent families.
‘Our family is originally from the Arabian Peninsula, but came to Jerusalem with the Ottomans. There one of my ancestors, Sheikh Ahmad Shibab al-Din, was appointed by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as caretaker of the mausoleum of King David.’
Since 2004, Mr. Dajani has had other matters on his mind. The building that houses his hotel – like much real estate in Jerusalem – is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. In 2004, a lay representative of the church sold the building (and several others) in the utmost secrecy to a group of anonymous foreign Jewish investors. The goal: to get the Dajani’s out of the hotel and put a Jewish company in it.
“Our cause is nothing less than a concrete way to ensure a just peace in the Middle East”
‘What makes the deal so politically toxic is that it will upset the delicate ethnic and religious balance in the Old City,’ Dajani says. ‘The Imperial Hotel is at the intersection of the Christian, Muslim and Armenian neighborhoods. So I’ve been fighting a grueling lawsuit for years. It controls my thinking, keeps me from sleeping at night, but I must persevere. If we fail, there will be nothing left for the Palestinian community. The future of Jerusalem as a shared and open city must be protected from the domination of any group at the expense of any other. Our cause is nothing less than a concrete way to ensure a just peace in the Middle East.’
Soak up the views,
sounds and colors
of the city
Owner Jerusalem Hotel
‘I prefer to call Jerusalem Al Quds. That name expresses the Palestinian presence in this city much better. That presence, by the way, is distinctly diverse: French, Greek, Indian, Domari, African, Armenian… None of these are Arabs but they are all Palestinians. We consider these groups all part of the texture of Palestinian society. Everyone who was here before 1967, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem, is part of the Palestinian community.’
Raed Saadeh is not only the owner of the beautiful, historic Jerusalem Hotel, but also a strong advocate for tourism to Palestine. Among other things, his Jerusalem Tourism Cluster organizes the annual ‘Nablus Road Open Days’ activity, which aims to showcase the diversity of this important street – and, in fact, of all of Palestine.
‘Walking down Nablus Road,’ he explains ‘you will pass, among others, the White Sisters, the Schmidt Schule, the Garden Tomb, the Dominicans, the Saad wa Said Mosque, the America House, the British Council, the Jerusalem Prayer House, the Anglican St George’s School, the American Colony Hotel and a host of Palestinian institutions. Such richness! In all, as many as 35 locations are participating in the Open Days. So much cultural diversity on one street!’
“I prefer to call Jerusalem Al Quds. That name expresses the Palestinian presence in this city much better’”
Mr. Saadeh does not only speak enthusiastically about the diversity of his city, but is also able to make it visible and tangible for visitors. To illustrate this, he takes us to the interactive exhibits on the bottom floor of his hotel. There is a large scale model of Al Quds with 26 movable parts representing buildings and communities. When you put them in their proper place, a large screen provides background information. There is also an Augmented Reality Mirror, in which you see yourself dressed in a variety of historical costumes: both funny and educational. And there are VR glasses, which take you back to various periods and locations in the city.
It is tempting to stay here for the rest of the day. But if you do, you have, of course, misunderstood the message. That message is: get out, walk into the city and soak up the views, sounds, smells and colors of the impressive and extremely diverse city we know as Jerusalem, but which is also called Al Quds.
The most beautiful
smile of Jerusalem
Abu Khalaf Bilal
Third-generation cloth merchant
He is dressed in a white kaftan of striped Damascene silk and adorned with a red kaboosh. Yes, Abu Khalaf Bilal – also known as ‘the man with the most beautiful smile in Jerusalem’ – ís his trade. His fabric store is perhaps the most famous in Jerusalem. Pope Benedict XVI ordered a vestment here when he visited the city, and he is just one of the many celebrities who appreciate the quality of Bilal’s products. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also managed to find his way to Aftimus Street, where the shop is located. ‘Damascene silk is only available in five stores in the world. Apart from three stores in Syria and one in Dubai, I am the only one. Those fabrics were traditionally woven in Palmyra, in Syria. Some contain nine-carat and even fourteen-carat gold threads. It takes 40 days to weave ten meters of fabric. There are as many as 8,000 threads in the fabric. That is why it is not cheap, count on 3500 to 6000 shekels per meter (1100-1800 dollars, 1000-1700 euros).’ Bilal smiles: ‘But don’t worry, we accept credit cards.’
“We are all human beings, brothers. I like to have an atmosphere of peace in my store”
Bilal pours tea and continues his story. Ninety percent of his clientele are Jewish. ‘They like clothes made of natural silk, natural cotton and natural wool. I have that. And they like traditional clothing. If you walk through the Jewish Quarter on Friday night or Saturday morning, you’ll see many religious Jews in striped kaftans and wearing a shtreimel, those traditional fur hats. The fabric is kosher, which means it must not contain a combination of linen and wool (or otherwise two types of fabric). Indeed, that is forbidden in the Torah.’
Although Bilal has mostly Jewish customers, he himself is Muslim. ‘My family came here with Salah al-Din Ayyub in 1187. I’m not particularly devout, but I pray, I fast and I did the hajj when I was younger.’ He himself never experiences friction with Jews. ‘We are all human beings, brothers. I would like to have an atmosphere of peace in my store. We can live side by side.’
The four gospels in the language Jesus spoke
Father Boulus Khano
Syriac Orthodox monk
We met him before at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he and his congregation have their own chapel: the Chapel of St Nicodemus. Then he wore a handsome purple vestment, quilted red and yellow, and led the Syriac worship service, one of the several Christian denominations that abound in Jerusalem. Now he welcomes us to his modest room at St. Mark’s Monastery: Daroyo (‘Father’) Boulus. ‘Boulus is Aramaic for Paul,’ he explains, ‘the language that Jesus spoke and that I also master.’ There are not very many people left in Jerusalem who speak Aramaic, and one of the tasks Boulos has set himself is to revive this ancient language.
“I worked ten hours a day on the translation: five hours in the morning and five hours in the evening, following the same ritual each time”
‘When COVID-19 broke out and the country went into lockdown, I sat here in my room and asked God: what do you want me to do? Shall I use my solitude to translate the gospel into Aramaic? The next day I noticed that there was a dove in my window. I understood this was a sign from God and got to work. I worked ten hours a day on the translation: five hours in the morning and five hours in the evening, following the same ritual each time. Phone off, candle lit, incense, hand on the Bible to bless it and then get to work. It took me 40 days to translate the four gospels. In total, I hand-wrote them twelve times to make sure they were perfect. The whole project took me two years. A dictionary? No need. If you search for ‘Syriac dictionary’ on Google, you will get to a translation site. I benefited greatly from that.’
In the corner of the room are huge stacks of the translated gospels: Father Boulus has printed 500 of them. All in a fourth-century font. ‘There is also a modern letter type, but I think that old font gives my translation more historical value. I want to stay as close as possible to the time when the gospels were written: in the first century.’
were the keepers
of the key to the mosque
Director African Community Society
‘Ever since Jerusalem came under Muslim rule, Africans have traveled to the city as pilgrims. They came from Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. Some returned after their pilgrimage, others stayed. During the Ottoman period, African Palestinians were the keepers of the key to the mosque. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, our position became difficult. East Jerusalem, where the African community lived, came under Jordanian rule. They treated us as foreigners, not as citizens of Jerusalem, and did not grant us Jordanian passports.’
Musa Qous is managing director of the African Community Society, an NGO that provides its services to the Palestinian population of the Old City and Jerusalem, not only the Afro-Palestinians (a community which consists of about 800 people). Mr. Qous gives an example of the way many Palestinians, African and other, sadly fall between two stools, ending up in a kind of no man’s land.
“With the money we receive from Arab states we can do a lot of good for our African Palestinian community”
‘My father was born in Chad and had a French passport because Chad was then a French colony. When I wanted to apply for a passport, the French declined, because Chad was now an independent state. Since 1967, Jerusalem has been under Israeli administration, but I cannot get an Israeli passport. I can travel with a so-called laisser passer, an Israeli travel document which oddly states that I have the Jordanian nationality. Mind you, Jordan is a country that refuses to give me a passport. If I apply for a Chadian passport, I am very likely to lose the right to continue living in Jerusalem. The same is true if I apply for an American passport. My wife was born in the U.S. and has an American passport, so I stand a fair chance claiming a U.S. passport, but I don’t want to risk having to leave my city, the city where I was born and raised.’
Quos is somber but combative. His organization does not want to cooperate with the Israeli municipal government, nor with the EU or the US. ‘Those parties want us to sign a statement saying that money they give us should not go to terrorists. We see Israel as an occupying force and we don’t see resistance to the occupier as terrorism. So there is a discussion about that. Fortunately, sometimes we get funds from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. With that, we can do a lot of good for our African Palestinian community.’
Traditional folk dance meets African percussion
African Community Society
‘My grandfather came from Chad. My father was born in Jerusalem and married a Palestinian woman. As a child, I participated in the activities that the older generation organized for us, and when I became an adult myself, I decided that I wanted to contribute to the realization of activities for our community.’
Seated on a wall on Ala-Al Deen Street, where the African Community Society occupies two buildings opposite each other, Ma’ala tells her story. About 50 African Palestinian families live on this street, about 300 people all together. Long ago, their homes were built as overnight accommodations for pilgrims. The Ottomans turned them into prisons. At the beginning of the British Mandate, in 1918, African Palestinians were allowed to settle there.
“We help with the resources so that the people can organize things themselves”
‘We did a survey of the needs of the families and the children. We try to respond to that. We help with the resources so that the people can organize things themselves. One example are the summer camps. During one of these camps, one group took a course in percussion, using African drums. Another group did dabke: a traditional folk dance that is popular Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Soon we hope to introduce afro dabke: a mix of African dance, with percussion, and dabke. That should be fun.’
One of the African Community Society’s goals is to better integrate Africans with the rest of the Palestinian community in Jerusalem, Ma’ali explains. ‘In addition to summer camps, where participants sleep at home, we want to organize trips, for example to Ramallah, Bethlehem and the Golan Heights. We are also organizing extra-curricular lessons, usually led by students who are proficient in subjects such as Arabic, English, mathematics and physics. Our children need to be confronted with success stories and get into contact with individuals who can serve as role models. Then there is a greater chance that they themselves will want to pursue an education. Because in that area there is still a lot to be gained.’
Master of the Armenian ceramics tradition
Hagop Karashian has an understated, almost modest way of speaking. But everything he says is worth hearing. He takes us to a corner in his fine ceramics store and begins to speak. In a soft tone, but we hang on his every word.
‘In 1919, during the British mandate, Governor Sir Ronald Storrs wanted all the ceramic tiles of the Dome of the Rock restored. This had not been done since the 16th century. So he had three ceramics craftsmen come over from Turkey. One of them was my grandfather. The Armenian Genocide in Turkey was still in full swing at that time. They made some trial tiles that were very much to the liking of the British. But objections arose to Armenian Christians doing work for one of Islam’s holiest sites, so on second thought their commission was cancelled. So my grandfather and his colleagues opened a ceramics workshop, the first in Jerusalem. My father and I followed in his footsteps. As a matter of fact, my father is responsible for all the trilingual street name tiles in Hebrew, Arabic and English.’
“After visitors have attended a workshop they have a lot of respect for ours profession”
Although Hagop represents only the third generation of Karakashians in Jerusalem, the Armenian community here is in fact very old. Armenia was the first country to accept the Christian faith, in the year 301. Many Armenians came to Jerusalem as pilgrims. ‘From the fifth century onwards, the Armenian community grew larger: they bought land, built a church, and so the Armenian Quarter came into being. Today however, the Armenian community is as small as about 1,200 people.’
A major inspiration for the ceramics Karakashian designs is the Tree of Life, as displayed in a famous Byzantine mosaic in Jericho. In addition, birds are also popular motifs. He shows the design of a vineyard with birds eating from the grapes. The vine symbolizes Jesus, and the birds eat from it to obtain eternal life.
Which are his customers? ‘Mainly locals, both Palestinians and Israelis, sometimes diplomats. Tourists like to attend our workshops.’ And then, softly and with a smile: ‘Afterwards they have a lot of respect for our profession.’