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Personal Story

The End of Arab Qatamon—A Memoir

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Excerpted from Ghada Karmi, In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2009)

Introduction

Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s, vividly describes her childhood in Qatamon and the unraveling of the situation in Jerusalem as it spiraled downward into civil war in the shadow of the end of the British Mandate and the emergence of the State of Israel. She also describes her family’s experiencing of various milestone traumatic events and the way it altered their calculus for staying versus leaving, with their ultimate decision to leave as did everyone else.

Ghada’s memoir, excerpted here, provides deep insight into the experiences that the Palestinian community went through at the end of the British Mandate and as the State of Israel was coming into being, which for Palestinians equated to a catastrophe (Nakba). The passages excerpted here help to bring alive the absolute vulnerability and helplessness that these communities felt and how their decision to leave was the only sane one they were faced with.

Ghada and her father (Abu Ziyad) and mother (Umm Ziyad), her older sister, Siham, younger brother Ziyad, maid, Fatima and dog Rex all went through these turbulent years together.

The Karmi family: Siham, Ziyad, and Ghada with their mother and father

The Karmi family: Siham, Ziyad, and Ghada with their mother and father

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Excerpted from Chapter One, on the theme of Growing up in Qatamon (pp. 25–29, 29–30, 31, 33–34, 39–40)

Life in Qatamon

I hardly remember my mother at this time, I think because she went out so much. Ever since we moved to Qatamon, she had formed a large circle of friends with whom she exchanged daily visits. These were predominantly Christian because Qatamon was a mixed area where many foreigners lived alongside Arab families. We had English people who worked for the Mandate government around us, and also a small number of European Jews. Qatamon at that time was regarded as a desirable residential area where the better-off Palestinians lived. We were not particularly well-off ourselves, as my father had a modest salary which had to cater for our needs as well as those of his mother, brother and unmarried sister who all lived in Tulkarm [where the Karmi family originally was from] and were entirely dependent on him. My father had only arrived at his position in the government education department after years of struggle and penury as a schoolteacher. Thus, we were distinctly at the lower end of the scale in terms of wealth, and could not complete with some of the other families who lived there.

Qatamon had wide streets and large detached villas built of sand-coloured Jerusalem stone with green shutters and tiled verandas. Many were surrounded by leafy gardens lavishly planted with fruit trees and flowers. We had five apricot trees in our garden, an almond tree, a plum tree, a pear tree and a lemon tree just under my parents’ bedroom window. We also had a vine which bore heavy bunches of oval-shaped green grapes in the late summer. But my sister and I liked to pick them before they ripened when they were hard and sour. We would screw up our eyes in agony while we ate them and our teeth would feel sensitive for hours afterward, but we still did it. Our neighbour’s garden had a climbing rose-tree all over its walls. When the roses bloomed, they were huge and pink and scented and so beautiful that people passing by in the road would pluck them off the bush which annoyed our neighbors immediately.

Our house was similar to the others, stone-built, on one floor and raised above street level by steps which led up to a large veranda in front. Or at least, so it seemed to me because in my child’s memory everything was large in comparison to my own small size. . . .

When we lived there, the fact that many of the people in Qatamon were Christian Palestinian was no accident. The Christian community in Palestine had a tradition of commercial and professional success, going back to the last days of the Ottoman Empire. . . . Our immediate next-door neighbors were a Christian family called Jouzeh who were in and out of our house all the time. We also made friends with the Tubbeh family, Christians who lived opposite our house. The head of the family, Abu Michel as he was known, was the mukhtar of Qatamon, a post dating from Ottoman times and something akin to a mayor. My other’s other close friends, Emily Saleh and the Wahbeh family, lived several streets away. She and Emily were devoted to each other and we were brought up to play with her children, the youngest of whom, Randa, was the same age as myself. I was also friends with the Wahbeh children. . .

Though we saw a great deal of these largely Christian families because they lived in the neighbourhood, my mother also had a wide circle of Muslim friends who lived beyond Qatamon, in Sheikh Jarrah, in Baq’a and in the Old City. She socialised with some of the oldest Jerusalem families, the Husseinis, the Nashahshibis, the Afifis. There was in Palestine at the time a certain snobbishness with regard to these established families. Each of the major cities had its own upper crust, but the Jerusalem families were considered to be of the highest order. . . .

“Each of the major cities had its own upper crust, but the Jerusalem families were considered to be of the highest order.”

Ghada Karmi

Their pre-eminence was due partly to wealth and to the ownership of extensive waqf property (pious Muslim endowments held in perpetuity for the benefit of the community, which included both land and buildings), but also to their having held high office under the Ottoman administration which ruled Palestine until 1918. In addition, some of them had traditional responsibility for Jerusalem’s holy places. For example, the Nusseibeh family had held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the sixteenth century. In the scheme of things, our family, not being from Jerusalem and having little wealth, did not feature amongst the elite. But this did not prevent ordinary social interaction, and my mother was as popular with the wives in these families as she was with our less prestigious neighbors.

Social and religious customs

Families visited each other in the evenings after supper. Lunch being the main meal, supper was usually light and taken at about seven in the evening, after which people went out or entertained. Socialising and mixing with people was my mother’s principal pastime, indeed her main activity in life. Like the other women, she regularly engaged in the practice of what was called istiqbal. This was a women-only reception, held in the afternoon, when the men were out of the house. Once it so happened that my father was at home and sitting reading in the liwan (the main reception room) as the women began to arrive. They were quite horrified at seeing him and told my mother so in no uncertain terms, whereupon he took himself off chuckling into his bedroom.

Each woman had a certain day for her istiqbal; I think ours took place on Tuesdays. There was a routine to these events. First, we were made to keep out of the way while our mother spend the morning making savouries and sweetmeats. (The best thing about that from our point of view was the wonderful food left over for us to feast on after everyone had gone.) Then, the front room, or salon, to the right of the liwan was dusted and swept to be ready for the occasion. There was an air of excitement as the women began to arrive, all dressed up and bejewelled. A great hubbub arose that echoed throughout the house as they greeted and kissed each other. Everyone admired and commented on each other’s clothes, which was the main aim of the exercise. At istiqbals, no woman adorned herself for men; it was a practice meant only to excite the envy or approbation of other women.

“There was an air of excitement as the women began to arrive, all dressed up and bejewelled.”

Ghada Karmi

When they had assembled in our salon, the smell of their various perfumes wafter outwards powerfully. I gawped at them through the open door, they looked so glamorous. The talk was all about their households, children, husbands . . . .

If there was one place where a woman could complain about her husband, it was here. The others usually advised caution and patience, as well they might, since a disaffected wife had few other options in our society. In some of these gatherings, although not in ours, women sang or danced for each other. The ones who were especially good at it were usually egged on by the others to perform. A western eye might have seen something erotic in this, but it was nothing of the sort. It was joyous, uninhibited fun and everyone who could joined in. The dancing they did was that known in the West as belly-dancing, which we all learned as children. No one taught us how to do it, we just picked it up . . . .

Socialising came easily to my mother, as she was talkative and vivacious and in her element when telling stories and anecdotes. Had she been born in another society and at another time I think she could have become a professional comedienne. As it was, her audience consisted of her friends and us . . . .

Those early years of the 1940s were probably the best of [my mother’s] whole life. The general troubles besetting Palestine had calmed after I was born and did not resurface to affect our area until after 1945. In that brief period, my mother could enjoy her comfortable social position attained after many years of hardship with my father’s straitened circumstances and struggling career. He was now set to rise in his job and could look to a better salary. With her maid and her gardener and all her friends about her, she felt contented, and the last thing in the world she wanted was for it all to come to an end.

The fact that men and women mixed freely in our area on social occasions was by no means the norm for the rest of Jerusalem. Society was predominantly Muslim and conservative, and men and women did not meet socially. Indeed, many women in the Old City wore the veil and, unlike my parents, people performed all the Islamic rituals of daily prayer and going to the mosque on Fridays. This was in keeping with the traditional life of Jerusalem which had always been viewed by Palestinians as a holy Islamic city and a great religious centre. During the major part of Ottoman rule it was even something of a backwater to which only pilgrims and religious scholars went, many of them hoping to die there. “I suppose in those days, you could best describe it as a large village with a religious atmosphere,” said my father. Jerusalem only began to change in the nineteenth century when the Christian missions established themselves there. In just fifty years, they built over a hundred churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions. From 1900 onwards, European Jews came to join the rest of the new arrivals and establish their own institutions. Twenty years later, the British made Jerusalem what it had never been, the seat of government and the de facto capital of Palestine. As a result, it became the most important city in the whole country. . . .

Intellectual life

There was an active intellectual side to life in Jerusalem. Prominent Palestinians and visitors from other Arab countries gave public lectures and poetry readings. I remember my father talking about the poetry evenings at the Arab Orthodox Club in Baq‘a where my uncle Abu Salma and his fellow poet Ibrahim Tuqan read their nationalist verses. This kind of poetry was new to Palestine, since it concerned itself with political subjects and expressed opposition and resistance to what was happening in the country with a passion which drew enormous sympathy from the audience . . . .

Excerpted from Chapter Two, on the theme of the Bombing of the King David Hotel (pp. 46, 58, 59–61, 75–76, 80)

It seems incredible that in the Palestine of the 1940s we could have had anything like a normal life. But the fact was that for several years our particular part of Jerusalem remained immune from the revolt erupting in every Palestinian city. We lived in a sort of fool’s paradise . . . . 

I suppose that the illusion of tranquility we lived under during those final years abruptly came to an end in the summer of 1946. It was not that nothing at all was happening until then, but rather that it had seemed remote from our part of Jerusalem. Not only that, but the Jewish “terrorists,” as the British called them, were more engaged at that stage in fighting the British authorities than the Arab population . . . .

Though terrible, these incidents were for us more topics of conversation than anything else. They did not touch us personally—until the day that terror struck closer to home. It happened during the school holidays in July. We were out playing in the garden under the trees because it was the middle of the day and very hot. Rex was lying down with his tongue hanging out, clearly overheated. “Come on, Rexy,” my brother kept calling out, “come on, lazy dog!” And Rex, making no effort to get up, acknowledged my brother’s invitation with a slow thump of his tail on the ground. Suddenly, we heard a dull thud in the distance and minutes later our mother, who had been out visiting, came running home. She shouted out to Siham who was inside the house, saying she’d seen smoke in the distance which seemed to be coming from Mamillah, close to the office where my father worked.

“I know something terrible’s happened,” she said. “Switch on the radio.” The neighbours rushed in saying there was an explosion in the centre and God knows who had died or what the damage was. Shortly afterwards, the radio announced that bombs had exploded in the King David Hotel and many people were killed. “Please God your father’s not gone there for some business or other,” said our mother. The King David Hotel was the headquarters of the British government in Palestine and it was always bustling with people who went there for all kinds of business . . . . 

“I suppose that the illusion of tranquility we lived under during those final years abruptly came to an end in the summer of 1946.”

Ghada Karmi

By the end of the day, the full story became clear. Jewish terrorists had blown up a whole wing of the hotel by posing as Arab delivery men and smuggling explosives hidden in milk cans into the basement. My father saw the fire and smoke from his office. He went out onto the balcony of the building and into a great cloud of dust which had drifted across from the site of the explosion. Nearly one hundred people, mostly Arabs but also British, and a small number of Jews, were killed. The dead included a number of our neighbours or acquaintances, since Jerusalem society was small and most families knew each other. “Poor Hilda,” my mother said. “Her poor, poor parents.” Hilda Azzam was a young secretary employed at the King David Hotel who was pretty and well thought of at work and my parents knew her family. She had perished in the explosion, as had Mr. Thompson, an English official who worked for the British authorities at the hotel and lived in the next street to ours. “Diabolical,” exclaimed old Mr. Jouzeh, our next door neighbour. “These people aren’t human. They’re devils from hell!”

All those who came to our house spoke of nothing else for what seemed like weeks. They said it took four days to dig out and move the bodies of the dead and wounded to the government hospital in the Russian Compound, right next to the maternity hospital where I was born. Those who were Jewish went to their own hospitals. There were funerals in Jerusalem for weeks afterwards, five or six a day, as some of the wounded joined the ranks of those who had died in the initial explosion. The social customs over bereavement, which were already elaborate in our society, became more so in the aftermath of these deaths. The women in our street, my mother amongst them, were all busy visiting the relatives of those who had died after the incident. . . .

Nothing was the same after the King David incident . . . .

In November of that year, when I had just turned eight, the bombshell exploded. It was announced over the radio early one morning that the UN had met in New York and decided on partition. Palestine would be divided into two states, Jewish and Arab. Jerusalem would become an international city. The effect on the Palestinians was electric. Siham went to school to find a sense of grief verging on hysteria. Many of the teachers and girls were crying and classes were suspended . . . . The atmosphere all around us had changed and we knew that terrible, frightening things were happening. As soon as partition had been announced, Arab snipers were out onto the streets attacking Jewish streets shops and cars. The Jews were shooting back and in some places no one seemed to be in control . . . .

The unrest continued until we broke up for the winter holidays. At the end of the term it was announced that all government schools were to close until further notice, as the situation was too hazardous for children to be out on the streets. Some people relocated their children to other, usually private, schools nearer home, but we could not afford this. So we were all grounded at home “until the troubles die down.” But no one knew when that would be, since the situation was deteriorating day by day. The Rex cinema, where my mother used to take us, was set on fire by the Haganah . . . . Shortly after that, the Irgun gang threw bombs at a crowd in front of the Damascus Gate of the Old City, killing four Arabs. All that day, the neighbors were desperate for the names of the dead in case they included someone we knew . . . . Meanwhile, the Arabs had managed to cut off the major roads leading to Jewish settlements and Jewish transport was severely affected. The traffic going from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv was so disrupted it had to take diversionary routes to avoid the Arab attackers . . . . 

“In November of that year, when I had just turned eight, the bombshell exploded.”

Ghada Karmi

Excerpted from Chapter Three, on the theme of March and April, 1948 (pp. 86–91, 98–99, 111)

On the night of January 4, 1948, three days before [Greek Orthodox] Christmas, we went to sleep as usual. It was raining heavily with occasional bursts of thunder and lightning. Fatima was staying with us that night and was sleeping on her mattress on the floor of our bedroom. Suddenly, at some time in the night, I awoke from a deep sleep and found myself in the middle of a nightmare crashing with thunder and lightning. For a few seconds, I could not distinguish dream from reality. The bedroom seemed to be full of strangers until I realised they were my parents. There was a tremendous noise and shattering of glass, shootings and explosions which seemed to be coming from our back garden. Rex was barking wildly. My mother dragged me off the bed and sat me up with Ziyad against the bedroom wall. The floor was cold against my warm body. She sat in front of us, her back pushing against our knees. The room was strangely lit up and as I twisted round towards the window I saw that the sky was orange, glowing and dancing. “Is it dawn?” I asked. “Is that the sun?” No one answered and I could feel my mother’s body shaking in her nightdress. My father was on the other side of Ziyad, sitting against the wall with Siham and Fatima squeezed in next to him. The all stared ahead and Fatima was intoning in a whisper the words of the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran, over and over again.

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Praise be to the God of the worlds, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Lord of the Day of Judgement. You do we worship and to You do we turn for help. Guide us to the true path, the path of those whom You have favoured. Not those who have incurred Your wrath. Nor those who have strayed. Amen.

I thought that my mother was whispering something too, but I did not know what it was. A shattering bang shook the windows as a great clap of thunder exploded overhead. And then I knew that I was afraid, more afraid than I had ever been in my life before. As Ziyad turned his face towards the window, I saw that his eyes were enormous but he never made a sound. After who knows how long, the noise outside began to abate. And with that, my mother started to move forward. “Stop!” my father hissed. “There may be another explosion.” He made us wait a little longer until the sky stopped being so red. It now had a far-away glow, like the embers in our charcoal stove. My leg was numb and the palm of my hand hurt where I had pressed it against the floor. We got up and groped our way out into the liwan. It was about two o’clock in the morning. Torrential rain lashed against the shutters. Fatima made coffee, but neither I nor Ziyad wanted anything, and our mother made us go back to bed. Siham followed soon after, but I don’t think our parents slept at all the rest of that night.

By morning, when we got up, jaded and tired, we found no one in the house and the street looked deserted too. Everybody had gone to the scene of last night’s explosion, the Semiramis Hotel in the road directly behind ours. This hotel was owned by a Palestinian Greek and had been fully occupied on the night when it was blown up. We decided to go see for ourselves, walking through the wet, slippery streets in a howling icy wind with Rex close on our heels. The windows of several houses in the vicinity gaped, their glass shattered by the explosion of the night before. There was a great crowd around the devastated building which was still smoking and there was a strong smell of kerosene. Their faces were cold and pinched and many people were crying.

Aftermath of the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in the New City neighborhood of Qatamon, January 1948

Searching for the dead in the aftermath of the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel in the New City neighborhood of Qatamon, January 1948

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Municipal workers and British soldiers were trying to clear the rubble and still dragging bodies out. Some of these were very dark-skinned, Sudanese kitchen workers. As the crowd surged forward to see the bodies, in case there was a relative or a friend amongst them, the soldiers pushed them back. . . .

We pulled away to go back and noticed for the first time that amongst the debris on the ground was a large quantity of headed hotel stationery, some of it grubby, and stacks of wet envelopes. Ziyad bent down and started to pick it up and I followed suit. “Stop that!” cried Siham but we kept hold of what we had picked up. Neither of us could take in the enormity of what we had just seen; to use this was an opportunity for play and mischief. But the images would remain to haunt us one day. Later in the morning, it emerged that it was the Haganah which had planted the bombs in the hotel, thinking that it was being used as a base for an AHC unit, “a hotbed of armed Arabs,” as they called it.

In fact, this was not the case, although Arab journalists were in the habit of staying at the Semiramis Hotel and it was a well-known meeting place for activists of all political persuasions. Some thirty people perished in the bombing, amongst them the hotel owner and the Spanish consul. The rest included several families all of whose members were killed, except in one case where the parents died and their three children lived. We saw them wandering about in the rubble looking dazed.

The Haganah command expressed condemnation of the incident and regret and said it had been carried out without its knowledge by a splinter group. But everyone around us said, “Liars and sons of dogs!” People demanded that greater protection be provided by the AHC or from the Jaysh al-Inqath (the army of salvation), which consisted of volunteer soldiers from Arab states recruited by the Arab League. The AHC had national committees in the towns all over the country, but the defence of Jerusalem was part of a special force. A unit of this force arrived in Qatamon at the beginning of the year and took up residence in Abu Ahmad’s house in the road above ours, which had stood empty ever since he and his family had left for Egypt.

It was headed by a man called Ibrahim Abu Dayyeh who had a reputation for bravery, but the men he commanded were few in number and poorly armed. . . .

“Neither of us could take in the enormity of what we had just seen.”

Ghada Karmi

We heard that the men of the area met at the house of Khalil Sakakini to discuss what security measures ought to be taken. After the devastating attack on the Semiramis, it was clear to everyone that we were vulnerable and alone. The men decided to put up barricades at both ends of the roads and to have them manned.

But only five people had guns and the rest did not know how to use weapons. There was consternation and in the end they drew up a rota of the people with weapons whose job it would be to guard the defence posts every night. Our father did not share in this rota, but he and others who did not take part paid a monthly fee towards the costs. This effort did not last long, however, for one night, Jewish gunmen shot and killed the man on duty.

Bio Khalil Sakakini

An educator, political and social figure, and intellectual whose diary of over 3,000 pages covers 45 turbulent years in Jerusalem and Palestine in the early 20th century

“After the devastating attack on the Semiramis [Hotel], it was clear to everyone that we were vulnerable and alone.”

Ghada Karmi

There was terrific shock and mourning and then recriminations. “For God’s sake, who is there left to guard anyway?” asked Daud Jouzeh sadly. He said this because in the days which followed the bombing of the Semiramis, there was a panic exodus from Qatamon. The months of instability and fear, culminating in this incident, had finally broken people’s resistance. Those of the Arabs who were still holding out murmured, “They ought to be ashamed of themselves. They’re doing just what the Jews want them to do. The National Committee tried to persuade them not to go. They had received orders from the AHC on no account to allow anyone to leave. . . .

Whether because people heeded this or not, they first tried moving only from one part of Qatamon to another, hoping it would be safer, but others like my mother’s friend Emily went to the Old City for the same reason. Yet others went out of Jerusalem or Palestine altogether, and often in such cases the women and children were evacuated first and the men stayed behind. But as the danger grew without any visible support from anyone, least of all the AHC and its local committees, many of the men followed their families and the majority left Palestine. “Fine for them to talk, but who will care when our children get killed?” they said as they came to say goodbye to us. “Still, it won’t be long. Just until the troubles die down.”

But far from dying down, the troubles continued to get worse. It  was as if the Jewish forces no longer felt restrained from unleashing all-out attacks against our neighborhood after the small number of Jews who had lived amongst us had departed. . . .

At the end of January, the Haganah blew up another building in our vicinity, this time the big Shahin house on the edge of Qatamon. The Shahins were a wealthy family and had a beautiful villa standing on open ground at the top of Qatamon; no one could think why they had been targeted, except perhaps that the house might have been used at one point as a base by Arab snipers. Ever since one such sniper had shot dead a Jewish cyclist in Rehavia, the Haganah had instituted a policy of  blowing up any Arab house which they suspected of harbouring gunmen. As February came, the sound of gunfire in the air was a frequent occurrence. From time to time, it was punctuated by explosions which vividly brought back the memory of the Semiramis. We had found this difficult to forget and whenever anyone even banged a door shut in the house, Siham would jump and start trembling. . . .

In Jerusalem, we were feeling more and more besieged. By March, the neighbourhoods in our vicinity were emptying fast. People had left in large numbers from Romema, Lifta, Sheikh Jarrah, Musrara, and Talbiyya, and many among these were friends or acquaintances. My mother put her head in her hands. “Oh, God, they say the Jews are taking over all the empty houses.” The villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Beit Safafa, Abu Dis, Al-Aizariyya and Beit Sahour, were also being evacuated as people fled. Sometimes at night, when there was a thunderstorm and we imagined that the Semiramis [Hotel] bombing was happening all over again, Fatima would shake her head and say, “I wonder which poor village the Jews are attacking now.”

My father came home and told us that the Jewish leaders were celebrating “the new Jerusalem.” You can go through the western part of the city, they were saying, without meeting a single Arab, thank God. “Surely that’s not true,” Siham said. “What about us then?” We were still hanging on, but it was dismal to realise that so many people we knew had already left. Our road seemed more and more deserted. The Khayyats had gone just after the [Hotel] Semiramis bombing [in early January], and so had my mother’s old friend Um Samir al-Sharkas. Emily and her family had gone too. Before they left for the Old City they gave us the keys to their house and told us to stay there if we needed to. This was because it stook inside the British zone and as such was more secure than where we lived, exposed to direct attack. Emily and my mother embraced and hung on each other weeping, as if they would never meet again.

“It will be over,” said Emily to my mother. “It must end soon, and we’ll be back.” Randa and I did not hug each other or cry, I think because we did not fully comprehend what was happening.

“You can go through the western part of the city, they were saying, without meeting a single Arab, thank God.”

Ghada Karmi, conveying her father’s report of conditions on the ground

. . . . [The author recalls that by the end of March 1948, Jerusalem was in turmoil. Many parts of the city were unsafe to go to, and the children did not often venture beyond the garden. Fresh food was in short supply; the family stocked up with staples.]

As March drew to a close the violence in Qatamon was worse than ever. Sometimes we found it hard to sleep at night for the whistling of bullets and the thunder of shells. We were now sleeping on the floor most of the time, which was hard for my father who had recurrent back pain . . . .

Excerpted from Chapter Four, on the theme of Leaving Qatamon (pp. 114–19, 123)

It was now spring in Palestine. With the coming of April, all the trees in the garden came out in blossom.

Lemon Tree in Qatamon

Lemon tree growing against a wall

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Although it was still cold, the weather was variable and some days were brilliant with sunshine. For me, the world had shrunk to the confines of our garden and our house in a private enclave, which I made magically immune from the bombing and the shooting. I made games to play on my own and told my toys stories loosely based on The Arabian Nights, such as our mother used to do when we were younger . . . .

And then Fatima’s brother appeared at the house one morning looking agitated. He and Fatima stood at the kitchen door talking in low voices. Then my mother came out and Fatima said that something terrible had happened. They all went inside the house and, after a while, Muhammad came out again with Fatima and they both went off together. We found out that they had gone to the Old City. When Fatima came back, she told my mother that this terrible thing was true, everyone was talking about it. The poor people had fled first to the nearest village, Ain Karim, and then to Beit Safafa, and to al-Malha, which was how got to know about it. Some of them escaped into Jerusalem itself, to the Old City, where they told their terrible stories. Incomprehensible snatches of sentences came across to me and Ziyad, all about fearful happenings and killings of women and children.

My father came home and they talked more, but in such hushed voices that we could not hear them. What was this terrible thing? Fatima would not say and neither would our parents. A few people came over to our house that evening, saying that the Jews were threatening to do it again and that everyone believed them. The next morning—was it then? It seemed so, and yet when I looked back long after, I was not sure and, amazingly, no one in our family could remember the exact date of that momentous day; my father thought it later in April, my sister said it was earlier. A baffling amnesia has enveloped that time. I woke up that morning with a feeling of nameless dread, as if I had had a bad dream which I could not recall. Fatima and my mother were long since up, and I heard them pushing furniture, opening drawers and cupboards in my parents’ bedroom . . . .

It was late afternoon. We sat around aimlessly, uneasy and apprehensive. There was the sound of occasional shooting, but it was far away like the sound of distant thunder; thus far the day had been relatively quiet. I kept going to the garden wall which looked out on to the road and watching for Siham. It was windy and I got cold, so I went back into the house, but as soon as I warmed up, I went out again. It was while I was warming up inside that Siham arrived. It seemed like a year since I had last seen her and I rushed to put my arms around her. But she was upset and crying. “I knew it,” said our mother. “You’ve gone and failed your exams!”

“No, I haven’t,” sobbed Siham. “But why couldn’t you have waited at least until we’d had our party? We’ve worked so hard and we were going to celebrate the end of exams tonight. I was really looking forward to it. Please, please, can’t we wait just one more day?” Muhammad had turned up at the school without warning, since there was no way of making contact beforehand, and had announced that she must come home with him in the taxi without delay. “And anyway, what is all this Muhammad says about us leaving?”

“It’s true,” replied my father. “Your mother and all of you are leaving in the morning. It’s not safe here any more, not after Deir Yassin.”

Video Deir Yasin Village and Massacre

A firsthand recounting and reconstruction of a landmark trauma in Palestinian and Jerusalem history, the Deir Yasin massacre of April 9, 1948

“It’s true,” replied my father. “Your mother and all of you are leaving in the morning. It’s not safe here any more, not after Deir Yassin.”

Hasan Karmi to his family

. . . . [My father] was intending to escort us until we had arrived safely in Damascus and then return to Jerusalem. He had informed them at the office of his intention and had been given a short leave of absence. But the head of his department hinted that this might be longer than my father thought. When he asked what this meant, the other smiled and replied cryptically, “Oh, well, you know how it is. In Jerusalem these days anything can happen.” My father chose to ignore this and said he would be back to work in two or three days, long enough to cover the time of the journey to Damascus, an overnight stay and the journey back. On this basis, my mother had not packed a separate suitcase for him and had taken only a few summer clothes for us because, as she kept saying, “We won’t be gone for long. It’s not worth taking much more.” But even though she had packed so little, the house already had an empty and deserted look, rather like Emily’s house had been.

I do not remember how we spent that evening nor how we slept afterwards. That time belongs to one of those impenetrable areas of silence. I do not know if our parents took their leave of our neighbours or if anyone came to say goodbye. But the next morning, when we got up, events moved rapidly. Whatever the reason for the respite in the fighting the day before, it had now resumed with vigour. In recent weeks, mortar bombs had been added to the usual gunfire and shooting, and we could hear heavy thudding from the direction of the St. Simon monastery . . . .

A deafening burst of shooting. My mother ran forward and dragged me away. My father got in the front of the car with Muhammad and Ziyad and the rest of us squeezed into the back. I sat on Fatima’s lap and wondered whether I dared ask I could go back for my teddy bear, Beta, which no one had thought to pack for me. I thought of him left all alone with Rex in that silent, shuttered house. Ziyad was quiet in the front seat. He too was thinking about Rex and whether he could have managed somehow to smuggle him into the boot of the car . . . .

Fatima stood by the car which would take us away. For all her efforts at self-control, tears were coursing down her cheeks. She embraced and kissed the three of us in turn. My father said, “Mind you look after the house until I come back,” and she nodded wordlessly. I clung desperately to the material of her caftan but she gently disengaged my fingers. As we got into the taxi and the doors were shut, she drew up close and pressed her sad face against the window. We drove off, leaving her and Muhammad looking after us until they were no more than specks on the horizon, indistinguishable from the other village men and women who were there that day.

No doubt my parents thought they were sparing us pain by keeping our departure secret from us until the very last moment. They also believed we would be away for a short while only and so making a fuss of leaving Jerusalem was unnecessary.

But in the event, they turned out to be woefully wrong. We never set eyes on Fatima or our dog or the city we had known ever again. Like a body prematurely buried, unmourned, without coffin or ceremony, our hasty, untidy exit from Jerusalem was no way to have said goodbye to our home, our country and all that we knew and loved.

Video The Great Book Robbery

The story of how Palestinian homes in Jerusalem (and elsewhere) whose owners fled in search of temporary safety were systematically looted, including their libraries, even before the war had ended