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Personal Story

Recollections of an Old City Childhood in the Shadow of the Nakba


A Palestinian sociologist shares memories of his childhood growing up in the Old City after being made a refugee. Excerpted from Bernard Sabella, A Life Worth Living: The Story of a Palestinian Catholic. Resource Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

My father, a municipal employee in the British Mandate city of Jerusalem, worked hard in order to construct in 1937 the modest family home [in the Palestinian neighborhood of Qatamon, on the west side of the city] that saw my birth in 1945. I was third in the order of the family’s children. Abel, nicknamed Abdallah, our grandfather’s namesake on Father’s side, was born in 1942; Hilda was born in 1943; Bernadette in 1946; and Maurice in 1947. After a year’s hiatus Anton, or Tony, was born in 1949. In 1957 Mother gave birth to Therese. I still remember how I accompanied my mother to the maternity hospital by the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem in January 1961, when David, or Daoud, the youngest of the siblings, was born. Altogether we were five brothers and three sisters. Parents followed the practice, then prevalent in Palestinian society, of having as many children as possible . . . .

I do not recall much of my first three years; babies and infants are not supposed to have a strong memory, or so popular imagination would have it. But I recall a yellow school bus going down the hilly road with my brother Abel and sister Hilda off to pre-kindergarten; a glimpse of that bus remains in my mind, the first imprint that I recollect from my infancy. The chicken coop that Aunt Leonie, Father’s sister, who was living with us, used to tend (she loved animals by nature and had a special way with them) has also a place in my memory. Fascinated, I would stand by the pen and would gaze for a long time on what was going on inside it. I cannot characterize my family’s quality of life or extent of happiness or unease between 1945 and 1948, but I know that the eventual dislocation and our becoming refugees in 1948 left a life-long impact on all of us, particularly on my father and mother.

“As the fighting raged on around our home in Qatamon (now a West Jerusalem neighborhood), which was situated between a British military camp and a Jewish underground stronghold, my parents felt safer in moving away.”

Bernard Sabella

As the fighting raged on around our home in Qatamon (now a West Jerusalem neighborhood), which was situated between a British military camp and a Jewish underground stronghold, my parents felt safer in moving away. Their decision to move was further strengthened by the bombing on the night of January 5, 1947, by a Jewish underground group, the Haganah, of the Semiramis Hotel, which killed seven members of the Abou Souan family, close friends of my parents, among the scores of killed and wounded. This Christian family, who owned the hotel, wanted close relatives and friends to come together to celebrate the New Year amidst mounting tensions in the neighborhood. They felt that having the gathering in a hotel rather than a private residence better assured the safety of those present. An older friend of mine who knew the Abou Souan family personally has told me that the night of the bombing was a particularly rainy one with heavy showers. As some of the Abou Souan family members were set to leave the hotel for their home, which was within walking distance, their host, the owner of the hotel, insisted that they stay and provided them with overnight accommodation. Those who stayed lost their lives in the bombing.

As the fighting intensified, my parents, with my Aunt Leonie and Cousin Joseph, who was then twenty-four years of age and lived with us, gathered up as many of their possessions as they could, locked the house, and took the bulky iron keys with them. They were hoping to find refuge in the Old City of Jerusalem for a couple of weeks and then to return after the fighting subsided. But their hope never materialized because Jerusalem was divided and the western neighborhoods, including Qatamon, became part of West Jerusalem, which was claimed by Israel as its capital. Our home, built in 1937, was expropriated by the Absentee Property Authority in Israel. In effect, this meant its transfer to newly arrived Jewish immigrants to Israel . . . .

My parents had no choice but to seek refuge somewhere; they eventually opted to go to Lebanon, where they settled in Ghazir, a small village by the Mediterranean. We lived in Ghazir for a whole year on the savings of my father, who had managed to withdraw his assets from the British Bank of the Middle East, which was previously known as the Ottoman Bank. Ghazir was a small community of Maronite faithful, many of whom attended daily Mass. Ghazir was home to the Maronite Patriarchal Seminary, where mostly young Lebanese Catholics of the Maronite rite were trained to become priests. My father, a devout Catholic, went to Mass every day, and this was the reason why the villagers of Ghazir loved him and welcomed us in their midst.

The tension between Lebanese and Palestinians was always high, particularly as thousands of Palestinian refugees, like my family, found their way to Lebanon following the eruption of Arab-Israeli fighting in 1948. This tension was not simply related to the difference in nationality but also to the fact that the majority of Lebanese Christians at the time were fearful that an influx of Palestinians, mostly Muslim, would unsettle the religious balance between Christians and Muslims in the country. This sensitivity still persists, unfortunately, and is dealt with by restricting Palestinians to the refugee camps in which they live, including the Palestinian Christian refugee camp of Dbayieh, north of Beirut, not far away from Ghazir. In addition Palestinians are barred from employment in almost seventy professions, such as medicine, in order to prevent them from integrating into the Lebanese setting. Some advocates for the right of Palestinians in Lebanon to job opportunities argue that if the Palestinian refugees remain poor and unemployed, the likelihood that they would leave Lebanon and go back to the West Bank would remain slim. If they are working and earning a decent income that would enable them to stand on their own two feet, then the likelihood that they would opt to go back to the West Bank and start anew would be much greater.

As Father’s savings dwindled after a year’s stay in Ghazir, and as he had no means of finding employment in Lebanon, the family moved on to Bethlehem. The trip from Ghazir to Bethlehem was accomplished with a hired taxi. The driver, a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Bethlehem, used to travel the Beirut-Amman-Jerusalem-and-Bethlehem road regularly. I remember that as we approached Bethlehem, a fight broke out between our driver, who was hot-headed, and some road construction workers who had asked him to stop. My father intervened and calmed the situation, but the screaming and yelling made me afraid . . . .

In Bethlehem, the family rented one room, which I still pass by on my way to the Nativity Church through the narrow serpentine alleys of Bethlehem, and we lived there, the nine of us. But the problem of employment for my father remained since Bethlehem of the early fifties was more like a village than a flourishing town and even the small number of pilgrims and tourists who arrived, although in general wealthier than present-day pilgrims and tourists, did not contribute much to improve the economic prospects and prosperity of the village where Jesus Christ was born. Besides, the arrival of thousands of refugees as a consequence of the 1948 war meant that the economic and social pressures on Bethlehem were tremendous. The newly arrived refugees were housed in three camps around Bethlehem: Dheisheh, Al ‘Izzeh, and Ayda . . . .

“They were hoping to find refuge in the Old City of Jerusalem for a couple of weeks and then to return after the fighting subsided. But their hope never materialized.”

Bernard Sabella

When my father told my mother that he had been offered employment in the Municipality of Jerusalem on the east side of the city, which had become part of Jordan following the 1948 war, the decision was to move immediately to the Old City of Jerusalem. Moving to Jerusalem meant that the family had to find a place to live. Through church contacts my father was informed that we could move for free into two rooms of a large house that had several compartments in the Old City belonging to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans, a religious order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century, have had a presence in the Holy Land ever since their inception. Their mission is to take care of the Holy Places and to minister also to the indigenous Catholic faithful in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, and Jaffa. The house, known as Dar Moussa Effendi (the “Home of Sir Moussa”—“Effendi” being an Ottoman Turkish title equivalent to “Sir” to address people of social standing, and Moussa having been at one time the mayor of Jerusalem), was close to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—which endeared it to my devout father, who would be able to attend daily Mass in the Church, come rain or shine.

Dar Moussa Effendi was built around the turn of the twentieth century by an elder of the Husseini family, an old and well established Jerusalem Palestinian Muslim family. One should remember that Jerusalem outside the walls did not have much construction at the turn of the twentieth century, and most well established families built their mansions within the walls of the Old City. Once construction accelerated outside the walls in the first two to three decades of the twentieth century, many of the well-to-do families were inclined to sell their mansions within the walls to invest in more spacious and accessible accommodations outside the walls. Conscious of the need of their parishioners for housing within the walls of the Old City, the Franciscan Custody wisely bought the property as it did other properties in the Old City during the decades of the British Mandate of Palestine, which lasted from 1920 to 1948. There were seven or eight Palestinian Christian refugee families from the 1948 war living in the Dar. The Old City homes of wealthy and prominent Jerusalemites were usually single-family homes. Upon purchase by the Franciscans, the Dar, or “Home of Sir Moussa,” was divided into smaller apartments whereby more than one family could share the home.

The problem with this compartmentalization was that the two rooms we were assigned did not have either a toilet or a kitchen and certainly no running water or electricity. At a certain time, as I recall, the Franciscans allowed my parents to cover with aluminum sheets the space just in front of the two rooms and to use it as a provisionary kitchen. I remember this clearly, as my bed opened up to the newly improvised kitchen, and when in winter the Jerusalem rain came down heavily, I was awakened by the raindrops hitting the aluminum sheets and making some sort of musical orchestra, which, in the ears of a young boy trying to sleep and be ready for school the next day, was not always appreciated. But somehow the raindrops on the aluminum sheets gave me reassurance that rain in Jerusalem was a sign of hope, given the arid conditions that made rain a cherished gift, and an affirmation that we were not forgotten even if we were poor and had only the clothes on us. For years we used the toilet downstairs, some dozen of steps down from our two rooms. Now that our apartments are fitted with at least one or two toilets, I cannot imagine how we managed with such a situation, especially at night. But we did manage, and our environment taught us how to adapt.

“The two rooms we were assigned did not have either a toilet or a kitchen and certainly no running water or electricity.”

Bernard Sabella

The earthenware jar, a substitute for running water in those days, which was used for drinking water, was placed in a corner of the kitchen with a stainless steel cup atop a wooden protective top, hygienic (as we would say today) for all of us to use; sometimes cousins and other kids drank from it as we were all playing in the Hosh, or the home’s courtyard, and needed to replenish our body fluids, especially on hot summer days. We were not worried about drinking from the same cup, as the most important thing was to drink. Our drinking water was hauled by a water carrier who, using a sheepskin as a container, would fill up the earthenware jar from a water source in the Christian Quarter, about ten minutes’ walk from our home, which was supervised by the Municipality. Suleiman Mansour, a local Palestinian artist of international renown from the village of Birzeit near Ramallah, immortalized the water carrier in a painting depicting an old man carrying in a sheepskin the whole Old City of Jerusalem with its mosques and churches. Every time I contemplate the painting, I am reminded of the days when the water carrier was as important to us as running water is today for many of us.

We had a cistern that collected rain water and that served the other needs of the household such as washing clothes and bathing. When the washing lady came from Sur Baher, a nearby village on the road to Bethlehem, every Wednesday or Thursday to help Mother, she hauled the water needed for her task from the cistern. Sometimes neighbors helped out in hauling water, but the hard work was left to the women, Mother included, for most of the time. The washing lady was an older Muslim lady, and Mom treated her with all the respect due to her, including offering her a hearty breakfast and insisting on her sharing our noon meal. When Mother passed away in 1973, this elderly lady, still alive and active, came from her village to pay the last respects . . . .

The water from the cistern was also beneficial for our weekly baths on Saturdays, when the water was placed in an aluminum container, used previously to store olive oil or Arabic butter, and heated by a kerosene primus stove, the same primus that was instrumental for many years in cooking our meals. I always had an irrational fear that the primus would explode, causing bodily harm, or that the aluminum container that sat atop the primus would bear down on the primus and cause some accident that would hurt someone. A rounded aluminum washtub was used, and Mom or Aunt Leonie rubbed us hard with olive oil soap from Nablus, north of Jerusalem, as they poured hot water from a stainless steel cup over heads and bodies. We always felt clean for the whole week after the Saturday bath. Generations of Palestinians argue that the Nabulsi soap is the best soap in the world. Nowadays the soap continues to be made in Nablus, biblical Shechem.

It was customary for Aunt Leonie to ask me at the end of the bath, as she was wrapping me in a towel, to pray for the health, happiness, and welfare of Father, Mother, Uncle, and all other family members. It was Aunt Leonie who also instructed me to cross myself when I spotted the crescent moon and to wish for the month ahead to be one of success and continued health.


Excerpted from: Bernard Sabella, A Life Worth Living: The Story of a Palestinian Catholic (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, Kindle Edition, 2017). Excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Growing Up in a Refugee Family, Catholic and Palestinian,” Kindle Edition, Location 78 of 4778–249 of 4778.

“Our drinking water was hauled by a water carrier who, using a sheepskin as a container, would fill up the earthenware jar from a water source in the Christian Quarter.”

Bernard Sabella