The August issue of This Week in Palestine (TWiP) is dedicated to West Jerusalem with the caption: ‘We Too Shall Never Forget.’ The term West Jerusalem refers to those neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, outside the walls, that were occupied by the new state of Israel in 1948 and as a result were cut off from the rest of the city (which was occupied by Jordan until 1967 and became known as East Jerusalem). German Colony, Katamon, Baq’a, Talbiyeh, Greek Colony were neighbourhoods of Palestinian middle classes of all stripes: Christian, Muslim, Arab, Greek, Armenian… ‘In May 1948, an entire educated, cultured, cosmopolitan, and vibrant community of Palestinians was decimated. True, many moved on and rebuilt what they had lost, but the scar remains and the injustice continues. Somehow, this scar is genetic and is passed on from one generation to another,’ writes Sani Meo, publisher of TWiP, in The Last Word of the issue.

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In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugree Returns Home” is the title of a new memoir by Mona Hajjar Halaby, published today by Thread Books.

Mona is one of the key collaborators of Jerusalem, We Are Here. We are thrilled for this new accomplishment of hers, offer our warm congratulations – and look forward to reading her book.

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Introduction

“Hearing Arabic in these streets and hearing about the people who lived here gives me double vision,” an Israeli woman told me emphatically. “I grew up in Katamon, and the Palestinian past of this neighborhood was never part of my landscape. I can promise you that I will never walk these streets in the same way!” she proclaimed. The woman was attending a guided walk, one of half-a-dozen public walks I guided or co-guided while doing research for, and production and dissemination of, Jerusalem, We Are Here, an online project designed with Palestinian and international audiences in mind. But as an Israeli engaged with uncovering a buried Palestinian past, I wanted to reach Israeli audiences as well. The engagement in the space had various manifestations, with public guided tours being an evolving core. The design of the tours was organic and intuitive, but my goal was to use them as an experiential and structured vehicle for considering not only the Palestinian past, but also the future, and Israeli responsibilities towards that future.

In a fraught political space with active and continuous forms of erasure and exile, walking, by itself, does not have the capacity to reveal entanglements or remake place. I first started learning the Palestinian history of the neighborhood from Ghada Karmi’s memoir “In Search of Fatima” and Khalil al Sakakini’s diaries. But as I physically walked Katamon, I had no anchors to any of the landmarks mentioned in the books. Even former public institutions do not have plaques identifying them, let alone individual houses. While most Israelis know they are walking in a former middle-class Palestinian neighborhood, the large Israeli flags, welded iron Star of David or Menorahs on gates and fences, and the street names, all work to suppress the Palestinian history. As a tour guide, if I wanted to activate not only an expanded understanding of the past, but also an implied present and imagined future, I would have to first unravel Israelis’ well-knitted narratives. In effect, I was working – gently – to “unsettle” Israelis.

Dorit Naaman in Katamon
Dorit Naaman guiding a tour in Katamon, May 2017
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This was first published on the author’s personal blog on 5 Jan 2018
– the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Semiramis.


It was a dark and stormy night. No, it truly was! “Torrential rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning fell in Jerusalem all Sunday night“, wrote The Palestine Post on 6 Jan 1948 noting that the belfry of the Dormition Abbey had been struck by lightning and windows had been broken. “Throughout the night there was heavy rain and one thunder-clap at 3.50 a.m. awakened many persons in all parts of the city.

Like in most of the neighbourhood, in a corner stone house in upper Katamon, only a few blocks away from the monastery and church of St Simeon, the Kassotis family – my mother (just a week short of her 18th birthday), her parents and two sisters – would have been awoken much earlier, had the storm allowed them to sleep in the first place. To begin with there was the sound of grenade for at 1 am on Monday, 5 January, 1948 – exactly 70 years ago – the Hotel Semiramis, two doors down the street from the Kassotis, came under attack by the Haganah, the Jewish  militia.

Kassotis house in Katamon.
Photographed by Jules Parisinos, April 1974
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Two heads, one bald, one full-hair, are peeking out from above the red velvet chairs. Their owners, Anwar Ben Badis and Mona Hajjar Halaby, who conduct the Arabic and English tours, respectively, of the Jerusalem, We Are Here (JWRH) interactive documentary, are exchanging family memories of the place. Dorit Naaman, the creator and director, joins them as up on the big screen fragments of an old reel start rolling.

It’s July 2015 and we are filming the opening shots of JWRH at the Regent, the longest-running cinema in Jerusalem. Today it has a different name, but to us, as we go about remapping this area and bringing back, albeit digitally, the people and the life that existed here till 1948, it is and always will be the Regent.

Filming at the Regent – July 2015
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The junction of Hapalmach and Ha’Gdud Ha’Ivri streets in Jerusalem is unassuming. Hapalmach  — an acronym meaning strike forces/company — is a street named after the elite militant wing of the Haganah, the underground army of the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine. Ha’Gdud Ha’Ivri, or the Jewish Legion, was established following the British conquest of Palestine from the Ottomans in World War I, and disbanded in 1921. Like many other streets in Katamon, the names assigned after 1948 commemorate the 1948 war. But the victor did not leave a trace to the horrific events of 17 September 1948. 

Here, the Stern Gang (a right wing Jewish paramilitary group) ambushed a convoy of vehicles carrying Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. Mediator in Palestine, and assassinated him.

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A few days ago, I guided a tour in the Talbiyeh neighborhood, and we came to the house of Dimitri Hanna (the current address is Disraeli 13). When entering the house through the gate, one is astonished by the symmetrical staircases, both rolling like a vine, as if hugging the one who enters. I felt the stairs’ hug, and I heard a voice: “Don’t be afraid, we, the stairs, speak Arabic. Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Welcome.”

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On Wednesday, 16th May, on the eve of Ramadan, I guided a group of people in the neighborhood of Katamon. In the tour I discussed the relationship between memory and history, and I told them about the bloodbath that took place at the Semiramis hotel on the night of 5th January 1948.

Rescue efforts at the bombed Semiramis hotel
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“Come on, let’s knock at the door,” urged my Israeli friend, Dan*, “it looks like someone’s in the garden.

I was in Jerusalem working on our interactive documentary, Jerusalem, We Are Here. That day Dan and I were strolling down a public trail, which used to be the original Jaffa–Jerusalem railroad tracks. He had requested that I show him my mother’s house in Lower Baq’a, a West Jerusalem neighborhood.

Then I saw the blue gate and walled-in garden of my mother’s house. I had seen the house from the outside many times before, always with a tightening in my heart. Once I even toured the garden while the current owners were on vacation, thanks to the upstairs neighbor, who had a key to the garden gate.

But Dan, what if they don’t let us in?” I asked, hesitating about going further, worrying that my request would be turned down, anticipating the same pain of rejection many Palestinians have experienced at the front door of their ancestral homes.

But Mona, you won’t know unless you try.” And Dan was right.

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The following was published in The Conversation, “an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public“, on 13 May 2018 and revised on 15 May 2018.

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