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Zakia Jabre Hajjar walks down a street in Lower Baq‘a near the Germany Colony, Jerusalem, before 1948


Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby

Personal Story

Zakia Jabre Hajjar: “What I Had in Jerusalem Was Like a Treasure, a Precious Gift, and I Lost It”


Excerpted from Mona Hajjar Halaby, In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home (London: Thread, 2021)

The following excerpts were taken from the letters written from September 2007 and April 2008 by Palestinian Jerusalemite Zakia Jabre Hajjar to her daughter, Mona Hajjar Halaby, about her memories of life in Jerusalem before the Nakba. Zakia was born and raised in Jerusalem but was forced to leave with her brother at age 25.

Generally reluctant to discuss her life before 1948, Zakia was persuaded by her daughter to tell her about her pre-1948 life in Jerusalem. At the time, Zakia was living in Geneva, where she had eventually settled after the Nakba, and her daughter was on sabbatical, teaching at the Ramallah Friends School for one year. The letters were published in Mona Hajjar Halaby’s memoir, In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home (London: Thread, 2021), and are excerpted here with permission from the publisher.

Blog Post “I Wasn’t Born There; I Never Lived There, but I Was from There”

A Palestinian woman returns to Jerusalem to rediscover and reclaim her mother’s city for her.

From Chapter 2, “Settling In” (pp. 57–102)

You asked me about life in Palestine before 1948, but my Darling, so much of it is filled with pain . . . what can I say to you? I dread talking about it because it’s like reliving the pain all over again.

But I love you, and I know you want to write about our family story, so here it goes.

I was born in Jerusalem in the Baq‘a neighborhood, as it was called. Zakia is my name. It means intelligent and I told my parents one day, “Thank you for knowing what to call me!” My father came from Jaffa and my mother from Jerusalem. They were both educated in French-speaking schools. My father attended the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and brought back to Palestine all this knowledge, so he was richer than those around him—I don’t know how to say it—he had more than just an Eastern education. He had something from the West, too. Our family was rich in knowledge. They were special, my parents. They were not satisfied with just being housewife at home making soup, and husband coming home for dinner from work. That’s how most people were living then.

Backgrounder The West Side Story, Part 1: Jerusalem before “East” and “West”

Before 1948, Jerusalem was not split between an “East” and a “West.” Rather, a cosmopolitan, multiethnic New City grew organically out of the Old City.

The Jabre family in Jerusalem

Zakia Jabre and her family in the garden of their home in Lower al-Baq‘a, Jerusalem, 1941. Left to right: Afif Jabre, Manana Sidawi, Daoud Jabre, and Adel Jabre. Zakia Jabre is seated in the center.


Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby

We spoke Arabic at home. My father was a highly educated scholar who started his career as a teacher. Then he owned a newspaper, al-Hayat, which means “Life,” so he became involved in politics. My father was a quiet man, very considerate . . .

He was a very thoughtful man, a deep thinker. So many important men came to him, seeking his advice. When he went to live in Jordan, after we lost our home in the war of 1948, the King of Jordan appointed him senator to the parliament. Many of the heads of the Arab world came to ask for his opinion. My father taught us to see the value in every person. This was his greatest gift . . .

Omar al-Barghouti, Adel Jabre, Khalil Beidas, and Yousef Haikal, commentators on the Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem, ca. 1938.

Regular commentators on Palestine Broadcasting Service, the state-owned radio broadcasting station that operated from Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine, ca. 1938. Left to right: Omar al-Barghouti, Adel Jabre, Khalil Beidas, and Yousef Haikal.


Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-matpc 14557]

“My father taught us to see the value in every person.
This was his greatest gift . . .”

Zakia Jabre Hajjar

Last time I wrote, I told you a bit about my Papa. Today I will tell you about my Mama and my parents’ love.

I am not sure how my parents met, but I believe the first time they laid eyes on each other, he was coming down the staircase from visiting his best friend, Khalil Sakakini, the prominent Palestinian educator, writer, and Arab nationalist, and Mama was walking up the stairs to go visit her friend and colleague, Melia Sakakini, Khalil’s sister. I like to imagine that the dark staircase lit up brightly when their eyes met, like lightning flashing in the sky. They looked at each other, and they couldn’t say more. He couldn’t resist her. She was charming, my Mama, so educated, so refine. She was a lively woman, full of confidence and pep . . .

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

Khalil Sakakini and Adel Jabre (right), members of the Academy of the Arabic Language, Cairo, ca. 1950.

Khalil Sakakini and Adel Jabre (right), members of the Academy of the Arabic Language, Cairo, ca. 1950. Established in Cairo, Egypt, in 1932 by King Fuad I, the academy works to maintain the integrity of the Arabic language; fulfill the needs of sciences, arts, and modern civilization; produce comprehensive linguistic and historical dictionaries; study modern Arabic dialects in Egypt and other Arab countries; publish a journal of linguistic research; and verify the riches of Arabic cultural heritage. It publishes al-Mu‘jam al-kabir (The Great Dictionary) and al-Mu‘jam al-wasit (The Intermediary Dictionary), two of the most important dictionaries of the Arabic language.


Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center

When we were little, our family moved to the Lower Baq‘a neighborhood near the German Colony . . . our family was so modern. My Mama was Catholic, and Papa was a secular Muslim. When they married in 1918, she was 38 and he was 30. Can you believe it? I am proud to have been born to such an unconventional family. You know, Mona, in my days it wasn’t common at all to have parents who practiced two different faiths, but Mama and Papa were so matter of fact about it and so tolerant of each other that we never felt any tension or disagreement at home. I am still absolutely amazed that their own parents were supportive of their marriage . . .

“My Mama was Catholic, and Papa was a secular Muslim.”

Zakia Jabre Hajjar

Afif, Zakia, and Daoud Jabre, a Jerusalem family, 1927

The Jabre children with their housekeeper, Hana. Left to right: Afif, Zakia, and Daoud, Jerusalem, 1927.


Photographer: Daoud Abdo; Jabre Family Archive, British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

Today I’ve been thinking about our school life and how lucky we were. You see, father insisted that we attend our neighborhood German Templar School in the German Colony . . .

When father asked the Director, Herr Rohrer, “Would you take our children?” the Director replied, “Why? You are Palestinians.”

So Papa said, “This is our business. We want them to learn in a different kind of school.”

So Herr Rohrer agreed . . .

In the morning we learned German, English, French, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, history, geography, biology, chemistry, and physics. In the afternoon we attended Latin or Greek classes, music, philosophy, open discourse, art, and sports. I don’t know how we did all that in one day . . . What a lovely education we had . . .

My two best friends at school were Dumia and Hala Sakakini, Khalil’s daughters. They were shy and timid, while I was the opposite—boisterous and thunderous! We were so different, yet we loved each other.

Bio Hala Sakakini

A Palestinian educator and writer who wrote an iconic, vivid narrative recounting her family’s exile from Qatamon and Jerusalem in 1948

Anna Rohrer’s first grade students at the German Templar School, Jerusalem, 1929.

Anna Rohrer’s first grade students at the German Templar School, Jerusalem, 1929. Zakia Jabre is standing on the left.


British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

From Chapter 5, “Bringing about Change” (pp. 168–98)

I want to tell you about my friends and the YMCA.

Like most young people in Jerusalem—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—my brothers and I joined the new YMCA on Julian Way. It was such a beautiful building! Everyone in town was in awe. There we developed many new friendships while participating in sports, music, and art activities. I learned how to swim in the basement indoor pool, and daily I played squash in the courts. I was a tough player, you know! I also sang in the choir with Esther, a young Jewish woman I befriended, who had escaped Nazi Germany and had found refuge in Palestine.

Photo Essay The YMCA: A Cherished Social Hub during the Mandate Years

The Jerusalem YMCA was the social, athletic, and cultural hub for Jerusalemites during the British Mandate years.

The YMCA Boys Club, Jerusalem, ca. 1935

The YMCA Boys Club, Jerusalem, ca. 1935. Afif Jabre, Zakia’s brother, is seated in the middle row, third from the left


Jabre Family Archive, British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

I loved singing. My brother Afif had joined the PK Band, which stood for Pascal Kamar, the creator of the band. I often accompanied them with my vocals. We would give concerts in the lobby of the YMCA, and once I even got to sing solo in the big auditorium in front of a huge audience. Our love of music started early in life. We had to learn how to play the piano. Mama played it, so we had to learn as well. We began to have concerts at home in front of our parents and their friends. My brothers would play, and I would sing. . . . I also liked pretending I was the French singer, Edith Piaf, because I was tiny like her. I wore a black dress to look like her.

I always tell people who ask about my youth in Palestine, “You can’t understand our life unless you’ve lived it.” No matter how much people read about it, they cannot begin to imagine what it was like. We were not what most people in the world think of us. We were educated, accomplished, modern, and cosmopolitan . . .

A group of Palestinian Jerusalemite friends at the beach in Jaffa, June 10, 1946.

A group of carefree Palestinian Jerusalemite friends on a day’s outing to the beach in Jaffa, June 10, 1946. Zakia Jabre is third from the left.


British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

Palestinian Jerusalemites on a hike on the outskirts of the city, ca. 1944.

Friends posing for a photograph during a hike on the outskirts of Jerusalem, ca. 1944. Seated, left to right: Elias Mushabek, Linda Farradj, Salwa Mouchabek, Melly Ishaq, Elias Tamari, and Alfred Farradj. Standing: Vera Mushabek and Zakia Jabre (right).


British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

My childhood was wonderful, but then when my mother died, overnight I had to become a mother. I had to grow up too quickly and become this mature Arab woman. My brothers were really protective, but at the same time they also made me feel grown up, as if I were in charge and perfectly qualified.

After my Mama died, I was expected to take care of my father and two brothers, which I did with loving care. Every morning I cooked and cleaned the house. Two afternoons I took typing classes (in case I wanted to pursue a secretarial career) with Sister Martin, a jolly, British nun who taught English and typing at St. Joseph’s School. You remember how I told you I had once dreamed of becoming a doctor, well, my dream was shattered when Mama died. But a part of me still longed to feel useful in a hospital, so three days a week I took nursing courses, which, unbeknownst to me, would turn out to be very useful when a few years later conflicts broke out between the Arabs and the Jews and hospitals needed nurses.

In the evenings I enjoyed the stimulating philosophical or political conversations Papa had with his friends in our living rooms or gatherings around the piano with Afif and Daoud to sing with my friends Mimi and Denise, or attending a lecture at the YMCA with my childhood friends Dumia and Hala. Ah, the best part was walking home from the YMCA at night, especially at springtime when the air in Jerusalem was soaked with the sweetness of jasmine, wisteria, and lemon blossoms. I would inhale deeply and fill my lungs and almost feel drunk from the delicious perfumes . . .

Jack Sinunu, Elias Mushabek, Zakia Jabre, and Eftime Acra in front of Zion Cinema, Jerusalem, 1940s

In front of Zion Cinema on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem, 1940s. Left to right: Jack Sinunu, Elias Mushabek, Zakia Jabre, and Eftime Acra. 


Nadia and Teddy Theodorie, British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

Zakia Jabre and friends build a snowman in Jerusalem, 1940s.

Building a snowman in Jerusalem, 1940s. Standing, left to right: Zakia Jabre, Hilda Hallak, and Elsa Hallak. Zakia’s brother Afif is seated on the right; Ferdinand Haddad is on the left.


British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

I don’t like telling you about this next chapter in my life, because it is the beginning of the end for me, the end of living in my homeland among my own people. I know you want to know about what happened, but it’s not easy, Mona dear, to go back to those times.

. . .

Following the Second World War, tensions in Palestine between Arabs and Jews began to escalate. The official ending of the British Mandate was to take place on May 15, 1948, and both the Arabs and Jews had the same ambitions in mind—to create their own state. It was like we were heading towards a head-on collision. We knew it was going to be a huge disaster, but it was inevitable.

Two years earlier in July 1946, the south wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the British Mandate had its military offices, was blown up by the Irgun, a paramilitary, Zionist organization. We were at home when it happened. We heard the loud explosion and ran outside. We saw a huge cloud of smoke hanging over the city. We couldn’t believe what was going on. Then one neighbor called another neighbor, and that’s how we discovered it was the King David. We immediately thought of our friends as the YMCA was just across the street, and we were afraid that some of them might have been hurt, but no one at the YMCA was. About a hundred people perished and many more were injured in the King David bombing. For weeks, the city was in mourning. One of our friends, a woman my age, Hilda, was under the rubble for three days, calling out, “I’m Hilda Azzam. Please help me out.” Sadly, the rescuers were unable to get to her in time, and she perished alone and frightened under tons of limestone. Daily we attended more than one funeral, as every day more bodies were dragged out from the ruins. It was a terrible time, the beginning of the changement, you know, the change of our lives as Palestinians.

. . .

Then on a rainy January night in 1948, we were awakened by a loud noise that shook our whole house. In Qatamon, a couple of miles from our home, the Hotel Semiramis, which also served as the Lorenzo family home, was bombed by the Zionist paramilitary group, the Haganah. The Lorenzos were friends of our family. Sixteen people died, eight from the same family. The next day, as torrential rains came down over Jerusalem, I wanted to attend the funerals, but shootings in the neighborhood prevented me from leaving our home.

During that time, I saw Esther, my Jewish German friend, at one of our choir rehearsals at the YMCA. She asked me, “If your side wins, will you take me in and protect me?” I immediately answered, “But of course, Esther, you don’t need to worry; you’re my friend.” At dinner time that evening, I repeated for my family Esther’s question and my answer. My calm and deliberate father asked me, “And did you ask her the same question if their side wins?”

“No, Papa, I didn’t think to ask her, but I will.”

When I saw Esther again at choir, I asked her, “Esther, and if your side wins, will you hide me and protect me?”

“Oh, no,” she said, looking sheepish, “I couldn’t take the risk of endangering my family.” For a long time, I stared at her in disbelief. What I had believed was a mutual friendship had its limits. That night I came home heartbroken and cynical.

You know, my Darling, even though I was frightened and upset by all these terrible events, I wanted to do something to help my country. I was very courageous, I must say. I worked in two hospitals—the Jerusalem Government Hospital in Musrara, and the Beit Safafa Hospital, on the way to Bethlehem. I spent a lot of time bandaging the wounds of the men shot during the conflicts. We felt these men were giving us the greatest gift—their lives. Every day, a Red Cross truck came to pick me up in front of my house, and when we drove through a Jewish area we had to get down on the floor of the bus for fear of being shot at . . . .

Nighttime was the most dangerous time, as the Haganah and Irgun were planting bombs in the residential neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, with the justification that Palestinian guerrilla fighters were holding their meetings in those homes. Baloney! The real reason was to create fear in us and drive us out of our homes. And that’s exactly what happened.

. . .

During that time, we didn’t have a full picture of what was happening. We didn’t understand that we were systematically being driven out of our neighborhoods in order for the Zionists to incorporate West Jerusalem, which had been part of Palestine per the UN Partition Plan into Israel. Every day more houses in the neighborhood were attacked and bombed—the houses of the Shahines, Anabtawis, Campbell-Browns, Budeiris, and Freijs, to name a few. Every day brought another casualty and more fear for the remaining of us. Were we going to be next? . . .

Personal Story The End of Arab Qatamon—A Memoir

A vivid memoir attesting to what it was like to live through the violent transformation of the New City of Jerusalem into West Jerusalem in 1947–48

“We didn’t understand that we were systematically being driven out of our neighborhoods.”

Zakia Jabre Hajjar

Many neighbors and friends left their homes for safer grounds, quickly grabbing a suitcase and arranging for a taxi to drive them to Beirut, Cairo, or Amman. They needed to protect their loved ones. When our beloved upstairs neighbors, the Nuwayhids, came by one day to say goodbye, I broke down and cried. “But Imm Khaldoun, I’ll be the only one left. I’ll be all alone.” Imm Khaldoun had taken good care of me since Mama’s death and I had come to rely on her. She reassured me that she’d be back in a few weeks, but that was the last time I saw her. Like in all wars, we thought that once the fighting subsided we would be returning home. Little did we know that we would be losing our homes and our homeland forever.

Papa began to worry about us and decided it was best to send Afif and me to Tante Afifeh, our maternal aunt, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, until the situation calmed down. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to fight for my country, but Papa convinced me that I was helping by taking Afif away from the bombing . . . You know, our house was like any other house in the world. It had a garden; it had chairs; it had a couch; it had tables, and food in the pantry. But all this didn’t matter. It was my family, my friends, Jerusalem that I had to leave behind and that’s hurting me to this day.

So, I packed my little suitcase with a few summer dresses. I anticipated coming back in a few weeks. Luckily, Afif, who was enamoured with photography, packed his camera and the family photo albums. We hugged Papa and Daoud at the gate of our house. “See you soon, Allah ma‘kum (Godspeed),” said Papa, and then Afif and I walked together to the bus stop on Bethlehem Road and boarded the bus to Cairo, not realizing that we would never be allowed to return home.

Bio Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout

A Palestinian historian and researcher who vividly documented the atrocities of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982

“I anticipated coming back in a few weeks.”

Zakia Jabre Hajjar

Sometimes at night when I can’t fall asleep, I say to myself, “Zakia, let’s return to Jerusalem. Let’s walk its streets.” I do this to see if I still remember all the streets. Sometimes I come to a dead-end street and I say, “Now, do I turn right, or should I go left?” And finally, I fall asleep . . .

Linda Farradj, Zakia Jabre, and Virginie Farradj walk in the German Colony in Jerusalem, 1940s

Walking with friends in the German Colony in Jerusalem, 1940s. Left to right: Linda Farradj, Zakia Jabre, and Virginie Farradj.


British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library Facebook page. Courtesy of Mona Hajjar Halaby.

From Chapter 6, “My Mother’s Visit” (pp. 199–226)

It was hard on me not to have my father and brothers nearby; we needed each other. An emptiness took over my life. Losing Palestine made me feel like an orphan. I didn’t belong anywhere in the world.

You know, my Darling, what I had in Jerusalem was like a treasure, a precious gift, and I lost it. You know what I mean, don’t you? I’m not talking about my father’s books, or my mother’s jewels, although they, too, were part of that bigger treasure that was taken away from me. The value was not in the books or jewels themselves; it was about the memories attached to them—as a little girl dusting my Papa’s books or playing with Mama’s gold bracelets while around her wrists.