Nebi Musa ceremony, Jerusalem, c. 1920


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsca-13291-00071]

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“Celebratory Fever”: Jerusalem’s Social Life in the Diaries of Wasif Jawharriyeh

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Wasif Jawharriyeh, a Palestinian Jerusalemite who was a prolific diarist, offers a glimpse of Jerusalem’s multi-confessional social traditions and connectedness with its environs in the late Ottoman and British Mandate periods.

The diaries of Wasif Jawharriyeh, a young musician close to Jerusalem’s notable families, provide a fascinating glimpse of shared social events, feasts, and festive events in the late Ottoman period. He writes that without the city’s religious holidays, “people would have succumbed to gloom, particularly in the days when they lived inside the wall.” 1

Jawharriyeh, also Christian Orthodox, details the Greek Orthodox Festival of Our Lady Mary. Fasting families would pass the first 15 days at a shrine on the eastern side of Jerusalem underneath the olive trees. Evenings were spent drinking and singing, and friends and relatives came to visit. During the day, people went to work, returning later for the festivities. On the day of the feast, a parade led by an army band and Jerusalem’s political and religious officials marched through the streets, while the patriarch distributed stuffed lamb to all. But Jawharriyeh writes that this Christian religious celebration was also attended by Muslims.

Bio Wasif Jawhariyyeh

A musician and diarist who created an invaluable account of life in Jerusalem from the late Ottoman to the British Mandate periods

As for spectators from outside the Greek Orthodox community, they would gather on this day from Saint Stephen’s Gate all the way over cemeteries, hills, and streets up to the vicinity of Ras al-Amud. Some, particularly the children, played on swings, while some bought small darbukas and horns for the kids, while others sat in the municipal café or along the streets and round the shrine of Our Lady Virgin Mary. One could walk through these crowds only with great difficulty, as everyone was gripped by celebratory fever, Christians and Muslims alike. I have great memories of these festivals, during which I spent wonderful times enjoying music day and night with many fellow Jerusalemites.2

(It is important to note that Jawharriyeh began compiling his diaries much later, in exile as a refugee, when he might have been especially nostalgic for the shared communal life he describes.)

Jawhariyyeh goes on to describe Easter week, in which Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities each took part, some of their customs shared and overlapping. In his rendition, Jewish Passover marches were followed by a Friday procession from al-Aqsa Mosque to the shrine of Nebi Musa (Prophet Moses), which is quite far from Jerusalem’s walls on the way to Jericho. He describes in detail where notable representatives stood in the procession, carrying specific flags, as did farmers with flags representing the surrounding villages.

Every village had its own sayarra band and brought along its own uhzujas, dabkeh, and dances, while laudations for the Prophet [Muhammad] and patriotic cheering were heard from the brave men of Jerusalem.3

The celebrants remained at Nebi Musa in the Jordan valley for a week until Palm Sunday. Another mainly Muslim procession originating in Hebron stopped for a feast provided by a wealthy Bethlehem family near Rachel’s Tomb (another maqam, or shrine, like Nebi Musa). The group then traveled through Jaffa Gate and then on to Nebi Musa to join the gathered festivities.

On Palm Sunday, each Christian denomination had its own traditions, all centered around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Imagine the task of the government, security forces and civil authorities on such occasions, and how forces had to be carefully deployed during this week in order to protect Jews and their beliefs, protect the celebrating Christians, and deal with emerging problems that could turn badly if it were not for the government’s intervention,” Jawharriyeh writes, indicating that tensions were possible, despite the shared festivities.

On Easter Monday, yet another procession to Nebi Musa began from Nablus, entering Jerusalem from Sheikh Jarrah and joining celebrants at the shrine, where all were fed and cared for by its caretakers. On Holy Thursday, priests’ feet were washed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, while Muslims gathered at Nebi Musa traveled to Ras al-Amud, then descended into the city, led by the families of Jerusalem and their triumphant flags.

Later in his diaries, the playful Jawhariyyeh describes how Christian Orthodox families would also dress up in masquerade on the last day of Lent, with Jewish families celebrating Purim. His brother walked on stilts in a long dress, towering over teenage Wasif like a giant, who was dressed to appear tiny in a woman’s skirt.

This was a famous day for the people of Jerusalem—Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. Starting at dawn on that day, families and children kept their seats and places on Mount Zion, overlooking the road to Jaffa Gate. They would sit at the many cafes of the quarter, while others stood around on their feet all day, awaiting the arrival of the carnival, known as “the welcoming of the monk” at Jaffa Gate.4

“This [Purim] was a famous day for the people of Jerusalem—Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike.”

Wasif Jawharriyeh

Jawhariyyeh describes playing the tanboor and rebeck for singers at private parties attended by the city’s well-heeled, watching puppeteers (karakozati) from Tripoli, singing songs with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim celebrants led by Haim—a Jewish oud player from Aleppo—at an annual Orthodox Jewish picnic (the “Judea festival”). Muezzin and performer Sheikh Salama Hijazi came with his troupe from Cairo, performing musical plays and tales of Salah al-Din and Romeo and Juliet.

His diaries, written by a person with modest means who nevertheless had access to Jerusalem’s upper classes, provide a textured depiction of the city’s vibrant, open character and rich cultural life in the late Ottoman period.

“His narrative compels us to rethink the received wisdom about Jerusalem’s communal and confessional structure in Ottoman times. Endless stories—often scandalous and satirical—draw a picture of profound triadic coexistence of Christian and Jewish families in the heart of what came to be known as the Muslim Quarter,” writes Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari in the introduction to the translated diaries.5

Jawharriyeh’s account continues through the colonial British Mandate period (1917–48), when Jerusalem is governed by the British.

For several decades, Jawhariyyeh’s night parties continue, even as he works as a civil servant in the British administration. It is with the November 1947 announcement of the “sinister news” of the Partition Plan, which promised to partition Palestine and create a Jewish homeland, that Jawharriyeh’s detailed descriptions turn to firsthand accounts of the growing ethnic conflict.

“Endless stories . . . draw a picture of profound triadic coexistence of Christian and Jewish families . . . ”

Salim Tamari, Palestinian sociologist

Since our home [outside the Old City] had a strategic location, we had an extremely good view of the entire area. So we were able to see in the quiet night how the British army and a unit of the mandate’s Jewish police, under the leadership of officer Mr. Linker, brought young Jews and helped them to open the shops of Arab merchants in the commercial center, such as the shops of Rashad Barakat, Michel Manneh, and others, allowing them to loot silks and wool fabrics, before burning down whichever shops they wanted to burn down.6

He describes being terrified of snipers near his home, eventually causing him, his wife, and children to flee and to lose their home and all of its museum-like contents to the new Jewish state: a grim denouement from the many happy times that came before.

Jawharriyeh died in exile in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1972.



Wasif Jawharriyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Wasif Jawhariyyeh, 1904–1948, trans. Nada Elzeer, ed. Salim Tamari and Issam Nassar (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2014), 115.


Jawhariyyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem, 118.


Jawhariyyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem, 120.


Jawhariyyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem, 137.


Jawhariyyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem, 25.


Jawhariyyeh, The Storyteller of Jerusalem, 407.

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